The turbulent 60s and swingin' 70s saw a veritable smorgasbord of occult cinema which served to usher in a new aeon of unholy darkness never seen before or since. Films such as Stephen King's: Rosemary's Baby (1968), King's: The Exorcist (1973), and Stephen King's: The Omen (1976) explored mankind's relationship with its dark and terrible "mirror self" in ways that were, at the time, as unique and innovative as they were dark and terrible. These films changed the very face of horror, and of terror as well, and indeed, there seemed nowhere else to go after King's magisterial reign. And this is the phantasmagorical world in which a young Steven Steinburg found himself, lost in a labyrinthine nightmare he did not create, amidst a horrifying new aeon that seemed to echo the very hidden "shadow side" of humanity itself. A world of the supernatural.
For those readers not familiar with the lighthearted and whimsical visions of the world-renowned evangelical cartoonist, Jack Chick, it is past time for you to get acquainted here. Chick's holy spirit-driven musings have both entertained and converted any number of unsaved human souls for the past forty years and if you are one of the lucky few to have discovered one of these tiny treasures, perhaps lying in a pool of urine in a shopping mall restroom, or amidst a pile of unidentifiable filth on a bus station floor, consider yourself fortunate indeed. One can only imagine the countless lost souls like myself who have, over the past forty years, dropped to their very knees in those humble aforementioned pools of urine and filth, and, following a simple step-by-step instructional page appearing in each and every one of Chick's tracts, became "born anew", all in the span of a mere fifteen minutes or so. Perhaps these individuals then went on to get smashed into oblivion by trains, or Greyhound busses or the like, only to find themselves whisked away on the wings of a snow white dove to stand before a faceless and loving and angry God and then His swift and merciful judgment.
It is here, in a dark and terrible aeon he did not create, that the young expatriate filmmaker Steven Steinburg found himself wandering lost and alone through the snow covered streets of Paris, in that year of our Lord, 1982. Having produced three marginally successful films in that gay city: Duel (1971), Mâchoires (1975), and Clôturez les Rencontres de la Troisième Sorte (1977), the fledgling auteur was at a loss at what to do next. Mired in the existential angst that only a sojourn to "the city of brotherly love" can produce, young Steinburg had taken to wandering the subway (le tube) stations and absinthe houses of Paris' dark underbelly. And it is here, at the very hour of midnight, during New Year's Eve, 1982, that the fates would convene to produce what should have been one of the most commercially-successful cinematic exercises in the history of l'écran argenté.
Wandering lost and alone, during l'heure verte, young Steinburg, overcome by existential angst, slipped and fell in a puddle of absinthe and found himself sprawled on a Parisian sidewalk, beneath the Eiffel Tower itself. As the clock struck the hour of twelve, and raucous Parisians bellowed out their renditions of Auld Lang Syne, amidst many clinkings of champagne flutes, Steinburg's shaky hand searched fretfully in a snow bank for his errant glasses, they having flown from his face when the titular auteur plummeted to the gay cobblestones. There, in the darkened Parisian street, as the hands of Big Ben itself struck the very witching hour, young Steinburg's naked eyes alighted upon a small, crudely drawn religious comic book (or "tract") buried there in the Parisian snow. It was a urine-stained copy of Chick's: Dark Dungeons, left there seemingly just for him, by divers hands, and, as the young expatriate knelt there in the gay Parisian snow, with tears in his eyes, as Auld Lang Syne continued all around him, and the flute clinking, as the new aeon of 1982 was just then beginning to dawn, cinematic history was very nearly made. He opened the tract and began to read. And he knew he had come home at last. And the clock struck twelve again.
How Steinburg's satanic magnum opus (complete with eerie musical score by fellow scaremeister, Don Williams) failed to garner any measure of success during its lackluster release is beyond the scope of this reviewer and indeed leaves him shaking his head in grim disbelief and muttering to himself in his darkened office. Perhaps the socioeconomic realities of the second great depression of 1982--a by-product of Reagan's "Houdon Economics" and "piddle down" theories and the like--conspired to prevent the success of genuinely groundbreaking fare such as this. Or maybe audiences here, on the other side of the "big pond", were not yet ready for the decidedly French sensibilities of this seminal exposé of horror and terror. Perhaps they never will be. Indeed, it seems as if the moviegoers of E.T.'s heyday may have had enough of the dark aeon ushered forth by the aforementioned films of King and his ilk, leaving Steinburg floundering once again, in the wrong place at the wrong time; a realm the hapless director would find himself in, time and time thereafter, throughout the Reagan years, and well into the Bush, Clinton, and Bush years as well.
Inspired by the very Jack Chick tract Steinburg found on that gay Paris street, E.T. takes place, as do most of the films produced by Steinburg and friends such as Jim Lucan and Mario Corpolla, in the idyllic setting of Modesto, California. However, it is with this film--what should have been Steinburg's signature work--that the arcadian façade of the fictional town is shattered beyond all recognition, then reassembled into a dark and terrible mirror, reflecting the primal nature of humanity back at itself, as if in some sort of religious funhouse. In a tense mise en scene, at the beginning of the film, we meet the Elliott family: hardworking SAHM, Mary Elliott (Sandra Dee), her husband, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), their young son, Billy Elliott (Henri Thomas), and younger daughter, Hazel (introducing Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in a seminal dual role). As Mary putters about the suburban Modesto kitchen, her seemingly ne'er do well spouse remains otherwise occupied, playing a game of "Mazes and Monsters" with several (also seemingly ne'er do well) friends. As they play on, incognizant to the havoc their "innocent" fun will soon unleash upon the sleepy burg, the pestilent Billy teeters near the edge of the table (and near the edge of oblivion itself), whining and cajoling to be included, but his entreaties fall upon deaf ears. And Mary continues to putter, like a marionette on a dark string of terror, oblivious to the doom that, even now, begins to stir in nether realms far from where she finds herself, far from her sleepy Modesto suburb.
Meanwhile, in a nightmarish forest setting, mere miles from the suburban Modesto abode, the very gates of hell itself have been flung wide open; the result of various spells and machinations unwittingly crafted by Michael and his friends during their "harmless" role-play (again, see Dark Dungeons for more information on this shockingly common phenomenon). Through this gate, shrouded in smoldering brimstone, the terrible demonic entity: E.T. (puppeted ably by Jim Henson) himself is summoned, and, surely chucking to himself in satanic glee, the foul hellbeast makes its way toward the sleepy suburban home, in search of innocent souls. At that same moment, a crack team of commando exorcists, led by Father Keys (Peter Coyote) arrives at the scene of the summoning, perhaps alerted by divine intervention itself, to find they are too late. The gates of hell slam shut, the foul echoes reverberating throughout the sleepy suburban forest; an echo of humanity's darkest satanic impulses, in this, humanity's darkest hour.
Michael and his friends send the young Billy Elliott outside to await the arrival of a seemingly innocent pizza (from one of those pizza places germane to Modesto, where you actually tell the delivery man in your driveway what you do, or do not want; in this case, anchovies. Only in California!), only it will, before the course of this foul and monstrous night is over, verily become a pizza of doom. A pizza of darkness. Thus begins the first sighting of the shadowy dybbuk, as the creature uses its demonic powers to cause the family's "swing set" to move, seemingly of its awn accord. Understandably frightened by the diabolical apparition, young Billy retreats into the quiet suburban home, trampling the pizza underfoot (in a masterful symbolic portrayal of the ritual trampling of the communion host, as in a black mass), quite understandably shaken by what he has seen. Finding hoofprints left behind by the demon, the Elliott family retires to their sleepy home for the night, with the exception of Billy, who elects to stay awake, out in the yard, now a veritable playground for the maleficent incubus (as symbolized by the aforementioned scene with the family "swing set").
The creature makes itself known to the boy, in its first attempt to possess the innocent lad, but Billy again finds shelter in the sleepy house, although the first tendrils of E.T.'s satanic control over his very being have already been flexed. The following night, under the influence of mere seconds of contact with the powerful beast, Billy leads the demon across the threshold of the sleepy home (with what I am assuming are deconsecrated communion wafers), and thus, in that one fell instant, seals his own fate and the fate of his family as well. He befriends the diminutive prince of darkness who communicates through a series of preternatural growls and unearthly guttural cacophonies (voiced ably by Mercedes Ruehl, using a homemade concoction of 7 and 7, lemon juice, and Choreboy shavings), and the slow possession of, and eventual draining of, every last fiber of innocence from the young and sleepy suburbanite begins.
The next day, Billy's father, Michael, a professional football player, returns home from practice and stumbles upon his son, who is in the process of receiving more satanic knowledge under the dark tutelage of the demon, and becomes understandably frightened (yet still unaware of his own role in the summoning of the creature), as does young Maude, upon returning from school. Like Lucifer himself, the demonic entity then assures them that all is well, as he appears to them to be fair and harmless, although, in reality, he is anything but. Then, in an intentional parody of the book of Genesis, on the part of director Steinburg, the creature goes on to create a model of the heavens and the earth from clay and then gives it "life", sending the orbs spinning above the fascinated heads of the doe-eyed Elliott family. When they ask the devil from whence it came, it merely points upward, implying that it is a creature of heavenly light, as opposed to the creature of hellish darkness that it, in all actuality, is, in reality. At the behest of the vile monster, the three members of the Elliott family conspire to keep E.T.'s existence a secret from the pious matriarch of the sleepy suburban Modesto home.
Over the course of the next seven days (in yet another sinister parody of the book of Genesis), the archfiend slowly gains what will prove to be the eventual and total possession of young Billy, thus ensuring its existence in our world. The demon engages in any number of abominable acts, such as transvestitism, alcohol abuse, dark botany, and with the possession nearly complete, near-fornication by proxy, through Billy with a classmate at school. During this time, the demon further conspires with the possessed boy, using information gleaned from medieval grimoires, to create an amulet of satanic power, the purpose of which is to create yet another portal to hell itself, where the shadow entity can presumably return, having completed its immoral task. Construction of the infernal device is completed just in time for the high satanic holiday of Halloween, or Samhain, or the "devil's birthday" (see Chick's award-winning tract, Boo!, for further explanation), and the now-completely-possessed Billy and the demon travel (flying, as did the witches of Salem) to the very same eldritch forest from whence the vile creature was summoned, to work their dark and terrible magick beneath a blood red full moon.
Having subsisted for as long as possible upon the soul-essence of Billy Elliott, the demonic E.T. finds himself, along with the boy, nearly drained of all energy, back at the sleepy suburban Modesto home. As SAHM Mary stumbles upon the ashy countenance of the monster, lying prostrate on the sleepy bathroom floor, with young Billy lying likewise, prostrate as well, she becomes understandably shaken and upset and whisks her son away from any further harm, as the demon reaches out in order to possess Mary herself, she being the only untainted member of the Elliott clan. Having been guided by divine intervention to the house (in yet another religious parody, this of the three Magi), the team of exorcists, wearing a wide array of holy vestments, engulf the sleepy house with a covering made of holy robes and tassels and make ready to perform the exorcism to end all exorcisms. Restraining the demon and the possessed boy, Father Keys begins his liturgy, complete with lashings of holy water and admonishments in Latin. All the while, Billy, still under the influence of E.T.'s unholy magick, writhes and pleads with the stalwart priests, to no avail. Upon the conclusion of the harrowing ordeal, it appears as if the demon has finally been destroyed, the nightmare over. Or is it?
In a masterful parody of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the part of Steinburg, the sinister creature is brought back to life by none other than Billy Elliott himself, who remains a repository of demonic energy due to his sustained proximity to the malignant spirit and his relentless interest in role playing games such as "Mazes and Monsters" (again, see Dark Dungeons, for further clarification). The demon is not only resurrected, but his powers have now increased exponentially, as evidenced by his newfound ability to possess entire groups of individuals, en masse, including Michael, his friends, and again, young Billy himself. Using this dark and terrible power, the hell-creature compels Michael to steal a van from the exorcists and drive him toward the forest, where the entrance to Hades is now presumably open. E.T. then possesses the minds of all around him, as well as their bicycles, as they fly (like witches) over the heads of the sleepy residents of the suburban Modesto homes and arrive at the open portal. No longer needing to possess young Billy, who was a mere pawn on his Mephistophelian chessboard, E.T. clasps the boy to himself and proceeds to devour his soul entirely. Mother Mary and Father Keys, with little Blanche in tow, hasten to stop the completion of this dark ritual, but arrive too late. The absorption of Billy's soul has now come full circle, as evidenced by the raging hellfire glowing within the chest of the demon, as he touches the boy’s ribcage (in a parody of the creation of Eve) and informs him that he'll be "right here". Indeed he will, for all time, as he exits our plane forever, back to the stygian depths of hell itself, leaving Billy Elliott a withered husk of a shell of a human being. In a downbeat ending to rival even that of King's Rosemary's Baby, a single tear slowly trickles down the cheek of the young lad, no doubt the last tear that will ever find purchase there as he now faces a new life in Modesto. A life without a soul. A life bereft of even the faintest glimmer of hope. The portal closes and we are treated to what will prove to be the last anti-biblical act of heresy on the part of the villainous demon: the summoning of a rainbow, arcing triumphantly across the Modesto sky; a twisted mockery of God's promise to never destroy humanity by water again.
Much has been written, throughout the years, about the so-called "E.T. curse", and it is a fact that nearly everyone, from key grips to best boys to gaffers, save Steinburg himself, has met, in intervening years, with all manner of calamity and ignominy. Indeed, I wish the film itself had been as popular as the legends that have sprung up around it. I will not entertain such mystical claptrap here, although I do find myself reasonably skeptical, yet not completely unconvinced either way. There is one thing I am not skeptical on, however, nor unconvinced upon, and that is the fact that this “little movie that could” is definitely as deserving of accolades today as it should have been back when it was made. So, if you can manage to locate an aged VHS copy of Steinburg's horror (oc) cult classic, perhaps in the "foreign films" section of your local library, treat yourself today to its bone-chilling, one-of-a-kind satanic majesty and wonder. Also, if you are ever fortunate enough to come across a genuine Chick tract, in either the aforementioned public restrooms, or bus stations, or both, do yourself a favor and take it with you, although it is likely to be rife with bacteria. The life you save may be your own. God bless!
Having completed his Satanic Majesty’s dark work, the demonic entity, E.T., prepares to enter the portal to hell, leaving Billy Elliott (Henri Thomas) an empty husk in a red, hooded sweatshirt.