The Rare, Sweet Nectar of Michele Soavi’s Horror

by Patrick McInerney

I’d give my life to be dead. -Francesco Dellamorte

The Films:

StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

The Church (1989)

La Setta (1991)

Cemetery Man (1994)

Michele Soavi will be the enigma of this trilogy. Known for only four movies of such distinct vision, his output-to-quality ratio lay in the rarified air of Jacques Tati’s. And, while his movies weren’t technically giallo, there are far more reasons to include him in the Bava/Argento group than there are to leave him out. His spot in the apprentice lineage, his place as an 80’s and 90’s Italian horror director, the quality-to-output ratio just mentioned, and yes, a personal selfish attempt at getting more people to watch his stuff (specifically, The Church. Watch The Church. Enjoy ice cold, refreshing The Church.) Let’s clear up a little web before we dive in. Mario Bava mentors both his son Lamberto and Dario Argento, who go on to be directors themselves. In turn, they both work with each other (Mario even helped out on Inferno). They also, on different projects, take Michele Soavi under their wing as assistant director or second unit director. Soavi also gains experience from Joe D’Amato, and moves on to Terry Gilliam as assistant director for Baron Munchausen. He is allowed to direct some music videos for movie promos back in Italy. With this knowledge of bigger budget movies under his belt and the experience of directing tiny projects, Soavi is fully primed and ready to fly.

His first outing is StageFright: Aquarius, a straight slasher in the vein of A Bay of Blood (in all likelihood, an inexpensive homage to his mentor’s mentor). Instead of a lake, however, the movie is recursively set in a stage production rehearsal about a rapist . A crew member gets murdered by a killer (former actor) escaped from a mental institution. The crew changes the plot of the play to comment on the murder in order to sell tickets. The murderer puts on the play’s killer’s costume and continues to pick off the cast. It’s surprising to see the novice Soavi’s ass cashing all the checks his mouth is writing. Upon rewatching his four major movies, it seems like the snow globe analogy used for Argento may not have been far off. His protégé used them in all of his movies. The killer’s costume uses an owl mask, the feathers of which blow all over the stage, covering the artwork of corpses at the end. This image strongly evokes a snow globe. The Church has it, La Setta has it. Hell, Cemetery Man has a close-up of one in the opening sequence. So Soavi seems very attracted to individuals and groups in isolated settings. As is only appropriate for the final point in the Bava-Argento-Soavi lineage, the deaths are inventive and, quite literally, spectacular. His nod to Argento might be the first kill, a pickaxe to the mouth (which he would repeat in Cemetery man, only that time, the pickaxe comes out of the mouth). When the main character discovers the body, outside in the night rain, she throws her bright pink umbrella to the side in shock, as the camera dollies back to keep it in frame. A stark image that reeks of Deep Red. Later, a hand bursts through a door’s window to pull a man to it. Stage blood is knocked over. His belly is somehow stained in his own blood, and his shirt begins to wiggle. A drill bit made its way through the door and through his guts. Thus, his “real” blood (in real life, stage blood) drips into a pool of stage blood, and taints it. B.E.A.utiful. Two years go by, and Michele Soavi switches subgenres from the slasher to the supernatural.

After viewing The Church, you may, as I did, venture to RottenTomatoes, Metacritic, or imdb to see what the world has to say about it. If so, you might be surprised to discover, as I am, how fucking stupid the world is. The Church is remembered fondly as a fun entry in 80’s Italian horror. Using that logic, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a wonderful sci-fi about finding yourself out there in a lonely world. Where Argento steps back to use impressionism through broad, elemental light and music, Soavi steps forward to use it through rapid, specific imagery. The Church evokes the grand horror of the Book of Revelation. We understand little of it, but we know we are approaching the end. Soavi uses space to trick us. What comes out of a burlap bag (and later, a holy water basin) is not what could fit in it. A cross lay on top of a filled ditch, but falls into an infinity below. No thud, just a blue light emanating from… What, hell? Maybe? He uses cause and effect against us. Some hallucinations are real, some are illusions, but all of them have real implications. Time is off. She calls the cops, jumps out of her window, scrambles to get up, and falls into the cop’s arms. Whether time skips, or if we just flashed ahead, is irrelevant. We are made to feel uneasy about the universe we are in. During an attempted rape, a glass of liquid is knocked over. No, not red wine. Black ink. An old couple gingerly bickers about how to use a phone. The wife will end up gingerly using her husband’s head to ring the church bells. A man is impaled on a jackhammer, turned on. What would you call the monument of bodies at the end? What would you call the demon rape? The appropriate comparison of The Church and 2001 would be: by the end, we are made to feel something beyond ourselves. Something big and unknowable, but deep and haunting.

Soavi’s next project was the strange La Setta. As with any great director’s lesser movies, La Setta is a “meh” movie with great moments stuffed inside. Murder reversals, undead fights, clever face removal, sex with storks (which I totally called like twenty minutes in. I said, “someone in this movie’s going to get raped by a stork.”). Blame it on limited space, but let’s move on to the next movie. Soavi’s last major work was Cemetery Man, a movie that confidently defies explanation. Based on the novel by Tiziano Sclavi, who would later make the comic Dylan Dog (similar to the novel, and with a Rubert Everett doppelganger as the main character). Cemetery Man marks a huge growth for Soavi, not beyond his other works, but away from them. It is essentially a comic book movie, without being based on a comic. In fact, Dylan Dog would be a movie comic book. Soavi uses big, strong, still images and lets the camera and editing create the motion and momentum. Foreground images are clearly separated from their background. If If a bookkeeper would have a desk of papers in real life, he now has a room full of papers. A witty line fired (“I’m the mayor!” Shot in the head. “Ex.”), and instant rain acts as our drumroll. Everett’s penis removal surgery is reminiscent of The Joker’s seedy back room facial surgery in Batman. Very comic book-ey material. But Cemetery Man’s, and Michele Soavi’s, lasting feat is how much of an island it is. No movie could ever be like it, because no universe is like it. Its laughs are actually funny, its deaths are legit slasher stuff, and its borderline incomprehensible narrative is vaguely familiar to giallo fans. As with The Church, Cemetery Man pushes beyond coherent explanation, which may be the only coherent explanation the movie can get.

So, this is where the trail ends. On a punctuation I’m not even sure is a question mark. Though not exactly a “giallo director” (and neither was Bava or Argento), giallo isn’t exact itself. If giallo came from an idea or feeling Mario Bava had, and he gave it to Dario, who gave his interpretation of it to Soavi, then what we are seeing is not the end of working inside a style. We are seeing where a thought ends when it reaches its zenith. Building upon expectation to surprise. Finding intricacies in the bold, and juxtaposing them. Horror is a perfect litmus for a movie maker. They’ll have to come up with something original if they want to make an audience feel something big from a small budget. The greatest chefs (or any artist) in the world will be lucky to come up with one or two wholly original ideas in their lives. Most of their careers are spent reimagining original ideas. Between Bava, Argento and Soavi, you’ll find dozens of original ideas, an almost impossible achievement. Bava’s recurring dream about the violinist serenading his lover from the tendons of his arm takes on a new meaning; they are the violinists, and we are their lovers.

Further Info:

  • Douglas Keesey’s Intertwinings of Death and Desire in Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore.
  • Jim Pyke’s nice contemporary summary of Soavi’s movies. A little sad to read his excitement for Soavi’s next big thing.
  • A nice quick bio by Jason Buchanan.
  • Rupert Everett on Cemetery Man
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