Chapter 3: The Art of Light
I managed to find a cash in hand dayjob working as a photocopy boy at the Soviet Press Agency but my night's belonged to the Scala and I gravitated back to it's miasmal, red lit auditorium again and again, a junkie chasing his fix, always trying to recapture that first, orgiastic experience and never quite getting there. I watched every other Italian horror movie I could track down but none of them felt quite like the real thing, more the cinematic equivalent of methadone.
If I didn't grow up in the ape house then I certainly came of age there. I would camp out on the front tiers where the first few rows had already been totally destroyed by various nutters before me. Sometimes I would open my eyes at three in the morning and have no way of knowing if I was dreaming or not and as I slowly learned about the art of light so the Scala brought me into contact with some of the auteurs who had helped create this formidable body of work.
This was how I first met Dario, one night at the monkey house after a test screening of Phenomena (1985), which had been acquired by Palace, the cinema's parent company.
A callow fan, too nervous to ask for an autograph, I pressed his thin hand and offered him a smoke instead which went some ways towards breaking the ice. I don't remember what we spoke about but he was the first industry insider to meet my eyes and treat me like an equal (I had twice met Alan Parker and shaken his hand without him ever looking at my face or otherwise registering my presence). Despite or perhaps because of the violence of his work there is a openess to Dario rare in men.
His acute sensitivity led to a kind of borderline anorexia that made him oddly ageless. There was an adolescent, almost bird-like quality to the way he held himself as if his limbs were somehow still too long for his body and he inhabited a state in which he seemed to neither sleep nor eat. If he had been a bird he would have been a Raven.
We spoke only briefly, a few sentences at best. Dario's English was not what it is now and the great man had far bigger things on his mind, but the look of recognition in his eyes stayed with me. He was plainly nervous about the screening and probably needed that smoke.
Later I scrawled all over the preview card in big, scary looking print lettering, telling the distributors to leave the film alone and not cut a frame. Instead they chopped it to pieces, dropping twenty minutes of plot and releasing it with damaging censor cuts under the title Creepers to well nigh universal derision. The only positive word came from a British journalist then unknown to me, Alan Jones, who memorably summed it up with the line:
"Just like Carrie with flies! It's a bitch!"
I would happily have taken Dario home to meet my mother but instead I took my mother to meet him, along with my then fiancé at the British premiere of Opera two years later. I was too blown away by the movie to notice that neither of the ladies seemed to be exactly enjoying the experience. Something to do with the volume of the heavy metal music in my mum's case 'though it was a VHS copy of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that my ex threw at my head shortly thereafter when she showed me the door, summing it up with the equally memorable tag:
"This is exactly the kind of s**t I don't need in my life any more!"
To my surprise it was Dario who kept in touch and he became not only a friend but a mentor, introducing me to the others in his hallowed circle. His brother, Claudio, who produced Alejandro Jodorowsky's last great film Santa Sangre, his loyal protégée Michele Soavi and Simon Boswell, the composer who had contributed to the Phenomena soundtrack and scored Michele's first directorial outing: Stagefright/ Deliria.
Like so many people I didn't notice Asia until the evocative opening scene of Michele's second feature La Chiesa (1989), when a fleeing heretic wearing a bee keeper's mask escapes the massacre of her village and is hunted like an animal through the medieval wood by mounted Teutons. One of the crusaders tips off her mask with his lance and for a split second Asia's terrified face is revealed before he delivers the coup d'grace.
At that very moment as I first viewed the scene in an Italian-language print at the Scala someone nudged my hand and I turned to find an angry, balding man demanding I put out the joint I'd fired up, the first time such a thing had ever happened in my experience, where smoking in the all-day all-nighters was a prerequisite, particulary in Dario movies. If you didn't want to go through the hassle of being a smoker yourself it was okay 'cause passive inhalation would do it for you. There was no way you were going home sane. Lighting up in a Dario movie was almost a duty like reflexively eating spare ribs during zombie/cannibal marathons or sprinkling feathers from the balcony during Stagefright. Some movies, like wars, can only be fought, tolerated or understood when you're inebriated or under the influence of powerful mindaltering substances.
My first instincts were to snap the balding stranger's head off as he were an insect and send it spinning across the aisle but age and the sad coming of the nineties prevailed and I stubbed out my smoke instead. Which was how I met Alan Jones and 'though I later learned he'd helped procure the print, the spirit of complete honesty compels me to admit my first instincts were to kill him on sight.
In my absence something had started to go horribly wrong with the British rep scene, like milk left too long in the back of a fridge. It was the advent of home video (ironically spearheaded by the success of Evil Dead in the UK), that killed midnight movies as a social phenomena, depriving what people now call 'cult movies' of their context and the fertile soil that nurtured them, but I was having too much fun preparing my first feature, Hardware (1990), to notice at the time. As much as anything Hardware was a love letter to the Scala, lit and designed to extend the auditorium into the screen, with some beats in the lunatic dialogue left deliberately open, begging bellowed panto-style comebacks from the aisles (Sorry kids, but the experience just ain't the same at 'home' and never could be. You need bad plumbing, genuine rats, resident psychos and hundreds of other psychotic people you've never even seen before to get the hang of it. It was my version of 'home' viewing so long as the Scala lasted).
The moment we'd locked the picture, Jo-Anne Sellar, the cinema's former programmer and now the film's producer who had pulled the beast out of the bag for well under a million (tough even in those days), flew to Rome with myself and the first married answer print and sat in a tiny preview theatre with Dario and Claudio, watching as our homage unspooled and neither of them moved nor made a sound, seemingly unphased by its frissons and not laughing at the gags. Afterwards there was a pregnant pause as Dario encountered us in the foyer. Taking his time to compose his thoughts and avoiding our eyes the maestro spoke slowly and carefully, hands fluttering to give his words due emphasis: "Your film...the colors...the reds, the oranges... the way the camera moves. Up and down... in out... is emotional! Psychological... I like!"
At which point he gave me a hug and it felt as if I'd finally earned those spurs all the way, which was pretty good if I hadn't been feeling quite so brokenhearted and otherwise distracted and down at heel about a certain young lady at the time...