Friday, 5 April 2013

Beyond the Darkness (1979)

‘Beyond the Darkness’ (Original Italian title ‘Buio Omega’) is a unique gore film in that it focuses more on the bodies of its female victims when they are deceased rather than when they are attacked when living entailing sickening scenes of their dismemberment and their preservation through the art of taxidermy. Do not get me wrong, director the late Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massacessi) does execute effectively nasty sadistic sequences depicting the cruelty of the murders of these luckless women but the movie’s main strengths in its imagery of disgusting visceral intensity comes after death. Often described as one of the most stomach churning entries into the 70’s Italian horror boom it does not disappoint as it sure does live up to its exploitative reputation delivering the glorious gory delights.

D’Amato serving as a cinematographer here as well moves the bizarre and macabre storyline along nicely in a well-paced and well-shot affair with a highly memorable musical score by long time Dario Argento collaborators Goblin providing the film with a greatly heightened sense of atmosphere. However, the screenplay by Ottavio Fabbri and Giacomo Guerrini is problematic in its presentation of themes as certain elements in the narrative are introduced but are never fully explored making for some half-baked ideas left on the screen.

Orphaned Frank Wyler (Kieran Canter) is a young rich man and a keen taxidermist as a hobby. His ill fiancée Anna Völkl (Cinzia Monreale who played Emily in Lucio Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’ in 1981) is bed ridden in hospital and suddenly dies when Frank’s jealous housekeeper the evil and obsessive Iris (Franca Stoppi) who has taken care of Frank since his parents died when he was little has an old witch murder Anna with a voodoo doll.

This voodoo angle is very much strangely out of place as it is introduced from the outset leading the viewer to believe that a whole load of voodoo shenanigans is in store but it is never once followed up. We see the old hag in a much later scene in the third act walking down the street at night muttering something as she walks past Frank and an intended victim he has just picked up from a nightclub getting into his car but no more voodoo comes into play. Once in Frank’s car, the unsuspecting woman asks Frank what was that about and Franks replies, “Who knows, some crazy old bag.” This just sums up the unimportance of this character to the story in a pointless scene. It would have been far more effective if Anna had just died of her illness whatever that maybe and Iris could still be controlling and possessive of Frank none the less now that she finally has him all to herself. Due to this typical Italian horror trait of just lumping ideas in there that have nothing to do with the narrative this clumsy use of voodoo has no influence on the story whatsoever and is rendered just a silly slice of cheese.

The opening events during and after the title sequence neatly set up the proceedings. Frank picks up a box from a man in the van that he will use later to take back to his mansion Anna’s corpse. Integrated with this are scenes of her dying and the cause of it via the voodoo with the old woman performing it in Frank’s home and Iris sitting beside her with an evil grin on her face. When Frank returns to the mansion, we see in the basement where he practices his hobby of taxidermy take out of the box a dead baboon and we see all of his stuffed animals displayed around his workshop. Belatedly, Iris tells him that there was a call from the hospital and Frank gets there as quick as he can. At Anna’s bedside, Frank tells her that death does not have the power to separate them and as they share one last kiss, she then passes away. From this narrative efficiency, we can see what horror Anna’s death leads to as established is Frank’s expertise as a taxidermist, his undying love for his fiancée and we can see what Iris’ devious intentions are. 

In the scene that follows immediately after Anna’s death Frank is sitting alone in his late parents’ bedroom grieving for her looking at a photo of his mother for comfort when Iris walks in. Frank tells her that Anna has just died and Iris replies that she will forever take care of him now. Undoing her blouse, she lets Frank breast-feed from her. Iris comforts Frank as he sits longingly staring at Anna’s stuffed corpse lying on his bed in a later scene. As he sits on a chair, Iris undoes Frank’s belt and puts her hand down Frank’s trousers giving him a helping hand while she whispers to him “Feels better doesn’t it? Yes, my little Frank feels better now I can tell.” In a sequence after, Frank takes back to his mansion a woman he comes across while they are both out jogging whom he helps when she sprains her ankle. When in Frank’s home he covers up Anna’s body with the bed cover, then applies some cream to the jogger’s ankle, wraps it in a bandage, and then make out on the other side of the bed. As they do so, Frank takes the cover off so he can look at Anna. When the woman sees her body, she screams in fright. Franks tries to cover her mouth but she bites his hand and in rage, he rips her throat out with his teeth and not spitting out the flesh he chews and swallows it whole.

These scenes allude to themes of psycho-sexuality, how Frank seems forever trapped in his childhood, Iris’ sexual obsession with him and Frank’s cannibalistic taste for human flesh. Although, none of these themes are elaborated upon and fleshed out to make for solid material and seem to be just there for shock value to glue together the showcase set-pieces of human dismemberment and taxidermy. As interesting as these scenes are they would have been all the more worthwhile with a follow through lending that explored these disturbed characters deeper. Therefore, in this respect the film is a missed opportunity in that it could have been something far more interesting and even creepier and more unsettling that it already is if the writers had gone that extra mile with this material. 

At least these scenes are not the near waste of celluloid that is the movie’s sub-plot though, which entails the funeral director who oversaw Anna’s burial gathering together incriminating evidence on Frank after he catches him before the funeral injecting a fluid into Anna’s body as she lies in her casket. This does not lead the viewer to anywhere significant other than helping to set up the jump scare ending. Another contribution to setting up this final scene is someone who attends Anna’s funeral who looks very familiar partially disguised by sunglasses.

When Frank digs up Anna we see what the film is really going for - to induce vomit from its audience with its prolonged goretastic geek show displays that even the veteran gorehound will find hard to stomach. On the way back from the cemetery, Frank gets a flat tire on his van. While he is replacing the tire with his spare the most unattractive female hitchhiker to ever grace the screen in a horror movie, sneaks into the passenger seat. Reluctantly, Frank gives her a lift and smoking a joint, she passes out giving Frank the opportunity to drop off Anna’s body at his mansion. Once he has the body out of the van, he proceeds to remove all the vital organs and when removing Anna’s heart he bites into it. This sequence makes me feel the queasiest of all as although it is all obviously just animal entrails it will not cross your mind when you are watching it as it is filmed in such a point and shoot fashion that we forget what we are watching is just very well executed SFX work.

When the hitchhiker wakes up, she walks in on Frank working on Anna’s body. She is petrified by what she sees but Frank is completely un-phased by her intrusion and carries on expertly applying his craft of taxidermy that shows his psychotic tendencies. This is further emphasized upon when the fat trollop finds that she cannot escape due to the doors being locked and attacks Frank. During the struggle, he manages to throw her to the ground and holding her down he picks up a pair of pliers lying on a table nearby and pulls out all the fingernails from her right hand before suffocating her. Much like the jogger, this hitchhiker character serves no other purpose other than being an object for the geek show. Later, Iris helps Frank dispose of the body by the way of grisly dismemberment and the body parts then thrown into a bathtub of acid making for some of the movie’s most revolting imagery. 

This is followed up brilliantly with the use of some clever cutting. Iris disposes of the remains pouring it all out of a bucket into a hole she has dug outside in the garden, after she has covered up the hole she returns to the kitchen of the mansion where Frank is sitting at a table. When she has finished cleaning up she serves some stew and as Iris chows down on the slop, she makes a mess around her mouth that is intercut with shots of the gooey remains that she has just that very moment disposed of. This is bound to bring on some heaving.

‘Beyond the Darkness’ is one of the director’s best films. This is not saying much though as Joe D’Amato was largely a hack for most of his career approaching filmmaking as a product with his mentality always of a business mind trying to figure out the best ways to make his movies marketable so that he could make an easy sell and guarantee a profit. Now it could be argued that D’Amato did the very same here favouring the exploitative gory imagery as a main selling point over other interesting material that is clearly in abundant here but none of which is brought fully to fruition to make an emotional impact on the events that transpire and merely serves to string together these gruesome sequences. 

Although, I feel the filmmaker’s heart was more in this than in most of his other work in that he just wanted to tell a straightforward demented tale brought home as to how truly depraved it all is by its extreme imagery encapsulated in a irresistible atmosphere thanks in no small part to Goblin’s superior soundtrack. Joe D’Amato strived to tell the story this way and designed it as such and despite the fact that it could have been so much more, overall, it is a well-made piece of sleazy gold. Recommended.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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