By Ludovico Cantisani, essayist, film scholar and Roman producer.
The light that pursues: this is the tasty paradox from which Tenebrae, the 1982 film by Dario Argento, the second collaboration with Luciano Tovoli on photography, was constructed photographically and oxymorically, who intended to overturn asymmetrically Suspiria’s nocturnal colourism. Among the geometries of the EUR already blessed by Antonioni with L'Eclisse, even the night has its light: the light goes everywhere, no less than the knife of the mysterious assassin who, in one of the most unbridled twists of the entire silver cinema - spoiler alert - will turn out to be the protagonist himself.
In a rural Sweden on which Bergman never seems to have laid his eyes, a group of American tourists do not know that they have paid for their death sentence. The religious always rebels to those looks that want to reduce everything to the folkloric data. Americans will gradually be torn to pieces in complex rituals - all but one, who will become the queen of the holiday. Almost forty years after Tenebrae, Ari Aster replays the horror card in full light - and succeeds fully: the result, Midsommar, is a horror that would have been desperately liked by James Frazer.
Let’s go back in time. The Wicker Man, by Robin Hardy, dated 1973, competes with The Hitchcock Birds the title of the first horror movie in the sunlight - but since the "horror" label always has something cool about a Hitchcock movie, go for The Wicker Man then. Starring Christopher Lee and Lindsay Kemp, the film shows a police officer, on the trail of a missing girl, discovering that on a mysterious island of Scotland Celtic paganism is still practiced. Blood and sacrifices will follow. In short, out of three classics of "horror in full light", two have to do with the survival of archaic rituals. It’s less than a clue.
All the Western tradition praises the light against the night. «God from God, light from light, true God from true God»: the positivity of the gaze, the imperialism of theoria permeates even the Christian Creed repeated at every Sunday Mass, while, more mockingly, Pirandello with his lanterninosophy let emerge a left dialectic between what we know, the light, and the immense darkness of things we do not know, we cannot know, we do not know we do not know. «Light becomes miserly/Bitter the soul», wrote Montale in Ossi di seppia, an unaware future Nobel Prize winner - without a doubt the Italian poets of the twentieth century the most attentive to the play of light, closely followed by Ungaretti and his garlands of stars. But Dante’s own Paradise, six centuries earlier, was all a chanting to the light.
Western horror films carry endless traces of Christian heritage. But a peculiar anthropological maturity, and archetypal originality, the show those scanty horror set around the clock. It must be said that it is cognitively difficult to demonize light - that of the clear view has remained a stable ideal even two centuries after the death of God. Yet, someone has been able to close the curtains to certain categories of our thinking that are too stable. Truth, from the earliest days of the Greek language, has always been connected to the theme of seeing. Most horror films, set at night or at dusk, already denounce with the setting their fake, artificial, built character. The solar horror films, in which the light does not give way, allowing a clear vision inculcate even a total horror.
Not that we need to demonize the demonization of darkness, typical of our culture even before our cinematography - quite the opposite. Perhaps the deep figure of horror lies when, from the darkness, suddenly, and in full light, something that was not there, an Unexpected Monstrous, a return of the angry removed. The epiphany requires a dark outline to reveal itself - Bacon knows this well, with his deleuzianissime figures. The authentic epiphany - not necessarily joyful - is represented very well by those "minimal films" by Philippe Grandrieux, in which female figures stand out violently in a black and neutral space, screaming, reduced to a desperate individuality, but irreducible. So here’s our prehistoric moment - out of the cave.
He swung, the light swung - mocking, perpetually fleeing, yet sinister regular, in his capriciousness. Not otherwise must the light have seemed to the first men, who contemplated alternating and chasing each other by day and night with eyes that were hopelessly wondering the next day: would the light have returned? From this uncertainty all the rites flow.
There are many myths and ancient stories that have to do with the death of the Sun - the same title that, millennia later, the obscure Italian philosopher Manlio Sgalambro would have dedicated to one of his major books, between a song of Battiato and another. Not to mention the eclipse - which also opens Black Glasses, the latest film by Dario Argento, more obvious than a Suspiria or a Tenebrae in managing light and darkness, yet still able to evoke archetypal nightmares.
But the aporia, the difficulty lies precisely in the concept of nightmare, in the automatic negativity that our language gives to the night, to every night: only the highest form of art that Western culture has produced, tragedy, has been able to reach the collapse of these schematic categories. «Sun, Sun, that I see you now for the last time!»: The scream of Oedipus still resounds, not yet explicit in all its epistemological implications. Films like Midsommar or The Wicker Man show us the other half of the ritual: they place themselves, that is, on the side of the victims, or at least of external viewers who discover, sometimes at the price of their own blood, what the cost of the Day is.
Lessons of darkness, love of chiaroscuro. Who said that night is the last killer?