Wednesday, 17 October 2007

classic image (halloween special): dellamorte dellamore (michele soavi, 1994) and santa sangre (alejandro jodorowsky, 1989)

So it's the month of Halloween and, predictably, I'm writing an article about horror films. Since I'm sure your DVD store's copy of The Exorcist is currently sitting there in dread, awaiting what is possibly its millionth Halloween DVD night, I thought I’d rather submit a post that’s a little more off-beat…

Even within the context of cult cinema itself--which is already a contest of the bizarre--let alone in the context of mainstream horror, Dellamorte Dellamore and Santa Sangre are two beautiful, shiny gem-like red herrings. Now these two films aren't exactly what might unanimously be agreed to demonstrate the pinnacle of aesthetic sublimity, and yet they are challenging films in their own right, tinged with a peculiar visual style and mood that defies the strict categorisation imposed by genre and imbued with a seemingly incompatible yet effective blend of genuine Romanticism and self-reflexive irony.

Based on Tiziano Sclavi's Dylan Dog graphic novel series, director Michele Soavi's odd-ball anomaly of a film Dellamorte Dellamore is set for the most part within the confines of an Italian small-town cemetary and chronicles the social isolation of the protagonist, the pretentiously and dramatically titled Francesco Dellamorte, surprisingly played by well-known actor Rupert Everett (who apparently inspired Sclavi's original protagonist). Francesco spends his life casually observing the lives of others turn to dust while he goes about his routine job as Buffalora's local cemetery keeper with only his naïve, mute hunchback sidekick Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro) for company. That is, until in the tradition of most films set in cemeteries, the dead start rising from the grave and walking around in a hilarious parody of their former breathing selves and a beautiful young widow known only as 'She' (Anna Falchi) catches Francesco's eye and goes through a series of reincarnations.

The fascinating thing about Dellamorte Dellamore is its fine balance between erotic horror thriller, black comedy, social satire and serious meditative drama. Now I'm aware that these claims may sound suspicious as such descriptions are often used in defense of many a mediocre pornographic B-movie disguising itself as something more. However, it is definitely not the case with this movie, which transcends the limitations of its low budget via Soavi's highly aesthetic eye. As Dario Argento's protégé, Soavi's visual style is clearly influenced by the well-known Italian cult director, yet he succeeds in creating his own unique mood which imbues scenes with a melancholy and eerie beauty that tones down Argento's savage style and makes way for a tone which is more aligned with Francesco's Romantic mind-set. Yet the film also often reflects ironically upon itself, and we begin to intuit that Francesco's narcissistic isolation within the almost dream-like feel created by cinematographer Mauro Marchetti is a cover for his need to strike out at a less-than-ideal society. Still, the quiet and contemplative figure of Francesco strolling through an autumn-tinged daylight world and a misty night time within set designer Massimo Antonello Gelleng's stylized and lavishly designed sets is always more appealing to the viewer than the drab town outside its gates-- one populated by neurotic, fluttering politicians and an array of ridiculous yapping caricatures…..“The more they laugh, the further away they seem. You can never be too different, Gnaghi”, bemuses Francesco as he condescendingly ignores the (false) rumours surrounding his alleged impotence running through the ears of the vulgar town's folk.

The movie is essentially composed of purely cult humour which rather than being camp itself, possesses an intuitively camp sensibility. Combine this factor with scenes which are pretentiously artistic in their visual approach and you have Dellamorte Dellamore, an odd mixture of philosophical ruminations about life and death captured in highly quotable one-liners such as “I'd give my life to be dead”, a bizarre necrophilic yet naïve love affair between a re-animated disembodied head and Gnaghi, fire-flies hanging upon visible strings and an apparition of the Angel of Death composed of pages from a burning phonebook! The film is a feast for those, who like myself, are enamoured of down-right insanity of plot, yet in terms of linearity the film for the most part avoids the often over-convoluted nature of scripts such as those of Argento's Profondo Rosso (1975). It in fact strives for a more 'lovably-evil' vibe than the down-right psychotically malign, while still not falling in line with the purely parodic mood of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series (1981, 1987, 1992). Dellamorte Dellamore in general spins a unique mood of its own, which combined with the seductively misfit-like performance of Everett in this lesser-known role, possesses a charm which is hard to resist from the initial visually gorgeous Argento-style shot right up to the strange and original ending. My only warning applies to the dub: although the movie is officially dubbed in both English and Italian without specifying an original language, I still highly recommend the Italian dub since the only character which doesn't possess a shrill cringe-worthy voice on the English version is Francesco. Moreover, the script is in most instances more effective in Italian in terms of both depth and irony.

In comparison, Santa Sangre is probably even less accessible to anyone who doesn't already share an appreciation of movies that are well, basically, just plain weird! Alejandro Jodorowsky's film, which is probably a red herring in any imaginable context, requires the imagination to work a little harder since despite its intriguing nature, the production clearly plays out in a sequence of highly ambitious ideas which are way beyond its budget. In spite of this, or perhaps precisely for this reason, Santa Sangre holds a fascinating edge which you don't come across everyday.

Following the psychological deterioration of the young Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) after he undergoes a series of childhood traumas within the grounds of his father's circus and his mother's fanatical religious cult, the film unfolds in a line up of seemingly random scenes featuring eccentric characters, tormented personal visions containing brutal religious imagery and a unique twist on the cinematically over-used Oedipus complex. In this way the film deals heavily with a Romanticised vision of the isolated madman figure, and the hardships of social rejection continue to be raised through several minor characters such as the melancholy circus clowns, who unlike Fenix, carry their outcast nature externally. In the meantime, selfish characters in the film often seem to fetishize each other's social or physical differences for their own ends. The film seems pretty obsessed with its inventory of the unusual and among the members of this list feature a muscular, completely tattooed woman with a relentless bent for power through her self-imposed shocking appearance and an ever-suffering mute ballerina with pierrette-style make-up.

With its highly baroque style and imagery as well as its erratic tone--which switches between camp, serious drama and melodrama--the only thing which I have been able to compare its style to is not a film, but a novel. In terms of visuals and instances of mood, the movie does in fact bear a striking resemblance to Angela Carter's eccentric novel Nights at the Circus (1984), although the film often seems to act as a tribute to more than one popular source of influence. A clear example is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek scene where Fenix enacts the concoction of an invisibility potion in what is obviously a tribute to James Whale's classic film adaptation, The Invisible Man (1933). However, throughout the film we sense the poignancy of even the most seemingly random scenes, and as Fenix's quest for invisibility continues to demonstrate his descent into the status of non-entity at the mercy of the figure of his over-bearing mother, this sequence becomes increasingly significant.

Any viewer's reception of Santa Sangre is bound to be mixed since apart from the mesmerising insanity which looms over the film as a whole, one other question remains surrounding it: is this movie camp or is it perfectly aware of the limitations of its budget and its sometimes painfully bad performances? Surely, the decision to have Spanish actors simply learn their lines by rote to appeal to an English-speaking audience has something to do with the often cringingly bad delivery of dialogue, though in the brief scenes where a transvestite wrestler mimes lines to what is obviously a mousy woman's voice recorded on a different track, then there is clearly something more going on behind the scenes. My guess is that Santa Sangre is quite self-consciously displaying its penchant towards happily non-mainstream film-making without being predictably or traditionally controversial.

And in any case, it is probably impossible for such movies to cause any level of controversy since they are so seldom given any attention or understood according to their own particular context, for it is clear that there are some movements or film-scenes which work on a very different wavelength in terms of mood, humour and over-all philosophy of style. This last comment of mine is however not meant in complaint to what may be understood as a general under-appreciation or dismissal of certain cult-appeal films, but rather a relieved reflection on the factors which allow this kind of underdog film-making to continue wheeling around its disturbing little treats even amidst the cynical laughter of the cool kids.

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