Beyond the Darkness Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
When young Frank’s (Kieran Canter) fiance, Anna (Cinzia Monreale), dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, he digs up her body, uses his taxidermy skills to preserve her beauty, and tries to continue life as if she’s still alive. But busybodies and prospected replacement lovers keep stumbling upon Frank’s little secret and he’s forced to murder them, then call on the services of his secretly jealous housekeeper (Franca Stoppi), who helps him dispose of the bodies.
As a horror director, Joe D’Amato (real name: Aristide Massaccesi) is probably best known for strange slasher variants, like Anthropophagous (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980) and Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Anthropophagus 2, Monster Hunter, and Horrible, 1981), and movies that crossed hardcore violence with hardcore sex, like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) and Porno Holocaust (Italian: Orgasmo Nero II, 1981). These films have hard-earned cult followings and remain part of the exploitation pop-culture consciousness, thanks to their controversial content, but they’re slapdash execution can’t compare to the technical artistry seen in Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or Lucio Fulci’s best work. However, D’Amato’s earliest foray into real gothic terror (following quick dips in the pool for Emanuelle in America  and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals [Italian: Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977]), Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive, 1979), managed to meet the standard as a full-bodied shock-machine, dripping with more stomach-churning dread than its closest competition. And, while much of that dread is a byproduct of the films unrelenting perversity – a subject that will encompass the bulk of this review – one cannot neglect D’Amato’s technical control or visual contributions.
Beyond the Darkness plays out like an impossibly depraved version of Hitchcock’s Psycho, from Frank’s sexual relationship with his housekeeper – a maternal figure that breastfeeds him for sexual gratification – to his Norman Bates-like youthful charm and taxidermy hobby. Technically, D’Amato was remaking Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye (Italian: Il terzo occhio, 1966), a Hitchcock-inspired (a dash of Psycho, a pinch of Vertigo...) thriller co-written by Navajo Joe (1966) and Nightmare City author Piero Regnoli. Beyond the Darkness’ screenplay is even co-credited to Mino Guerrini’s son, Giacomo (along with Ottavio Fabbri). In both movies, an introverted male taxidermist (one of Franco Nero’s first, pre-Django leading roles) is driven insane when his housekeeper jealously kills his betrothed. Both characters exhume the body, keep it in the bed beside them, murder potential lovers, are forced to rely on the housekeeper to dispose of the bodies, and fall in love with their dead fiancé’s doppelgänger sisters. There are key differences as well, most of which fill-in a backstory that is only hinted at in D’Amato’s more streamlined narrative. For example, the housekeeper murders the protagonist’s fiancé and mother, and neither character dies until 25 minutes into the 83-minute movie. Then, there is a much, much longer/different third act. Being a mid-’60s production, The Third Eye is far tamer than its remake and opts to have most of the violence take place off-screen. There is a nasty taxidermy sequence, but the victim is a long-dead crow, instead of a human woman.
In an interview conducted for Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through The Eyes Of Their Protagonists (Fantasma Books, 1996), the typically modest D’Amato credits the Bressanone villa location itself for the film’s creepy vibe, not his own photography, and differentiates Beyond the Darkness from other exploitation films (including his own) by pointing to its lack of “physical violence.” While this is patently false – there are two brutal murder scenes, followed by a furious hand-to-hand battle to the death at the end of the film – the statement points to a key conceptual choice. Like Fulci, who referred to his decay-obsessed films as “Artaudian” (after avant-garde originator of The Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud), D’Amato isn’t as interested in murder as he is in the chemical and physical breakdown of the human body after death. It’s also likely that he recognized suspense was not his forté and decided to focus on the grotesquery and tone, rather than tension (in the same Spaghetti Nightmares interview, he calls Anthropophagous his worst horror movie, which he sees as insufficient in terms of its suspense). Either way, the gore and oppressive atmosphere combine to create one of the most oppressively disturbing films in Italian horror history.
For years, it was rumored that D’Amato used stock footage from real autopsies and cremations to achieve the shocking post-mortem effects. The reason these effects stand-up may be tied to their austere and procedural nature, as well as the fact that D’Amato and company largely avoid the rubbery prosthetics that tend to define the era. The filmmakers utilize reasonably convincing appliances for the various bite wounds, but the most successful gags are achieved using a combination of old-fashioned magician’s techniques, such as forced-perspective, sleight-of-hand, and basic chemistry. During the three key gore sequences (Anna’s embalming, the hitchhiker’s acid bath, and the jogger’s cremation), D’Amato chooses his camera angles and edits so carefully that the audience rarely notices the lack of continuity between shots of actors playing dead and shots of appalling graphic animal offal/bubbling food byproducts/melting plastics. Had he a bigger budget and a more experienced effects crew (D’Amato more or less takes credit for the FX himself during an interview included with this Blu-ray collection, mentioning Fulci-favorite make-up man Giannetto De Rossi as a ‘teacher’) Beyond the Darkness’ might have been more elaborate, but, given the state of the art at the time, they probably would’ve been less convincing.
There is understandable confusion surrounding the film’s title. The original Italian title was Buio Omega and that ended up being translated to Blue or Dark Holocaust (‘omega’ has basically the same meaning in English and Italian – it’s just the last letter in the Greek alphabet). It was titled Beyond the Darkness for US theatrical release, then erroneously re-named Buried Alive for home video. Meanwhile, D’Amato produced, photographed (under the pseudonym Larry J. Fraser), and probably co-directed a movie with frequent collaborator Claudio Fragasso called La Casa 5 (1990). The La Casa title was meant to mark it as a fifth sequel to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and calling it House 5 would create confusion in North America, because it would imply that it was a sequel to Steve Miner’s House (which actually has three sequels, two of which were attached to the La Casa series in Italy), so it was re-titled Beyond Darkness for home video stateside. Despite D’Amato taking part in both films, Beyond Darkness and Beyond THE Darkness have basically nothing in common.
Here in North America, most spaghetti splatter fans discovered Beyond the Darkness via big box VHS from Thriller Video. This 1986 release coined the weird Buried Alive title, but maintained all of the gore, complete with a giant red and yellow label that read: “Warning! This is one of the most violent films ever made. There are scenes of sadistic cruelty graphically shown. If the presentation of disgusting and repulsive material upsets you, please do not view this film.” The film was then released on region 1 DVD via Media Blasters’ Shriek Show imprint, alongside a handful of European discs. Shriek Show then ported their standard definition transfer onto Blu-ray in 2011. The results were pretty awful, though not quite as awful as the company’s upscaled versions of Zombi Holocaust and Burial Ground. Other HD versions include 88 Films’ recent UK release, XT Video’s Austrian Limited Edition, and an Australian disc from Umbrella (that I think is 1080i). The rights to Beyond the Darkness were, along Zombi Holocaust and Burial Ground, handed over to Severin in the US and 88 Films in the UK around the same time. The companies have been sharing 2K rescans and I believe that is the case once more. However, each does their own restoration and authoring, so the transfers tend to look different.
Putting the 88 Films release aside, the remaster is a massive upgrade over the fuzzy, flat, low-detail, highly noisy Shriek Show release. And, even if this new scan didn’t increase the overall detail (which it clearly does), the stronger contrast and more vibrant, warmer color quality would make the update worthwhile. Like most recent, out-of-house Italian B-movie scans, there are machine noise artifacts present, but these are minimal compared to similar releases. Most of the noise appears to be genuine film grain, which can be heavy, due to the soft focus and diffused lighting schemes that D’Amato employs for the sake of atmosphere (and because such things were popular at the time). The new transfer is framed at 1.66:1 versus the Shriek Show disc’s 1.78:1 ratio. You might assume this would lead to less information on the right and left sides of the frame, but the old transfer was significantly zoomed, so there’s actually more info on all sides of the 1.66:1 frame. Upgrades aside, I do have to admit that the washed out, dingy look of the older Blu-ray brings back fond memories of the original, stomach-churning shock of that old Thriller VHS tape.
Note that this is the completely uncut version of the film, including brief scenes/shots that were missing from all previous US releases. None of these cuts were made for the sake of censorship.
Beyond the Darkness is presented in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and lossy Italian mono Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The 88 Films release appears to have a slight advantage here, since their Italian track is uncompressed. Fortunately, that compression is barely discernible. As per usual, this film, like most Italian films from the era, was shot without sound, so both language tracks were dubbed in post. I prefer the English track, mostly for nostalgic reasons, but also because the more even-handed dialogue/sound effects balance. Both tracks are at their best where music is concerned. The soundtrack was supplied by Dario Argento’s favorite prog-rock group, Goblin. However, it is important to note that the original Goblin line-up had fragmented by the end of the ‘70s. This particular soundtrack is credited to founding bass player Fabio Pignatelli, drummer Agostino Marangolo (who joined the band around the time of the Suspiria soundtrack), keyboardist Maurizio Guarini (also from the Suspiria era), and session guitarist Carlo Pennisi. Founding keyboardist Claudio Simonetti and guitarist Massimo Morante did not participate in scoring Beyond the Darkness, the Italian version of Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1979), or Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination, 1980) (though they did reunite with Pignatelli for Argento’s Tenebrae in 1982). This line-up tended to produce mechanical electronic scores that don’t get the same credit as the founding members’ more ‘proggy’ soundtracks. Beyond the Darkness is arguably the best of the three Simonetti-free albums, featuring danceable, yet genuinely eerie ‘evil disco’ melodies.
Joe D'Amato: The Horror Experience (68:20, HD version of mostly SD footage) – This appears to be one-half of Roger A. Fratter’s Joe D’Amato Totally Uncut documentary (2001). It’s a standard career retrospective with D’Amato discussing his horror career movie-by-movie, complete with clips and additional interviews with actor/writer Luigi Montefiori (aka: George Eastman), Pierluigi Conti (aka: Al Cliver), and Donald O'Brien. The other half of the documentary (if I recall correctly) pertains to D’Amato’s porn career.
The Omega Woman (15:41, HD) – Actress Franca Stoppi talks about her experience making the film, the creepy location, dating co-star Kieran Canter, the nasty special effects, and more in this ‘new’ interview (as in not available on another DVD/BD, but recorded before the actress’ death in 2011).
Goblin Reborn (one of two Goblin member groups currently touring) live performance (4:17, HD)
Sick Love (8:47, HD) – A new interview with actress Cinzia Monreale (not to be confused with the older one available on the SS and Umbrella discs), who discusses her Italian horror career and playing dead for most of Beyond the Darkness.
Buio in Brixen (20:05, HD) – A tour of the Northern Italy locations as they appear in the present day, set to music from the soundtrack.
Original, complete Goblin soundtrack (on CD)
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