Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2009)

18. Giallo

With modern day Argento, you’ve really got to leash your expectations. When you’re expecting so little, a complete mediocrity like “Giallo” almost comes off as a success. Despite the title, the film plays less like a homage to the films Argento made in the seventies and more like a standard police procedural. There’s no black glove killers, POV shots, politically motivated plot lines, or an overabundance of style to be seen. It’s instead a tepid cop chases serial killer story.

The plot is standard issue: Giallo, a serial killer so named because of his jaundiced skin, is stalking Malin, abducting girls in his taxi, torturing them for several days, before dumping the bodies. A cop with a dark past is on the case and is soon joined in his efforts by the sister of Giallo’s latest victim. The story unfolds with little suspense, generally shuffling from one plot point to the next with no energy. The killer is never given any motivation or introspection beyond the fact that he jerks it to violent images and was picked on as a child because of his skin condition.

What happened to Adrian Brody? After years of respectable character work, he wins an Oscar for “The Pianist” and has since mostly slummed it in direct-to-video work. Here, for no specifically defined reason, the actor plays both the cop on the case and the serial killer he’s chasing. Brody goes under an anagramed pseudonym, “Byron Diedra,” as the killer and is under heavy make-up. However, the make-up, which consists of a fake nose, chin, and some really bad false teeth, is far from convincing. It doesn’t help that the movie focuses on Brody’s very distinctive eyes. It’s obvious right from the beginning that the same actor is playing both roles.

And why? At first, especially since the movie goes to some measure to disguise that it’s Brody as Giallo, I was wondering if they weren’t building towards some sort of twist. Are the killer and the cop REALLY THE SAME PERSON?!! After it became obvious they aren’t during a brief chase scene, I was wondering if maybe they we’re twin brothers or something? But, nope, there’s no plot justification for the decision. Maybe the movie’s making some sort of belabored, trite point about how killer and cop share the same sort of instinct, especially since the detective has some blood on his own hands. It’s a curious move and, sadly, the most interesting thing about an otherwise drab affair.

Brody’s performance as Inspector Avolfi isn’t bad. There’s not a lot of substance there but he does have some swagger and style to the role. “Byron Diedra” garbles his lines through a bad Italian accent and mostly practices uninspired sick creep clichés. That guy has got no future in the industry! Robert Miano as Brody’s superior does a lot with a few glances but his part is severely underwritten. Neither of the actresses playing the sisters do anything wrong but neither are interesting or exciting. There’s hints at a romance between Brody and the sister but it never amounts to anything.

And that’s pretty much the phrase of the day with “Giallo.” In the very first few shots, when Argento is panning around opera houses and model walkways, I thought for a minute there might actually be some of that old style here. Nope. Things settle down into boring normalcy before long. The only real stylistic decision I notice here is that the flashbacks, of which there are many, have a yellow tint to them. Those flashbacks are actually the best shots in the movie, since they allow Dario to indulge his interest in childhood and voyeurism. (And, hey, good job casting agent guy for finding a young kid with an appropriately Brody-sized nose.)

Despite the plot synopsis sounding like this might be Argento’s take on torture-horror, there’s actually very little gore in the movie. We get a lot of blades being waved around threateningly. We see lots of cuts and slashes on girls’ faces but don’t see much of the actual cutting. Once, a girl gets a hammer to the head and while it’s initially shocking, soon it devolves into the same old thing Argento does nowadays. The blood looks fake, the wound looks latex-y, and the camera lingers on its fakeness for too long. The only deaths that have any jazz to them are, again, those in the flashbacks. And those just aren’t really the same thing.

Keeping with the television police procedural feel, the story wraps up in a neat little package, with the killer disposed off conveniently and the only person Brody has anything resembling a normal relationship with walking out of his life. But as the credits roll, we see that one plot point has intentionally been left unresolved. While I suspect there was a reason for that, it feels less like a sequel set-up or an artistic choice… And more like a cliffhanger that will be resolved on next week's episode!

The producers were apparently real bastards. They took the film away from its director, recut it without his involvement, and didn’t even pay Adrian Brody what they promised him. Even if Dario got final cut on “Giallo,” I can’t imagine it being much better. As I’ve said over and over in this review, the film isn’t a disaster. It’s certainly not a fiasco on the level of “Phantom of the Opera” or “Mother of Tears.” But there’s absolutely nothing daring or exciting about it. It’s a truly mediocre movie and that I’m saying this about a Dario Argento film is very disheartening. [Grade: C]

How's that for a journey into diminished returns? Argento's next project, currently awaiting release, is Dracula 3D. As the spoiler-filled, NSFW teaser trailer shows, it appears to shaping up to be another "Phantom of the Opera"-level fiasco. Honestly, considering how "Giallo" turned out, that's almost preferable. Yeah, the movie will be awful, but it will also be insane and hilarious, which is preferable to boring. All the modern Argento elements are present and accounted for: Obvious CGI, creepy Asia nudity, over-the-top gore, and stilted performances. But I will see it, because I'm a completest, a masochist, and because I want to see the Rutger-Hauer-plays-alot-of-vampires cycle come full circle, with his no doubt sleepy take on Van Helsing.

Like most of the seventies horror auteurs, Argento's modern stuff just doesn't make the cut. So it goes. His seventies and eighties output is still amazing. That's it for Argento Month here at Film Thoughts. Was it as good for you as it was for me? MORE STUFF COMING SOON! (Probably.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2007)

17. Mother of Tears
La terza madre

The latter-day Argento malaise rolls on and ends up sullying the name of perhaps his trademark films. Twenty years of brain-storming and this is the epic conclusion to the Three Mothers saga he came up with? I’m not even that big of a fan of “Suspiria” or “Inferno,” and I’m embarrassed by this.

Summing up all of the problems of “Mother of Tears” is difficult. First off, very little of Dario’s usual directorial style is present. We get a few POV shots and a nice long tracking shot towards the end, but there’s certainly none of the overwhelming camera movements that characterize his best work. Horrifyingly, he actually seems to adapt a shaky-cam/Hollywood action movie style during several scenes. I understand why this wasn’t a small scale ghost story like the previous entries, but going wide drains any personal horror from the story.

Things are pretty silly throughout, almost to the point were you wonder if Argento was intentionally going for camp. No, the over-the-top levels of absurd insanity seen in “Phantom of the Opera” aren’t quite reached here but the movie comes uncomfortably close. The trio of attacking demons? The evil witches that look like extras from a Paula Abdul video? The ghost of Daria Nicolodi floating around, Obi-Wan style, helping her daughter out, while Asia yells “Mommy!?" The magical T-shirt? That monkey? And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a lot of exposition about the mythology of the Three Mothers and, honestly, I don’t mind it by this point. But did we have to get it through slideshows or passages of books being read out loud to us? Argento has always had the tendency to clobber ideas together without much sense. Lately, the ideas themselves are as senseless as the presentation.

The pacing is very weak, with far too much time devoted to Asia running from place to place. The police investigation aspect of the story is underdeveloped. When you think about all the other horrible stuff going on in Rome, would the police really devote that much energy to finding one person?

As for the acting… We all like Asia Argento, right? She can act, I’ve seen it myself. But anytime her dad’s behind the camera, it seems like she devolves into a scratchy voice shrieking little girl without a single bit of emotional restraint. I all ready mentioned how Daria Nicolodi makes a fool of herself. I really can’t stress how jaw-droppingly bad the whole mother-daughter plot line is.

The title character and lynchpin for the entire plot is played by model-turned-actress Moran Atias. It’s really quite obvious that Miss Atias has no formal training, as she mostly stands around naked and badly overacts. I suspect she was chosen more for her physical appearance and willingness to do nudity then for any ability to convey power or dread. Even then, I gotta’ question Dario’s judgement. A witch that’s been imprisoned for a hundred-some years probably shouldn’t have breast implants.

Philippe Leroy is supposes to be the male lead and Asia’s love interest. This is hampered by the fact that his character is completely useless. Moreover, he has very little actual interaction with Asia. Udo Kier brings his usual manic charm to his brief part as a homicidal priest and Valeria Cavalli, as an all-knowing lesbian, is decent. The movie needed more of those two.

Gone is the intimate terror of Dario’s previous film and he compromises with a bunch of shock value. Personally speaking, the guy’s obsession with child murder, previously displayed in his “Masters of Horror” episode “Jenifer,” is beginning to creep me out. And not in a good way. Three dead kids are too many for my taste. Maybe if the movie was actually trying to make some point with all the child killings, it would be different. Yet it’s all too obvious that at some point over the years, Argento got “scares” crossed with “shocks.” The taboo breaking is there simply because, I suspect, he can get away with more in this stage of his career.

There’s a lot of gore and it is pretty solid. Cleaver slashing, intestinal strangulation, head crushing, eye gouging... All good stuff. There’s at least one good jump scare (You’ll know it when you see it) and the weird sex stuff at the end, like witch orgies and butt-rope, is surprising, if nothing else. Claudio Simonetti’s score is decent but minor compared to his past work. Where are the overwhelming waves of throbbing synth cords? The hardcore shock-metal song that plays over the end credits is just the final crap cherry on the vomit sundae.

The movie ends in the same sort of nonsensical, frenzied way as the previous two parts of the trilogy. Only this time, we get some bad CGI, a ridiculously demise, a blatant call-back to “Phenomena,” and inappropriate laughing. It’s a clueless, abrupt conclusion to a largely clueless, abrupt film.

And this last point is a petty complaint, for sure, but I might as well throw it out there. “Mother of Tears” is a boring title. It doesn’t mesh with the other two films in the trilogy, at all. (Which is appropriate, I suppose, since the film itself sticks out horribly too.) The original Italian title is even worse, since it translates as just “The Third Mother,” and the U.S. working title of “Exhumed” is generic. “Suspiria” and “Inferno” were descriptive titles suggesting the film’s tone, themes, and central villain. In the alternate universe where Argento didn’t loose most of his talent after 1996, “Mother of Tears” was not only a lot better but it was also called “Hystericus,” a title that invokes the film’s Rome setting, the chaotic story and tone, as well as the villain’s association with panic and crying. It also fits the one-word titling scheme of the rest of the trilogy.

Is the magic gone forever? “Mother of Tears” is another manic, shrill misfire from an over-the-hill filmmaker. I bet all those fanboys begging for the third part of the trilogy are sorry now. [Grade: D]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2004-2005)

15. The Card Player
Il cartaio

“The Card Player” isn’t a terrible film but is very listless. If it wasn’t for a key factor, I suspect it would’ve fallen apart completely. The movie starts with a striking opening sequence, one shot with light blues that has a nice Argento feel. Immediately afterwards, the plot gets rolling. These are good things.

Soon afterwards, the seams begin to show. First off, the film is badly dubbed. The lips match up but the voices sound like something out of an old AIP dub. Secondly, the biggest issue of the movie is that far too much of it is composed of people sitting around and watching/playing virtual poker. Which is boring, even if you like on-line poker, and even more so if you have no experience or understanding of the game. (*Points to self.*) Cards get clicked on, the intentionally, I hope, cheesy graphics flash, and we see a close-up of the struggling girl’s face. This repeats at least three times. So the major device of the film comes off as boring, which is perhaps why the overall film feels so half-hearted.

Another problem is the almost complete lack of blood. We see the box cutter waved in front of the camera and then the girl goes limp. Why, Dario? Why are you, of all the filmmakers in the world, holding back on the gore? The goriest sequences are all postmortem examination of bodies, which certainly don’t have the intensity you associate with Argento.

Simonetti brings in another score but even it is off balanced. The main theme is pretty decent but far too much of the music sounds like bad Europop techno. Some computer sounds are incorporated in, which only reinforces the cheesy feel.

The story also has issues. There’s a pretty big plot revelation towards the end of the film that makes very little sense. Spoiler alert: How can the murders be pre-recorded? How would the killer know if he would win the game or not? How do you account for the scene where the girl escapes? It’s sloppy writing and just doesn’t make any sense. The movie is paced like an old seventies cop show, which drags the entire flick down.

Chief among the few things that make the film work at all are the main two actors. Stefania Rocca gives a very good performance. She has an enchanting charm that makes her a joy to watch. Even that is somewhat spoiled by her character’s background, concerning her father’s past, that mostly comes out of nowhere and is brought up messily near the end. Liam Cunningham as the male lead is also good. His arc as an alcoholic cop is clichéd but the actor does decently with the material he’s given. The final fate of that character is also one of the standout scenes in the film. The two actor’s romantic subplot isn’t one of the great romantic subplots in Argento’s film but it does work. I also like the singing, dancing coroner. The scene where Stefania is assaulted in her home generates some suspense as does the climatic moments on the train tracks. And, if nothing else, Argento continues the tradition of his killers getting cool deaths themselves.

The reveal of said killer is clumsy and the very last scene is completely confusing and arbitrary. “The Card Player” feels lifeless and awkward. It’s just a really off day for the director... One that’s been on-going for about a decade now, I guess. [Grade: C]

16. Do You Like Hitchcock?
Ti piace Hitchcock?

How big of an influence on Argento is Hitchcock, really? Yes, both directors share a similar love and fascination for voyeurism. And “Psycho” was undoubtedly a huge influence on Argento’s career, but you could really say that for every horror director of the last three decades. Argento’s sensibility have always seem far more European to me, influenced more by the surrealism of the sixties' New Wave. The most obvious Hitchcockian element to Argento’s film is the use (overuse?) of the sweeping steady-cam and other inventive camera angles, something that could just as much be attribute to any other number of directors.

But, whatever, anyway, Dario made a straight-up homage to Alfred Hitchcock. (Or he made a Brian DePalma movie. Zing!) The movie name drops “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” gratuitously, while also liberally referencing “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” and “Family Plot.” In a way the movie is less in the style of Hitchcock and more uses his films as plot elements.

The best thing about “Do You Like Hitchcock?” is how much it feels like Argento. Yes, it’s shot on the same digital film stock as his last few films and lacks the body and deep colors of classic film stock. However, Argento seems to be actively striving to reclaim his classic style, the intimate intensity. He doesn’t completely succeed but you can tell that he’s at least trying.

The attack on Sasha’s mother is the best example. Its focus on blood on a window reminds me a great deal of “Susipria” and its opening moments. The bright red blood doesn’t look as good on this film stock. While the movie is surprisingly free of “Psycho” references, the moment Giulio is attacked in the bathtub is another highlight of the film.

Another Argento trademark, aside from the rickety old elevator (which, sadly, no one is decapitated in), is the romantic subplot that drives much of the action of the film. I swear, if it wasn’t for all the murder and evisceration, Argento would’ve made a pretty decent romantic comedy director. Elio Germano and Chirara Conit do have pretty good chemistry, even if the gap between hotness of girlfriend and boyfriend is pretty wide. Elio Germano’s nerdiness does get in the way a few times, but I say it’s a good performance. Elisabetta Rocchetti and Cristina Rocchetti exist more as eye-candy then anything else… Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone else notice that Argento is seriously becoming a dirty old man? An early sex scene almost feels like something out of some softcore skin flick. And, to think, this was actually made for Italian television.

The opening flashback sequence has little to do with the rest of the movie but I like it. It feels like a very personal moment from Argento, like something he himself could have experienced as a child. The direction is fairly subtle, with a number of close-ups being the main flamboyances. Pino Donaggio’s score is a little overdone at times but appropriately Herman-esque.

“Do You Like Hitchcock?” is far from a great film but it does represent something of a return to form for Argento. It’s more satisfying then most of his disappointing recent output. [Grade: B-]

Friday, March 23, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2001)

14. Sleepless

“Sleepless” is a blatant attempt by Argento to recapture the magic. It’s an old fashion giallo. The excellent opening theme, provided by a reunited-strictly-for-the-purpose-of-writing-this-score Goblin, certainly made me feel good about things. The long opening sequence of a hooker rejecting her john, being rejected by her john, jumping on a train, discovering some creepy stuff, and finally being chased and killed is suspenseful. When the attacked woman bleeds all over a window, rain water running down on the outside, you honestly think Argento maybe got it back.

The plot mostly concerns a retired police detective, played by Max von Sydow, and the victim of a serial killer teaming up to solve a new string of murders in a case that was thought to have been solved twenty years ago. The story is one of the few times Argento actually seems to be handling a genuine theme. “Sleepless” is about aging and maturation.

Max von Sydow is very good as the old detective, somebody whose memory is shaky and feels increasingly out-of-place in today’s high tech world. Detective Moretti only has one real friend, his pet parrot, and gets involved in the murders only out of a sense of responsibility to Giacomo, a young boy who's mother was murdered years ago. As he delves deeper into the mystery, Moretti’s memory comes back and his life seems to be exciting again. Sydow is maybe a bit too jovial for the macabre material but it’s a fun performance. The character exits the film before the end and, when he’s gone, so goes a lot of the movie’s energy.

While Moretti comes to accept his age, Giacomo is returning to his home town and childhood friends in order to put old demons to rest. Stefano Dionisi’s performance isn’t great but he’s not bad by any means and makes for a decent lead. He has good chemistry with Sydow. The scenes of the two of them sleuthing together prove to be the most entertaining moments in the film.

The story has a few interesting angles to it. The primary suspect for the murders back in the 1980s is both a dwarf and an author of giallo novels. (Shades of “Tenebre,” perhaps?) While both of these elements are potentially interesting, neither are really followed up on. The killer cuts out a paper animal at each murder and seems to be taking his inspiration from a bizarre, morbid nursery rhyme about slaughtering farm animals. (Written by Asia Argento, too.) In addition to the animal motifs, there’s a creepy abandoned house and some mommy issues too.

The murder mystery is fine but it’s honestly the characters that make this one worth watching. Aside from the relationship of the detective and the son, Giacomo has a group of friends, including a best friend and a teenage lover that is now dating some older asshole. While the female love interest isn’t developed too widely, the actress is likable. Generally speaking, I found the movie to have a bit more character and heart then I expect from Dario in this period of his career.

But what about the trademark Argento style? The opening murder certainly promises a lot, but the style department is where “Sleepless” really lacks. There’s some nice, prowling shoots of the outsides of houses but there’s not much in way of sweeping cinematography. The second murder sequence, which is not actually the second kill in the movie, works well enough, making good uses of darkened corridors and a ski mask with shinning eyes. The victim being drowned also recalls a similar scene in “Deep Red.” My favorite kill involves a long tracking shot of feet passing by, before we see our victim’s dangling feet, followed by her decapitated head.

Somebody gets murdered with a clarinets, which is creative and nasty, but the gore use here reminds me too much of how the gore was used in “Phantom of the Opera.” A sleazy cab driver is stabbed in the head with a pen and a girl has her face smashed into a wall. While both of these kills probably read great on paper, their execution lacks a certain something. There’s too much focus on the fake blood and latex gore. The camera seems to linger on the make-up effects, instead of on the intimate terror of the attack like in Argento’s best film.

While Goblin’s main theme is excellent, the rest of the score is a bit pedestrian. After Max von Sydow leaves the film, the story begins to flounder. Everything is wrapped up in a confusing jumble of double crosses and reveals. An important character detail, crucial to figuring out the killer’s identity, is revealed at the last minute with no lead-up or prior clues. Moreover, the final confrontation between victims and killer, traditionally a strong moment, lacks tension.

Despite having strong characters and a decent mystery going for it, “Sleepless” drops the ball in the last act. Argento is either unable or unwilling to create the same sort of visually beautiful, intense sequences of horror that he once did, despite his best efforts. [Grade: C+]

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1998)

13. The Phantom of the Opera
Il fantasma dell'opera

This is a strange film. It is strange by Argento standards. It is strange by the standards set by “Phantom of the Opera” adaptations, which includes a glam rock musical and a Satanic slasher. This is a film that starts with rats raising a baby (Instead of, just, you know, eating it) and goes from there.

First off, the Phantom isn’t deformed, scarred, or wearing a mask. He does however have an unexplained psychic domain over the opera house. Julian Sands plays him as a shy outcast, a sincere lover, a sexual deviant, and a mindless killing machine. The script never settles on one characterization.

The Phantom isn’t the only character radically altered. Asia Argento plays Christine Daae as a wide-eyed, blank-minded, screeching princess. When the Phantom’s possessive side begins to show, she erupts into a petty screaming match, like a selfish teenage brat. Christine decides she hates the Phantom and must love Raoul, a crushed wimp with no personality, who she was platonic friends with just days before. Asia spends the latter half of the film screaming her head off and wearing ridiculous hats. It doesn’t help that the movie lingers on her obviously dubbed singing. Christine is also apparently the kind of girl who fucks on the first date, as the Phantom is humping her doggy-style (rat-style?) not long after meeting her. Near the end, when someone calls her “the Phantom’s whore!,” the audience isn’t given much reason to disagree.

The movie is unusually vulgar. Early on, a couple plots to steal the Phantom’s treasure, but not before the girl gets naked. As soon as they enter the caverns, he brutally kills them, impaling the dude on a stalagmite and biting the girl’s tongue off. There’s an unnecessary sequence where Raoul’s brother takes him to a Turkish bath, full of grotesquely fat naked people. When the Phantom threatens the Opera’s primadonna, he gropes her breasts for no reason. Of course there’s the scene where the Phantom undresses and lets rats crawl around on his body. Thankfully, the scene cuts away just before he takes off his pants, but the proceeding bestiality is more then implied.

Gore is to be expected from Argento, but kill scenes are placed without rhyme or reasons. The film opens with a guy getting cut in half off-screen, in circumstances that are completely impossible. The above murder of the couple is barely mentioned again. There’s an extended sequence where a dirty old man tries to bribe a young ballerina with some chocolate, before the Phantom tears his gut open. However, you’re not really sure what’s happening, since the camera just focuses on red meat and fake blood rolling around. None of these murders have any impact on the story.

The film is rife with other special effects failures. In the opening, we see a fluffy animatronic rat. There’s a gratuitous shot of a very fake CGI fly. And then there’s the chandelier drop, surely the center-piece of any “Phantom” adaptation, but spectacle is ruined by the presentation. The Phantom, shirtless with his long silver hair blowing in the wind, looking like he’s in a hair metal video, smashes the chandelier’s holding mechanism with a hammer. Obviously CGI cracks appear in the ceiling and an obvious model crashes down on obvious dummies. The scene is punctuated with a horrible blue screen shot of Carlotta running away from a falling statue. After the statue hits her, she gets up and coughs white smoke.

The what-the-fuck moments pile up quickly. White light shoots out of a crack in the wall. The Phantom sits on the roof of the opera house, with a very fake CGI city behind him, when he has a vivid vision of naked rat-men squirming in a mouse trap. This is followed with a vision of Christine dancing in a black-mesh outfit that most definitely does not fit the time period.

But no what-the-fuck moment is what-the-fuck-ier then when the Rat Catcher and his dwarf sidekick build a weird rat killing device. It looks like a roller coaster cart crossed with a jet ski. It has street sweeper brushes that push the rats into some vacuum tubes. They spin around in a rotisserie oven before popping out of the top, where the dwarf grabs the bodies. There’s also a giant swinging blade that serves no purpose. The Rat Catcher takes a rough turn and puts on the brakes but just produces bad CGI spraks. The cart careens off a cliff and crashes. The CGI blade reveals its purpose by dramatically decapitating the dwarf. This scene is utterly inexplicable. If Argento himself flies to my house and explains why this had to be in the movie, I still won’t understand.

By the time you see an opera attendee sitting in the audience, wearing a cast and bandages, you think Argento is fucking with you, that this is meant to be absurd. But then Julian Sands literally flies onto the stage and we get an earnest climax. The Phantom goes down like the Terminator, taking far more bullets and stabs to his body then is humanly possible. Asia’s screaming face transfers to a wandering, unstable view of the opera house auditorium, as the end credits play.

Just how the hell did the genius who made “Deep Red” create this disaster? Argento’s direction is stale and uninteresting when it isn’t hilariously inept, like when the camera ping-pongs between two faces. Argento also manages to make a real cave look like a cheesy set.

About the only thing I can recommend is Ennio Morricone’s score. While it’s rather bland over all, the main theme, “Sighs and Sighs,” is beautiful. It perfectly captures the loneliness and unrequited love central to the Phantom character. It deserves a much better movie.

I’ve got nothing else to say. This is a complete and utter train wreck from beginning to end. [Grade: D-]

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1996)

12. The Stendhal Syndrome
La sindrome di Stendhal

“The Stendhal Syndrome” isn’t typical Argento but, unlike many of the atypical films that would follow, it’s not bad Argento either. It’s far more psychological then his usual output, while also being much darker. While his previous films approach violence in a theatrical fashion, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is a gritty, nasty picture. It’s an uncomfortable film because, obviously, all of the rape in it. For a filmmaker that has such an obviously… Problematic relationship with women, to see him approach the vilest of violation has potential to be… Off-putting. (Especially with his daughter in the role of victim.) For what it’s worth, Argento never seems to be getting off on the violence. His depiction is honest and unflinching but never eroticized.

While Asia Argento has proven herself to be a good actress over the years, her performances in her father’s films are highly uneven. Here she is given a juicy, dramatic role. Her character undergoes a gauntlet of emotional trauma, first having her mind assaulted by the title syndrome, before being physically assaulted (several times, in drawn-out, disturbing sequences) by the film’s antagonist. Thoroughly broken by the experience, Asia spends the second half of the film traumatized. Instead of descending into weepy depression, the film seems more interested in exploring her distressed, distorted psyche. A sequence that especially stands out is when she turns the table on her horny, pushy on-off boyfriend.

After she meets and falls for a new guy, the film goes in a sadly predictable direction. The killing starts again, you see. Despite a somewhat disappointing conclusion, Asia gives one of her best performances here, something recognizable even under a lousy dub.

As the nineties continued, seemed Dario became less interested in using his traditional style. “The Stendhal Syndrome” is definitely less stylish then his last film, but there are some arresting visual moments. The titular condition is brought to life nicely, despite some awkward, ugly CGI. The ocean of a painting comes sweeping up to Asia and she falls into it, absorbed into the art. Later, another on-set of the condition is cleverly used to give us a little insight into our protagonist’s history and the plot. In my favorite scene, Asia literally steps into a painting of a waterfall, letting it wash over her. (There’s also a bizarre, CGI shot of a pill being swallowed that is there for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.)

The movie isn’t without its suspenseful moments either. In my favorite moment of old-style Argento suspense, his camera roams a room full of giant sculptures, of leering faces and Greek statues, suggesting that anyone and anything could be behind them. In another scene, Asia flees from her attacker, who could be right behind her.

The movie certainly doesn’t skimp on the blood but instead focuses on the viciousness of the attacks. While this is kind of disappointing, it fits the grim tone of the film. The scene where Asia is kidnapped and held captive in the attacker’s lair for days is certainly unnerving and disquieting. The movie seems to wrap up most of its plot during the halfway point. The film introduces a new love interest for Asia which works okay but, since the killing has to continue, there’s only so many ways for the story to resolve itself.

To see a film that had been challenging and intelligent sink into formula like this is pretty disheartening. But, for the first hour and a half, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is an effective, nasty piece of work. It lacks the style of classic Argento, but makes up for it by being a successful thriller in its own right. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1990-1993)

10. Two Evil Eyes (with George A. Romero)
Segment: The Black Cat

Edgar Allen Poe invented the modern horror story, of course. His work being adapted by two of the biggest names in the genre was an exciting prospect. “Two Evil Eyes” should have been a real blast for horror fans. Instead, it’s rarely spoken of today and is overlooked in both Romero and Argento’s career.

Following George Romero’s somewhat bland take on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemir,” a shot of frenzied Argento horror would have done the film good. His take on “The Black Cat” isn’t quite that, but it isn’t half-bad either. If nothing else, his half features a bit of the ol’ Italian style. There are a number of cool shots. The camera is attached to the swinging blade of a pendulum, a swinging noose, and a falling set of keys. More then once, the point-of-view prowls around the floor, like a cat. There’s more then a few sequences of roaming, sliding cameras. It’s not quite classic Argento but, in the post-“Opera” era, I’ll take what I can get.

Beyond the cinematography, there’s other elements here. Midway through the film, there’s an odd, extended dream sequence, featuring dwarves, pagan dancing, Renn-Fair style dress, and eventually an impalement. More then any other adaptation of “The Black Cat,” the fate that befalls the protagonist seems to be directly the result of his cruelty towards the titular feline. The score has some child choir singing in it too, even if it’s mostly unlike your typical Argento score.

What’s really odd about this half of the movie is its main performance. Harvey Kietel is a great actor and has given many fine performances over the years. But there’s something very off with him here. In the role of a crime scene photographer who proves to be very twisted himself, Kietel is frequently very flat. Flat in an off-putting way that, when it comes time for him to cover up his crime, leaves little doubt he’s guilty. When Harvey isn’t speaking in a creepy, flat monotone, he’s yelling and swearing. The script has him doing odd things like making a fake car passenger out of a large photograph and some paper and then using it like a puppet, adding to the off-center mood. The only time Kietel works in the film’s favor is when he’s delivering the brief narrations, which reminded me of the sinister opening narration of “Tenebre.”

Maybe the odd performance was just the result of an Italian-speaking director working with English speaking actors, because Madeleine Potter gives a strange performance too as Kietel’s often abused girlfriend. The only self-assured actor in the movie is John Amos in a small part as a police detective.

Neither half of “Two Evil Eyes” is particularly gory, though both segments have brief moments of blood. While there’s a clever murder and a bathtub full of bloody water, the real focus here is on post-mortem crime scenes. We get to see the nasty aftermaths of two gruesome murders. The first is a gory take on “The Pit and the Pendulum” (really, more pendulum then pit) while the second involves some improper use of dental tools. It’s pretty gross and was one of the first signs of Argento obsession with dead bodies.

“Two Evil Eyes” is fairly forgettable and doesn’t live up to its potential. Argento’s “Black Cat” is definitely the superior segment of the two but even it is mostly a trifle. The film seems to have been more a half-serious lark then a legit attempt to adapt Poe.
The Black Cat: [B-]
Film as a whole: [C+]

11. Trauma

“Trauma” wants to be “Profondo rosso.” It plays like a patchwork of Argento’s films, taking elements from as far back as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” to as recent as “Opera,” but it obviously wants to emulate “Deep Red” more then any other. The film shares far too many elements for it to be coincidence. The opening surreal scene of childhood toys, the use of animal motifs, a psychic talking about the killer, the romantic subplot, the presence of a curious child and a creepy old house, the way a tiny detail becomes a serious clue later, how visual memory can be misleading, the convoluted way the killings are investigated, how the mystery seems to resolve itself before really resolving itself, even the identity of the killer and way said killer is dispatched are curiously similar to that earlier film. Many of these are the reoccurring idiosyncrasies of the filmmaker but I doubt Dario didn’t intend the similarities. (Indeed, according to the excellent commentary track on the Anchor Bay DVD, the movie was almost called "Deep Blue.")

“Trauma” is frustrating that way. It’s Argento out of balance. The anorexia subplot, though clearly a personal subject for the filmmaker, doesn’t really go anywhere. It seems to me that the disease is something Dario wanted to tackle and instead of building an entire story around it, he inserted the concept into a giallo. Disconcertingly skinny young women show up several times throughout. It’s obviously meant to have subtext but I don’t see how it connects.

The affair between Chris Rydell and the anchorwoman seems to be setting up something that never happens. (We at least get a gratuitous sex scene out of it.) Pino Donaggio’s Hitchcockian score is nice at times but overly whimsical at others. The psychotropic berry scene is thrown in seemingly for the hell of it. The story wobbles in the last act and the main character’s drug relapse is really odd.

This is all the more frustrating because “Trauma” works really well at times. The séance scene is great, though it feels more Soavi then Argento. The steady-camera is fantastically used throughout. The way it swoops around the environment, like in the hospital or the murder scene house, is simple gorgeous, classic Argento. The whole movie looks beautiful on DVD, the rich blues and black coming through for the first time. The scene on the lake is my favorite, its dreaminess emphasized by the haunting musical theme.

The electric garrote is a unique murder weapon. Its use becomes more graphic as the film goes on, more being revealed each time. The first few deaths lack punch but each consecutive death is more intense. I love the head talking after decapitation, such a surreal sight. Tom Savini’s gore is top of line.

Brad Dourif’s death scene starts out fantastically but ends with laughable digital effects, totally breaking the mood. The little boy subplot pays off excellently. The closet scene is cracking intense, Nicolas’ origin is hypnotic, and the final death almost tops “Deep Red’s” climax. The murder mystery admittedly kept me guessing.

Chris Rydell and Asia Argento both give solid performance and have believable chemistry. (And, yes, she does have an underage nude scene, filmed by her dad. I don’t want to entertain the implications of that.) Piper Laurie is naturally operatic in her part. Nobody does over-the-top horror mom like her.

“Trauma” is grossly uneven. It’s so fucking good at times and then so out-of-shape at others. I can’t quite decide how much I like it or how disappointed I am. It's all down-hill from here. [Grade: B-]

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1987)

9. Opera
Terror at the Opera

Like “Tenebre” and “Phenomena” before it, “Opera” shows Argento evolving pass the giallo framework into creating films that aren’t quite slashers, aren’t quite supernatural horror films, but something distinctly Italian and wholly Argento. It’s a film that trades heavily in Dario’s beloved themes and obsessions. Childhood flashbacks, the killer’s damaged mind being shown visually, voyeurism, psycho-sexual frustration and obsession, architecture, animals, there’s even a precocious kid thrown in pretty randomly… Despite all of these returning concepts and images, the movie never feels derivative or tired.

First off, “Opera” is a gorgeous film. On a strictly visual level, it’s Argento’s strongest film since “Deep Red.” His camera glides, runs, floats, spins, peers, and prowls around the opera house, the protagonist’s apartment building, and just about every setting in the film. The camera voyeuristically probes the character’s private places, suggesting the killer’s presence and building suspense simply with a dolly pan. When the killer appears and attacks, the intimate framing and frenzied camera movement builds the film’s tension up to a fever pitch. The movie’s color palette is also fantastically atmospheric. While the opera house always seems to shimmer and sparkle, the dark is a cool blue. Many shots of the film are like a beautiful, half-remembered nightmare. There’s even a brief splash of “Suspiria”-like color.

Finally, during the film’s climax, the camera takes the point of view of a group of ravens as they swoop around the opera house auditorium, diving down at the audience. It’s such a fantastic sequence and the way it’s shot elevates it into one of my favorites. I’d recommend the film just based on its visual strength. -If the stylistic direction is the main reason people watch Argento films, the second reason are the fantastic murders. And, man, does “Opera” deliver in that regard. The murders start slow. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the killer is interrupted in his private opera box by a stagehand. The film seems to speed up as the murderer strikes at the man, pushing the back of his head repeatedly into a coat rack hook. It’s not an overly gory scene but it does display the ferocity that powers the film.

The first major kill of the film involves a big ass knife being shoved into the throat of a screaming man, so you actually see the blade extending out through his open mouth. The victim falls to the floor and the killer slashes him into a bloody mess, while a speed metal song blares on the soundtrack, informing the viewer that there is no escape, ramping up the viciousness and terror of the attack.

The second attack is more stalk then slash and has a long build-up. Two women discover an important piece of evidence and the intimate camera and cramped framing makes it seem like the killer will appear at any minute. When the murderer does show up, he quickly finishes the one girl with a pair of scissors, but not before she swallows the evidence. Later Argento would properly revel in the gore as the man cuts her open to retrieve the incriminating necklace, but all the slicing is kept off-screen and the sound design causes the audience to imagine something much worse then what the effects team could ever cook up.

The last truly operatic murder occurs about halfway through and it ranks very highly on my list of all time favorites. Trapped in her spooky apartment, Betty and her best friend, played by Dario’s ex-wife Daria Nicoladdi, try to find a way to escape without running afoul of the killer who may or may not be in the room with them. Daria Nicoladdi crotches down at a door peephole, convinced the man outside is the mad slasher. After a few minutes of trying to convince her he’s a cop, by showing his badge and his revolver, the man sticks the gun barrel through the peephole and fires. In close-up, we see the bullet blow through the glass and blasts out Nicoladdi’s head. The bullet then destroys the phone our protagonist was about to call for help on. While all of this might sound over-the-top gory, only one scene really piles on the blood. “Opera” isn’t the gory fireworks of “Tenebre.” It focuses more on suspense and terror.

Maybe the most ingenious act of “Opera” is the way it blatantly puts the audience in the character’s seat and intentionally plays up the inherent voyeurism of the horror genre. Throughout the film, our protagonist is captured by the killer, tied up, and forced to watch the murders of her friends and love ones. The horror doesn’t stop there, because the killer tapes a row of needles under her eyes, forcing her to watch completely. It’s a brilliantly sadistic device and does a great job of involving the viewer in the action.

This brings us to the actual plot of the film. When the lead actress in a high-tech production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” is hit by a car, young, naive, inexperienced Betty is brought on to play Lady Macbeth. Of course, a mysterious man is obsessed with her and soon the murder starts. The story actually works pretty well, pumping along steadily for the first ninety minutes of the 107 minute run-time. “Phantom of the Opera” is obviously an influence, what with a psychotic killer being obsessed with a talented, young soprano and the cursed nature of that Scottish play is brought up a few times.

One of the most interesting points of the plot is that the production of “Macbeth” is being directed by a young horror film director. The staging is radical and new wave, with lasers, a giant floating skull overhead, and a post-nuclear war inspired setting. It brings an interesting personal subtext to the film, since the character of Nigel is obviously inspired by Argento himself. (Dario himself has expressed a desire to direct opera before.) And it’s not a wholly flattering portrayal, since the director is kind of an asshole and even a suspect at one point.

We some times get a peek into the killer’s head, literally, as we see his brain twitching with the murderous impulse. The heroine has reoccurring images from childhood and we get flashbacks to a young woman being both sexually and physically menaced by the masked man. All of this builds up the killer’s motivation and back-story, which is still muffled and more or less just a pretense for the kills. Despite a few red herrings, the identity of the murderer isn’t too hard to figure out just from process of elimination.

The movie’s biggest problem is its lead character. Despite people she’s presumably close to being brutally killed before her very eyes, Betty never shows much concern, trauma, or any sign she’s really upset by this. Literally moments after the first murder occurs, she’s sitting in a car, calmly, idly chatting. Nor does Betty or the director ever decide to cease the opera production, despite the murderous rage it obviously inspires. Our protagonist’s dead, slutty mother is occasionally referred to and it’s, obviously, a plot point.

All of this builds up to the movie’s second biggest problem. After the killer is revealed in spectacular fashion and has an intense confrontation with his favorite opera singer, the story seems to have resolves itself and wrapped up all the loose ends. But we then get a gratuitous epilogue set in the Alps, a psycho killer homage to “The Sound of Music.” The story obviously isn’t done yet and we get a few more uninspired kills before Betty and the killer have their real final confrontation. It all feels rushed, uninspired, and tacked on. Dario is usually really good at giving his killers spectacularly gory send-offs, but not here. The final scene, of our heroine freeing a lizard trapped under a stick, seems to symbolize her being free of her mother’s legacy and emotional baggage. Which is fine, and might have worked, had she actually shown any real empathy or concern throughout the film. Ultimately, this sloppy ending brings the otherwise fantastic “Opera” down a notch.

Despite that, “Opera” is a spellbinding, visually beautiful, suspenseful thriller. Some people dislike the heavy metal on the soundtrack, but I think it actually works, powering the violence. It works as a nice contrast to the soft, atmospheric Simonetti and Brian Eno score. “Opera” would, sadly, be the end of Argento’s unassailable eighties run. It’s the last time his classic style is really apparent. [Grade: A-]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1985)

8. Phenomena

“Phenomena” is Argento unleaded. It is a mixing bowl of ideas, some of them undeveloped, some of them odder then others. Essentially, “Phenomena” represents an attempt by Dario to combine the elements of his supernatural horror films with some of his giallo trademarks. And there’s a monkey too.

Despite being maybe the most wild thing Argento had done up to this point, “Phenomena” actually takes quite a bit of time to get going. It opens with a fantastic sequence, featuring Dario’s other daughter Fiore, that takes great advantage of the beautiful Swedish forest location and waterfalls. It’s a peek at the horrors to come later. After that, the action switches to an all-girls school in the mountains (Something of a reoccurring theme for Dario?) and the pace slows way down for quite a while.

Here we meet our protagonist, Jennifer Corvino, played by Jennifer Connelly. The daughter of a famous actor, she soon starts sleepwalking and discovers she has the psychic ability to communicate with insects. It’s not a great performance, as Connelly can be a bit flat at times, but she projects the same wide-eyed innocence that Jessica Harper did in “Suspiria,” imbuing her with a sense of wonder and, later, terror. I also can’t help but wonder if the character is another personal, self-reflective element for the director. She’s the frequently alienated daughter of a celebrity. I suspect if Asia had been old enough at the time, she would have played the lead, and no doubt brought a lot of personal history to the part. Maybe I’m reading too much into it…

The connection between death and bugs is firmly established, especially when Donald Pleasence and his helper monkey shows up. Pleasence plays the part in a wheelchair, with a not too convincing Scottish accent, and I suspect he was sloshed the entire time. However, the scenes of him and Jennifer together have a sense of warm familiarity. The actors have legitimate chemistry together and their scenes are easily the highlight of the early half of the picture.

The chimp gets a lot of flack. How much you can accept the helper monkey will probably dictate how much you like the film. For some, it’s pushes thing to far into the realm of silly. For myself, it’s a surreal touch that goes with the fairy-tale-gone-wrong tone.

Argento’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag. There are two murders, involving a composite spear, a fantastic horror movie murder weapon, and both are quite captivating. The dream sequences, of rushing white hallways, are hypnotic. However, most of the school scenes are not as creatively shot as you’d hope, with a bit of a hohum approach. These early scenes do build atmosphere though, so I guess its okay.

After Pleascene exits the film, the mystery element chugs along, somewhat draggingly. Good scenes of Conelly playing girl detective and investigating old houses are interrupted by shots of someone’s lawyer arriving at the airport. As things build towards the end, Daria Nicolodi’s performance begins to shine. She’s uber-bitchy in this and plays the part of the evil old witch, metaphorically speaking, with relish.

The final act makes it apparent that everything that came before was just build-up for the finale, which is a very intense, delightfully lurid cavalcade of grotesqueness. Maggots, caves, people chained up in dungeons, straight razor wielding chimps, pools of human viscera, a deformed child, decapitations… How could a horror fan not love that? Shocks are built upon shocks, leaving the audience completely unprepared for each ensuing scare. The entire last act is too crazy not to work. It is so good, it really makes up for the slow start.

The music here is interesting. Simonetti’s rushing score is fantastic, dreamy and rich. A few heavy metal songs are also injected rather unceremoniously. Though you can’t bash early Iron Maiden or Motorhead, its use is more distracting then effective.

“Phenomena” isn’t perfect, but when you get right down to it, it delivers on the scares and what more could you ask from a horror film? It’s Dario’s grandest film but it is perhaps his most gulgnol-est. It’s also a personal favorite of mine. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1982)

7. Tenebre

“Tenebre” is self-reflective Argento. It’s the Italian auteur at his most personal. The film is about a writer of violent murder mysteries, criticized as misogynistic, deviant, and overly violent, who then becomes the target of a vicious serial killer, a razor blade slasher who has been cutting through the beautiful women of Rome. “Tenebre” is a reaction to Argento being accused of those very things. Considering the ending, Dario seems to be suggesting that people who create art revolving around dark acts have a great amount of darkness deep within their own minds. The shadows of the title refer to the ever present shadows of the mind. But this film certainly won’t dissuade anyone on Argento’s attitudes about women.

Honestly, the director might just have injected some of his feelings at the time into a standard giallo story. Either way, the film is a fascinating study of a writer’s relation with his work while also functioning as an exuberantly scary and gory horror film.

“Tenebre” is easily the best of his post-seventies output and one of his best overall. Argento’s style is on full display and this film feature maybe his best camera work. In an absolutely incredible sequence, the camera, suspended from a specialized crane, starts at one side of an apartment building, cranes up and around the building, and over to the other side, all in one long continuous shot. It’s completely amazing.

Argento’s camera pulls other tricks as well. The killer is given several POV shots, the most impressive of which involves the intoxicating choice of holding a fire axe directly in front of the camera as it runs along. (The killer switching from a razor blade to an axe as his prime murder weapon isn’t just a hint towards the killer’s reveal, but also Argento seemingly commenting on how impartial a murder weapon a razor blade honestly is.)

Ironically, considering the title, a bright white, slightly washed out look dominates the film, lending a sterile atmosphere of deeply urban isolation to the proceedings. The movie has one of the most intense sequences of Argento’s career, the scene of the girl being chased by the most persistent Doberman in film history. A number of visual tricks are pulled off near the end, including the great “hiding man” gag. (Which was later blatantly reappropriated by Brian DePalma for “Raising Cain.”)

The film doesn’t skimp on the gore any. The opening murder makes the connection between media and crime literal, but having the pages of the lurid murder novel shoved down the victim’s throat. The camera movement dominates the murder of the lesbians but still stands as one of the most cruelly eroticized set of kills in Argento’s career. A fantastic axe to the head is on display, as well as an intense strangulation, before the gore builds to a fever pitch near the end, in an amazing moment of gore and suspense, one of the best kills ever put to film. And then the end, that final death? Oh, it’s so good, so crimson, so brutal. Gorehounds won’t walk away from “Tenebre” disappointed.

The music, a partial Goblin reunion, is transcendent and a great deal of the film’s success belongs to it. The main reprise reaches dark highs with its hypnotic beats. Its electronic organ brings feelings of gothic horror, while its heavy drums suggest the inherent savagery of man, and its electronic groove sets the tone in the modern age. It’s also just a badass song, probably one of the rare horror movie themes you could dance too.

The movie is also Argento’s most erotic output at the time. The reoccurring dreams of the girl on the beach are not only a hint to the movie’s reveal, but also recognizes the theme of aberrant sexuality. Twisted sexuality is often a scapehound in the origin of horror movie maniacs but this film earns it. Disturbed sexual repression and frustration runs deep, like the titular shadows, always bubbling beneath the surface, always hiding at the edges of our mind.

Moreover, “Tenebre” is a captivating murder mystery, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing up to the end. Anthony Franciosa is very good in the lead role, as an analytical man. Daria Nicolodi is also very good as his romantic interest. While the romantic subplot barely features at all, and Daria is obviously dubbed by an American actress, she is still given plenty of things to do. John Saxon brings his sleazy best to a small role while Giuliano Gemma is hilarious as the wildly incompetent police detective.

If you love a good giallo, you’re unlikely to find a better one then “Tenebre.” It’s Dario Argento at his very best, a highlight of the man’s career. [Grade: A]

Monday, March 12, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1980)

6. Inferno

“Suspiria” was, in many ways, the break-out film for Argento, at least in this country. “Inferno” was not only a sequel to the director’s most successful film but was also produced by a big-budget film studio, 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being too weird for the studio brass. “Inferno” sat on the shelf for six years before being crapped out on video.

And the movie is pretty weird. If you thought “Suspiria” was out-there, this movie will probably prove indecipherable. There’s no shortage of strange imagery, but what’s really odd about “Inferno” is there’s no real story to speak of. We are introduced to what we assume is our main character, a young woman reading a book about the mythology of the Three Mothers. The film is set in New York, the supposed home of the youngest mother, Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Shadows. The girl begins to suspect she is living in the home of Mater Tenebrarum and goes about investigating. After frightening encounters in an underwater ball room, the girl is violently murdered. The Hitchcock-style protagonist switch sets us up with the girl’s brother, Mark, just back from Rome. He investigates her murder, stumbling onto a supernatural conspiracy involving architecture, witches, violent murder, a mute old man, and the apartment’s plumbing.

That might seem somewhat straight-forward but doesn’t explain the film’s off-pace structure. We are introduced to a number of characters. Fifteen minutes in, we meet Mark’s friend, Sara, who, for reasons never well explained, investigates the Three Mothers herself. After a frightening encounter in a creepy old library, she meets up with a random dude and is then violently killed. There’s the old man on crutches, who runs an antique shop in the building. Daria Nicolodi gets in her required appearance as a friend of the sister. There’s a grumpy butler, a female caretaker, a nurse, a mysterious beautiful woman. Most of the cast seems to exist solely to add to the film’s body count. Even the characters that appear to be involved in the witches’ coven fall victim. The movie almost plays like a series of vignettes, revolving around each personal investigation and the bloody death that follows. The stream-of-consciousness pacing is deliberate but doesn’t make “Inferno” the easiest film to follow.

Detractors of Argento have accused him of being all style and no substance. If there was ever a film that proved that statement, it’s “Inferno.” The messy plotting and thin characters are another sign of Argento’s disinterest in a traditional narrative. “Inferno” is all about the visuals and creating a unique, dream-like atmosphere. I’m not complaining. The movie is visually gorgeous.

The motifs of “Suspiria,” the colors and architecture, are carried over. However, while “Suspiria” was heavy on screaming, glam-rock Technicolor, “Inferno” instead opts for cool blues and purples. Shadows are obviously a visual theme of the movie, what with the antagonist being the master of them. The very deep blue shadows certainly make for a memorable atmosphere. When the titular inferno breaks out in the last act, it makes for a strong contrast against the previously established look.

The architectural theme of the movie is impressive as well. The majority of the film was shot on stage. If the colors set up a horror atmosphere where anything can happen, then the set design solidifies it. Certainly, the school in “Suspiria” was a location with a personality, but the apartment here seems so much more alive to me. If nothing else, “Inferno” is a beautiful film, a visual-fest for horror nerds.

Of course the movie is pretty. But what about the horror, son? “Inferno” is a mixed bag in that regard. Much like “Suspiria,” it’s got a great first ten minutes. It’s a long sequence involving a late-night swim through an underwater ball room. Yeah, why would somebody do that? But you don’t find yourself thinking that while watching because it’s such a wonderfully shot, surreal sequence… That leads up to a killer jump-scare.

Some fantastic moments follow. Mater Tenebreum’s agent either have hairy, clawed demonic hands or dress all in black. The first appearance of these agents are in a suspenseful sequence in a library, involving a shirt caught on a door. Sara’s dead body is discovered when it falls through a blue sheet, tearing it in half. There’s a pretty cool kill featuring a shattered window. The entire third act, when Mark encounters the Mother of Shadows, didn’t impress me on a first viewing but on my most recent viewing, at three o’clock in the morning, I found it surprisingly creepy. Mater Tenebrarum is certainly an intimidating figure, especially when she explodes out of a mirror as a green-boned spectre of death itself.

Not all the stand-out moments are horror-related. A minor plot-point is that the piping in the apartment allows sound to travel from room to room. In the best shot in the film, the camera goes inside the pipes and travels through the building.

But what about the sequences that don’t work? Sadly, “Inferno” has got some real head-scratchers. Cats show up all throughout the film and animals factor importantly into two murders. In one, a woman is attacked by a group of felines. Now, I know cats can be vicious, mean-spirited little fuckers. But, sorry Euro-horror filmmakers, they aren’t scary. The visuals of somebody getting kitties tossed at them by a stagehand just off-screen is comical, not frightening.

A character, midway through the film, gets fed up with all the cats and decides to drown a whole bag of them out in a lake. Yes, this shot features a beautiful silhouette skyline shot of New York City, but once our man gets to the water… His shouts of “They’re killing me!,” fake fuzzy looking rats, and a, frankly, utterly confounding conclusion, makes the whole sequence a joke.

Goblin took a break from scoring this one. Instead, prog-rock superstar Keith Emerson was brought in to provide the score. The synth-heavy music certainly has some silly moments, such as any of Emerson’s trademark bloops or bleeps. As our hero crawls into an underground tunnel towards the finale, a bombastic choral piece kicks in. While it’s definitely over the top, and the electronic organ hasn’t aged well, it is a very memorable musical moment. The score is serviceable, I’d say, and successful at times. But I can’t help but wonder what Goblin could have done with this material.

So, “Inferno” is a seriously mixed bag. It’s a beautiful film, with some fantastically executed scenes. It’s a film with a grab-bag, thrown-together plot that forges a mythology out of thin air and sticks a bunch of random characters together. Not even fantastic special effects, some provided by the late great Mario Bava, can save the movie’s most embarrassing bits. I’d still recommend it to adventurous horror fans. I think I even like it better then “Suspiria.” I’ll certainly take a chilling, bellowing, glowing grim reaper over a garbling, invisible, wrinkled old woman. [Grade: B]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1977)

5. Suspiria

“Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s first foray into supernatural horror, is by-far his most well-known and critically acclaimed film. Considering I’m such a huge dork for so many of the director’s films, you must think I love this one. Not so! If anything, I find “Suspiria” to be a bit on the overrated side.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film. Not at all. An Argento film is only as good as its murder sequences, and “Suspiria” has got two hefty ones. If the film has one major problem, it’s that it peaks too early. About ten minutes in, we find two characters in an apartment building with swirling, brightly colored, surreal architecture. A girl looks into a window and notices two yellow eyes staring at her from out of nowhere. Soon, a hairy, demonic arm explodes through the window and smashes the girl’s face into the glass. What follows is an incredibly furious murder that climaxes in a fashion both surreal and brutal. It’s one of the most startling sequences in a career full of them. Even somebody like me, who has self-identified as a non-fan of the film in the past, found myself thinking, “This is awesome!” A supernatural Argento film? How the hell can’t this work?

“Suspiria” was/is a deliberate homage to fairy tales. The central premise, a young girl finds herself in a dance school populated with witches, has a certain Hans Christian Anderson-edge to it. The story is set in the forests of central Germany, which was the setting for many strange fables. Furthermore, Argento originally wanted to cast the film with children. A couple of remnants of this plan are still evident in the final film, such as door knobs being placed up higher then usual. If anything though, Argento uses the deliberate fairy tale style as an excuse to make even less sense then usual.

One example of the dream-like mood at work here is the use of color. The color in this movie is crazy. Character’s faces are bathed in purple, blue, green, gold light, some times for no reason at all. It’s apparent early on that Argento is working over time to create a unique mood within the dance school walls. I think it’s fair to say the use of color is also far on the overdone side. Midway through the film, there’s a scene where a girl standing in a blue-lit hallway is knocked into a glass cabinet (Again with the shattering glass) and is suddenly bathed in bright red light. It’s almost comical. Moreover, and I can’t believe I didn’t catch this before, the crazy colors being layered on so thick has got to be a Mario Bava reference. It’s like Dario watched the antiques store scene from “Blood and Black Lace” and decided to do a feature length version. Now, Argento’s films have always featured surreal uses of color but I’m here to say that “Suspiria” takes it too far. Before the run-time is up, the effect goes from being dream-like to a little silly.

One of the film’s other intentional appeals to surrealism is the deliberately out-there set design. The school is a freaky looking place. Many of its hallways and rooms have deep red walls that invoke blood vessels and internal organs. The teacher’s main office has black and white illustrations for wall paper. (This, incidentally, is a plot point.) In one of the movie’s best visual moments, the girls are forced out of their rooms into the main hall, onto simple cots, white curtains separating them. The red background lights make the silhouettes cast through the curtains especially spooky and memorable. Argento’s camera movement is slightly restrained here, with the exception of two scenes where the camera is attached to a food trey and a cigarette lighter. But he lavishes a lot of attention on the design of the school. There are some subtle, smooth pans, up stairways and down hallways. It effectively establishes the dance school as its own world more effectively then the over-the-top color saturation.

The movie never matches the throbbing madness of the first attack, but it does come close. A minor character in the film is a blind piano player, always accompanied by his seeing-eye dog. As is common in stories like this, animals can feel evil, so the dog quickly gets the guy expelled from the premises. While walking home late at night through an empty, very large courtyard, a spell of evil comes over them. The courtyard seems far too empty, completely deserted. Even the birds quickly flee. The shadows on the way seem to move. There’s a subtle, barely audible whisper in the air. The silence is almost deafening. The camera comes swooping down at the man, as if taking the perspective of some unseen airborne spirit. The faithful dog turns and tears his master’s throat out. It’s a chilling sequence and maybe my favorite in the whole film.

Which kind of raises the question why the rest of the movie isn’t that good. There’s a pretty icky moment involving maggots but the rest… Argento and his co-scripter Daria Nicolodi obviously set out to make a supernatural story. But only the opening scene and the aforementioned dog scene play up the magical powers of the witchy antagonists. Later, one of the girls, suspicious of the teachers, leaves her room at night and goes exploring. After a mildly suspenseful sequence of her avoiding a patrolling teacher, she finds herself being stalked by a figure with a straight-razor. This is straight-up giallo. It’s almost if Argento lost confidence in the paranormal aspect of the story. The chase scene that follows is well done, and I especially like the denouncement involving a room full of razor wire, but it’s a bizarre change in tone. The movie also seems unsure of just what exactly these witches can do. At times, their powers seem limitless. Other times, their forces appear solely physical.

The story itself presents other issues as well. Why exactly the witches have such an interest in protagonist Suzy isn’t explained, neither are the witches’ goals in general. I’m fine with ambiguity in horror but this strikes me as just underwritten. Plot elements are swiped from “Rosemary’s Baby.” Suzy is drugged and poisoned with doctor-appointed and specifically prepared food and drink. There’s definitely a conspiracy at work here to keep her in the building. Suzy eventually figures something is up and goes out sleuthing in a way similar to Argento’s previous movies. There’s a painful exposition scene, featuring Udo Kier for some reason, where she visits a pair of doctors in town that flat-out explain the movie’s mythology. Later, she’s counting foot steps and remembering sudden details she couldn’t remember before, like your standard giallo detective.

The final confrontation with Suzy and Mater Suspiriorum is obviously meant to be the big finale of the movie, but ends up kind of anticlimactic. First off, despite supposedly being a supremely powerful evil being, the best Helena Markos can pull off is some magical moving corpses. Furthermore, the witch goes down way too easily, with a simple stab to the neck. Following video game logic, with the villain dispatched, the entire lair goes up flames, literally cracking up in an admittedly cool moment. This is a weakness with all of the Three Mothers films: These super-strong evil witches sure go down easy.

As a “Phantom of the Paradise” fan, I like Jessica Harper. She’s good in this. Her big wide eyes have never been used better and she conveys Suzy’s innocence nicely. The mostly female cast features some other standout performance such as Joan Bennett, who turns from helpful to evil successfully, while butchy Alida Valli cuts a memorable figure. Even with a strong cast, the characters still come off as somewhat thin.

So “Suspiria” isn’t subtle or densely written. Goblin’s bombastic, less-rock-n-roll, more-in-your-face-creepy score is indictictive of this dynamic as well. (Especially the frequent shouting of “Witch!”) These aren’t necessarily bad things but it does make the film less effective for me, personally. In my opinion, this isn’t the highlight of the filmmaker’s career nor does it make a particularly good entry point for newcomers. Even that can’t rob the movie of its occasionally very powerful moments. [Grade: B]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1975)

4. Deep Red
Profondo rosso

“Deep Red” is Dario Argento’s first horror masterpiece. Now why is that, since the film really isn’t all that different then the three murder-thrillers he previously made? The movie caters heavily in the themes and concepts used throughout the Animal Trilogy. The central premise borrows heavily from “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.” An innocent man, a musician, witnesses a murder. (Played by David Hemmings, very nearly reprising his role from “Blow-Up.”) Something he glances fleetingly during that moment turns out to be the key to the identity of the murderer. Soon, the killer is stalking him and he has to solve the mystery, for his own life’s sake. If you’ve seen any of Argento’s previous films, this should sound familiar.

What separates “Deep Red” from the Animal Trilogy is that Argento has come completely into his own as a stylist. This is a film that, at its best, is committed to creating a serious sense of dread. From the opening frames, the opening credits, Goblin’s deeply atmospheric music supplies an unsettling mood. The first scene of the film proper is a bright red curtain parting. Like Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace,” this is a film that both begins and ends with images of red. The parting of curtains also invokes the stage, the theater of the Grand Guignol. The previous set of films certainly had horror elements but were more interested in solving a mystery. “Deep Red” is established as a horror film right from the beginning.

The inventive camera work hinted at previously is put on full display here. The first-person perspective, putting the audience behind the eyes of the murderer, is employed extensively here. The technique is sometimes criticized for prompting sadism in the viewer. This ignores the main purpose of the style, which is to create a personal sense of dread. Yes, we watch the killer strike with hatchet or boiling water, but the victims also look over their shoulders. There’s very little room between attacker and attacked. Argento’s very wide frames shrinks to an intimate level. The voyeurism slices both ways. The idea is to make it seem like you, the viewer, are the one being attacked. It’s a bristling effective way to create terror.

Argento’s camera prowls, from around walls, down from floors, up staircases, putting the viewer in the role of both observer and observed. A couple of time, he seems to be simply playing with us. Extreme close-ups are used fantastically. The camera strolls up a line of musical notes on a piece of sheet music. We see the hammers working inside a piano. When the movie gets really creepy are in sequences of intense style that serve little story purpose. While Goblin pounds away on the soundtrack, the camera moves around baby dolls, children’s toys, and knives, in such close-up you almost can’t tell what everything’s suppose to be at first. An eye, painted in black, appear out of the darkness. Odd upside-down angles are used, intentionally disorienting the viewer. There’s no plot reason for any of this. It’s here simply to creep the hell out of the viewer. And it’s hugely successful.

Important themes are brought to the forefront here. Childlike images appear again and again. While this does work as a hint to the killer’s identity, it does suggest something deeper. The killer uses dolls and toys, most notably a cackling, walking dummy automaton, as a calling card. The creepy singing of a children’s choir proceeds the murderer’s appearance both in-story and on-film. The juxtaposition of childish behavior and gory murder is disquieting. Childhood trauma is directly linked with homicidal tendencies. Later on, a strange little girl, who likes to pin lizards on needles, appears. Ghost stories of a haunted building, the kind passed around in elementary school cafeterias, play a major role. Little kids drawling gory or creepy scenes in a coloring-book style is a horror cliché these days. “Deep Red” uses it briefly too, mostly as the penultimate hint to the killer’s identity, but also because it works into the film’s obsession with a disturbed childhood. I’m not exactly sure what Argento is getting at here, but it makes the film richer and scarier.

Argento is sometimes accused of misogyny, and not always without good reason. Gender conflict definitely seems to have been on his mind during the making of “Deep Red.” A lengthy subplot in the film involves our musician protagonist falling for a gutsy reporter girl, played by Dario’s muse of the time, Daria Nicolodi. The two frequently argue over gender equality, about which sex is superior. After the two arm-wrestle, the man jokingly claim that woman are less intelligent than men but more physically savage. I didn’t catch it at first but this definitely sets up an important plot-point near the end. A slow-pan up Daria’s face, bathed in oranges from a near-by fire, is sometimes accused of setting up an awkward red haring. While the shot doesn’t lead anywhere, it does play into the story’s theme.

The main character’s best friend is alcoholic Carlo. Around the forty minute mark, Carlo is also revealed to gay. He’s having an intimate relationship with a rather feminine looking man… Who’s played by a woman with a dubbed over voice. An easily overlooked piece of dialogue reveals early on that the mad slasher’s desire to kill steams from gender oppression, from marriage cutting careers and dreams short. None of this is likely to convince people the director doesn’t have some issues with woman, but he definitely seems to relate with their plight. The hatchet-killer is ruthless but ultimately sympathetic.

The reoccurring fetishes of Argento show up too. Roman architecture is prominently displayed several times, especially a large statue of a reclining Jupiter. An abandoned old house isn’t just a creepy take on a much older horror style, but the flowers that were potted around it and the layout of the house furthers the investigation. Artwork is naturally a plot point. Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks” is visually quoted for not much any reason at all. The layout of people’s apartments even tells us about the characters living in it. The psychic, the killer’s first victim, has her apartment built around pentagrams. (Didn’t I mention the psychic? There’s a psychic in this too.) And when the hatchet-slasher does speak, the voice is a quiet, craggily, threatening whisper, as it would be before and after. A little bird shows up again too, simply because Dario likes them.

I haven’t talked yet about the set-pieces of the films, the murder scenes. There’s a reason the movie’s called “Deep Red.” It’s bloody, gory, intense, and startling. The kills here are cringe-inducing. Co-writer Bernardino Zapponi built each murder sequence around everyday house-hold fears: Broken glass, scalding bathwater, bumping into jagged edges, stepping too soon off of sidewalks into busy traffic, and elevator doors slamming shut on body parts. This roots the operatic carnage in common concerns, making the death scenes very relatable.

It’s gnarly stuff too. A body is pushed through a window, the neck sliced upon on the shattered glass. Teeth are knocked out on wooden desk corners. A man is dragged behind a garbage truck, slammed into curves. The music builds, while Argento’s intimate camera peers on. The long attack scenes are topped off with a tracking shot of a rising and falling knife blade, or a speeding car splattering a head like a ripe melon. This is the kind of stuff gore hounds and horror enthusiast live for. And then there’s that cackling running dummy that appears out of nowhere and apropos of nothing. Brrr…

The movie doesn’t work on every level. The full 126-minute director’s cut is too long. The romantic-comedy scenes, showing the love story between David Hemmings and Nicolodi, are long digressions. While Hemmings and Nicolodi have nice chemistry, the scenes don’t add much to the story. Clownish moments of her rickety car, with its permanently locked doors and falling seats, feel like they’re from a completely different movie. Further comic relief scenes, such as both ends of a telephone conversation being muted by near-by ruckus, or the stock giallo police detective yelling at a vending machine, further stick out. I’m fairly certain there’s a cut of the movie that leaves all of the gore intact but excises these distracting moments. If that does actually exist, it’s the ideal version.

(The heavily edited U.S. cut, called “The Hatchet Murders,” isn’t it. It’s butchered. It’s also in the public domain, which makes it unfortunately the easiest variation of the film to find.)

“Deep Red” really scared the crap out of me on first viewing. It one of the few films to deeply frighten me. (Along with fellow Italian horror, Saovi’s “Stagefright.”) I knew just about nothing going in and all the shocks and surprises hit me just right. It doesn’t play as well on second viewing, when you know where the shocks are. These days, it’s a film I admire on a more technical level then on an emotional one. But it’s still Argento at his peak, the first time his style and obsessions really came together to make a cohesive whole. It’s a brilliant exercise in surrealistic style and scares. [Grade: A]