"The horror genre has been for me an original way of taking an explicit visual and visionary approach to directing."   —Michele Soavi

by Jim Pyke

Born in Milan in 1957, Michele Soavi (pronounced me-káy-lay so-áh-vee) started his career as an actor in such Italian cult-classics as the late Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell". Later Dario Argento gave Soavi opportunities to work as second assistant director on his film "Tenebrae", then as first assistant on "Creepers", and as second unit director on "Opera". Add to this a documentary Soavi directed with the self-explanatory title "Dario Argento's World of Horror", and Soavi was finally offered his first chance to direct his own feature—1987's "Stage Fright".

Flash forward nearly a decade and Michele Soavi is the hottest director on the Italian horror scene, and with October Films' current release of his fourth feature, "Cemetery Man", on the United States art-house/repertory theater circuit he is poised to break onto the American scene where he already enjoys a solid cult following. While this film (originally titled "Dellamorte, Dellamore") is unquestionably Soavi's most visionary film, his other three genre features—all available on video in the States—powerfully demonstrate the evolution of his unique perspective.

Soavi has made clear his desire to keep breaking new ground with each film rather than repeating himself through endless sequels. Yet it is equally clear that all of his films cling to a definite thematic thread, and while this thread is one of the oldest in narrative film—ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances—Soavi winds it through the fantastic settings and situations in his films to weave a unique and glittering cinematic cloth. These may seem strangely pretty descriptive terms for horror films, but Soavi stands among the few genre directors who truly lives up to such a standard of beauty, as well as one of terror.

"Stage Fright" (1987, Imperial Entertainment)

Soavi's first feature opens with what appears to be a stock situation: a streetwalker is grabbed, pulled into a dark alley, and murdered. The camera pulls back as the killer (wearing a huge, full-head owl mask) theatrically dives past the gathered onlookers somersaulting out of the alley as the music swells. "It's a kind of intellectual musical," as one character later describes it, and it features a perverse trope that one might find in any number of Italian horror films: the killer's victim returns from the dead to seduce her murderer. But that's only the story within the story.

As things progress we find that the film will actually concentrate on the trials that the cast and crew of this musical will suffer following the very real murder of one of their number by an escaped mental patient—Irving Wallace, an insane former actor who had gone on a brutal killing spree before his capture. The director has decided that he will put the killing (and its ensuing publicity) to good use by changing his musical's killer into the real killer. Of course he only wants this transformation to occur within the realm of fiction, but his karmic reward for this unscrupulous maneuver is that the fiction becomes reality as Mr. Wallace dons the giant owl head and begins hunting down the cast one by one.

Soavi elevates what might have been a rather standard and predictable film (it is certainly his most linear tale) above its basic material with some original and genuinely thought provoking sequences. One of the best of these comes late in the film when all but one of the cast has been brutally hacked to pieces. Wallace has dragged all of their bodies onto the main rehearsal stage and we watch as he puts the finishing touches on posing them and decorating them with mounds of snow-white feathers. Suddenly a wind from a nearby fan magically transforms the whole tableau into a shaken snow-globe diorama as the feathers drift in the gentle breeze while Irving Wallace—the watchful owl—lords over his destruction/creation from his blood-red throne at center stage. This snow-globe image is one that, in various incarnations, haunts most of Soavi's features and harkens back as far as the opening "death of Charley Kane" sequence in Orson Welles' classic "Citizen Kane". As such it provides an iconic image of lost innocence and broken dreams. In the case of "Stage Fright" the real losers are not merely the ten people who lose their lives at the hands of the killer, but even more the sole survivor who has been psychologically brutalized and is, in a sense, ultimately responsible for the deaths of her comrades.

"The Church" (1989, Southgate)

Soavi's second outing was assigned to him by Argento as warm leftovers from Lamberto Bava who had developed a treatment and then pulled out of production just when it was nearly ready to roll. Soavi, with the aid of his screenwriter Gianni Romoli (whose previous work on several comedies is visible in some fleeting moments of "The Church") whipped the script into shape and started shooting. With such a scattered start it should be no surprise that the end product is also rather disorganized. The main plotline—there are too many sub-plots—tells the tale of a Gothic cathedral built on the mass burial site of a Crusade-era village's population of so-called witches. This tale starts out in an impressively realized period opening sequence and then quickly tracks to modern day where we find the church surrounded by a decadent European metropolis of the late 1980s. The evil hidden beneath the cathedral is ripe to burst back into the world and, with the aid of a scholar eager for fame, it almost happens.

As you might guess, this film turns out to be a meditation on karma and how people bring evil onto themselves. At moments Soavi even suggests that we create evil with our own actions, even if we may intend otherwise (witness the crusaders' brutal and indiscriminate slaying of the entire village populace in the opening sequence). This is certainly not any great revelation on Soavi's part.

The real revelation of "The Church" is that with it Soavi's visual style has advanced great bounding leaps beyond what we saw in "Stage Fright". If not for its moody stylization, this second feature would have been a sad step backwards. Fortunately, Soavi's sharp eye for lighting and composition manage to turn fairly unoriginal and disorganized material into a riveting, unsettling portrait of a church full of people each discovering their own private and individual hells. Granted, the cathedral in which the film is set is magnificent by itself, but Soavi's floating, spinning camera captures this magnificence from its monumental spaces down to its minuscule details. Here too we see Soavi's trademark infusion of his compositions with cool blue light to denote the presence of evil—a trademark which will reach an extreme in his next feature.

"The Devil's Daughter " (1991, Republic)

For his third feature Soavi continues to reach deeper into the fantastic realms of dreams and nightmares, and also pushes hard against the boundary between life and death. The plot, like much of Italian horror cinema, twists and turns sometimes without apparent rhyme or reason, but the plot is not what we came for. To make a long and winding story short and straight, "The Devil's Daughter" is the tale of a Satanic cult (led by veteran genre actor Herbert Lom as Moebius Kelly) and its attempt to incarnate its leader on earth by impregnating a naive young school teacher, Miriam (Kelly Curtis). If this sounds like a blatant rip-off of Polanski's classic "Rosemary's Baby" don't worry—all similarities end beyond this most basic plot thread.

Soavi's film incorporates elements as seemingly disparate as a biker gang led by a Mansonesque (or is that Christ-like?) Thomas Arana and rabbits, rabbits everywhere. Enfolding this perverse Carrollian (as in "Through the Looking Glass") strangeness is an almost ever-present blue glow and incredible, illogical volumes of little white things floating gently through the air (note that Italian cinemaestro Federico Fellini too loved the little white floating things). This time, however, the symbolic function of the fluff is made explicit as each night Miriam silently wishes upon a snow-globe encased bride and groom, whose male figurine later is shockingly transformed into a caricature of gray-bearded Moebius Kelly. Soavi loves this way of externalizing the internal worlds of his characters, surrounding them with the very things that they most hope for and most fear—and in this film the emphasis is squarely on fear as Soavi's camera renders even the most innocent images sinister.

"Cemetery Man" (October Films, 1994)
The "Cemetery Man" web page is in 3-D!
Located at the October Films home page.

In his most recent film Soavi has created a magical work that defies simple classification as a "horror" film. "Cemetery Man" is a unique and bewildering blend of ethereal fantasy, dark humor, love story, surrealism, and gory horror. It is a film so gorgeously cinematic that one almost feels pained in attempting to describe it with words—its images speak for themselves in ways that words often seem too clumsy to duplicate. This difficulty arises in part from the broad subject matter of the film. Life (and the inability to live it), death (and the difficulty of facing it), love (gained and lost in endless cycles), sensuality, friendship, longing, achievement—all these things are the stuff of which our daily lives are composed.

In his leading man, Francesco Dellamorte, Soavi presents us with a very ordinary fellow (lonely, uneducated, unambitious, and stuck in a literal dead-end job) who is faced with a bizarre circumstance: the corpses in the cemetery he takes care of have started rising from the earth with a taste for living flesh. But wait, this is not just "another one of those Italian zombie movies," as is obvious from the film's opening sequence in which we witness one of the "returners" (as Soavi prefers to label them) knock at Francesco's door which he answers—revolver in hand—and then calmly blows the man's head off. These zombies are more melancholy than menacing.

"Cemetery Man" quickly dives into its tale of Francesco's dull and unfulfilling existence in which he has no greater ambition than to keep the living safe from the dead. Death weighs heavily on this film, yet it does so in a paradoxically life-affirming way. Francesco falls in love three times during the course of the film, and each time it is with the same actress (Italian model Anna Falchi), though each time she plays a different character. As each new lover is taken from him (two by death and one by another man) Francesco gradually emerges from his deep melancholy to break down the boundaries he has put on his own life.

Soavi's camera orbits his characters as if each individual is at the center of his or her very own little universe. He creates worlds within worlds for his characters to inhabit, and it is Francesco alone who is privileged to pass between these worlds—and, of course, we are privileged to go with him.

In all of his films Soavi smartly shows off his knowledge of film history, packing his films with references to the films not only of his mentor Dario Argento, but also those of other directors ranging from the aforementioned Fellini and Welles to French filmmakers Jean Rollin and Georges Franju, Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, and American Terry Gilliam (with whom Soavi collaborated as second unit director on "Baron Munchausen"). Indeed, Soavi even repeatedly quotes shots from his own earlier films lending them a sense of continuity despite their disparate subjects.

All film stills from Cemetery Man.

Because of his interest in portraying his own interior vision through the sensibilities of his characters (and because of his own experience as an actor) Soavi is more an actor's director than most other Italian horror directors. This translates on screen to works of fear blended with fantasy that have an emotional range far broader and deeper than the standard shocks found in much of modern horror.   </end>

illustration by Greg
An interview with
Michele Soavi

Up Talk!