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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Metamorphosis/Beyond Darkness Double-Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)

When his genetic experiments are mocked by his colleagues, maverick scientist Dr. Peter Houseman takes extreme measures to prove that his untested anti-aging serum works. Injecting himself with his miracle "cure," he soon experiences a terrifying change within himself that threatens not only the lives of those around him, but also his own sanity. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

George Eastman, born Luigi Montefiori (not to be confused with the color film guy), is one of the most fascinating figures in Italian exploitation cinema. He is probably best known as the unstoppable killer in both Joe D’Amato’s (real name Aristide Massaccesi) Anthropophagous (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980) and its spiritual successor, Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Horrible, 1981), but his fantastically varied career was not limited to stints as brutal murderers. He started his professional life as a graphic designer before his unusual stature (6’ 9”) and unique looks got him jobs in spaghetti westerns – first as a hero, then, when that didn’t work out, as a villain. When the spaghettis dried up, he worked as both an actor and writer in horror, giallo, adventure, post-apocalyptic action, and even porn. His writing career continued into the 2010s, including a stint on the still-running Italian TV series La Squadra, but his directing career stalled with only one credited solo gig on 1990s Metamorphosis (aka: Regenerator in the UK, DNA Formula Letale in Italy, and, amusingly enough, Re-Animator 2 in Spain).

Metamorphosis – not to be confused with Glenn Takakjian’s enjoyably cheap Alien/The Thing cash-in of the same name (made the same year) – is often referred to as the Italian rip-off of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), but Eastman’s script is more of a referential stew to popular monster and mad scientist movies. The basic scientific set-up is definitely reminiscent of The Fly (they even run tests on a baboon), while the school setting is taken directly from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985 – hence it being called Re-Animator 2 in Spain). This predictability is actually quite comfortable. Unfortunately, the sci-fi set-up is left behind for a lot of the film and Eastman defaults to mad killer tropes (the third act borrows liberally from D’Amato’s Absurd, which had been designed as a gory Italian Halloween [1978] in the first place) once Dr. Houseman has injected himself and begins his transformation. Lead actor Gene Lebrock does his best to humanize the character in a better than average performance, but he’s written as an uneasy combination of Peter Cushing’s narcissistic creep Dr. Frankenstein and Bruce Abbot’s tragically romantic Dan Cain (from Re-Animator). There’s not enough reason to root for or against him. Still, the nonsensical explanations of the pseudoscience (it’s never clear precisely what Houseman is trying to do) and tone-deaf sex scenes are good for an unintentional laugh.

Maurizio Trani’s special effects aren’t quite up to the highest late ‘80s/early ‘90s Hollywood standard, but they’re still incredibly charming, especially the weird, short-armed, giant-mouthed T-rex thing that Houseman becomes at the very end of the movie (it makes monkey sounds, my friends). In fact, they’re probably the movie’s biggest selling point and it’s too bad they didn’t have enough money to make a lot more of them. Metamorphosis was censored for an R rating when released in North America. Based on the comparison here, this Blu-ray does appear to be the unrated cut, despite the R-rating that appears on the box art.

Metamorphosis had previously only been released on DVD in Japan and Italy (as far as I know) and both seem to have been transferred from VHS sources. At the very least, neither were anamorphic or widescreen. This 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit mushy, but it’s hard to decide how much of that mushiness is due to a less-than-spectacular scan and what can be blamed on the film’s minuscule budget. Eastman and Lamberto Bava’s favourite cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia appears to have been aiming for a slick and sterile image, which looks fine in well-lit close-up, but appears gritty in darker and wider-set shots. The darker the image, the more posterization and blocking effects tend to appear and the harder it is to discern highlights among the sludge. Still, details are often tight enough to see most of the fine textures, specifically in brighter scenes, even if the edges are ill-defined. The palette is purposefully underwhelming for much of the film (in regards to that “sterile” look I mentioned earlier), but I assume that the greenish base tint and purplish skin tones aren’t intended. I’m not sure if Metamorphosis could look much better than it does here without a major overhaul of the material, but fans could still be disappointed.

According to specs, Metamorphosis was mixed for stereo and, while the Italian DVD did have a 5.1 remix, Scream Factory sticks to a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track for this Blu-ray debut. The sound quality is a little ‘bouncy,’ as in the volume levels of the front and center dialogue/effects moves up and down. It’s possible that this is a side effect of an Italian crew shooting the footage with sound, which is something that was still pretty rare in the industry. The longer dialogue scenes have all sorts of problems with echo and dropping sound when the characters wander too far away from the camera. The fact that Luigi Ceccarelli’s catchy keyboard score and the more elaborate sci-fi sound effects fare better makes me think this theory is sound (excuse the pun).

The only extra is a trailer (which happens to have better gamma balance than the movie).

When a man of God and his loving family move into a new house, they think they've found the perfect home…until they discover that their new digs were once the location where a coven of witches were burned at the stake! It's only a matter of time before the radio starts blaring satanic chants and the cutlery takes on a mind of its own. Will the awakened evil in this house have its final revenge or can a plucky priest fend off what lurks beyond darkness? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

When I refer to an Italian horror movie called Beyond Darkness even the most ardent fan will likely be confused as to precisely which movie I’m referring to. Tracing the title involves a labyrinthine explanation of the weird lengths these filmmakers would go to trick viewers into seeing their less than reputable product. The North American and British title, Beyond Darkness, is easily confused with the European title of Beyond THE Darkness, which was known as Buio Omega in Italy and Buried Alive in the US, and was directed by Beyond Darkness producer, Joe D’Amato. However, in its native Italy, Beyond Darkness was released as La Casa 5. La Casa, you see, was the Italian release title of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), making this the third of five false entries in the Evil Dead saga, as well as the final Italian-made one, since Ethan Wiley’s House II: The Second Story (1987) and Sean Cunningham’s The Horror Show (1989) were American-made and simple retitled in the region.

By 1990, things were looking rough for the Italian film industry and even reliable genre directors, including Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato, were mostly churning out garbage for the straight-to-video machine (Dario Argento had a couple of decent movies to come, but even he’d lost a step). Beyond Darkness director Claudio Fragasso was not up to the Fulci/Deodato standard during even the best of times. Along with cohorts Bruno Mattei and D’Amato (who was mostly working in porn by the late ‘80s), Fragasso hammered the final nails in the Italian horror’s coffin with a series of bland and ugly last-minute cash-ins. His bottom of the barrel exploits had peaked early with his first solo directing effort, the somewhat watchable Monster Dog (1984), before tumbling into the tank with Zombie 4: After Death (Italian: Oltre la Morte, 1989) and Troll 2 (affectionately known as “The Best Worst Movie,” 1990). On the spectrum of Fragasso movies, Beyond Darkness is actually one of the better ones, because it’s not terminally boring or grotesquely unattractive. That said, it’s still a stiff, amateurish, third generation rip-off of Umberto Lenzi’s and Lucio Fulci’s already fractured rip-offs of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Fragasso and co-writer/partner Rossella Drudi also toss in references to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III (1990), and Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985). It looks better than the terminally flat pictures Fragasso is usually responsible for. Troll 2 fans will probably delight at the weird, child-friendly slant and the horrible dialogue that the poor cast is forced to wade through (a young Michael Stephenson appears in both films), but I feel bad for the likes of David Brandon, Barbara Bingham, and (once again) Gene LeBrock – all of whom are capable of much better.

Beyond Darkness was released on DVD in Italy under the La Casa 5 title without English subtitles. Otherwise, it has languished in obscurity and this 1.66:1, 1080p release is, obviously, its first appearance on Blu-ray. The image quality is generally similar to Scream Factory’s other late ‘80s/early ‘90s Italian genre releases (I’m sure they’re getting them all from the same source company), but also has a number of minor advantages over its counterparts. Despite quite a bit of what appears to be telecine scanning noise and some mushy edges/details, this is a pretty filmic looking transfer, including some fine grain. Fragasso and cinematographer Larry J. Fraser (who only has one credit, which makes me assume he is actually either Fragasso or D’Amato using a pseudonym) cut costs (and ripped off Poltergeist) by representing supernatural happenings with bright white lights and smoke effects. These bright effects fare very well, while darker scenes, though somewhat muddy, aren’t so messy that important elements disappear into its brownish-black shadows.

Beyond Darkness was mixed in mono sound and this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack appears to stick to that convention, despite the box art claiming it to be stereo. Once again, there are issues with the clarity and consistency of the set-recorded elements (dialogue, incidental effects). It’s genuinely impossible to tell what people are saying about half the time. The volume discrepancies and buzzing/hissing problems don’t extend to the more heavily ‘designed’ scare scenes. Carlo Maria Cordio’s music is typical of ‘90s Italian horror, including a number of mournful and spooky keyboard motifs that are better than the film deserves. Whenever the score is able to cut loose, it sounds pretty fantastic with warm bass notes and clean high end.

Again, the only extra is a trailer.

The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.



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