Movies: Beyond the Door (1974)

Although it’s sometimes unjustified—since the country is obviously well-known for many excellent original contributions to the art of cinema—Italy had a bit of a reputation during the 1970s and 1980s for making cheap knockoffs of pretty much any American movie that was financially successful. For every Jaws there was a Great White (aka The Last Shark); for every Star Wars there was a Star Odyssey; for every Raiders of the Lost Ark there was an Ark of the Sun God.

So because William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was such a smash hit and a cultural phenomenon back in 1973, you knew it wasn’t going to be long before a so-called “spaghetti” version of it would hit theaters, and lo and behold, 1974 brought the Italian/American co-production Beyond the Door (known in Italy as Chi Sei? or Who Are You?).

Featuring possession by a foul-mouthed demon, a bit of poltergeist activity, 180-degree head rotations, and copious green vomit, Beyond the Door was deemed so similar to The Exorcist that Warner Bros. promptly sued and won a settlement, which entitled them to an undisclosed cash sum and a percentage of future revenue. And despite its dubious pedigree, Beyond the Door did rake in a tidy profit at the American box office, earning $15 million on a budget of just $350,000.

Calling Beyond the Door an Exorcist knockoff isn’t entirely fair, however, because although the film’s narrative does borrow heavily from Friedkin’s seminal film, it isn’t exactly the same story, and it comes up with some interesting ideas (and subversions) of its own. While the movie is probably quite a bit longer than it needed to be—the international cut that I watched had a runtime of an hour and 47 minutes (the original US theatrical cut was only 97 minutes long) and contains several sequences that drag on a bit and repeat the same information unnecessarily—I feel as though Beyond the Door is a weirdly compelling experiment in its own right, with some bizarre yet strangely cool musical cues, lovely and dramatic cinematography, and a couple of scenes and images that are genuinely unsettling.

Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis (suppress your giggles now, fellow immature people) and Roberto Piazzoli—who also collaborated on another Jaws ripoff, the 1977 killer octopus film TentaclesBeyond the Door was actually successful enough that Film Ventures International initially wanted to release Mario Bava’s 1977 film Shock in the United States as Beyond the Door II, even though it had nothing to do with the original film. There was also a “third” installment in 1989, naturally titled Beyond the Door III, that also had fuck-all to do with the original movie and went straight to VHS. Ovidio G. Assonitis announced in 2021 that he was working on an actual sequel to Beyond the Door, featuring Juliet Mills from the 1974 film, but we’ll see if that ever materializes.

Anyway, at the beginning of the movie, we have a voice-over from someone who is presumably the Devil. There’s a whole occult ritual thing going on, where we see a nude woman stretched out on a pentagram, who is eventually helped to escape by a man named Dimitri (played by Richard Johnson, who horror fans will recognize as Dr. Markway from 1963’s The Haunting and Dr. Menard from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie). Because the Devil is apparently angry that Dimitri helped the woman get away, Satan makes his car go all zigzag and plunge off a cliff, but then he stops it in midair and offers Dimitri a deal: he can have another ten years of life if he’ll help a woman named Jessica deliver a baby. Jessica, incidentally, is played by the aforementioned Juliet Mills, who is not only the older sister of Hayley Mills, but also appeared in 1992’s Waxwork: Lost In Time, among many other things.

Presumably, we then jump ahead almost a decade, and we’re now in San Francisco, following the Barrett family, comprised of Jessica, her husband Robert (played by Gabriele Lavia, who was in three Dario Argento films: Deep Red, Inferno, and Sleepless), and their two weirdo children, daughter Gail and son Ken. The dubbing on the kids is pretty atrocious, but they’re easily the most fruitful source of the movie’s intentional comedy: Gail, who looks to be about ten or eleven, swears like a sailor and uses amusingly dated 70s vernacular with complete abandon. (“You gotta stop that, or it’s gonna blow my mind! Man, if you don’t quit crying, you’re gonna have a real bad trip.”) Aside from that, she also has an inexplicable obsession with the 1970 novel Love Story by Erich Segal, and always carries at least a dozen copies of it with her wherever she goes.

Ken, on the other hand, who looks about four or five, also has something of a foul mouth and is constantly drinking Campbell’s pea soup right out of the can with a straw, a funny little homage to The Exorcist that actually works because hardly anyone in the movie draws attention to it.

One small exchange between the kids that actually made me laugh out loud occurred right near the beginning of the movie and took place as the children were in the back seat of the family convertible talking about what a loser their dad was:

Gail: Hey, remember that crazy nickname you gave him? What was it?

Ken: Asshole.

Sorry, little kids swearing will never NOT be hilarious to me.

Anyway, after some establishing scenes of this laid-back, 70s California family whose kids call their parents by their first names and are allowed to get away with pretty much anything, we learn that Jessica has just discovered that she’s pregnant. Robert seems…ambivalent about the whole thing, as does Jessica, but they figure they’ll deal with things as they happen without riding too much of a bummer about it, man (I apologize if Gail’s speech patterns are beginning to rub off on me).

But it doesn’t take too long for the couple to realize that this isn’t any ordinary pregnancy. Jessica insists she shouldn’t have gotten knocked up at all because she took the Pill religiously (I mean, they are only 99% effective, so…), but even barring that, she tells their doctor/friend George (played by Nino Segurini) that she last had her period seven weeks ago, even though the fetus’s development looks more like three-and-a-half months; in other words, the spawn seems to be growing at an extremely accelerated rate.

Other weird shit starts happening too. Robert keeps seeing a bearded man (who the audience recognizes as Dimitri) around San Francisco who appears to be following him. The kids begin seeing some spooky poltergeist-type activity around the apartment, such as dolls moving around on their own. And worse than that, Jessica seems to be steadily losing her marbles, acting totally normal one minute and then becoming an aggressive rage monster the next. One day she heaves a big glass ashtray through Robert’s prize aquarium; another day she belts Gail across the mouth for being a smart-ass, even though she’d always been indulgent before; and once in George’s office she goes from insisting on aborting the fetus to screeching that she’ll kill anyone who tries to take the baby from her. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions, that’s for damn sure.

As the movie goes on, Dimitri finally approaches Robert, and reveals his identity. Ten years ago, Dimitri says, he and Jessica were in love, but he screwed it up and she left. He also makes some vague references to a group they were in, and some negative energies that might have something to do with the baby in Jessica’s womb. He tells Robert that Jessica must have the baby, and she must have it at home.

Robert doesn’t believe him at first, but soon enough, Jessica starts exhibiting some decidedly Regan MacNeil-like behavior, spewing green bile, speaking in growly voices, levitating, and causing some violent paranormal disruptions. Finally, Robert allows Dimitri into their home to help with Jessica (against Dr. George’s wishes), as Dimitri seems to be the only person with any inkling of what’s going on.

Interestingly, though, unlike The Exorcist, there isn’t really any exorcism taking place. Yes, Jessica is evidently possessed by the Devil, and yes, Dimitri knows what’s going on and is at her bedside sparring with the entity possessing her, but in this case, Dimitri is not really a good guy. It’s implied, in fact, that he’s already dead, or at least is in some kind of limbo pending the outcome of the deal he made with the Devil. The Prince of Darkness, you’ll remember, gave him ten more years if he would facilitate this birth, and it’s hinted that now that time is up, the Devil will let Dimitri’s soul be reborn in Jessica’s baby.

However, Dimitri apparently forgot one of Satan’s other appellations, The Father of Lies, and is therefore shocked—shocked!—when the Devil tells him, essentially, “Nah, I was just fucking with you for the lulz,” and lets Dimitri’s suspended car continue its trajectory to the bottom of the canyon. And he also causes Jessica’s baby to be stillborn, because he’s a dick. The final shot features a seemingly recovered Jessica on a boat, along with Robert and the two kids. Ken opens a gift that he received from his mother at the beginning of the film, which contains a toy red car like the one Dimitri was killed in; the kid then tosses the car casually into the ocean. Then he turns around and we see that Ken is apparently now possessed. Because reasons.

Beyond the Door wasn’t the only Italian Exorcist knockoff that came out in 1974; there was another one called The Antichrist, directed by Alberto De Martino, which I have yet to see. I have to admit I kinda had a soft spot for this one, though; it’s not a great film or a lost gem or anything of that nature, but it’s a strange little artifact of the era, with some truly head-scratching scenes (like an extended sequence where Robert walks down a San Francisco street being accosted by a man playing a recorder with his nose), some decent if simple special effects (such as a creepily effective split screen where it looks as though one of Jessica’s eyes is acting normal and the other one is rolling crazily all around), and an interesting (if sometimes obtrusive) score. Some of the scenes go on way too long and feature way too much repeated dialogue (“It wasn’t an accident! I WANTED to break it! It wasn’t an accident! I WANTED to break it. I WANTED to break it! I WANTED to break it! I WANTED to break it!”), and there really isn’t any cool gore or nudity to speak of, but if you’re into Italian cinema and possession movies from the 1970s, you might want to give it a look.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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