Friday, September 16, 2016

Beyond The Darkness

Beyond The Darkness aka Blue Holocaust aka Buio Omega (1979)
Dir. Joe D’Amato
Written by Ottavio Fabbri, Giacomo Guerrini
Starring Kieran Canter, Cinzia Monreale, Franca Stoppi

I’m weirdly fascinated by the films of Italian pornograteur and exploitation maestro Aristide Massaccesi, better known to the world by his most frequently employed working alias (of which he had roughly as many as an international drug lord), the notorious Joe D’Amato. This fascination is not a pleasant thing to acknowledge. It’s not just a charming eccentricity or a harmless quirk, this is clearly a moral failing which should be admitted only with deep shame and the solemn promise that I’m trying to do better. This is a man whose wikipedia page is so meticulously detailed and rosy that it seems almost certain to have been written by a close friend or family member, and even so the most optimistic spin it can put on his later career is that he spent it “becoming one of the most renowned directors of pornography in Italy.” Oh, well if he’s renowned, then! Yeah, the fuckin’ Ingmar Bergman of sleazy no-budget skin flicks (which is an especially appropriate comparison, because he once directed one of his more vanilla pornos using Bergman’s daughter’s name as an alias to give it a touch of class).

What kind of man are we talking about here? Under the “themes” section of that same wikipedia page, it offers, “D'Amato built many of his filmography's [sic] plots around strong female characters with a promiscuous tendency. A recurring theme in his movies is on-screen voyeurism scenarios, in which either a man or a woman watches a sexual act from a hiding place, often leading to sexual arousal and self-masturbation.” Yup, one of his defining artistic themes is that characters perv out and touch themselves in public. It goes on to point out in the highly unusual “Attitude Towards Filmmaking” section that, “D'Amato himself repeatedly said that he really enjoyed filmmaking, but that he was sometimes more concerned with making money than any kind of artistic merit his films might have had. His attitude could perhaps best be characterized with a line from his film EMANUELLE’S REVENGE, spoken by a film producer playing a facsimile of D'Amato: ‘We're not making artsy-farty crap for intellectual faggots. We're out to make money!’”

So, now we know exactly the kind of auteur we’re dealing with here. The question, then, is why we’re dealing with him at all when there are actual watchable films in the world which could be viewed without the same acute sense of physical pain and spiritual degradation which inevitably accompanies a D’Amato joint? (and I’m not even talking lesser-known Alain Resnais here, I’m talking, like, PSYCHO III)

Well, there’s no real justification that would really explain it, of course. Asking that question is sort of like asking a violent schizophrenic why he chopped up a nice suburban family and then sewed the severed fingers onto a taxidermied bear head like a scraggly beard. I mean, you might get an answer, but it’s probably not one which is really going to make it seem like a reasonable decision. Even so, here’s my pitch: D’Amato’s films hold a perverse fascination to me because --and this is almost certainly due more to incompetence than intent-- of their bizarre, almost cinematically unique lack of tonal consistency. I’ve seen lots of films with some pretty wildly abrupt tonal shifts -- in fact, it’s pretty much a hallmark of a lot of Asian cinema (Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, looking at you) that a jokey, cheerful romp might suddenly turn into a blood-soaked horror show. But nobody approaches the way D’Amato suddenly drops a snuff film orgy into the breezy mostly-softcore globe-trotting EMANUELLE IN  AMERICA or the way his zen-titled EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD gradually --almost imperceptably-- drifts from disspiriting porno to low-effort zombie movie, only to crash land at the very end with an impenetrable INCEPTION-esque mindfuck. I’ve seen plenty of incompetent, poorly-thought-through exploitation flicks, but D’Amato makes movies which so uncomfortably pepper the insipid with the deplorable that they stand out even in the exceedingly crowded field of shitty euro-trash z-movies from the 70’s.

Again, mixing terrible taste with malingering incompetence in hardly boundary-pushing for this particular class of cinema, but what makes D’Amato so unique is the way his movies appear completely unaware of their own content. Everything from grotesque sexual mutilation to listless sad-eyed strip scenes play out with the same detached, clinical disinterest, and their unusually close juxtaposition only highlights that fact. D’Amato obviously knows what exploitation films are supposed to put on-screen (blood, tits, funky 70’s music), but his execution betrays a baffling lack of awareness about how these various elements should, even in theory, impact the viewer. What other director would depict a woman being skewered on a giant fishhook while masked Caligula aficionados watch and silently fuck each other, only to skip away one scene later to cheerful, breezy swingin’ 70’s sex romp hijinks on an entirely different continent, as if we’re going to enjoy that now? The result is sex movies which are, despite the near-constant sex, almost completely sexless, and horror films which are, despite the innumerable over-the-line grotesqueries on display, almost utterly lacking in actual scares. And, often, those two things pressed disorientingly close together. If there is a reason to watch these movies --and oh dear me, there is not-- it’s that D’Amato features pockets of depravity so startlingly out-of-place and so apparently lacking in self-awareness that they almost become fascinating. Almost. OK, I still probably wouldn’t bother with this joker were it not for the consistent pressure from noted D’Amato-#1-fanboy Andy P, who pushed me into reviewing all three of the D’Amato films I’ve seen, but still, I watched ‘em, I could have said no. I bear some responsibility here to hew some meaning out of the madness.   

This particular D’Amato film is one of his minority of films which is mostly not a porno at all, and at least generally seems to have intentionally been made as a horror movie, at least to the extent that intention ever really enters into the filmmaking process at this level. That doesn’t mean it’s any more palatable, though. BEYOND THE DARKNESS is a vile, languid, and profoundly unpleasant film about a taxidermist serial killer named Frank (Kieran Canter, a short and undistinguished mostly-porno career, but at least he did movies with titles as diverse as DEEP THOUGHTS and EROTIC FLASH within a year of each other) obsessed with the preserved body of his dead girlfriend. He lives in a giant palatial mansion with his weird, sexually aggressive Nanny (Franca Stoppi, DOG LAY AFTERNOON [because, of course that exists]) who breast-feeds him and jerks him off from time to time and helps him with his murders and body-disposal and seems to have some sort of obsession of her own with him, although the movie never really gets into that or what that could possibly mean.

It’s not a movie which is real heavy on plot. The original girlfriend dies in the opening, he gets to the business of robbing her grave and preserving her body a few scenes later, and then it’s mostly just treading water without much story structure. Occasionally, Frank ventures out in the world, finds some pretty young girl and brings her back home and fucks her, and then she notices the dead preserved body of his ex laying around and freaks out, so he kills the new girl and disposes of her body and then that’s that, on to the next. Kinda a Bluebeard riff, I guess, except told from no particular perspective.

All this is deeply repellent, but not, I guess, overwhelmingly moreso than other contemporary Italian horror movies, which are not known to hold back on the sleaze. But it’s identifiably D’Amato in that it seems curiously disinterested in the short, not especially elaborate murders… but lingers, almost pornographically, over the clinical detail of body disposal (bisected and taxidermied, hacked up and melted into bloody mush, incinerated --twitchy, maybe not quite dead?-- in a furnace with glass viewing window). None of this is shot with even a nod to atmosphere; it’s all very nonchalant in its explicit horror, to a predictably unpleasant and baffling degree. D’Amato is a resolutely unstylish director, shooting unflashy angles with a dull palette  (not totally unlike some of Fulci’s more realistic-looking films), but this is particularly nasty, nihilistic stuff, and the indifferent presentation makes the banal, matter-of-fact gore, necrophilia, and dissection seem a lot more repellent, makes it feel like the movie barely even knows how shocking it is. Is that a good feeling? No, not really, but it’s something. I mean, it is quite a nauseating experience. If the purpose of art is to get a reaction out of you, I confess this got one from me, even if that reaction was mostly bafflement and disgust.

Unfortunately, bafflement and disgust does not exactly add up to interest, and even though there’s no shortage of shocking acts, the story here is so rudderless that it really drags. No motive is ever even suggested (even hinted at), for the killer or his creepy sexually aggressive Nanny; in fact we don’t even really learn anything about them at all. The girlfriend’s death was apparently due to some kind of voodoo on Nanny’s part, but that’s never mentioned again, and the eyebrow-raising fact that the Nanny is some sort of murderous witch somehow never plays into the rest of the story. Huh. The behavior on display here is so completely alien and impenetrable that for a while it can’t help but be a little intriguing, but as things meander along it becomes increasingly obvious that exploring these characters’ perverse mindset --let alone backstory-- is not even remotely part of the game plan. Have they always been psychotic creeps, or has the girlfriend’s death set off Frank’s fragile, coddled mind into a psychosexual tailspin? Is Nanny hoping to marry Frank for his money, or have they had some kind of quasi-incestuous relationship all along? Who knows, and the movie doesn’t care. D’Amato seems to think the selling point is just to put a bunch of gross stuff on-screen. But as we learned with the even-more-sadistic, even-more-inexplicable ISLAND OF DEATH, that turns out to be a surprsingly dull path to pursue in the face of such boundary-crossing sleaze. Obviously you want some bad taste in a film like this, but shock value absent anything else gets old pretty fast, even if you really pack it in. And this film doesn't even do that.  

Man, Mary Poppins is way more intense in person.

In fact, despite the film’s rap as a gorefest, the actual violence in it is pretty infrequent. I think there are only four or five on-screen deaths in the whole thing, and the deaths themselves are over pretty quick. Long, grueling chunks of the runtime are devoted to interminable footage of people getting dressed or driving cars in real time, with nary a deviant (let alone entertaining) act in sight. There is one memorable gore scene, though, in which the body of Frank’s first victim is carved into pieces and dissolved in an acid path. This scene is so long and so explicitly gruesome that it definitely stands out, and if you’re a true gorehound interested only in seeing the most detailed depictions of bodily dismemberment that film has to offer… well, first of all, why are you bothering to watch 70’s Italian z-movies when there’s this thing called the internet now? I always wonder this about people who get all excited by nudity in these movies, too. I mean, i enjoy both sex and violence, but if that’s all you’re looking for, there are much more direct ways of achieving that goal, folks. But anyway, yes, if that’s your bag, this sequence (and really only this sequence) is probably required viewing. The dummy they’re chopping up is so startlingly realistic in its dismemberment that I honestly wondered for a second if they’d just cheated and brought in a real cadaver to carve up on-screen (dvdtalk claims “for years rumors abounded that real corpses were used in this film”), but nah, I’m sure these sickos would consider that a point of pride and include it in all the advertising and everything. Anyway, it’s a perfect microcosm for the whole movie: luridly repellent, but utterly narratively inert. Shocking and boring at the same time. Why it’s in here, and why it’s the subject of such focus, I certainly cannot say, but it’s definitely an outlier here in terms of gore. Most of the movie traffics in prurient conceits which are more… well, psychological doesn’t seem like quite the right word in a movie so completely severed from anything which even passingly resembles real human behavior. But certainly, its bread and butter is to shock you with with repugnant sexual scenarios (incest, necrophilia) more than violent ones.

Anyway, the first ¾ of the movie is a pretty tough sit, just a couple murders and the resulting cleanup (there is a minor subplot about a mortician who suspects something and goes, I’d say, a bit above and beyond the call of mortician duty to investigate, but it adds up to almost comically little). It’s sporadically nasty, but mostly just a snooze. Thankfully, it rallies slightly for the very end, when an identical sister to the dead girlfriend (Cinzia Monreale, THE BEYOND) shows up out of the blue (sharp-eyed viewers who have somehow performed the feat of sitting through this movie multiple times will note that she actually appears in the very beginning, at her sister’s funeral scene, but is well-disguised behind large glasses and all but ignored by the camera, leaving her eventual entry into the film’s climax a completely abrupt course correct). Monreale is not exactly anyone’s idea of a great actress, but she’s sort of ebullient and likable enough to almost immediately establish herself as the main character, and with an actual protagonist to be threatened by Frank’s blank murderousness, the movie finds something akin to momentum for the climax. Or at least becomes a more eventful, more conventional horror film. It’s the only time in the film everything isn’t completely bathed in diffuse, dull natural light, so that by itself goes a long way towards at least cultivating the impression that someone was intentionally trying to craft cinematic scare scenes, rather than just dump raw footage of various perversity at our feet and expecting us to make something of it.

BEYOND THE DARKNESS is not in any way anything that could be called a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I gotta admit… it does have some kind of ineffable something. Certainly more so than any of the other D’Amato films I’ve seen, this feels sort of like a real movie in some ways. The current Shriek Show Releasing DVD features a crisp, handsome widescreen transfer with great sound, so even if the movie is never pretty, it never looks less than professional (which in D’Amato’s filmography is never by any means a sure thing). And of course there’s the score; legendary Italian horror film maestros Goblin (PROFONDO ROSSO, SUSPIRIA, DAWN OF THE DEAD) --incorrectly credited on-screen as The Goblins -- provide a characteristically funky soundtrack for this quiet, slow-moving tale of dispassionate murder and necrophilia, which is utterly, profoundly inappropriate and alas seldom used, but pretty delightful when it pops up.

But there’s something a little bit more to it, something elusive, which probably comes out of its quintessentially D’Amato ambivalence about the sickos at its center. Its resolute abstruseness about who these people are and why in God’s name they’re acting this way, and its complete disinterest in condemning them --or condoning them, for that matter- or even leering at them, produces an alienating, disquieting kind of sensation. Giallos tend to be mysteries, and as such they’re chained to a big reveal moment, where the killer’s identity and motivation are explained and we learn that one time as a kid he or she saw mommy fucking a sailor. Even if the backstory is pretty fucked up, knowing it demystifies the masked killer, makes them understandable, predictable, more concrete. BEYOND THE DARKNESS belongs to a smaller subset of serial killer films which reveal nothing about the character’s inner life that would make them comprehensible to us, and as such feels more like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER or the under-seen 90’s indie serial killer flick THE MINUS MAN, or, more recently, THE DARK KNIGHT’s portrayal of the Joker as a man whose past and motivations will never be known to us. Those are all vastly, vastly better movies, understand, and please equally understand that Mr. D’Amato almost certainly did not have this particular artistic intent in mind. But even so, the uneasy marriage here between the outrageous incidents, banal presentation, and maddenly opaque deviants, combined with the glacial pace and clinically disinterested direction, adds up to a kind of low-key perversity which does manage to get under the skin, albeit in a way which is pretty much simultaneously the antithesis of both entertainment and enlightenment. It feels like it may be the work of a genuinely bad person. Will you enjoy the experience? Not at all. Is it worth it? Again, no. But it is something. That’s Joe D’Amato for ya.

On the other hand, would a bad man ever put anything this wonderful in a movie?

Play it Again, Samhain

None apparent
Italy, of course
None. D’Amato directed a handful of horror films, but come on, none of them are beloved.
Yeah, though most of it with corpses.
Actually I think all of the sex is consensual, it’s just afterwards they find out there’s a preserved corpse around someplace and have second thoughts.
Not as much as its rap suggests, but there’s some pretty shocking stuff sprinkled around in here, particularly the long dismemberment scene.
Yeah, Nanny’s using a voodoo doll at the film’s start and then never again
Not really in structure, though I suppose you could make an argument that it’s similar to HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, which I did reluctantly label a giallo. But I think the lack of style here, lack of a murder mystery structure, and lack of a sleuth character all argue against that categorization. But then again, you have an Italian serial killer film with gruesome violence, copious nudity, and a Goblin score, so if you were inclined to argue the point I might be persuaded. I’ll tag it as a giallo just for easy searching, anyway.
Seems like there must be some in there (maybe the Nanny watches them bang or something) but I honestly don’t remember at this point

Very obscure.
The next time a handsome rich Italian guy pulls up next to you on the road and offers to take you back to his palatial mansion to fuck you, check around for taxidermied bodies first. If you find one, at least have the decency not to mention it and you’ll probably be fine.
I have absolutely no idea what BEYOND THE DARKNESS means, unless it just refers to the movie’s resolute lack of atmosphere. It’s other title, BLUE HOLOCAUST, makes even less sense.
And even so, only the workable climax really saves it from the dreaded "unwatchable garbage" rating.

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