Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Until Death

Until Death (1987) aka The Changeling II.
Dr. Lamberto Bava
Written by Dardano Sacchetti, Lamberto Bava
Starring Gioia Scola, David Brandon, Urbano Barbarini

UNTIL DEATH is a much better movie than you would think it would be. No, seriously! It is! I know the phrase “directed by Lamberto Bava” doesn’t inspire much confidence. Hell, “directed by Mario Bava” (his father, a giant of genre cinema with an impressively checkered career oscillating between the sublime and the pathetic) is still pretty much betting against the odds. I know we all love DEMONS and to some extent DEMONS 2, which pretty much hit the exact sweet spot for Italian horror movies, being in equal measures almost unbelievably incompetent and also consistently, thoroughly amazing. But it would hardly be the first accidental masterpiece Italy gave us, and having directed GHOST SON (a movie which makes even Pete Postlewaite boring, a feat I would have deemed unimaginable before watching it) is a pretty convincing repudiation of any claims that DEMONS was great because of the inherent talent of its director. So UNTIL DEATH has a lot of things working against it. First of all, it was one of fucking five films Lamberto Bava directed which were released in 1987, which is starting to get up toward Joe D’Amato numbers. Not a good sign. Second, 1987 is pretty late for a good Italian horror movie by anyone. By this time, the giallo cycle was pretty much in freefall, and budgets and production talent were in decline. Though icons like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were still active, their best days were already well behind them. And Bava, who began his career co-directing SHOCK with his father in 1977, never exactly had any “best days.”

But worse than all that, UNTIL DEATH is a made-for-TV movie. So no tits, no gore. Not even any salty language! If I’d known that before watching, I probably wouldn’t even have bothered.

Fortunately, by the point UNTIL DEAD crossed my path, I was so deep into horror movie hell that I was just resignedly watching whatever happened to be in front of my eyeballs at the moment. And as luck would have it, my suicidal passivity in film selection paid off this time, because this crafty little Hitchcock riff managed to surprise me. Even with the serious handicap of being unable to really indulge in an appropriate amount of exploitation goodies, it manages to be as gripping and perverse as you could possibly hope with this premise.

Ah, the premise. The premise is probably the most famous part of the film, not because of the story itself, but because of the behind-the-scenes chaos it caused. The script is credited to Dardano Sacchetti (legendary screenwriter who co-wrote BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEMONS, BAY OF BLOOD, and Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, THE BEYOND, and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, among many others), but was originally developed to be directed by Lucio Fulci. When the project fell through and the script ended up being directed by Bava, however, Fulci accused Sacchetti of stealing his idea, acrimoniously and publically ending the relationship between the two men. Fulci maintained to his death that Sacchetti had ripped off his concept and failed to properly credit him; Sacchetti, for his part, agrees that they had originally planned to make the film together, but called Fulci’s claim that he has stolen his idea “pure science fiction” (not sure where the “science” part comes from, but who am I to tell the co-writer of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD his business?).

And what was this brilliant high-concept idea that drove two giants of the Italian film industry apart over a modest made-for-TV horror film? Why, I'll tell you! It was, “What if we made THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but with ghosts?”

Seems like actually neither of them came up with the idea, they just lifted it wholesale from James M. Cain and then added a ghost. They’re both so open about their brazen highway robbery that it’s hard to believe either of them feels especially entitled to claim their irreplaceable artistic imagination was pilfered, but oh well, it is a good idea. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is great, and hey, I like ghosts.

This particular version of THE POSTMAN (ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, not the beloved 1997 Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic epic) does one thing to distinguish itself from the source material. Besides add a ghost, I mean. It starts after the (spoilers for POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE) murder has already occurred, and slowly lets the audience figure out how things have gotten to this point. But since you already know the story, I feel safe telling you that Linda (Gloria Scola, RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS aka ATLANTIS INFERNO) is a beautiful restaurateur / innkeeper with a young son by her previous husband, who disappeared mysteriously not too long after handsome drifter Carlo (David Brandon, STAGEFRIGHT, the recent NEVERLAKE) showed up in town. Now they’re living together in relative happiness, until a mysterious stranger (Urbano Barberini, DEMONS, CASINO ROYAL[!?]) shows up with a desire to stay at the inn and a somewhat rattling knowledge of the dead husband’s life. Uh oh.

The biggest surprise here is that the drama is surprisingly competent, considering the genre and the source. The protagonists feel more like complicated, fully realized humans than is typical for a horror film, and particularly an Italian one from 1987. They’re both assholes and murderers, but they’re not complete monsters, either; their relationship is somewhat strained by the things they’ve done, but there’s a certain affection-by-necessity between them. Their flaws feel like legitimate characterization, rather than simple fodder for a morality play about why they should be punished. If you’re never allowed to exactly like them, you certainly can relate to their desperation, their repressed guilt, their uncertainty about the treacherous path they’ve stumbled onto.

As benefits a movie which places so much emphasis on its characters, the cast is quite strong. Carlo is a pretty irredeemable asshole of a character, but Brandon makes him compelling enough that even though he deserves what he gets, there’s still some conflict. We certainly don’t side with him, but we’re not so repulsed that we don’t care what happens to him. Scola is also real solid;  beautiful, of course --this is an Italian film, after all-- but not so pristinely glamorous that she isn’t completely convincing as a burnt-out young mother who has spent most of her life working long, unglamorous hours on her feet as a small-town waitress, flirting with lewd, drunk old working men to just barely scrape by. She has a diffuse desperation to her, the unstated terror of a woman just barely on the cusp of being too old to pretend that life could still get better, but too young to have entirely given up her dreams of a fairytale ending. Carlo was supposed to be that fairytale ending, and she threw away her moral center to be with him -- but now it’s years later, and he doesn’t inspire hope or passion anymore, he’s just a grouchy guy in an undershirt sweating over a stove all day. She still pines for something more, but she’s trapped by her past and frustrated by her lack of future. It’s a thorny domestic situation already, held together by their mutual guilt more than anything else -- and that’s before our mysterious stranger begins stirring up the past again. Like all horror and noir, it’s hardly realism, but it has a rich internal logic which feels legitimate and emotionally true.

That’s a crucial ingredient, because UNTIL DEATH isn’t heavy on meat-and-potatoes horror; it’s closer to tightening-noose thriller with a light dusting of supernatural ephemera. But fortunately the strong characterization and the sharp direction is more than enough to keep it gripping. And, even if it’s not exactly a non-stop gorefest, there’s a surprising amount of punch here. For a Made-For-TV film it doesn’t seem to be holding much back; it looks great, for one thing, with DEMONS cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia making excellent use of sharp angles, deep shadows, and startling, vivid colors (particularly in a few presumably color-graded skies, which have a tendency to turn blood red when the mood calls for it). And while the story doesn’t call for buckets of blood, there’s plenty of agreeably disgusting effects (Linda’s son has recurring dreams that his dad returns as a slimy zombie!), the highlight being a thoroughly repugnant scene where our heroes frantically search a putrefied, maggot-ridden six-year-old corpse for a missing earring.* Hitchcock never thought to do that one. In fact, the closest comparison is probably the mud-choked grave-robbing climax of DRAG ME TO HELL. And I consider it a pretty high compliment to compare a film to Hitchcock and Sam Raimi in the same breath. UNTIL DEATH sports the hardboiled class of its noir roots, but at least dabbles in imaginative perversity of late-80’s Italian horror (there’s a particularly awesome makeup effect at the end with a literal two-faced man), and the combination is surprisingly --or, maybe predictably?-- intoxicating.

Nice to see a movie capable of a handsome shot like this...
But also completely happy to play this game, too.

Bottom line, UNTIL DEATH is, against all odds, a thoroughly entertaining ride. It’s a perfect example of taking an elegantly minimal premise and using strong acting, deft atmosphere, and an occasional jolt of gooey horror to ratchet the tension and paranoia higher and higher. An excellent score by Simon Boswell (PHENOMENA, SANTA SANGRE, THE CRYING GAME, before his career apparently deteriorated to the point of scoring internet-only Tara Reid movies) seals the deal. It’s too bad this story had to end Fulci and Sarchetti’s relationship, but honestly, I’m not really sure Fulci even had it in him to make this kind of character-based potboiler by this point in his career. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine him improving much on Bava’s work here. Maybe I’ve been underestimating the guy, just like I did with his dad.

He followed this one up with three more made-for-TV horror movies (all under the banner Brivido Giallo), the other ones being GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE, DINNER WITH A VAMPIRE, and THE OGRE. Having been surprised and impressed by this one, I’m looking forward to being surprised and disappointed by all those. Ironically, I would imagine most people who saw this film upon its initial US video release were plenty surprised and disappointed, because it was inexplicably released under the title THE CHANGELING 2, presumably in the hopes of cashing in on the legions (?) of fans (?) demanding a sequel to Peter Medak’s 1980 haunted house film. Needless to say, it has nothing whatseover in common with that one, save for an unusually simple premise bolstered by strong cinematic fundamentals. But it turns out that in both those films, those two things go a long way.

*Jeez man, apparently Italian TV is pretty hardcore.

Play it Again, Samhain

None apparent
Though uncredited, both writer and its original intended director are pretty frank that this is just a supernatural spin on James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice
Billed as a sequel to THE CHANGELING (1980), (sometimes even with the hilariously inappropriate subtitle “The Revenge!) but it ain’t.
None, unless you want to count of the movie version of POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (huh, just realized the acronym would be PART, should have used that in the review)
Lamberto Bava, I guess. Dardano Sacchetti probably counts, too.
None, made for TV
Don’t think so.
Some good zombie action, but no blood.
There’s the nifty two-face scene at the end
Pretty high -- made for Italian TV
If you and a friend both come up with the idea of ripping off a classic noir and adding a ghost, it’s definitely worth being bitter about whose idea it really was all the way to the grave.
Well, “Until Death” makes a lot of sense. “The Changeling 2: The Revenge” is outright dishonesty. Say 50%.


  1. If I recall correctly, The Ogre (aka Demons 3: The Ogre) has the heroine briefly show her breasts, so 80's Italian TV might not fuck around as much as you might think

  2. I should have guessed that Italy's TV would be more hardcore than ours. (as long as you don't have anything negative to say about the Pope, I assume)