In the Abbey of San Pietro En Valle, in 1506, a frighteningly powerful man possessed by Satan is sealed in a room, in the catacombs, which is then walled-over. About 400 years later, a young teacher named Elizabeth is invited by forward-thinking Brother Orsini to study at the men-only monastery. This angers the cold and austere Brother Marinus,the only priest who believes in the legend of the demon trapped in the catacombs. He believes that it has escaped, and will use Elizabeth as its vessel, but is laughed-off by Orsini and outsider priest Father John. Indeed the beast has escaped its prison, and is lurking in the catacombs, waiting for unfortunate souls to take.
This Italian-American production was made during the decline of horror's popularity, Italian horror's especially. It was filmed entirely in Italy, but looks distinctly American due to better production values and multinational cast. The cinematography was handled by veteran Sergio Salvati, and the soundtrack composed by Pino Donaggio. The acting is also better than expected, but far from perfect.
On the downside, there is little bloodshed, and the film relies heavily on atmosphere and a sense of dread, both of which are continually generated and then ignored. The buildup never pays off. Many of the spooky goings-on occur, and are then forgotten - missed opportunities for scares or adding depth to the story. I found the hasty ending to be a letdown due to a brief and weak Final Battle. So what might be of interest to potential viewers? The sacrilegious content, of which there is much, whether it be employed in a comedic or horrific sense. The Killer Jesus scene, though foreseeable, was still a nice touch.
I wasn't thrilled by Catacombs, but it was better than I expected, given familiarity with late 80s films of this sort.
(Ruggero Deodato, 1988)
Michael York is Robert Dominici, a pianist who is rapidly aging due to a genetic defect. As if losing his hair and virility weren't enough, he is losing his mind as well. After killing his doctor to prevent word of his condition from spreading, his mental health continues to deteriorate, causing him to indulge in murderous acts. His rapid degeneration does have the positive aspect of making him unrecognizable to the police, which is handy when playing cat-and-mouse over the phone with Inspctor Datti (Donald Pleasence).
The film contains several fantastically gory set pieces, yet never dives into slasher territory. Some of the effects are on the cheap side (the mannequin in a dream sequence, notably) but the main gore pieces are satisfactory in their realism and execution. The bloodshed alone, however, isn't what makes Phantom of Death work. It is an interesting concept, and a competently, if safely, made film. It's the acting, strangely enough, that I enjoyed most. I don't often say that about these films. Deodato made good use of York, Pleasence, and the lovely Edwidge Fenech, whose real voice can be heard here. I found this to be one of the better Italian-made thrillers to come out of late 80s.
During a seance, archaeologist/occult enthusiast Liza Harris (Meg Register) has a vision of 5 nuns being crucified by a mob of torch-bearing villagers in a crypt. When she reports it to her contemporary, Paul Evans (Brett Halsey, of Fulci's "Touch of Death" notoriety) he dismisses it as hocus-pocus and chastises her for such silliness. Shortly after, they and a group of fellow Canadian archaeologists travel to Sicily, where they are currently digging around some ancient Greek ruins. Upon arrival, they are greeted by one of the locals who warns them that the other townsfolk are less than keen on the idea of having anyone poking about the ruins, what with there being a cursed medieval nunnery nearby and all. He warns them of the possibility that the villagers might even kill to keep the dead in their place, but this does little to deter the crew.
In a sort of daze, Liza wanders over to the monastery and starts poking around. An imperfection in one of the murals leads her to start hammering away at the wall (like a true archaeologist would) and behind it she discovers the crypt from her vision, complete with the corpses of crucified nuns. As she sleeps that night she dreams of Paul trying to warn her to stay away from the crypt, but she tells him she can't. Methinks she be possessed.
Either intrigued or bored (or possessed!), she goes to the local library to do some research into the history of the site, but finds the records missing. There she encounters a mysterious older woman who tells her what's missing from the books: in 1486, five nuns entered into a covenant with Satan and sacrificed an infant. The villagers caught on, dragged the nuns down into the crypt, killed them, and sealed their bodies away from the world. Liza's was no chance discovery; she's come back to finish what the nuns started. See? Told you she was possessed!
Besides the fact that Demonia looks like it was shot on tape, it's not as bad as I anticipated upon looking at the DVD cover. In true Fulci fashion, it's incredibly slow-paced, often cheesy, and delightfully gory. People get ripped in two (up the middle!), impaled on beds of spikes, harpooned, and mutilated by angry cats. And so forth. Bless you, Lucio. Keeping in style with his later films, the ol' soft focus lens is frequently put to use. Brett Halsey aside, Italo horror connoisseurs will recognize actors Al Cliver (Zombie, The Beyond) and Lino Salemme (Demons, Demons 2). Again, Fulci makes an appearance in his own film, as a police inspector.
Demonia does have it's share of shortcomings, make no mistake. It's one of Lucio's most derivative efforts, with scenes recycled from his previous gems, City of the Living Dead (the seance and fainting thereafter), The Beyond (crucified corpses), Manhattan Baby (the spike trap in the crypt) and The Psychic (hammering through the wall - though in this instance it looks as though he ripped it off of Dario Argento's Deep Red). As previously mentioned, the sluggish pace gets annoying at times. At least 40 minutes' worth of unnecessary dialogue and Liza wandering about in a daze could have been trimmed. Some of this excess footage actually provides unintended laughs. While Liza lies in her tent, trying to sleep, the rest of her team sing an irritating Irish song by the campfire. She and I must be on the same level, because as the song goes on her facial expression progresses from annoyed to angry to "I KILL YOU!!" Then they start up ANOTHER song and she looks absolutely...horrified. Laughed. My. Ass. Off. I wasn't crazy about Demonia but I've seen much, much worse.
Fall and Winter seem to have slipped right past, perhaps because I've been having ever so much fun trying to eke out a living in wonderful (and wonderfully expensive) Vancouver. Rest assured, I am still alive (though my soul has grown more greasy and ravaged over the months) and will resume posting sarcasm-laden reviews just as soon as I can. GG82
Dear gawd, when will the Fragasso reviews end? Soon, I assure you, very soon. But until then, beware: they will pop up when least expected, much like the Goblins' materializing out of nowhere in Troll 2, and just as devastatingly.
Father George (Michael Brandon) oversees the excution of a witch who murdered many children to provide innocent souls for Satan. However, the witch refuses to rest in peace, and torments not only George (who becomes an alcoholic pretty damn quick after the execution), but Father Peter (Gene LeBrock), his wife Annie (Barbara Bingham) and their children Martin and Carol (Martin is played by the same kid from Troll 2!) who moved into her house. Soon, almost randomly, the black-garbed, bloody-faced souls of the damned come for their children. They survive the first assault with some divine intervention, but rather than, say... MOVE AWAY, they do the smart thing and decide to stay in the house. Guess what happens next?
There's a few parallels between this film and Troll 2, which were likely made back-to-back. First, we have Joshua/ Martin. Then the soundtrack by Carlo Maria Cordio. In fact, it's the same soundtrack used in fellow Filmirage productions Troll 2, Witchery, etc. The makeup in Beyond Darkness is notably better than the crummy masks used in Troll 2, but the special effects are basically the same: wind, dry ice, and bright backlighting. I might mention that the acting here is much more believable, though the expected bad dialogue and derivative story ruin any chance Fragasso had of making a decent B movie. They seriously borrowed (aka ripped off) not only The Exorcist, but Poltergeist, The Fog, and The Beyond. I'm sure there's a couple of titles that I've missed, but you get the idea. What's most tragic is that there are a couple of spooky moments in the film, but they're never properly explored. Beyond Darkness is frightfully cheesy, but not in an enjoyable kind of way.
I feel I have to somehow justify the hours, nay, years I've spent watching some of the best, worst, and most unique horror and thriller movies ever made. I hope casual browsers might just catch on, and that experienced Italian horror fans might come across new and unheard-of titles to track down. If nothing else, please enjoy the pretty (and occasionally frightening) pictures.