The Sophisticated Soavi

by Arthur B

Michele Soavi's four major feature films represent a late high water mark for Italian horror.
Italian horror cinema is generally held to have had a peak of creative accomplishment in the 1970s and a rather sad decline in the 1980s, with the former masters of the genre suffering from diminishing returns and a tidal wave of second-rate material glutting the market.

A happy exception to this critical slump is the work of Michele Soavi. After serving an apprenticeship with a number of small acting parts and stints as an assistant director or second unit director for more prominent directors like Lamberto Bava, Joe D’Amato or Dario Argento, Soavi would direct four movies that are often taken to represent the best in Italian horror of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, his career was derailed when he was forced to step back his involvement in the industry to care for his terminally ill son, though in the 2000s he did make some non-genre TV movies, and it’s still possible that - particularly with recent blu-ray releases of his own movies and those projects he assisted on coming out - the stars might align to allow him to produce another horror feature one day. If he does, these are the films that work will be measured against.

StageFright (AKA StageFright: Aquarius, Deliria, Bloody Bird, etc.)

Late one evening at an empty theatre, auteur director Peter (David Brandon) is overseeing rehearsals of his latest production - an all-singing, all-dancing musical centred on a fictional serial killer dubbed the Night Owl. Cast member Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) injures herself, and with no first aider onsite she and her friend Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) head out to get Alicia checked up at the nearest hospital, which happens to focus on psychiatric care.

Unfortunately, their visit coincides with the escape of Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), an actor himself who has been confined to the maximum security ward since he went on a berserk killing spree. Hiding in Betty’s car, once she and Alicia return to the theatre Wallace decides to join the production, forcibly vacating the role of the Night Owl and taking advantage of the fact that the role uses an (astonishingly creepy) mask to take the stage once more - and he’s intent on bringing an unprecedented realism to the role.

So, to a large extent this is Soavi’s take on the classic slasher movie. However, Soavi is able to take that formula - which by 1987 had become serious stale - and breathe new life into it. You can find a great example of this in the way he’s able to get the best out of George Eastman. Eastman was a dedicated supporting actor and scriptwriter and a veteran of the Italian film industry, and a close collaborator with director Joe D’Amato, who produced StageFright. Eastman actually wrote the script for the movie, and to a large extent the story riffs on a bunch of slasher tropes and rehashes ideas from previous Eastman slashers; in particular, the way the killer uses a syringe to murder a nurse and escape the hospital seems to be lifted from the D’Amato-directed Absurd, which Eastman both wrote and played the killer in. (In fact, Soavi had a small role as one of Eastman’s victims in that.)

However, whereas D’Amato would have taken a script like this and produced something cheap and cheesy from it, Soavi wrings every drop of atmosphere and depth from it he can. Whereas D’Amato and others simply asked for a fairly lukewarm, just-good-enough script from Eastman, Soavi shows willing to take the script seriously, and Eastman rises to the occasion by providing something a notch above his usual efforts. Likewise, Soavi recognises that, although he tended to be cast as simplistic stock characters, Eastman was a pretty good actor in his own right, and in particular was capable of lending a certain ominous gravity to his roles. Eastman, in fact, plays Wallace/the Night Owl in those scenes where Wallace goes masked, and whereas his slasher roles in films like Absurd or its predecessor Anthropophagous tended towards grunting and gurning here Eastman projects an almost otherworldly presence, to the point where just from his performance you almost believe in the Night Owl as an entity distinct from and superior to those who wear its mask.

The film takes on a unique tone of its own for its last half hour, in which Alicia awakens to find that she is the only survivor. (Well, not quite, but the only other survivor has been mortally wounded and isn’t long for this world.) Rather than having the Final Girl sequence provide merely the climax and denouement of the film, Soavi extends it to encompass the entire third act, in which Alicia and the Night Owl play this long game of cat-and-mouse against each other. (The culmination of this is an incredibly tense and eerie sequence in which, with the Night Owl having constructed a diorama of the dead onstage which he presides over like some grotesque family patriarch, Alicia has to creep under the stage in order to acquire the key which will let her out of the building to find rescue.)

Early on in this sequence Alicia peeps out into the theatre, and for the first time in the film we get a 360-degree panoramic sweep of the entire stage area. This reveals something very interesting: that this is a theatre where there is nowhere for the audience to go. You have the raised stage area, but on the floor instead of seating for the audience there’s just more stage, with the opposite wall providing a large curtain backdrop behind which it’s been established that there is no audience seating (even if there were, it’d be ludicrously far away from the raised stage), but only more backstage areas - moreover, the curtain is painted so that its decoration faces the stage rather than any audience area which might be behind it, and there’s at least one instance where the characters pass through that curtain in between going between backstage and the stage. Indeed, we see no lobby, no ticket office, no bar, nowhere for an audience to enter or exit the seating area which, quite plainly, does not and could not exist.

Far from being a continuity goof, I tend to see this as a sly acknowledgement of the film’s artificiality. There’s an extent to which StageFright is both a slasher film and a meditation on slasher films, and in particular how the very stylised, almost ritualised formula gives this air of unreality to them just as much as the gaudy dance numbers of songs of musicals draw them away from dry realism. Further little nods point to this; for instance, the way Peter spontaneously decides to name the killer in the play-within-a-film after Wallace blurs the lines between play and film. Likewise, at the end there’s an inconsistency with how Wallace’s head wound is depicted - in some shots it’s very obviously just a splat of red paint, but in other shots it’s a much more realistic-looking wound effect, and there’s little compelling reason why the same effect couldn’t be used in both shots; the inconsistency likewise suggests that there is something staged. Then Wallace shows signs of consciousness and we jump back to the briefest of brief shots from the opening dance number, again suggesting an artificiality to things.

In short, shot through the film are a series of hints that what we are watching is not a real series of murders at all, even diegetically, but we’re simply seeing a performance of Peter’s play. There are no chairs in the theatre because it was always us who was the intended audience.

The Church (AKA Demons 3)

In History Times, a group of Teutonic Knights are guided by informants to a remote community, supposedly inhabited by witches, and massacre everyone they find. Dumping the bodies in a mass grave, they decide to build a church on the site, so that it may become sacred ground and the spirits of the massacred villagers cannot escape from Hell to take vengeance on the living. Centuries later in the modern day, that church is now a vast cathedral, and Evan (Tomas Arana) is just starting out as the cathedral’s new librarian. When art historian Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working on the ongoing restoration of the cathedral, discovers an ancient document hidden away in the masonry, she brings it to Evan, and soon enough the two of them become convinced that the cathedral’s foundations are hiding an amazing secret - and that's when they shake hands with danger.

Chasing up the clues, all Evan ends up doing in the long run is tampering with the seal over the mass grave - which releases the restless ghosts of the unjustly killed villagers, who possess Evan and Hermann (Roberto Corbiletto), the sacristan. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the dark forces force Hermann to commit suicide on the seal itself, further damaging it- not only does this give the spirits held within even more power to act, but it also triggers mechanisms built into the church by its genius architect to seal all the exits, trapping all the worshippers, visitors, and staff inside. The Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.) is intent on allowing events to run their course so that the demons will spread beyond the church and bring divine judgement ot the city, but junior priest Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) can’t accept that there isn’t a better way. There might be a solution in the intricate mechanisms devised by the architect - but will anyone survive it?

As you might have gathered from the German location and the general “people get locked inside a building, random possessions and gory shit happens” premise, plus Dario Argento’s involvement as co-producer and co-writer (and Lamberto Bava’s uncredited contributions to the script), this was originally intended to be Demons 3, and indeed it’s the closest thing to an official third film that series has, to the extent that it was released under that name in some territories. At the same time, tonally speaking it’s miles away from the two Demons films, which is hardly surprising given Soavi’s dissatisfaction with them. For starters, Soavi has an eye for really distinct imagery and shots, which he uses to his advantage constantly. He regularly throws in eerie little details, right from the start of the movie - see, for instance, the pattern of the cross burned onto the face of the lead Teutonic Knight (due to a cross-shaped aperture being the only part of his mask being open to whatever burned him), or the strange basket-mask worn by one of the few survivors of the massacre - and even the more cliched moments that pepper the film have a certain sense of style to them.

Soavi also plays around more with whether some of the more extreme supernatural manifestations seen here are even real - for instance, when Evan first breaks the seal there’s a sequence of events which appear to be only a vision, but end up having all-too-real implications. Dream sequences and hallucination, in fact, are integral features of Evan’s process of possession, being a more interesting and poetic way of depicting his loss of rationality and humanity than the transformation sequences of the Demons films. (Indeed, both by drawing on the more surreal Biblical imagery surrounding the apocalypse like seven-eyed goats and in the particular style of some of the hallucinations, Soavi seems to be taking inspiration from Altered States at points.)

That isn’t to say Soavi can’t get gruesome when he wants to, mind; the suicide of Hermann, for instance, is just such an instance (he uses a road drill, for crying out loud), and all the more shocking for how restrained the film has been up to that point. Nor does it mean that his approach is po-faced and humourless; in fact, there’s several rough examples here of the pitch-perfect mashup of horror and comedy Soavi would perfect in Dellamorte Dellamore. For instance, we get a shot at one point of an elderly woman dragging her equally elderly gentleman companion up the cathedral tower steps and declaring that they’ll “ring the bell together” at the top, which is a reasonable way as any to try and get attention from the outside world, but when we next join them the woman’s possessed and she’s whacking the bell with her buddy’s severed head. Soavi not only realises that we don’t really need to see a scene of the woman turning evil and ripping her pal’s head off, but it’s also simultaneously more shocking and funnier if we jump straight from her behaving like all’s well to this absolutely gruesome scene.

In short, then, there’s no doubt that this film is very much Soavi’s in style and execution, and can favourably be compared with the rest of his work. (The lead Teutonic Knight’s helmet even has an owl decorating the top of it, recalling the owl mask used by the killer in Stage Fright.) To an extent this is also something of an exoneration of Dario Argento’s involvement in this and the Demons films; far from overpowering Soavi’s creative vision here, it seems pretty hard to deny that Argento acted as its enablers, and likewise I’m much more inclined to ascribe the faults with Demons to Lamberto Bava (who was responsible for some decidedly ropey old stuff from time to time) rather than Argento in turn. Argento’s role here seems to have been to allow his name and pull to allow Soavi to obtain the talent and support he needed to make the film: the soundtrack, for instance, combines some licenced Philip Glass pieces and a few contributions from old Argento collaborators Keith Emerson and Goblin, for a somewhat classier and less intrusive musical accompaniment than the Demons movies enjoyed.

In short, whilst it would have been interesting to see what Lamberto Bava would have made of Demons 3 had he directed - a take in which the mythology of organised religion is painted as being just as schlocky and fakey as the horror movies or TV shows of the first two Demons movies would have been pretty amusing to me - I wouldn’t want it to be at the cost of losing this interpretation. On top of that, Soavi would be emboldened enough after this effort to tell Argento that he really didn’t want to keep doing the Demons formula - even as lovingly smartened up and improved as he makes it here - prompting Argento to give him even more of a free hand for their next collaboration, The Sect.

The Sect (AKA Demons 4)

Out in California a Charles Manson-esque drifter called Damon (Tomas Arana) swings by a group of hippies having a little wilderness camping trip, and with his Satanic biker buddies slaughters the lot of them. A mysterious man in a limousine watches approvingly, but warns Damon that it may be some years until their cult’s project comes to fruition.

Flash forwards to 1991, and Germany is in the grip of a spate of cult murders. Against this backdrop, rabbit-obsessed small town schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis) nearly runs into the elderly Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) on the road and takes him to her home full of rabbit art and memorabilia so he can sit down and have a bit of a rest. Soon enough it turns out that he has a sinister agenda - as well as slipping an insect up her nose whilst she sleeps, Moebius fakes a fit in order to make her leave the house to go get help, at which point he uncovers a hidden basement within her home. (To be fair, she only moved in 8 months ago, so it’s reasonably fair that she doesn’t know it was there.) Finally dying for real next to a mysterious uncovered well into which he has dropped a strange package, Moebius’s actions only represent the beginning of Miriam’s nightmare, as Moebius - and his fellow cultists - invoke powers which completely undermine her sense of reality.

That’s about as coherent an explanation as you can give of The Sect, which is easily the most deliriously incoherent of Soavi’s major movies, with the director going out of his way to overcomplicate and render completely bizarre what ultimately boils down to an obnoxiously weird-for-weird’s-sake riff on Rosemary’s Baby. What saves it from being a complete turkey is Soavi’s eccentric imagination and his near-total refusal to invoke any of the obvious, typical imagery of Satanism.

Whereas a more straight take on the concept would involve lots of pentagrams, black goats, and inverted crosses, instead we get a cavalcade of much weirder material. Blue worms grow out of the tapwater! Moebius makes a bug crawl up Miriam’s nose! Miriam’s pet rabbit watches the TV news whilst she’s asleep! Miriam is raped by a mangey stork whilst it pecks maggots out of a wound in her neck! Damon starts rambling about Shub-Niggurath for no apparent reason beyond it sounding cool! Miriam gets tied up and lowered into the well where mysterious otherworldly midwives appear from out the waters’ depths nowhere and help her give birth to the Satan-child she was impregnated with mere hours ago!

It’s a bizarre piece that, due to the weird mashup of ideas and images involved, doesn’t really hold together very well - it feels less than the sum of its parts. That said, it seems to have served a useful purpose in Soavi’s development as a director, because whilst it is more thematically coherent, the followup - this time well out of the shadow of Argento, or indeed any of Soavi’s previous collaborators - is in some ways even weirder.

Dellamorte Dellamore (AKA Cemetery Man)

Soavi’s masterpiece casts Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, the watchman for the cemetery of the small Italian town of Bufalora. Dellamorte is an odd bird - he spreads rumours that he’s impotent as a way of flamboyantly opting out of the machismo culture, and the only book he’s ever read cover to cover is the phone book, and he lives in the cemetery itself in a tumbledown cottage he shares with his even more eccentric assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro). By day, they busy themselves with the usual business of the cemetery, whilst by night they deal with a hidden plague - some people, usually seven days after they are buried, emerge from the grave as zombies and have to be put down, typically with a good shot to the head.

That’s just one strange aspect of a very strange town indeed. The local higher-ups call Francesco “Engineer”, as though they know something about his task which he doesn’t. (He pointedly refuses to tell the Mayor about the zombie issue, fearing that the cemetery will be shut down and his job dissolved if the truth came out.) There’s an old lady who visits the cemetery daily and seems to have her own business there speaking to mysterious visitors. Even when he’s leaving a string of corpses in his wake, Francesco never seems to come under suspicion in the eyes of the local chief of police.

And then there’s the mysterious widow of the latest addition to the cemetery (played by Anna Falchi) - a woman that Francesco becomes infatuated with on first sight, and who eventually warms to him when she realises they share an erotic infatuation with the graveyard’s ossuary. Alas, a zombie-related accident leads to her death - or does it? As well as returning as a zombie, she seems to manifest again and again in Francesco’s life under different guises and names and personalities. Each time Francesco tries to get closer to her, only for the relationship to end in increasingly disastrous ways.

In the midst of the chaos and accidents of village life and the trail of violence and erotic frustration Dellamorte blazes through life, Death emerges from the pages of a burning phone book to ask a crucial question…
If you don’t want the dead coming back to life, why don’t you just kill the living?
With Dellamorte Dellamore, Soavi produces the most genuinely original work of Italian horror cinema since, at the very least, Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, if not since Argento’s Suspiria itself. Whilst imitative knockoffs and outright ripoffs are part of the B-grade film industry of any country, Italian genre cinema for much of the 1980s had descended into a serious rut, with Asylum-grade ripoffs of more famous movies and formulaic genre exercises squeezing out more imaginative fare.

There’s an extent to which, of course, that Soavi’s previous movies fit this approach entirely - StageFright was a slasher, The Sect was a Rosemary’s Baby takeoff, and The Church was an ecclesiastically-themed spin on Demons, which in itself was a riff on innumerable “people are besieged in an enclosed space by monsters” movies - but he’d always shown a bit more imagination than his contemporaries. It’s truly fortunate that at a time when even old masters like Fulci and Argento had been reduced to churning out formula pieces and mere pastiches of their old glories Soavi had the chance to bring a distinctly original horror-comedy vision to realisation, with production standards, quality of acting, and action sequences several healthy notches above much of his contemporaries.

In particular, Dellamorte Dellamore precedes Shaun of the Dead in terms of simultaneously parodying zombie movies and romantic comedies; Francesco does the whole romcom chasing-the-girl thing but Soavi’s direction makes this seem just as creepy as this is, especially as the film progresses and Francesco’s behaviour becomes even more atrocious. Moreover, disaster is never far behind whenever Francesco resorts to standard romcom stuff - for instance, one of Falchi’s reincarnations only likes him because she feels safe with him, having heard the rumours about him being impotent, so in order to keep her he takes an injection to render himself genuinely impotent, which sounds like a plot point from the worst sort of Hollywood drivel but takes on a completely garishly grand guignol dimension here.

This particular plot point leads into a particularly off-colour joke where the Mayor, who this incarnation of Falchi works for as a secretary, rapes her offscreen, and she ends up enjoying it and getting over her fear of impotent men, though given that her objective reality is open to question it could be that is meant to be a projection by Dellamorte, whose attitude is getting increasingly shitty, and indeed Dellamorte takes to actively murdering his lovers after this; still, the fact that it’s not entirely clear whether we are dealing with Dellamorte’s misogyny or Soavi’s misogyny suggests that at the very least the subject’s been mishandled a little, and it’s likely that both are in play. (There’s also a fair amount of titillating nudity in the movie - unsurprising given that it’s a Silvio Berlusconi production - though you may find the plentiful doses of topless Everett adequate compensation.)

Were the movie to focus exclusively on Dellamorte’s issues it would be pretty weak, but it’s saved by the way Soavi places Dellamorte in the brilliantly-realised pocket universe of Bufalora, which really feels like a real, living, breathing place where there’s all sorts of stuff going on that mopey Dellamorte is overlooking. This may be the result of the movie’s inspirations - it’s an adaptation of a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, and takes a lot of aesthetic inspiration from Sclavi’s comic series Dylan Dog - but Soavi deserves full credit for how he works in all of these little quirks and oddities that breathe life into the movie. There’s the little song that the characters keep singing has its tune borrowed, I am reasonably sure, from the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. There’s the use of the old campfire standard Never Should Have Gone Out On the Boy Scout’s Picnic for the mass funeral of the local troop, who get wiped out in an astonishingly messy bus crash. (And why, yes, this is the prelude to an invasion of zombie Boy Scouts, prompting mayhem that Soavi doesn’t flinch from.)

And then, of course, there’s the amazingly audacious subplot about Gnaghi’s crush on the Mayor’s daughter, which leads to one of the most gloriously loopy scenes in horror history. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a riff on a scene from Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, but Soavi uses to much better effect than Lucio Fulci and/or Bruno Mattei did there, and it’s a memorable moment in the constant ratcheting-up of weird that the movie indulges in. Gnaghi is a big part of that, in fact, with hints scattered throughout the film that he’s actually much smarter and understands much more than Dellamorte. He’s secretly able to put together a skull puzzle that Dellamorte struggles with, but conceals his ability to do so, and when he spots Dellamorte and Falchi having sex his reaction isn’t surprise or astonishment or even creepy excitement but a sort of bored resignation - as if he can remembers previous cycles of this happening, even if Dellamorte can’t.

As with The Church and The Sect, the movie hinges on a gradual ratcheting-up of weirdness, beginning from a place which is already pretty odd and reaching a climax that combines sickening violence and lashing out on the part of Dellamorte with an absurd, nihilistic sense that none of that even matters. Indeed, what makes Dellamorte still understandable by this point (though not necessarily sympathetic) is his frustration that the universe isn’t doling out the consequences for his actions he deserves; he’s so overlooked by the patronising powers that be that he can’t even get blamed for his murders. Taken literally, the story is monstrous, but taken as allegory it suggests something universally interesting: the challenge to understand life and overcome death which we all feel driven to, even though we’re all doomed to fail in some respect.

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