Chapter 5: Isis in New York
That long, warm night in pre-war Manhattan Dario sat watching silently as we ate, barely touching a morsel, leaving me to defend Inferno's fractured plotting without comment, content at least one person out there was cracked enough to consider it his strongest work despite the screaming papier mache skeleton at the climax and other lapses of reason (admittedly I have an abiding passion for Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which gives me a huge kick every time I see it, but let's not go there for now).
In the 2000 hardback Art of Darkness - The Cinema of Dario Argento, Mitch Davis memorably describes the "dumbfounded sense of pure what-the-fuck" that tore through him on his first viewing of the notorious Inferno 'taxi cab scene', with it's lunatic score by Keith Emerson. As Mitch succinctly says "It all seemed so ridiculous... for a multitude of reasons Inferno just messed me up..." Granted your humble narrator had been half asleep and suspended between worlds at the time of his own initial encounter (in what a shrink might call a highly receptive 'hypnogogic state' similar to what you reach during those long haul drives when it's all too damn easy to pick up phantom hitchhikers), but that still didn't explain why this mad dog of a movie communicated so directly with my dreams. As always the maestro offered scant help or guidance beyond his customary shrug and rapid elision to current work. I was writing Dust Devil at the time and related the story of Modjadji, the Rain Queen, in a backhanded attempt to draw him on the subject.
Dario listened politely only becoming engaged when I got to the part about the priestess's body serving as the crucial ingredient in the rainmaking medicine. Given the company our conversation turned readily to ritual murder and the use of human and animal body parts in tribal magic. I had filmed some bloody scenes covering violent Xhosa initiation rites for the South African College of Music but knew next to nothing of parallel Afro-Caribbean and native American traditions. Keen to further my education Maitland suggested we visit her local Santeria botannica and being game for a laugh I took her up on the offer, hoping to lure Dario into discussing La Terza Madre - the Third Mother...
I had no conception I was on the brink of events that would irrevocably overturn my view of the so-called 'real' world. But as they say, fools rush in and not twenty fours later I was ambling blithely as a black goat down a deceptively sundrenched sidewalk on the lower east side, squinting at an address written on the back of Maitland's card.
I was only aware of Santeria from half-memories of John Schlesinger's 1987 klinker The Believers, which conflated the tradition's dark side (Brujeria) with a listless sub-Polanski strain of whitebread Satanism. Like Voodoo, the tradition's followers revered the images of Christian Saints in missionary approved spiritual palisempts over the identities of the African spirits venerated by their ancestors and a host of plaster virgins and contorted Christs stared mutely back at me from the shop window as I paced outside, awaiting the maestro's belated arrival. After an hour or two I began to tire of making trips to the nearest pay phone and began to come to terms with the fact that the great man's schedule and glamorous new assistant had gotten the better of him. At least for now...
I almost hightailed it back to the Plaza, but resolving to make the most of the situation decided to give the store a brief once over first. I stepped a pace across the threshold and faltered. The atmosphere felt sticky, redolent with the pungent smell of drying roots and something sweet and subtle like the icing on a wedding cake, a hint of almond. What looked like an orange lump of olibanum smouldered in a clawfoot burner, yellow vapors wafting over rickety shelves lined with candles, bundles of plants and murky jars filled with pickled snakes, husks of seahorses, tarantula moult and what might have been fermented chilli peppers or rat embryos or quite possibly some combination of both. I had been in traditional herbalists before back in Africa but this was the first time I had come into contact with the bizarre packaging designed to appeal to the blue-collar American consumer. Delighted by the various absurd labels on display I decided to pick up a bright pink Spook Shoo!!! Stay Away Evil - aerosol (containing 7 Lucky Indian Powers!!!!) and a small plaster black Madonna to prop up my Argento tapes back at the ranch. I had no idea about the icon's history or provenance but the statue seemed benign enough despite the frankly heretical color of her skin and that black child in her arms.
It seemed a fitting momento to bring back from the Big Apple - after all in the loony tunes opening narration to Inferno the off-screen alchemist/author does explicitly maintain that the third mother, who is also the youngest, 'controls New York', just as Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Lachrymarum hold court respectively in Friborg and Rome.
I packed the tiny statue into my suitcase back at the Plaza as if it were any other souvenir and forgot about it. I had other things on my mind back then like my US premier, initial audience test cards (largely unfavourable or bafflingly incoherent) and Hardware's upcoming European release.
But Mater Tenebrarum hadn't forgotten about me. In fact she was only just getting started...