Recently, Anchor Bay released, at long last, Cemetery Man< to DVD. In so doing, they made available one of the last gasps (for now) of truly first-rate Italian horror, and it might be worth while to spend a few minutes considering the director, Michele Soavi, a man who has been nowhere near as prolific a filmmaker as might be devoutly wished.
In my piece on Joe D’Amato a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the best film he was involved with was Soavi’s debut, StageFright (1987). One of the fascina…ing aspects of this effort is that, while Soavi had been assistant director on films either directed by Dario Argento (Tenebre, Phenomena) or produced by him (Demons< .I>), Argento had no role to play in the making of StageFright. His influence, however, looms large. We can be thankful that it was his aesthetic sense that was a model for Soavi, and not D’Amato’s. In event, this film did wonders with its basic slasher set-up, and its killer’s mask (a gigantic owl’s head) is one that is not soon forgotten by any viewer. Micro-budgeted but a feast for the eyes, StageFright promised much for the future of its director. It remains, as well, his most purely terrifying film.
Argento DID become involved with his protégé’s next film. He co-produced and co-scripted The Church (1989). Original intended as the third film in the Demons series, not much was changed from that conception beyond the title. An ancient evil is summoned from the depths of a cathedral built on cursed ground, and a large group of characters become trapped in the building. One by one they succumb to demonic possession, hallucinations, and a wonderfully show-stopping death involving a subway train. Much looser in plotting than StageFright, The Church on the other hand goes to town with its baroque visuals, which take over to the point that they appear to destroy the script as well as the characters. Not for all fright fans, to be sure, but it does have something of the quality of a beautifully rendered nightmare.
Argento had similar duties on The Sect (1991, AKA The Devil’s Daughter). Still unreleased on DVD, this is Soavi’s only complete disappointment. Its story (Herbert Lom heads up an evil sect that wants to impregnate Kelly Curtis with a demonic child) is confused and dull, while Soavi’s visual flair seems to have gone AWOL. While a DVD edition would be welcome for completion’s sake, let’s just say this isn’t a lost classic.
But Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore 1994) very nearly was such an absent gem, given how long it has only been available on VHS. Fans looking for straightforward horror should keep looking, but those interested in something very different should stop by for a look. Rupert Everett is the socially awkward custodian of a graveyard where he has to keep shooting the recently interred. He treats his zombie disposal as just another boring aspect of his job. Then he falls in love with the widow of a newly buried man, and events spiral quickly out of control into a grotesque, tragic, surreal, bloody tale of love lost and found multiple times.
And apart from some TV work, that’s been it. If Soavi never directs another theatrical film, he will leave behind an impressive collection of horror films, but not to add to that body would be a tragedy in itself. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we haven’t heard the last of him.