aka Seven Doors of Death
And what better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than with a Lucio Fulci gore film?
Incidentally, do not ask my family this.
My lack of respect for the Italian horror films of the 70s-80s is nearly legendary; Marc Beschler and I have had many a discussion over this. Now, I find Argento's movies hard to watch for all the right reasons (his murder scenes make me genuinely uncomfortable in a way that no other director has ever managed); past that, the gialli movies seem to me mere empty exercises in style (Fulci himself once termed the genre "mechanical"), and conventional horror films not much better. You see, I want stories, with identifiable beginnings, middles and ends. So many Italian horror films seem like a series of barely (if at all) connected shock scenes with only the slightest nod toward a story to bring them together. I find that sort of thing insulting in an American movie - moving the film's source to Europe does not improve the flavor.
Fulci seems to provide the exceptions that prove my rule, although The Gates of Hell and The Beyond seem to exemplify the "loosely connected shock scenes" complaint; the difference is, these two movies shouldn't make sense. They are about the Crawling Chaos, about Hell come to Earth - and one expects reality to break down under those circumstances.
Other Fulci films, with theoretically more traditional story structures, we will likely deal with at some other time - just don't hold your breath until then, 'kay?
The movie begins in "Louisiana, 1927" or so the subtitles inform us. Another clue is the fact that everything is presented to us in sepia tone, which inevitably leads us to fantasize what The Wizard of Oz would have been like if the prologue had been set in Louisiana rather than Kansas. Like a brightly colored Gator Bait with musical numbers, I bet.
Oh, and lynch mobs. Lynch mobs converging on the Seven Doors Hotel via rowboats and vintage cars. These grim-faced men charge up the stairs to room 36 (just so there can be no doubt as to the room number, I note that the management has conveniently placed the numbers on both sides of the door). Inside the room, the mob confronts an artist (Antoine Saint-John) who is working on a singularly drab painting of a gray landscape (well, brown, but it will turn gray later). The Mob Lead denounces the painter as "an ungodly warlock" (as opposed to a Christian warlock) and begins beating him with a chain. Although the wounds slashed in his flesh are rendered in sepia, causing the flowing blood to have the appearance of muddy water, there are still long, loving Fulci zoom-ins to the carnage.
The mob then takes the painter to the basement, where they give him the royal treatment: nail him to a wall, throw bubbling quicklime on him and then wall up the dissolving body, like a Cajun Cask of Amontillado. The Mob goes through a lot of extra trouble for ungodly warlocks, eschewing the more traditional burning at the stake or, given the fact that their crucifixion is historically accurate (nails in the wrists, not through the palms), that they would have taken a note from Salem, Mass and hanged him. (Although in the Fulci cosmology, witches were burned at Salem, too). Though to make an (unfortunately) historically accurate observation of my own, the Mob would likely have felt that "hanging is for uppity coons, and too good for the likes of him." But this sequence is already ugly and stupid enough without bringing racism into it.
So let us leave the Good Old Warlock-Killin' Days behind and go to the far-flung future of 1981, when a young woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits the hotel and is in the process of cleaning it up for a grand re-opening. She is having problems with this - not only with the slow, slightly sinister mother-and-son tag team of Andrew and Martha (Gianpaolo Saccarola and Veronica Lazar), who "came with the house", but strange events like the room service bell for Room 36 that keeps ringing - although 36 is locked and no one knows where the key has gone. Then a painter falls off a scaffold and keeps raving (in between bouts of spitting up blood) about "The eyes! The eyes!"
The injured painter brings into our story Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck). One of the better aspects of watching Italian movies that take place in America is seeing the European take on what life must be like in America (only fair, since Hollywood has long been foisting off bizarre views of foreign climes - I'd love to visit the Ireland portrayed in The Quiet Man, and I'm sure many people in Ireland would, too). For instance, doctors make house calls, and there are apparently no ambulances, as McCabe has the others hustle the dying man into his Lincoln. Yeah, let's move his spine around a little more.
Speaking of eyes (which we were a couple of paragraphs ago, as I recall) Liza is driving into town across the world's longest causeway when she nearly runs over a blind girl and her seeing-eye dog standing in the middle of the road. This is Emily (Cinzia Monreale, magically re-dubbed Sarah Fuller for the Amurrican audience), whom, we suspect, was the owner of "The eyes! The eyes!", since she's wearing a pair of the creepiest contact lenses I've yet seen.
Emily is a font of knowledge about the hotel - too bad she's not terribly forthcoming with her information. Basically, she tells Liza that everyone who was at the hotel sixty years ago disappeared without a trace, and that Liza should simply leave and not look back. Later (after Liza does not simply vamoose), she'll reveal that the painter at the beginning of the movie was named Schweik, and he used the extremely evil Book of Eibon to suss out that the Hotel was sitting on top of one of the Seven Gates of Hell.
I've complained before that guardians of things like Gates of Hell are overbearingly obscure in their duties, speaking in riddles and mystifying commands to just leave, instead of wrapping a banner around a cursed house that proclaims, WARNING: CONTAINS ONE HELLMOUTH. DO NOT OPEN UNTIL DOOMSDAY. No, they have to play it cute, until a bunch of people meet unfortunate and violent fates, just like in The Evil. In fact, The Beyond reminds me of The Evil a lot... except I like The Beyond.
For instance, there's Joe the Plumber (Giovanni de Nava), who arrives to investigate the Hotel's mysteriously flooded basement* and knocks down the mob's 1927 vintage wall to trace the leak. This somehow has the effect of opening the Gate of Hell - Gates of Hell are notoriously easy to open - and for his trouble, Joe finds his face at the end of a zombie's outstretched hand, and his eyeball sloooooooowly adorning his cheek. 'Cause it's a Fulci film, y'know.
Weird Martha finds Joe's messy corpse, and as a bonus, Schweik's body floats to the surface, and both wind up in the hospital's morgue, where a young resident wants to test out a theory by hooking up Schweik to his "brainwave machine". Ahem, yes, let's hook up a sixty year-old corpse to an EEG, that's a good idea. Where did you say you went to medical school? (and were you also in charge of the signs in the morgue? Like the one that reads, "Do Not Entry"?) But hook him up he does, and of course the doc gets called away, so he can't see his "brainwave machine" come to life. Not that it would matter, as the machine is registering what is patently a heartbeat. Maybe he hooked up the wrong machine.
Joe's wife arrives to dress him for the funeral, but sees something off-camera and screams, causing her daughter, Jill (Maria Pia Marsala) to rush in just in time to see her mother's prone figure be the recipient of the contents of a tipped-over five gallon jar of acid (any of you in the reading public who work at either a hospital or morgue: please write and tell me why a morgue would need a huge jug of acid. Thank you.) Attempting to escape the widening pool of acid and Mom-goo, Jill blunders through a door (following instructions, she does not use the "Do Not Entry" door) and finds herself face-to-face with more mangled cadavers. After this, at the funeral of her parents, Jill evidences the heartbreak of Emily Eyes.
Just when you think you have Arthur and Martha scoped out as Shills for Satan - after all Martha, doesn't flinch when she finds Joe, and it is a sight that, discovered in a darkened basement, would have sent anybody else running, screaming, puking, or a combination of all three. But not our Martha, no, she seemed somewhat unimpressed. But Arthur makes the mistake of trying to brick up the Gate of Hell, and Martha encounters the ambulatory Joe's corpse in Room 36, only to have her head skewered on one of the crucifixion nails (now somehow transported to the bathroom). And it is a Fulci film, so her eyeball winds up dangling from the end of the nail.
Liza's friend, apparently some sort of contractor, goes to City Hall and pulls out the original plans for the hotel, but finds something there that causes him to gasp. Lightning flashes (as it does at increasingly absurd times throughout the movie) and he falls from the ladder, where spiders eat his face (and his eyeball, goes without saying). Just as the worms in Gates of Hell were unnervingly vocal, these spiders are far more noisy than one would expect of lungless arthropods.
What did the contractor see? The movie doesn't elaborate on it, but I think he saw a far larger underground than was anticipated (or possible, given the locale). Unless suspecting that will cause me to be startled by lightning in an interior room and get my face slowly eaten by squeaky spiders. In that case, forget I said anything.
In other movies, some characters seem to be around to simply share their knowledge; Dr. McCabe's character seems to be there to share what he doesn't know. For instance, he's never heard of Arthur and Martha (let's see, New Orleans has a population of around a half million... sure. He could know everybody.). Nor has he heard of Emily, but he is familiar with the house where Liza has frequently visited the blind girl... and it's been deserted for fifty years!
Emily has other problems besides not existing, as Schweik and his zombie goon squad come calling on her. She goes ballistic, informing Schweik that she's "not going back!" and ordering her seeing eye dog, Dickie, to attack the bad guy. Apparently, coming desiccated face-to-snout to German Shepherd fury gives Schweik pause, as he and his zombies disappear, leaving Emily to embrace her canine savior. Who then tears her throat out. Like the rain of maggots in Gates of Hell, this is a moment cribbed from Argento's 1977 Suspiria. So what exactly was Emily? A ghost? An escapee from Hell? Why was I supposed to care?
McCabe, meantime, plays Scully with the panicky Liza, at least until he's on the receiving end of some spookiness, and the two find themselves trapped in the hospital with a bunch of zombies, since the Book of Eibon (and The Gates of Hell, for that matter) helpfully points out that when the Gates of Hell are open, the dead will walk the earth. Luckily for our heroes, not only do the dead walk at the speed of Tim Conway doing his doddering old man routine (a half-inch is considered a long stride for these revenants), but the head of the hospital keeps a loaded pistol and plenty of ammo in his desk drawer.
Now must we pause for a moment and consider the Zombie Movie Law of Threes: when shooting a zombie, there must be three shots; the first two are to the torso, and cause no damage. The third is to the head, and puts the zombie down. McCabe performs this ritual twice, which is fair enough, I suppose. I mean, it's the scientific method - first, you make sure that you can replicate the results of the original experiment. Unfortunately, McCabe is using a revolver, which means that he has to reload after putting down only two of a hallfull of zombies. Liza gets away in the elevator to the morgue, and McCabe winds up sharing a room with Mr. Brainwave Machine, who was hiding out while the zombies killed everyone else.
When the zombies burst into the room, we think that McCabe has learned his lesson: bang, bang, bang, bang. Head shot, head shot, head shot, head shot. But after Dr. Brainwave winds up on the wrong end of a shattering window (once again, I had no idea that facial lacerations were fatal) and Liza comes back for McCabe, and they wind up facing off against Schweik in the morgue, all experience goes out the window and McCabe wastes round after round into Schweik's chest. Maybe McCabe went to the same university as Dr. Brainwave and the sign guy.
Oh, and Liza has been leading Jill around, too. Remember Jill? The girl with the Emily Eyes? Well Jill goes evil pretty darn fast and goes for Liza's eyes (As in Gates, I notice that all Fulci zombies have the same attack) , but McCabe pauses in his endeavor to fill up Schweik's torso with lead long enough to blow Jill's head off. I am not employing hyperbole here; whereas all the other critters shot in the head evidence what looks suspiciously like a paintball hit, Jill's head flies apart like a badly glued piñata.
Liza and McCabe try to escape to the hospital's basement, but instead find themselves... back in the hotel's basement! Seeking a way out, they walk through the Gate of Hell, and find themselves in the bleak landscape of Schweik's painting, with no way back... and they both have Emily Eyes. The end.
The ending, while infuriating initially, actually makes artistic, if not dramatic sense, and is certainly better than the hastily-improvised ending of Gates of Hell. In fact, the best thing about The Beyond's re-release by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures and Grindhouse Releasing is this DVD widescreen rendering of the picture, with Fulci's and cinematographer Sergio Salvati's artistic compositions intact. It was previously unavailable in America except as Seven Doors of Death, a truncated version with as much as twenty minutes of footage missing, and the picture badly pan-and-scanned. It was an incoherent mess. The Beyond is still an incoherent mess, but at least is now an interesting and compelling incoherent mess.
It's the sort of thing that makes me look with suspicion at my copy of Gates of Hell and that tape of House by the Cemetery I rented years ago... had they been similarly mangled and compressed beyond comprehension? Is the darkness of the final scenes in Gates a bad video transfer, or could Fulci not afford any lights that day? I don't know, and the quality of this pressing is high enough to make me wonder.
I also have to admit, it was refreshing to once again see unapologetic, unashamed, 1980's full-tilt gore effects, and The Beyond's effects are uniformly top-notch. If Frederic Wertham had lived to see The Beyond or any of Fulci's gore films, he would have crapped his pants. Beyond contains three disem-eyeball-ments, a record even for Fulci, for whom the damage-to the-eyeball things seems to be a continuing motif; one that is either unsurprising or particularly disturbing when one considers Fulci's background as an art critic. Still, the eeriest moment in the movie has not a speck of gore: as Liza and McCabe flee the deserted hotel, lights come on in the rooms one by one, and the silhouettes of the people missing for sixty years begin moving about in a building which was, seconds ago, empty.
Overall, The Beyond is referenced by many as the jewel in Fulci's crown, and I'm inclined to agree. If you leave expectations of something like story behind, it's a grand, nightmarish experience, surreal and often beautiful, if you can get past the snap-zooms and so-so dubbing. Find the DVD. If your video store has Seven Doors of Death, first quake in awe and wonder, then thank them for keeping older, out-of-print titles around. Then demand to know where they're hiding the more current DVD.
And, oh yeah, it would probably help if you had never seen Gates of Hell or Suspiria, either.