"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Shrouds of Soavi: CEMETERY MAN, THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER


Once upon a time in swingin' Italy there was such a deep merging of art with blood and beauty that a beautiful blonde in a fashionable dress could stand on a corner, petulantly smoking, against a futuristic glass skyscraper reflecting the ancient bombed-out cathedral across the street and the socketless eyes of demonic workmen and a yellow sky --and just that, in and of itself, could knock you off your Guccis. The blood was there in the beauty; you could feel her pulse in the operatic contrapuntal score. But then the same reflected image with just a sun-browned hairy little gnome in an ugly peasant dress (Jeanne Moreau as Marcello's drag of a wife in LA NOTTE) could make your hand reach for a razor or noose on instinct, anything to escape her gravitic buzzkill aura. Even gorgeous raven-eyed Yvonne Furneaux (below) could seem like an evil clutching graveyard drag, pulling us out of the DOLCE VITA and down into domestic tedium. Run, Marcello! She's calling you with suicide threats again and you're just naive enough to believe her, to presume yourself at fault, yourself responsible. If you do the math however you realize (as I did), that sort of thing is a prime example of emotional terrorism, and you don't negotiate with terrorists. (I only figured that out thanks to shrooms, which armored me like Zarkov's memories when my old college ex tried it back in '87, and then a different girl in '91, and one in '95).


But everyone's an emotional terrorist in mid-60s Rome, and there ain't a mushroom to be found. This was Rome as a land of the lost, the adrift, where distant emptily decadent future and ancient demonic past are literally on the same block. Rome, when you couldn't tell the women from the men if they wore big black raincoats and gloves and lurked in shadows and all you could see was an outline and a flickering knife blade showing your screaming face reflected like that cathedral reflected in the windows of the modernist high rise. Was the victim fighting to defend herself or was he fighting to defend himself? And are those really their DNA-ascribed genders?

But... is it art
Watching this kind of existential modernist ripping noise, hearing this vision of Dante's Hell wedded to bourgeois book launchings ("The Season" --yeah, right), and routine romantic break-ups, like a clock stuck on repeat of the same second over and over, the last second of her life, and she's you, the you inside, and now she's ripped like the seam of time that connects the gladiator movies and the science fiction, both being shot by the same crew with the same actors deep inside adjoining Cinecittà sound stages. Yeah right - if I have to hear the dreary candy-colored inventory of Bardot's body parts in Les Mepris again I swear I shall scream!!

I refer of course to the bloody sexually perverse neo-giallo, a knife wound begun with Bava's ill-received Blood and Black Lace and finding box office influence fruit only after Antonioni's Blow-Up helped obliterate the distinction between high fashion, signification chain-disrupting ambiguity and kinky sex murder. Argento took it all to a giddy new extreme that felt genuinely dangerous and launched a whole new genre and suddenly he had 'a team' - a production organization centered around his two mentees, Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi. The difference between these two disciples was like hacksaw and hawk, like comparing Ennio Morricone with Ermine N. Goborra, but they all worked on each other's things and years later, thanks to greater technological advances undreamed of in their era, we can appreciate their films as good as they could in their screening rooms, more or less, and savor every scream and color. Far better looking than films made today which rely on HD cameras which give everything a wan, washed out look, they pulse with restored giddy colors that intoxicate even when nothing's happening onscreen.

The diff again: Lamberto directs like a fifteen year-old burnout who won't admit he's deaf and blind,saved only by his stoner shop class graffiti touches as if passive-aggressively trying to prove to his father, Italian horror maestro Mario Bava that he should have been allowed to be a veterinarian or heavy metal bassist instead of a filmmaker. Soavi is a true artist who goes to the root source of Argento's work-- the subconscious--and picks the doors to the tiger still untried, while savvily referencing all the film masters that have come before, to find the zone where Antonioni meets Bunuel and Lynch dances in a papier mache Bosch Wicker Man mask to fool Godard into thinking it's a safe spot for deadpan absurdist dissertations, only to then escape his dry socialism and run amok in the fields of cinema fantastique like an amok dragon.  And there he finds the fissures in modern society and widens them to let the madness seep in like nitrous from an amok dentist.


DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE
("Cemetery Man" - 1994)
****
The idea of being trapped in love's absence, a big empty hole in the ground where a coffin goes, only a fat dumb little brother or neighborhood dork for company, has never been so palpably felt as in Michele Soavi's great opus, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, one of the best 80s horror comedies to ever come out in mid-90s. I remember when this came to NYC screens because I was freshly moved to midtown and remember reading about it and thinking yeesh, just what the world needs, yet another  Pulp Fiction / Living Dead first person shooter game with an Italian narcissist hipster pretty boy shooting zombies all day in slow-mo, probably with a shrine to Elvis by his black tie collection and terrible dubbing. But this was years before DVD, back when I dismissed Argento as misogynistic and felt that Italian movies had to be in Italian (for dubbing was a sign of xenophobia and subtitle illiteracy) and so forth.

What a fool I was! DVD has so many taught things to us... to me... multiple language tracks let us know the Italian language track often looks even less synced than the English; and the restoration and beautiful transfers of widescreen HD help us to better appreciate the jet black dry subtle cineaste termite wit of horror auteur Michele Soavi, and the rich textures and muted sunless palette of his mise en scene. 

Based on the Italian comic book, Soavi's masterpiece is a sensitive, droll, and dead-on jet black satire on death, desire, and adolescent obsession all wrapped up in horror comic trappings. A kind of hipster Alessio nel Paese delle Meraviglie, it's protagonist can stand proudly any decade next to Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey in Blue Velvet as far as fearless intrepid truth-seekers uncovering the rocks in his backyard to see what worms, pill bugs, and centipedes he can catch napping. (Not sure if kids still do that --in my day it was a major icky past time, now I imagine the bugs are all long gone) charging into any mystery or romance that grabs him, even if it takes him over the edge deep into his own psychosexual dysfunctional core. Presented in a kind a tumble down overflow of macabre black humor romantic episodes, the film speeds so merrily along from event to event it could easily have been fleshed out into a full season of its own TV show. The overarching theme is how hot young things stay loyal to their rotting cannibal corpse lovers even as they're eaten of beheaded (and vice versa). Young Rupert Everett is our Cemetery Man, the funeral groundskeeper, trapped in his two-car Italian town by cliffs broken bridges, a cemetery groundskeeper and a return of the repressed, with zombies weirdness way ahead of the deluge of Romero-rip offs thats mired the zombie market today. All told, while episodic and hard to pin down it's a sublimely dream-like odyssey into how death never dies and desire never was never born.



And as a sublime anima, playing many roles, returning again and again like Liz Taylor in Doctor Faustus (1967) or Isabelle Adjani in Possession, or like Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Anna Falchi dies and comes back in numerous guises, so gorgeous and sexy she could melt a giant 'thing' out of the Arctic all by herself, her own thermite bomb, and Soavi makes full use of how such hotness has an uncanny frisson, a mind-melting combination of shifting anima roles and the way in a young man's dreams a beautiful woman is always almost having sex with him, only for there to be some distraction or calling away before it starts or ends, leaving the man in a kind of exquisite frustration, loping after her as the backgrounds shift and envelop so that circumstance seems to use her allure as some horrifically just-out-of-reach carrot; her absence as the whip. So at first she's a grieving young widow, seen in the corner of his eye, who comes alone every day to the cemetery to mourn her much older, goofy-looking husband (his picture's on the tombstone, but it could easily be on a spaghetti sauce can), whose love-making skills is constantly mentioned like a dagger in our heart for reasons we refuse to fathom. Everett's Dellamorte is smitten of course; and soon they have some great death-evoking moments, kissing with full protection (their lips and full heads wrapped in burial shrouds), having sex on top of the husband's grave (prompting the old man to reach up through the soil and take a bite out of her), and little spirit ghosts fly around them while mating as disembodied souls seeking moments of conception the way hermit crabs seek the right empty shell. That poor Everett never seems to reach full 'completion' of the mating cycle adds to his and our frustration and sense of loss and makes her an ideal anima, especially when she keeps appearing, first as what he thinks is a zombie (so he shoots her in the head) next as a real zombie (making him realize he was wrong the first time --oops), and so forth. Agonizing? Yes. And anyone who's ever been sexually frustrated while pining with romantic longing while trapped in some summer job in their shitty suburban town will probably--as I did--whimper in sympathetic agony.

Like his same-initialed Donnie Darko, Dellamorte doesn't deign to separate fact from fantasy so why should we? Certainly the town's chief detective would never suspect him, and later even outright refuses, ass when he stumbles on the mayor's daughter's severed head keeping house with Dellamorte's dummkopf assistant. That episode, and  a hilarious bit between an undead biker and his young deb ("I shall be eaten by whomever I choose!") are folded in between the many guises of Falchi, and her tragic death/s and Dellamorte's visits with the cryptic and strangely tolerant local detective.

Cross-addicted
Falchi is so gorgeous that after she's dead - and she goes early on- you feel the ache for her, a real sense of loss perfectly summed up in DD's rote distraction performing his dead killing duty, so that when Falchi comes back all wreathed in vines he can no longer just shoot her and move on, and we don't even care if she rips him to shreds, just so....

So what? We can see those breasts again? They are the most gorgeous perfect breasts in all of Italian cinema, but it goes way deeper than that, man. Don't be so shallow! You know this blog is never so sophomoric, and neither is the film. So why is she so cool and haunting an anima figure, then, in fact why is she the definitive undead love interest for all time? It's more than beauty or her surprising gift for balancing dark dry deadpan drollery with a constantly shifting array of personae--from melancholy depth to necrophiliac ecstasy, from undead vindictive succubus to suicidal prostitute in the girl student apartments in town, etc-- Falchi genuinely seems like an array of different people, all cursed as they may be by the kind of impossible beauty that makes normalized relationships with men almost impossible.

Funny, profound, surrealistic, deeply sad and subversive, its weird cool touches, like Death appearing in broad daylight out of burned phone book ashes (the sort of thing Terry Gilliam's tried all his life to achieve with the same nonchalant virtuosity; or that Michel Gondry does with too much twee and not enough dark), are all done in a very clever analog style and kind of tossed off like riffs that always lead back to the graveyard, capturing that lonesome isolation we feel as teens living with our idiot little brother and clueless parents, all blind to the dead coming back everywhere. It's hard to believe this came out after CGI and Jurassic Park as it could easily be from the 70s or 80s, its knowing winks to Evil Dead 2, Clockwork Orange, Polanski's The Tenant, Zulawski's Possession meanwhile put it in that category of insider cinema packed with references made for no reason other than to termite-like bore through the walls to reach across nations to fans of outre cinema of all stripes and nationalities. Wry deadpan cine-surrealist in-jokes: the universal language!

LA SETTA
(Aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER -1991)
***1/2

Among the other things that marks the quality difference between Lamberto Bava and Soavi is the dubbing, the voices match perfectly and the soundtrack pumps. To compare this as just a third Demons film is like calling Raiders of the Lost Ark a sequel to Treasure of the Four Crowns (1). As with so many of its ilk, good or bad, La Setta draws liberally from the Italian devil movie pool of "influences" and influenced - i.e. Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, ExorcistThe Sentinel, the (real life) Manson murders, even Argento's own Phenomena and it even works as a sort of quasi-prequel to The Visitor. There's a Manson-esque desert canyon drifter named 'Damon' (Tomas Arana) who opens the film by freeloading a meal off a pair of traveling hippie families, and then sacrificing them all (kids included) to feed the need of a slowly gathering Satanic overthrow, but not before introducing himself via lyrics (spoken) from "Sympathy for the Devil" and assuring the blissfully unaware brood that the Stones' lyrics are profound and meant for "only a chosen few" as if angry one of the hippie dads would dare recognize his plagiarizing.


Forward ahead a bit and into Frankfurt (like Dellamorte this was filmed in Germany) and a killing or two and then we see old man Herbert Lom leave his Frankfurt hovel and take to the road with his mysterious package (you'll never in a million years guess what's in it). Soon he's standing in the small town in the heart of Black Forest road and nearly hit by Miriam (Kelly Curtis --Jamie Lee's sister), a sweet guileless young (single) elementary school teacher who ill-advisedly takes him and his strange package home to her cluttered little apartment, one of those little German townhouses split down the middle so she has an upstairs, basement access, and an attic but each floor is small and Soavi gets lots of cool shots bearing down the stairs at each floor like some guest taking the only seat left at party, giving it all some terrarium look, mirrored--hilariously--in the POV of her white rabbit. In grand late-80s style she's kooky and single with no husbandly prospects (her wedding couple snow globe lets you know she's wishing for one) and a nagging best friend who's trying to set her up on dates. For awhile it seems like she's following in the footsteps of Anita Skinner's character Dee-Dee in one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years, Sole Survivor (1983) in that she hooks up with a young doctor who helps her even if he doesn't quite believe her crazy story... etc. And in Terminator echoes (which as I've said has Halloween echoes), she has a strange pet (like the iguana of Sarah Connor). And her slutty friend ends up dead (like Sarah's bouncy roommate with the headphones, or Dee-Dee's strip poker-playing neighbor, or Halloween's PJ Soles). And there's the Curtis sister connection.... Dude, it's all connected.

At this point I'd say if you haven't seen it, stop reading and see it first. As it's got so many great WTF moments I don't want to spoil them for you. It's on youtube (for now) in a decent print (where I saw it) and so while we wait on a region 1 Blu-ray, maybe you can enjoy it now - it's manna,... for the chosen few, the type who geek out when they recognize one of the sleazy truck drivers (Richard Sammel) as the Wermacht soldat who gets his head beaten in by ze Bear Jew in Tarantino's Basterds (not to mention 'crushing it' as the lead heavy in The Strain).



Okay, whacked-out film, right? WRONG! It's grounded like a deep well, even the Satanic impregnation aspect has roots in ancient Greek myth: instead of bedding the devil (as in his previous film, 1989's THE CHURCH), we have an updating of Leda and the Swan, though instead of Zeus as a rapist swan, Curtis is impregnated by a Satanic (dig that malevolently intelligent black eye) pelican-ish creature at the bottom of a deep well underneath her house, but instead of sex it just pecks out the brain eating bug larvae nesting in her neck. If taken alongside the Leda myth it's suddenly as if we're realizing Satanism is just the ancient Greek pantheon gone hopelessly shady from the lack of sun (after hiding out from Christian zealots for centuries).


What makes all the weird bug-up-nose strangeness work of course is that--and this is especially true as far as the score is concerned--this shit is serious. Composer Pino Donaggio merges sustained vocoder, funky bass underwriting great Satanic chanting, and abstract drumming as if summoning some ancient evil Lovecraftian behemoth. Little details accrue alongside the dark comedy--the main evil cult member brings his face ripping tools, but won't let anyone touch them; the cult use of the reflected full moon in vanity mirrors to light facial surgery down by the creek. How or why a new (woman's) face would reanimate Herbert Lom. no sane person guess, the mundanity of the ceremony (if the placement in the flow of the river isn't aligned they'll be at it all night, notes the doctor), the rabbit's final declaration of Satanic mischief, it's all absolutely deadpan termite. Once the bug goes up into her brain we get an interior view, into her dreams, as if the bugs POV includes access to her third eye subconscious like a two way radio. Bits of Antonioni-style alienation affect include the doctor risking his job leading her down into the morgue corridors deep in the antique hospital basements, a long hallway, the come to a doorway - he mentions the guards and then tries to kiss her against the wall so a passerby would think they're just down there for privacy and oblivious to the world.

That kind of set-up cover moment occurs a lot in cinema, as if danger itself is the key to busting the first move, but this time there's no security guard and she rears back from his ill-timed attempt. In true termite fashion it's just another knowing deadpan inside toss-away joke. Earlier the doctor mentions he's allergic to Miriam's rabbit and jokes about it being the devil, kinda ("There's nothing wrong with my rabbit," / "That's what he wants you to think!") but it turns out he's right, since it knows how to work a TV remote, and later nibbles his fingers at a key moment causing him to fall down the well; and when he opens the seal on the coffin, under the lid, it's sealed, like a sardine can, and in poking it open the doctor gets squirted in the eye. Looking up into a mysterious pipe--and we get the water's journey from the well up through all the arcane old German Schwarzwald pipes to her sink in a style way prefiguring Fincher's in Panic Room--Miriam barely misses getting squirted in the same way when she turns away at the last possible second.


Meanwhile old Herbert Lom stays totally inscrutable - is he good or bad? We don't know for half the film--he could be either the Castavet in ROSEMARY or the Merrin in EXORCIST. But either way, we worry about Miriam's boundaries. Avoiding bringing Herbert Lom home is the first thing parents teach children, so she's definitely an orphan and definitely missed a lot of key survival tips most kids glean before they graduate the sixth grade. Mockeries of things like the Shroud of Turin (a dirty hanky on his face later kills people through suffocation)--and mirrors Lom being brought back to life when a sacrificial woman has hers ripped off in a truly bizarre ceremony that would make Joe D'Amato proud). A girl crucified, one frightened by a snake, more Soavi toying with our cinematic expectations in high Antonioni style, the kids wearing weird WICKER MAN-style pagan masks, a mysterious Asian lady in red trying to steal the dirty shroud hankie and Curtis fighting to keep it with all her might, though she can't possibly want it, all proving if nothing else that like Argento, Soavi has seen BLOW-UP a dozen times, if one can really be said to have seen it, or anything, really....

As in ROSEMARY'S BABY there's a weird disconnect as it turns out this apartment has whole vast chambers Miriam never dreamed were there. Characters have cool names like Moebius and Martin Romero ("Martin" being that lesser known--and recommended if you can find it--Romero vampire flick); it's the kind of oblique in-jokes that someone like Joe Dante or John Landis would need to underline, but Soavi just buries them under everything... not unlike the elaborate ironwork that's clearly (presumably) merely found basement pre-war janitorial relics, though who the fuck knows?


The Scharzwald atmosphere is sublime (is this where they did Suspiria too?) and Donaggio's moody score brings in everything Argento's films were totally lacking by then--laden as they were with Heavy Metal and ill-choosing prog guys like Rick Wakeman. Even Donaggio could be the wrong choice, totally missing the tone of some American movies he worked on (like Tourist Trap- which he scored as if some childhood carnival whimsy) but maybe his not knowing English was part of that.

Soavi: it's stole many a man's soul and faith, not face!
Meanwhile, what of Argento? He co-wrote this, one wonders if he was just spreading himself thin. He'd lost by '91 his most important collaborator, the Debra Hill to his Carpenter, the Gale Ann Hurd to his Cameron, wife Daria Nicolodi (and Asia's mother) and seemed to perk up only for the chases and hardcore misogynist killings and snoozed through the rest, like Joe D'Amato or some other all-gore hack-robate he'd apprenticed under.

It's 1991 when this came out and it's hard to believe -- since American horror movies had given up trying to be stylish and riffing on tropes and capturing that dusty gray sky, muted colors and strange textures (as opposed to Argento's preference for bold colors and slick modernism) and his wickedly subversive sense of deadpan humor. What makes it so very Soavi is the... whoa.. made myself dizzy.

Hope you guess his name
That's OK, by me anyway, as there's always THE CHURCH, which I don't absolutely love like these others, but it's certainly OK. And then there's DEMONS IV; Soavi had nothing to do with that - and went onto Italian TV shows with unpromising names like "Anti-Drug Squad"- easier to finance and finish, he says, and no distribution headaches, I'm sure, but they'll never STAGEFRIGHT: AQUARIUS. This is the dawning of something all right, but it's not the age of anything but looking down the rabbit hole spiral into the infinite(ly recorded) past.... For the chosen few, this Stones at you. 
Curtis family (L->R) Tony, Jamie Lee, Kelly, Janet Leigh
Kelly and Jamie Lee at father's funeral, a fraction of a millennia later
the before and after.....


NOTES:
1. no offense to the Demons, they're plenty meta, I just shy away from endless static camera gross outs, watching the pustules appear, swell up one after the other and drool fizzy food coloring leak from fanged mouths, it's like 7th grade lunch period all over again. 

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