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.