'Lachrymae, Chapter I: The Trail of the Three Mothers'
An Online Journal by Richard Stanley
(Originally appeared in R. S.' MySpace, September 11th, 2007.)
It started just as I was posting my last blog. I was grappling with the clunky MySpace technology (sorely tested by the last entry's epic length) when the building began to palpably tremble. It was already morning but it seemed to be getting dark again outside, the sky turning a curious shade of coppery green. I stayed with the keyboard until the screed was safely posted by which time the rain was coming down in a white squall against the skylights. There were screams and a moment later the sound of breaking glass in the street below. And another sound. A weird deep, pulsing bass like a peal of thunder running in a loop, grumbling on and on, waxing and waning but refusing to let go. For a moment I thought I was simply suffering from nerves or sleep deprivation or somethin'. But it wasn't. It was a cyclone.
In River City...
Which is like a tiger in Africa but that's the miracle of global warming for you. I'd been expecting some sort of response to the blog but this was ridiculous. I fell back laughing on the couch as the house shuddered and something subsided in the chimney. The road outside turned into a river, the air alive with car alarms and for a while I thought maybe this is the end after all, maybe Earth's magnetic field's finally flipped and the atmosphere's being sucked right off planet! And I laughed so hard I could hardly get up and all the while the statue of the black Madonna that stands before my west window rocked silently on her plinth, watching placidly as the rain fell like tears on her altar and lightnings swirled around us.
By the time I stopped laughing and tried to fix myself a coffee the power was down along with most of the rail network so I fixed myself a lukewarm Coke instead, a little disappointed to find the storm easing off and myself still seemingly alive, the sirens of distant emergency vehicles joining the clamour outside.
At first the flooding had some novelty value for the locals, a chance to show their British pluck but after the first 48 hours or so people began to die and the mood turned ugly so I got out for a couple of months, leaving River City to stew in it's own juice. Figured I wouldn't be missed . Everyone is away on vacation this time of year. The producers and politicos are in Provence with their au pairs, their backers are in Monaco or the Cote d'Azur and the nation's armed forces are on extended camp out in Afghanistan and Iraq, same place most of the National Guard were at when that l'il thing happened in New Orleans if memory serves.
So I hit the trail, oh my brothers and a long, strange trail it was and it wouldn't make the blindest bit of sense without the backstory. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and I realize what follows may seem far fetched. File under heading 'supernatural serial thriller', a metatextual detective story ala Dan Brown by way of that inimitable maestro of the macabre, the one and only Dario Argento so if you don't like 'freaky stuff' then tune out now! You have been warned. Otherwise its time to dust off those old Goblin albums and gather round. Some of this material has appeared before in the 2002 compendium British Horror Cinema under the title Dying Light and on the Metro-Tartan DVD release of Trauma under the caption 'Ciao Dario!' Most of the content however was inputed directly from handwritten notes hastily scribbled more than a decade ago for like all great shaggy dog stories the roots of this strange saga lie buried deep in the past...
Chapter 1: The Rain Queen [top]
Once upon a time, some 1600 years after the alleged death of Christ, a beautiful princess was seduced by her jealous brother and bore a child out of wedlock. Fearing her father's wrath she stole the source of his power while he slept, the rainmaking magic that kept the land fertile and gathering her bravest retainers about her, fled the city state of Karanga to seek refuge in the trackless wastelands south of the Zambezi.
Her name was Dzugudini and at length her wandering tribe settled in the forest of Daja, where for a good two centuries they lived undisturbed amidst the giant ferns and cycads, their ceremonies unbroken from one generation to the next. Their last chieftain ascended the throne in the early 18th century. He was named Mugado and had three sons and a daughter, by all accounts a great beauty.
Although his tribe prospered this Mugado was a troubled man, assailed by spirits and invisible presences. The shades of his forefathers appeared before him by night and the secret rulers of the rainforest whispered in his ears even as he slept, sending clear instruction in his dreams so that he might govern in accordance to their will.
Whether Mugado was driven by vocation, demonic possession, paranoid schizophrenia with megalomaniacal tendencies or sheer force of inbreeding is hard to say but, in short, he was 'inspired'...
Acting under direct orders from the forest Mugado ordered the immediate execution of his sons and decreed that as his line was descended from an incestuous union he would in turn marry his own daughter and secure the succession for another thousand years by founding the pure, matriarchal dynasty the spirits had shown to him in his dreams.
The princess was sequestered in a palace hidden deep in the rainforest where the powers of Mugado's masters was at their strongest and in the fullness of time she bore him two children. The first was a boy who was strangled at birth by the midwives but the second was a daughter her father named Modjadji, the 'Ruler of the Day', and into her hands he entrusted the rainmaking medicine of his ancestors.
Modjadji remained all her life in seclusion, weaving her spells and practising her craft and when her unhappy parents were no more she ruled in her father's place and became renowned as the greatest of rainmakers. Supplicants came from all over Africa to make obeisance in front of her kraal in the hope of enlisting her aid and her kingdom became known as LoBedu, the 'land of offerings', and her people the baLoBedu.
She was never seen and this very secrecy, the impenetrable wall of spells and fearful incantations that encircled her court lead to the rise of all kinds of myths and fantastical beliefs. The Zulu believed she had four breasts and revered her as 'Mabelamane'.
Others believed she never aged nor lost her beauty but lived untouched by time.
Time however has no respect for folklore, even the most dearly cherished beliefs and Modjadji was duly scythed down somewhere in the 1860's when the name and mantle passed to her daughter. As for the boy children, well...
Modjadji II maintained her power over the subcontinent as skilfully as her mother, preserving the line down to this very day. When Mandela was released from Robben Island he sought the immortal monarch's council before assuming the trappings of state and so too his successor, Thabo Mbeki.
From one lifetime to the next she ruled unchallenged, monarch of all she surveyed yet still essentially a prisoner, a martyr caught in the vast web of ritual fashioned by the cunning of her ancestors. When the 'Rain Queen' showed the first signs of old age it is believed she was obliged to sip a cup of poison derived from the brain and spinal cord of a crocodile and later her skin and body parts would become the essential ingredients of the rainmaking medicine. After being left to lie a few days until the skin loosened she would be washed slowly away, layer by layer by her retainers who stored the water in clay pots. Other ingredients are said to include the fat of a scaly anteater, parts of a kudu, seawater, feathers from a 'lightning bird', black and white seashells and various roots and barks. Nowadays a black sheep or goat is sacrificed but its fur is still carefully washed first and the water stored in the rain pots for future use. This ritual is rumoured to be a modern substitute for the ritual slaughter of a small child, a baby boy whose brain was once used as an offering...
Chapter 2: Out of Africa [top]
I was a child myself when I first came to Modjadji's kraal. My mother was an artist, a folklorist as much as an anthropologist and something of a proto-feminist, although I was too young to recognize any political dimension to her work at the time. Like many schoolboys of my generation I was familiar with H. Rider Haggard's fantasy She, which had been inspired by the flesh and blood myth.
Ayesha, 'She Who Must Be Obeyed', retains her eternal youth and beauty by bathing in a singing, magical flame deep within the earth that consumes her in order to make her whole. According to Haggard's text at the base of the flame appear the glyphs of an ancient language, hewn in living rock:
"That which is alive has known death, and that which is dead can never die, for in the Circle of the Spirit life is naught and death is naught. Yea, all things live forever, though at times they sleep and are forgotten..."
H.P. Lovecraft, in The Nameless City (1921), attributed an oddly paraphrased version of this text to the 'mad' Arab Abdul al Hazred (possibly a pun on the words: "all has read") and it is in fact the sole direct quote the great man is ever foolhardy enough to offer from his notorious, 'fictional' grande grimoire, The Necronomicon:
That which is not dead can eternal lie and with strange aeons even death may die...
(*For the sake of our narrative it is easier to assume the adolescent H.P.L. simply filched the quote from Haggard, one of his undoubted literary heroes. There is of course another explanation, that both writers were working from variant translations of the same text but that is a different story for a darker and longer night.)
I never did get to meet the Black Mother herself, at least not on that occasion, but the shadowy forest and its prehistoric cycads left an impression that lingered in my mind long after Africa itself was only a memory. The tides of time, war and the aftermath of European colonialism scattered my family across the face of the earth and after various misadventures typical to the period I found myself adrift in mid-eighties London with little more to my name than the clothes I wore and a pair of boots already past their sell-by date.
I had a cousin in Crouch End who who worked for Fleetway Comics on their Judge Dredd strip (in fact he helped originate the first, Zelazny-derived Cursed Earth-series and came up with the 'landmaster' design ripped off, to his lasting chagrin, by various toy companies ever since), so I duly found myself on his doorstep, which is as far as I got.
The sole familiar face I'd seen since leaving Africa appeared at one of the terrace house's upper windows and informed me that owing to various other 'issues' it would be best if I called back in a week or two and maybe we could meet for lunch. In fact I didn't see or hear of him again for a good five years.
Alone and footloose in north London I purchased a ticket to an all night movie show, hoping to catch a few winks before rethinking my options.
The Scala cinema in King's Cross was a former ape house, London's first and only 'Primatarium', its flaking walls lined with crawling jungle murals. The sort of thing Rousseau might have produced if you'd dosed him with Black Pentagram LSD. The murals were painted over in the early nineties when the cinema's fortunes went into decline but when last I looked there were still deserted cages in the basement and if you inhaled deeply enough you could catch the faint hint of musk and dried urine, a reassuring safari smell that connects to my earliest memories. The cinema was managed by a feisty young redhead named JoAnne Sellar who had previously worked the house as an usherette, trolling the sepulchral cat haunted aisles in her 'China Blue' wig and scraping gum off the seats between shows.
The former programmer Stephen Woolley and his partner Nik Powell had hit the big time after astutely acquiring the UK rights to Jean-Jacques Beneix's Diva and Sam Raimi's barnstorming debut The Evil Dead, fighting and winning a landmark case against the British censor along the way. With the Scala's parent company booming I was stumbled onto the scene just as JoAnne's programming scaled new heights, which was how I came to see all of writer/director Dario Argento's major works for the first time in chronological order in a single, mind wrenching sitting.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972)
Deep Red (1975)
By the time I emerged, still sleepless into the mid-eighties dawn, I knew I had been changed in various complicated ways I couldn't immediately comprehend.
It was all so much brighter, bigger, louder, more violent and infinitely more seductive than anything the moral guardians would have allowed to pass in the Dutch Reformed police state I had been born into. The Maestro had cast his spell over me and although I didn't know it I was already caught in the web that would lead to Rome.
Chapter 3: The Art of Light [top]
I managed to find a cash in hand dayjob working as a photocopy boy at the Soviet Press Agency but my night's belonged to the Scala and I gravitated back to it's miasmal, red lit auditorium again and again, a junkie chasing his fix, always trying to recapture that first, orgiastic experience and never quite getting there. I watched every other Italian horror movie I could track down but none of them felt quite like the real thing, more the cinematic equivalent of methadone.
If I didn't grow up in the ape house then I certainly came of age there. I would camp out on the front tiers where the first few rows had already been totally destroyed by various nutters before me. Sometimes I would open my eyes at three in the morning and have no way of knowing if I was dreaming or not and as I slowly learned about the art of light so the Scala brought me into contact with some of the auteurs who had helped create this formidable body of work.
This was how I first met Dario, one night at the monkey house after a test screening of Phenomena (1985), which had been acquired by Palace, the cinema's parent company.
A callow fan, too nervous to ask for an autograph, I pressed his thin hand and offered him a smoke instead which went some ways towards breaking the ice. I don't remember what we spoke about but he was the first industry insider to meet my eyes and treat me like an equal (I had twice met Alan Parker and shaken his hand without him ever looking at my face or otherwise registering my presence). Despite or perhaps because of the violence of his work there is a humanity to Dario rare in men.
His acute sensitivity lead to a kind of borderline anorexia that made him oddly ageless. There was an adolescent, almost bird-like quality to the way he held himself as if his limbs were somehow still too long for his body and he inhabited a state in which he seemed to neither sleep nor eat. If he had been a bird he would have been a Raven.
We spoke only briefly, a few sentences at best but Dario's English was not what it is now and the great man had far bigger things on his mind but the look of recognition in his eyes stayed with me. He was plainly nervous about the screening and probably needed that smoke.
Later I scrawled all over the preview card in big, scary looking printed lettering, telling the distributors to leave the film alone and not cut a frame. Instead they chopped it to pieces, dropping twenty minutes of plot and releasing it with damaging censor cuts under the title Creepers to well nigh universal derision. The only positive word came from a British journalist then unknown to me, Alan Jones, who memorably summed it up with the line:
"Just like Carrie with flies! It's a bitch!"
I would happily have taken Dario home to meet my mother but instead I took my mother to meet him, along with my then fiancé at the British premiere of Opera two years later. I was too blown away by the movie to notice neither of the ladies seemed to be exactly enjoying the experience. Something to do with the volume of the heavy metal music in my mum's case 'though it was a VHS copy of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that my ex threw at my head shortly thereafter when she showed me the door, summing it up with the memorable tag:
"This is exactly the kind of s**t I don't need in my life any more!"
To my surprise it was Dario who kept in touch and he became not only a friend but a mentor, introducing me to the others in his hallowed circle. His brother, Claudio, who produced Alejandro Jodorowsky's last great film Santa Sangre, his loyal protégée Michele Soavi and Simon Boswell, the composer who had contributed to the Phenomena soundtrack and scored Michele's first directorial outing: Stagefright/ Deliria.
Like so many people I didn't notice Asia until the evocative opening scene of Michele's second feature La Chiesa (1989), when a fleeing heretic wearing a bee keeper's mask escapes the massacre of her village and is hunted like an animal through the medieval wood by mounted Teutons. One of the crusaders tips off her mask with his lance and for a split second Asia's terrified face is revealed before he delivers the coup d'grace.
At that very moment as I first viewed the scene in an Italian-language print at the Scala someone nudged my hand and I turned to find an angry, balding man demanding I put out the joint I'd fired up, the first time such a thing had ever happened in my experience, where smoking in the all-day all-nighters was a prerequisite, particulary in Dario movies. If you didn't want to go through the hassle of being a smoker yourself it was okay 'cause passive inhalation would do it for you. There was no way you were going home sane. Lighting up in a Dario movie was almost a duty like reflexively eating spare ribs during zombie/cannibal marathons or sprinkling feathers from the balcony during Stagefright. Some movies, like wars, can only be fought, tolerated or understood when you're inebriated or under the influence of powerful mindaltering substances.
I had another war in me by then (* see previous blog) and had been away too long to notice times had changed, so understandably my first instincts were to snap the balding stranger's head off as he were an insect and send it spinning across the aisle.
But age and the sad coming of the nineties prevailed and I stubbed out my smoke instead. Which was how I met Alan Jones and 'though I later learned he'd helped procure the print, the spirit of complete honesty compels me to admit my first instincts were to kill him on sight.
In my absence something had started to go horribly wrong with the British rep scene, like milk left too long in the back of a fridge. It was the advent of home video (ironically spearheaded by the success of Evil Dead in the UK), that killed midnight movies as a social phenomena, depriving what people now call 'cult movies' of their context and the fertile soil that nurtured them but I was having too much fun preparing my first feature, Hardware (1990), to notice at the time. As much as anything Hardware was a love letter to the Scala, lit and designed to extend the auditorium into the screen, with some beats in the lunatic dialogue left deliberately open, begging bellowed panto-style comebacks from the aisles (Sorry kids, but the experience just ain't the same at 'home' and never could be. You need bad plumbing, genuine rats, resident psychos and hundreds of other psychotic people you've never even seen before to get the hang of it. It was my version of 'home' viewing so long as the Scala lasted).
Michele Soavi (left) and Dario pose with the Teutons during a quieter, happier moment between crusades.
The moment we'd locked the picture, Jo-Anne Sellar, the cinema's former programmer and now the film's producer who had pulled the beast out of the bag for well under a million (tough even in those days), flew to Rome with myself and the first married answer print and sat in a tiny preview theatre with Dario and Claudio, watching as our homage unspooled and neither of them moved nor made a sound, seemingly unphased by its frissons and not laughing at the gags. Afterwards there was a pregnant pause as Dario encountered us in the foyer. Taking his time to compose his thoughts and avoiding our eyes the maestro spoke slowly and carefully, hands fluttering to give his words due emphasis: "Your film...the colors...the reds, the oranges... the way the camera moves. Up and down... in out... is emotional! Psychological... I like!"
At which point he gave me a hug and it felt as if I'd finally earned those spurs all the way, which was pretty good if I hadn't been feeling quite so brokenhearted and otherwise distracted and down at heel about a certain young lady at the time...
Chapter 4: Our Lady of Darkness [top]
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', the events of the preceding months (* see previous blog entry 'KINGDOM COME!') had cast a long shadow over my life. Some mornings I didn't even know if I was alive or dead and I spent my days inside a thunder storm 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 instead 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 (admitedly 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.
Il Maestro's reposte - Harvey Keitel struggles with cat, conscience and beret to deliver one of the best performances in any Argento pic.
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.
Daria's revenge - DEI PROFUNDIS; Writer Daria Nicolodi (left) and 'director' Luigi Cozzi
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.
(Upper right and above): Caroline Munro, the bride of the one-eyed God
and the daughter of eight-limbed Kali
While we 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, The Overture to the Invisible, 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 it putting 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..
Chapter 5: Isis in New York [top]
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 and any thought of a third entry. 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...
Chapter 6: An Audience with the Black Mother [top]
Shortly thereafter I was obliged to make my first visit to Spain.
Hardware was playing in competition in Sitges, a vaguely seedy Catalonian resort town beloved to the local gay community that organizes an annual festival of fantastic cinema, presumably to keep its hotels filled and fend off incipient off-season blues for another fortnight or so. Miramax flew me in at the drop of a hat to present the film and kick off the European campaign which was looming large. I made landfall in Barcelona, bringing the stormy weather with me and hiring a car at the airport, hit the trail but as it was my first time in Spain, I had no clue where I was going or what I was doing, and within minutes became hopelessly lost. I not only missed the turn off to Sitges, I missed Barcelona and never did get to see the Gaudi cathedral, not until many years later. Instead I found myself on some sort of orbital freeway that skirted the city's outskirts, curving away from the coast and my intended destination.
Seeing a high range of weird looking jagged mountains up ahead I drove towards them, simply following the road and searching in vain for an exit ramp. Before long I found myself navigating the base of the surreally barren range, gargantuan spires of limestone, quartz and glinting porphyry towering over me, crests lost in cloud.
Rounding a bend I glimpsed what appeared to be a monastery built atop one of the highest crags serviced by a rickety funicular railway. Pulling into a roadside lot I decided on the spur of the moment to hitch a ride to the summit, hoping to catch sight of Barcelona or the misplaced Mediterranean.
Tumbling cloud surged past the carriage windows like the famous 'tablecloth' on faraway Table Mountain, condensing into nothing as it fell past beetling cliffs dotted everywhere with shrines and half-glimpsed icons, spiralling steps cut deep into the living rock bearing what appeared to be hundreds of pilgrims upwards towards a great basilica set on a plateau approximately halfway up the rampart like a way station to heaven, a celestial transit lounge, Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait re-invented by William Peter Blatty...
I had reached my final destination but not having been in Spain before and not understanding the lingo, had no idea where on Earth or elsewhere I really was.
Noticing a gift shop servicing the pilgrims I went in search of coffee, hoping to clear my head and reorientate myself. It was then the truth impacted on me, pulling the rug out from under the rational world....
Glancing about myself I noticed the shop's shelves were crammed with rows of identical souvenirs, thousands of replicas of the same tiny statue I had bought in New York only days before for I had come without knowing it to the mountain of Montserrat (literally the serrated or jagged mountain) and it was the image of La Morenita, the little dark one, I had purchased unwittingly at the botannica...
Schiller said: "Montserrat sucks a man in from the outer to the inner world" and so it was for your humble narrator, ignorant as I was of the key initiatory role the mountain has played in the European esoteric tradition since time out of mind.
I joined the procession and filed slowly through the vast basilica, past the sacred spear that Savanarolla deposited at the shrine when he laid down his weapons to found the black robed Jesuit order after experiencing his own Damascene conversion in the presence of the icon, who stood resplendent in the heart of Her temple, at the spiritual core of Her strange fiefdom. The pilgrims had come to touch the globe in Her hand, a gesture reputed to confer fertility but when I pressed my trembling fingertips to the orb I could only think of how I had been summoned half-way around the world in a few swift days to complete a pilgrimage I never knew I had embarked on. I had come without knowing it into the domain of the Black Mother and as one journey ended so a newer and stranger one began. I had received a momentary flash of illumination but was as artless as a child playing on the outer doorstep of a mystery I couldn't begin to comprehend.
According to the guidebook, the Virgin of Montserrat was found in 888 AD, not long after the liberation of Barcelona from the Moors. It was apparently discovered by shepherds in a grotto where it had been hidden by what the text described as a 'fleeing Gothic bishop', which frankly raises more questions than it answers, if you'll forgive the pun. When repeated attempts to move the icon to the nearest village, Manresa, were repeatedly thwarted by violent electrical storms, it was decided instead to leave Her on the mountain and build the basilica around Her so She might be venerated in situ.
Devotion to 'La Morenita' spread eastwards with the Mediterranean conquests of the Catalan-Aragonese monarchy. Throughout their Italian territories there were over 150 churches dedicated to the Madonna of Montserrat. At a later period the imperial dynasty in Spain consolidated the cult of the Black Mother in central Europe - in Bohemia and Austria, carrying it westward with the discovery and conquest of the New World, which had close links with the 'little dark one' from the very beginning, thanks to the presence at Columbus's side of a former hermit from the mountain, Bernat Boil, thus making Her image the first 'Christian' icon to cross the Atlantic. The first place they made landfall was named in Her honour, the remote, volcanic island of Montserrat and the first churches in Chile, Mexico and Peru were dedicated to Her, leading to Her popular appellation - 'the Virgin of the New World'.
Who knows? Perhaps She does 'control New York'? Certainly Dario wasn't far wrong but what about the other two members of the infernal trinity? Worse still the official texts on the subject were disturbingly unclear, claiming the icon's features had been 'blackened by candle smoke' over countless years, which is plainly not the case. The monastery atop the mountain's highest outcrop that first caught my attention from the freeway was strictly off limits to pilgrims and casual day trippers, apparently a retreat for the clergy's upper eschelon where many of them chose to spend their final days, papal palliative care in a relaxed healthy, albeit rugged mountainous environment. All well and good but even a casual glance at the map reveals that the ancient courtyard at the heart of this rarified enclave is not called St Peter's, St Paul's, or even St. Michael's Square.
It's called Tarantula Square - check it out! A name that conjures black widows rather than virgins...
Elsewhere in the available texts (and I hasten to add the Benedictine Monastery adjacent to the basilica houses as one of the finest esoteric libraries east of the Miskatonic) I found reference to an ancient legend that a temple dedicated to Venus had been built on the mountaintop in pagan times, which was later destroyed by the miraculous intervention of the Archangel Michael. The warrior angel is invariably associated with the aggressive Christianization of pagan sites, Glastonbury and Avebury among them, marching along the 'old, straight way', the so-called 'ley lines' that criss-cross Europe like spines or nails in the dragon's back.
Somehow this fragmentary folkloric episode, an echo of an older oral tradition seemed more on the money than the glossy text in the contemporary guidebooks...
I bought a second replica of the statue for Dario, determined to tell him everything I'd learned when I saw him later in the year at Avoriaz. Boarding the dillipidated funicular railway I turned my back on the holy mountain and finally made it to Sitges to introduce my screening, although I was feeling too bewitched and bewildered to enjoy the festival as I should have done. The one film I did catch was a rare screening of a beautiful new print of Jason and the Argonauts, that ran in a huge, old fashioned Mediterranean picture palace, where dusty murals of painted Gods and damned souls coiled across the walls and smoking was still tolerated in the balconies.
Embarrassingly few people turned out for the performance, which is how I came to meet the only other English speaker in the queue, the actor Jon Voight, then in his pre-Mission Impossible wilderness years, in town to promote an ill-advised personal project, the tepid reincarnation drama Eternity, concerning a medieval knight born again into the present day to defend his chatelaine. There were rumours flying behind Mr. Voight's back that he was nuttier than a wagonload of pralines and had recently been putting it about that he not only believed in the whole reincarnation deal but actively thought the world was coming to an end. I admit he did expound at greater length than strictly necessary on the Hopi prophecies but he was the only sympathetic ear I could find and I was grateful he didn't dismiss me as the hopeless headcase I obviously was.
Somewhere in the midst of this marathon I ran into a young Catalonian named Nacho Cerda, then still a callow fan who pressed me eagerly for an autograph and I scrawled something about catching up with him in the 21st century on his programme. The look in my eyes stayed with him although I have little clear memory of the incident having bigger things on my mind at the time. Most of the time I was running so hard I barely paused to eat let alone get a full night's rest. Of course I would only realize later that Nacho was exactly the man I should have been talking to all along, being a close family friend of the individual who owned and operated the funicular railway system instrumental to my attempts at penetrating the sealed enclave at the mountain's summit.
The Curse of the Black Widow - Nacho Cerda keeps a poker face while Anastasia and Karel struggle to come to terms with another dialogue polish on Los Abandonados (2007), Nacho's debut.
As the images of those indifferent Greek Gods playing with Jason and his sailors like pawns on a vast chessboard unspooled before us back in 1990, it slowly dawned on your humble narrator just how stealthily the Black Mother had come upon me, Her negative aspect invading my life without invitation, the 'Scholar's Mistress' casting a long shadow out of the twilight, fictional universes of H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas de Quincey, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber by way of Dario, Michele, Lucio Fulci and countless others. How strange it seemed that elements of these apparently 'fictional' universes could have slowly impinged on my consciousness until they displaced my original definition of 'reality' and took hold of my waking existence, so that my own life began to assume the unbelievable character of a fictional narrative.
Fulcanelli, the mysterious master alchemist alluded to in Inferno and La Chiesa, perhaps holds the key to this conunmdrum, the perceived narrowing of the gap between the daylit world and the shadowy, imagined universe of the pulps. In the third chapter of The Mystery of the Cathedrals, he seeks to define the origins of Gothic art, arguing that the term 'art gothique' is a corruption of 'argotique' linking it to the 'Goetic' or magical art through the phonetic cabala. The dictionary definition of 'argot' is that of "a language peculiar to all individuals who wish to communicate their thoughts without being understood by outsiders". Fulcanelli muses that "the argotiers, those who use this language, are the hermetic descendents of the Argonauts who manned the ship ARGO. They spoke the langue argotique as they sailed for the felicitous shores of Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece."
Gothic art is in fact the art got or cot - the art of light or of the spirit.
A self-censoring secret communicable only to the elect.
What Fulcanelli described as the "language of a minority of individuals living outside accepted laws, conventions, customs and etiquette..." The language of the humble, the poor, the despised, the rebels and wanderers, the vagrants of the Court of Miracles and the Freemasons of the Middle Ages, who built the gothic masterpieces we admire today.
Needless to say Queen Isabella of Spain, who dispatched Columbus and Bernat Boil on their mission, was herself a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a secret society linked to the Order of Calatrava, who were responsible for monitoring their progress in the New World. The records in the Order's archives, only recently made available to me, portray Columbus as a very different figure to the bold explorer familiar from our exoteric texts, cataloging a history of sadism, misogyny and megalomania that would put Mugado to shame, including removing the ears and fingers of his imagined rivals. It seems old Christophe finally went too far the day he ordered his unfaithful mistress to be paraded naked on a donkey through the streets of Santa Domingo, an affront to popular decency that lead to the rogue governor of the Indies being stripped of office and sent home in chains.
Scarcely pleasant reading but a lot more fun than the Gerard Depardieu movie made it look...
Sadly, Columbus and Savanarolla are not the only martinets to have found sanctuary and inspiration for later crimes at Montserrat. Franco and Heinrich Himmler were both afficionados of the magic mountain, not to mention the recently canonised Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, a not so secret society whose supposed fascist leanings have been a continuing source of controversy.
While Opus Dei claims not to be involved in 'political activities', its name has been linked with the death of 'God's banker' Roberto Calvi and the FBI agent Robert Hanssen, arrested and charged with espionage in 2001. But let us move swiftly on for now as time may be shorter than you think...
In his masterly inaugural lecture (On the Eloquence of the Vulgar), delivered to the first M.A course in film studies to be offered in the United Kingdom, professor Colin McCabe justified the study of film and television by comparing it to the study of Italian at the time of Dante, when Latin was considered the language of civilization and Italian was seen as the language of the masses. Dante wanted the readership of his Divine Comedy to be his fellow citizens, the people from whom he felt himself exiled, rather than simply the scholars.
If he had written in Latin, he would, he tells us in the Convivio, have been advancing his own career but would himself have been prostituting literature. Instead he wanted to write for those who were 'volgari e non litterati', those who were increasingly able to read Italian although formally unlettered. Just as Italian replaced Latin as the language of the masses so film, television and the internet have displaced conventional literature as the vernacular of our times. In this light it should come as no surprise that just as the powers that be seek in vain to control the medium so too can one find in the most stigmatized of popular forms, in what is commonly tagged 'gothic' music and the creaky horrors of Lovecraft and Argento, the attributes of Fulcanelli's secret language. A symbolic truth hidden in a ghetto genre, neglected by mainstream criticism and the current definition of 'art'.
This is indeed the art of the hidden. The projector or monitor has become the new conveyor of the art of light and at fusion frequency, at 33 frames a second an ancient mystery lives on, casting the heretical illusion of life across the shining screen, an illusion born out of the ceaseless friction of light and dark. What Apollonius of Tyanna and the soothsayer Tiresius called 'the Language of the Birds'. The language Solomon knew before he lost his seal and was forced to go eyeball to eyeball with Asmodeus...
I didn't expect poor Jon to follow the gist of it but the midnight cowboy has the patience of a saint and did his best to sift through the informational shrapnel, concurring that there was only one way to get to the bottom of it and that was to get back up that blessed mountain as soon as possible and find out what was going on in Tarantula Square.
There were questions that needed answers.
Continued in part II
Like why in hell was She black anyway ?
And why did it have to be spiders ?