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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beyond the Darkness (1979) review


Kieran Canter (Frank Wyler), Cinza Monreale (Anna/Elenore), Franca Stoppi (Iris)

Directed by Joe D'Amato

The Short Version: This infamous example of Euro gore cinema has long held a reputation for its propensity to turn stomachs with its scenes of cannibalism, implied necrophilia, torture and bizarre sexual perversions. This disgusting tale of a love triangle between a mentally unstable man-boy, an older, demented housekeeper and a corpse retains its revolting qualities thirty years past its original release. Arguably Joe D'Amato's finest work, the film teeters effectively and disturbingly between scenes of graphic cruelty and gore while methodically traversing the psyche of the films unhinged central psycho. Don't watch on a full stomach, or if you're fond of beef stew.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity and graphic content***

Grieving over the death of his girlfriend, Frank, a wealthy taxidermist, decides to dig up her corpse and preserve both her body, and their love forever. However, Frank is a disturbed and murderous man, much like his housekeeper Iris, who had a hand in his girlfriends death. Iris also gleefully disposes of the bodies of victims unlucky enough to cross Frank's path. Things become complicated when the twin sister of Frank's dead girlfriend shows up. This causes a major rift in the psycho sexual relationship between Frank and Iris culminating in a gruesome final confrontation.

Italian endurance tests of the motion picture variety were scarcely ever concerned with telling a riveting story or having characters of any substance. BEYOND THE DARKNESS is one of those rare instances that has some fascinatingly twisted individuals with which to tell its repulsive story. It also has its share of nauseatingly sadistic scenes that will ask the question, "Just why in the hell are you watching this?"

Directed by prolific trash peddler, Joe D'Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi), a director not known for subtleties, helms what many consider to be his best picture ever. Out of all the films I've seen that have graced his name (or any of his pseudonyms), I would agree with this assertion. It certainly is far more polished than other similar works by the man such as ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1979), EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), PORNO HOLOCAUST (1981) and CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY (1982), to name a few.

A jack of all cinematic trades, his credits as a DP nearly match his vast directorial credits. He performs photographic duties here as well, and his signature look of his films (a somewhat drab, flesh-toned pallor) suits the disturbing nature of this pictures storyline. The film does occasionally abandon what serious credentials it has built upon by reveling in savagery.

Ottavio Fabbri's script travels a dark road in its depiction of two psychotic reprobates who live a secluded life in a vast villa away from the city. We never learn everything we need to about this unsavory duo, but enough time is spent with them, we learn just enough to know they are as far and away from wholesome as you can get.

Frank Wyler (as played by the angelic Irishman Kieran Canter, who reportedly went on to a career in porn) is a doting man-boy who proclaims his love for his recently departed, yet has been carrying on a bizarre mother-son sexual relationship with his creepy looking housekeeper, Iris during the interim. One gets the impression that Frank isn't totally responsible for his mental condition. There are shades or normality screaming to get out within Canter's portrayal, even if the sleazy attributes of the film pulverize such notions into submission. There are also moments that blur the line as to whether Frank is a predator intentionally seeking out female victims, or if the thought of a living woman sharing his 'bed of the dead' (as Aquarius Releasing's US advertising morbidly called it) sends him into a murderous frenzy.

Iris (essayed with suitably vengeful menace by Franca Stoppi) has apparently been with Frank for some time. It's not known how she came into the family, but her penchant for evil is established right from the start of the film. It's also the one time the film segues into possible supernatural territory after Iris hires an old witch to use voodoo to eliminate Anna, Frank's girlfriend. Iris is obviously in charge here and Stoppi's performance is easily the kookiest of the two, with Canter's hopelessly damaged man-child unable to make decisions, or cope with the world around him without her.

And therein lies the crux of this perverted love triangle. Frank loves his dead girlfriend, Iris loves Frank, but hates that Frank loves a corpse he keeps in his bedroom. Frank is willing to marry Iris, but refuses to get rid of his dead Anna. It's the classic love story, just told in the most vile way imaginable. As mentally unhinged as Iris is, it's obvious she hates Anna in death just as much as she did when she was alive. Not only does she share the same bed with Frank and his girlfriends corpse, but she happily takes any opportunity to breast feed him, or jack him off in clear view of Anna's remains.

The necrophilia itself is never explicitly shown, but the tone of these scenes is just as sickening, if not surpassing the handful of graphic instances of gory violence. It really is an unsettling movie that most will likely find extremely appalling. Other films treading similar ground are the trashy Drive In exploits of LOVE ME DEADLY (1973) and the dangerous, raw excess of NEKROMANTIK (1987). The latter picture comes the closest to capturing the morbidity of D'Amato's atmosphere with a couple of poetically perverse sequences of its own.

The lengthy embalming scene where we see Frank removing Anna's organs and eyes, sucking out all the remaining liquids and bodily fluids is stomach churning. This is made all the more grim by some shockingly convincing special effects work. Upon removing her heart, Frank shows his undying love for Anna by gnoshing down on the organ as blood squirts from the arteries. The things we do for love. This is also the first of two times that Frank displays an affinity for the taste of human flesh.

This disturbing sequence was among the few that stirred rumors that D'Amato and his crew had used real corpses for the filming. The fact that no special effects artist is credited on the English language print reinforces that long standing claim. Over the years, this rumor has been refuted by the director himself explaining that he uses the skin of a pig to enhance the FX shots. Also, D'Amato puts his skills as a DP to good use in this manner as well. Camera placement during certain shots exacerbates the gruesomely realistic qualities these moments already possess.

While Frank completes his taxidermal masterpiece, an Aussie hitcher he picked up runs afoul of his handiwork. Frank shows no interest in her attempting to escape, but does take offense when she attacks him. Scratching his neck, our necrophile in training decides to torture this woman before killing her. Grabbing a pair of pliers, Frank removes the girls fingernails from one of her hands. The camera never cuts away from this, but instead lingers while all the nails are torn away.

There are a few sequences here that are easily classifiable as disgusting in the extreme. At the top of the heap (or bottom of the barrel?) would have to go to the scene wherein Frank and Iris dispose of the Australian hitchhikers body. Just as D'Amato's camera meticulously probed the earlier taxidermy scene of Frank's girlfriend, we get a painstaking degree of attention to detail during this wince-inducing moment of bodily destruction.

It should be noted that the sound effects play a key role in making these sequences all the more unpleasant. Whereas sound effects in numerous other Italian pictures were grossly exaggerated, the ones used here add an immeasurable amount of blood-curdling queasiness.

Unlike other gorror movies, there is no "one and done" momentum as Iris chops away at this woman's corpse. It takes multiple strikes of hacking through bone and viscera to remove these limbs. Yet again, D'Amato adds another layer of realism to an already grubby, if well made movie.

The shoveling and scooping up of the remaining gristle, plasma saturated flesh and bone fragments help hammer home the grotesque realism; this amidst the acid bath carnage bubbling with a black and red viscous matter and accompanying splashes of blood adorning the walls. D'Amato doesn't stop there, though.

The Coup De Gory occurs right after Iris buries the remaining fleshy, liquid goop. Noticeably dirty from handling body parts and being splattered with blood, she casually goes back into the villa, sets the kitchen table, and serves up a hot pot of beef stew without even washing her hands! Iris stuffs food into her mouth with all the manners of a cave dweller. We then get close ups of the soupy sustenance as she crams it in, portions of it falling from her mouth. Frank correlates the food with the mashed, melted remains of the hitchhiker they literally dissolved; cue one of those great vomiting money shots that always manage to creep up on ya' in Italian genre movies.

Aquarius handled the films US theatrical release. There doesn't appear to have been much ballyhoo for the promotional aspects of this picture, or at least not much to be found. The film was left mostly intact, although it did lose a scene in a disco where Frank picks up a pretty blonde. The US title was changed to BURIED ALIVE and one of the images on what little advertising Aquarius did for the picture showed a hand reaching up through the earth. No one is actually buried alive, although a chilling moment goes in that direction at one point.

D'Amato's movie is far from perfect as there are plot holes such as Frank being oblivious to his dead girlfriend's twin sister, Elenore, and no explanation is given as to why the corpse of Anna was not embalmed beforehand (possibly to do with religion specifications?). Since Frank ultimately becomes a cannibal, it's not explained why he becomes so disenchanted with imagined consumption of flesh immediately after the films notorious "acid bath revenge" sequence. In addition, some of the dubbed dialog does the film no favors, but bland, simplistic exchanges were typical of foreign fare back then.

The score by fan favorites The Goblin is probably one of their more familiar and progressive scores for the myriad of horror films that bear their participation. Pieces of their score for BEYOND THE DARKNESS was also used in Bruno Mattei's immensely entertaining, yet irrefutably awful HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980).

Despite a couple of mis-steps here and there, D'Amato's movie is capped off with a nifty little shock moment that is a fitting end to an already intriguing, lunch launching little movie. BEYOND THE DARKNESS is still a strong feature all these years later and a shining, if highly repugnant example of extreme Italian horror.

This review is representative of the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD


George Beremov [Nebular] said...

I haven't even heard of this one. 70s slashers aren't my cup of tea anyway, so I doubt I'll ever give this one a shot. Brilliant review, though!

I can't believe I'm not amongst the followers on your other blog Lone Wolves & Hidden Dragons! How did I miss it?! And I consider myself a martial arts freak. :)

George Beremov [Nebular] said...

Hm, I just found out you haven't posted anything on it since forever. Pity, and I got quite excited when I found it...

venoms5 said...

BEYOND THE DARKNESS isn't a slasher, George. It's of the extreme Italian horror school.:) If things like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY, ANTHROPOPHAGUS, etc do nothing for you, you likely won't like this, either, I'm afraid.

If you've seen any of D'Amato's other movies, than this one you should definitely see, as it's widely considered his best work.

LW&HD is co-authored by me and Shaun Anderson. We take turns posting reviews. I posted the last one, which i think was a review for FIVE VENOMS. I haven't talked to him about it, but I take it he has lost interest for the time being as he has gotten interested in other areas for his own blog. I will ask him if and when he intends to post something again!:)

Still, there are plenty of martial arts related reviews and articles here, but predominantly for oldschool martial arts films and very little on newer productions.

Thanks for stopping by, George!:)

JP "Strange and Shocking Turn Of Events" Wendel said...

I completely agree, easily D'Amato's best film.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Wonderful, WONDERFUL review for this still pretty underrated Italo gem. Many people think that D'Amato was nuts - well, maybe he was, as he has made loads and loads of awful trashfests (Killing Birds / Quest For The Mighty Sword / Frankenstein 2000...).

Nevertheless, between 1979 and 1981, he showed some of his hidden talent and directed 3 of the greatest gorefests in Italian horror history:
Anthropophagus, Absurd and this one.

I agree with you that this may be his best movie. I remember how much it blew me away when I first saw it a few years ago, especially because my expectations were very, very low which has something to do with the fact, that most people simply forget about it. When it comes to D'Amato, people only mention the Eastman flicks, the porn stuff or all the awful 80s/90s crapfests.

Awesome write-up for an awesome movie!

venoms5 said...

Thanks for the remarks, Harry. I watched it again the other night. First time I'd seen it in a long time. I don't even think I watched it when I bought the dvd, outside of watching the interview with Cinza Monreale.

I do remember being in History class one day and the teacher stepped out of the room for a bit and a girl in the class started talking about the movie. She couldn't remember the name, but she described some of the more gruesome scenes. Of course, I had to speak up and say, "Buried Alive!" Then she remembered, lol.

Do you think George would like this much?

By the way, have you seen D'Amato's CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY? That's another stomach turner right there. David Brandon does an awesome job as Caligula, though.

Keir said...

"Frank, a wealthy taxidermist, decides to dig up her corpse and preserve both her body, and their love forever. However, Frank is a disturbed, murderous man..."
"However"? Sounds like you're implying that digging up dead bodies and preserving them is a normal, wholesome hobby but wait! It's actually being carried out by someone who's quite disturbed.

venoms5 said...

Danka Fraulein Keir for pointing out my confused English when it could all have been made so abundantly clear had a I simply inserted an article such as 'and' to make it more cohesive!

venoms5 said...

Love your blogs on Hitler, by the way. Don't take that as me saying that because I said I loved your blogs on Hitler that it means I am a Nazi, or anything. Let me re-word that, too, then.

I like your blogs on Hitler and the Nazi's etc, etc. Nicely written what little I glossed over.

venoms5 said...

Sorry I'm seeing your comment late JP. Quite a good movie that is still effective today.

Will Errickson said...

Such a great piece on a must-see Italian horror flick! The beef stew scene made me throw up, literally so. This was a movie I'd enjoyed as a teen, renting it on VHS, then forgot about till the great DVD releases started happening about 10 years ago. Huzzah!

venoms5 said...

Hey, Will! Yeah, I rented it, too, when I was a young'un. When the video store I rented it from along with dozens of others was closing down, my grandfather would take me down there to blow my allowance on as many tapes as I could get my hands on. BURIED ALIVE was one of them. Depending on how much they'd been rented was how much the guy sold them for. Good times.

That beef stew scene was probably more unsettling than anything else in the movie, lol. I bet that a great many people who saw it had the same feeling during that scene!

Maynard Morrissey said...

Haha no, Geroge wouldn't like it. I can't think of any Italo gore-flick he would like it. Gee, he hasn's seen anything from Argento yet!

No, I haven't - but the Imdb credits intrigued me. Goerge Eastman? Michele Soavi? Laure Gemser? Woot woot, I have to see this!! :)

Chris J said...

My favorite D'Amato flick. Unfortunately the Media Blasters print is incorrectly framed and has scenes out of order. The Dutch release on "Italian Shock" label is far superior!

venoms5 said...

I'm aware of the ratio issue but not that bothered by the framing till a proper one comes out, and there doesn't appear to be one in 1.66:1 from what I've seen. Also, I don't recall anything about scenes being out of order for this title. It is, from my recollection, identical to the Thriller Video tape I used to own. I remember something about some minor footage of the main character walking to the house being missing on the bluray, but is on the DVD, which is what I have. I do recall another film, THE NEW YORK RIPPER, I believe, having scenes out of order.

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