Monday, January 7, 2019

"I Can't Go a Month Without a Ghost" - Knocking on Death's Door (1999)

Let us turn our attention to the 1990s again and look at a lost masterpiece from close to the turn of the century, 1999's Knocking on Death's Door from Roger Corman's New Concorde Pictures, a classic modern ghost story.

Of course, not all of your universe's critics appreciate the film. One reviewer, Ultra-violence1, says the film is "By far one of the most boring horror movies in history." As the saying goes, however, history is a long time, and I must disagree with Ultra_violence1's assessment. Read on for more details about Knocking on Death's Door...

Two men break into a big house during a thunderstorm. One is a policeman and the other is a concerned neighbor. They find the woman dead in her bed, apparently having overdosed from an injection, though a mysterious fog floats through the house while the policeman makes grunting noises as if he is in a Three Stooges short. Before they can escape the house, the policeman is killed by an axe that flies through the air by itself, while the other man steals the police car.

Twenty years later, parapsychology students Brad and Danielle are being married. As is traditional at wedding ceremonies, their mentor Professor Ballard (played by John Doe of the band X) gives them an assignment: investigating the Sunset House, the scene of the supernatural occurrences in the opening sequence. (It seems the professor and his students work for an institution called the Bureau of Occult Occurrences, whose acronym is a clear sign of the filmmakers’ cleverness.) The newly married couple are to make an offer on the Sunset House (located in Maine and/or Ireland), which is for sale, so they can investigate the place. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” Danielle says, so they agree to drive to the haunted house in their decorated wedding car, accompanied by a pastiche of Wendy Carlos’s theme from The Shining (1980).

The realtor shows the soul-patched Brad and Danielle the Sunset House, including a room where its now-dead tenant was living, which is decorated with various mobiles and weird masks (none of which play a part in the film's narrative).

Brad and Danielle agree to buy the 4,000-square-foot house, which is offered for $85,000. “Deal,” Brad says when she mentions the price, giggling.

“Is there a ghost in the house?” Danielle asks the realtor, after Brad explains what a parapsychologist is.

“Not just a ghost,” replies the realtor, “ but a demon whose screams come straight from the depths of hell.”

Brad and Danielle giggle again and say, “We’ll take it.” (The details of the financing are not explained, so we are left to assume that parapsychology graduate students have no trouble paying cash for an $85,000 house.)

They move in the same day, which is also their wedding night. While they attend to their nuptial duties, the windows fog up. While Brad is kissing her, Danielle says, “We should be setting up the equipment.”

Suddenly, a fireplace poker flies through the air and Brad is knocked out by a swinging lamp that smashes against his back.

The next day, the filmmakers present a montage of wiring the house, which includes the curious discovery of a book called Sex After 40 (Brad and Danielle are in their thirties) dissolving to Fourth of July fireworks. After the fireworks, the couple decides to spend a night on the town, going to a dive bar where Danielle appears to be cosplaying as the superhero Power Girl.

In the bar, they meet a gravedigger (one of many people in Maine, it seems, with an Irish accent) wearing overalls with his cemetery’s logo, and Brad punches him when he hits on Danielle. They return to the haunted house and argue. The heightened emotions again trigger supernatural occurrences, as a clock’s pendulum freezes. This time, the supernatural occurrences are limited to a bit of fog, a frosty camera lens, and a shattered wine bottle.

The incident allows the film to visit the office of Dr. David Carradine, where Danielle explains that she gained psychic powers after being trapped underneath the ice in a lake as a child. “I rose up through the ice, over the lake, until I don’t know where I was. Then I saw this white rectangle of light. It was a doorway. It was open. I didn’t go through it, I came back, but I don’t think the door closed completely.”

Incidentally, the doctor’s office is filled with mobiles suspending paper birds and airplanes, presumably because the doctor is a pediatrician.

During the office visit, Dr. Carradine draws blood from Danielle and injects her with an unspecified drug. After returning home, Danielle confronts her soul-patched husband in a curved room filled with chunks of concrete.

Danielle’s psychic abilities are tied to a musical snowglobe encasing the figure of an ice skater which oddly plays the non-winter-themed tune “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” The snowglobe starts playing the tune in the middle of the night, alerting Danielle to the presence of a ghost. Without waking Brad, she investigates. On the basement floor, the ghost writes its name with chalk: Samuel.

The parapsychologists attempt to contact Samuel’s ghost by setting up a video camera to record Danielle sitting in an armchair, wearing a provocative tank top and holding her snowglobe on her lap. Contact is made quickly as a section of the ceiling slides away to reveal a ghost against Spielbergian backlighting.

The ghost that appears is apparently not Samuel; he is dressed in Victorian clothing and he believes Danielle to be someone named Elizabeth. Presumably because of this, he attempts to lick her face with his tongue.

Shockingly, Danielle later finds out that she is pregnant. To celebrate, the newlyweds go to the bedroom to make love, but Brad is attacked by a grandfather clock from the hallway.

Brad and Danielle continue their investigation, and from multiple witnesses across town they find out that the ghost appears when people are getting frisky. Brad tells Danielle, “It seems like everybody in town got laid in this house.”

Brad argues with Danielle because she had an affair, before their marriage, with Professor Ballard. Brad says, oddly, “Now I’m just wondering where the job end and the life begin.” He also tries to bring the ghost back by beginning to make love with his wife against her will, causing ghostly images to appear on monitors.

The ghost, not without cause, throws Brad against the wall.

A month later, Brad continuously watches the video of the invisible ghost throwing him against the wall. “What,” Danielle asks, “you can’t go a month without sex?”

Curiously, Brad responds, “No, I can’t go a month without a ghost.” He hypothesizes that Samuel the ghost is in love with Danielle. Scratching his soul patch, Brad adds, “You know what it’s like when someone or something is trying to take your wife from you?”

She does not respond directly to his question.

As Danielle investigates the haunting, she finds out more about the Cartwrights—the woman who killed herself by overdosing on heroin at the beginning, her abusive husband Samuel, and their autistic, institutionalized son Samuel.

In a terrifying scene, the gravedigger from the cemetery breaks into the house and attempts to rape Danielle, but he is stopped by both Brad and a flying computer monitor that absurdly plays the old AOL notifications “You’ve got mail” and “File’s done.”

The rapist runs away, and Danielle and Brad fail to go to the police.

Later, Danielle has a vision that shows the real story: Samuel Jr. interrupted his parents fighting, and Samuel Sr. killed him by pushing him down a stairwell. She also believes that Samuel is buried near horses, based on a chalk drawing the ghost made.

It turns out rather quickly that in fact Samuel Jr. is at the bottom of a Maine/Ireland lake, weighed down by a rocking horse, and in short order the authorities find the body.

Cleverly, the filmmakers reveal that there is more to the mystery, and that Dr. David Carradine may not be who he appears to be. He is actually Samuel Sr. [spoiler], though he looks nothing like the man in the vision Samuel Jr. gave to Danielle.

In the thrilling climax, Dr. Carradine attempts to murder Danielle with an injection while Brad unearths Samuel Jr.’s corpse for unspecified reasons. Using his previously undefined ghostly powers, Samuel Jr. teleports Brad to Danielle’s bed, where he saves her life (this appears to occur in death’s doorway, a small white room).

While Knocking on Death's Door makes a fine standalone film, one can only wonder, as I did, why it was not picked up as a television series. The possibilities are endless. Brad and Danielle could move from haunted house to haunted house, uncovering their mysteries while being annoyed by the creepy Professor Ballard. The series title is even obvious, inspired by the organization called the Bureau of Occult Occurrences: BOO! (Or perhaps BoOO!) Where is this series? The massive audience that considers Knocking on Death's Door a classic demands it! Perhaps the series could eventually tackle the mystery of Brad's disappearing and reappearing soul patch.

Alas, such a series is not to be, and the quality of entertainment in your universe suffers another terrible blow.