Thursday, October 16, 2008

Infamous clone of ‘The Exorcist’ is due new respect

“The Exorcist” inspired its fair share of low-budget imitators, and probably the most famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — is 1974’s “Beyond the Door.”

Warner Bros., which released “The Exorcist,” sued the makers of “Beyond the Door” for copyright infringement but lost, clearing the way for other Italian “Exorcist” clones like “The Antichrist” (1974), which added sex and exploitation to the mix. Released on DVD in 2002, “The Antichrist” is now, sadly, out of print.

Meanwhile, “Beyond the Door” became a hit, grossing about $15 million in the U.S. That may not sound like a lot of money now, but it was a respectable sum in the early ’70s for an independently produced, Italian horror movie.

A staple at mom-and-pop video stores during the heyday of VHS rentals, “Beyond the Door” is only now available on DVD, along with two commentary tracks, interviews and trailers. Best of all, the newly remastered film looks better than it did when it originally played to theater audiences across America.

At last, we can assess this blatant — but non-infringing — attempt to cash in on the success of “The Exorcist” on its own merits.

First, to be fair to “Beyond the Door,” it’s more than just an “Exorcist” clone. It’s also a rip-off of Roman Polanski’s 1968 shocker “Rosemary’s Baby.” If Linda Blair were not only possessed by the devil but also expecting his little bundle of joy, it would look a lot like “Beyond the Door.”

Jessica and Robert Barrett are a happily married couple in San Francisco. Robert (Gabriele Lavia of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red”) is a music producer, while Jessica (Juliet Mills, most recently seen in the TV soap opera “Passions”) is a housewife. They already have two children: a pre-teen daughter who never goes anywhere without a copy of Erich Segal’s “Love Story” tucked under her arm and a young son with a pea soup fetish.

Children didn’t have juice boxes in the ’70s, so I guess it was normal back then for a boy to slurp pea soup through a straw — and to have a Warholesque poster of a soup can hanging above his bed.
No, wait, there’s nothing normal about that at all. But the conspicuous, not to mention absurd, emphasis on pea soup does blatantly conjure images of a key scene in “The Exorcist.”

The Barretts already are stuck with a daughter who swears like a sailor and a son who is just plain weird. So, the last thing they need is another child, especially one who is the spawn of Satan. But if the devil wants a baby, he’s not going to let a little thing like birth control get in the way. So, Jessica unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. And worse still, the fetus is growing at an unnatural rate. Satan, it seems, is in a hurry. Plus, the movie is only an hour and 40 minutes long.

To make matters worse, Jessica’s ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Richard Johnson of Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie”) is lurking in the shadows, occasionally emerging to intone, “The child must be born!” He is not exactly a disinterested party. Having let Jessica escape from his satanic cult years earlier, he’s now once again doing Satan’s bidding.

As the devil’s baby grows inside her, Jessica goes from wanting to abort it to threatening to kill anyone who tries to take it from her. She levitates above the bed, turns her head 360 degrees and occasionally speaks in a demonic voice. Pretty much, it’s all the same stuff we saw in “The Exorcist,” only with ridiculous dialog and those two annoying children.

But you can’t dismiss “Beyond the Door” that easily. Mills delivers a chilling and, at times, grotesque performance, and director Ovidio G. Assonitis is no slouch behind the camera. While he filmed the interior scenes in Italy, Assonitis shot most of the exteriors in San Francisco, and he makes good use of that gorgeous backdrop.

Even if Assonitis set out to do nothing more than hop on the “Exorcist” bandwagon, he did so ably. It’s no surprise “Beyond the Door” was such a success when it was first released. And now it’s a welcome addition to any horror aficionado’s DVD collection.

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