Beyond the Door

Color, 1974, 109m.
Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Robert Barrett
Starring Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson, Elizabeth Turner, David Colin Jr., Barbara Fiorini
Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Beyond the Door

Beyond the DoorOne of the more unlikely box office smashes of the 1970s, this nutty Italian horror film partially shot in San Francisco gained immediate notoriety as the first and most blatant imitator of The Exorcist, laced with a heavy dose of Rosemary's Baby and seasoned with plenty of Eurosleaze elements for good measure. Warner Brothers tried to suppress the film in court,which the distributor contested and apparently came to a settlement to keep it in circulation (an ultimately fortunate outcome not shared by the same year's blaxploitation variant, Abby, which still languishes in the MGM vaults). While Beyond the Door fared well enough on VHS (from Media), it eventually dropped out of circulation and took over a decade of DVD's lifespan before finally coming out in the U.S. again in the '00s.

The very fragmented storyline begins with a bizarre prologue involving a satanic ceremony featuring a naked woman on an altar and lots of candles. One of the participants, Jessica (Juliet Mills, formerly a TV darling from Nanny and the Professor), elects to leave the sect (or something; it's a little confusing) and abandon her lover, Dimitri (Zombie's Johnson). Much of this is actually conveyed through voiceover from Satan himself, which is a bit unorthodox, but then we flash forward to a funk music recording session presided over by Jessica's jackass husband, Robert (Deep Red's Lavia), a music producer who chasizes his soulful jam artists by telling them they "have as much balls as a castrated jellyfish." Robert and Jessica have a happy home Beyond the Doorlife with their two kids, Gail (Fiorini), a foul-mouthed brat who keeps reading multiple copies of Love Story all day, and Ken (David Colin Jr. from Mario Bava's Shock, also released as a fake sequel to this film), Beyond the Doorwho doesn't do much besides playing with toy cars. When Jessica finds out she's pregnant, at first everyone is overjoyed... but soon her personality begins to change. Meanwhile Dimitri (who's fated to die in a car crash but now kept in spiritual limbo at Satan's whim) stalks the couple around San Francisco as part of a deal with the devil to deliver a new hellish spawn on earth. Jessica quickly spirals out of control, smashing open her husband's fish aquarium, puking green bile and spinning her head backwards just like you-know-who. Will Dimitri let this evil plan come to fruition, or does the devil have an even nastier twist in mind?

Watching Beyond the Door as a linear narrative is a largely frustrating experience, as the various story threads (including a very oblique double-twist ending) only bind together if you really, really pay attention and fill in a lot of blanks. However, the film is a huge amount of fun as a simple spookshow experience, with some truly skin-crawling sound experiments and more than a handful of unforgettably grotesque images. Much of the dialogue is ridiculous (especially Lavia's), but Mills' intense dedication to her part still results in a creepy third act when her full possession kicks in. The amazing funk score by the great, underrated Franco Micalizzi adds to the strange brew, with crazy saxophones and soul music mashing together in one of the weirdest horror soundtracks ever produced. Of course, this film is also notable for really kicking off the career of Egyptian-born producer and occasional director Ovidio Assonitis, who had earlier put his name on such films as Who Saw Her Die?, Man from Deep River and the insane Labyrinth of Sex. However, here he really found his niche by taking successful elements from U.S. hits and mashing them into something wholly berserk and unique, a formula he put to even more bizarre use in Laure, Tentacles, and his ultimate cracked masterpiece, The Visitor. If you're looking for an introduction to his derivative but fascinating style, look no further.

Released in America running barely over 90 minutes, Beyond the Door also circulated in a longer, 109-minute edition Beyond the Doorentitled The Devil Within Her, which appeared on UK videotape and eventually as a non-anamorphic Japanese DVD. Code Red's American DVD release from 2008 easily bested all prior editions with a colorful anamorphic transfer replicating the dark but effective photography, and it's the complete European print under the Beyond the DoorDevil Within Her title. For the record, the extra footage consists mainly of the original opening title sequence (involving the aforementioned funk performance of "Bargain with the Devil"), additional dialogue, and some especially weird footage of oddball San Francisco residents on the street.

That DVD also comes with a rich bounty of extras explaining exactly how this film came to be. The first audio commentary features a cheerful Mills and Intruder director Scott Spiegel chatting about the film with moderators Darren Gross and Lee Christian, who cover not only her work on this film but the rest of her career and her memories about shooting in the American-to-Italian locations. Next up is a commentary with Assonitis, and in the interests of full disclosure, yours truly was one of the participants along with Christian, so no comments on it here apart from the fact that you'll get his detailed story about working with (and firing) James Cameron on Piranha II: The Spawning, which is worth a listen all unto itself. On the video side, the biggest extra is a 20-minute featurette, "Beyond the Door: 35 Years Later," which features Mills, Assonitis, Johnson, and co-writer Alex Rebar (best known for playing The Incredible Melting Man) continuing their reminiscences about the creation of the film and its unusual but successful release history, which paved the way for a flood of possession films well into the early 1980s. Last up, you get an additional brief featurette with Johnson ("An Englishman in Italy") talking about some of his other Italian films (mainly Zombie), a gallery packed with lobby cards, stills, posters and VHS art, and (along with other Code Red promos) the U.S. trailer and TV spot. A limited two-disc edition sold exclusively through Best Buy added a second DVD containing the abridged Beyond the DoorAmerican cut, if you're a really huge fan of the film.

Beyond the DoorIn 2017, Code Red made the inevitable revisit to its biggest Euro horror release for a Blu-ray upgrade sold through Ronin Flix featuring a fresh HD scan -- and it looks fantastic. This is a film that becomes easier to appreciate and enjoy every time it gets a fresher looking release, and the Blu-ray gives the film a sleek, atmospheric veneer that didn't pop through as clearly in the limitations of the older SD edition. The interiors of Jessica's home get a particular boost with lots of details and finely calibrated use of light and shadow elevating the film as a whole, now looking light years better than the grungy trash title it was branded by American critics upon its release. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds solid as well. Everything from the earlier DVD except the gallery has been carried over here (both commentaries and featurettes, plus the trailer and TV spot), with a new addition added as well: "Bargain with the Devil," a new 10-minute interview with Lavia about his impressions of San Francisco at the time, his good relationship with the director and cast, and making do with limited means (and "getting lucky") with the visual effects. He also gets energetic at the end about the idea of directing a horror film, which would be interesting to see. The reversible cover art options include the usual U.S. poster art and a new design taking a more contemporary graphic approach.

Updated review on March 15, 2017.