Chapter 4: Our Lady of Darkness
New York was a different story back then and Times Square still had some of it's pre-Giuliani savour. Miramax had decided to go wide on Hardware's U.S release and myself and JoAnne were doing a lot of live radio and cable, campaigning for the introduction of the 'R-rating' after my debut opus had been handed down a hard 'X' in it's initial cut along with several other titles including Wayne Wang's Life is Cheap... But Toilet Paper is Expensive and Almodovar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. The mainstream press hated us, Stephen King had walked the screening claiming 'the pointless strobe lighting' had given him a headache, but Joe Bob Briggs had given it a big thumbs up and Fangoria Magazine had declared it the 'sci-fi horror movie of the year'. I was at the crest of my fifteen minutes of fame and although my suite at the Plaza came with all the trimmings, a computer that spoke to me gently when I woke up in the mornings, a cupboard full of designer suits and an in-box crammed with cheery messages from a bevy of brand new celebrity 'friends', there were some mornings when I didn’t know if I was alive or dead and I would spend all day inside a thunderstorm that followed me wherever I went.
To cheer myself up before the American premiere I took dinner with Dario and one of his friends, a journalist named Maitland McDonagh, who had authored the first serious appraisal of his work to appear in hardback: Broken Mirrors, Broken Mind (1990).
Maitland had recently interviewed the notorious Henry Lee Lucas and had a good working knowledge of the Charlie Manson back catalogue and other witchy crime scenes, but I couldn't help feel that while she had correctly dissected and identified the pathological underpinnings behind the maestro's earlier work, there was something in her brand of cinepathology that couldn't hack it all the way when it came to Suspiria and Inferno, taking a too Freudian approach (I suspected darkly) to an essentially Jungian work.
Sadly for the uninitiated to follow this intercourse requires a certain familiarity with il maestro's oeuvre. To whit: all of Dario's earlier pics are essentially whodunits, known as gialli in Italian because of the yellow covers of the original pulps and while re-inventing the genre they are essentially closed texts, paying lip service to the frozen archetypes (what the less charitable call 'cliches') of the genre, lurid, fetishistic murders, faceless, gloved assailants (usually played by Dario himself), beleaguered damsels, baffled coppers and inspired amateur detectives who sift through the red herrings before unmasking the killer, invariably as a result of a misperceived, seemingly insignificant clue trailed in the title or first act. Hidden in plain sight, you might say. While the solutions are often wildly implausible, an answer is made available and reason seen, if not to triumph then at least hold the film's chaotic, pathological urges in check, a logic best defined by the Conan Doyle maxim repeated by the ill-fated Inspector Giemani in Tenebrae: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains no matter how improbable, must be the truth!"
No such assurances are available in Suspiria or Inferno, in which conventional logic is turned on its head. While the primary coloured dreamscapes are strewn with the expected quota of impossibly glamorous slayings there is no single murderer at work here, often no motive and certainly no attempt made to explain or 'solve' the crimes. Written with his former spouse, actress Daria Nicolodi, both these notorious works concern witchcraft and share a weird, private cosmology only partly accessible to the casual viewer. Inspired by an incident related by Nicolodi's grandmother concerning a sojourn at an eldritch dance school in the black forest Suspiria and it's Manhattan-bound sequel draw on real life figures such as Helena Blavatsky, Gurdijieff, Rudolf Steiner and the mythic 'master alchemist' Fulcanelli, whose fictional counterpart is literally found lurking beneath the floorboards at the climax of Inferno, and whose 'real life' grande grimoire, The Mystery of the Cathedrals, is brandished in La Chiesa.
Despite the near incoherent plotting and jaw dropping non-sequeters the film's in Dario's mid-period output and the work of his various disciples and imitators contain countless literary allusions from sources as diverse as Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, whose terrifying 'scholar's mistress' in Our Lady of Darkness systematically isolates the narrator before literally coallescing from the accumulated pages of his research, the very books that have mounted up on the side of the bed vacated by his lover, slowly but surely taking on human form. A close reading of Leiber's text will reveal that I have 'borrowed' more than a few ideas of my own from this source in Hardware - notably the Peeping Tom/ Rear Window shtick and the freaky fat man's initial 'love at first sight' telephoto encounter with the adorable, newly reanimated Mark 13 drone soldier.
Trust me, it worked better in the book...
Thomas De Quincey's Suspiria des Profundis is of course the 'ur-text' from which Argento and his erstwhile writing partner Nicolodi 'borrowed' the central conceit of an infernal trinity, the negative aspect of the Goddess akin to the three norns or sorrows: -
Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears
Mater Suspriorum, Our Lady of Sighs
Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness...
I quote now (for the sake of the uninitiated) from DeQuincey's Levana and Our Three Ladies of Sorrow:
"But the third Sister who is also the youngest! Hush! Whisper while we talk of her! Her kingdom is not large or else no flesh would be spared but within that kingdom all power is hers. Her head, turreted like that of Cybele, rises almost beyond reach of sight... and her eyes, rising so high, might be hidden by distance. But, being what they are, they cannot be hidden; through the treble veil of crepe the fierce light of a blazing misery that rests not for matins nor for vespers, for noon of day or moon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground. She is the defier of God. She is also the mother of lunacies and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power but narrow is the nation that she rules. For she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions, in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within. Madonna moves with uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with tragic grace. Our Lady of Sighs creeps timidly and stealthily. But this youngest Sister moves with incalculable motions, bounding and with tiger's leaps. She carries no key for though coming rarely amongst men, she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all. And her name is MATER TENEBRARUM - OUR LADY OF DARKNESS..."
Although it had not initially been conceived as a series the shared cosmology of Suspiria and Inferno seemed to demand a second sequel, a subject Dario was notoriously reticent on. His estranged partner, Asia's mom - Daria, had attempted to complete the trilogy without him, teaming up with director Luigi Cozzi to write Dei Profundis/ Out of the Depths (1990), which tried to get intertextual on the saga's sorry ass a couple of years prior to Wes Craven's New Nightmare, with the Black Mother menacing a film crew under the direction of a thinly disguised caricature of the great man himself, her former husband, here portrayed as a sadistic control freak just begging for the inevitable, gory come uppance.
Although the subject was politely left unmentioned in Dario's presence it remained something of an invisible mastodon in the room when it came to to the subject of any potential sequel. Dario was planning a cable show based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and George Romero had agreed to direct the pilot hour - The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar. Michele was inked for Masque of the Red Death, which had been Romero's original choice and I was up for The Cask of Amontillado (a Masonic version set in Rome for which I had my sites locked on Michael Gambon - then hot off Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, etc for Fortunato and Jonathan Pryce for the Teflon-coated Montressor). Sadly Romero struck out and only one further episode written and directed by Dario himself was produced with my script ending up on the shelf with the others. The maestro's television and commercial work (including direction of the Trussardi fashion show in Milan) is all too easily overlooked by fans and crtitcs but to my (admittedly partisan) eyes his entry in the Poe cycle, The Black Cat, ranks amongst his strongest latter day work, faithful to the spirit and letter of Poe's classic and directly engaging with the issues raised in his existing ouvre by making the killer not only the protagonist but explicitly portraying him as a photographer struggling to rise above his genre roots and prove his worth as an artist.
The sequence in which Keitel (whose performance improves immeasurably once he loses the hat) stalks his wife's feline familiar while forming a viewfinder with his hands makes these linkages all too clear. Having violently butchered his dippy neo-Buddhist partner (a scene far too strong for television, despite Dario's protests at having to temper his violence for the US market) and walled her up (behind shelves containing his video and nascent DVD collection!), he feels compelled to draw attention to his crime.
Harvey's beautifully pitched delivery of the protagonist's fatal boast, "what secrets could possibly lurk between these soundly construced walls?" is not only true to source but cannot fail to recall Infernos third and final riddle and it's ludicrous solution: "the third key is hidden beneath the soles of your shoes..."
This aberrant need to at once hide the secret whilst simultaniously flaunting and hence drawing attention to the skill and artistry of it's hiding is a pattern we will see repeated again and again throughout this discourse, for if il maestro's story is really a confession then so is my own. Poe's pesky imp obtains to the giddy realm of the esoteric as much as to the somewhat less than fine art of murder.
When the two segments were released under the title Two Evil Eyes, the rogue Third Mother sequel did it's best to ride on the very short tail of Argento's Poe homage by pointlessly adopting the title The Black Cat when it appeared on tape in certain sectors of the phantom zone and places south. Let's get this straight - I have nothing but respect for Signorita Nicolodi and her colloborator Signor Cozzi. Doubtless the good lady had just cause and needed to vent a li'l steam. As for Luigi, he sold me a mug once when he was working behind the counter at Dario's store in Rome and Alien Contamination can be kind of fun for about five minutes if you're drunk, half asleep or in the mood to kick back and see a few people explode for no good reason.
However, Ray Harryhausen's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad happens to be one of my top ten favourite motion pictures of all time and it's former star Caroline Munro was among the performers who contributed to Dei Profundis and never saw a dime of the fees contractually promised by the fly-by-night Roman producers. Now Signor Cozzi may claim that has nothing to do with him which may well be true but then he can scarcely call himself a director. No director worth their salt would ever leave their people to be hung out to dry like that, especially not their cast, let alone their star and Miss Munro deserves better.
Whilst motion picture directors traditionally don't go near the contracts or financial negotiations the safety and well being of your people has to be uppermost among your concerns at all times. When asked to define the role of the director on set by the judge at the Twilight Zone trial, John Landis replied: "The director is the one who gets the blame..." A self-pitying way of saying the director is the one who is responsible. Somebody has to be and if you're not willing to shoulder that burden then you don't belong on the floor. Simple as that.
Dei Profundis has since been forgotten, sinking into a deserved oblivion almost as profound as the missing final book in Fulcanelli's own trilogy, Finis Gloraie Mundi, or the third installment of rogue philologist Otto Rahn's attempt to provide a key analogous to the 'verbum dismissum' of the alchemists: Orpheus - A Journey to Hell and Beyond (1937?).
In any initiatory process it seems the third key or indeed the 'third degree' is always the hardest...
Dario himself seemed to quash all hope of an official sequel when he cast Ania Pieroni (the Mother of Tears in Inferno) as a trashy shoplifter who is violently murdered in the opening scenes of his subsequent production Tenebrae (1982), her mouth stuffed with the pages of a lurid pulp novel bearing the film's title. It comes as little surprise when the killer is later revealed to be the author himself, the maestro's 'fictional' alter ego, seeking to pin his crimes on a psychotic fan in order to rid himself of an estranged wife. Dario claimed at the time he had been questioned by the Polizei in real life as a possible suspect in the then current 'LUDWIG' killings (later solved, the true culprits proving to be not one but two Italian physicists, who donned clown outfits before embarking on their eponymous kill spree, a scenario unlikely as any of the maestro's last reel twists). He hinted at the investigation having put undue strain on his relationship with Daria, although I suspect this is just smoke and mirrors. Inferno had tanked, failing to reproduce Suspiria's break-out success and Dario was ready to clean the slate and move on.
In Tenebrae the gaudy lighting and ornate art deco gothic is replaced by bare white walls, gleaming glass and chrome and stark, futurist architecture. Despite it's title it is the brightest of his films with the action unfolding in broad daylight or flatly lit interiors. Inferno's incoherent plotting had drawn too many poor notices and switching writing partners Dario triumphantly jettisoned his previous works magical trappings in a distinctly post-modern return to his giallo roots. Considerable care had gone into the dialogue and the plot is one of his best, unfolding with cruel yet undeniable logic. Like the doomed Inspector Giemani, Dario had sought to eliminate the 'impossible' and arrived at a truth. Of sorts..