Beyond the Darkness

Introduction

Over the last decade, critics and theorists have made a number of advances in reclaiming those popular European texts and auteurs previously dismissed as examples of “trash” or “bad” cinema. A large part of this reassessment has focused on the key directors, stars and styles that dominated Italian horror cinema between the years of 1962 and 1985. While fanzines and the popular press had previously pioneered a love of continental cinema’s most cultish and off-beat traditions, it took an emerging emphasis on critically distanced, methodologically orientated analysis to fully drag Europe’s most perverse film treasures into the academy. As a result, psychoanalysis and feminist theory have been employed to revaluate the performances of Barbara Steele in Italian Gothic horror of the 1960s (1) while key directors such as Dario Argento have been the subject of positive auteur-influenced accounts (2).

While these theoretical explorations have undoubtedly expanded the acceptance of popular European cinema within Anglo-American criticism, their scope has often been limited to those figures whose output neatly fits with prevalent categories of authorial intention and unambiguous artistic merit. Thus, the films of Dario Argento are valorised for their arty, self-reflexive manipulation of the motifs of male pleasure, while the director himself is frequently dubbed an Italian Hitchcock, effectively “slumming it” in the back waters of European exploitation cinema. The problem with grafting the expectations of Anglo-American criticism onto Italian popular culture is that it misrepresents what was in fact an aggressive system of production that frequently militated against the very notion of creative individuality. As Kim Newman has argued, Italian genre cinema between the years of 1960 and 1985:

… reveals an overlapping succession of generic cycles. Usually, but not invariably triggered by the domestic popularity either of a specific American film or of a traditional Hollywood genre, these cycles come and go in a few years. During the short life span of any individual, an often incredible number of similar films are rushed through production and into distribution before the format wears thin and its popularity fades (3).

As Newman indicates, Italian popular film is governed by a principle of “sequel compulsion” (4), whereby a successful (often foreign template) was reproduced, ripped off and run down by a series of low-budget imitations. Often, this process of emulation resulted in bizarre, cross-genre hybrids that sought to appeal to divergent audiences by maximising the elements of spectacle, thrill and titillation upon which such cycles traded.

Concurrent with the dilution of film formulas that Italian popular cinema promoted was the construction of an anonymous form of film authorship which saw many home grown directors being given Anglo-American pseudonyms to ensure their films a more international and marketable feel. While this system undoubtedly produced a number of films that were “simply worthless carbon copies”, Newman argues that the best examples of Italian exploitation cinema reveal “surprisingly sophisticated mixes of imitation, pastiche, parody, deconstruction, reinterpretation and operatic inflation” (5). As a result, there remain a great many Italian genre directors whose output, while clouded and confused by the bewildering variety of false monikers they assumed, still represents an interesting body of work that warrants theoretical investigation.

A Kind of (Perverse) Loving: Sex, Death and D’Amato

Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D'Amato

One such figure whose work is yet to receive such a critical revaluation is the late sex and death maestro Aristide Massaccesi. In a career that spanned over 45 years, Massaccesi worked in a variety of Italian exploitation genres such as horror, pornography (soft and hardcore), post-apocalypse science fiction, mythical adventure and the erotic thriller. Often producing several versions of any one movie (frequently in horror and hardcore porn versions), Massaccesi remained prolific more for the quantity than the quality of his direction. Beyond this role, he was also an accomplished cinematographer who lent his talents to other Italian genre efforts such as Alberto De Martino’s L’Anticristo (aka The Tempter [1974]), as well as producing and distributing a large catalogue of horror, war and soft-core porn movies through his own studio Filmirage.

Massaccesi’s output as a director was often completed under his most famous Anglo-American moniker of Joe D’Amato, though the filmmaker also concealed his persona behind a myriad of other false identities including Steve Benson, Michael Holloway, Michael Wotruba, John Bird, Tom Salima, Alexandre Borsky, Peter Newton, David Hills, Kevin Mancuso, Federiko Slonisko, James Burke and even Chang Lee Sun! While this pantheon of personalities gives the appearance of a scattergun approach to filmmaking, there do remain consistent themes throughout D’Amato’s work, which consistently focussed on an unsettling eroticisation of death and decay.

It is this obsession with extremes of sex and violence that has traditionally made D’Amato one of the more difficult Italian trash auteurs to reclaim. This is because at his most controversial, D’Amato pioneered a series of bizarre genre-hybrid movies designed to tap into the “sex and death” tastes of European grind-house audiences. At its most extreme, this cross-generic overload produced films such as Le Notti Erotiche Dei Morti Viventi (Erotic Nights of the Living Dead [1979]) and Holocausto Porno (Porno Holocaust [1980]), which used third world locations as a “primitive” backdrop to juxtapose explicit sex scenes with extreme acts of violence. (The most outrageous example of this crossover horror/porn strategy remains a scene from Porno Holocaust in which a European woman is forced to have anal sex with a zombie.) Even the Black Emanuelle films with which D’Amato became synonymous during the 1970s radically departed from the “feel good” factor of ’70s porno chic by placing a black heroine against an assortment of sadistic opponents including snuff filmmakers, rapists, third world cannibals, lesbian prison wardens and transsexual bodyguards.

With such a back catalogue dedicated to sin and suffering, it comes as no surprise that the Gothic horror films that D’Amato completed during the 1970s and mid 1980s are similarly governed by a conflation of sexual desire and macabre suffering. What makes titles such as La Morte Ha Sorriso All’Assassino (Death Smiles on a Murderer [1973]), Buio Omega (Beyond the Darkness [1979]) and Il Piacere (The Pleasure) [1985]) interesting is their unsettling emphasis on a kind of perverse loving, whereby male characters become sexually obsessed with deceased suitors only to find that these desires bring suffering and humiliation on themselves. While this theme once again indicates the extent to which D’Amato’s cinema neutralised erotic pleasure via a repeated connection with death and decay, these Gothic dramas function to equate dead females to past family transgressions.

Indeed, it is noticeable that D’Amato’s directorial debut Death Smiles on a Murderer initiated the macabre view of sexual relations that would dominate his later works. The film details the grisly fate of a group of aristocrats who fall under the spell of Greta, a mysterious woman who arrives in their village in a coma. Although coded as a figure of attraction, the narrative reveals that the heroine is in fact a corpse that has been revived to wreak vengeance on a family that abandoned her during childbirth. A lengthy flashback in the opening part of the film reveals that Greta’s brother, using a mixture of alchemy and weird science to assist him, has reanimated Greta.

The narrative points to an incestuous undercurrent to these proceedings, detailing how the surgical interventions made on Greta’s body are premised on her brother’s perverse infatuation with her. Once revived, Greta wreaks vengeance on a number of male and female suitors, using her sexual charms to arouse each victim prior to their deaths. Although these characters are aroused by Greta’s erotic appearance, it is only during intercourse that her true status as a cadaver is revealed.

Death Smiles on a Murderer concentrates on a heroine whose desirable construction is later revealed as a signifier of death. The appearance of this deathly figure is linked to incestuous fantasies held within the family and these illicit desires prove particularly destructive to the depicted male characters. The film displays a morbid debt to the past that is indicated not only by Greta’s brother’s attempts to revive his dead love object, but also by the convoluted manner in which past recollections of the heroine impede narrative structure. Here, this ghostly female figure’s influence is felt through a series of flashbacks, the repeated intervention of which interrupt the present tense of the film, much to the annoyance of those critics who bothered to sit through the movie. For instance, Kevin Lyons commented:

La Morte Sorride All Assasino (1973 directed as Aristide Massaccesi) is a weird zombie/period piece hybrid that highlights one of Massaccesi’s more enduring traits; a script totally devoid of logic… The split time period is particularly confusing as the multi-flashback construction makes it unclear as to which scenes are set when (6).

Rather than rejecting the repeated use of such technical features as a cinematic failing, I shall argue that the peculiarities of Joe D’Amato’s film style as well as his consistent equation of the female with death and decay can be analysed via Freud’s work on the Gothic. I shall give Freud’s work on “The Uncanny” detailed attention because of its identification of the Gothic as a form which encompasses the repeated trope of the woman as a signifier of death. I shall argue that the same tensions around female sexuality that Freud identifies in the work of Gothic writers are present in both D’Amato’s 1970s horror films and the later erotic productions he directed in the early 1980s.

The Uncanny Effect: Freud and the Gothic

What unites both D’Amato’s works with those discussed by Freud is the way in which desire, repetition and prohibition traverse the boundaries of the familiar and the horrific. As indicated in Death Smiles on a Murderer, it is often the reappearance of a dead female lover that disturbs such stable categories. As Freud noted, although writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Goethe, Poe and Wilde deal with elements of the supernatural and unfamiliar, they also place these elements in close proximity to established definitions of normality. It is this aspect that Freud dissects in the opening section of “The Uncanny”. Here, he discusses the significance of the term “uncanny” (unheimliche) as a label often applied to the type of fantastical literature under review. Despite Germanic definitions of the term stressing its unfamiliar or alien qualities, Freud notes its proximity to the opposite of these traits: identified as not only familiar, but “belonging to the house…” (7)

It is the erosion of the difference between these two terms as well as the label of the uncanny as a hidden and yet familiar phenomenon that leads Freud to conclude that these experiences also refer to the child’s fear of castration. The ambiguity that encompasses the label of uncanny is reproduced in the following features that more recent critics such as Mladen Dolar (8) have identified in Gothic literature:

1. The uncontrollable, excessive or malevolent gaze: the instrument of pleasure whose “excess” of “seeing” induces trauma in the individual.

2. An ambiguity between the body could either be living, undead or not human at all.

3. The appearance of the double or doppelganger.

All of these features Freud identified in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale The Sand Man, which forms the central part of the analysis. Here, the gaze is constructed as an uncontrollable locus of both desire and dread, which provokes the downfall of Nathaniel, the central male protagonist in Hoffmann’s tale. This character is haunted from early childhood by the nightmarish figure of the tale’s title. The Sand Man appears in a number of guises throughout the tale, initially threatening the protagonist’s voyeurism with the physical retribution of blinding in the form of the lawyer Coppelius. According to Freud, the punishment of blinding that the “Sand Man” enacts is a reconstruction of the child’s fear of castration at the hands of the paternal agent.

The Sand Man reiterates not only its ambivalent construction of the gaze, but also the presence of the double that Dolar cites as another trait of the Gothic. The repeated existence of the theme of the double in the works of Hoffmann, Poe and Wilde is the guarantor of future tragedy for the protagonist. The intrusion of the double onto Nathaniel’s development appears through the repetition of traumatic characters and encounters which define his adult development. This is indicated in the latter part of The Sand Man which details his period at university. Here, the ambivalent construction of the gaze is referenced through the protagonist’s voyeuristic obsession with the beautiful Olympia who dwells opposite to his own accommodation. This visual preoccupation brings Nathaniel in contact with the Sand Man in the form of the market trader Coppola (who sells him an eye glass in order to spy on the woman) as well as drawing him closer to his physics teacher Professor Spalanzini (who is Olympia’s father).

As the narration reveals, the emergence of this relationship and its sanctioning by Spalanzini is undercut by disturbing aspects of the girl’s behaviour. In particular, the narration notes Olympia’s predisposition towards long periods of silence, introspection and apparent paralysis. In his quest to uncover the root behind his lover’s unusual qualities, Nathaniel hides in Spalanzini’s office, only to discover to his horror that Olympia is in fact an automaton. The revelation of Nathaniel’s desire for an inanimate object confirms Dolar’s conclusion that the Gothic uncanny are marked by characters whose status traverse the boundaries of life and death. Echoing the trauma of his earlier encounter, Nathaniel discovers that the doll’s eyes have been forced out of its head during a struggle between Spalanzini and Coppola.

Death Smiles on a Murderer

As the tale of The Sand Man indicates, failure to resolve the tensions surrounding infantile sexuality not only displaces any pleasure associated with the act of voyeurism but also establishes a pattern of repetition which works to limit the subject’s future psychic and sexual development. In the films of Joe D’Amato, this traumatic principle of repetition is cast through a past act (which equates the female body with both eroticism and death) that then becomes a model upon which subsequent desires/narrative repetitions are based. The continuation of this pattern is evidenced by the emergence of a series of female doubles whose sexuality is equated with death, dismemberment and castration.

This pattern is evident in early Gothic D’Amato productions such as Death Smiles on a Murderer. Displaying its links to Freud’s essay, the film defines the crucial features of the double and the inanimate body through the monstrous figure of Greta. The film reveals this to be a figure whose identity is doubled, reappearing in various guises to torment both her former lover Walter and his family. Equally her incorporation into his family is premised on her “corpse like” status after appearing to be the victim of a coach accident. This results in her undergoing various medical examinations which indicate that her inanimate body is indeed still alive.

’70s Gothic: Beyond the Darkness

The patterns of fatalistic voyeurism, doubling and traumatic repetition that D’Amato established in his first film were themselves the basis of a pattern that was replayed in his later Gothic horror works. For instance, Beyond the Darkness conflates sexuality with death via the exploration of the relationship between a lethal taxidermist named Frank, his terminally ill wife Anna and their sadistic housekeeper, Iris.

Beyond the Darkness draws parity with The Sand Man through its theme of adult desire as premised on past trauma. It centrally displays the “Uncanny” features of the “excessive” gaze, the female double and the “inanimate” love object identified by Freud’s analysis. These tensions are immediately apparent following the film’s credit sequence. Here, D’Amato juxtaposes a scene depicting Frank repairing a dead baboon with shots of Anna’s demise in a hospital ward. If the shots of the dead animal being prepared for its “extended existence” indicate Frank’s fetishism of a “dead” past, then this is a preoccupation that is applied to Anna following her demise. Having stolen her body, Frank disembowels and embalms the corpse before reconstructing his mansion as a shrine to a dead bride.

These actions provide us with a connection to characteristics of the uncanny Gothic identified by critics such as Dolar. For instance, the film figures Anna’s body as a shell that is open to violent reconstruction via Frank’s surgery. As a result, her corpse has a series of uncanny connotations: confounding the barrier between the living and the dead by becoming an inanimate love object for her husband. In this respect, his relations with the dead lover mirror those of Nathaniel and the automaton in Hoffmann’s tale.

Indeed, just as Nathaniel spends his time verbalising his desires for the unresponsive Olympia, Frank devotes his attention to describing his desires for Anna’s corpse. (The fact that his housekeeper constantly refers to the corpse as his “stupid doll” even draws parity with the automaton that Nathaniel mistakes for a lover in The Sand Man.) According to Dolar’s account, the relations between Nathaniel and Olympia reference deathly connotations in not only the female suitor, but also the male protagonist himself. This is because:

…Nathaniel strangely reacts in a mechanical way. His love for the automaton is itself automatic; his fiery feelings are mechanically produced… The question arises as to who is the real automaton in the situation, for the appearance of the automaton calls for an automatic response; it entails an automatic subjectification (9).

This obsession with an inanimate or dead love object reiterates the uncanny’s ability to retard adult development via an obsessive preoccupation with past libidinal desire. Its impact is replicated in D’Amato’s film in Frank’s paradoxical statement that Anna’s corpse remains his “only reason for living”. In both cases, desire is born out of a process of loss that produces a pattern of fatalistic repetition that marks the protagonist’s relations to others in the narrative chain.

Indeed, one of the most controversial aspects of Beyond the Darkness centres on Frank’s seduction of victims in the very same bed that contains the concealed corpse of his former wife. In the case of a female jogger that is picked up near by his mansion, D’Amato overloads the theme of sexuality with death by having the victim discover Anna’s corpse as she reaches her orgasm. As with the other females who discover Anna’s corpse, the jogger is mutilated and the evidence of her body is later destroyed by Frank and Iris.

Arguably it is his relationship with this older female assistant (who becomes both his accomplice and lover following Anna’s death) that confirms a pattern of repeated traumatic loss as central to the film. This is indicated in Frank’s revelation that Anna’s death in fact mirrors the demise of his mother which he also witnessed. The pattern of constructing both infantile and adult love objects through a principle of traumatic repetition is indicated in the fact that Frank reconstructs his shrine to Anna in his mother’s quarters of the family home.

The fact that Frank’s initial loss lead him to fetishise his parent’s possession confirms the transgressive parity between a maternal figure and the adult love object that the narrative details. In this respect, it is pertinent that when Frank’s housekeeper finds him in this section of the mansion, she instantly chastises him for entering this “forbidden” room. It can thus be argued that the traumatic basis of Beyond the Darkness centres on not the demise of Anna but the original death of the mother which initiates the pattern of repetition in the narrative. This is further evidenced by the fact that Frank’s housekeeper becomes centrally located in this process of repetition as a maternal substitute for her employer.

The libidinal paradoxes inherent in her positioning are immediately apparent upon her discovery of Frank in his mother’s room. The housekeeper adopts the role of nurturing agent: cradling Frank in her arms, while simultaneously offering him her breast to suckle. The erotic component of their coupling is also later indicated when she masturbates Frank while the male character gazes at Anna’s corpse. Importantly, her construction as an ambivalent assistant to Frank’s crimes evokes the powerful and phallic figure of the pre-Oedipal mother who retains a paradoxical status as both a nurturing and potentially threatening figure for the infant.

Beyond the Darkness

What the above analysis points to is the extent to which the female figures within D’Amato’s film can be seen as doubles for Frank’s initial love object: his dead mother. Indeed, the film is marked by a process of metaphorical doubling, in the recasting of Iris as a replacement for both the maternal agent and adult love object. Equally, a literal process of female doubling is enacted between Anna and her twin sister Eleanor who arrives at the mansion only to be abducted by Frank and Iris in the finale of the film.

Indeed, her arrival (as well as her indexical likeness to her dead sister) produces further ambivalence around the female body that may or may not be alive. This uncertainty is prominent in the finale of the film. Here, the private detective who has been investigating Frank’s activities arrives at the mansion to see the (fatally wounded) protagonist incinerating what appears to be Eleanor’s body. In the film’s closing scene, the investigator returns what he believes is Anna’s corpse to its grave, only to have it spring into life as a priest is about to lower the coffin lid over the cadaver. It is a freeze frame of this suddenly animated female body with which D’Amato ends Beyond the Darkness. By culminating on the unresolved question as to which sister has been rescued, the film’s finale prevents any resolution to the problems of identity that the female double presents.

Eleanor’s introduction into the narrative has relevance beyond her obvious status as a duplicate of Anna’s ambivalent body. While confirming the presence of the double as a feature in both Gothic and D’Amato’s films, the fact that these are female doppelgangers have important ramifications for Freud’s account. In particular, his analysis of the double as representing the Oedipal male’s fear of the father marginalises the fear of the female figure in writers such as Hoffmann. For instance, Phillip McCaffrey’s analysis of “Freud’s Uncanny Women” argues that Nathanial’s encounter with Olympia (with her status as a replacement for the desired mother) is marginalised in favour of the two castrating father figures (Coppelius/Coppola) analysed in the tale.

It is true that the second part of the narrative demonstrates a doubling of paternal images relating to Nathaniel’s desires for Olympia. However, as McCaffrey notes, Olympia represents an example of the “Uncanny Women” that haunt many Gothic narratives. Although he argues such figures are present in the tales Freud analysed, they remain marginal to the conclusions he consequently constructs.

While arguing that the double emerges as an indicator of the subject’s annihilation, Freud limits this analysis to the reproduction of paternal figures as evidencing the subject’s fear of the father’s castrating powers. Although constructed as a figure of desire for the protagonist, McCaffrey notes that Olympia’s true status as an automaton once again references death via the traits of “silence, paleness, concealment and statuesque immobility” (10). These features themselves refer back to the tensions surrounding her construction as a maternal substitute. This is indicated in the fact that Nathaniel is bringing Olympia his mother’s wedding ring as a gift of their union when he discovers the two male figures struggling over her body.

Although not commented on by Freud’s analysis, McCaffrey has argued that the connection between Olympia and Nathaniel also erodes the ability for the male subject to distinguish himself from the female body as a signifier of castration. While Nathaniel’s discovery of the doll’s body appears to displace the trauma of the protagonist’s fear of castration onto the female form, Coppola’s revelation that the disembodied eyes are in fact his own ensures that:

…Nathaniel discovers his own castration belatedly, after it has already happened, thus re-enacting the terror of the infantile male gazer who discovers that he is already and has always been, vulnerable to castration (11).

As a result, McCaffrey argues that a number of distinct patterns emerge in the coding of the “Uncanny Woman”, which induce fear in the male protagonist. Her body may function as a sign of castration, which in the case of Olympia reminds the male protagonist of his own ability to signify physiological lack. Alternatively, the “Uncanny Woman” can adopt an aggressive pose and threaten to castrate the male voyeur.

This pattern, which although present in many of Hoffmann’s other tales, is an aspect Freud fails to discuss. For instance, in his account of The Devil’s Elixirs, McCaffrey notes an analysis limited to its identification of doubling between the evil Monk Medarus and his twin. What remains absent from this discussion is the fact that the tale is plagued by a series of threatening female characters who appear as replacements of one another as if to redouble the infant’s sense of loss surrounding the mother’s body.

As with the characters from Beyond the Darkness, the female characters from Hoffmann’s tale are defined by an artificial beauty. It is only at the point of emotional or sexual union that the true nature of their decaying sexuality becomes apparent. Beyond the Darkness constructs a process of female doubling that connects adult love with both the maternal body and death.

The Uncanny Woman’s Gaze

If the “Uncanny woman” remains a potent figure within Gothic fiction, as McCaffrey has suggested, her existence can be seen in the dead and monstrous female doubles that populate Joe D’Amato’s Gothic horror productions. Beyond this literal and horrific splitting of female subjectivity, what also defines the power of the “Uncanny Woman” in the Gothic is the disturbing feature of her gaze. It is with this apparatus that she “threatens the young male gazer” (12) with physical punishment for his desire to scrutinise her (damaged) form. For instance, in The Devil’s Elixirs, Hoffmann describes Euphema as the double of St. Rosalie, another female figure who although defined as “a living image of Venus” is revealed as having a distorted disease ridden body. Importantly, it is not only her physical appearance that disturbs male protagonists in close proximity, but also her “hideously distorted face with large protruding eyes” (13).

It is the ghastly stare of the monstrous female protagonist that links Gothic horror to the cinema of Joe D’Amato. In particular, Beyond the Darkness indicates a concern with destabilising the male observer’s ability to control the gaze. As with the figure of Nathaniel from “The Uncanny”, these works detail scenarios where the subject’s desire to see or to control the depicted space is literally turned around on him. This provokes a sense of horror at the resultant inability to regulate the flow of the visual field.

This ambivalent status of the gaze is referenced in the film via D’Amato’s linkage of voyeurism with death and the inanimate female body. The most obvious example the film centres on is Frank’s reconstruction of Anna’s corpse, which the director emphasises as having an uncanny stare. In this respect, her gaze mirrors that of the other “dead” artefacts that Frank gathers in his home. The construction of his mansion as a surveying yet inanimate environment is evidenced in the scene when he picks up an English hitchhiker after exhuming Anna’s corpse. Upon exploring his home, she is startled firstly by the carcass of the stuffed baboon which appears to be looking at her (D’Amato even uses a zip panning camera movement to create the impression of a visual exchange between the pair).

The construction of the gaze as a source of displeasure is confirmed when the hitchhiker flees in terror from the baboon’s gaze, only to stumble across Frank completing the embalming of Anna’s corpse in the adjoining room. She discovers the grisly scene at the point where the protagonist is replacing his wife’s eyeless sockets with two false pupils, giving the impression of addressing the terrified victim’s stare.

Beyond the Darkness

The terror that the eyeless sockets evoke in the characters who uncover Anna’s corpse draws parity with Nathaniel’s fear of castration in Hoffmann’s tale. As with Freud’s analysis, Beyond the Darkness uses this theme of loss of sight/castration to link the different female characters it depicts. Thus, when Frank and Iris are disposing of the hitchhiker’s corpse in an acid bath it is pertinent that her fleshless skull rises to the surface of the vat, its singular eye disgusting the male character with its still potent stare.

The fear of castration that the dead, damaged or decaying female form evokes in the male is underscored by the differing responses of the two protagonists to their murderous actions during this scene. Frank’s fear of close proximity to the corpse of the hitchhiker is intimated by his donning of protective clothing and breathing apparatus. By contrast, Iris reveals an apparent indifference to the grisly activities she is involved in. Frank’s disgust at his accomplice’s disregard for her proximity to the corpse is underscored when Iris moves from disposing of the woman’s remains to devouring a pot of stew that has been prepared in the kitchen.

Arguably, Iris’ actions are offensive to depicted male protagonists precisely because she refuses the definition of the female body as primarily castrated. Following McCaffrey’s conclusion that the “Uncanny Woman” is able to transcend the barrier between “damaged” victim and potent aggressor, it is interesting that the female doubles of D’Amato’s narratives are able to subvert principles of male power and punishment. Reiterating a basis in the Gothic writings that Freud analysed, Greta from Death Smiles on a Murderer undercuts her brother’s manipulation of her body by blinding him in the film’s finale. Iris goes even further in literalising the fear of emasculation that haunts Nathaniel’s fear of lost vision: she simultaneously blinds and castrates Frank in the finale of Beyond the Darkness. In both cases, these female figures offers examples of what McCaffrey terms as a

… new development in the narrative of infantile male fantasy: the female victim may be promoted from an illustration… of castration to its actual perpetrator. In this version of the fantasy, it is the Uncanny woman who threatens the young male gazer with her own fate. She is the Medusa, once abused and punished now vengeful (14).

A Historical Unheimliche: D’Amato’s “Period Erotic” Narratives

As the above analysis indicates, Joe D’Amato’s 1970s horror films can clearly be analysed as “uncanny”, using both Freud’s account, as well as the recent revisions of these ideas. By way of conclusion, it is also worth considering the extent to which these concerns are also reproduced in his later 1980s works. Although the director’s work during this decade was marketed as more overtly erotic than horrific, it is interesting to note these later films retain a macabre dimension through the theme of perverse loving. This relates to their depiction of the male desires that circulate around a dead female love. Defined by titles such as The Pleasure, L’Alcova (aka The Alcove [1985]) and Lussuria (aka Lust [1985]), these works created an axis of trauma across psychic and historical/ideological lines. This was achieved by linking the sudden or violent death of a mother/lover to an examination of the repression or contradictions that surrounded sexuality under the Italian fascism of the 1940s.

The Pleasure

Once again these historical narratives draw heavily on the unheimliche‘s traversing of the boundaries which separate the alien from the familiar. Although the disruption of specific established categories differ from narrative to narrative, in each case the resultant confusion leads to an eruption of uncontrollable sexuality and violence. These tensions are particularly memorable in The Pleasure, which once again locates a series of erotic encounters around a dead lover/mother: Leonora. As with Beyond the Darkness, the film links this demise to a male protagonist’s obsessive attachment to memories of an erotic past. This is figured by the central protagonist Gérard’s replaying of audiotapes which recount these former erotic encounters with his mistress.

His narration (replacing her recorded sexual fantasies in the opening scene) leads to a flashback depicting their meeting at the Venice carnival and subsequent sexual adventures in a local brothel. Here, an oriental libertine named Haunati (played by Joe D’Amato regular, Laura Gemser) initiates the duo into the delights of opium and sexual experimentation. It is Gemser’s instructions for Gérard to “take her as he would take Leonora”, as well as her comments that her role is “to form a complete body” with the heroine that initiates the theme of female doubling that then dominates the film.

As with other D’Amato films, the female doubles of The Pleasure are equated with not only sexuality but also death. This is first indicated in the ensuing orgy scene with Leonora lying motionless in response to Haunati’s lesbian advances. It is a comparable image of her naked, immobile body that the camera focuses on when the scene reverts from the flashback. Upon first appearance, the protagonist’s closed eyes give a comparable expression of erotic ecstasy, particularly as shots of her face are intercut with those of female hands seductively placing stockings over her thighs. However, D’Amato subverts this soft-core erotic imagery when the camera pulls back to reveal that Leonora is actually dead and her corpse is being prepared for burial by Gérard’s assistant Fiorella.

Leonora’s initial placement as a signifier of sexuality and death establishes a pattern of traumatic loss and repetition, confirmed by the arrival of her son Edmund and daughter Ursula for the funeral. In particular, Ursula’s identical looks to Leonora and sexually precocious behaviour produce an instant tension between her and Gérard that the film then charts. At one level, the narrative attempts to legitimise the ensuing sexual attraction between Gérard and Ursula, explains that she and her brother are actually the children of Leonora’s first marriage. However, Ursula’s resolution to lose her virginity to Gérard by adopting traits of her mother’s identity make clear the Oedipal tensions at play in the text.

It is not merely Ursula’s identical appearance to her mother which reiterates her uncanny status as a female double. It is also the way in which she orchestrates her seduction of Gérard using her mother’s taped recordings as a guide to his sexual tastes. As is revealed in one of the recordings that Ursula overhears, the encounters he shared with her mother revolved around their participation in “acts against nature”. Part of the couple’s drive towards transgression centred on Leonora’s occupation as prostitute, which granted Gérard the opportunity to see her with a variety of male and female lovers. While the heroine’s sexual status allowed the activation of a number of witnessed sexual scenarios, it initiates a pattern which locates Ursula in a near identical role following her mother’s death.

Thus, it is pertinent that following this demise, Leonora’s activities are described as evidence of her “double life”. It is through this very inability to define her identity that Ursula comes to reconstruct herself in the role of her mother in an attempt to seduce Gérard. An example of the blurred boundaries between these two female figures is evidenced in one scene, when Gérard watches Ursula’s seduce a cinemagoer in a movie theatre. These advances (premised on a similar past encounter she overhears on the audiotape) situate her actions as a further revision of the child’s attempts to locate itself through the parent’s desires. Indeed, the sequence confirms the narrative’s doubling of the identities of mother and daughter through a disjuncture in the sound and image band. Here, Gérard’s voice over narration describes his ambivalent feelings (and ultimate excitement) at watching Leonora seduce the cinema patron, while the image band depicts Ursula enacting these actions in identical fashion to her dead parent.

Other examples of the doubling between these two female figures is seen in Ursula’s seduction of a stable hand that was also Leonora’s lover (this encounter is once again observed by Gérard), as well as her final assumption of the role of the prostitute in the same bordello as her mother. Ursula’s vocation as a whore is itself premised on Gérard’s continued rejection of her advances, resulting in his eventual initiation of intercourse with her in the bordello setting.

It can be argued that The Pleasure recapitulates the complex system of doubling provided by the death of a mother/lover as desired object found in previous D’Amato works such as Beyond the Darkness. This pattern which implicates all key protagonists in three interrelated patterns of desire and mourning for the dead Leonora:

1. Gérard uses his library of audiotapes to retain the memory of his desires for his dead mistress. These recollections are facilitated (for both protagonist and spectator) by D’Amato’s trademark feature of the use of a flashback as a visual index of “excessive” desires. This cinematic reference to the continued power of a dead female protagonist is itself complimented by her vocal presence on Gérard’s collection of audiotapes.

2. This conflation of eroticism and death are subsequently projected onto Gérard’s relations with Ursula. While the role of doubling is made explicit through the character’s adoption of her mother’s identity, this results in her ambivalent equation with both sexuality and death for the remainder of the narrative. (The Madame of the brothel where both the dead Leonora and Ursula worked even refers to the young woman as “a spectre” when they first meet.) Given Ursula’s close associations with her mother, it is pertinent that her final revenge on Gérard’s rejection of her advances is to overdub his collection of audiotapes with her own messages scorning his behaviour. Paradoxically, her critique of him as obsessed with a woman “who is gone …and is cold and still in her grave” is undercut by her drive to assimilate this identity, resulting in their eventual sexual union that closes the film.

3. The process of doubling represented by Gérard’s relations with Ursula is reproduced by Fiorella’s sexual relationship with Leonora’s son Edmund. Whereas Gérard’s relations are initially deflected by his adoption of a paternal role in relation to her, Fiorella’s erotic bond with Edmund is initiated immediately after he and his sister arrive to attend their mother’s funeral. Importantly, their relations are premised on a duplication of the nurturing /erotic bond that defined Iris’s bond to Frank in Beyond the Darkness. Fiorella’s need to adopt this role in relation to her younger lover is, as Newman has noted, made explicit by “the character of Edmund, whose epileptic fits can only be curbed by sucking the nearest breast” (15). These gestures follow the pattern of transgressive family desires that dominate The Pleasure. Here, Edmund’s obsession with the female bosom is revealed as initiated in his youth when Leonora used to allow him to suckle her in order to heighten his sexual excitement. The duel dyads between Gérard/Ursula and Fiorella/Edmund indicate that the (dead) female sexual object prevents any resolution to the infantile desires expressed in The Pleasure. This is confirmed in the finale of the film by Edmund’s arrival at the brothel where his sister works. Despite being aroused by two prostitutes at the same time, the protagonist admits that he finds the locale and its inhabitants as “creepy” (reiterating the Gothic connection between sexuality and death that permeates the narrative). His unease at the duo’s attempted seduction results in his body convulsing in a series of spasms, scaring away his suitors. It is (once again) only Fiorella who can restrain Edmund by offering him her breast and comforting him as her beloved son.

With his dual appeal to horror and porn audiences, Joe D’Amato was one of the most extreme directors working in the domain of Italian trash cinema. Despite the confusion and criticism that his multiple monikers and movie versions created, his work displayed the same psychosexual concerns that critics have applauded in more “legitimate” trash icons such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava. While contemporary audiences may best remember him for the hardcore porn parodies and the tepid erotic thrillers with which his career ended, D’Amato’s earlier, more extreme output remains far more interesting. In particular, his Gothic horror films of the 1970s and mid-1980s revelled in a fear and fascination of dead female flesh that was unparalleled by contemporary continental cinema standards. These films, with their unsettling combination of sexuality, death and illicit desire offered audiences some of the most startling images of perverse loving seen in the offbeat world of European trash cinema.

Endnotes

  1. See Carol Jenks “The Other Face of Death: Barbara Steele and La Maschera Del Demonio” in Andy Black (ed) Necronomicon Book 1, Creation Books, London, pp.88-100
  2. See Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (Sun Tavenfields, London, 1991) also, Xavier Mendik Tenebre/Tenebrae (Flicks Books, Wiltshire, 2000).
  3. Kim Newman, “Thirty Years in Another Town: The History of Italian Exploitation”, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1986, p.20
  4. Newman, 1986, p.55
  5. Newman, 1986, p.20
  6. Kevin Lyons, “Joe D’Amato: The Secret of his Excess”, in Samhein 8, March-April 1988
  7. Sigmund Freud, Art and Literature, Pelican Books, London, p.343
  8. Mladen Dolar, “I Shall be With You on Your Wedding Night: Lacan and the Uncanny”, in October 58 (Fall 1991), p.6
  9. Dolar, p.9
  10. Phillip McCaffrey, “Freud’s Uncanny Women”, in Sander L. Gilman, Jutta Birmele, Jay Geller and Valerie D. Greenberg (eds), Reading Freud’s Reading, New York University Press, New York and London, p. 102
  11. Ibid., p.103
  12. McCaffrey, p.98
  13. Hoffmann cited in McCaffrey, p.98. A further example of the uncanny gaze of the decaying female body is given in his analysis of Wilhelm Hauff’s story “The Severed Hand”. Here, a physician reacts in horror upon seeing the eyes of a dead girl opening as he is performing an autopsy on her corpse.
  14. McCaffrey, p.98
  15. Kim Newman, The Pleasure (review), The Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1986, p.181

About The Author

Xavier Mendik is the Director of the Cult Film Archive at University College Northampton and a documentary producer working in the field of cult and horror cinema. He has written extensively on the subjects of cult and horror cinema; his publications include Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics (as co-editor), Tenebre (as author), Shocking Cinema of the Seventies (as editor), Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon (as co-editor), Alternative Europe: Transnational Trash and Exploitation Cinema (as co-editor), and Fear Theory: Case Studies in European and American Horror (forthcoming). His latest documentary Flesh and Fascination: The View From the Cabin (2004) looks at Cabin Fever and the reinvention of ’70s American horror.