You’re a fan of Eurohorror, especially the Italian variety. You’ve seen everything you can find from the masters: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Riccardo Freda, Michele Soavi. You’ve exhausted the catalogue of less reliable but nonetheless important figures such as Lucio Fulci. You plunge deeper, sleazier, in the company of cannibal-meisters Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. Ere long, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, tracking down the incompetent, boring, but at least gory work of the likes of Bruno Mattei (Rats: Night of Terror and Night of the Zombies). And still you’re looking for more.
Might as well accept it. Sooner or later, the path will lead to Aristide Massaccesi, better known as Joe D’Amato. This is a man who considered himself a cinematographer first and foremost, and a director second, as a means to pay the bills between more artistically rewarding DP gigs. It’s just as well he didn’t look on his directorial efforts as high art. Consider the titles: Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (AKA Trap Them and Kill Them), Porno Holocaust, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead. You get the idea. D’Amato’s propensity to mix sex and horror in his sleaze might one in mind of Spanish director Jess Franco, previously discussed in this space. D’Amato’s visual work tends to be less sloppy than Franco’s, and is noticeably less reliant on the zoom lens. But with Franco, one always feels that one is watching the work of a man caught in a genuine obsession. D’Amato, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to care.
D’Amato’s best-known work is probably the 1979 shocker Buio Omega, known in English variously as Blue Holocaust and Beyond the Darkness. It is under the latter title that it has been released on a fine DVD by Shriek Show. It tells the story of Francesco, a young man of wealth whose hobby is taxidermy. His older housekeeper, Iris, is in love with him (they do appear to have a rather creepy affair of long-standing), and uses voodoo to dispose of his fiancee. Francesco vows that not even death will keep him away from his beloved, and so he digs up her body, removes her organs (in loving, fresh-from-the-butcher-shop close-up) and preserves her. He then has a series of encounters with other young woman, whom he brutally murders. Iris takes charge of the disposal of the bodies. Meanwhile, an inquisitive funeral director suspects that something is up.
The above synopsis makes the movie sound a lot more sensible than it really is. This is a film where no one, not even the gaffer, ever asked, “What is So-and-So’s motivation?” The characters do things for no earthly reason, other than the fact that the actions will lead to gory deaths. This complete lack of coherence actually makes the film quite funny, though viewers at all squeamish will want to steer clear of all the dismemberments, disembowellings and incinerations. And we won’t even talk about the unapologetic misogyny. All the more amusing, then, are the extras, which include an interview with Cinzia Monreale, who played the corpse, and who talks about what a sweet, gentle soul D’Amato was.
The best thing that D’Amato was associated with is a film that he didn’t direct, but produced. Michele Soavi’s StageFright (1987, AKA Deliria
, Bloody Bird and StageFright – Aquarius) is out on disc from Anchor Bay, and is testament to what talent can do with limited funds and essentially one location. Soavi, in his debut, takes the simple story of a madman hacking actors to death in a soundstage (script by long-time D’Amato actor Luigi Montefiore, better known as George Eastman) and makes it stylish, exciting, and loaded with scenes that pretty much define what “terrible beauty” is all about. It’s the kind of movie that, given its themes, Beyond the Darkness might have been, had D’Amato particularly cared. But at least here is one instance where he cared enough to let someone else produce a mini-masterpiece.