Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray) The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray) Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray) The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.
The Fifth Estate (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD) – Benedict Cumberbatch makes such a fascinating Julian Assange that it only focuses attention the problems with Bill Condon’s portrait of Assange, WikiLeaks and the Bradley Manning revelations.
Ostensibly about how Assange and WikiLeaks rocked the word with a whistleblowing leak on a scale unseen since The Pentagon Papers, the film is more fascinated with the contradictions within the character of Assange, whose achievements were almost eclipsed by accusations of sexual misconduct and his flight from extradition, than on the reverberations of the web publication of classified documents.
I guess it’s no surprise that, like so much of the reporting on the issue, the real story—of government lies, of the vulnerability of secret information, of what the leaked intelligence does to our trust in our own government—is sidelined by the human sideshow.
As sideshows go, Cumberbatch is riveting as the thin white duke of digital activism, a churlish Sherlock under a white bleach job and pasty pallor who wants to be thought of as the mysterious mastermind in the shadows while playing the flamboyant showman for an audience of hackers. Is he an idealist who dedicates his entire life to fighting power or a pathological liar with an ego-driven personality, a holier-than-thou arrogance and a need for attention that trumps social activism? To put it in computer-age terms, it’s a film in a binary universe, all about singular contradiction as defining characteristics rather than a spectrum of detail. And when it comes to the WikiLeaks web network, Condon’s visual metaphors present the digital world with analogue sensibility. Or maybe an MTV video from a decade ago.
Daniel Brühl is the junior partner he adopts to help out what was essentially a one-man crusade hidden behind a digital network that suggested a small army of conspirators and ends up challenging and alienating Assange. Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci stand in for the American intelligence community in a subplot that pretends to illustrate how the information dump put the life of an ally in peril, a storyline more calculated than convincing. What should be the 21st century All the President’s Men forgoes the complexity of the issues to hammer on the big contrasts and makes Assange’s petty personality eccentricities more of a focus than his actual accomplishments.
Blu-ray and DVD with three featurettes plus trailers and TV spots. The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming.
Argento’s Dracula (IFC Midnight, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is how it reads on the disc case. On the screen it’s Dario Argento’s Dracula and on the IMDb it’s Dracula 3D. Any way you list it, this Dracula feels like the last gasp of a once creatively mad cinematic chemist, stirring combustible colors and unstable reactions into strange concoctions of murder and madness. There is a vibrancy to some of the art direction and set design in this busy but oddly inert take on the Bram Stoker novel, which adds a bunch of mayhem but else to justify yet another take on the same story, but over the last couple of decades Argento seems to have lost all sense of directing actors. The performances are all over the place here, some of them stilted and stuffy as if in a Victorian stage piece (Unax Ugalde’s Jonathan Harker looks like a dazed clown trying to remember marks), others sloppily hamming it up (Darios’s daughter Asia is one of the guilty parties on that score). Only Rutger Hauer brings a sense of history to his character when he appears around the 2/3s mark as a melancholy Van Helsing, as if his calling carries a high price in terms of loss and sacrifice.
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground) Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)
It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.
Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.
The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.
James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.
There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.
The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.
Abandon logic, all ye who enter Dario Argento’s Inferno (1982). The second film of his “Three Mothers” trilogy (the first was Suspiria, the biggest American success of the Italian director’s career) opens with a deluge of exposition on the perhaps-not-so-mythical Three Mothers, which Rose (Irene Miracle), an American girl in a very stylized version of New York, reads from an ancient text. As she turns detective, suspecting that one of the evil figures lives in her very own apartment house (an elegant old building with impossibly lavish spaces), a mysterious, black-gloved figure (unseen but for those hands, which prove to be wizened like a fairy-tale witch beneath the black cloth) goes about collecting copies of the ancient book and killing everyone connected with them. Jump to Rome, where her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student, receives a letter where she shares her suspicions and discoveries. Before he can finish reading it, a gray-eyed beauty with a white cat distracts his attention and a freak windstorm blows the letter into the hands of another student (and a entirely new subplot), and he flies back to New York to find that she has disappeared, spurring him to embark on his own investigation.
This is a mystery with the logic of a dream. Vague clues (“The key is under the souls of your feet”) send characters in impulsive journeys through mysterious, maze-like passages. A trip down into the building basement sends Rose on a midnight swim through an underwater ballroom, where a gruesome corpse floats through nearly crystal-clear water. A chance reading of her letter sends one girl searching for the rare tome in a library and into what appears to be an alchemist’s laboratory hidden in building’s basement labyrinth. A bent old bookseller with a distaste for cats (which prowl and growl all through the film) is attacked by rats in a Central Park that looks more like a haunted fairy tale forest. A seemingly innocent bystander is suddenly inspired to turn homicidal maniac. It’s a world touched by malevolent magic, which transforms everyday locations into hostile environments of spikes, splinters, knife edges and broken glass, all conjured to pierce flesh, draw blood and take lives.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
As the credits of Suspiria roll, a voice, disembodied as any of the English-language ghosts who dub foreign pictures for U.S. release, supplies us with a little background information. It seems this American girl (Jessica Harper) is an American, and she’s decided to go to Europe to study dance at some strange academy in Germany; to get there, she takes a plane, and when the plane lands at a German airport, she gets off it and then she’s there in Germany. Well, yes: watch about thirty seconds of the movie proper and you learn all that for yourself. Why the helpful hints straining to be heard under the aural barrage of what will continue to be almost nonstop musical accompaniment by some group called The Goblins? Well, probably somebody at Twentieth Century Fox, after buying the film, noticed that it rarely made much sense on a scenario level and so hoped to start the audience off on redundantly sure footing before everything started going really haywire.
A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.
Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.
Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.