Sunday, May 13, 2012

How I Learned To Love Italian Horror Movies

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”.

Suddenly, this guys getting crucified in the basement.  What looks like hot lye is getting dumped on his skin. He starts to  melt. Melt… Has anyone actually seen what happens to flesh when boiling  lye gets dumped on it? Do we really melt like little green army toys  under a magnifying glass?

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.

Enter, the modern age.  There should be music  here. Something like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but creepier, less Firework  worthy.  Christmas hops along this year, and in my  stocking I receive THE BEYOND. L’Aldila. The Fuller classic of my youth  (yes, Fulci is credited as Fuller in 7 Doors of Death).  I  put it in my collection and breathe a sigh of relief. I mean if the  movie that got you into Fulci and Argento and Bava and Deodato and  Giallo was not in your collection… if the movie that was not just the  Gateway to Hell but was the gateway to Goblin and movies that didn’t  make sense but were visually stunning… if this movie was not in your  collection you would be like a kid without a Big Wheel. Nothing would  seem complete.  So the horror library has one of its  cherished members present  and while nowhere near complete  feels a bit more respectable.

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


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