Thursday, September 15, 2016

Beyond Darkness (1990) - Part 1 of 3

After the visceral horrors of our last film, Shriek of the Mutilated (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), perhaps a somewhat lighter (but no less skillfully constructed) piece of entertainment will serve as a palate cleanser. Our next film will be 1990’s Beyond Darkness, an Italian movie filmed in Louisiana. (Beyond Darkness is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray and streaming on Shudder.)

In Italy, this film is called La Casa 5, part of the series of movies released in Italy as the La Casa (“the house”) series. The first of these, La Casa, was known in the United States as The Evil Dead (1981), and La Casa 2 was Evil Dead II (1987). After the success of these films, Umberto Lenzi directed the Italian La Casa 3, known in the United States as Ghosthouse. In 1988, La Casa 4, known in the United States as Witchery, was released. All of this brings us to La Casa 5, or Beyond Darkness. (Moving further along in the series, La Casa 6 is a retitling of the American film House 2: The Second Story, presenting some confusion in translation from Italian to English, as the names House 2 and House 6 refer to the very same movie.)

Beyond Darkness was directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Claudio Fragasso and co-written by Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi under the names Clyde Anderson and Sarah Asproon. Fragasso is best known for directing Troll 2 (also 1990), a somewhat entertaining film that lacks quality in some areas and is hardly the pinnacle of breezy pop horror represented by Beyond Darkness.

Again, your universe's respected critics fail to recognize the brilliance of this film. A reviewer named Bezenby writes on IMDB, "It kind of goes on endlessly as they all argue with each other....You can give this one a miss if you want." Unbelievable! Also on IMDB, FieCrier (who had a similarly misguided opinion about The Nightmare Never Ends) writes, "The movie is filled with terrible editing, terrible dialogue, and terrible plotting." Sacrilege! Again, I must correct these uninformed "opinions." First, as always, let us review the plot.

Louisiana State Penitentiary. A pickup truck brings a creepy-looking priest into the prison. A policeman escorts the priest past the prison Coke machine to death row, conveniently indicated by a hand-drawn arrow on the wall.


They pass the cells of the condemned prisoners and come to the last one, where the priest begins to take confession. In the film's first subversion of our expectations, the condemned prisoner is not a man but a woman. "I didn't just murder all of those children," she begins. "I also devoured their souls which now are here inside of me." She will deliver the children's souls to Ameth, her lord and master, when she is executed.

The priest, skeptical about such supernatural mumbo jumbo, explains to the woman that she committed her crimes because of mental illness. She responds that he is different from other priests. He is curious. She hands him her bible so he can understand her perspective.

Then the guards take her away, before she has made a confession and before he has performed last rites. He says nothing to the guards, presumably too eager to dig into her bible to do his job. As she is led away from him, the priest has a vision of children following her--the souls of the children she has murdered following her to hell.

Some time later, the priest opens a creaking door and steps into the dark execution chamber. The woman's body is still tied to the electric chair; the prison has followed standard procedure by vacating the death chamber without cleaning up or removing the corpse.

The priest opens her bible and is shocked to find Satanic illustrations and strange runes. Then a bright light fills the adjacent observation chamber and he sees the ghostly children standing there watching him.

After this prologue, we watch as a young family--a minister, his wife, and their young boy and girl--moves into a house somewhere in Louisiana. They stand and marvel at the staircase for a few moments, then they race upstairs to their bedrooms.

The traditional housewarming gifts of a heart-shaped balloon and a five-foot tall, black, rocking swan statue adorn the kids' bedroom.

While avoiding the work of moving suitcases, the girl also finds a mysterious door, behind which is a hole in a brick wall.

These early scenes of a family moving into a house may seem familiar from dozens of other movies, but Fragasso imbues them with simple, profound truths. When the power goes off in the dining room after the family says grace, the young girl Carole says "I can't eat in the dark. I can't find my mouth," to which her brother Martin wisely replies, "It's under your nose." Later, after ironing the family bible to dry it out after it fell into a puddle, the wife Annie says, "You want to know a secret? For a woman, there is nothing more exciting than the idea of going to bed with a sexy reverend." No doubt.

But of course the familial bliss cannot last forever. A wind gusts through the couple's bedroom, blowing the carefully ironed pages of the bible around the room, to the wry smiles of Annie and her husband Reverend Peter. It appears that, like the proverbial chocolate and peanut butter, his bible pages have gotten mixed up with those of a Satanic bible complete with a picture of the devil. The only logical response is to read a Latin phrase from the pages aloud, so Peter does so.

We then follow the priest from the prologue, Father George. To the discerning viewer able to catch the subtle cues, it appears that George has seen some changes in his life. He now wears an ill-fitting overcoat and takes swig after swig from a flask. He also clutches the murderous woman's bible and continues to see visions of murdered children following him. Falling to his knees, he commands Jesus Christ to curse the demon and lead him to it. Then he opens the Satanic bible to find a photograph of Peter and Annie's house inserted between two pages. Jesus has obeyed the priest's command and given him a helpful clue.

The strange occurrences continue at the family's home. Unlike in some lesser films, there is no buildup--no small hint of ghostly danger at first, such as a light bulb popping or a mysterious stain on the ceiling. Unquestionably supernatural events occur from the first day the family moves into the house. The black swan rocks noisily by itself at night. Carole dreams she has the starring role in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr.

The occurrences continue. The hole in the brick wall keeps beckoning to Carole, shining a mysterious light and giving her a mild sunburn. A massive 1920s radio, though unplugged, attacks the family at the dinner table by rolling toward them while playing Satanic chants. A meat cleaver flies through the air and buries itself in a door next to Peter’s face. This is not even to mention the dozens of veiled zombie witches that invade the house, appearing both downstairs and upstairs to frighten the family.

Peter grabs a crucifix and a bible to ward off the supernatural invaders. Will it work? Will he save his family?

The film has moved into its second act, so this seems like a good place to break our summary of the plot. No doubt my recounting cannot convey the blistering pace of this highly entertaining film. I can only hope to impress upon you some small flavor of the nonstop action and excitement of the narrative. Until next time, farewell! Continue on to Part 2 and Part 3.