Thursday, September 22, 2016

Beyond Darkness (1990) - Part 3 of 3

Claudio Fracasso's Beyond Darkness (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) has entered its final act. (Beyond Darkness is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray and streaming on Shudder.) While Reverend Peter, his wife Annie, and Father George are preoccupied, the possessed child Martin has guided his sister Carole to the wall that serves as a gateway to the hell dimension. How can the family survive their supernatural ordeal?

Annie races upstairs to intervene before Martin can force Carole through the gateway. She rescues Carole while Martin falls unconscious to the floor. Peter entreats Annie to drive Carole to the church. Then he joins George in the upstairs bedroom to perform an exorcism and save Martin. The exorcism takes some time, requiring George and Peter, in unison, to repeat "You are banished in the name of Christ" over and over. 

All goes well. The demon leaves Martin's body. George stays to exorcise the demon from the house while Peter and Martin walk to the staircase.

Shockingly, however, the exorcism of Martin has not been successful. Martin transforms into the witch, who pushes Peter down the stairs. While Peter lies unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, George, the faithless ex-priest, confronts the demon.

The room with the brick wall becomes an execution chamber, with Martin strapped into the electric chair with leather bands (though no electrical apparatus is visible). The witch entices George with immortality, if he only pulls the lever to electrocute the boy. And denounces his God while invoking Ameth.

This is clearly tempting to George. He does not know what is the right thing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly, George decides not to pull the lever. He frees Martin from the electric chair, but the witches surround him and strap him into the chair. "To hell with you, Father George Tomaso!" the witch says, pulling the lever and electrocuting him.

Downstairs, Peter regains consciousness and climbs to the second floor. He takes an axe and breaks down the door in time to watch George die.

"Go into the light," Peter says to George. 

Annie, meanwhile, leaves Carole at the church with the minister, Reverend John. After Annie and Carole scold the minister for not intervening somehow, Annie drives back to the house to help Peter.

Annie enters the foggy gateway and finds that Peter has already been possessed by Ameth. He is being egged on by the witch to take a crucifix-dagger and stab Martin. The dagger draws closer and closer to the child.

Reverend John has had a change of heart. Still in his church, he prays for Peter and the family to defeat the witch. Peter and Annie use the crucifix-dagger to stab the witch.

The threat apparently eliminated, the family rushes back through the gateway and downstairs to the car. But the battery is dead! And the house is disgorging dozens of zombie witches!

In the church, the reverend is weakened by his prayers. He uses the last of his magical powers to both help the car start and make the demonic bible burn. Somewhat confusingly, a house that bears no resemblance to the family's house also bursts into flame.

The car battery recharged by the minister's faith, the family drives away as the witches burn. This also allows the filmmakers to place a witty visual joke in the station wagon's license plate numbers.

As the car drives away, Annie remarks, "It's over. It's finally over."

And so it is. (Until, after the end credits roll, Martin opens his eyes, revealing they are slightly cloudy, an indication that he is still possessed.)

Beyond Darkness works both as a fun, fast-paced supernatural horror movie and as a critique of previous, flawed films. With this film, Claudio Fragasso expresses his personal vision by combining elements from The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist. In your universe, these were all highly successful, but still problematic, movies. In combining them, Fragasso was able to remove the padding and incoherence from these films, turning them into a streamlined and much more effective filmgoing experience.

For example, Fragasso undoubtedly identified the problem in Poltergeist that there is not enough religious content. He solved this problem by making the father of the family a minister. This change allows superior solutions to other problems in Poltergeist as well. The sudden appearance of the psychic Tangina in Poltergeist is solved by replacing Zelda Rubinsetin's character with that of the faithless priest George.

By contrast, The Amityville Horror has sufficient religious content, but one of its major problems is it is too slow, with long stretches of exposition and buildup. Why use 90 minutes to build up to possession and violence when the first 20 minutes can offer murderous household objects and zombie witches?

Likewise, The Exorcist is certainly religious enough, but among other problems, it loses much of its potential audience by not being family-friendly. Fragasso solves this problem by replacing the problematic adolescent girl with two younger, more vulnerable children.

Additional problems with these three earlier films are the somber, almost passionless performances that favor realism over high drama. Beyond Darkness is anchored in realism by low-key performances by Gene LeBrock as Peter and Barbara Bingham as Annie, but it soars through the inspired performance of David Brandon as George. Part of the effectiveness of his performance comes from his English accent, but there is more to it than an accent. He takes every opportunity to enunciate keywords such as "evil" and "Jesus Christ" and "witches." Throughout the exorcism scene, he contorts his face so even the audience sees the pain and passion he is experiencing; LeBrock visibly has trouble keeping up. Brandon's performance elevates this film to a higher level than it could have achieved otherwise.

With these simple yet visionary changes to familiar narratives, Fragasso has assembled a puzzle that works better and moves faster than its antecedents. He reveals himself as a popular visionary, and Beyond Darkness is his most entertaining masterwork.