As a young pup living in small town New Jersey we seemed to have one thing that was quite plentiful, video stores. Not Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Not West Coast Video (although all of these were present in their own circle of Hell). We had really honest to goodness video stores that were owned by your mama and your papa. They smelled dank like old cardboard meets over-air-conditioned meets soggy carpet. They stocked VHS. We didn’t even know what a DVD was or that CD like video media existed because our dear old ma and pop shop kept us in the dark (as well they should have). Tape boxes upon tape boxes filled with Styrofoam, taking up walls upon walls of four by seven slots. Behind them or behind the counter or with receipt of a little silvered coin with a number on it, lay the secrets of every movie Blockbuster didn’t want you to view. We’re talking everything from Slaughterhouse to Maniac from Traces of Death to Blood Feast.
And this is where our tale truly starts to show some form. Strictly Video circa 1992. The lawn mowing money had finally come through and I was dropped off in Hackettstown to rent my monthly cavalcade of horror classics, B-movie adventures and the worst of the worst exploitation fests (they had the most in the way of gore and boobs… who could ask for anything more). On this fateful day we find a boy and his movie collection. Strictly Video had a box of 99 cent films, Movies to be rented for a whopping 99 cents per day per movie. Instead of Styrofoam inserts, these movies were folded down and place in a file that one could go through, flipping through movies. We’re talking about some of the movies that simply would not rent anymore or seemed like good rental opportunities when they were released but now, not so much. I never really made it beyond this section of Strictly Video, and, on this day, found 7 Doors of Death.
Why is this movie so relevant that I remember the day I first picked it from the file of moldy movie boxes? Because it was my very first Italian horror movie. I didn’t know that I was about to watch an Italian horror flick (or Italian American as this is the modified version of The Beyond truly was). I thought the cover art looked bitchin’. It was like a Tales from the Crypt, EC Comic cover, the stars of the film in little side bar bubbles; the walking dead “host” on the right hand side, oozing. One dollar (we’re rounding here)? Sure! It’s like buying a comic book and a movie in one, right?
Get home from Strictly Video, Video Plus, Long Valley Video, 5 Star Video because before the internet you couldn’t just order movies from DiabolikDVD or ask Netflix to do your research for you. I’d go to any of five different, independently run video stores to create movie marathons that were more like amateur classes in horror cinema. I hold this movie in its black case. Big bulky plastic (they kept the cover at the video store). VCR in front of me. Calling me… The television screen flickers with the FBI warning, the tracking adjusts (auto-tracking… wow!)… the smell of Ozone… Ok now this is just over dramatization.
Movie goes in the VCR… and… IT’S LOUSIANA! 1927! Before the Great Depression and alcohol was not so legal in these here United States. We see a shaky screen shot of a spooky house. We see a bunch of people… in boats… in slow motion… crossing some body of water… with torches. What’s that? Some guy is getting dragged from his hotel room and there are chains and angry villagers? Is this Frankenstein?
“Hey let’s nail this guy to wall of the basement of this hotel.”
“Ok George. I mean he does have Satan’s diary sitting in this lap”.
“He deserves to burn in hell as do all the book readers in this film”.
“He’s an ungodly warlock. Hey, I think I like that. I’m going to yell that at him when we finally break down his door”.
And then it starts… the opening credits. The syncopated ever increasing in pitch and seemingly in volume collection of notes. These are the Synthetic, early 80’s pop sounds of suspense that Hitchcock could only dream of for Psycho. I mean before these credits open up the 7 Doors… all we have are the delicate sounds of thunder (and that’s Pink Floyd album). We have the sound of oars in the water. We have... a man… PAINTING! Then we have… SYNTH POP EIGHTIES DANCE PARTY and Michael Jackson’s Thriller and too much horror for two ears to handle. Never mind that they started off crossing some body of water in boats and now have old model T cars parked out front of this mysterious looking burnt sienna hotel. Now we have “seven dreaded gateways concealed in seven cursed places” and Aquanet to worry about all in one sitting.
All I can say is that the original score for this movie was as brilliant as any Goblin sing along you can imagine. Fulci never disappoints with a good score, but somehow in the American release, 7 Doors of Death, the score was modified. Do Americans not like to dance while being scared? Is the MUSIC too graphic for our delicate colonial ears? I have a confession to make here. I watched nothing but the 7 Doors of Death release of this picture on VHS for years until, finally, all the mom and pop video stores were gone or were left in remnants. Our humble home lost its VCR. No more tracking to adjust (or have adjusted automatically). No more setting the VCR to record the Headbanger’s Ball. No more late night movie piracy sessions, copying one VHS to another and then realizing that, gasp, the movie was copyright protected. I could no longer watch my beloved tape cassettes that I managed to purchase from Strictly Video for fifteen American dollars, the steal of a century.
But what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a movie so subtly different that I feel as though I never truly saw a Fulci picture before. I always focus on the music with this one. When anyone asks me about my favorite horror picture I start to tell them about 7 Doors of Death and how the music was so strange and surreal. I tell them about the Tarantula scene and the autopsy room scene and the end scene and the acting and the basement flooding and the guy falling off the scaffolding and the woman on the bridge in the midst of an endless world of fog and that a bunch of zombie like creatures come to attack her and she gets her neck ripped out by her very own dog (oh my). When someone asks about my favorite horror movie I tell them that in true run on sentence fashion because my mind simply cannot contain all of that into a large enough space to not blurt it all out. Like a kid with a secret I tell them about it. Just listen to the Europe song “Seven Doors Hotel”. Those guys know what I’m talking about here.
Upon watching The Beyond (not 7 Doors of Death), all of that changed a little. The movie became more sophisticated. Less Herschel Gordon Lewis and a bit more Fellini. I’m talking about the art picture that Fulci intended it to be versus the distributors mass market zombie obsession (let me iterate here that I have no problem with that obsession and share it). Previously cut scenes are restored. The movie is less, choppy. The music plays on your ears in The Beyond like ”Il Cielo in Una Stanza" as recorded by Mina. It’s dreamlike compared to the caustic soundtrack American audiences had heard for years and exemplifies the difference between American cinema and Italian cine. I mean, over and over again the same synth notes… a rising scale of synth notes for every scene in the movie. A tide of synth notes, cold and dull… and then there was music everywhere. The veritable hills were alive with the sound of music in those golden moments post-viewing, running red with blood but still very much alive.
I don’t think that the Gateway to Hell can be opened for everyone in the same way. For me it was VHS tape, a VCR, some bad dubbing, and every tool in Fulci’s tool box thrown at me simultaneously. I still drive down main street where Strictly Video once was and exists as a comic shop with a poor selection of DVD’s and no 99 cent selections. I think of all the VHS I bought from the proprietor of said video store. Silent Night Deadly Night. The Haunting of Julia. 7 Doors of Death. Shortly after I saw 7 Doors for the first time I rented Suspiria and Creepers (that’s Phenomenon for you young folks). Argento danced his vivid Italian terrors upon my eyes and ears, but like your first lover, Fulci cannot be surpassed and neither can 7 Doors of Death in all its edited, Americanized glory.
-Your local mom and pop terror doctor (Dr. J.T)
You can check out the Dr.'s blog here