Beyond the Door aka Chi sei? (1974)
Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Robert Barrett
Starring: Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson, Nino Segurini, Elizabeth Turner, Barbara Fiorini, David Colin Jr., Robert Booth, Joan Acti
(out of 4)
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was such a sensation that it created a string of cash-ins and rip-offs almost immediately (Abby, L’anticristo, La endemoniada, Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen). It’s easier to rip-off a film like The Exorcist because it’s very visceral in its horror – demon voice, pea soup spewing, crucifix masturbation. Contrast that with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which has its own unique hallucinatory sequences but mostly derives its horror from psychological themes. I can’t really name any Rosemary’s Baby cash-ins offhand; the only thing I can think of is The Omen, which doesn’t really steal anything except the demon-child scenario. Anyway, I have to hand it to Italian schlock-meister Ovidio G. Assonitis, who not only gleefully steals major scenes from The Exorcist but tries to take from Rosemary’s Baby as well, and in addition to that, he has the balls to suggest that The Omen ripped him off! Toss in a subplot about a guy who sells his soul to the devil and has to do his bidding, a few groovy musical interludes, and a possessed doll sequence, and you’ve got Beyond the Door (US title), AKA Chi sei? (its original Italian title) AKA The Devil Within Her (UK title). Beyond The Door is a good movie to educate people with if they want to learn about the “cheesy Italian rip-off” genre, which involves unbelievable characters, ludicrous dialogue, and inventive (if silly) gross-outs. It is, as some of its characters say, absurd – at times a parody and other times immensely serious, full of inventive camera-work and special effects and yet possessing no sense of purpose at all, a trait actually assigned to its central “antagonist” (Satan!) The movie is trying to tell you that Satan is just a jerk who likes to screw with you, but I’m wondering if it’s merely the writers (all 8 of them).
Things go south right off the bat, as Satan gives a voice-over (sounding rather British) lamenting the fact that you never seen him anymore because we’re in a “rational age” and that – be careful – the dude sitting next to you in the darkened theater could be him! For some reason I thought of old Vincent Price movies, half-expecting the hidden buzzer in my seat to go off. After a bizarre hallucination sequence (or is it?), where a naked woman’s face is briefly replaced with the face of Jesus, we meet English lady Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills) who is married to record exec Robert (Gabriele Lavia, from Profondo rosso) and living in San Francisco. They have two kids; the daughter is feisty Gail (Barbara Fiorini) who has a dozen copies of the book Love Story (1970 romance novel by Erich Segal, who just passed away, RIP). As a result, she knows a lot of curse words and uses them liberally. Her brother Ken (David Colin Jr.) is weird in his own way – most notably because he’s fond of drinking from cold pea soup cans through a straw. They both talk like college aged kids (Italian filmmakers don’t worry about sound when filming – everything ends up dubbed in the studio). In addition to seeing Andy Warhol-like paintings of Campbell’s pea soup in Ken’s room, we hear Gail say stuff like “When dad starts trying to get all sexy and with it, that’s a real bad scene” and “If you don’t quite crying you’re gonna have a real bad trip!” My best guess is that the kids are stand-ins for what was going on in pop culture at the time – a kind of rebellion against normal sensibilities (profanity, sex, drugs, a pea-soup spitting Regan MacNeil, etc). Jessica announces to Robert that she’s pregnant, and almost immediately things take a turn for the worse. She’ll throw up blood, tell Robert that the baby is suffocating her, eat a discarded banana peel off the ground, talk in a Demonic voice, kiss her son in an inappropriate manner, spin her head around, and vomit green stuff. Talk about hormones going haywire!
Robert is portrayed as an ineffectual character from the outset (one of his first scenes shows him attempting to enter his car unsuccessfully). Not too concerned about his wife puking blood, he totally emasculates himself when Jessica’s old boyfriend Dimitri (Richard Johnson from Zombi 2) shows up. No husband would simply leave the house when some weird stranger shows up telling you to leave him alone with your sick wife, but Robert does just that and goes out walking around San Francisco, being accosted by street performers playing a funky ditty (one guy plays a recorder with his nose). Dimitri is apparently a Satan worshipper, who is given extra time to live after his car goes off a cliff ten years prior. Satan tells him that he must rip the baby from Jessica’s womb at the right time, or something. It’s a little unclear. But then again, most of the movie is incoherent – Jessica wants to get rid of the baby then repeatedly insists (along with Dimitri) that “The child must be born!” Except that if the devil really wanted the baby to be born he could have just laid low instead of doing silly things like possessing the mom. Ah, but at the end we find out that it’s all a trick, and the baby was simply a MacGuffin – after all the demonic hoopla Assonitis would have you believe the whole thing was all about Dimitri. The final parting, freeze-framed shot, while not technically a cheat (since clues are given from the very beginning), still offers no justification for its existence, because it makes no sense, just like the film as a whole. Is the movie about anything? Well, maybe it’s about the pressures of marriage, or the stress of keeping a family together, or the insecurities of a man competing with the ghosts from his spouse’s past. Maybe it’s about a mom who has second thoughts about the path she has chosen. Then again, it’s probably just about cashing in on the devil craze – which the film did, by the way, leading to a huge lawsuit from Warner Brothers.
Props to Juliet Mills for going at her role with gusto. She goes from beautiful and classy to wallowing in the filth with such enthusiasm that she deserves some kind of medal, bless her heart. Richard Johnson lends some class, as does Franco Micalizzi who did the kick-ass score. It’s a prog/funky/jazzy mix that rivals some of the great music from poliziotteschi flicks. (I immediately went online to find it). There’s a sequence in the middle of the film where the kids are terrorized by dolls and toys come to life; it’s well done and shot with invention (I wonder if Hooper and Spielberg got some ideas for Poltergeist here). There’s also a bit involving a disembodied eye where we see what it sees, even as it is bouncing around on the floor (Sam Raimi fans, take note). The cinematography is beautiful to look at, especially the sequences shot in San Francisco. Yes, there’s some talent inside this thing, even if it’s surrounded by incoherence, overused editing tricks (freeze frames, overlays, sudden flashes/transitions), goofy sound effects (echo effects, Satan repeating Dimitri’s name over and over), and a truly ridiculous conclusion. The best way to experience it is as a drive-in product featuring somebody’s surreal nightmare. Nightmares don’t have to be logical, so yeah, let’s go with that.
- Bill Gordon
Code Red releases Beyond the Door in the only version you’ll ever need. A 2 DVD set, the first disc is an anamorphic widescreen print of the uncut version (with the UK titles sequence); sound is one mono track (what? no Possesso-sound?) and 2 commentary tracks featuring Ovidio Assonitis, Juliet Mills, and others. There’s a featurette called “Beyond the Door – 35 Years Later”, an interview with Richard Johnson called “An Englishman in Italy”, and the original trailers of the film which did their job well – getting people butts into the theater seats. The second disc has the US theatrical version of the film, which is either better because it cuts out certain padded sequences (recording studio and street-music scenes), or it’s worse for the exact same reasons. Doesn’t matter though – the quality of this version is like the crappy VHS print you’ve owned for years. Also on the disc is an extended interview with actress Juliet Mills.