Buio Omega/Beyond the Darkness (1979), is a unique gore film in that it focuses more on the bodies of its female victims when they are deceased rather than when they are attacked when living, entailing sickening scenes of their dismemberment. There is also the ghastly sight of preservation through the art of taxidermy of the lead character’s late fiancée. This is not to say that director, the late Joe D’Amato (also serving as cinematographer under his real name of Aristide Massacessi), does not execute effectively sadistic sequences depicting the cruelty of the murders of these luckless young women, but the film’s main strengths lie in its imagery of disgusting viscera that comes after death. Often described as one of the most stomach churning entries into the Italian horror boom of the 1970s, it does not disappoint, as it sure does live up to its exploitative reputation, delivering the glorious gory goods.
Screenwriters Ottavio Fabbri and Giacomo Guerrini go beyond the gore with their themes but their screenplay is problematic, as these elements are introduced but never fully explored, making for some half-baked ideas on screen.
Orphaned Frank Wyler (Kieran Canter) is a young rich man who has a keen hobby of taxidermy. His ill fiancée, Anna Völkl (Cinzia Monreale, who went on to play Emily in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond in 1981), is bed ridden in hospital when she suddenly dies of an unspecified illness. Frank’s jealous housekeeper, the obsessive and evil, Iris (Franca Stoppi), who has taken care of Frank since his parents died when he was little, has an old witch murder Anna with a voodoo doll.
This voodoo angle is very much out of place, as it is introduced from the outset, leading us to believe that a whole load of voodoo shenanigans is in store for us, but it is never once followed up. We see the old hag again in a much later scene in the third act, walking down the street at night muttering something as she walks past Frank and an intended victim he has just picked up from a nightclub but no more voodoo comes into play. Once they are in Frank’s car the unsuspecting woman asks Frank what that was about and Franks replies, “Who knows, some crazy old bag.” This line sums up the unimportance of this character to the story in a pointless scene. It would have been far more effective if Anna had just died of whatever illness she had, and Iris could still be as controlling and possessive of Frank, now she finally has him all to herself. Due to this typical Italian horror trait of just lumping ideas in there that have nothing to do with the narrative, this clumsy use of voodoo has no influence on the story whatsoever, and is rendered just a silly slice of cheese.
The opening events during and after the title sequence neatly set up the proceedings. Frank picks up a box from a man and puts it into the back of his van, which he will use later to take Anna’s corpse back to his mansion. Integrated with this are scenes of Anna dying and the cause of her death via voodoo, as the old woman performs it in Frank’s home with Iris sitting beside her with an evil grin on her face. When Frank returns to the mansion, in the basement where he practices his taxidermy hobby, we see him take out of the box a dead baboon, and we see all of his stuffed animals displayed around his workshop. Belatedly, Iris tells him that there was a call from the hospital, and Frank gets there as quick as he can. At Anna’s bedside, Frank tells her that death does not have the power to separate them and, as they share one last kiss, she then passes away. In this narrative efficiency, we can see what horror Anna’s death leads to – established is Frank’s expertise as a taxidermist, his undying love for his fiancée, and Iris’ devious intentions.
In the scene that follows immediately after Anna’s death, Frank is sitting alone in his late parents’ bedroom, grieving for her while looking at a photo of his mother for comfort, when Iris walks in. Frank tells her that Anna has just died, and Iris replies that she will forever take care of him now. Undoing her blouse, she lets Frank breast-feed from her. In a later scene, Iris comforts Frank as he is longingly staring at Anna’s stuffed corpse lying on his bed. Iris undoes Frank’s trouser belt, and puts her hand down his front, giving him a helping hand while she whispers to him – “Feels better doesn’t it? Yes, my little Frank feels better now I can tell.”
In another later scene, Frank comes across a woman while they are both out jogging, and he helps her with her sprained ankle. He takes her back to his mansion, and covers up Anna’s body with the bed cover. After applying some cream to the jogger’s ankle, and wrapping it in a bandage, he then makes out with her on the other side of the bed. As they do so, he takes the cover off so he can look at Anna. When the woman sees her body, she screams in fright. He tries to cover her mouth but she bites his hand; in rage, he rips her throat out with his teeth. Instead of spitting out the flesh, he chews and swallows it whole.
These scenes allude to themes of psycho-sexuality, how Frank seems forever trapped in his childhood, and his cannibalistic taste for human flesh. Although, none of these themes are elaborated upon and fleshed out to make for solid material and seem to be there just for shock value, to glue together the showcase set-pieces of human dismemberment and taxidermy. These scenes would have been all the more worthwhile with a follow through, exploring these disturbed characters deeper. Therefore in this respect the film is a missed opportunity, as it could have been something far more interesting, creepier, and unsettling that it already is, if the writers had gone that extra mile with this material.
At least these scenes are not the near waste of celluloid that is the film’s sub-plot. This entails the funeral director who oversaw Anna’s burial gathering together incriminating evidence on Frank, after he catches him before the funeral injecting a fluid into Anna’s body as she lies in her casket. This does not lead us anywhere significant, other than helping to set up the jump scare ending. Another contribution to setting up this final scene is someone who attends Anna’s funeral who looks very familiar, partially disguised by wearing sunglasses.
When Frank digs up Anna, we see what the film is really going for – to induce vomit from us with its prolonged goretastic geekshow displays, which even the veteran gorehound will find hard to stomach. This sequence of Frank starting the process of preserving Anna’s body makes me feel the queasiest of all. Although it is obviously just animal entrails we see, it does not cross our minds when watching it, as is filmed in such a matter of fact fashion that we forget what we are actually seeing is just very well executed SFX work. Later, Iris helps Frank dispose of a body by dismembering it and throwing the body parts into a bathtub of acid. This makes for some of the most revolting imagery.
This is followed up brilliantly with the use of some clever cutting. Iris disposes of the remains by pouring it out of a bucket into a hole she has dug outside in the garden. After she has covered up the hole, she returns to the kitchen of the mansion where Frank is sitting at a table. When she has finished cleaning up, she serves up some stew, and as she chows down on the slop, she makes a mess around her mouth that is intercut with a couple of shots of the gooey remains she has just disposed of. Watching Iris messily eat, Frank then chucks up… and we feel like doing the same.
Providing the film with a greatly heightened sense of atmosphere is a typical highly memorable score by long time Dario Argento collaborators, Goblin.
Beyond the Darkness is a bizarre and macabre tale. The film favours its gory imagery over interesting themes that are clearly in abundance here, but none of which are brought fully to fruition to make an emotional impact on the story, instead merely serving to string together gruesome sequences. The film could have been so much more, but it is a well-made piece of exploitation.