Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Door Into Silence

Door Into Silence (1991)
Dir and written by Lucio Fulci (as “H. Simon Kittay” and “Jerry Madison” respectively)
Starring John Savage, Sandi Schultz

There are a surprisingly amount of films by Lucio Fulci (THE BEYOND, ZOMBI 2, THE NEW YORK RIPPER) that I haven’t seen, and there’s a very good reason for that. At his peak, he was making what I consider to be the perfect Italian horror films, which is to say they hit that exact sweet point between hilariously abject terribleness and great cinematic art, resulting in a potent, nightmarish combination of nonsensical plotting, anti-acting and genuinely effective horror imagery. Unfortunately, towards the end of his career in the late 80’s and early 90’s, he seems to have started neglecting the “great cinematic art” part of that equation and focusing on the “hilarious abject terribleness” aspect more and more, resulting in a series of films which are, by all accounts, close to completely unwatchable. But desperate times, etc, etc, bad decisions, alcoholism, etc, and here I am, watching his very last film as a director. From 1991, which is way too late to expect anything but despair from any Italian film, let alone one from a director who even hardcore horror fans would probably agree hadn’t made a worthwhile film since nearly a decade before.

The result is somewhat surprising: DOOR INTO SILENCE is not what I expected at all. In fact, it’s simultaneously more and less interesting than I assumed. Less interesting because the one thing you can usually count on from Fulci -- elaborate, over-the-top tasteless gore scenes and horror set pieces-- are conspicuously missing. But more interesting because despite a pretty tired premise, Fulci seems to be trying harder than I would have guessed by this point in his career, and for something a little more offbeat. The film is shot on location in Louisiana, and even with what one would assume is virtually no budget at all, Fulci seems determined to wring some atmosphere and style out of the proceedings, which is something that he only ever seemed sporadically interested in before.

The “story” such as it is, involves Melvin Devereux (John Savage, a career which includes everything from THE DEER HUNTER and THE NEW WORLD to ALIEN LOCKDOWN and CARNOSAUR 2, putting DOOR INTO SILENCE squarely in the middle), some rich asshole who has just attended a New Orleans funeral and subsequently drifts around having strange, surreal encounters with a hostile hearse driver (Richard Castleman, who acted only in this but went on to a subsequent career as a location scout) and a mysterious, beautiful woman (Sandi Schultz, STAGE FRIGHT, and later Mrs. John Savage, awww). Gee, can you guess where this is going? Of course you can, because this is obviously yet another version of a tale which goes back at least to Ambrose Bierce’s 1980 story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, and is probably most famously depicted on-screen in either the classic 1960 Twilight Zone episode The Hitch-Hiker or the classic 1962 indie film CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

I do not consider it a spoiler to reveal this fact to you, because if you’ve ever seen a movie before you’ll probably figure it out in the first two minutes of runtime, and the movie itself seems to pretty openly acknowledge that you know what’s going on by at least the halfway point, though it politely pretends the ending is a huge shocking twist anyway. But forget the premise, the fun here is watching Fulci stage odd, surreal little vignettes in ghostly Louisiana cemeteries, churches, dive bars and fortune tellers’ parlours. I’ll admit it, there’s nothing like the Southern Gothic aesthetic to get me in that dreamy, uncanny haze, which is exactly what you want for this kind of shenanigan. It’s also all you get; for better or for worse, this is a vibe movie, one which either sucks you into its otherworldly atmosphere, or is going to put you to sleep almost immediately.

For me, though, it worked, particularly at a reasonably sleek 87 minutes. At times the punishingly limited budget shows (they repeat the same exact fucking shots of a not-especially-elaborate car chase --no joke-- about five times, often right after we just fucking saw it) but mostly there’s no need for a lot of bells and whistles. Fulci, who I usually associate with fairly indifferent cinematography, actually sets up some subtly nice-looking shots here and gets most of his impact out of his staging and editing, to the movie’s great benefit. Unlike most of his efforts in the previous decade, this generally looks and feels like a real movie, as though someone took the time to set up the camera framing and edit it together with the goal of having people see it. That may seem like faint praise, but it’s really all that’s required for the story on hand, and it gets the job done with something hovering between competence and elegance, which is already vastly more than I had expected from a 1991 Fulci movie.

That having been said, there are a couple odd and quintessentially Italian moments peppered through here to make sure it’s never entirely predictable. In one, Devereux (since he shares a surname with Van Damme’s character from UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, I’m going to go ahead and assume they’re brothers or something and part of a shared cinematic universe), obsessed with learning the identity of the quiet cargo of the mystery hearse (hint, hint) crashes a funeral at a tiny roadside church and rips open the casket. Only, it turns out to be an all-black church, and the parishioners do not take kindly to this crazed white man running in and disrupting everything. Now, I think history proves that Italians don’t really understand American racism, but they at least get that it’s a thing, and Fulci correctly realizes that the added (but unspoken) racial antagonism is going to make this scene more intense, and, with the intense, feverish photography, maybe even a little great. Another great scene works because it suddenly takes an unexpected turn: as the situation gets increasingly nightmarish and surreal, Devereux gets into a physical fight with the hearse driver and rips open the coffin to see a grotesquely burned figure. This is a bizarre moment which is clearly not meant to be taken literally… and then they cut to the next scene of Devereux in front of a judge. He’s been arrested and fined $500! The odd dissonance of the dream logic suddenly giving way to something so mundane and normal is both funny and disconcerting, similar (though obviously not as good) as the turn CANDYMAN takes at a crucial moment (you know the one).

Sequences like those two help DOOR INTO SILENCE stay lively enough to keep your attention, but obviously it’s not going to be a movie for everyone. All I can say is it actually did work for me; even knowing the labored “twist” almost immediately, the patient oddness of the film and its subtle, distinctly Italian atmosphere adds up to a elegantly creepy, quietly entrancing experience. Producer Joe D’Amato supposedly* called it “the best film I ever produced,” which is a phrase loaded with such disastrously low expectations that it barely has any meaning, but he might actually be right. While it’s nowhere near the top of Fulci’s filmography, it’s an interesting an unexpected grace note to an inconsistent but sporadically masterful career,

*Wikipedia lists this claim and even has a citation, except that the linked page is a broken link to a website with the title “The Project With Nude Milfs,” which I have no trouble at all believing is an official Joe D’Amato property but which offers scant confirmation for this claim.

Good Kill Hunting

None apparent.
I guess it makes some sort of poetic sense
Italy, but shot in America
Psychological horror, Mindfucks, Surreal horror
Lucio Fulci
Yes, a little bit in a completely extraneous sequence with a frisky hitchhiker
If you’ve gotta ask who’s in the mysterious coffin, it’s probably you, ya knucklehead.

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