“Now I will leave you alone in the dark and let my little story take over.”
Back in the day, the Italians made an art form out of ripping off more successful Hollywood movies, and nobody did it better. Sometimes, in fact, they cut so close that they got hit with a cease and desist order, as when Universal blocked the U.S. release of The Last Shark. Other times they merely echoed their Hollywood counterparts so completely that they should have been hit with a cease and desist, as in the case of Robowar and Shocking Dark (which was actually released overseas as Terminator 2 in some ports, even though it rips a lot more scenes from Aliens).
More often, though, these cash grabs simply produce mystifying and sometimes magical results that are so strange that familiarity with their Hollywood counterparts is almost the only way to decode them into any kind of context. Such is, in many ways, the case with Rosemary’s Exorcist here, by which I mean Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Beyond the Door, which was also released as The Devil Within Her.
(Besides a lengthy booklet filled with behind-the-scenes details and the usual load of other special features, the new Blu-ray from Arrow Video comes with a feature-length documentary detailing the history of Italy’s various rip-offs of The Exorcist, inspired at least in part by the worldwide financial success of Beyond the Door, which also got two sequels-in-name-only, the first of them Mario Bava’s Shock in ’79, the second Amok Train in ’89, which were released in some markets as Beyond the Door II and III, respectively.)
For those who have seen Beyond the Door, it will come as no surprise that Warner Bros. immediately slapped it with a lawsuit (and won) over copyright infringement regarding The Exorcist. Hell, the movie doesn’t even bother to play remotely coy, to the point that it verges on parody – one of the children spends the entire movie drinking room-temperature pea soup straight out of the can through a straw, a prospect more disgusting than all the projectile vomiting in the world. He’s even got a print of a pea soup can hanging above his bed.
(The other kid speaks jive, and carries around a couple dozen copies of the same book, which she is constantly reading. This is a weird movie. We’ll get more into that later.)
Once Juliet Mills becomes possessed, she levitates, speaks in multiple voices, drools green vomit, and, at one point, her head spins all the way around, a sequence that is as neatly foreshadowed by one of the kids twisting the head around on a doll as it is inevitable in a movie trying so badly to be The Exorcist.
Mills also does other things, though, like eating a rotten banana peel that she finds on the ground or a particularly creepy scene where one of her eyeballs moves independently of the other. The children’s toys come to life and move around on their own in a scene straight out of Pod People as the room shakes on its foundations and a light shines up from beneath the floorboards.
There’s a lot going on in Beyond the Door, which owes almost as much of a debt to Rosemary’s Baby as it does to The Exorcist, swapping the young Linda Blair for a mother of two and tying the events of her possession to a problematic pregnancy that also seems to be advancing far faster than it should. There’s lots of room for thematic interpretation here, to be sure.
When the back of the box raves that Roger Ebert called the film you’re about to watch “disgusting,” “maddeningly inappropriate,” and “scary trash,” you know you’re in for something special. This is the kind of film that opens with a voiceover by the devil himself (he never says the word) and features a scene where Gabriele Lavia (of Deep Red and Inferno, here sporting a mustache that makes him look like Dean Stockwell in The Dunwich Horror) gets accosted by a guy playing the nose flute.
Joining Mills and Lavia is The Haunting’s own Richard Johnson, looking somewhat less haggard than he would a few years later in Zombie. Here, he plays the closest equivalent the film has to a priest – a figure that we know to be sinister from the trippy music video opening sequence, but who may also be the only hope for poor Juliet Mills’ possessed housewife. That he’s also an old boyfriend and both more and less than he seems, well … beggars can’t be choosers, after all.
Already an established producer (often of just this kind of – quite literally – derivative schlock), Assonitis made the jump to directing with Beyond the Door, which shows the kind of ambitious throw-everything-at-the-wall sensibility that was frequently coming out of Italy at the time.
From early on, Beyond the Door makes it clear that it is playing a sadistic game with the audience, every bit as much as Old Scratch himself is playing with his toys in the form of the ostensibly innocent family at the heart of the film, or Johnson’s harried occultist.
The opening voiceover from the devil is taunting toward the audience, telling us to “go on thinking” that what we can’t see can’t exist “for as long as you can” and exhorting us to not forget that “the stranger sitting in the seat next to you could be me.”
(The devil’s voice is provided by notorious producer and distributor Edward L. Montoro, who was, himself, responsible for a whole host of other B-grade cash-grabs including Grizzly, Day of the Animals, Pieces, Mortuary, the MST3K “favorite” Pod People, and Mutant. When his Film Ventures International shingle was on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-‘80s, Montoro vanished with over a million dollars and was never seen again.)
During a montage that plays behind the opening credits, Lavia’s Robert Barrett presides over a recording session that is playing the film’s main theme, “Bargain with the Devil,” and when he yells “cut” – the opening montage cuts, too.
Throughout the film, the soundtrack, infused by sounds from funk and disco music, swells in to drown out what’s happening on screen, and the lyrics of the songs taunt the characters directly, not merely providing non-diegetic accompaniment. As Robert leaves his pregnant and possessed wife alone in the apartment with her old flame and walks the streets, desperate and alone, accosted by street musicians, the soundtrack taunts him that, “No one will help you.”
Besides its exploitation pedigree and odd-to-the-point-of-surreal filmmaking choices, perhaps the most interesting thing about Beyond the Door, especially in the context of the films it’s ripping off, is its nearly complete absence of religion.
The devil is very emphatically real in this film, although, as he points out in his opening monologue, you never actually see him. “Unfortunately,” he says, “in recent centuries, that has gone out of fashion, although there was a time when I was always being painted or impersonated in one way or another and, as you know, I’ve always been given the best lines.”
Yet God is nowhere to be found. Absent are a young priest and an old priest, or even the lackadaisical Catholicism of Rosemary’s Baby. In their place, we have Johnson’s Dimitri, himself a puppet of the devil, and a woman on a houseboat holding a cat who tells us that, “You can’t stand the thought of there existing beings so powerful and strong as to break through the barriers of time and space, and to take a malignant pleasure in causing suffering to the weak and innocent, thereby fulfilling some mysterious project of vengeance.”
It’s a portrait of universal malice that feels almost cosmic, and not the least bit comforting.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.