Tuesday, March 31, 2015

PHENOMENA

Dario Argento, 1985
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Donald Pleasance, Dalila Di Lazzaro

Jennifer, the lonely, teenaged daughter of a famous director, is sent to a Swiss boarding school for girls. She learns that young women have been attacked and murdered in the nearby hills. Jennifer accidentally puts herself into danger with her unpredictable sleepwalking habits, but she has a unique ability – a psychic connection with insects that protect and help her. Her only friend in the area is a scientist, forensic entomologist John McGregor, and the two try to figure out the identity of the murderer before Jennifer is the next victim.

Somewhat of a twist on his classic Suspiria, Dario Argento’s Phenomena is an utterly bizarre giallo film, complete with sci-fi trappings, dream logic, and sequences of gross-out violence. As in Suspiria, an isolated young woman travels to the forest of northern Europe (Germany in the former, Switzerland in Phenomena) and encounters a world made up mostly of other women. Both Suspiria’s Suzy and Phenomena’s Jennifer only makes one female friend, who is killed, and they are left with unfriendly peers and hostile authority figures. Suzy’s wine is drugged, she’s confined to the ballet school she’s attending, and she’s told that she’s ill. Between her non-conformist personality and bouts of sleepwalking, Jennifer’s icy headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro of Flesh for Frankenstein) forces her to submit to medical testing and is ready to have her shipped off to an insane asylum.

Both Suzy and Jennifer find refuge and wisdom in the form of an elderly scientist. In Suspiria, Suzy meets with a young psychologist (the great Udo Kier) and his older mentor (Rudolf Schündler of The Exorcist), who confirm her suspicions about the evil goings on in her ballet school and explain that the founder was believed to be a powerful witch. Professor McGregor (Donald Pleasence with an implausible Scottish accent) is far more of a father figure to Jennifer. He not only tests and explains her gift to her, but is the only person to believe in her extraordinary abilities. Science has a rather murky role in Argento’s films, namely Cat O’ Nine Tails ­– set in a research institute and concerning genetic research – and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, where the final reveal hinges on an absurd idea that the human eye captures the final image it sees before death. Science, or perhaps science fiction, is less troubled in Phenomena simply because the film does not ever attempt to stay grounded in rationality.

Instead, it is Argento’s most fantastical exploration of the natural world. The school for girls is set in the Swiss mountains, a place that simply feels like a fairytale forest. This is Argento’s most lush shoot – rivalled only by the conclusion of his following film, Opera, which is set in a similar location and involves another young girl abandoning herself to nature after surviving a terrible ordeal. Here Jennifer is linked to the natural world by more than just the setting – which includes hills, fields, forests, a lake, fire, and a cesspool of sewage/rotting corpses. She is deeply connected to it by her psychic link with all insects and by her changing body – she and the other girls are all 14, 15, or 16, in the midst of puberty and on the verge of sexual awakening. And while animals play a role on screen in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebre, this is Argento’s first film with an actual animal star in the form of Inga the chimp.

This is also perhaps Argento’s only film to wander into the body horror territory so thoroughly explored by directors like David Cronenberg and Stuart Gordon. While Deep Red and Suspiria include some particularly graphic, effecting death scenes, many of these are stylish exercises in onscreen murder as art. In comparison, the murders of Phenomena are ugly, devoid of art deco set pieces and bold, primary-colored lighting. There is a gruesome decapitation where the victim’s head is tossed unceremoniously into the water, Jennifer vomits up pills in a lengthy sequence, and she crawls through dirt and, perhaps most memorably, falls into a brown slush of refuse and rotting flesh. Maggots squirm, flies pick a face and crowd the windows of Jennifer’s school when the girls pick on her, and a detective macerates his own thumb to get free of handcuffs.

SPOILERS. The film’s sense of the grotesque and of sexual hysteria is compounded by its complex examination of parenthood. While many of Argento’s films have troubled parent-child relationships, such as Deep Red and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and characters with teenage/young adult trauma, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre, Phenomena’s violence revolves around painful family relationships. Jennifer’s mother abandoned the family and her father is absent due to his work. The killer, a young boy with a disfiguring disorder that makes him look monstrous and fear mirrors, is the product of his mother’s rape. He slaughters young women and his mother (Daria Nicolodi, the mother of Argento’s daughter Asia, whom he would split with that year) kills to protect him. She is the film’s most horrible figure, akin to the monstrous hysteria of the two witches in Suspiria and Inferno, and is the culmination of female violence present in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red.

Phenomena is one of Argento’s most difficult films, but is also among his most unique. It will likely frustrated unprepared horror fans expecting a straightforward giallo, but this film is a strange blend of fantasy, science fiction, dream logic, and the grotesque. It’s available uncut on Blu-ray (avoid a censored American version titled Creepers) and comes recommended for more adventurous viewers, anyone who wants to see Argento at his strangest, and all fans of the young Jennifer Connelly. I honestly wish Argento had made the time to further explore her relationship with insects, something that is unfortunately overshadowed by the serial murder plot.

Monday, March 30, 2015

TENEBRE

Dario Argento, 1982
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi

"The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder."

A popular American horror novelist, Peter Neal, travels to Italy to promote his latest book, Tenebre, about a tormented killer who murders those he views as being morally corrupt. Immediately upon Neal’s arrival, however, a psychopath begins murdering young women around Rome and stuffing their mouths full of the pages of Tenebre. The police call on him for help – particularly lead inspector Detective Giermani – and Neal, his agent, and his assistants get caught up in an increasingly dangerous cat and mouse game with the violent killer.

After the supernatural efforts Suspiria and Inferno, Tenebre marked Dario Argento’s return to the giallo film. I was always confused by Tenebre’s title, as it clearly belongs to the Latinized titles of the “Three Mothers” trilogy and holds the name of one of the three witches, Mater Tenebrarum. Meaning “darkness” in Latin, the film’s title is somewhat oxymoronic, as Tenebre is possibly Argento’s most brightly lit film with an emphasis on daytime shots in sunny Rome and plenty of florescent lighting in the exteriors. Argento has remarked that he intended Tenebre to have a sci-fi flavor to it and that it was supposed to take place several years in the future. While this doesn’t really come through in the finished product, the harsh lighting, extensive use of concrete, and almost complete lack of Rome’s ancient architecture does leave the film with a similarly cold, alienated feel as other works of urban terror like Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) or Zuławski’s Possession (1981).

Argento has also cited the influence of Italian crime films, poliziotteschi, which were wildly popular in the ‘70s and are one of the forerunners of modern TV crime drama. This seems far more plausible to me and Tenebre certainly has a fascination with methods of detection, mystery solving, crime, and police procedures. A detective – the wonderful Giulio Gemma’s Detective Giermani – plays a more important role than in any of Argento’s previous films, such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Deep Red, where the detectives are bumbling at best and obstacles to justice at worst. The killer is also concerned with issues of morality and criminality and slaughters those that he believes have committed crimes, such as a thief and a lesbian couple.

There are also certainly some autobiographical elements at work. Though Peter Neal is an American – like most of Argento’s protagonists up to this point – and a novelist, he’s a horror writer who suffers from the criticism that his books are violent and misogynistic. Argento also had these complaints leveled against him by critics. He also claimed that the film was inspired by his experiences with an obsessed fan, who called constantly and eventually admitted that he wanted to murder Argento. And where Tenebre makes much of the divide between critic and artist, author and audience, Argento himself began as a critical writer and journalist before transitioning into script writing and, finally, direction. This divided nature, the tension between artist and critic, artist and fan, killer and victim, killer and sleuth, and professional and amateur detective, is at the heart of the Tenebre.

As with Argento’s earlier films, this work is also obsessed by problems of vision, spectatorship, and voyeurism haunt. The killer photographs his victims and the camera is at its most voyeuristic and unsettled here. Its ceaseless roaming is culminating in the film’s key tracking shot up and around a building and into a home where two women are about to be murdered. Like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, flashbacks and close-ups are of major importance, as are windows, mirrors, sculptures, and doubles. Like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, a character is certain they’ve seen something of vital importance, but can’t quite put their finger on it. Peter Neal tries to ferret out this crucial clue, stating, "I've tried to figure it out, but I just have this hunch that something is missing, a tiny piece of the jigsaw. Somebody who should be dead is alive, or somebody who should be alive is already dead." This investigation is in itself a red herring, and nothing is quite as it seems; Argento clever plays off of the twists and plot devices he used in previous films, resulting in a mix of fantastic set pieces mostly effective character development, and an absolutely dizzying conclusion.

This is also Argento’s most overtly sexual film at the time. It not only depicts the end of Peter’s relationship with his disturbed ex-wife, Jane – who has secretly followed him to Rome – but there are numerous affairs, a one-night romance between Peter and his assistant, Anne, and a troubled relationship between two lesbians. In many ways, Tenebre is a culmination of all Argento’s sexual themes. Childhood and/or sexual trauma as the genesis for crime can be found as core plot points in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red, while Tenebre shows eerie, effective flashbacks of the event: a beautiful woman sexually humiliating a teenage boy. This woman happens to be Eva Robin, a transgendered actress. Themes of transvestitism and gender politics are also found in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a woman dresses as a man) and Deep Red (where the two protagonists have several arguments about the roles of men and women).

Gay characters are also perhaps unusually important in Argento’s films. In addition to important, likable, and sympathetic gay characters in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red, Tenebre’s Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo, also found in Tinto Brass’s Caligula) is the synthesis of several of Argento’s issues. Like many of the other female characters, including Peter’s assistant and the daughter of the hotel manager, she’s depicted as strong and independent. She is a close friend of Peter’s, but is also one of his harshest critics, taking him publicly to task for what she views as a deeply misogynistic novel with outdated mores. She also has a complicated relationship with her beautiful girlfriend (Mirella Banti), who gets drunk and has sex with male strangers. Both are murdered because the killer views them as criminally perverse, as part of a corrupting influence infecting society.

Tenebre comes with the highest possible recommendation. Despite its flaws, it’s possibly my favorite of Argento’s films and I still find the opening scene, many of the set pieces, and the final reveal to be particularly exhilarating. In the ‘80s, the film suffered in the U.K., where it was dubbed a Video Nasty, and in the U.S., where it was extensively cut and released as the almost insensible Unsane. Fortunately you can find the uncut version on special edition DVD in the U.S. or on a fantastic Blu-ray from U.K.-based Arrow. While it is not nearly as mean-spirited as something like Fulci's New York Ripper, released the same year, it is a far cry from Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies or Grey Velvet, or Deep Red, where a deranged killer generally murders to protect their identity. In Tenebre, the murderer is trying to wipe out corruption from society -- a miasma that he can seemingly find everywhere.

Friday, March 27, 2015

INFERNO (1980)

Dario Argento, 1980
Starring: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

Rose Eliot, a young poet in New York, collects antique books and stumbles across a terrible secret with the recent purchase of The Three Mothers. She learns of three powerful witches — Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum — and discovers that Tenebrarum may be located in the very apartment building Rose calls home, built by an eccentric architect named Varelli, also the author of The Three Mothers. She writes a letter detailing her findings — and her fears — to her brother Mark, a music student in Rome, and he comes to visit just as Rose goes missing.

While Suspiria, the first film of Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, is a dark fairytale, Inferno is a nightmare and a fever dream. In fact, Argento was seriously ill for much of filming and veteran horror director Mario Bava stepped in to handle some second unit work. Perhaps as a result of this, Inferno seems indebted to Bava’s candy-colored descents into the underworld and meditations on the supernatural, such as Hercules and the Haunted World and “The Drop of Water” segment from Black Sabbath. Bava was also responsible for some of the matte painting and optical effects, and his son, Lamberto Bava, acted as assistant director on the film – a few years later, Argento would collaborate with the younger Bava on Demons.

Despite – or perhaps because of – Bava’s involvement, Inferno was initially poorly received. This is likely due to a number of factors: its perhaps unfair comparison to Suspiria, the disorienting sense of dream logic, and the fact that the somewhat fragmented film has a number of protagonists. Like Suspiria, the cast is still female-dominated and focuses on characters like Rose (Irene Miracle), her friend Elise (Daria Nicolodi), and Mark’s friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), all of whom are inexplicably drawn to the mystery of the Three Mothers. Mark (Leigh McCloskey) is brought into this world almost against his wishes and is left alone to contend with the evil in Rose’s apartment building. Like Suspiria, this is a fundamentally hostile, strange world where bureaucratic, natural, and supernatural forces conspire against the protagonists.

Inferno certainly has many parallels with Suspiria: there’s a key scene with a protagonist swimming, secret passages are important to the conclusion, a beast-like killer preys on young women, and there is an animal-related death in an open park/square. But while Suspiria has a marked contrast between a sedate, fairytale-like mystery plot and over-the-top, incredibly violent and unusual death scenes, Inferno is more concerned with elaborate set pieces. In addition to the central location of a cavernous old apartment building in New York, there’s an antique shop, a beautiful Roman library, an old ballroom suspended in water, and an alchemy lab – plus, the plot is set in motion by an old book, a letter is of key importance, and one of the protagonists is a writer.

This focus on the literary and the historical is countered by a disorienting emphasis on doubles. Rose and Sara share the same sense of wonder and fascination that draws them towards The Three Mothers and its mysteries, which also leads to their deaths. – The two main protagonists are siblings and there are plenty of protagonists who turn out to have dual roles within the film, particularly the other residents of Rose’s apartment building. The importance of doubling is compounded by the appearance of several actors from Argento’s previous films – Alida Valli, who plays a domineering instructor and part of the witches’ coven in Suspiria returns here as the suspicious caretaker of Rose’s building. Daria Nicolodi was previously seen in Deep Red as a plucky reporter who teams up with the protagonist to find the killer. Her role here is a sort of Gothic twist on the crime-solving sidekick; she helps Mark uncover clues while wearing a flowing nightgown, has an illness that makes her physically weak, and wanders around the dark building like a frightened child. Gabriele Lavia, last seen in Deep Red as a troubled musician, briefly shows up as Sara’s friend and protector.

Somewhere I read this described as a blend of The Wizard of Oz and Dante’s Inferno, which isn’t far off the mark. If Suspiria was influenced by Snow White, where a young princess takes on a wicked witch in a foreboding forest, Inferno is more of an ensemble piece set in an alternate dimension. The blue, yellow, and red lighting is certainly otherworldly and the central building seems to be an underworld universe all its own, with secret passageways, hidden floors, and an incongruous sense of style suggesting that all time periods exist there at once. Even the score is a blend of contemporary electronic music – from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Keith Emerson – spliced together with Verdi’s opera Nabucco, a biblical-themed work about the titular Babylonian king who conquers and exiles the Jews.

Inferno comes highly recommended and is one of Argento’s most underrated works, if not one of the most underrated horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. This dreamy, disorienting film is not for everyone, but offers rich rewards for those willing to lose themselves in Argento’s hellish, yet colorful world of magic, mystery, and murder that does end with the promised inferno. Fortunately, the film is available in a wonderful Blu-ray edition and should be part of every film lover’s collection. It’s a shame that Argento followed up the brilliant of Suspiria and Inferno with something as flawed and problematic as Mother of Tears.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

SUSPIRIA

Dario Argento, 1977
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Joan Bennett, Udo Kier, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosè, Alida Valli

Suzy Bannion, an American ballet dancer, travels to Germany to enroll in a renowned school in Freiburg, but her arrival is marked by a menacing storm, an unfriendly reception, and the mysterious, anxious departure of another student who is later found dead. After taking an apartment out of the building, she falls ill and is moved into the school against her wishes, where someone seems to be drugging her food. She befriends another girl, Sarah, who believes that the school is secretly run by malevolent witches. After Sarah goes missing, Suzy takes it upon herself to unravel the mystery before she becomes the next victim.

Argento’s fairytale-like masterpiece was inspired by Thomas De Quincy’s collection Suspiria de Profundis, in particular the chapter “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” which introduces "Mater Lacrymarum, Our Lady of Tears," "Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs," and "Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness" (the latter two characters would receive a mention in his follow up film, Inferno). This first supernatural work by Argento was co-written by then partner Dario Nicolodi, who claimed for years that it was based on her grandmother’s stories of real witches operating in Italy. Regardless of the source, this tremendous film is a blend of many previous filmic and literary influences: Grimm’s fairytales, German expressionism, the French fantastique, Snow White, film noir, Jean Cocteau and European Surrealism, and Gothic literature.

The plot follows a basic fairytale structure, where a young hero embarks on a journey of self-discovery and defeats evil. There is a core journey in Suzy’s travel to Germany, an eerie trip through a forest, and magical flowers that are central to her quest. Things often occur in threes: there are three girls trying to fight the witches in the form of Pat, Sarah, and Suzy, and three witches In the form of Tanner, Madame Blanc, and the head mistress. Like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which was being written during Suspiria’s production and was published in 1979, Argento has reimagined the character often known as the “Persecuted Heroine.” Suzy, a beautiful, young ballet dancer, is initially similar to fairytale heroines, but fortunately has a different end goal than romantic fulfillment with a handsome price (though I’d give her a break with Udo Kier in the picture).

The script is perfectly complimented by a vivid, almost violent sense of color – Suspiria was one of the last films processed in Technicolor – that transitions from dark blues and blacks to screaming red and pink. The film is full of characters passing through doorways – often toward spectacularly realized deaths – and Argento somehow adds elements of the surreal and disorienting to mundane acts like a cab ride, a swim in a pool, and eating dinner. The world Suzy has entered is undeniably hostile and strange and – like the Germany of many of Fassbinder’s films – this is a realm existing in and out of time, a place of the subconscious rather than the waking world. Though many try, there are not a lot of horror films or dark fantasies able to achieve this dreamlike quality and in that sense, Suspiria has something in common with Night of the Hunter (1955), Valerie and Her Weeks of Wonders (1970), Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Messiah of Evil (1973), A Company of Wolves (1984), and even The Red Shoes (1948).

Suspiria is also a marked departure from classic supernatural horror like Cat People (1942) and Night of the Demon (1957), where the horror is implied gradually and unfolds subtlety. Suspiria – whose tagline proclaims “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92!” – kicks off with an elaborate, highly stylized double homicide where Pat, hiding out from the horrors at school, is tracked to an art deco apartment building by a strange beastly figure, resulting in an operatic sequence of shattering glass, sliced flesh, and a brutal hanging. There are Fulci-like scenes of squirming maggots pouring from the ceiling on hapless students, a corpse coming back to life with murderous intentions, and a girl stumbling into a room inexplicably full of barbed wire.

And, of course, there are the witches. The school headmistresses represent a far more bureaucratic source of terror for much of the film, dealing in control, manipulation, and disorientation, chiding Suzy about room fees, her medical health, run of the mill inconveniences, and rules. Tanner (Alida Valli of The Third Man and Eyes Without a Face, the latter of which must have been an influence on Argento) wears conservative suits and her heels clack on the floor abrasively while she shouts out instructions. Madame Blanc (former noir star Joan Bennett, playing a role not similar to her appearance as the ambiguous family matriarch in Dark Shadows) is full of grace, refinement, and manners, and it’s easy to see her as a politician’s wife or retired debutant. Tanner and Blanc pale in comparison to the swollen, growling, and draconic form of Helena Markos (aka Mother Suspiriorum, played by the uncredited Lela Svasta), who sets all manner of obstacles in Suzy’s path and is ultimately the monster she must defeat.

Much has already been said about Suspiria and it holds a deserved reputation as one of finest horror films ever made. Pick it up on region 2 Blu-ray, or 2-disc special edition DVD. Either way, this is a must-see film and it’s something you need in your collection. While giallo films are not for everyone – and they make up the bulk of Argento’s work – this is a near-perfect blend of mystery, horror, and fantasy. The score from Goblin is also one of their best and is the perfect music to listen to while driving through a thunderstorm.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

DEEP RED aka PROFONDO ROSSO

Dario Argento, 1975
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Méril, Clara Calamai

A psychic, Helga Ulmann, senses that someone in the audience of her lecture is mentally disturbed, has murdered long ago, and will kill again. Soon after, she is killed in her apartment and her neighbor, jazz musician Marcus Daly, witnesses her murder and is convinced he has seen an important clue. Reporter Gianna Brezzi decides to help him against his wishes when he realizes that he's the killer’s next target. Their only viable clue is a child’s lullaby and the tale of an old haunted house…

Profondo rosso (1975) aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders is notable for, among other things, being Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s first collaboration with the band Goblin, who would go on to score several of his later films. Deep Red also marks a turning point Argento’s career. After establishing himself with the “Animal Trilogy” – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet – Argento kicked off a series of popular masterpieces, including Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebre. Deep Red marked a new level of directorial confidence that allowed Argento to explore a more extravagant visual style and more poetic, dreamlike narrative structures. 

Despite its graphic death scenes and hints of the uncanny and the supernatural, Deep Red is one of Argento’s most accessible films and is a great introduction to giallo films in general. There are elements lifted directly from Mario Bava’s seminal giallo films The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, such as the protagonist being a foreigner in Italy, the killer wearing a raincoat and black gloves, a vibrantly colored set, and so on. Deep Red also includes many of Argento’s trademarks, including POV shots, close ups of objects, and a number of characters with creative careers (two musicians, a journalist, an author, and an actress). Argento cleverly borrowed from mystery and romantic comedies with the presence of a plucky reporter responsible for comic relief in the form of Giada. She is played by the actress Daria Nicolodi, who would go on to become one of Argento’s major collaborators and the mother of his daughter Asia.

In addition to fine performances from Nicolodi, English star David Hemmings is enjoyable as the pleasant but anxious Marcus Daly. He played a similar role in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and was in a number of horror and suspense films, such as the similarly themed Fragment of Fear (1970) and British pagan horror Eye of the Devil (1966). Gabriele Lavia (Inferno, Beyond the Door) gives what is probably the best performance of Deep Red as the sympathetic and interesting Carlo. Macha Méril (Night Train Murders) and classical Italian actress Clara Calamai (Visconti’s Ossessione) round out the female-centric cast. Despite suggestions that Argento was misogynistic, he often gave his most interesting roles to women and Deep Red is a fine example of that.

The film also benefits from some excellent cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller (New York Ripper). The anxiously roving camera captures bold colors and eye-catching sets, as well as a more heightened level of graphic violence (compared to Argento’s earlier work). The incredibly creative death scenes rely on every day, household objects as instruments of death – the corner of a mantel, hot water, a window – bolstered by some great special effects from Academy Award-winning Carlo Rambaldi (E.T.). These seemingly mundane moments of violence are countered by strange, surreal elements, including an unexpected attack by marionette, disturbing children’s drawings of murder, a dying lizard squirming on a pin, and close ups of children’s toys.

Though he hinted on it with his earlier films, sound is of key importance in Deep Red – where The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a synthesis of art and violence, Deep Red combines the latter with music. Always a fan of using diegetic (occurring within the narrative of the film) and non-diegetic (the soundtrack) music, both are used artfully here and there is a tense relationship between the score and sound effects that relates directly to the violence unfolding – such as the killer’s insistence on playing a tape recording of a disturbing child’s song before committing murder.

This was Italian band Goblin’s first score for Argento and signaled the beginning of a successful collaborative relationship that would last throughout some of his most beloved films. Composer Giorgio Gaslini was originally hired to compose for Deep Red, but Argento was allegedly unhappy with his work. Some of these jazzy themes remain, but Goblin wrote most of the proggy, harpsichord-heavy score that Argento fans know and love. Originally known as the Cherry Five, Goblin’s early lineup included Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, Massimo Morante, and Walter Martino. Their score for Deep Red is mostly a prog rock affair, no doubt inspired by bands like King Crimson, but includes both pop and jazz elements and is as menacing as it is catchy. In addition to keyboards and the harpsichord, Goblin uses acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, and has some very bass heavy songs on tracks like “Death Dies,” “Profondo Rosso,” and “Mad Puppet.” This is certainly one of their finest scores for Argento and the complete score can fortunately be found on CD

Deep Red comes highly recommended, as does the Goblin score, though I am somewhat biased because it was my first favorite Argento film and the first I had the pleasure to see. Over the years there have been a number of Deep Red releases, including a restored DVD from Anchor Bay, a Blue Underground Blu-ray, and a two-disc special edition Arrow Blu-ray. It remains one of Argento’s most loved films for a good reason and is a fine example of post-Hitchcockian cinema that straddled the line between horror film and psychosexual thriller.

Monday, March 23, 2015

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET aka 4 MOSCHE DI VELLUTO GRIGIO

Dario Argento, 1971
Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle

Roberto, a drummer in a local band, notices that he’s being followed by a stranger in dark sunglasses. One night after practice he follows the man into an empty theater to try to get some answers, but the man attacks Roberto and Roberto accidentally stabs him. A masked figure up in the balcony begins taking pictures and Roberto flees certain that he killed the man. He begins receiving pictures of the attack in the mail and has strange nightmares about a man being executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia. Soon he is physically threatened and his maid, who discovered the identity of the blackmailer, is found murdered. As the blackmailer closes in and bodies pile up, Roberto desperately looks for help to keep himself from being the next victim.
Argento’s third entry in his “Animal Trilogy” was difficult to find for many years – it wasn’t available for home viewing for a wide audience until 2009 – and primarily serves as an important link between his debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and his first masterpiece, Deep Red. Four Flies on Grey Velvet prefigures Deep Red, Tenebre, and Opera by using one of Argento’s most beloved devices: a traumatic flashback coming from an ambiguous source. Here, someone is being tied to a bed in an asylum and child abuse is implied. This theme of trauma from the past – particularly trauma linked to the family – is a common theme throughout Argento’s work and Four Flies is full of fraught relationships and bizarre characters.

Where Four Flies perhaps suffers the most is that its protagonist, Roberto (Michael Brandon, bearing an odd resemblance to Argento), is completely unlikable. Like all of Argento’s early protagonists, Roberto is a foreigner, an American, and like Deep Red’s Marcus Daly, he’s a musician. He spends his time with eccentrics – a reclusive, burly artist (as in Bird with the Crystal Plumage), an openly gay private investigator, and his wife’s cousin who is quick to have an affair with him – and his wife seems to be verging on hysteria. The film is driven by Roberto’s paranoia that he killed a man – a paranoia intensified by his refusal to take responsibility for the act. Argento succeeds in sustaining this claustrophobic air throughout the film, which is complicated by palpable sexual tension and confused identities, as well as the sense that the killer is always close to Roberto.

Much like his previous film, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies makes an ill-advised attempt to include science into its plot in the form of a strange experiment. The theory is that the retina records the last image a person saw before their death, so one of the victims has her eye tested (with frickin’ laser beams) during autopsy. They find a confusing image of “four flies on grey velvet,” a clue that will only reveal itself at the end of the film. This use of the human eye as a camera is an interesting idea that Argento would explore in more subtle ways with Deep Red, but it comes off as a bit preposterous here. While other directors have managed to effectively use improbably science in horror, such as both Kurt Neumann's The Fly and David Cronenberg's remake, as well as British horror film The Asphyx (a very underrated take on a camera capturing death), it is simply not Argento's forte.

Where the film excels is in its use of stylized violence. There are two moments in particular that foreshadowed some excellent effects, particularly the final moment where the killer – speeding away in a car – panics and careens into the back of a trash truck. The ensuing death is shot in glorious, agonizing slow motion. The glass shatters around the killer’s face, metal warps, decapitation begins, and all is eventually consumed by flames. The use of a violent car crash at the end of a giallo film was standard practice for an early giallo/Italian thriller director like Umberto Lenzi, but Argento turns it into a thing of absolute beauty, rather than just a convenient way to resolve a complicated plot. This and a scene where the camera captures a bullet in motion are poetic celebrations of death and violence that Argento would continue exploring throughout his career.

Overall, the plot is unsatisfying and has more filler scenes than perhaps any other early Argento work – along with some random comedy in the form of an abused mailman. The reveals are clumsy, characters are ill-defined, and all-in-all this feels like a dry-run for the more successful Deep Red, but it has some fantastic moments. The aforementioned finale is a thing of wonder and Mimsy Farmer works particularly well here as Roberto’s wife, though she is somewhat underused. Farmer became an Italian horror staple through films like Four Flies, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Autopsy, and others, and her aloof, dreamy air added a sense of eeriness that few other actresses could mimic.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet comes recommended for some very fine moments and for its role as an important transitional film in Argento’s career. It’s also worth checking out the great score from Ennio Morricone – his last for Argento for many years, thanks to a dispute between the two. The film doesn’t quite rank among his classics, but it often rests on the verge of greatness thanks to a particularly anxious exploration of death and mortality not found elsewhere in the director’s films. Roberto’s unexplained dream sequences featuring a man’s beheading are unforgettable and linger long after memories of the loopy plot have faded. And after years languishing in obscurity, it is available on Blu-ray from Shameless and is well worth picking up.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

THE CAT O’NINE TAILS aka IL GATTO A NOVE CODE

Dario Argento, 1971
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Horst Frank

A blind man, Franco, and his young charge Lori, accidentally stumble into a blackmail plot one night walking home past the Terzi Institute, a renowned science center responsible for some groundbreaking research. A break in and murder soon follows at the Institute, and journalist Carlo begins following the story. Despite his impairment, Franco has a brilliant mind and sets about unraveling the mystery. He and Carlo team up and discover that a doctor who claimed to know the identity of the thief was murdered, though the police have ruled his death accidental. The bodies begin to pile up as Franco and Carlo close in on the killer, who seems to be connected to the Institute’s research on the YY chromosome, indicating latent violent tendencies.

Argento has referred to this Italian-French-West German coproduction as his least favorite film and I’m inclined to agree. Among his classic works (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to 1987’s Opera), the second and third entries — The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet — are by far his weakest. The Cat O’Nine Tails was certainly something I neglected over the years, despite seeing many of his other films repeatedly. But unlike Four Flies on Grey Velvet it has a certain charm and warmth, thanks largely to star Karl Malden’s appearance as the improbable blind detective.

I think The Cat O’Nine Tails biggest issue is that it takes a notable step backwards into safer and more conventional territory after Argento’s debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. While that first film was certainly influenced by traditional mystery literature and the German krimi films, Argento added his own innovative blend of style, art, and violence to the mix. The Cat O’Nine Tails, however, takes an uneasy foray into science and focuses on a more traditional relationship between a crime journalist and a brilliant amateur detective.

And that relationship — between Karl Malden and James Franciscus — is the best part of the film. It’s a rare healthy example of male bonding and machismo (as portrayed by the macho Franciscus and the fatherly Malden) in an Argento film. Though the two begin by exchanging information, but become quite close by the film’s end, with nice moments of Carlo joining Franco and his niece for dinner. The domestic elements of this film and its examination of complicated family relationships that would emerge throughout Argento’s body of work. In addition to the unusual threesome — Franco’s niece is adopted and is not a blood relative — one of the chief scientists has a strange, almost incestuous relationship with his adult daughter (Catherine Spaak), who is also adopted. Her subsequent affair with Carlo is one of the film’s most awkward relationships.

The easy partnership between Carlo and Franco gives this a sort of Dragnet air, where the buddy investigators use crime fighting and mystery solving to give their lives purpose and definition. But there is also something of Agatha Christie here with the Miss Marple-like plot device of Franco and his niece overhearing the genesis of the crime on a street corner — whispers about blackmail from a nearby car. Throughout the film, Franco makes some ridiculous leaps of faith that nearly always turn out to be true, and the blind detective — a crossword puzzle writer by trade — would be completely ludicrous if it weren’t for the blithe Malden.

The film has a few main flaws that make it understandable why Argento ranks this as his least favorite. Unlike The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it struggles to find its own identity and rests somewhere between giallo and standard mystery film. The lack of style is disappointing, particularly after the bravado of Bird, and Argento wouldn’t really set this right until his fourth horror film, Deep Red (1975). There are also several moments of unintentional humor, which are often found in giallo films thanks to bad dubbing, but here results from some awkward and/or improbably situations. 

Speaking of the latter, I think Argento’s biggest mistake is his ill advised foray into science. While most of his other films concern artistic protagonists (most often musicians and writers) and plots hinging on the psychosexual, Cat O’Nine Tails dabbles in corporate espionage and scientific research with mixed results. While some directors can effortlessly blend themes of horror and science fiction, this lacks the emotional depth of the explanation for the killer’s actions in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Tenebre, and others.

Available on Blu-ray, Cat O’Nine Tails only comes recommended to Argento fans or anyone who enjoys more traditional murder mysteries. There are some solid kills — a man is pushed in front of a train, a woman is strangled because of evidence she has hidden, and a photographer is killed in a dark room in one of the most Argento-like scenes — and it is one of his warmest, if least imaginative works. And I don’t know about you, but I love Karl Malden. You could have quite an afternoon with a triple feature of this film, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain and Baby Doll.

Friday, March 20, 2015

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE aka L’UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO

Dario Argento, 1970
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi

Sam, an American writer in Rome, witnesses the attempted murder of a woman in an art gallery. A black-gloved attacker nearly kills Monica Ranieri, the beautiful wife of the gallery’s owner, Alberto. The police, suspicious of Sam and in need of his help, confiscate his passport and prevent his return flight to American while the investigation is still underway — they believe that the same person murdering women around the city is responsible for the attack on Monica. Sam has the sense that he’s seen something he can’t quite put his finger on that’s a critical clue, and soon the murderer begins targeting Sam, trying to kill him before he solves the mystery.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was Dario Argento’s very impressive debut as a director. He had been working as a film critic and a screenwriter up until then and, thanks to some family connections, was able to make this highly influential first film. Though it is obviously inspired by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and borrows much of its plot from Frederic Brown’s uncredited novel The Screaming Mimi, Argento brought a blend of sadomasochism, violence, and exaggerated style to the screen that is obviously all his own. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage effectively synthesized the German krimi films based on Edgar Wallace’s mystery novels, Bava’s candy-colored horror films, and Hitchcock's psychosexual thrillers to create something new and unusual.

The film not only strengthens the tropes introduced by Bava — which would carry on throughout the genre — but it also introduces a number of themes that would obsess Argento throughout his career. For starters, the protagonist is a foreigner who is not a detective or police officer, but who is forced to solve the case because a) he is targeted by the killer, b) the police are ineffectual, and c) he has some perverse passion, an innate curiosity, that propels him onwards. The victims are primarily beautiful women, and the killer wears leather gloves and a raincoat. The killer is murdering because of an unresolved past trauma not revealed until the film’s conclusion, and characters surrounding the protagonist are depicted as in someway morally compromised, perverse. These are all standard giallo fixtures.

One key theme that would carry on throughout Argento’s work is the problem of vision, the concept of the seen but wrongly interpreted or not yet understood clue. Sam witnesses the attempted murder, but realizes that he has seen something important that he can’t quite put his finger on. This same scenario occurs in later films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre, and it is this device that sets Argento so far apart from the Agatha Christie-style mysteries that came before him and the slasher films that would come after. Works of classic detective fiction often revolve around a clever amateur detective, such as Holmes or Poirot, and a Everyman partner like Watson or Hastings. Mysteries are solved when the detective reveals the missing links between a series of elaborate clues — links that he has figured out often due to some information not available to the sidekick or the audience. But in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the genius detective is cast aside for a far more suspenseful tale where a modern Everyman — and the cinema goers following him — must try to solve the crime through primarily visual evidence.

Another theme with a strong presence in Argento’s work that was introduced in this film is the use of animal imagery. His first three films were dubbed the “Animal Trilogy’ thanks to their titles — The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet — despite the tenuous connection to animals. Many of his films include at least one scene with an animal (a lizard, dogs, insects, birds, and even a chimpanzee), and here a key clue is figured out by the call of the titular rare bird, a guest at the local zoo. This is entwined with the film’s larger motifs of hunting, collecting, and imprisonment. When Sam witnesses Monica’s attack, he’s trapped between two glass doors like a fish in an aquarium (which was allegedly Argento’s inspiration), which looks into a gallery filled with terrifying metallic art, including a bird claw. The film’s living spaces are prison-like — Sam’s one room dwelling, Monica’s high rise apartment, and the artist’s loft, which can only be accessed by a ladder — and key sets include the zoo and a hall filled with taxidermy.

Art is another important theme. In addition to the fact that the initial crime scene is set at an art gallery, an antique store, a deranged painter, and an eerie painting provide an important clue, and art actually becomes a weapon. Many of Argento’s early protagonists were artists: Sam is a writer and his girlfriend is a model, while later examples include musicians, photographers, journalists, dancers, novelists, and opera singers. This theme can be found throughout the genre, as the characters are often expected to be hip or fashionable, or artists with unstable dispositions.

SPOILERS AHEAD (for many of Argento’s movies): Finally, this is also the first of many films where the killer is given an unusual identity. There is something Hitchcockian about this and I can’t help but be reminded of Psycho, where the killer becomes quietly insane after years of repressing a past trauma. While we believe the killer is Mrs. Bates, it is really Norman in disguise. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an inversion of this in the sense that we believe the killer to be male (it is even presented that Monica’s husband is guilty), until we discover that Monica has been in disguise in androgynous garb. Many of Argento’s subsequent films follow this pattern: Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red also have female killers, while Tenebre and Phenomena each have two murderers.

It is difficult to examine The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on its own, as I’ve seen most of Argento’s classic films (from this first entry through Opera in 1987) many times throughout the years. It is an incredibly strong directorial debut and has very, very few flaws. Thanks to his aforementioned connections, Argento was able to get some exceptional talent working on the film, such as composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Bertolucci’s regular collaborator). There is likely much more I could say about the film, but little that hasn’t already been said. It comes with the highest recommendation and is one of my favorite of Argento’s works. For obvious reasons, it’s also a great introduction to giallo films — certainly more accessible than Blood on Black Lace — and if you don’t own it already, pick up the special edition DVD or Blu-ray.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

EYEBALL aka GATTI ROSSI IN UN LABIRINTO DI VETRO

Umberto Lenzi, 1975
Starring: Martine Brochard, John Richardson, Ines Pellegrini

A bus full of tourists vacationing in Spain are picked off one at a time by a sadistic killer hiding in their midst. This mysterious assailant gouges out the left eyeball of each victim and a Barcelona inspector, days away from retiring, is determined to find the culprit before it’s too late. The only clues he has to go on is that the killer wears a bright red raincoat and red gloves and focuses on the female members of the tour group. Anyone could be the killer, including a marketing agent and his secretary (she’s also secretly his mistress), a priest, a former soldier, a lesbian couple, and more.

While the Italian title translates to Red Cats in a Glass Labyrinth and it is also known as Wide-Eyed in the Dark, The Devil’s Eye, and The Secret Killer, the aptly re-named Eyeball is one of Lenzi’s goofiest, most absurd thrillers. It’s packed with red herrings and ridiculous characters and while I can’t say I didn’t see the ending coming from early in the film, it’s was silly enough to be surprisingly enjoyable. Be prepared for some truly ludicrous dialogue and characters who mindlessly continue enjoying their vacations while their friends and loved ones are dropping dead – an amusing spoof of the (primarily American) middle class tourists who won’t let anything get in the way of their good time, all the while complaining about local customs.

Eyeball is undeniably a flawed affair, but will appeal to anyone who enjoys the trashier side of Italian cinema. Lenzi included all the standard giallo elements – an unidentifiable killer wearing gloves and a raincoat, red herrings, unlikable characters that are all potentially guilty, female nudity, and violence – but such a sloppy way that he seems to be more concerned with having a good time than making a suspenseful film. Like Lenzi’s Knife of Ice, this is a Spanish co-production that takes advantage of some lovely locations in and around Barcelona, and unfortunately there are several scenes where the setting is more interesting than the proceedings.

Perhaps the film’s main flaw is that it lacks a solid protagonist, or, at the least, a familiar giallo lead. Instead, Martine Brochard (The Violent Professionals, A Man Called Blade) and John Richardson (Black Sunday, She) are wholly unlikable. Richardson’s Mark Burton is cheating on his mentally disturbed wife, who is herself a suspect when she fails to turn up at the mental asylum she was supposed to check in to (!) and sends Mark a telegram that she has arrived in Barcelona. Brochard’s Paulette perhaps could have been an interesting character with a more forgiving script; instead her sole function is to act as the stereotype of a jealous, demanding mistress.

When I really think about it, the repetitive deaths, unlikable characters, and undeniably silly elements reminds me more of ‘80s slasher films than ‘70s giallo. While this has the colorful elements of a giallo, much of it is set outdoors in bright daylight, providing a direct contrast to the work of candy-colored, but still dark, menacing work of Bava and Argento, and even to the similar, Gothic-themed and lushly-colored The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), where a different busload of tourists meets a sticky end in the Spanish countryside. The killer’s standout signature – a bright red raincoat and matching gloves – is also a departure from the stylish black and dark brown leather trench coats of the early giallo classics like Blood and Black Lace, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and Deep Red. I can’t help but wonder if it’s borrowed from the far more effective English-Italian coproduction, Don’t Look Now (1973), where a small, red raincoat-clad menace terrorizes a grieving couple in Venice.

Eyeball is not available on DVD in the US (yet), though a German disc exists under the title Labyrinth des Schreckens (Labyrinth of Terror). Lenzi completists, Eurotrash fans, and anyone who loves lower grade slasher films will probably get a kick out of this later-era giallo that has more in common with Lenzi’s Nightmare City than it does with Blood and Black Lace. Keep an ear out for a nice score from Bruno Nicolai – regular composer for Jess Franco, Sergio Martino, Sergio Corbucci, and even Tinto Brass – that rises above the proceedings.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

SPASMO

Umberto Lenzi, 1974
Starring: Robert Hoffmann, Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov

Christian finds a woman’s body on the beach, but she turns out to be alive. He sees her again soon after and learns her name is Barbara. They begin a relationship, though it is fraught with troubles. A man breaks in to Barbara’s hotel room and Christian fights him off, accidentally killing him, and then the body disappears. They hide out at Christian’s friends’ artsy beachside home, which happens to already be inhabited by renters: an old man and his younger girlfriend. The couple claim they want to help Christian uncover the truth, but all is not as it seems.

Spasmo is by far one of Lenzi’s strangest thrillers and there’s nothing else quite like it. This is certainly a film rife with plot holes and confusing twists, but if you like utterly bizarre films – or are familiar enough with Eurotrash that you don’t demand a lot of rationality from the plot – it’s well worth hanging on for the ride. There is little gore or violence and things don’t really get going until the third half of the film, but once they do, there is quite a descent into madness and murder… and mannequins. If you hate movies with mannequins, this is not the movie for you.

I think it was only inevitable that pediophobia – the fear of dolls – and automatonophobia – the fear of humanoid figures – have played a fairly significant role in the horror genre over the years. Freud’s concept of the uncanny, the strangely familiar that both repulses and attracts, can be found everywhere from the monster that appears in human guise (Dracula, The Wolf-Man) to the double (The Student of Prague), the dead brought back to life (Frankenstein), recreations of the human form (Der Golem), and many, many more. Mannequins began to trickle into horror through the ‘30s and ‘40s, growing in popularity: for example, House of Wax (1953), The Twilight Zone episode that terrified me as a child, “The After Hours” (1960), Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), his later Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), and the totally wacko American film Tourist Trap (1979), to name just a few.

Mannequins are used particularly effectively in Spasmo and rest at the heart of the film’s mystery, because you have no idea what the devil they mean until the last five minutes of the film. There are mannequins on the beach, mannequins hanging from trees, punctured by knives, bloodied, scantily clad, and so much more – plus an array of taxidermied animals. The mannequins are an obvious stand-in for female corpses and it soon becomes clear that this is not a story of Christian running from a missing body, but that a maniacal murderer is loose. Lenzi relies solely on the unpredictable and atmospheric, so it’s difficult to discuss the film without giving away its twist ending.

Characters appear and disappear, seemingly at will, and Christian’s girlfriend Barbara (played by adorable giallo regular Suzy Kendall of Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Torso) can’t corroborate his story. Kendall, whose best performances rely on her wide-eyed beauty, is at a loss here as a character who is supposed to seem ambiguous – at some times innocently in love with Christian and at other times as a potentially dangerous femme fatale – and it’s unclear if the weakness stems from the script or Kendall’s performance. It is Barbara’s introduction to the story – as a body washed up on the beach – that launches Christian into a world of paranoia, madness, and murder. Unfortunately, Kendall’s expressions range from confused to carefree, dampening what could have been an interesting role.

Austrian actor Robert Hoffmann (from Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil for Lisa and another cult film set on a beach, The Lonely Violent Beach, one of the few directed by giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi) is able to hold his own here, with no help from the script, and makes the best of the “wrong man” scenario he is placed in. Despite some hilarious moments – such as an early scene where he lets Barbara convince him to shave off his beard – he’s able to elicit the necessary sympathy. His brother is played by one of my favorite giallo actors, the sinister-looking Ivan Rassimov (All the Colors of the Dark, A White Dress for Mariale), though he isn’t given nearly enough screen time, but fittingly has the last laugh.

Despite its flaws, Spasmo is an unusual psychological thriller worth checking out, thanks to the nonsensical, go-for-broke plot, mannequins akimbo, stunning shots of the Tuscan coast, and a solid score (as always) from Ennio Morricone. Somewhat like Lenzi’s previous film, Knife of Ice, this has a touch of Gothic style and makes the absolute most of the amazing landscape, shot by Guglielmo Mancori, a veteran of spaghetti westerns, Eurocrime, Lenzi’s earlier So Sweet… So Perverse, and more (including one of my favorites, Wild Beasts). Amazingly, Spasmo has made it to DVD thanks to Shriek Show and it is, at the least, worth a rental. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

KNIFE OF ICE aka IL COLTELLO DI GHIACCIO

Umberto Lenzi, 1972
Starring: Carroll Baker, Ida Galli, George Rigaud

Martha, a young woman who has been mute since witnessing the death of her parents in a train accident years ago, is excited about the arrival of her cousin Jenny, who has been travelling the world as a famous singer. Jenny arrives, via train, to Martha’s home in the Pyrenees with her wealthy uncle. But her visit is cut short one dark night when she goes to investigate a strange sound in the garage and is murdered. The small village is thrown into a panic, as she is the second young blonde woman found murdered that night and local police believe Satanists are responsible when they find an amulet at the scene of the crime.

This Italian-Spanish coproduction is the fourth collaboration between director Umberto Lenzi and American star Carroll Baker, though it is a marked contrast to Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, and Paranoia, all of which are erotic thrillers centered on a threesome gone wrong. Instead, Knife of Ice offers up very little sexual material and the only remotely erotic element is the skimpy nightgown worn by Italian star and giallo regular Ida Galli (La dolce vita, The Leopard, Hercules in the Haunted World) in her brief role as Jenny. Jenny’s appearance is not dissimilar to Janet Leigh’s lengthier turn in Psycho. This introduction of a major star who is then suddenly killed off, does come as quite a shock and in that sense, Knife of Ice is one of his most successful thrillers. By shedding the predictable formula of his early films (including the three with Carroll Baker and 1971’s Oasis of Fear), Lenzi manages to deliver a fairly gripping film with a number of effective red herrings and a surprising twist. He creates a paranoid world closing in around the mute, helpless Martha, where seemingly every character is a potential killer.

SPOILERS IN THIS ENTIRE PARAGRAPH: Fascinatingly, the actual murderer is revealed, at the absolute last minute, to be Martha herself in a twist that I perhaps should have seen coming, but didn’t. This is an early example of what would become a fairly popular trope in Italian horror, the female murderer. These characters can be found throughout Argento’s films in particular – though notably one of the earliest examples is Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The majority of the characters are inspired to kill because of a traumatic past experience. A deeply embedded psychosis eventually emerges thanks to some trigger, one that seems slight, but brings about a violent change in personality.

Knife of Ice is also part of a handful of films released in 1972 that include an odd plot device. The police – and often the protagonists themselves – are thrown off the track of the killer, because they come to believe that the murders are being committed by a group of Satanists. Martha and Jenny’s Uncle Ralph (George Rigaud of Eyeball, Horror Express, The Case of the Bloody Iris) just happens to be an expert on the field and can help the police when they come across Satanic imagery and a drugged out Satan worshipper with psychotic eyes. Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark have similar uses for devil worshippers or practitioners of black magic. This was also the same year for satanic horror films Dracula A.D. 1972, Virgin Witch, Bava’s Baron Blood, and others, following a genre craze that began in the ‘60s and came to a head the following year with The Exorcist.

The appearance of the satanic character (Spanish actor Mario Pardo) gives this film a mildly psychedelic, swinging ‘60s vibe that runs rampant throughout Lenzi’s earlier thrillers, but otherwise, this is a tame, mannered film that could be set almost any time after the ‘40s. Though there are four deaths, violence and gore are non-existent, with one notable and strange exception. Martha has flashbacks of a bull-fighting match she attended with Jenny some undisclosed time in the past. The horrified Martha watches as bull fighters attack and kill the bull (a real scene of animal violence, for the squeamish), while Jenny practically salivates with bloodlust beside her. This disturbing hint of what can only be described as sexual menaced is enhanced by the apparent guilt and/or sinister behavior of nearly all the male characters, including Martha’s doctor (Franco Fantasia), her driver (Eduardo Fajardo), and her uncle. It’s a shame this element wasn’t further developed.

The film’s final attribute worth mentioning are the strangely Gothic visuals, which replace the standard giallo use of vibrant, modern art-inspired set design and over-the-top use of primary colors. Knife of Ice primarily takes place in an old villa right next to a crumbling cemetery. The basement of the house resembles a crypt seen later in the film and the lovely, mountain-side town is beset with waves of fog several times a day, adding a built-in plot device. This restrained performance from Baker is one of her best and her lack of dialogue – combined with conservative, juvenile dresses and repressed mannerisms – make her seem far younger than 41.

This mannered, restrained giallo will not be for everyone, but Knife of Ice should please fans of elaborately plotted murder mysteries and thrillers with a Gothic atmosphere. It’s available on DVD and comes recommended, but don’t be fooled by the title. Though the original Italian, Il coltello di ghiaccio does translate directly to Knife of Ice, it’s connection to the plot is flimsy at best and refers to the Edgar Allen Poe quote that opens the film: “Fear is a knife of ice which penetrates the senses down to the depth of conscience.” This is obviously a reference to the identity of the killer and their motivations, as well as to the film’s Gothic imagery – though it doesn’t seem like this is actually something written by Poe, unless it was re-translated into English from a skewed Italian translation. I’d love to have the chance to ask Lenzi where this came from, as he’s still alive and kicking as I write this.

Friday, March 13, 2015

SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS aka SETTE ORCHIDEE MACCHIATE DI ROSSO

Umberto Lenzi, 1972
Starring: Uschi Glas, Antonio Sabàto, Pier Paolo Capponi, Marisa Mell

A number of women are murdered by a mysterious, black-gloved killer. The only clue left at each crime scene is a piece of jewelry: an ornate, half-moon pendant. The only victim to escape is the third intended victim, Giulia. The police help her fake her death, while her boyfriend, Mario, tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and figure out the identity of the killer before it is too late. They soon trace the half-moon pendant back to a hotel Giulia once worked in; the other dead woman can also be linked back there in some way, and Giulia and Mario make a list of potential future victims. But will they locate the killer in time?

One of Lenzi’s few traditional giallo films, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, also known as Puzzle of the Silver Half Moons, is also one of his most accessible. It’s a great place to start for relative giallo newbies, who are ready to move past Bava and Argento to other directors, as the film has some great murder set pieces and the plot is certainly less ridiculous than some other giallo scripts I can think of. To Lenzi’s credit, and things generally move towards a logical conclusion. The story is credited to both Edgar Wallace and Cornell Woolrich. Wallace was a British writer whose mystery/suspense novels kicked off an entire German genre in the ‘60s known as krimi films (read my introduction to this fun series for more information).

Cornell Woolrich, one of my favorite American writers, penned a series of bleak crime novels known as the Black series, which influenced film noir. They are generally all concerned with revenge killings. Rendezvous in Black, which supposedly influenced Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, follows a man whose fiancée died in an accident the night before their wedding. He tracks down the group of men responsible and, every year on the anniversary of his bride’s death, he murders one of their loved ones. While Seven Blood-Stained Orchids does not follow this frankly absurd plot about a drunken flight and deadly projectile, Lenzi’s killer mimics this pattern. In order to get revenge for a past trauma – equally as coincidental as the death in Rendezvous in Black – this incident has driven the killer mad and he murders every woman associated with the event, because he doesn’t know the identity of the responsible individual.

The themes of past traumas haunting the future, guilt, and evaded responsibility coming home to roost are standard giallo themes, but there is something light-hearted and almost innocent about Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. While so many giallo characters – including protagonists, victims, bystanders, and killers – are often portrayed as immoral, possessing dirty secrets, and capable of dark deeds, Mario and Giulia are surprisingly likable and oddly innocent. This may be something of an unintentional spoiler, but it would be only too easy for either Mario or Giulia to be the killer, but instead, they are refreshingly devoted to one another.

While I enjoy the general irrationality that comes with most giallo films, the killer here even has something of a reason for his/her crimes. There are still a fair amount of red herrings, including a case of identical twins, and some wonderfully suspenseful moments, such as a scene where a future victim finds her dying cats – recently poisoned by the killer – sprawled out on the floor of her home. Despite its title, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is not dependent on gore. Several death scenes are implied, relying on tension alone, though there are some well-executed scenes of violence. In one such moment, the lovely Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik) meets a sticky end at the pointy end of a power drill. The film’s final reveal – no actual spoilers here – is also carefully controlled as Mario and the killer battle in a pool, allowing for a tense scene that takes its time to reveal the killer’s face. Guilia, who was nearly drowned to death, waits helplessly by.

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a pleasant, if run-of-the-mill affair that hits all the giallo notes, including a black-clad killer with leather gloves, but doesn’t offer anything particularly noteworthy or unique. Antonio Sabata (Beyond the Law) and German actress Uschi Glas (The College Girl Murders) are not the most compelling of giallo protagonists, and there are some glaring plot holes – namely the fact that I have no clue what the pendants actually have to do with anything. Despite these routine flaws, it’s a solid watch and is available on DVD from Shriek Show, and, as I mentioned, is a good starting place for giallo newcomers. It’s light-heated with plenty of funny moments and has an up-beat, jazzy score from the underrated Riz Ortolani. When you consider that 1972 was one of the giallo genre’s most prolific years, with films like Death Walks at Midnight, Who Saw Her Die?, The Killer is On the Phone, What Have You Done to Solange?, Case of the Bloody Iris, Delirium, and many more, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a level-headed, quality entry that proves Lenzi is capable of restraint, a fact belied by his later, gore-drenched works.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

OASIS OF FEAR aka UN POSTO IDEALE PER UCCIDERE

Umberto Lenzi, 1971
Starring: Irene Papas, Ornella Muti, Ray Lovelock

Two British teens fund a European vacation by selling pornography, until they come across some obstacles: they are arrested for peddling their wares and have a sizable chunk of their profits stolen by a motorcycle-riding folk singer. With no funds, food, or gas for their obnoxious yellow convertible with flowers painted all over it, they stumble across a village that appears to be abandoned. They break into the garage to steal gas from the car, but they meet the outraged woman of the house, Barbara. At first threatening to call the police, she soon invites them to stay the night. What begins as a fun evening – including dinner, champagne, and a dance party – soon becomes more sinister when it seems that Barbara is trying to frame the two youngsters.

Also known as An Ideal Place for Murder and Dirty Pictures, this takes Umberto Lenzi’s favorite giallo conceit – the threesome gone horribly wrong – and adds a sense of anarchistic fun and some clever twists and turns. This is essentially an inversion of his previous film, Orgasmo (1969), where two teens (or possibly twenty-somethings) prey upon a wealthy woman alone in a country mansion. Here, the stately Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) brooks far less nonsense than the blonde, susceptible Carrol Baker and it’s immediately clear that not only does she have something to hide, but she isn’t really in danger when the kids decide to take her hostage… she’s just biding her time.

Apparently Lenzi originally wanted this to be his own take on something like Easy Rider and the first act does establish a sort of swingin’ ‘60s amour fou flavor. The beautiful Ornella Muti (Flash Gordon) looks nothing like an English schoolgirl, but is delightful in her role as a kittenish, if naïve teen who refuses to play by the rules. The Italian-English Ray Lovelock is slightly more believable if less likable than Muti in one of his first starring roles. Something of a legend in Italian B-cinema, he would return to horror in a few years with Autopsy and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and make an even bigger name for himself in Eurocrime films like Almost Human and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man.

The potential for criminal activity – and silliness – established in the first half is upended when the teens invade Barbara’s home, but Lenzi is unable to pull off the effective sense of dread and suspense found in Orgasmo. There is one scene that stands above the rest, when Barbara flees into what she calls a “bird house” on the property, a dark, foreboding dwelling filled with panicking birds. She lunges madly at Lovelock with a knife while an owl screeches over their heads and wings flap incessantly. But much of the remainder of the action comes to a halt when they play cat and mouse in Barbara’s home and Lenzi wavers far too long over who is predator and who is prey.

SPOILERS: Oasis of Fear includes the four key elements found in Lenzi’s giallo trilogy with Carroll Baker, namely a ménage-à-trois gone wrong, a very dated dance sequence, spousal murder, and vehicular death. That’s no exaggeration – in each of these films, someone gets into a fatal automobile accident, usually because they’re driving like an asshole, and it is used as a sort of deus-ex-machina, for the guilty to get their just desserts. Except, of course, for Oasis of Fear, where he finally retires this formula and in a cynical twist has the innocent parties die in a crash so that the guilty can get away. His more well-known giallo films, Eyeball and the superior Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, don’t fixate on these themes in quite the same way. And while I can understand how it’s easy to see these early four – Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, Paranoia, and Oasis of Fear – as dull and repetitive, it’s still fascinating to watch a director work through common themes in different ways.

Oasis of Fear is available on a PAL DVD from Shameless, and though it’s far from a must-see, it’s still an entertaining entry in Lenzi’s giallo series. The style is pleasantly dated and will please fans of Eurotrash – in particular, keep your ears peeled for Bruno Lauzi’s outrageous score, with some vocal stylings from Lovelock -- though giallo purists are likely to be disappointed at how long it takes things to get going. And I don’t know if Lenzi was trying to poke fun at “giallo” (meaning “yellow” in Italian), but so much of the set design is a particularly obnoxious shade of the color. While some of the genre’s most prominent directors, such as Bava and Argento, were known for their lurid, candy-colored lighting and set design, Oasis of Fear ties with Naked You Die for the most obnoxiously-designed early giallo.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

PARANOIA aka A QUIET PLACE TO KILL

Umberto Lenzi, 1970
Starring: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Luis Dávila

Helene, a racecar driver, has a bad accident that leaves her hospitalized, broke, and with at totaled car. Unsure of her future, she agrees to a recent invitation from her ex-husband, Maurice, who has invited her to the estate he shares with his wealthy second wife, Constance. Though some tension is in the air, it turns out that Constance really invited her and is hoping that Helene will aid her diabolical plan to murder Maurice so that he can never leave her for another woman. But Maurice is also making secret overtures to Helene, suggesting that he still loves her, and before she knows it, she’s caught in a tangled mess between husband and wife.

The third in Umberto Lenzi’s trilogy with Carroll Baker (after Orgasmo and So Sweet… So Perverseread my review of the former to find out about the confusion with the American titles of these films), A Quiet Place to Kill is also his third film about a complex love triangle that results in murder. This is closer to a standard giallo than either of the first two films, which feel more like erotic thrillers. Like So Sweet… So Perverse, this is almost a blatant rip off of Les Diabolique (1955), where two members of a threesome decide to kill the third, but then all sorts of mad double-crossing ensues and nothing is quite as it seems.

This Italian-French-Spanish co-production is nice to look at and boasts some lovely scenes, but is sadly short on atmosphere – particularly compared to Orgasmo – and has a plot that can only be described as cockamamie. For starters, we’re expected to believe that Carroll Baker is a racecar driver. In Orgasmo and So Sweet… So Deadly, she plays ultra-feminine, pampered characters, a female stereotype who is easy manipulated, controlled, and abused. And she quickly slips into that role here. Despite the fact that she has some sassy moments, she defers to both Maurice and Constance in nearly every scene and does not seem particularly adventurous.

The plot twists are absolutely dizzying. SPOILERS: Essentially Constance wants Helene to help her kill Maurice, because – leap of faith here – he left Helene and he will do the same to Constance as soon as her money runs out. Constance seemingly expects Helene to organize the whole thing, but she can’t go through with it because Maurice manipulates her lingering feelings for him. Then he convinces her to help him kill Constance and make it look like an accident, which everyone believes except for Constance’s grown daughter, who Maurice is also compelled to seduce.

One notable element about Lenzi’s giallo films, particularly this early trilogy, is that unlike more popular entries in the genre, his protagonists do not often survive the film. This fatalistic universe implies that everyone is guilty of some crime (often murder), and that the antagonist will always get his/hers in the end. I don’t feel bad giving away a few spoilers while discussing this film (or any of Lenzi’s), because the purpose of his early films – utterly unlike the later “stalk and slash” giallo films – is not to discover the identity of a mysterious killer, but to watch the protagonists’ desperate attempts to cover up their crime and repress their guilt.

Horror fans may find this a dull affair, as at least the first half of the film borrows from soap operas and simply concerns the fraught relationship between a husband, his wife, and his ex-wife. But it becomes decidedly giallo-like after the first murder, with plenty of nudity, sex scenes, double-crossing, and the slow burn of Helene’s increasing paranoia. For fans of more ridiculous ‘60s and ‘70s cinema, Carroll Baker dances around a bit, Austin Powers-style, and she and Anna Proclemer (Journey to Italy) have plenty of fabulous costumes – including Baker’s birthday suit. There’s some pleasant camera work courtesy of Aristide Massacessi (aka Joe D’Amato) – providing a chance to see two of horror and exploitation’s most balls-to-the-wall directors in a lighter, gentler setting.

Paranoia is available on DVD as A Quiet Place to Kill and comes recommended to fans of erotic thrillers and giallo completists – though if you’re expecting something similar to the greatest hits of Dario Argento, look elsewhere. Baker and giallo regular Jean Sorel (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) are both fun to watch and seem like they had a great time lounging on sailboats and drinking J&B. And despite his lack of range, Sorel is always enjoyable in the “handsome bastard” role, found so often in giallo films (though he can’t compete with the master of this type, George Hilton).