AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
Strikes Back /
The Reel World /
It's A Disaster! /
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CHI SEI? (WHO ARE YOU?)
[aka Beyond The Door aka The Devil Within Her]
|"You must find a house, a woman; that woman. You must find the child she is carrying in her womb; you must find me. If you succeed in bringing the child to birth, if you succeed in ripping it out of that woman, maybe I’ll let you live for a few more years...."|
Director: Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G. Assonitis) and Robert Barrett (Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli)
Starring: Juliet Mills, Richard Johnson, Gabriele Lavia, Nino Segurini, Barbara Fiorini, David Colin Jr, Elizabeth Turner
Screenplay: Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G. Assonitis), Antonio Troiso and Robert Barrett (Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli)
Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills), a
mother of two living in San Francisco with her music producer husband,
Robert (Gabriele Lavia), and her children, Gail (Barbara Fiorini) and
Ken (David Colin Jr), unexpectedly learns that she is pregnant. At home,
as the children make a cake for Ken’s birthday party and Robert fusses
over his ornamental aquarium, Jessica breaks the news. Robert is
surprised, as indeed is Jessica herself: knowing that she hadn’t missed
taking her pill, she had the test done twice. That evening, as the
children at the party sing “Happy Birthday”, Jessica must run to the
bathroom. A worried Robert finds her vomiting blood. She gasps,
struggling for breath, and tells Robert she feels as if the baby is
suffocating her; trying to kill
her.... She announces abruptly that she doesn’t want to have it. Robert
replies soothingly that they’ll talk about it later – and that he loves
her. Robert leaves, and Jessica tries to pull herself together. Moving
back to the sink to wash her face, she catches a glimpse in the mirror
of a man standing behind her. She whirls around, but there is no-one
there – but for a moment, it is if she hears mocking laughter....
Jessica visits her doctor, George Staton (Nino Segurini), who tells her that she has her
dates wrong: she is at least three months pregnant, not seven weeks.
Jessica replies that this is impossible. After a moment, she asks Staton
if there is a chance the baby will be abnormal.... Over lunch, after
Jessica has recounted the conversation, Robert points out that George is
their friend as well as Jessica’s doctor, and that he would certainly
say if anything was wrong. Back at home, Jessica sorts out some old
photographs, staring in distress at one that shows her with another man,
a man with whom she was once involved – the man glimpsed in the
mirror.... Suddenly, a dark impulse makes Jessica hurl a glass ashtray
at Robert’s aquarium. It shatters, pouring water and fish onto the
floor. Jessica phones Robert at work to apologise, and to try and
explain, but in the end can only say over and over that she
wanted to break it.... That
night, a strange force seems to enter and move through the Barretts’
home.... A wakeful Ken enters his parents’ bedroom, watching silently as
the bedclothes pull back from Jessica of the own accord. As if in a
trance, Jessica stands up – and then levitates across the room....
Later, Robert can only sit and wait, staring at the muddy smears all
over the carpet, until Jessica finally returns, soaking wet and still in
a daze. Robert demands to know where she has been, but she can only
stare at him bewildered before collapsing tearfully onto his shoulder.
Robert meets with George Staton, telling him of this incident. Staton
confesses to Robert that he has never known as case like Jessica’s: the
foetus is developing at an astonishing rate. Staton suggests that her
condition may somehow be due to a psychological disturbance, and that
Jessica’s erratic behaviour may be another aspect of the problem. He
adds that he doesn’t want Jessica to know of his suspicions, and
suggests asking his wife, Barbara (Elizabeth Turner), who is also
Jessica’s friend, to try and get her to open up about her situation. As
Staton and Robert talk, another man watches intently from nearby. It is
the man from the photograph; the man from Jessica’s past....
Comments: Question: How many screenwriters does it take to write an Italian horror film? Answer: Eight, if the IMDb is to be believed; all but one of whom (the unfortunate Sonia Moltini) scores a mention in the film’s opening credits. You might want to keep this in mind, people, while I am reiterating the phrase doesn’t make any sense down below.
I hardly know what to make of Chi Sei? My last encounter with an Italian Exorcist rip-off was L’Anticristo; and although that film does eventually degenerate into silliness, chiefly due to the paucity of its special effects budget, it is an altogether more mature-minded and confrontational endeavour than Chi Sei?, which by contrast is almost---well, I’m hesitating here between “child-like” and “childish”. All the usual elements are in place, the language, the vomit, the head-turning; but really, the overall sense is not a serious attempt to disturb the viewer, but something closer to a little kid purposely trying to shock its parents by using a rude word in public: a comparison even more apt that it may at first appear, as we shall see. Between its deliberate jokiness and its deliberate crassness, Chi Sei? really is a very odd film indeed.
You'll never guess where this film is set....
You'll never guess where this film is set....
Odder still, or so it seems to me, is the fact that Chi Sei? was a huge success worldwide. I can’t really get my head around that. Perhaps it struck the public as The Exorcist for people who couldn’t handle The Exorcist. Or perhaps, as I suggested with Grizzly, it was a case of people being unable to see the original film again as they wished, and settling for an imitation.
Be that as it may, Chi Sei? was successful enough in the US to draw a law-suit from Warner Bros., which is simply outrageous. Now, no-one’s disputing that Chi Sei? was inspired by The Exorcist, nor that it copied some of its gross-out scenes from there; but otherwise, the two films are different in almost every respect. In fact, Chi Sei? doesn’t even have an exorcism, let alone an exorcist! I suppose it’s a case (and you should pardon the expression) of the devil being in the details. Warners were, honestly, on far shakier ground here than they were in suing Abby – although frankly, in both cases they were simply being dicks. Unfortunately, they were also dicks with very deep pockets. While Sam Katzman caved in almost at once and pulled Abby from cinema release, over at Film Ventures, Edward L. Montoro chose to fight back – at least for a while. I’d always been under the impression that Warners eventually lost the case (as they should have done), but it seems that Montoro, realising that Warners could afford to keep their suit going as long as they needed, and that persisting would only eat further into Chi Sei?’s substantial profits, eventually settled out of court.
It is, however, not Chi Sei?’s resemblance, superficial or otherwise, to The Exorcist that is currently engaging my attention, but its startling similarity to quite a different film. Some time ago (nearly a year ago, in fact), I began work on the American made-for-TV movie, The Stranger Within. As sometimes happened, I struggled to get a handle on the review. Finally, I got distracted, was unable to get back into it, and put it aside for another time. Then the B-Masters elected to schedule a MFTV movie Roundtable. Given that perfect opportunity, I decided I’d wait until then before reviving my unfinished review.
In the meantime, I got hold of Code Red’s DVD release of Chi Sei? (produced under the film’s American title Beyond The Door), which I’d never seen. I sat down to watch it one night, and ended up overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu: not because of its resemblance to The Exorcist, but because its depiction of its supernatural pregnancy is identical in almost every respect to that in The Stranger Within.
And these two,
I hasten to remind you, are the ones who are
And these two, I hasten to remind you, are the ones who are not demonically possessed.
I’m struggling to account for this resemblance – not least because the two films must have been in production at pretty much the same time: The Stranger Within debuted on television in October of 1974, about a month before Chi Sei? opened in Italian cinemas; and in those pre-internet, pre-advertising frenzy days, it was a lot harder for competing productions to keep track of each other; although of course it did sometimes happen. However, even though Italian film producers are notorious rip-off merchants, I’m having a hard time imagining that they would have been so desperate as to rip-off an unaired, Lorimar-produced TV movie. Conversely, I also can’t imagine Richard Matheson having to steal ideas from anywhere, even if he did somehow get a look at the script of Chi Sei? during the American leg of its production. (Maybe one of the eight screenwriters had loose lips.) In the end, I’m forced to conclude that it’s all just a coincidence. If so, it’s a coincidence more unnerving than anything that actually happens in Chi Sei?
Of course, the main point of divergence between The Stranger Within and Chi Sei? is that, while the Americans blame it all on the aliens, the Italians blame it all on the devil. (There’s an interesting sociological essay to be made out of that, I think.) And in fact, Chi Sei? opens with a guest spot from Old Scratch himself: not in person, for which he apologises, but in voiceover; during which he bemoans the fact that him making “personal appearances” has gone out of fashion in these late, secular days; but assuring us that he does still pop up from time to time, secretly, in the darkness; the darkness of a cinema, for instance.... He goes on to tell us that the story we’re about to see in Chi Sei? is in fact his story, or at least that he plays an important part in it....
Oh – and it turns out that Satan speaks with a broad British accent. What a shock.
(Although I’m guessing that detail is only in the American version of the film....)
We open the film proper at a Satanic ceremony. A naked woman lies on an altar; and as we watch, she undergoes a transformation – from the neck up: wouldn’t want to interfere with the rest, would we? – and briefly appears as what might be intended for a Christ-figure (!). This provokes a gasp from a second woman, who is watching; a woman we shall later know as Jessica Barrett. She flees the altar, tripping to sprawl on the ground. She is picked up and comforted by a robed, bearded man. He speaks in her ear. We do not hear the words, but Jessica is allowed to run away.
Another shocking revelation: Satan shops Safeway.
Another shocking revelation: Satan shops Safeway.
Satan, it turns out, is not at all pleased with this dénouement. It seems that he had plans for Jessica; and that the man, Dimitri, will now pay a high price for letting her get away. As Dimitri drives down a winding coastal road, Satan speaks mockingly in his head and, presumably, causes him to lose control of his car, which plunges off a cliff. It then hangs there, suspended like Dimitri himself, it seems, who has sold himself to Satan for extended life, but in Satan’s view reneged on their deal by letting Jessica escape. Satan offers Dimitri another deal: Jessica, we learn, is (or will be) pregnant. Dimitri is to find her and, if he succeeds in ensuring the child’s live birth, ripping it from her womb, as Satan puts it, then maybe, just maybe, he’ll be rewarded with a little more life....
Chi Sei? was the first directorial effort from Ovidio Assonitis, who up until then had worked as a producer – giving us The Man From Deep River and the giallo Who Saw Her Die?, among other things. For what it’s worth, Assonitis claims that (1) he tried to secure the rights to The Exorcist, but couldn’t afford them; and (2) that the script for Chi Sei? was written before The Exorcist was released, anyway. As you may judge from this, he was the perfect man for a career in Italian exploitation. In any event, Assonitis was nervous enough about his new assignment to hire a co-director, who appears in the credits as “R. Barrett” – where Assonitis’ own ongoing pseudonym, “Oliver Hellman”, also makes its debut. The name “R. Barrett” actually hides the film’s cinematographer, Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who makes an important contribution in both a number of startling visuals and some lovely location work around San Francisco. This fact seems to have escaped the good folk at the IMDb, though, who list a separate career for “Robert Barrett”. Apparently the significance of him sharing a name with one of this film’s main characters didn’t sink in.
The film’s credits play over footage of Jessica Barrett driving around San Francisco, intercut with scenes of her husband Robert at work. The latter are rather interesting: the song being worked on is the rather pointedly titled and lyric-ed “Bargain With The Devil” – and it’s actually really good. For once we don’t snicker contemptuously when an in-movie music producer declares that he’s got a big hit on his hands. Indeed, the soundtrack overall is very effective.
Meanwhile, we learn both from Satan’s own words and from Jessica’s situation that nearly ten years have passed during the seeming instants in which Dmitri was hanging suspended between life and death. In the back seat of Jessica’s convertible are her two – completely unrestrained – children, nine-year-old Gail and four-year-old Ken, who Jessica proceeds to leave unattended in the car as she does her shopping. O tempora! O mores! Then again, based on what we shortly find out about these kids, maybe Jessica just didn’t want to be seen with them in a public place. It is, we will learn, Ken’s birthday; and when Jessica reappears, she puts a gift in his hands, a black paper-wrapped box tied up with gold ribbons.
When I say that Gail and Ken are completely unrestrained, I’m not just talking about the lack of seatbelts. Chi Sei? is frequently a strangely jokey film, and never more so than in its handling of the two kids, who display a remarkable range of behavioural quirks. Ken, for instance, seems to eat nothing but Campbell’s green pea soup. He’s sucking on a straw stuck in a tin of it when we first see him; he’s got a poster featuring another such tin on his bedroom wall. If you think this might be an elbow in the ribs of The Exorcist, give yourself a gold star. Gail, meanwhile, is not only reading Erich Segal’s Love Story, but insists on carrying no less than fifteen copies of it around with her. It is not Gail’s reading habits, disgusting as they are, that people remember, though, but her language, which is simultaneously foul, abusive, and directed at her parents. And when she isn’t swearing at them personally, she’s teaching Ken to call their father “asshole”.
This aspect of the film really is bizarre. From one perspective, this seems like another Exorcist riff, where Regan’s own foul language is eventually considered an aspect of her possession, but where there is also the implication that she has picked it up from her warring parents. The treatment of Gail and Ken seems at first likewise a dig at Robert and Jessica and their permissive parenting – they gasp and shake their heads and briefly consider psychiatric help for their kids, who of course call their parents by their first names, too, but don’t actually do anything about it – and if they don’t swear in front of Gail and Ken, they do have interesting conversations about Robert’s secretary and her plans to lose her virginity, and how Jessica must have mucked up her contraception. However, the real joke here seems to be that, really, they aren’t such bad kids. Certainly, when the supernatural events start happening, Gail’s first thought is always to protect her little brother. I guess it’s as my sister used to say: as parents, you get the choice of kids who act out in public, or who act out at home; and if you’re smart, you’ll take the latter every time.
(Of course, there’s another, more or less inadvertent aspect to the joke here. This being an Italian film, everyone is dubbed, of course. Most of the voice work is pretty good, but it is very obvious that Barbara Fiorini was dubbed by someone much older – which gives a weird, What Up, Tiger Lily?-ish vibe to the whole thing.)
Décor by Warhol.
Décor by Warhol.
At home, while the kids make the cake – according to Gail, out of “arsenic, poisoned banana, worm spit, and grated bats’ feet” – Jessica puts up decorations for Ken’s birthday party and complains about Robert fussing over his pet fish instead of helping. Robert counters that she should be glad that he has such a harmless hobby, and I’m inclined to agree: as we know, not all American music producers fill their spare time in such an innocuous way. Jessica hesitates, then breaks the news of her pregnancy. Robert is more taken aback than either pleased or dismayed, as indeed is Jessica. She tells him that she was so sure that she hadn’t forgotten to take her pill, she had her test done twice. A ruckus from the kitchen makes Robert reflect not-entirely-jokingly than when the baby arrives, he and Jessica will be outnumbered....
At the party, the lights are turned out so that Jessica can carry in the cake with its candles lit; and we get a subtle intimation that the spooky stuff is about to start, as Jessica is photographed here as she was during the occult ceremony at the start of the film, which was also lit by candles. While the kids are singing “Happy Birthday” and Ken is blowing out his own candles, Robert notices that Jessica is missing. He finds her in the bathroom, where she is not just vomiting, but vomiting blood – copiously. Neither of them seems overly alarmed by this detail, although Jessica gasps that the baby is trying to suffocate her, before blurting out that she doesn’t want to have it. Robert soothes her, and tells her that they’ll talk about it later.
Robert goes back to the party, leaving Jessica to pull herself together. As she moves towards the sink, she suddenly catches a glimpse in the mirror of the reflection of someone who must be standing behind her. She spins around, but of course there’s no-one there. Still, both she and we recognise the supernatural intruder: it is Dimitri....
Referring to the stream of “Embarrassed Actors”, former stars who ended up in Italian (and worse, Mexican) exploitation films during the 1970s, people always seem to make mention of the likes of Arthur Kennedy and Mel Ferrer and John Huston and even Henry Fonda. No-one mentions poor Richard Johnson, who after all was the only one of them to graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and go touring with John Gielgud’s own company. Unlike most of his higher-profile fellow-sufferers, though, Johnson usually did earn his pay-cheque, and was generally one of the better things about the exploitation films he appeared in – even if he never quite succeeded in getting that sad look out of his eyes.
Richard Johnson reflects on the direction of his career.
Richard Johnson reflects on the direction of his career.
Here, he is the focus of perhaps the most interesting aspect in Chi Sei?, which like most of its brethren Italian horrors, is a strange mixture of the inexplicable, the just plain stupid and the surprisingly clever. For much of this film, Richard Johnson is seen only indirectly: through windows, or reflected in mirrors, or even in superimposition: a fairly subtle reminder of Dimitri’s insubstantiality, that he isn’t really there....not in the usual sense, anyway. My favourite touch, though, is when his presence is intimated via a close-up of a disembodied foot: a foreshadowing of the frank foot fetish that would burst out in Ovidio Assonitis’ later Tentacoli.
Jessica visits her doctor, describing her symptoms, and adding that, repeatedly, she is waking suddenly in the night, not knowing where she is. The doctor, George Staton, who is also a friend of Jessica and Robert’s, reassures her on that head, but then tells her that she has her dates wrong: she is at least three months pregnant, and not the seven weeks of her own estimation.“What?” exclaims Jessica.
“What!?” exclaimed I.
It is here that the odd similarities between Chi Sei? and The Stranger Within really begin to make themselves felt, not just in the unexpected and, indeed, implicitly impossible nature of the pregnancy, but its unnatural acceleration. As Ann Collins did before her, Jessica protests that she has not got her dates wrong at all; that she has been completely regular, and could not be more than seven weeks pregnant. And as Ann’s doctor did, Jessica’s doctor waves this aside. Because, of course, he’d know better than her, being a man, and all.
After a moment, Jessica nervously asks if the baby could be abnormal? We do not hear Staton’s answer, but cut to Jessica repeating their conversation to Robert over lunch. He reassures her, pointing out that Staton is their friend, and would certainly have told Jessica if anything was wrong – which, as it turns out, isn’t true. Staton is keeping things from Jessica, although he will later confide them to Robert. Nice, ethical conduct, that.
Fish tank. Ash tray. You do the math.
At home, Jessica is sorting some old photographs when she recoils upon coming across one of herself with Dimitri (who, from what we learn of their relationship, doesn’t really strike me as the happy-snapshot sort). Then the weird behaviour starts – with Jessica, for no particular reason, smashing Robert’s aquarium with a heavy ashtray, sending glass, water and fish everywhere.
Now--- I’m sure none of my regular readers will be at all surprised to hear that for all Chi Sei?’s attempts to terrify and/or gross me out, this was the one scene that made me shriek with horror and hide my face in my hands. I would therefore like to pause here and quote the following exchange from the DVD’s commentary track, which accompanies this scene:
Juliet Mills: “I was very worried about those fish!”
Lee Christian: “Did anyone run in and save them?”
Juliet Mills: “Yes! Me!”
Can I ask you all to please join me in giving Miss Mills a round of grateful applause?
Anyway, Jessica suddenly comes to herself, and realises that Ken has been watching all of this through a glass door. That night, a subjective camera starts prowling through the Barretts’ home, accompanied by harsh breathing and growling sounds. It stops in the master bedroom....
Ken apparently woke up at some point in these proceedings, because he now stands in the doorway of his parents’ room and watches as Jessica’s bedclothes pull themselves back and as she, trance-like, stands up and then floats across the room....
Sometime later, we find a deeply worried Robert sitting and staring at muddy smears all over the carpet. We never really find out where they came from; I guess Satan didn’t wipe his feet. (He is evil!) Jessica eventually wanders back in, soaking wet and with no memory of where she’s been.
By my reckoning, that the last time during the 1970s that Richard Johnson smiled.
[Hugging Juliet Mills will do that.]
Robert reports all this to George Staton, who tells him everything that he didn’t tell Jessica: that he’s never seen a pregnancy like it – he calls it “a biological absurdity” – and that he is already consulting some expert colleagues about it. The unnatural rapidity of development Staton considers somehow psychosomatic (like Ann Collins’ anti-abortion pains), and he comments that he’d like Jessica to see a psychiatrist, but doesn’t want to tip her off to his suspicions. Instead, he proposes getting her to confide in his wife, Barbara, who is Jessica’s good friend. (And a snitch, it seems.)
During this conversation, Robert becomes aware that he and Staton are being watched by another man, seated inside the cafe on whose balcony the two of them are having lunch. The man disappears as abruptly as he appeared.
Amusingly, Jessica’s confidences to Barbara start with her complaining about Robert’s weird behaviour: how he sits and stares at her silently, or else talks incessantly. Eventually, she adds that she feels as if something from her past, something that she thought she’d buried forever, had returned to take over her mind.... It turns out that at some earlier time, Jessica told Barbara about her relationship with Dimitri, who she hasn’t seen or heard from since “that night”.
Back at the house, Mr Subjective Camera is back. He sets fire to a towel in the bathroom. Suddenly, Ken wakes up crying hysterically. Gail gets up to comfort him. (Sort of. “Ken, you blow my mind. If you don’t stop that, you’re gunna have a real bad trip.”) Robert comes in to see what’s wrong, and finds that Ken has a high fever, as well as carrying on his chest a strange bruise. It looks almost like a bite.... As Robert goes to call the doctor, Gail trailing after him, a dazed-looking Jessica bends over her son, and ends up giving him a rather lascivious kiss....
Ken is, of course, played by David Colin Jr, who went from Chi Sei? to Mario Bava’s final film, Shock (released in America as Beyond The Door II), where among other things, he ends up giving Daria Nicolodi what, in light of this moment, we can only regard as payback.
Jodie? Is that you?
Jodie? Is that you?
When George Staton arrives, he pulls the covers back from Ken to examine him, revealing that Ken still hasn’t opened the birthday present that Jessica gave him: he has it in bed with him. George finally declares that Ken is fine, though a bit feverish, and that the bruise is just a bruise. He does find Ken a bit thin, though, and questions Jessica about the boy’s eating habits. Gail mouths off here, and Jessica hauls off and slugs her one, before throwing at the horrified Robert that Ken eats nothing but “candy and garbage”.
The good people at Campbell’s must have loved that.
By the way, the burning towel is never referenced again. You can file that one under “just plain stupid”.
Next we know, Jessica is in overt maternity clothes, and Staton is marvelling over the baby’s apparent eagerness to be born. And here Chi Sei? again matches strides with The Stranger Within, as Jessica begins to contemplate having an abortion. Amusingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, this Italian cinema release is a lot more coy and skittish on the subject than its American TV counterpart, even though it is supposed to be depicting Americans. In fact, this is about the totality of it:Jessica: “I want an abortion!”
Staton: “Well, if you insist.”
Jessica: “How dare you suggest an abortion!?”
As Staton understandably stares at her in confusion, Jessica tells him furiously that she will kill anyone who interferes with her; that the child will be born....
Perhaps the film’s most notorious moment follows, as Jessica goes wandering and window-shopping through San Francisco (the Tourist Board really got its money’s worth out of this one). After catching a glimpse of a reflected Dimitri, and then stopping on impulse to buy a doll, again like The Stranger Within, Chi Sei? gives us a disgusting, Rosemary’s Baby-esque moment as Jessica, suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge, picks up a discarded banana-skin from the pavement and starts to eat it....
I’m sorry, but after that, puking green just isn’t going to cut it.
Well, they don't call them "horror movies" for nothing.
For all its flaws, there are moments in Chi Sei? that suggest it may have been surprisingly influential. One of these follows, as Ken has a sing-song conversation with an “invisible friend” in a rocking-chair; a sequence framed exactly like the equivalent scene in The Amityville Horror. The tête-à-tête is broken up by arch-rationalist Gail, who makes a move to sit in the rocking-chair, and responds to Ken’s fears that, “You’ll crush him!” with a hearty, “Oh, bullshit!” Ken insists that his “buddy” is there, but now he’s resting; although most of the time, he follows Ken around and listens to everything he says. “Sure, schmuckhead,” replies the unimpressed Gail. She goes on to lecture Ken about how, if you can’t see something, then it doesn’t exist; and how anyway, you can’t be scared of something that you can’t see.
The rocking-chair, which throughout this has been moving gently back and forth by itself, suddenly becomes still. And then the children’s toys start to move by themselves....
Gail doesn’t immediately notice, leaving the room in response to Ken’s pleas of hunger to get him something to eat. She comes back with a kind of jelly-dessert – which then hurls itself through the air and smashes all over the ceiling of the bedroom.
The drawers then open and close by themselves. The lights start to flicker. The kids’ clothing flies across the room. The bed tips violently, and then spins around on one leg. The Campbell’s green pea soup poster threatens to fall off the wall. And the toys, which have been rolling their eyes or looking around or, in the case of the doll bought by Jessica that morning, walking by themselves, become even more lively....
Well, I won’t claim that Charles Band saw this scene at an impressionable age – although I’m not sure that Tobe Hooper didn’t – but I will say that it is one of the film’s most effective sequences, at least up to the moment that the dolls’ eyes light up. Nothing like a tacky special effect to ruin a mood.
Holy living doll, Batman!
Holy living doll, Batman!
Anyway, so much for arch-rationalism. Gail shrieks in terror, clutching Ken in her arms as the entire room begins to ripple and rock and a demonic voice chuckles merrily. Gail finally makes it out of the door, and runs to the master bedroom to get Jessica, who is resting. We find her asleep lying flat on her face, which doesn’t seem the most natural posture for a woman midway through her pregnancy – although of course, it does help to make it all the more impressive when she turns her head completely around....
Robert arrives home to find the newest doll lying decapitated on the lounge-room floor, but no other immediate sign of disturbance – except that Jessica is hunched over with Ken nursed in her arms, behaving as if she’s just woken from “a terrible dream”. She is hostile, hissing at Robert about how much she wants to escape, how he doesn’t even give her room to breathe. In their bedroom, Robert discovers that all of their furniture, except the bed itself, has been packed up and crammed into a corner, another doll perched on top of it. As he stares, a small hand closes about his. It is Gail: a wide-eyed, white-faced, unprecedentedly quiet Gail. She begs Robert never to leave her and Ken alone with Jessica again.
And here an odd directorial tic emerges: freeze-frames; random freeze-frames; just as were later used in Tentacoli, and just as incomprehensible.
We next see Robert walking through downtown San Francisco. He is being followed, although he doesn’t realise it at first; and the myriad of reflective surfaces give us all sorts of interesting glimpses of Dimitri. Robert finally notices him, and recognises him from the cafe. He moves on, though, and in his eagerness to avoid his pursuer, nearly gets himself run over. Dimitri pulls him to safety. Robert tells him to stop following him and starts to move off, until Dimitri blurts something about Jessica. Robert demands to know how he knows about Jessica? – how he even knows Jessica’s name?
The origin of the expression, "Let sleeping pregnant women
lie face down".
The origin of the expression, "Let sleeping pregnant women lie face down".
“There are many things which you will come to understand,” replies Dimitri, in what is later demonstrated to be a completely unfounded assertion on the part of the film’s eight screenwriters.
Robert starts to back away, but Dimitri pleads with him to listen, promising that with his help, Jessica can be saved. He tells Robert that some unfortunate people become “the prey of dark forces”, and that Jessica is one of these; although he neglects to mention that it’s his fault she is. He adds that Jessica must not be allowed to go far from home, and that no-one must be allowed to interfere with her pregnancy. “The child must be born!” he concludes. He promises to stop following Robert, but as he adds that he knows that Jessica will seek him, it’s not exactly the reassurance Robert was seeking.
Okay – this film isn’t exactly scary, but it is frequently freaky; and perhaps its freakiest, and most mystifying, moment comes next, as the sleeping Jessica is being baby-sat by Barbara. She wakes up, and rolls over onto her back; and although one of her eyes remains perfectly still, the other....how do I put this?....starts doing gymnastics.
(And there’s another eyeball moment later on. Uhhhhhhewwewww....)
Later, George takes his turn at baby-sitting. It is he, therefore, who gets the first dose of full-on Possessed Jessica, after a brief reappearance from Mr Growly Subjective Camera. George jerks awake from a doze to find Jessica out of bed and crouched in a chair in a corner of the room. She is, shall we say, not herself....
“Who are you?” it/she growls. “WHO – ARE – YOU – ?”
(Find anyone of the right age, and they’ll tell you how much the ad-spots for Chi Sei?, which featured this moment, traumatised them.)
The makeup work in this film is actually pretty good. It does the usual trick of getting nastier as the film goes on, but remains effectively creepy rather than ever going over the top, and never entirely buries the woman within, which is all to the good. In her first and, indeed, only outing in pure exploitation, Juliet Mills (surely the world’s least likely exploitation film actress) gives a commendably serious and committed performance in Chi Sei?, even though parts of the shoot must have been exhausting and terribly uncomfortable.
Then the personalities start fighting for control. “George! George, help me! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU PIECE OF SHIT! GET OUT!! George...? WHO ARE YOU? George, George, please help me! George, please...!”
George is still hesitating over that when we get the first green puke. “Come on, you filthy pig! Lick the vile whore’s vomit!” commands Voice #3, as Jessica scoops it off her own lips and pitches at her horrified friend. Possessed Jessica, giggling creepily, then takes her own advice, and starts licking her fingers....
And yet, I find that less disturbing than the eyeball or the banana-peel. Go figure.
(Or the fish. Obviously.)
Suddenly, Voice #2 starts calling for an old friend. “Dimitri! Dimitri! I’m waiting for you! You know I am!”
It turns out that Robert has wandered in at some point during this – in time to hear the call for Dimitri, anyway. The next thing we know, Barbara is packing up the kids and taking them away. Gail prepares a care package for Ken, with at least two tins of green pea soup, before slipping all fifteen copies of Love Story into her own bag.
George tries to convince Robert to have Jessica hospitalised. Robert hesitates, then explains the significance of the name “Dimitri”. It turns out he knows about Dimitri’s former relationship with Jessica, although we gather that the penny has only just dropped over who the mysterious “follower” is. Interestingly, Robert flatly denies that Dimitri could be the baby’s father – another point of comparison between Chi Sei? and The Stranger Within. Here we listen to Jessica’s own voiceover account of the relationship, in which she talks about Dimitri’s “magnetic personality” and how she found herself “falling more and more under his influence” until she “couldn’t do without him”.
"I don't think we should have let Gail make the cake...."
Robert concludes by telling George that he believes only Dimitri can help Jessica. George is professionally affronted by this, of course. Robert finally agrees to have Jessica hospitalised “tomorrow”. George promises to make the arrangements, in turn making Robert promise that he won’t leave Jessica alone for any reason.
Before either of them can do anything, Dimitri shows up at the apartment. We get closer to The Exorcist here than at any other point in the film, the puking and head-turning notwithstanding, as from the bedroom we hear the sound of mocking laughter. She – or it – knows that Dimitri is out there....
Confronted by Dimitri, Robert, who up until now has hesitated over Jessica’s hospitalisation, insists that she has to go. There’s a suggestion that wants to be contradicted – or rather, that he wants someone else to take responsibility for the decision-making. Obligingly, Dimitri insists that only he can help Jessica. “The child must be born!” he reiterates. “She stays here!” Dimitri then confesses his former love to Robert – he doesn’t seem to realise that Jessica already has – and adds that because of it, he wants to try and save her and the baby. Robert is still doubtful, and wants to know why Jessica can’t go to the hospital. “Because she would die,” replies Dimitri simply.
It’s a curious thing: we know, of course, that Dimitri has an ulterior motive here, but we can still understand why Robert finally decides to trust him; Richard Johnson’s own personality shining through Dimitri, just as Juliet Mills’ shines through Possessed Jessica.
When Dimitri tells Robert he must leave him alone with Jessica, however, Robert baulks. Suddenly, we hear Jessica’s own voice from – gasp! – beyond the door, pleading with Robert to go away and leave her with Dimitri. Dimitri takes advantage of Robert’s obvious wavering, not only convincing him to leave, but that he mustn’t listen to George any more.
No sooner has Robert departed than a familiar mocking voice sounds in Dimitri’s head, telling him that he has one more day.... “I beg you!” mutters Dimitri. “I came here! I obeyed your orders! But now....I feel that....I am someone else....”
“You are someone else!” says Voice #2 from – gasp! – beyond the door.
"That's some nice fluting, boy!"
Dimitri then tears himself away from the mirror against which he’s been propping himself up, and staggers over to the door. “I beg you! I can’t die!” he pleads. The voice continues on remorselessly, foretelling Dimitri’s grim and imminent future. “You will have no grave, no coffin – like me, you will have no name!” it declares. The door begins to force itself open. Dimitri throws himself against it, fighting to shut it again. He finally succeeds – and then collapses, exhausted.
In a film about an impossible pregnancy and a demonic possession, we now get the film’s single most inexplicable moment, as Robert wanders purposelessly through the city, and ends up getting harassed by a band of street musicians, one of whom has a flute up his nose (!!). I say moment: it goes on for about two minutes! Robert finally tears himself free of them. He then runs into George, to whom he must explain that he hasn’t left Jessica alone – and that he has decided to follow Dimitri’s advice. George loses his temper, demanding to know who Dimitri is, anyway? – where he came from? – what right he has to endanger Jessica’s life? Which, of course, is George’s job.
Once back at the apartment, however, Robert isn’t so sure of his decision. Jessica has been unconscious for hours; she may even be dying. Dimitri assures Robert that she isn’t, and will not.
“Inside her, a new life is struggling desperately to compel itself into existence. You cannot know the dreadful suffering of a spirit which is striving to emerge from the world of darkness. I’m sure you don’t believe that spirits come back to this earth,” Dimitri concludes quietly, “but they do, you know, Robert. Their return can be terrifying....”
I’m telling you, it takes training from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to deliver a speech like that properly. Bravo, Mr Johnson!
A glance at Jessica shows us that she is now in a straitjacket. Meanwhile, Robert understandably makes himself a stiff drink, but on glancing down, he finds floating in it – an eyeball!!??
Even more understandably, Robert cries out in horror and throws his glass across the room. We get a subjective view of this (!!!), and then the eyeball rolls across the carpet, comes to a halt, sits there – looking at them – and then vanishes. Meanwhile – beyond the door – Jessica laughs evilly.
This little interlude persuades Robert to allow George to conduct one set of tests on Jessica, to be carried out within the apartment. After all, this would hardly be a proper Exorcist rip-off without some grotesque medical tests – right? We get here the most famous shots of Possessed Jessica, as she gets hooked to some kind of ECG and ends up looking like she’s having a bizarre hair-treatment. Of course, this round of testing pales into insignificance compared to what Regan MacNeil had to undergo....and even more so, measured against the sufferings of the unfortunate Gul in Seytan.
Dimitri warns Robert that the test will prove nothing, and he’s right – inasmuch as the test shows that Jessica has no brain activity at all. Robert isn’t even surprised, while Jessica seems to find it amusing. She demands Dimitri, and Robert concedes that only he can help. George stubbornly sticks by the power of medicine, but has nothing to offer besides confining Jessica. Jessica herself then muddies the waters, warning Robert that Dimitri is tricking him, before cackling a little bit more. “He wants to steal my baby,” she sings, “he wants to steal my baby.... That man doesn’t exist,” she insists suddenly, adding in Voice #2, “I am in that man! The child must be born! I will kill you first!” asserts Jessica, reverting to her own voice and struggling against her straitjacket. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you...!”
George sedates Jessica, then sets out to do a little investigating. He tracks Dimitri from place to place, person to person, and finally hunts down a woman who lives on a houseboat. She is – *cough* – just a little vague, in a 70s ’Frisco sort of way, but recalls Dimitri clearly enough. A strange man, she calls him, but one with extraordinary powers; well thought of in some circles; capable of curing those given up by medicine; and of making people see things that weren’t there; and, oh yeah, by the way, did she mention that he’s been dead for ten years...?
Meanwhile, Jessica suckers Robert into freeing her from her straitjacket, so that she can “hold him”. Of course, she immediately turns on him, assaulting him first physically and then simply with the power of her mind, tossing him violently around the room, slamming him into the walls and then against the ceiling, before opening the door and tossing him out altogether – landing him at Dimitri’s feet. A quivering Robert looks up at Dimitri, who smiles....
"Anything Mia Farrow and Vidal Sassoon can do, I can do better!"
“The game is nearly over now,” he tells Robert comfortingly. “When the evil spirits have had their pleasure, when they have caused us enough pain to satisfy their needs, they will leave.” He goes on to explain Evil’s ability to compress time, explaining by this the rapidity of Jessica’s pregnancy, and that it has penetrated into her womb. “The child must be born. It must be brought out into the light. The powers of darkness must be prevented from carrying it away. Tomorrow,” he concludes, “I must act alone.”
Frankly, Richard – you’ve been acting alone since this thing began.
In any case, Robert is nowhere to be seen when a chuckling Satan begins to taunt Dimitri, telling him he only has a few more minutes of life left. He continues to throw time in Dimitri’s face, finally telling him that it is “time”.... Suddenly, his voice moves from inside Dimitri’s head to issuing from Jessica, telling him that soon he will be inside a new-born child, and in that way have the extra life that he longs for. It’s the moment he’s been waiting for....
(Extraordinarily, this, of all the Exorcist rip-offs, or even The Exorcist itself, gives us the most disgustingly realistic detail: Jessica’s pillow is soaked with sweat and drool, and stained with puke....)
“Dimitri,” announces Satan impatiently, “I am waiting for you inside the guts of this whore! Make her spit out this vile creature, which will renew your life! Remember Jessica? How sweet she was? – like a child. I chose her! – to come into the world through her! You fool, you let her get away!”
Dimitri obediently takes off Jessica’s straitjacket (I’m not actually sure how they got it back on her again), and as he turns away to put it down, Jessica starts levitating. She stops when her crotch is on a level with Dimitri’s eyes. “Do what I tell you!” orders Satan. “Plunge your hands into her, so that you may live! Rip the creature out of her!”
And for once in Richard Johnson’s exploitation film career, he looks even more embarrassed than sad.
"This never happened at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
"This never happened at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts!"
But as Dimitri reaches out, Jessica makes a convulsive movement, and---we see that Satan really does have remarkable powers, as an obvious animation effect converts into green goop before hitting Dimitri full in the face.
And to add insult to, well, insult, Satan now reveals that he’s been yanking Dimitri’s crank all along; that he never intended to give him more life.
A sobbing Dimitri throws himself at Satan/Jessica’s side, begging and pleading for more life, but the inexorable Satan tells him that he will now “die in my image” and learn “the exquisite suffering of the damned”. An hysterical Dimitri then begins whaling on Jessica, slamming his clenched fists onto her abdomen and howling, “Life! Life! Life! Life!...”
And then that car, which has apparently been suspended in mid-air between a Californian cliff-edge and the water below it for the past ten years, finally completes its fall....
George, having finished his investigations into Dimitri, comes running back into the apartment. The aquarium has mysteriously fixed itself, by the way, fish and all – and there’s a doll submerged in it....
George finds Jessica sound asleep, obviously herself again. On the floor by the bed is Dimitri’s trench-coat, although there is no sign of Dimitri himself - or so it seems. George pulls back the folds of the coat. Lying inside it is a dead baby; a baby with no mouth....
Cut to an indeterminate time afterwards; the family reunited, crossing the bay on a ferry; Jessica herself sad but composed. Gail finally finishes reading Love Story, and Ken finally opens that birthday present he’s been toting around since the start of the film. Inside is a model car; a strangely familiar car. There’s even a little figure behind the wheel.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you to always wear clean underwear? Or any underwear?"
Ken crosses to the railing of the ferry and tips the model car over it, so that it plunges into the water below. And then, well....
Chi Sei? does actually play fair on this point. There are hints all the way through that Ken, and not the baby, is Satan’s latest vehicle – even in Satan’s opening speech to Dimitri, when he tells him, “You must find the child she is carrying in her womb; you must find me.” He doesn’t strictly say that they are one and the same, although he certainly intends Dimitri (and us) to take it that way. Then there’s the mysterious unopened present; Ken’s repeated presence during Jessica’s earliest signs of possession; the invisible friend; his relative calm during the attack of the toys; and even the uncomfortable kiss.
I guess the question is, what was the point? Did Satan really mean to inhabit the baby? Did Dimitri stop him by killing it, so that he had to find another host? Or was Ken the target all along? Certainly Satan seems to feel that he was owed a child of Jessica’s to inhabit, and only lost it through Dimitri’s interference. But if inhabiting a child is just that easy, why all the rest of it? Just to screw with Dimitri?
Well, yeah. Turns out the whole thing was just a hugely complicated joke at Dimitri’s expense, for which Jessica and her family were merely the means to an end.
So I guess the moral of Chi Sei? is, Satan is an incredible dick.Possibly not as much of an incredible dick as the Warner Bros. executives, though; but then, there’s a limit to everything.
Hands up anyone who's surprised...?