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  • nickkarner

Buio Omega/Beyond the Darkness (1979)


“Looks can be deceiving.” This oft-repeated phrase has allowed dangerously insane individuals to co-exist with polite society for centuries. Movie-watching has always been a voyeuristic endeavor in which a viewer gets to watch (mostly) attractive people pretend to love and kill for our amusement. One of my earliest memories of seeing a film depict the incongruity between murder and appearance was 1956’s killer child classic The Bad Seed. The adoptive father of the lead actress relates a story in which the woman’s real mother was acquitted of murder based solely on the fact that her sweet face and demure demeanor convinced the jury that she could never have committed so heinous an act. A similar feeling arose in me upon watching Joe D’Amato’s stomach-churning necro-mantic horror film Buio Omega (aka Beyond the Darkness, 1979). The young male protagonist, Frank Wyler (Kieran Canter, The Lonely Lady, Erotic Flash) is a handsome cat. He also appears to be a perfectly sane individual who happens to own a gorgeous villa and a vast sum of money. All in all, life is pretty sweet for this guy, but everything comes crashing down when his girlfriend Anna (Cinzia Monreale, The Beyond) passes away. We don’t get some big, epic moment of his mind cracking as in Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) or a literal epiphany like in Sweeney Todd (2007) which sets him on his dark path. It just sort of happens and hoo boy, does it get nasty.

Arguably D’Amato’s strongest horror film during his 1979 to 1981 run which included Anthropophagus (1980) and Absurd (1981), the exploitation auteur’s main goal was: “We're making a movie to make people throw up. We must make 'em vomit!” Riding the crest of graphic Italian horror films spurred on by the success of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), utilizing real animal intestines, copious amounts of blood, and a very-willing cast, Beyond the Darkness very likely succeeded in its goal of a vomitous response. If Roger Ebert thought The Thing (1982) was a great barf bag movie, get a load of this! D’Amato hadn’t made a straight horror film for years, 1973’s Death Smiles of a Murderer being the last one, but he’d always find a way to inject terror into his erotically-charged features. Buio Omega was his return to the genre and he’d adapt the structure of the semi-forgotten Franco Nero film The Third Eye (1966), which has ironically gained more interest due to the popularity of D’Amato’s film, to craft a deeply distressing examination of obsession, jealousy, and necrophilia.

Admittedly, any kid who’s into taxidermy is already gonna come off as a little odd. Just ask Norman Bates. On second thought, don’t. The film opens with a typically wild Goblins score and Frank receiving the corpse of a baboon in a large box. In a clever move, we don’t actually learn what’s in the box for a few minutes as D’Amato shoots the scene in Frank’s darkened workshop. The reveal of a dead baboon is rather jarring, but explains what exactly this dude is into. What his faithful housekeeper Iris (Franca Stoppi, The Other Hell) is into hews a bit more toward the exotic. She very enthusiastically watches as an old woman stabs multiple pins into a voodoo doll, prompting a strong reaction from the bed-ridden Anna. Frank rushes to her side, but she dies all the same, although just before dying, she implores him to “make love to me one more time,” which may explain his eagerness to indulge in cadaver-based sexy time farther down the road.

With her hair pulled back tightly and looking like the governess from hell, Stoppi is fantastic as a domineering spinster whose psychosexual relationship with the petulant and much-younger Frank isn’t technically incestuous, but it’s about as close as you can get without going into Burial Ground territory. She puts up with his prickly attitude, especially when he calls her a “stupid idiot,” and even encourages him to suckle at her teet, which he willingly does as she gently whispers “Here I am, my little baby boy.” This aspect of their relationship arrives quite early and while surprising, it verifies that maybe this good-looking guy has a few more issues than he first let on. Iris’ supernatural involvement in Anna’s death indicates a desire on her part to eliminate her competition, as it were, but she underestimates how deep Frank’s love for Anna truly is.

Anna’s parents pay extra to have her grave guarded (was there a major grave robbery problem back then?) and Frank sneakily injects her with a preserving agent, but he’s spied upon by an employee at the funeral home (Sam Modesto). The injection scene is rather amusing since he stabs her blindly through the stomach and then into her neck. Like, just picking a spot at random, eh? Of course, he digs her up out of a conveniently shallow grave, an act which leads to a fairly suspenseful sequence. After a cheap and very unconvincing flat tire sound effect forces Frank out of his car, a persistent and seriously presumptuous English hitchhiker named Jan, who really does look like a Jan (Lucia D’Elia) hops in his van and proceeds to toke-up while Anna’s lifeless hand very nearly rubs up against her. In an incredibly stupid move, Frank drives all the way to his workshop instead of dumping Jan off somewhere. She’s passed out in the van, but just drive somewhere and kick her out! What’s wrong with you?!

What follows is an extremely detailed and very closely-shot vivisection and dissection of Anna’s body. As stated above, real pig intestines, skin, and a sheep’s heart were used. It’s not that it’s particularly disgusting since it’s essentially a natural scene of someone removing the organs from a corpse so they won’t rot, but the long, lingering shots and cutting of various internal body parts is a tad alarming. The real shocker is when Frank fondles Anna’s heart, which is kinda sweet, but then he takes a big chomp out of it and, like an overstuffed éclair, it spews blood all over. Monreale’s corpse acting is mighty impressive as he shoves tubes up her nose and drains her vital fluids. Jan wakes up from her marijuana-induced nap and wanders into his work space. She’s understandably shocked by what she sees, but I’d’ve expected Frank to just shrug her off with a phony story about being a mortician. Instead, sadist that he is, he wrestles her down and proceeds to remove her fingernails one by one with a pair of pliers before killing her outright.

As we learned from Breaking Bad, you can’t use a tub to dissolve a dead body in sulfuric acid, but I can’t fault D’Amato for not possessing precognitive abilities. Frank keeps his acid in a gigantic jug which looks like a huge wine bottle you’d find at an Italian wedding and he fills the tub as Iris graphically dismembers the body. Although there’s an abundance of implied dismemberment, the detail with which the film approaches the act of hacking off various body parts is impressively realistic. Iris takes a peculiar glee in the process. The body is dissolved and Iris carefully scoops up a pile of viscera into a dustbin. She dumps what little is left of Jan into a muddy puddle outside and buries it. Corpse disposal is hungry business and she immediately sits down for a yummy breakfast of some kind of gooey gruel, which she devours greedily. Seriously Iris, chew with your mouth closed. Her eating may be the grossest thing in the movie.

One recurring element in D’Amato’s work is his actors’ inability to convincingly fall and injure their ankle. It happens here and it’ll happen in Anthropophagus. Frank meets an attractive jogger outside and after bandaging her up after an accident, they end up in bed together. He can’t help himself and yanks off Anna’s blanket, which reveals that she’s been next to the couple the entire time. The jogger freaks and Frank in turn bites out her neck, Tenderness of the Wolves-style. It’s fun to see that he’s nothing but a spoiled brat as he bitches and moans while Iris helps him bring the girl’s body down to the workshop, where they have a convenient crematorium. In one of the more disturbing touches, we see the young lady’s body begin to convulse. She’s clearly dead as she’s carried down the stairs, hence her open, lifeless eyes, but the burning seems to activate motor responses, so she almost seems to be burning alive.

Iris insists Frank get rid of Anna’s body, but he refuses. “She stays with me forever,” he exclaims. She tries to calm him down by masturbating him and assuring Frank that “no one will touch your baby doll.” He’s willing to give her what she wants, which is marriage, although he obviously has very little affection for her. An engagement party with Iris’ family is extremely awkward and she gets shit-faced drunk, passing out while the funeral home employee snoops around. He finds Anna’s body, which falls out of a closet face-first but somehow ends up facing upward in the next shot. He snaps some pics and gets away, although how is never explained.

Frank and Iris’ relationship begins to crumble as she’s had enough of his “stupid little doll” and he tells her to “get out of here, you old slut!” He beats the fuck out of her then picks up a disco cutie, bringing her home to presumably see what her insides look like. She takes a bath in the yuckiest yellow-green water this side of Mad Foxes, but surprisingly survives being sliced up when Anna’s twin sister Eleanor (also played by Monreale) shows up at the villa’s doorstep. The film inexplicably jumps into the supernatural for a moment when Anna’s disembodied voice warns: “Eleanor...you shouldn’t’ve come here...” Iris rushes in like a deranged Norman Bates dressed as Norma Bates wielding a knife and...well, fuck! Eleanor faints. It’s pretty much curtains, but Frank returns in the nick of time and they have a bloody fight in which he bites off part of Iris’ cheek while she tears out one of his eyes and kicks him in the balls. He finally stabs her and carries Anna down into the basement. The employee shows up again and doesn’t realize that the burnt body in the crematorium/kiln is Anna’s body. All he sees is Eleanor’s body on the slab as Frank passes away in front of him. Believing he’s doing the right thing, he absconds with the body back to the mortuary, places Eleanor’s seemingly lifeless body into a coffin and begins sealing it shut. D’Amato is quite adept at staging jump scares and we get a fabulous one when Eleanor, like Uma Thurman getting an adrenaline shot to the heart, lurches forward with a start and screams her head off. It’s amazing.

Buio Omega is awesomely depraved and very entertaining. In many ways, it’s not a particularly deep film despite the richness of the two characters. One could even say it’s pointless since what happens has very little effect on the outside world. However, as a depiction of Frank’s madness brought about by tragedy and Iris’ foolhardy miscalculation and desperate need for love, it works beautifully and remains a palpably gruesome work by a hard-working maverick of independent cinema.