31 Days of Fright: The Stepfather

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The penultimate movie in my January screenings is The Stepfather, directed by Joseph Ruben (Breaking Away, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Good Son). This was the final “free space” film of the viewings, and one I watched mainly due to the presence of one of my favourite character actors, Terry O’Quinn (John Locke himself!). The Stepfather was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

Much like It Follows, The Stepfather opens on a suburban American street, though with much larger houses than that other film. A bearded man in a washroom removes his glasses and bloodstained clothing, stripping down naked. After showering, he shaves and puts in new contacts, then puts on a nice suit. As he appraises himself in the mirror, the man is revealed to be actor Terry O’Quinn. Leaving the washroom, he places a child’s toy into the proper storage box, then walks downstairs past a scene of utter carnage in the front room. An entire family has been murdered – even a little child with a teddy bear is drenched in blood. The man opens the front door, picks up the morning newspaper, and strolls whistling down the street. He boards a ferry and as soon as it enters open waters, he shoves his suitcase into the drink.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

The film moves forward one year. In Oakridge, Washington, sixteen-year-old Stephanie Main (Jill Schoelen) bikes her way back to her large house. In the backyard, her mother, Susan (Shelley Hack), has been raking leaves. The two of them playfully engage in a leaf fight until Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) arrives home. Jerry is Stephanie’s new stepfather (hey, that’s the name of this film!), and he greets his wife with a big sloppy kiss. He also has a surprise for Stephanie: he’s bought her a puppy. As Stephanie scratches the new dog behind his ears, Jerry pets the girl’s arm, saying, “That’s my girl.” Stephanie blanches and backs away. (I’m right there with you, Steph.)

Once Stephanie runs inside, Jerry worries aloud to Susan that Stephanie might think he’s trying to buy her love with the puppy. Susan reassures him that’s not the case. “The puppy was perfect,” she says. “You’re perfect.” Stephanie, wearing a sheep-patterned sweater, visits her therapist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), while Jerry Blake leans against his car in the parking lot outside. Pacing the room like a caged jaguar, Stephanie expresses her baseless (?) fears of her new stepfather. Dr. Bondurant worries because Stephanie has been acting out in school ever since her biological father died a year ago. She’s racked up a number of suspensions in just a short amount of time. During the car ride home, Jerry suggests to his stepdaughter that they both make an effort to try to get along better, and that she make an effort to do better in school. As soon as she agrees, the film cuts to Stephanie and another girl battling each other in art class. The other students jeer until a teacher breaks up the fight and sends Stephanie to the principal’s office.

We next see Jerry Blake on the job with American Eagle Realty. He shows a house to a couple with a young daughter. Jerry pushes the girl on the swing set in the backyard and tells her about his “daughter,” Stephanie, who goes to high school. When the girl says she’s in the third grade, Jerry muses, “I remember when Jill was in third grade,” and the girl catches his inconsistency. Jerry later arrives home to find Stephanie (not Jill) has been expelled from school. At first, he’s in disbelief – “Girls don’t get expelled.” – but then he’s disappointed. Stephanie suggests that boarding school is an option, but Jerry won’t hear of it. He believes boarding school would divide the family: “It’s not a family without children.” Later on, Stephanie speaks with her friend Karen (Robyn Stevan) on the phone and describes her stepfather, “Scary Jerry,” and his obsession with being like the perfect families you see on television. (Interestingly enough, we next see Jerry enjoying an episode of Mr. Ed.) Susan enters and she and her daughter have a heart-to-heart about the loss of her dad. She pleads for Stephanie to give Jerry “a chance.”

Susan retires to her bedroom, where she and Jerry promptly get down to business. Sex business. Stephanie, in the next room, puts on her headphones, cranks the Pat Benatar (or reasonable facsimile), and sighs heavily. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen) drives reporter Al Brennan (Stephen E. Miller) in his old jalopy to the house where we saw Jerry Blake murder an entire family in the film’s introduction. Though according to Ogilvie, a “Mr. Morrison” murdered his whole family in this house. Brennan wrote the story a year ago for the Seattle Examiner. Jim Ogilvie reveals that Mrs. Morrison, the murdered wife, was his sister, and he is on the hunt for her murderous husband. Ogilvie has some evidence that Morrison couldn’t have moved too far away from Seattle, so he asks Brennan to run a follow-up story one year later, along with a photo of Morrison, in the hopes a Seattle Examiner reader will recognize him.

"I'm going to miss you gals when you're dead." "Wait, what?"

“I’m going to miss you gals when you’re dead.” “Wait, what?”

Jerry Blake hosts a backyard barbecue for the first five families he sold houses to in Oakridge. Jerry makes.an impassioned speech about the importance of tradition and family, and poses for a photo op with his wife and stepdaughter – an awkward moment that Stephanie can’t escape fast enough. Later, the assembled dads read a newspaper article about the Morrison murders (though it features no photograph of the killer). Blake plays dumb, asking what the murders were about, and the dads fill him in on a stepfather who butchered his entire family with knives. Jerry seems deeply affected by this news, but also concludes that “maybe they disappointed him.” (So he’s not 100% nailing this “not a murderer” act.) He takes the newspaper and folds it into a pirate hat for a neighbourhood kid. Stephanie, in the basement to find some ice cream, is startled when Jerry storms downstairs for a rage freakout, shouting “We are going to keep this family together!” When he notices his stepdaughter, Jerry explains that as a salesman he builds up a lot of stress and occasionally needs to let off some steam. (Seems reasonable.)

Post-party, Stephanie finds the discarded newspaper hat and begins to wonder if family-slayer Mr. Morrison is the same person as her unusually angry stepfather. She presents this idea to Karen, who is very dismissive. Nevertheless, Stephanie sends a letter to the Seattle Examiner requesting a photo of the murderous Morrison, as she is doing a social studies project on mass murderers. (We all remember that social studies unit.) < /p>

Speaking of photographs, Ogilvie is very upset that Brennan didn’t run one with his article. He finds Brennan and throws him up against the hood of his car. Brennan explains that, as a reporter, including the photo wasn’t his decision. Ogilvie plans his next move, obsessed with finding his sister’s killer – he’s a bit like Fox Mulder in that regard – and Brennan advises him to forget it. Ogilvie can’t forget, though: “You saw what he did them. Could you?” Stephanie floats the idea of boarding school by her therapist, who thinks it’s a fairly good idea. “What’s wrong with running away?” Bondurant asks. He thinks it will provide her and her family some much-needed breathing room. Stephanie, now clad in a unicorn / checkerboard shirt, notes that Jerry opposes the boarding school idea, so Dr. Bondurant offers to speak to him to try to persuade him otherwise. Jerry, meanwhile, has just opened the mailbox to find a letter for Stephanie Main with the Seattle Examiner as return address. He opens the letter to see a glossy headshot of himself (with full beard).

When Stephanie arrives at home, Jerry only passes her the new issue of Cosmopolitan and says nothing of the letter from the Examiner. However, all is not well. Jerry moves to his basement workshop – where he works on crafting birdhouses – and paces the room frantically while examining the photograph and mumbling about his “good little girl.” He picks up a screwdriver and knife from his tool bench, stabbing invisible enemies in mime. Only his wife’s call for dinner seems to snap him back into character as family man, Jerry Blake. The telephone rings and Susan answers. She calls down for Jerry, saying that Stephanie’s therapist wants to speak to him, but Jerry refuses to take the phone.

Back in Seattle, Ogilvie meets with Lt. Wall (Blu Mankuma) of the police and asks him about Henry Morrison. The detective confirms that Morrison was just an alias, and that he suspects the killer will strike another family before long. However, Morrison was clever and left no trace of where he might go. Wall further advises Ogilvie that if he were in his situation, he’d “get a gun and blow the sonuvabitch away.” That very sonuvabitch then visits Stephanie’s old principal and – using a bit of the old Jerry Blake charm – convinces her to reinstate Stephanie in public school. Stephanie confesses to her therapist that Jerry scares her, so Dr. Bondurant takes drastic measures. He calls Blake under false pretences, pretending to be a homebuyer seeking to view a house, to set up an in-person meeting.

On her first day back in school, Stephanie is walked home by Paul Baker (Jeff Schultz), who compliments her artistic skills. They joke and wrestle and almost kiss. Clearly some sort of romance is blossoming for young Stephanie. When Stephanie returns home, she finds an envelope from the Seattle Examiner, but the photo inside is someone she’s never seen before. (Namely because Jerry went to a photo studio and replaced the headshot.) Bondurant arrives for “Ray Martin”’s meeting with Jerry Blake, who proceeds to show him a house under renovation. Bondurant, when asked if he’s a family man, says he’s a “confirmed bachelor” (which I don’t think the makers of this film realized was code for gay). This displeases Jerry: “House like this should really have a family in it.” Bondurant also says he’s in “stress management,” then asks Jerry Blake a bunch of questions about himself. Jerry, becoming suspicious, asks, “Are you interested in buying a house or in me?” Soon after, Jerry catches Bondurant in an obvious lie – he refers to his wife, even though he mentioned he was a bachelor – so Jerry beats him to death with a stray two-by-four. Standing over Bondurant’s broken body, he shouts, “We need a little order around here!”

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Jerry goes through the dead man’s wallet and realizes who he really was. Methodically, he wraps him and murder weapon in craft paper, puts him in the trunk of his own car, then drives that car to the edge of a cliff. Jerry puts the dead man behind the wheel of his car, then shoves a makeshift wick into the gas tank. When he drives it off the cliff, the car explodes into flame. Stephanie is hard at work on her bicycle in the garage when Jerry arrives home to deliver the bad news: Dr. Bondurant was in a car accident and has died. “He was my friend,” Stephanie cries. Jerry hugs his stepdaughter and nods. “In his own way, he brought us together.”

Ogilvie returns to the Morrison murder house to search for any clues he may have missed. In a basement workshop eerily similar to the workshop Jerry Blake uses to make birdhouses, Ogilvie finds a copy of Travel & Leisure with several pages cut out. Ogilvie rushes to the public library, barreling through it like he’s on an episode of Supermarket Sweep. He finds the copy of Travel & Leisure with the other periodicals and realizes the missing section is a story on the best towns in America to raise families. One of them is Oakridge, Washington, not that far from Seattle. Jerry, meanwhile, finishes his latest birdhouse, and Stephanie offers to help him erect it in the front yard. She attempts to reconnect, apologizing for the way she’s been acting. Jerry accepts her apology, noting that he had a difficult time growing up, as well, though he refuses to speak further about his mysterious past.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Jerry gets all weepy about how warmly the family has accepted him, and Susan wears an outfit more apropos of the Victorian era than 1987. Stephanie later goes for a few sodas at the local teen hangout. She leaves and her classmate, Paul Baker, rolls up on a moped and offers her a ride home. “Only if I get to drive,” she agrees. On the moped ride he wins over his beloved, mainly by insulting other girls. “Cathy Lombardo is a stuck-up bitch,” he says of his ex-girlfriend. (Who wouldn’t want to date this guy?) On Stephanie’s front step, the two kiss, but are interrupted by one very angry stepdad. “You!” he shouts. “You could go to jail! This girl is sixteen years old!” Baker protests, “So am I!” But Jerry doesn’t care. He claims Baker was attempting to rape Stephanie and scares him off. Susan comes downstairs to see what’s happening, and Stephanie complains to her about Jerry. “He’s not my father,” she shouts. “He’s just some crazy creep. How can you even bear to let him touch you?!” Susan slaps Stephanie, who runs off into the night.

It's a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who's just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

It’s a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who’s just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

However, Susan isn’t happy with Jerry either, and claims that his overprotective actions have damaged any progress she’d made in bonding with her daughter. Something sprigs inside Jerry and his eyes pop manically. The next day, Jerry quits from American Eagle Realty and says his goodbyes to his coworkers. Ogilvie presents his case to a detective in Oakridge, explaining that he merely needs access to marriage licences issued in the past year to find the assumed name a murderer has taken. The detective, believing this to be a cockamamie fabrication, refuses. But the overly handsome Ogilvie is able to charm the clerk, Ms. Barnes (Gillian Barber), into helping him in his quest. A day or so later, Susan drops Stephanie off for an appointment with a new therapist. Stephanie decides she can’t start things over with someone new, and instead sneaks into Bondurant’s unoccupied office. (The two therapists are in the same building.) Stephanie discovers an intriguing message on his desk notepad – one that seems to detail the location and timing of a meeting with “J. Blake.”

Ogilvie begins canvassing Oakridge, going door-to-door to meet all the recent husbands in town to see if they look like his former brother-in-law. Jerry, meanwhile, has boarded another ferry. In the washroom, he removes his contacts, dons new glasses, and takes off his (convincing) hairpiece, revealing male pattern baldness underneath. With his new look, he attends a job interview for insurance sales in Rosedale, Washington, under a new name: Bill Hodgkins.

Jerry (or Bill or Henry or whoever) goes for a little constitutional, during which he spies one of his client families moving into their new home. Seeing an actual happy family, devoid of any murderous tendencies, he looks sorrowful. Ogilvie visits the Blake residence, but Jerry’s not home. Susan mentions he’s out showing homes to clients. Which is not entirely the truth, as Jerry is, in fact, looking at houses in Rosedale, and, as Bill Hodgkins, introducing himself to the local single moms. (He acts fast!) Susan calls into Jerry’s work to let him know someone came calling for him, but American Eagle Realty says that Jerry no longer works there. He quit a few days ago. Ogilvie, meanwhile, visits another couple on his list of newlyweds. Trouble in paradise abounds as the young couple yell at each other, on the verge of a separation. However, they take time out of their domestic quarrel to look at Ogilvie’s photograph of Morrison. They note the beard doesn’t fit, but he looks a lot like the guy who sold them this house.

When Jerry returns home, whistling “Camptown Races,” Susan confronts him: why didn’t he tell her he quit his job? Jerry insists he still works at the realtors, and that the incompetent new receptionist must have been confused. “How hard a name to remember is Hodgkins?” he asks, not realizing he’s jumped one identity ahead. Susan is confused, especially when Jerry seems lost after his mistake, asking himself, “Who am I here?” (A phrase featured prominently on the film poster and on the trailer.) Susan reminds him his name is Jerry Blake, and Jerry thanks her by smashing her across the face with a telephone. Jerry then chokes his bleeding wife and tosses her into the basement. He returns to the kitchen, sorting through the knives, then calls the family dog to him. When Stephanie arrives, he’s playing with the dog on the floor of the kitchen, a large butcher knife in one hand. Hearing his stepdaughter arrive, he growls, “You’re a very bad girl.”

Unaware that her stepfather has shown his true colours, Stephanie takes a shower. Jerry stalks up the stairs toward the washroom. At the very same moment, Ogilvie speeds toward their house in his old beater, waylaid by a nun and Catholic students crossing the road. When he finally arrives, he lets himself in. Jerry is hiding behind the door, and is surprised to see someone he knows from a lifetime ago: his former brother-in-law, Jim Ogilvie. Ogilvie notices Jerry is spattered with blood and reaches for the gun in his pocket, but the stepfather is too quick, and stabs him in the stomach before he can fire. Meanwhile, Stephanie completes her shower and dresses. Jerry finds her in the upstairs hallway, and lunges at her with the knife. She screams and locks herself in the bathroom.

As her stepfather pounds on the door, breaking the mirror hanging on the inside, Stephanie desperately looks for a means of escape. Instead, she picks up a shard of broken mirror with a towel, so when Jerry eventually smashes through the door and mirror, she stabs him in the shoulder and flees. Stephanie makes a break for the attic, but Jerry grabs her ankle and nearly manages to drag her down. But instead, he has to follow her up into the attic. He chases her around, then falls through a weak spot in the floor, plummeting through the insulation and hitting the second floor below.

Stephanie attempts to sneak out of the house, but sees her wounded mom crawling up the stairs. Jerry revives and knocks Stephanie to the ground, but Susan has taken the dead Ogilvie’s gun and shoots her husband the back. He tumbles down the stairs, but staggers back up. Susan shoots him again, in the butt cheek, but still, he crawls to the second floor. At the ledge, he and Stephanie struggle for the butcher knife, but the daughter prevails and stabs her stepfather in the heart. His final words are “I love you.” Following the harrowing ordeal, Stephanie saws down the birdhouse Jerry built, and her mother embraces her. Both women return to the house.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

Takeaway points:

  • The Stepfather is nearly a fairy tale in its grim(m) depiction of evil stepfathers. (Yes, typically evil stepmothers are featured in fairy tales, but I’m sure there must be at least one or two stepfathers in all of European folklore.) Stephanie expresses the fears of many children whose parents remarry – that the new parent will be awful in comparison to her biological father. In this case, she’s completely right: not only is he awful, he’s legitimately homicidal. With divorce rates on a steady incline throughout the 1980s, this would have been a very relevant fear. In fact, the movie itself is loosely based on the story of a man named John List, who killed his family in 1971 and remained on the lam until two years after this movie was released. (Though unlike the stepfather in the film, List was the biological father to three children. Three children whom he killed – along with his wife and mother – then disappeared.)
  • In addition to serving as a realization of millions of stepchildren’s fears of their step-parents, the movie is also a prescient warning that those people who seem like the perfect fathers, the perfect husbands – who quite overtly aim to make that “goodness” their identity – may not be who they seem. I hate to bring up the spectre of Bill Cosby again, but this was a comedian who built a career of being the understanding dad, who – both in his television shows and speaking engagements – called for a return to more traditional values of family and respect. He even dressed somewhat similar to the stepfather in this film. And yet, lurking under the surface was a man capable of (allegedly) raping countless women. A colourful sweater can hide a black heart.
  • Director Joseph Ruben has made quite a name for himself making thrillers that turn intimate violence into riveting entertainment. Not only did he exaggerate a tale of domestic abuse to the nth degree for The Stepfather, he revisited a similar concept in Sleeping with the Enemy, and looked at the idea of an evil child (or brother) in The Good Son. Ruben seems to specialize in exploiting fears we have of our closest family members. Fears that crime statistics demonstrate are not unfounded. Ruben takes the very real violence between loved ones and ramps it up into potboiler thrillers.
  • The Stepfather improbably spawned two sequels, and while only one of them features Terry O’Quinn, both of them feature the same stepfather character, who somehow survived being shot twice and stabbed in the heart to torment other unsuspecting families in the later movies. His will to create a perfect, Father Knows Best family is stronger than mortal wounds.
  • I appreciated the subversion seen in the depiction of Jim Ogilvie. Throughout the film, he is set up as the lone crusader – the one person who knows what Jerry Blake is – and – as we seem him race toward a crisis situation in his dilapidated vehicle – the hero who will save Stephanie and her mother. But despite that, he’s unceremoniously murdered by the villain. Like Samuel Jackson eaten by the shark in Deep Blue Sea. His story builds, but his revenge is thwarted by a man with a knife just a little bit faster than him. This turnabout is stellar; a much weaker film would have had Ogilvie save the day, but in The Stepfather, Stephanie and mother, like the sisters in the song, are doing it for themselves.
  • Not an important question, but did anybody else find it strange that the family has a taxidermied roadrunner in their dining room?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: The Stepfather is not great cinema. Instead, it’s a tight, trashy little thriller that rises above its station, thanks to some solid directing and great acting, especially from O’Quinn. The movie certainly has a palpable sense of realistic menace. Not the scariest thing you’ll ever see, but certainly worth watching.

When you can't decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

When you can’t decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

Best outfit: That’s a difficult decision because, for the most part, The Stepfather looks like it was costumed by Northern Reflections. While Stephanie Main has some nice graphic sweaters and shirts featuring sheep and unicorns (just to name some of the standouts), Jerry Blake’s wardrobe, clearly inspired by Mr. Rogers, is the real standout. His clothing adheres to a black, white, gray, and red colour scheme (which probably has some deeper meaning), and he looks like a television father at every moment. The best look is when he pairs an argyle sweater with a full suit and tie.

Best line: “Next time, Jim, call before you stop by.” – Jerry Blake, with a pretty good one-liner to the corpse of his one-time brother-in-law

Best kill: Jerry Blake beating the therapist to death with a two-by-four is pretty vicious. All the more so because Jerry literally has no idea who the man is before he kills him. All he knows is that he threatens the carefully constructed house of lies he has built.

Unexpected cameo: Blu Mankuma, who plays Lt. Wall, has been in almost every movie and television show made in the past few decades. (He was even in an episode of Danger Bay!) Most notably, he was a recurring character on 21 Jump Street, even appearing in the pilot episode.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Never trust a man who builds birdhouses as a hobby. Avoid marriage to someone if they have no friends or family that they’ve known for over a year.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: American Eagle Realty

Next up (and last!): The Beyond (1981).

31 Days of Fright: The Beyond

This hotel is not going to get a good Yelp review.

This hotel is not going to get a good Yelp review.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The final film of 31 Days of Fright is The Beyond (don’t watch the trailer if you’re squeamish!), the notorious Italian gorefest directed by Lucio Fulci (City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2). The final film of my month-long endeavour was selected by donor (and my very wonderful girlfriend) Meg Campbell. It should be noted, however, that Meg has never seen The Beyond, and suggested it on the basis of it being the favourite movie of a former horror-buff co-worker of hers. The Beyond was rented, like most of the films this month, from the kind folks at Queen Video.

What happens:

The final horror movie I watched in January opens, like most great horror movies, in sepia tones. The setting is 1927 Louisiana, where a number of men row their boats through the Louisiana swamps, wielding torches. Inside a stately hotel, a young blonde woman lights a candelabra and opens a book emblazoned with the title, “Eibon.” Upstairs in the hotel, a man manically paints a canvas. The boatmen join a carful of other men once they hit land, and the angry mob enters the hotel, wielding guns and chains. The woman notes that she has collected all the prophecies of Eibon over thousands of years in the book. Meanwhile, the angry mob bursts into Room 36, where they surprise the intense painter, positively twitching in his artistic endeavours. The mob leader labels the painter an ungodly warlock and beats him across the face with a chain.

The woman with the book notes that there are seven gateways to Hell, kept in seven secret spaces. Funnily enough, the painter (while being savagely beaten with chains), says basically the same thing, but adds that the hotel they’re inside is one of those seven doorways. And only he can save them all from what lies on the other side. The men don’t like hearing that, so they beat him some more, then follow that up by nailing him to the wall with iron spikes, crucifixion-style, and covering him with scalding oil. He continues to scream as the oil melts his face for an inordinate amount of time. Then the camera pans over to a strange symbol that looks a bit like a stylized “J” on the wall. The blonde woman wishes woe to them who open one of the seven gateways, and the title sequence starts.

The film then fast-forwards to 1981. Liza Merril (Katherine MacColl) has inherited a Louisiana hotel (the same hotel we witnessed in 1927, in fact) and is overseeing, with friend and business partner Martin Avery (Michele Mirabella), renovations to the building so she can, she hopes, reopen it as a working hotel. (Basically, this is the plot of the fourth season of Gilmore Girls.) Martin perpetually suggests more and more elaborate upgrades to the building, but Liza tries to rein him in, realizing she first has to undo years of disrepair first. They survey the building while two painters work on a scaffolding above. One of the painters takes a closer look through the second-storey window, and sees a woman with milky-white eyes, panics, then is seemingly thrown from the scaffolding onto his back. He begins bleeding profusely from the mouth and mumbles about “the eyes.” They call a hunky doctor, Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck), who identifies the painter as a man in need of a hospital, stat. As he takes the painter away, we see the painting the long-ago murdered painter was working on, collecting dust.

Liza Merril, the Lorelai Gilmore of gruesome Italian movies.

Liza Merril, the Lorelai Gilmore of gruesome Italian movies.

Joe, the plumber (Giovanni De Nava) arrives to look at the water situation, and Liza warns him it’s not good. The entire basement is flooded. While the two of them check out the damage, a dark-haired woman, Martha (Veronica Lazar) appears with a lantern to says she’s made a pathway for Joe to travel through the basement without getting waterlogged. The women leave and Joe gets to plumbing, post-haste. He finds a portion of the wall, leaking water, and begins to hammer through to the other side. Behind this wall is a whole other, hidden room (marked with that arcane “J” symbol, naturally). Liza, meanwhile, brings some towels to her room and finds another member of the hotel staff, Arthur (Gianpaolo Saccarola), lurking around. He’s looking for keys, as a number of the hotel rooms remain locked. Joe continues break apart the walls in the basement, and find something behind one wall. A decomposing hand shoots out from the crevice, then slowly and graphically gouges out his eyes.

Liza drives into town for some supplies and is forced to stop by a blind woman and her seeing-eye German shepherd standing in the centre of the highway. The woman, who identifies herself as Emily (Sarah Keller) – and her dog as “Dickie” – has the same milky eyes that spooked the house painter. Emily says that she’s been looking for Liza. Back at the hotel, Martha finds Joe huddled in the corner of the basement, his eyes gouged out and blood and orange goop flowing freely from his mouth. She also makes another startling discovery: a decomposed corpse – possibly the painter from 1927 – rises up from the dark muck.

Emily guides Liza to her house, set back from an intersection, and plays her a haunting li’l ditty on the piano. She instructs Liza to give up the hotel and go back whence she came, but Liza isn’t about to do that. The film then cuts to Dr. McCabe, sewing up Joe’s autopsied body in the hospital. (That was fast!) McCabe and his fellow doctor, walrus-moustached Harris (Al Cliver), have a special guest in attendance there in the autopsy theatre: that old corpse found in the hotel’s basement, allegedly dead for six (?) years. (Clearly, post-mortem dating methods have improved significantly.) Dr. Harris wants to hook the corpse up to his neato brainwave machine, so once McCabe leaves, he does just that. However, he gets called away on an emergency before he can notice the machine shows some brain activity emanating from the decades-old corpse.

Shortly thereafter, Joe’s widow, Mary-Ann (Laura De Marchi), and her Anne-of-Green-Gables-esque daughter, Jill (Maria Pia Marsala), arrive in the hospital. Mary-Ann doesn’t wait to be invited into the autopsy theatre, and just breezes right in (even though a poorly translated sign clearly reads “Do Not Entry”). Seeing her dead husband, she caresses his face, then completely dresses him in a full suit (?) and drapes rosary beads around his neck. But she looks over to the much older corpse and begins to scream. Around this same time, acid held in a jar begins to burble out of its container. When Jill runs into the theatre to hear why her mother is so distraught, she sees her mother, unconscious on the floor, acid spilling all over her face. Mary-Ann’s face melts away and spurts blood. Soon a huge puddle of blood and acidic foam begin to seep toward Jill. (Why was there so much acid in that jar?) She backs up, looking for a means of escape. She opens a door and finds more bagged bodies inside, including a man with a metal implement embedded in his face. Jill, probably a bit emotionally scarred by recent events, screams.

Jill, horrified to watch her mom drop acid ... or, rather, have her face melted by acid.

Jill, horrified to watch her mom drop acid … or, rather, have her face melted by acid.

After a chance meeting at a red light, Liza and Dr. McCabe enjoy a few adult beverages in a jazz bar (though Liza appears to be drinking a milkshake). Liza reveals that she’s done just about all the jobs there are to do when she was living in New York. Making a go of this hotel is kind of her last chance. McCabe wonders if she’s worried about all the accidents – y’know, including the one where a plumber had his eyes gouged out by an as-yet-uncaught assailant – and she’s concerned, no doubt. Totally worried. She’s also worried bout Martha and Arthur, hired help who sort of came with the hotel and are ultra-mysterioso. A funeral is held for Joe and Mary-Anne, and Jill stoically keeps her eyes to the ground the entire ceremony. At the end of the funeral, Jill is embraced by Emily, standing far off from the crowd. When Jill finally lifts her eyes to the camera, we can see that she is now blind like Emily.

Liza hears something in the hotel in the middle of the night. She travels downstairs with a lantern and finds Emily crouched in the kitchen. “Why didn’t you listen to me, Liza?” she wails. Now, she informs Liza, she will tell her everything. In Room 36, sixty years ago, there dwelled a painter named Schweick. Schweick found a key to the seven gateways of Hell (probably in the last place he looked for it). Mid-story, Emily pauses, sensing an unnatural presence. Liza, however, can see nothing. Emily asks Liza what’s immediately before her, and Liza tells her it’s a painting. Emily touches it and the buzzer for Room 36 rings instantly. Emily warns her: never enter Room 36. But Liza used to live in New York – in the late 1970s, to boot. If urban decay and stagflation didn’t scare her off, neither ail some ghosts. Where Emily touched the painting, her hands are now bleeding. She screams and runs from the hotel, her dog Dickie following.

The very next day, Liza uses an axe to open the locked Room 36. (It’s almost like she’s doing it just to spite Emily.) The furnishings inside have been covered with sheets and the curtains have been drawn. Liza lets in the light and discovers a book entitled “Eibon” on the desk. Then the closet door creaks open and a breeze seems to emanate from within. A bit spooked, she goes to the bathroom, and as soon as she opens the door, a lighting storm hits. On the bathroom wall, she sees a crucified corpse. Liza screams and runs downstairs, nearly knocking over the visiting Dr. McCabe. McCabe encourages her to return to Room 36, with him as backup. He kicks in the bathroom door and they can see two industrial strength nails in the wall, but no corpse anywhere in sight. ‘But I saw him!” Liza insists. “This looks more like rust than blood,” notes a skeptical Dr. McCabe. Liza tells the doctor about how Emily warned her about the room, and McCabe (as if he knows everyone in the town) asks who this Emily is. Liza describes her, but McCabe doesn’t believe her: “There’s no blind girl in a house by the crossroads.” More importantly, something has been taken from Room 36: the book of Eibon is missing.

Wandering the streets, dissuading hotel owners from their life's work.

Wandering the streets, dissuading hotel owners from their life’s work.

Speaking of the book of Eibon, Liza sees it in the window of an antiquarian bookshop while out on a stroll with friend Martin Avery. But as soon as she enters the store, the book has completely changed to another title altogether. Martin and Liza part ways and Martin heads to the library to look at the original plans of the hotel. The librarian goes on his union-legislated break and leaves Martin Avery to climb the ladder to the upper shelf on his own, all the while grumbling about labour action. (The Beyond is staunchly anti-socialist.) Martin finds the plans for the 7 Doors Hotel, but as soon as he turns to the proper page, lightning strikes outside and he is thrown from the ladder to the marble floor below. Rendered unconscious, he doesn’t notice as a number of tarantulas crawl out of nowhere and begin to scale his body. Martin wakes just as the spiders crawl onto his face and begin to bite large chunks off his mouth and nose. Then one plucks out his eye and another pulls out his tongue. (I’m pretty sure real tarantulas don’t do any of those things, by the way.) Then, as if to add insult to injury, the page of architectural plans disappears!

Dr. McCabe, looking more and more like Indiana Jones with each wardrobe change, goes to investigate this house by the crossroads that Liza has been talking about. When he visits, the house is boarded up, seemingly abandoned. He uses hedgeclippers to break in, but the place seems like it’s been unused for years. However, covered in some cobwebs, McCabe finds the book of Eibon. At the hotel, Martha visits Room 36 to do some routine housekeeping. The bathtub, unfortunately, seems to be filled with a black sludge that even CLR might not be able to handle. She slides her hand under the water and digs out a massive hairball. The water starts to drain and who should emerge from the emptying tub but Joe, the Plumber! (Plumbers love tubs!) The undead and eyeless Joe grabs Martha by the head and forces her backward, shoving the wall’s embedded nail through the back of her head and out through her eye socket.

Looks like *somebody* was using an old photo on Tinder.

Looks like *somebody* was using an old photo on Tinder.

McCabe returns to that ancient corpse in the autopsy theatre and notices a strange symbol branded on the corpse’s wrist that he’s only seen in that book of Eibon before. Emily sits alone in the dark with Dickie, who seems unsettled by the storm outside. The piano begins to play on its own, startling her. “Who’s there?” she demands. Who is there? A greying corpse, clearly the body of Schweick. But as Emily gropes around in the dark, demanding answers from her unseen tormenters, more and more undead bodies begin to populate her drawing room: Joe, Mary-Ann, as well as Arthur (who we don’t even know is dead yet). “You can’t take me back!” she warns, then sics Dickie – who has heretofore been useless – on the dead people. Dickie attacks the dead painter, and he does it well, tearing at the corpse’s body. Suddenly all goes quiet. The corpses vanish and Dickie, covered in blood, heels beside his master. Then, out of nowhere, Dickie turns on Emily, tearing a huge, gaping wound in her throat, then biting her ear right off. It’s a bloodbath!

The phone rings in the darkened hotel, but nobody answers. Dr. McCabe is calling from a pay phone shrouded in fog. Liza doesn’t answer because she’s busy in the flooded basement, looking for Arthur. She finds his lantern, but no Arthur. Then, the creepy hotel help lunges out of the water and tries to drag Liza in with him. Liza kicks Arthur off her, then runs upstairs. She screams as she’s grabbed by Dr. McCabe (who must have been phoning from around the block). Liza tells him about Arthur, and McCabe, ever the skeptic, shouts, “I’m sick of all these stories!” He tells her that the blind woman’s house has been empty for at least fifty years. Also, that he found the book Liza secretly left for him and read it cover-to-cover. Nevertheless, he asks Liza to show him where Arthur is. She takes him to the basement, but Arthur is long gone. noting that the book of Eibon indicates the hotel hides one of seven gateways to Hell, he asks, “Who are you, Liza?”

Out of nowhere, a storm erupts in the basement. Both McCabe and Liza begin bleeding spontaneously. The basement begins to crumble around them, so they flee from the hotel. The painting, propped up against a wall, begins to bleed, as well. They drive away from the hotel and the rooms inside light up and shadowy figures move around within (as if someone inside were trying to scare away the Wet Bandits). Dr. McCabe drives them to the hospital, through seemingly empty streets. The hospital itself is also devoid of people. Well, living people. McCabe retrieves a gun from his office (guns are pretty typical office supplies), then attempts to call the FBI (?), but discovers the telephone is dead. That’s one thing it no longer has in common with the bodies in the morgue, which break through the window and try to drag Liza inside. McCabe shoots at one of the zombies until it releases Liza. They flee the office.

Dr. McCabe was top marksman at medical school.

Dr. McCabe was top marksman at medical school.

McCabe pushes Liza into the elevator, but stays on the floor himself, shooting slowly shuffling corpse after slowly shuffling corpse. He runs out of bullets and locks himself in a storage room. Liza, meanwhile, enters the autopsy theatre, where she finds the blind Jill. (Liza apparently knows Jill by sight, as well. I guess she was closer to that plumber than we realized.) In the storage room, McCabe runs into his colleague Harris, who, having mistaken him for one of the undead, nearly kills him with a meat cleaver. The zombies begin to break into the storage room, so McCabe (having somehow found more bullets) opens fire, shooting a number of them in the head. The zombies shatter a glass door and the large shards fly into Harris’s face, killing him.

The lone surviving doctor makes it to the elevator, where he finds Liza and Jill. McCabe enters a cheat code, unlocking unlimited bullets, and fires them a clear path to the autopsy theatre. Inside, they’re ambushed by the corpses that claw their ways out of the clear body bags. Behind the door, a very old corpse – Schweick? – appears, seeming to direct the zombies. The little girl, Jill, turns on Liza, grabbing her face roughly, and McCabe doesn’t hesitate to blow half Jill’s face clean off. The doctor grabs Liza and they run downstairs, but find themselves in the basement of the hotel again. “Impossible!” shouts McCabe.

Slowly, the basement transforms into a weird hellscape (very similar to Schweick’s painting). The two of them wander around, seeking a way out, but the wasteland stretches on, seemingly forever. In time, the two of them go blind, just like Emily and Jill, and then disappear. And I guess the world ends shortly after that.


Backdrop for Springsteen hit, "Born To Run."

Backdrop for Springsteen hit, “Born To Run.”

Takeaway points:

  • The best way to think about The Beyond is as one of those home renovation shows so popular on HGTV and TLC gone awry. The Beyond, if you think about it, is just a really gory and surreal episode of Love It or List It or The Property Brothers. Like, unless Gordon Ramsay helps out Liza Merril and the 7 Doors, he has no business calling his show Hotel Hell.
  • Though there’s not a wealth to talk about – it’s difficult to present different readings of what is, for the most part, a surreal or imagistic film – we can discuss the high fetishization of violence in The Beyond. Obviously, most horror films – or at least those that we’d consider gory – indulge in a certain level of fetishization of violence. But Fulci turns the fetishization into a full-blown obsession. The goriest death scenes are lingered over, the camera leering at the murders like a peeping tom. The extreme length they’re given in a movie that clocks in under ninety minutes is almost unseemly. We watch as Schweick’s face is melted with hot oil for a very long time. Nearly as long as the time it takes a corpse to gouge out Joe’s eye, or acid to melt Mary-Ann’s face off. The over-emphasis becomes almost comical. Eye violence, in particular, gets a lot of play – whether it’s gouging or blinding (by spiders or, let’s say, magic). For Christmas’ sake, a woman gets a nail through the back of her head and it still somehow manages to poke out an eye.
  • Speaking of which, what was the budget for dummy heads in this film? So many dummy heads were used and destroyed through various means, and in most cases, the heads don’t look too convincing. Mary-Ann’s acid attack, in particular, looks more like a department store mannequin being doused in Kool-Aid.
  • Experts tell me that Fulci intended The Beyond as an homage to Surrealist playwright, Antonin Artaud. Artaud advocated for non-linear theatre, halfway between thought and pure image – a theatre he called “Theatre of Cruelty.” He also believed proper theatre should reflect his own nihilistic world view, something The Beyond certainly does – for, as far as I can tell, the world is literally sucked into Hell by the film’s conclusion.
  • Most bizarre of all is how so much of The Beyond centres around the basement of his demonic hotel, when very, very few buildings in Louisiana have basements at all. The state has such a high water table, that building anything underground is nearly unheard of. (Even the cemeteries are almost all aboveground tombs!) They might as well have set The Beyond in the basement of The Alamo.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: There are some die-hard fans of Fulci’s work, and I won’t deny the movie is beautifully shot and features some extremely inventive gore, but it just seems like a wasted effort. Like a piñata sculpted by Michelangelo. Why do such a thing? The best horror, in my opinion, works because it embodies very real human fears and, in some way – whether very subtly or in an over-the-top fashion – explores why we have those fears. The Beyond is more like a supercut of all your greatest nightmares, devoid of context. Scary, with undeniably vivid images of horror, but to what end?

A blurry photo showing a pretty stellar outfit of the young, still-unpossessed Jill.

A blurry photo showing a pretty stellar outfit of the young, still-unpossessed Jill.

Best outfit: Jill’s school outfit, which makes her look a bit like a goth Madeleine, is pretty killer.

Best line: “I want to talk to Harris, and I’ll call the FBI.” – Dr. John McCabe, setting his priorities in order

Best kill: This is an impossible category. Think of “best kill” in a Fulci movie as a World Cup bracket that contains Brazil, Spain, and Argentina. The kills are the most elaborate and imaginative portions of The Beyond, and there are so many great ones to choose from. That said, I have to select Dr. McCabe shooting the top portion of young Jill’s face off as the winner. If only because it happens quickly, brutally, and without the lingering, extended treatment that so many of the other murders are given.

Unexpected cameo: Master of horror (and this film’s director) Lucio Fulci, plays the work-resistant librarian who inadvertently leaves Martin Avery to be killed by spiders.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: In Louisiana (or Italy’s understanding of Louisiana), it is customary for the spouse of the deceased to not only identify the body in the morgue, but also dress the corpse for the funeral.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: There are a number of good options: Room 36, Book of Eibon, and 7 Doors Hotel are all excellent choices.