Of all the sub-genres in horror’s multifaceted pantheon, few are as primal, or as intriguing, as the ‘Sex Demon’ sub-genre, which I suppose is technically a sub-sub-genre in the tradition of films such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Friedkin’s controversial opus was a cultural happening so formidable it spawned a whole host of knock-offs at a time when the notorious ‘Satanic Panic’ was sweeping America, and Michael Dugan’s exercise in creative dementia, Mausoleum, certainly falls into that category. It also takes visual cues from the likes of The Omen and The Shining, films that will leap to mind during certain moments, especially an almost like-for-like imitation of the latter’s infamous bathtub scene, one which sees Mausoleum‘s supernatural hussy, in the midst of a passionate clinch, become something much more vile and decrepit. Dugan, who would direct only three features over a 23-year period, clearly knows the genre, even if he lacks an understanding of what makes it so effective.
Despite its relative obscurity, the sex demon sub-genre is actually rather plentiful, many such films arriving in a post ‘Summer of Sam’ environment of public hysteria. America’s obsession with the occult began during the late 1960s, a series of books and films reflecting a hippy sub-culture that had adopted spirituality and occultism in the midst of spiritual upheaval. Some embraced such practices as a harmless trend, others, like the high-profile Manson Family, took their beliefs to another level, committing amphetamine-induced human sacrifice in an attempt to incite a race war and eradicate America’s bourgeoisie. In 1968, Roman Polanski released his hugely innovative Ira Levin adaptation Rosemary’s Baby, the story of a young woman chosen and targeted by occultists as the bearer of Satan’s child. In 1971, William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist, its subsequent adaptation harbouring sexual undertones that were nothing short of sacrilegious, all but established notions of demonic possession in the American mainstream.
Ironically, Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, further immortalised in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist drama Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, was murdered in a ritualistic, Charles Manson-led stabbing shortly after the release of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby while heavily pregnant with his child. Manson, who based his philosophies on misguided interpretations of songs by The Beatles, was later connected to the ‘Summer of Sam’ case: a series of New York shootings initially pinned on cult member David Berkowitz that were later tied to a worldwide syndicate of Satanists and snuff purveyors. Journalist and author of the 1987 true-crime book ‘The Ultimate Evil: The Search for the Sons of Sam’, Maury Terry, sacrificed most of his working life to unravel a mystery that was ultimately supressed by the NYPD as a matter of vanity. So well-oiled and deep-lying were those responsible for the murders that the case, and the inevitable moral panic that ensued, dragged on for more than two decades without ever being solved.
What followed was a veritable smorgasbord of satanic cold cuts in an industry that is almost always a reflection of reality, regardless of how exploitative or far-fetched. While cinema had already flirted with the occult, particularly in British films such as Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, the 70s saw a rise in lurid sexploitation movies, glorified porno flicks centring on notions of the occult and virgin sacrifice.
Taking their cue from the likes of The Exorcist, the mainstream was just as embroiled in the country’s obsession with all things occult, one that thundered on long into the 1980s. Movies such as 1982’s The Incubus and The Entity, while certainly exploitative, would find their way into the public consciousness. The latter, which features the repeated rape of a woman by a supernatural entity, was even based on real life events; that or events concocted by reputed victim Doris Bither. Sam Raimi would subject audiences to an act of demonic rape in notorious ‘video nasty’ The Evil Dead, the film at the centre of a high-profile censorship court case just prior to its outright banning. In 1984, notorious child killer and implied rapist Fred Krueger would return as a sexually motivated dream demon who plagued kids in the privacy of their beds, inhabiting their nightmares in an act of symbolic possession. Wherever you looked there were sexually motivated possession movies that tapped into society’s fears and fascinations.
Look a little closer and you’ll find plenty of bargain basement movies of a similar ilk, the kind that only serve to highlight the sheer sensationalism surrounding Satanism and the supernatural, or, in the case of Mausoleum, just how trite and predictable it would become at a time when low-budget horror was flooding theatres and the oversaturated home video market. Mausoleum, one of a plethora of second-rate efforts released in the wake of such a panic-driven climate, doesn’t boast infamous moments that might be deemed iconic, but it does feature memorable moments in the strictly ironic sense, enough to turn hell’s kitchen into a bawling hotbed of merriment. For every loon looking to strike fear in the hearts of a generation there’s a creative chancer looking to exploit those fears. Some do such a convincing job that audiences believe the half-hearted ‘true events’ spiel. Others just throw something together with tits and makeup.
Mausoleum definitely errs towards the latter. Though next-to-no information exists about the film’s production, the fact that it began all the way back in February 1981 suggests that it was problematic to say the least, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that the film was part-funded by former capo of the Colombo crime family Michael “Yuppie Don” Franzese, who allegedly used the production as an outlet for money laundering at a time when the Italian mafia still had a stranglehold on the city that never sleeps. Mausoleum comes across like a gangster’s wet dream; a saucy, violent romp masquerading as supernatural horror, with absolutely no attention paid to the subject matter beyond billowing smoke, neon lighting, and the kind of guttural sound design so ubiquitous it had already crossed over into the realms of self-parody. International distribution also became a problem after the film somehow qualified for the UK’s video nasty list, meaning it failed to wash-up on the bloodless shores of blighty for more than fifteen years.
The fact that a movie of such schlocky extremes was banished to commercial purgatory is a monument to the wild excesses of moral hysteria during the early 1980s, but despite its almost ceaseless absurdity, Mausoleum, yet another 80s flick blessed with memorable poster art that in itself is an outlet for possession, is plenty violent. It’s also a sucker for sex and nudity, seducing like a softcore porno with deeply sadistic tendencies, the kind that, a few genuinely gruesome moments aside, result in either awed confusion or outright laughter. In fact, the film is little more than a nonsensical triad of sex, silliness and visual savagery repeated ad nauseum, buoyed by a deeply nonsensical screenplay and the kind of bottom-rung acting that sees one cast member fumble his lines to such an extent he attempts to ad lib, failing just as miserably, but more on that later.
Leading the all-out raciness is former Playboy Bunny Bobbie Bresee, a big-breasted beauty who famously turned heads after appearing at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival braless wearing a see-through dress. Bresee, a short-lived scream queen who also appeared in such kitsch 80s classics as Surf Nazis Must Die, Evil Spawn and Ghoulies, plays gorgeous homemaker Susan, a character who sheds her slinkies in practically every scene. After visiting her deceased mother’s mausoleum as a timid ten-year-old, Susan is possessed by a demon who’s been preying on her female ancestors for centuries. Early on, ill-fated aunt Cora (Laura Hippe), reveals that her niece begins acting strangely every year, same as her mother before she died. That’s at least a decade of demonic activity that’s gone unnoticed by husband Oliver (Marjoe Gortner), a character with an uncanny knack of being called to work at the most narratively convenient of times. Perhaps that explains it.
Okay, so coherency, continuity and general plausibility aren’t Mausoleum‘s strong points, but aesthetically it can be quite the treat. Despite its nonsensical plot and moments of gobsmacking inadequacy acting-wise, it’s not jarring in a way that deems it unwatchable. In fact, it doesn’t feel particularly cheapo and for the most part is staged and shot rather admirably. The Bava-esque lighting, though by no means art, is a welcome visual indulgence, and there are some genuinely unsettling images, like that of Susan rocking demonically in her chair in the dead of night, something that traumatises Oliver to such an extent that he calls the family doctor for advice before calmly conceding and climbing back into bed with his mutated missus. Earlier, he shrugs off a demonic conversation he hears Susan having with herself before casually slinking off to work. Satanic happenings ain’t no thang in the Farrell homestead it seems.
Though revealing itself to a plethora of characters in the crudest way imaginable, and despite Susan’s ability to turn every last head in the room (one fellow, later burned in a car, immediately dumps his date for Susan and turns ugly when she rejects his advances), our ghastly creature is able to slaughter at will with absolute impunity as the house jumps between glorified porno shoot and arid cauldron of death, a vacuous apology usually enough to convince her long-suffering husband that facial disfiguration and demonic outbursts are nothing to worry about — and I don’t mean a slight shift in light or a little eyeshadow here, I’m talking full-on, warts-and-all transformation of the most grotesque order. And what about all those employees and relatives who suddenly go missing? When the police finally do get around to investigating, good luck explaining all those corpses rotting away in the attic. I doubt the whole demonic possession story will fly with the boys in blue. At least she doesn’t live in New York City.
The film’s makeup and practical effects, despite some instances of abject tomfoolery, are actually quite impressive at times, which isn’t surprising considering they’re the work of special make-up effects artist and former Empire Pictures alumni John Carl Buechler, who would apply his inimitable skills to such gore-laden treats as Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and Dolls. He would also go on to direct cult classics Troll and Cellar Dweller, even landing the doomed seventh instalment of the Friday the 13th series The New Blood, a film that sported one of Jason’s most memorable visual incarnations. Some of the prosthetics are absolutely tit-illating (there’s a pun in there that will soon become apparent), and some of the film’s copious deaths are worthy of Scanners at its most head-popping. With deadly impalements, ripped torsos and bed-bound slaughter, you won’t be disappointed.
Susan’s kills are mostly telekinetic in nature, the kind triggered by an excruciating high-pitched warble that can explode heads, melt faces and even cause people to levitate. Her eyes, wide with evil, also turn green in what is the film’s shoddiest special effect. Sometimes she even blinks, making a mockery of the whole gimmick. Bresee, who is actually a well-educated pianist and not the bimbo portrayed, despite her willingness to whip ’em out at will, is still an appalling actress, particularly when attempting to portray possession (this, after receiving first-hand demonic voice training from Mercedes McCambridge of The Exorcist fame). She begins like the horror equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Remedios the Beauty, distracting workers and bystanders with her teeming sexuality before making the leap to flagrant seduction, even bedding the gardener after one of many casual displays of nudity. It’s an obscure hybrid of supernatural horror and racy sex comedy in the Confessions of a Window Cleaner mode. There’s even a moment of ill-fitting comic relief that sees a long-suffering housemaid flee Susan’s demonic boudoir Benny Hill style. Tonally, it’s nothing short of startling, right up there with The Last House on the Left‘s irregular comedic flourishes.
To be fair to Bresee, she suffered for her craft and then some, even damaging her eyesight thanks to the ungodly scleral contact lenses she was forced to endure during the film’s many possession scenes. This being the early 80s, she was also subjected to the drooling mouth of male objectification, producers setting up bleachers for crew members to watch the filming of her sex scene (you have to wonder just how many mafioso were in attendance for that particular shoot. Fuhgeddaboudit!!!) Incidentally, the actor fortunate enough to take part in said scene, his character killed post-coitus, returns for what may be the most inexplicable twist ending ever committed to celluloid, one that, as far as I can tell, has no real impact on the story at large. Having been slain irrevocably, the man who was Susan’s former gardener later appears outside her mother’s mausoleum, stopping to talk to the family doctor about secrets that are never really explained. The character in question, now garbed in a hooded monk’s robe, laughs maniacally as the credits role. How did he and the doc know each other? How did he return from the dead? What on Earth’s so funny?
Answers on a stamped addressed envelope to Edison @VHSRevival, 10 Whatthefuck?! Lane, Land of Mental Contusion, Ass End of the Bermuda Triangle