Oct 30, 2007

Beyond Death's Door (1979)

Ah, the 70s. As long as I continue my journey on this planet, and maybe even beyond, I will still be mining the bottomless pit of wonderful films from that decade. Did I say "beyond"? Ooh, what irony! What a bad pun! Well whatever the case, such rhetoric is fitting for today's film.

In the latter half of the 1970's, Schick Sunn cornered the drive-in market with inoffensive family fare like The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, and (especially) no-budget so-called documentaries cashing in on whichever paranormal craze permeated that month. These films, with their static talking heads, and "authentic" footage of Bigfoot, aliens, or whatever (which was about as credible as Fox News), nonetheless were highly profitable on the rural circuit, especially since they cost very little to begin with. One could argue that Schick-Sunn was, by percentages, the most profitable film company in the decade, as they cornered a demographic too often ignored by the mainstream. Also, their grassroots strategy of playing films on a town by town basis, controlling the theatrical rentals themselves, hearkened back to the days of Kroger Babb, yet was so seldom practiced during this period that it seemed unique.

Die-hards like myself most likely caught up with the offerings by Sunn Classics on the late late show (remember those?) or from their all-too brief appearance on video. In 1978, Beyond and Back was a highly successful mockumentary that stood apart from the rest of the paranormal pack for its greater reliance on narrative, featuring re-enactments of allegedly true-life experiences dealing with near-death experiences. I haven't seen that picture since my solitarity late show viewing in the summer of 1983, but remember it well for its fascinating stories, conjecture and scary moments which surely would like quite corny today. This film has stayed with many people over the years... all the more impressive that such a small picture has such a lasting impression.

Following on the success of that film was tonight's feature, Beyond Death's Door, which is considerably lesser known, but if you can find it, it is a drive-in denizen's dream. (In fact, I will be reviewing this film at length in my upcoming website, "See You at the Drive-In", but for now I'll just skim the surface.)

The subject of life after death is of course fascinating, and even on those terms alone, this movie is engrossing. But despite all that, it is a campy hoot. This film is wholesome to a fault, as it seems everyone manages to get to heaven-- even pimps and prostitutes. However, interestingly, the two people who attempt suicide, go to Hell. In any event, those who go "beyond and back" get to redeem themselves once they have a taste of what exists in the world further on.

This film is episodic, featuring several vignettes of people who clinically die, experience the world beyond, and offer testimony to the disbelieving doctor. (Because it's the same physician dealing with these people, one wonders if this hospital offers near-death experiences for all its patients.) And as such, these sequences purely exist as a skimpy device to gradually make the good doctor believe there is such a thing as an afterlife. Yet the doctor and his firm-believing female co-worker (who cannot act) seem like guest stars to these weighty vignettes. (The film even blatantly uses two sequences from Beyond and Back!)

There is an elongated chase sequence, featuring Taurean Blacque (soon to be in "Hill Street Blues") as the pimp on the run from the mob, that seems out of step with the rest of the movie, but is fun to watch nonetheless. Then there is the disco sequence (seen above). Dear lord. At the end of this year, I plan to publish a list of trash films for a year-end round-up "The 12 Days of Trash-mas", and this film gets on the list alone just for these immortal nine minutes where a construction worker has a falling out with this daughter who (gasp) is hanging out at the discotheque with some punk, then dies in a freak accident, and goes back to the disco in spirit form and tries to communicate with his daughter! Oh man, this is just too much for me to bear.

But you don't need to take my word for it. You can see this for yourself here.

This is just the cream of the crop of this lost classic. Beyond Death's Door is a true find for cult film trash hounds.



Those Sunn-Shick pictures made a lot of money... huge "profitablity". In Search of Noah's Ark made around 50 million dollars in mid seventies currency. That is over $150 mill today. (I still say that this movie is the biggest money maker in the documentary dept; although it is hardly a true documentary.)These pics get lost in the equation whenever box office is discussed today with the Michael Moore documentaries, for instance.

Rob Craig said...

The paranormal or "speculative" documentaries of the 1970's were indeed big moneymakers. I recall seeing IN SEARCH OF HISTORIC JESUS in a packed theatre circa 1980, a theatre which consistantly rented out to "four-wall" distribs. Yet it is by and large one of the least studied and least revered genres of all. Methinks it would make a hell of a book! Rob