Thursday, September 08, 2016


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 just that image--coupled to the sounds of traffic and Nino Rota-could knock you into a state of modernist euphoria. The blood was her beauty; you could feel her pulse in the operatic contrapuntal score - she was history, the nail in the crossroad between ancient Rome, the Second World War and the sci-fi Age to come. You'd swoon from her beauty, reflected in the light and breeze.

And then in the same movie, 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 'wifey' aura. This was the flipside of the Monica Vitti's eternal sex-spontaneity promise: the vortex of maternal devouring, the endless Catholic maw of guilt and suffocation. Even gorgeous raven-eyed Yvonne Furneaux (below) could seem like an evil clutching graveyard drag, pulling us out of the DOLCE VITA and down below the domestic tedium tombstone, the quicksand tar pit from which no swinger returns. 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 - after all you had a suffocating mother, too - and still feel bad about having to pry her claws off you with a crowbar just to get out the door and go to school in the morning.

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. Me, I only figured that out thanks to shrooms, which armored me like Zarkov's memories when my old college (Italian-American) ex-girlfriend tried to keep me from going to one too many parties back in 1987. My own mom was Swedish, so I never had that problem, hence this girl's sticky needy 'mama mia' tentacles were a brand new thing. If the shrooms hadn't rescued me (whispering words of strength and guidance inside my head like the voice of Diana Love to Helene in The Undead).

But everyone's an emotional terrorist in mid-60s Rome. There's not a Swedish mom in sight, unless they're a murder suspect with their steely-eyed coldness. And there ain't a mushroom to be found, only knives; the only way to hear that escape-urging voice was to start slashing. Rome: a land of the lost, the adrift, where the half-built skeleton of an emptily decadent future and the ruins of a recently-bombed ancient demonic past stood literally on the same block like twin skeletons hanging on the wall at an inquisition waxworks. Rome, at the time when gender was juuust starting to slip its rocky encasement. Rome, where you couldn't tell the women from the effeminate 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. Is it sexist to presume the one in the raincoat was a man and the one in a dress a woman and not a drag queen? The reasoning, Agatha Christie simple - make the killer and all the male actors the same height and approx. weight of the women, to keep the suspects pool large, and to make for an extra twisted denouement. Gay stereotypes mincing at smoky bars may be for freak show frisson, but visibility is visibility. Gawking is the first step to acceptance.

Almost as a side effect to the giallo model, psychosexual freedom!

But... is it art
I refer of course to the bloody sexually perverse knife wound, the bleeding begun with Bava's ill-received Blood and Black Lace and finally turned into a virgin spring gusher after Antonioni's Blow-Up helped obliterate the distinction between high fashion, signification chain-disrupting ambiguity and 'maybe' murder. Argento took pages from both films, and swirled it all to a giddy new extreme that felt genuinely dangerous. He launched a whole new genre and suddenly he had 'a team' - a production organization centered around his two mentees, Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi.

No offense to Bava Jr., but 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 undreamt of in their era, we can appreciate their films as good as they could in their studio screening rooms at the time, more or less, and savor every corner of the widescreen frame and every glowing color. Far better looking than films made today which rely on HD cameras which give everything a wan, washed-out look, these Italian horrors pulse with restored giddy colors that intoxicate even when nothing's happening onscreen.

The diff again: Lamberto directs like a fifteen year-old burnout in art class, 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. Still, if you've ever been a 13 year-old heavy metal album headphones-on bedroom heabanger, you can't help but love him.

Conversely, Soavi is a metatextual satirist who goes to the root source of Argento's work-- the subconscious--and picks the doors to the Antonioni tiger, the door brother Lamberto left untried. He finds the zone where Antonioni meets Bunuel, the same space from which David Lynch dances in a papier mache Bosch Wicker Man mask, there to fool Godard into thinking it's a safe spot for deadpan absurdist dissertations. Then, when Godard starts opening his little red book, Soavi sneaks off to run amok in the fields of cinema fantastique like a drunk dragon.  And there he finds the fissures in modernism's ideas of modern society and widens them to let the madness seep in like nitrous from an amok dentist.

("Cemetery Man" - 1994)
The idea of being trapped in love's absence--a big empty hole in the ground where a coffin goes, and 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 the ads for it (small space) in the Voice when it came to NYC theaters, 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 some karaoke in with the terrible dubbing and excessive gore. But this was years before DVD, back when I dismissed Argento as misogynistic and felt that Italian movies had to be in Italian to even think about (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 see at last 'what the fuss was about,' and to better appreciate such things as 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 an Italian comic book, Soavi's masterpiece is a sensitive 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, its 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 are thar. Charging into any mystery or romance that grabs him, even if it takes him over the edge deep into his own psychosexual dysfunctional core, our graveyard keeper hero takes what comes with a shrug and a soft weary moan.

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 being eaten or beheaded (and vice versa) by said zombie lover, all in an effort to escalate the DSB of our young protagonist for some hell-centric reason. All told, while episodic and hard to pin down it's a sublimely dream-like odyssey into how death never dies and desire's fulfillment was never born.

And as a sublime anima, playing many roles, returning again and again in different guises, like Liz Taylor in Doctor Faustus (1967) or Isabelle Adjani in Possession, or Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, gorgeous Anna Falchi dies and comes back in numerous guises as his anima/object of desire. So gorgeous and sexy she could melt the 'thing' out of the Arctic all by herself, Soavi makes full use of the way such shocking hotness has an uncanny frisson to melt an already overheated mind. In true anima form, she's the sort of girl a young sexually frustrated young man dreams about almost  making it with, 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). 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), whose love-making skills are constantly mentioned like a dagger in our hearts, mocking us in ways you may have to be a smitten lovelorn dude listening as the girl you like goes on an about how attractive some toothless scraggly idiot is, like you--in your finery and wit--don't even exist! Everett's Dellamorte is smitten of course, as would anyone be, and soon they have some great death-evoking moments, kissing with full protection (their lips and full heads wrapped in burial shrouds); when they do finally get into it, it's atop of the husband's grave, prompting the old man to reach up through the soil and take a bite out of her, thus interrupting things... again! Sprites fly around them as they make love, disembodied souls seeking moments of conception the way hermit crabs seek the right empty shell. It's always something.

Like his same-initialed Donnie Darko or Dylan Dog, Dellamorte doesn't deign to separate fact from fantasy, so why should we? Certainly the town's chief detective would never suspect him of murder, and later even outright refuses to, as 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 haughty 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.

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 we're so glad to see her we don't even care if she rips him to shreds. It's more than beauty or her surprising gift for balancing dark dry deadpan drollery with a constantly shifting array of moods--from melancholy depth to necrophiliac ecstasy, from undead vindictive succubus to suicidal prostitute to local student (?), 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, DD gets over its lack of forward momentum through an endless parade of weird cool touches, such as Death appearing in broad daylight out of burned phone book ashes, all done in a very clever analog style, the sort of thing Terry Gilliam's tried all his life to achieve with the same nonchalant virtuosity but he ends up overthinking and spending too much money; or that Michel Gondry does with too much knitted nerd twee and not enough subversive darkness. Soavi tosses such bits off like riffs that always lead back to the graveyard, capturing that lonesome isolation we feel as virgin teenage boys living with our idiot little brother and clueless parents, all of them blind to the dead coming back everywhere, while we yearn for the phantom girl we keep seeing beckoning to us, and always from whichever window we're farthest from.

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, and Zulawski's Possession put it in that category of cult cinema so packed with in-joke references that they will only appeal to the cult of weird cinema, leaving the banal and average filmgoer out of the loop, ensuring a very narrow demographic. But I do the same thing here in this blog - so what the fuck ever. If you're reading this, you are one of the "chosen few"  Soavi even refers to us, the chosen, in the next big classic of his we'll be discussing:


Among the other things that marks the quality difference between Lamberto Bava and Soavi is the dubbing. In Soavi, 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 Curtis'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, on the stairs between floor, giving it all some terrarium look, mirrored--hilariously--in the POV of her white rabbit. In grand late-80s style, Miriam is 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 always 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), the bunny equals Sarah Connor's iguana, 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.

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 Soavi's 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 else touch them, like they're some high-toned guitar; the cult uses reflected full moon in vanity mirrors to light facial surgery down by the creek during one of their ceremonies. How or why a new (woman's) face would reanimate Herbert Lom. no sane person cam guess but 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 wearily), 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 as if worried one will approach 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 (I guess they do that?), and in poking it open the doctor gets squirted in the eye. When Miriam's water isn't working we see her looking up into a mysterious pipe--and we get the water's journey from the poisoned well up through all the arcane old German Schwarzwald plumbing 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 a Castavet in ROSEMARY or a 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); a girl crucified, one frightened by a snake, 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), they're 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 Black Forest atmosphere is sublime 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-chosen composers like Rick Wakeman. Even Donaggio could be the wrong choice, sometimes, 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.

Stole many a man's soul and face
Meanwhile, what of Argento? He co-wrote this, and 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. In 1991, 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 guessed his name
After this, Soavi 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 be 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 Stone's 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.....

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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