Scream Factory takes another stab at Italian horror on Blu-ray and blunders with two of the lesser Filmirage productions METAMORPHOSIS and BEYOND DARKNESS.
METAMORPHOSIS is the story of brilliant young genetic engineer Dr. Peter Houseman (Gene Lebrock, FORTRESS OF AMERIKKKA) who believes that death is an environmental adaptation for the survival of the species as a whole and that the genetic code holds within it not only the "memories" of past evolutionary mutations but also a sequence that instructs the body when it cells should stop reproducing and protecting organs from disease as a natural process of aging and death (citing a theory abandoned by virologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet). Although he is not popular with the school board or the old guard of the biology department like crotchety and arrogant Professor Lloyd (Stephen Brown), Houseman has managed to secure a quarter of a million dollars on his research without annual reports or any publications. Houseman hits the roof when New York administrator Sally Donnelly (Catherine Baranov) – with whom he nevertheless develops a romance and tries to get in good with her son (Jason Arnold, who sounds like he was dubbed by the annoying kid in WITCHERY) – implements changes to funding requests demanding a report on his experiments, which leaves his preliminary findings subject to scrutiny and derision by Lloyd. The other members of the department's advisory committee who are concerned that cutting off Houseman's funding would draw negative attention on the university (especially if Houseman goes somewhere else and publishes successful results).
When Houseman reveals that he has been experimenting with human embryos, Lloyd convinces the board to let the experiments continue under his supervision. In order to prevent this from happening, Houseman decides to accelerate the experiments – despite the concerns of assistant Willy (David Wicker) – and inject himself with the embryonic serum he has developed. Surviving the experiment that killed his previous animal text subjects seems to qualify as a measure of success, but Peter soon experiences unexpected side effects in the form of heightened senses and an increased aggression creeping into his demeanor that lead to his realization that he has also suffered from blackouts during which he brutalized a prostitute (BLACK EMANUELLE's Laura Gemser, who also designed the costumes for this and some other Filmirage productions under the name "Laurette Gemser"). What first seems like sudden rapid aging that puzzles the doctors turns out to be the next stage in a regressive genetic mutation to a long dormant form from man's distant past; but he's got some scores to settle before he loses his humanity.
Scripted by "G.L. Eastman" or actor George Eastman or Luigi Montefiori – who had scripted and starred in D'Amato's first exploitation venture of the eighties ANTHROPOPHAGUS (and its follow-up) – with a bigger budget in mind, METAMORPHIS seems conceptually ambitious and is approached by its cast with conviction, but it seems to have been scaled down not only in terms of effects but narrative events. While the gore gets surprisingly stickier in the last act – with some wicked ravaged skin appliances by Maurizio Trani (ZOMBI HOLOCAUST) – the mutation make-up gets increasingly laughable until we get to the hilarious final reveal. The surprise ending is hilarious, although refreshingly not the usual "is she pregnant with a mutant baby" open ending. The cinematography of Gianlorenzo Battaglia (DEMONS) is intermittently attractive with some backlit and diffused natural light shots clashing with flat and ugly fluorescent environments, but it's a generally ugly looking film (the moonlit sex scene between Lebrock and Baranov, however, does look like eighties D'Amato softcore). Credited composer "Pahamian" was actually Luigi Ceccarelli who scored films on the lower tier of Italian exploitation – adapting the pseudonym for his Filmirage assignments – with the possible exception of NOSFERATU IN VENICE which had the budget to go through a handful of directors.
Reverend George (David Brandon, STAGEFRIGHT) ventures BEYOND DARKNESS when he goes to take the confession and administer last rites to condemned child murderess Bette (Mary Coulson, Lucio Fulci's DOOR TO SILENCE), but she is not only unrepentant since she has devoured the souls of her victims to take to hell with her to her god Ameth. He believes her to be mentally ill until he sees the spirits of her victims after her "final orgasm" in the electric chair and leaves the church a broken man. One year later, George's replacement Reverend Peter (METAMORPHOSIS' Lebrock) moves into a fog-shrouded Louisiana mansion with his wife Annie (Barbara Bingham, THE OCTAGON), son Martin (TROLL 2's Michael Stephenson) and daughter Carole (Theresa Walker). No sooner have they said grace at their first dinner than they are experience power outages, moving objects, chanting voices, and desecrated Bibles. Martin is creeped out by a black swan rocking toy that moves on its own while Carole is drawn towards a glowing hole in the closet that seems to be a portal to another dimension. When Peter confides his troubles to his superior Reverend Jonathan (METAMORPHOSIS' Brown), he learns that the older man has appointed him not only a replacement to administer to George's parishioners but in his specialization as an exorcist to purify the house which was the sight of a mass witch burning. What he does not realize until too late is that Bette has come back from the beyond with those witches and is after his children. George tries to recover his faith to help Peter save his family, but he may just be on his way to his own meeting with Ameth and reunion in hell with Bette.
Reusing Carlo Maria Cordio's cues for WITCHERY and KILLING BIRDS (as well as the house from THE BEYOND recycled in the latter film), and throwing together a plot from elements several years too late to cash in on POLTERGEIST, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and THE EXORCIST, BEYOND DARKNESS is the least interesting of the three LA CASA unofficial sequels to THE EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD 2 (which were released in Italy as LA CASA) following Umberto Lenzi's LA CASA 3 which was released here as GHOSTHOUSE and LA CASA 4, released here as WITCHERY. Producer Joe D'Amato's cinematography is generally slick and intermittently striking, but the plotting is as flat as the spook show theatrics. The leads try but are bland, and the only performer with any true conviction in the film is Brandon who reportedly did his scene of public drunkenness harassing passersby without a permit and the filmmakers shooting out of sight with a telephoto lens (it is his performance in his death scene combined with the stirring organ cue from KILLING BIRDS that are most successful in wringing out emotion). Stick with the first two films for more grue and more entertaining absurdity.
Both METAMORPHOSIS and BEYOND DARKNESS went straight to VHS stateside courtesy of Imperial Entertainment (the same label that released GHOSTHOUSE and STAGEFRIGHT). Although both films have been available on DVD in Italy and France, they are making their digital debut here on Blu-ray (well, technically METAMORPHOSIS appeared as a crappy tape-rip on some of those Mill Creek fifty-movie sets). Alas, neither 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 transfer looks particularly good (even compared to just above passable transfers of GHOSTHOUSE and WITCHERY). While there is plenty of diffusion and heavy grain in METAMORPHOSIS, there is a streakiness to blooming whites and ghosting in movement, and overall smoothness one would not expect of film that, however low budget, is competently photographed by an experienced cinematographer. There is plenty of lens flare in BEYOND DARKNESS with plenty of backlit shots but bright sources tend to streak during camera pans, the white opening titles are noisy, and the shadows dull rather than grainy. It looks better than METAMORPHOSIS, but does not even seem like a moderate upgrade over the SD presentations. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track of METAMORPHOSIS has some hiss and a little clipping but the hiss is worse on BEYOND DARKNESS during the louder dialogue passages. Optional English SDH subtitles are included for both. The film's trailers (3:43 and 1:29) are the sole extras. (Eric Cotenas)
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