Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

La chiesa (The Church, 1989)

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fourstar

Following the completion of my Dario Argento project, I felt myself suffering from a distinct lack of Argento in my life. As such, I had to try and fill this lack with some of his other work. Upon beginning the retrospective, I decided not to include films that Argento had written but not directed, as this would have included a large body of films that were never released in the U.S. and would thus have been nearly impossible to track down. Most of the films to which he contributed a story or script idea in the heyday of his career did cross over, however, and I was able to track down a DVD copy of La chiesa (The Church). La chiesa was intended to be the third film in the series and is considered to be an official sequel according to some sources, but it’s unclear how it fits into that series.

Lamberto Bava (son of director Mario Bava) had previously served as the assistant director on Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae, and the two collaborated again on Demoni and Demoni 2, the latter of which was the film debut of a very young Asia Argento, with Bava directing and Argento contributing to the script. However, a film originally titled The Ogre (directed by Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, who contributed to the scripts for Demoni and Demoni 2) was released as Demoni 3: The Ogre in 1988, with La chiesa following in 1989. 1991 saw the release of yet another film titled Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, who had previously directed 1969’s Legion of the Damned from a script by—you guessed it—Dario Argento. Adding to the confusion, Bava did not direct La chiesa; it was instead directed by Michele Soavi, another member of that generation of Italian horror directors. All of this also fails to note that there were at least three other films that had the name “Demoni” applied to them as a marketing strategy; simply put, it’s ultimately unclear whether or not this film should be considered as a text which is part of an official ongoing narrative or simply as a text to be discussed in relation to the other texts made by its creators.

Regardless, the film works well as a standalone horror movie, and has Argento’s fingerprints all over it even if it was directed by someone else. Long ago, Teutonic Knights came upon a village that was supposedly inhabited by witches. An inquisitor damned the village when he saw one of the inhabitants with crucifix-shaped scars on her feet, and the knights slaughtered the entire population and buried all of the bodies in a mass grave; the location was then consecrated with a giant cross, and a church was built atop this grave to seal the great evil inside. One child (Asia Argento) almost escapes, but is simply the last victim—or so it seems. In present day (1989) Italy, Evan Altereus (Tomas Arana) arrives at the titular church, where he is taking over as the librarian. He meets art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working to revitalize a mural that shows the image of souls being tormented by a giant demon and his smaller attendants. Evan also meets the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is obsessed with the maintenance of the church, and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie), who spends a great deal of his time practicing archery and imagining that he is either a Teutonic Knight or shooting at one. Lotte (Asia Argento), the preteen daughter of the church groundskeeper, lives in the church as well.

Evan becomes fascinated by the gothic cathedral’s history, talking incessantly to Lisa about the designs of gothic churches and the oddness of the fact that no royal or high clergyman had ever been buried there. Renovations in the basement lead to the discovery of a scroll that becomes the focal point of Evan’s obsession, ultimately leading him to find the cross/seal; he breaks this seal and becomes the first person possessed by demonic spirits. Ultimately, as the groundskeeper and others fall under the influence of evil, the church’s built-in failsafes, designed by the alchemist architect, seal the church’s doors, trapping the aforementioned characters inside along with a field trip group of about twenty nine-year-olds, an argumentative young biker couple, an elderly couple, and a small bridal party. As the hand of evil closes around them, Father Gus races to save himself and Lotte.

First things first: this movie, like a lot of Argento’s directorial work, doesn’t hold up narratively or logically. The opening scene, featuring the slaughter of an entire village, raises a lot of questions from the first moments. Are the inhabitants of this village actually witches? Is Asia Argento’s character immortal, or is she reborn in the present day? I want to say that the backstory would have a stronger impact if it was made clear that the villagers were innocent and that the possessing entity was created out of the evil of slaughtering so many innocents, but there’s not enough evidence against that reading to definitively state that is not already the case. Even if we accept that (a) the villagers were witches, and that (b) the witches were in league with demons, and thus (c) the demons are entombed evil who escape and begin to possess the church inhabitants, there are still so many things left unexplained. Why does the demon-capturing failsafe only take effect after possessed Evan returns from ripping out his own insides and stalking Lisa at home? He could have never come back, in which case a demon made it into the real word beyond the church without consequence. Why does Father Gus have flashbacks about Teutonic Knights, and is he the knight in that sequence or the knight’s killer?

So much is left unexplained that the film fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. Evan’s full on demonic appearance is deeply unsettling in all of its practical effects glory, and it’s only one of the haunting images on display throughout. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the film ever got a DVD release in the original Italian, and the dubbing work here is notably bad; Lotte and an adult woman even have the exact same voice in the dub, which is really distracting. Overall, however, if you’re suffering from a lack of Argento in your life, like I was, it’ll help to fill that void, and is an interesting experiment in collaboration for Argento fans.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Dracula 3D (2012)

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twostar

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I have to admit, I was a little worried that by the time I finished watching and writing about all of Dario Argento’s movies, I would cause his death through some terrible accidental sympathetic magic problem. Luckily it looks like that is not going to be the case. Or, maybe fate’s planning to keep him going until I’ve finished my determination of which Argento is the most Argento is the most Argento. We’ll see.

Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D is not the director’s worst film. It isn’t his worst adaptation, or his worst period piece (Phantom of the Opera holds the record in all three of those categories). It’s no surprise that people dislike this movie; what is a surprise is that, while Opera holds an abysmal 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dracula holds a barely­-better 14% approval rating, which is strange considering that it is merely a bad movie, not one that is an affront to good taste and the basic tenets of human decency. There are even some fresh and original ideas here that work in the film’s favor, unlike Phantom, where the new ideas were detrimental to the overall film in virtually every instance (steampunk rat killing cart, anyone?). I’m not arguing that this is enough to save the movie—it definitely isn’t—but it does make the viewing a much less painful experience. There were times when I found myself enjoying the film and its eccentricities in spite of its multitude of flaws.

You know this story, for the most part. The film opens to find a young woman named Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli) sneaking out on Walpurgis Night to tryst in some hay. After she and her lover part ways, she is pursued by a dark force and flees through the woods, coming upon the home of Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console, who portrayed the nameless butcher in Giallo and Federica’s nameless boss in Do You Like Hitchcock?, so good for him getting a name this time around). For a moment, it seems Zoran will help her, but he instead just watches when she is attacked by Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann, who previously appeared in La sindrome de Stendhal as rapist/killer Alfredo Grossi). Later, Tanja rises from the dead as a new vampire so that she can fill the role of “vampire bride” in this narrative. The story proper gets going when Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde, which I’m pretty sure is the also the name of an artifact that Captain Picard is set to unearth on his next furlough) arrives in Transylvania aboard a CGI train and makes his way into the town. He spends the night at a local inn so that he can head to the count’s castle the next morning, but he spends enough time there to take note of all the garlic heaped around and be accosted by an imprisoned Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni). He also visits Lucy (Asia Argento), who is a dear friend of his wife, Mina. She warns him about the count in a very vague way, and she and her father fear for his safety when he finally departs. At the count’s home, he witnesses some strangeness and Tanja attempts to seduce him, but Dracula screams that Harker is his; he feasts on the younger man, who also becomes a vampire and then is dispatched in short order. Mina (Marta Gastini) arrives and begins to investigate, and she is aided by the sudden appearance of famed vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing (Rutger Hauer). Dracula recognizes Mina as the rebirth of his long dead love and tries to put her under his thrall. Can she resist his charms long enough for van Helsing to end Dracula’s reign of terror? (Yes.)

I love Rutger Hauer. His face alone is iconic; his line readings are the stuff of legend. He’s one of my favorite actors of all time, and even though I don’t understand his interest in appearing in mixed-­quality vampire media, I will never turn down the opportunity to watch; they’re two great tastes that taste great together! Whether he’s camping it up as Lothos in the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, portraying Dracula himself in Dracula III: The Legacy, bringing un-life to Kurt Barlow in the remade Salem’s Lot, or slumming it as Sookie’s fairy godfather on True Blood, I am there. I’m tempted to give this film an extra star just because he’s in it, but I’ll refrain, if only because I’m saving all my stars for Ladyhawke (come at me talking shit about Ladyhawke, and we will throw down). Unfortunately, even Hauer can’t make this film work, although his presence lends the film more credibility than it really deserves, but all his gravitas can’t make large swathes of his dialogue sound like something a real person would say.

As for the new and interesting things that Argento brings to the table, there are a few. In this retelling, the villagers are all complicit in Dracula’s killings, having made a pact with him in exchange for various favors (this Dracula paid for several townspeople to go to college, which is both awesome and ridiculous). The scene in which the Count repays their attempt to back out of the deal by slaughtering all of them is probably the best in the film: first, Phenomena­-esque swarms of flies appear in the inn dining hall as different people voice their objections; the swarm then coalesces into Dracula as the last few flies are absorbed into his person. It’s a really cool effect in a sea of bad CGI and incomprehensible lighting choices that lend the film an overall Asylum Studios feeling (the composited train is the most offensive; could Argento really not get a real train car?). I also enjoy the character of Zoran, whose blind devotion to Dracula in the face of his fellows’ wishy-washiness makes him a strangely compelling figure, whether he’s doing something as small as not giving Jonathan a letter that Mina has sent or something as eventful as taking it upon himself to murder Tanja’s mother to prevent her from reporting the appearance of Dracula to the authorities in the city. There’s also some nice use of legacy dialogue from previous Dracula adaptations, most notably the “children of the night/what music they make” line.

But, as I said before, this is not a good movie. The subplot involving Tanja is completely pointless and serves only as an excuse to bare some breasts (Asia also has yet another scene in this film in which she showers/bathes, which only gets more weird and uncomfortable every time). Renfield is likewise wasted, as he is devoted to Tanja, not the Count himself, in this retelling. The dubbing is some of the worst I’ve ever seen and heard; inexplicably, Lucy’s surname in the film is changed from Westenra to Kisslinger, and the dubbing wreaks havoc here as some pronounce her name as Kissinger (no “l”) a la Henry, while other characters enunciate the name as kiss-­linger. Aside from the swarm of flies, all of Dracula’s alternate forms are rendered very poorly; history will never forget the scene in which he transforms into a giant praying mantis in order to kill Lucy’s father, but the Drac-­wolf that tears out Jonathan Harker’s throat is actually much, much worse. Perhaps the worst thing of all, however, is that this is the only film from the entire Argento canon that is available on Netflix. I had to actually leave my apartment to track down every other film in this retrospective, but Dracula 3D came to me. It’s a shame that this weak entry in the director’s oeuvre is the one that is most accessible. This is a movie that, frankly, doesn’t really need to exist, but it does, and we all have to live with it. I recommend the film for Argento fans and hardcore Hauer devotees; the rest of you should just skip it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Il fantasma dell’opera (aka The Phantom of the Opera, 1998)

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halfstar

“When you hear my thoughts, you’ll know where to go.”

Oh. Oh my.

I was looking forward to Dario Argento’s 1998 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera with something like macabre excitement. After all, it was identified by TV Tropes, among others, as being widely regarded as the worst adaptation of that source material, in any media form, ever. Still, I expected that there would be something noteworthy or praiseworthy about it. After all, Phantom is a work with a huge body of reimaginings and revisions; Wikipedia lists twenty-eight different film adaptations (although some of these are homages rather than direct translations of the source), thirty stage versions, forty-six literary retellings, and an additional fourteen literary versions made for children. That doesn’t even include the radio plays, television shows, and comic books that retell or revisit the story. That’s no small feat, considering that the original novel was published barely over a century ago. Personally, I don’t quite understand the story’s enduring appeal, although that may simply be because I’ve never read the original novel, although I know the plot largely as the result of cultural osmosis through the various homages to the narrative that show up in other media from time to time. Such a large body of adaptations bespeaks a kind of fanaticism that made me question whether or not the “worst adaptation” moniker applied to Argento’s version was accurate or should be interpreted as a criticism on par with one made by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I expected that this might be the case, but I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Il fantasma dell’opera may very well be the worst Phantom adaptation of all time; I have not seen or read enough versions to say this definitively. I can say, however, it is the worst film of Argento’s that I have seen as part of this project, and is without question one of the worst movies I have ever seen, if not one of the worst movies of all time. I would dare venture to say it is one of the worst adaptations with regards to conceptualization as well, foregoing some of the most basic elements of the narrative for no identifiable reason (the Phantom isn’t even disfigured!). The acting is atrocious across the board, the overwrought dialogue is like something written by an overzealous student with delusions of grandeur (“Your perfume, your female smell–it pulses through me like the rolling ocean!”), and the direction so uninspired that I was shocked to learn that the stagey sets on which the film was shot weren’t sets at all, but the interiors of a real Victorian opera house in Budapest. It took me four attempts to make it through this movie without either falling asleep or losing interest completely. I have stared deep into the abyss of bad movies, and it gazed deeply into me also. Hell is this movie, and this movie is hell.

The film opens as a baby is placed in a basket and floats down the river, like a late-Nineteenth Century Moses. The basket washes up in some catacombs, where the infant is rescued by rats before the bassinet is able to flow over a waterfall. Some years later, three construction workers are dabbling in a well (I think?) when one smashes through the wall and accidentally discovers the series of catacombs. Christine Daaé (Asia Argento, in her third collaboration with her father) is a young ingénue opera performer who sneaks onto the deserted stage one night and sings; her impromptu performance is overheard by the Phantom (Julian Sands), who is immediately smitten with her, and she with him. Meanwhile, a character known only as The Rat Catcher (István Bubik) continues his crusade to rid the Opéra de Paris of all the rats hiding under its foundations. The Phantom, who was raised by the rats that saved him (and who taught him perfect English diction, apparently), takes offense at this and psychically forces the man to shove his hand into one of his own traps. A police inspector begins to investigate the strange occurrences that are credited to the Phantom, and is told that the specter is often accompanied by a cold wind and that he can compel people to perform actions against their will. (This features an interaction in which the investigator is informed of the temperature phenomenon by a seamstress, and then both of them rub their folded arms in the stagiest way possible while he asks “Did you just feel a sudden chill in the air?”)

Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), the brother of a minor duke of some kind, is also infatuated with Christine, who has begun to fall in love with the Phantom. Their communiques take the form of telepathic conversations, meaning that most of this romance consists of Asia Argento staring into space and verbally responding to unheard directives, which somehow still sounds more engaging than it actually is. She is torn between her two unremarkable suitors, however, wondering if “Knowing nothing of love, [she has] fallen in love with both men at once.” Various minor characters make their way into the catacombs only to be dispatched by the Phantom, and there is meant to be some symmetry between the people who go below the opera house and the rats who ascend into it and how both are killed, but it’s not very important, considering that this would make the Phantom and the Rat Catcher mirrors of each other, and that’s not relevant in any other sense. There’s also a subplot about Degas and his fondness for underage dancing girls who take classes at the opera house; another man who is also obsessed with the young girls is killed by the Phantom when he chases a girl (who looks about ten) into the catacombs in an attempt to molest her. This, too, is completely irrelevant to the plot save that it shows one of the Phantom’s victims is deserving of his fate.

Christine eventually accompanies the Phantom to his lair, where the two sleep together. It’s not sexy; the tableaux in the scene where the Phantom bends over Christine with his long, greasy hair calls to mind the Peter Paul Rubens painting of Cronus devouring one of his children more than anything else. Despite her reasonable wishes not to be left alone in his rat-infested cave while he returns to the opera house, he leaves her so that he can frighten and injure the diva Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) so that Christine can take her place. Throughout these scenes, a subplot involving the Rat Catcher building a small vehicle (it looks like a steampunk Wacky Racer) that will increase his rat killing productivity. He and his heretofore unseen little person assistant take the rat-killer into the catacombs and do significant damage to the rat population before crashing accidentally; the Rat Catcher then climbs his way out of the catacombs, but not before witnessing Christine and the Phantom together. The Phantom returns to Christine, who wants nothing more to do with him, so he rapes her; while he thinks she is sleeping, she spies him cuddling with his rat buddies and escapes back to the opera house, where she takes the stage in Carlotta’s place. During the performance, the Rat Catcher finally reappears and makes his way onstage, where he interrupts the performance to accuse Christine of cavorting with the monster. Amidst the ensuing chaos, the Phantom abducts/rescues her, before he is mortally wounded by Raoul. The police arrive as he is dying, and he tells Raoul and Christine to abscond, fearing that Christine will also be killed. Looking back as he dies, she begs him not to leave her and… roll credits.

This movie is awful. Just terrible. The Phantom story is, in its way, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, filtered through some Beauty and the Beast archetypes and updated to what was a contemporary setting at the time of the novel’s composition. More than either of those, however, the narrative turns the heroine into a Bella Swann, eternally enraptured by a man who is creepy and possessive in addition to being a beast. At least in the novel and in other adaptations, the relationship between the two is founded on the Phantom’s instruction in the musical arts from which Christine benefits; here, he’s just a stalker who can communicate with her telepathically. There’s no reason for Christine to find him so appealing, even if this version foregoes the very important plot element that the Phantom is disfigured; here, he’s just Julian Sands with gross hair, psychic powers, and an affinity for rats. In the original novel, the affection between Christine and the Phantom never transcends to become physical; here, the two have consensual sex and then he rapes her (which makes her later declaration of love for him all the more disgusting). And the unnecessary subplots about Degas et al. and the Rat Catcher serve only to distract. There’s some decent gore, but there’s also some very bad CGI work (the scene where the Phantom sits on the rooftop and daydreams about a rat trap full of humans in particular) and much of the violence is irrelevant to the plot. There is nothing here to redeem this movie. Nothing. Avoid at all costs.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

fourstar

After watching Trauma and seeing the premonitions of failure in Dario Argento’s later works that the film possessed, La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome) was surprisingly refreshing in its successes. That’s not to say that Syndrome is perfect; there’s a lot wrong with this movie, including multiple sexual assaults, a killer with impenetrable motivations, some really bad effects, and disturbingly dark sexual politics. If you can overlook those problems, there’s a decent mystery here and a fresh twist, even if it is predicated on a skewed sense of gender dynamics and a warped understanding of trauma. This review, like this movie, is quite triggering with regards to sexual assault, so be warned. Also, spoilers.

Anna Manni (Asia Argento, appearing in one of her father’s films for the second time) fled her small home city at an early age to escape her unhappy family life; now, she’s a police inspector in Rome. She is involved in an unfulfilling romantic relationship with her partner Marco (Marco Leonardi, of Cinema Paradiso and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), which has become increasingly strained as the two investigate a serial rapist who has recently begun to murder his victims as well. Anna’s detective work leads her to Florence, where she receives an anonymous tip that leads her to the world-famous Uffizi Gallery. She is overcome by the titular syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to an intensely profound experience (usually exposure to art) with physiological effects, and faints, splitting her lip and experiencing a bout of amnesia.

Of course, this is not made evident at the outset. The film opens with the unidentified Anna at the Uffizi Gallery, where she is “transported” into Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, as the waves in the painting suddenly move and she finds herself flying over the CGI water before falling in and kissing a fish with a human-ish face (which is never explained). While I don’t think it was a bad idea to obfuscate the narrative from the outset, necessarily, this is a strange scene that doesn’t set the mood for the rest of the film, and I would argue that failing to express a thesis for such a prolonged time before the plot appears is one of the film’s failings.

Anna faints after the Icarus weirdness and is helped to her feet by a handsome man, whom she will later learn is named Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Having lost her memory, Anna finds her hotel using the room key in her pocket. That evening, she enters another fugue state during which a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch dissolves and she passes through it into a memory of one of the serial rapist/killer’s crime scenes, where we learn why she was in Florence. Then, suddenly, she’s back in her hotel room where the rapist is revealed to be Alfredo, who assaults Anna.

Let’s not mince words here: this is a deeply, deeply fucked up scene. This is by far Argento’s darkest movie, and I don’t say that lightly. Criticism of Argento’s early work often referenced a perception of his work as being misogynistic and glorifying both sexual objectification and sexual violence. In those works, however, any sexual assault was only referenced or alluded to, while here the rape is shown, in detail, with physical violence including punches and slashing. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the rape that is later revealed to be a motivating factor for the killer is referred to as a crime that occurred ten years prior and depicted only in the artwork of a demented hermit painter. The closest that his earlier work has come to this was in the flashbacks that motivated the killer in Tenebrae, in which he was physically assaulted on the beach and a beautiful woman molested him with the red heels that would become his obsession. There was a quiet understatement in those earlier works that is not present here, with its horrifying first person points of view of both victim and assailant, and the scene feels like it goes on forever. It’s exploitative, frankly, even before you take into account that this character was portrayed by Argento’s daughter. or the fact that it will happen again.

Afterwards, the drugged Anna awakes during Alfredo’s next crime and watches as he murders his next victim, which he seems to do solely for Anna’s viewing. She flees and returns to Rome, where her boss, Inspector Manetti (Luigi Diberti), places her under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli) and recommends she spend some time with her family. Anna visits her father (John Quentin), and reminisces with her brothers about how her mother used to take her to the nearby museum to look at the art, where she experienced Stendhal Syndrome for the first time. She also cuts her hair and begins dressing in men’s traditional clothing, affecting a more masculine look as she trains as a boxer and begins creating paintings of her own, all of them of a screaming face. Alfredo tracks her down, and after assaulting her again and leaving her handcuffed and tied down to a mattress for several hours, he returns, but she is able to overtake him and exact some Rasputinian revenge: first she shoots him, then beats him, and breaks his neck, before throwing him into a river.

Anna returns to Rome, her personality further affected as she now wears a long blonde wig to cover scars from her assault and dresses only in white dresses. It is at this point that the police learn Alfredo’s identity, but Anna remains unconvinced that he has been vanquished. She strikes up a relationship with a Frenchman named Marie, an art student. When he, too, is murdered, the police search for Alfredo begins again.

There are a lot of problems here, foremost among them the representation of rape and sexual assault mentioned above. The revelation that Alfredo truly is dead and has been dead for weeks while the murders continue reveals that Anna’s repeated traumas have caused her to become a killer as well, and she ultimately reveals that Alfredo’s body is dead but he remains inside her. One way to read the implication of this is that the fractured psyches of victims of assault eventually lead them to become violent and psychopathic as well, which is just awful. It’s almost impossible to defend this choice either, especially when combined with other problematic elements here; for instance, one of the earlier rape victims that Alfredo left alive is interviewed by Anna, and she compares her assault, favorably, to sex with her boorish husband. There are huge sections of this narrative that are reprehensible at best, and that’s undeniable.

There are visual problems here as well. I’m not sure if the problem was a result of a bad transfer in the edition that I watched (it was a Troma DVD, after all), but the whole film looks like it was shot on video, which has the overall effect of causing it to feel both dated and cheap. It also reduces the impact of the artwork that’s shown throughout the movie, as it’s hard to imagine anyone being affected by the artwork when everything looks like a flat, bargain brand imitation rather than the real thing. Syndrome also has the distinction of being the first Italian film to use CGI, and Argento’s reasoning behind which images he chose to utilize this new technology to create are baffling. The CGI waves that emerge from Icarus actually look quite good, especially for a movie from 1996, but CGI is also used to follow a couple of pills that Anna swallows down her throat, for no apparent thematic reason. There are a few such scenes, where the images are unnecessary and silly looking, and as such are terribly distracting.

There’s also the fact that Anna, at such a young age (Asia was 20), seems far too young to be as professionally accomplished as she supposedly is. Further, there’s a general problem regarding whether or not Stendhal Syndrome is anything more that pseudopsychology. Still, this is a movie that’s quite good, in spite of all of its ethical and mechanical issues. The nonlinear narrative is at first confusing, but works better on reflection, as Syndrome acts as a kind of film version of a painting. What separates art and sculpture from prose, film, drama, and music is that those media incorporate time as an element of the story, progressing in a more or less linear fashion from beginning to end. Paintings and sculptures do not have this luxury, and thus must evoke an emotional rapport and create a rhetorical space through a still image, implying motion with static visuals. Syndrome, in many ways, acts as a series of set pieces that are presented out of order, and must be ordered after viewing. You cannot read The Night Watch from left to right like a sentence; you first see the figures highlighted by chiaroscuro, and then focus on other faces, or the figures’ clothing. Syndrome is much the same, and the attempt to recreate this kind of experience on film is laudable in its audacity and its success. I simply wish that they appeared in a movie that was praiseworthy for the content of its story as well, and that didn’t work so hard to make the audience feel Anna’s violation so viscerally and exploitatively.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Trauma (1993)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Well, here we are, folks. I wrote in my review of Opera that many considered that film to be Dario Argento’s last good movie, although I had also read that Trauma had its fans as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the director’s “Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes, so I was looking forward to Trauma with some reservations but an open mind. On the whole, this 1993 film (released just a year after the director’s cameo in Innocent Blood) has a lot of meritorious elements in its favor and is a decent movie, but throughout the run time I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, so this is where we’re going now.” Although the giallo elements work, for the most part, the movie’s most memorably quality is blandness, although how much of that is intentional or not is unclear.

The film follows Aura (Asia Argento, in one of her earliest film roles and her first time being directed by her father), a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital where she was undergoing treatment for anorexia. She meets David (Christopher Rydell), a TV news graphic artist and former heroin addict, and he befriends her after assuming that her IV feeding tube scars are track marks. Aura is soon recaptured by social services, however, and returned to the home of her parents, renowned mystics who are hosting a séance. Aura’s mother Adriana (Piper Laurie) claims that a spirit named Nicholas has hijacked the ceremony and is claiming that the serial decapitator The Headhunter is present. Aura watches from an upstairs window as her mother and father flee into the rainy night and runs after them, only to discover that The Headhunter has killed them both. She finds David and asks for his help, placing a strain on his relationship with news anchor Grace (Laura Johnson), who eventually calls the hospital and reports Aura so that she is forced to return there. Meanwhile, David’s investigation leads him to learn that (spoilers through the end of this paragraph) The Headhunter’s victims were all medical professionals in attendance on the night that Adriana was giving birth to her second child, a son to be named Nicholas; the doctor (Brad Dourif in what amounts to an extended cameo) insisted on pushing ahead with inducing labor despite inclement weather and intermittent power outages, and when he is startled by a lightning strike with a scalpel in his hand, he accidentally decapitated the baby. The nurses present convince him to use ECT on Adriana to erase her memory of the event, and her husband is complicit in their cover up. Of course, as in so many of Dario Argento’s movies, this repressed memory eventually resurfaces and the murderer seeks out vengeance.

In an interview on the DVD of La Terza madre, Asia Argento discussed the fact that working as a director had given her new insights as an actress, and it shows in the difference between her presence here and there. She is the weak performative link in this movie, but the film’s flaws are not restricted solely to her amateur abilities. Piper Laurie goes over the top here, as she often does, but Adriana Petrescu lacks the grounding that made Margaret White function so well as a sinister mother figure. Brad Dourif’s barely present on screen (and kudos to the editor of the film’s trailer for excising any reference to him, although the fact that his name appears at the top of the DVD box ruins that reveal), and his appearance ends with one of the worst uses of chroma-key effects I’ve seen in my life. That sequence stands out as particularly terrible, especially given how effective the rest of the movie’s decapitated heads, created by effects genius Tom Savini, are. It’s also strange to me that no one in the film seems to have a problem with the adult David’s romantic and ultimately sexual relationship with teenaged Aura is, other than Grace, whose issues are painted as being the result of jealousy rather than concern for the fact that a sixteen year old may be being taken advantage of by a much older beau. The film’s score also leaves much to be desired, especially in the sequences in which the young boy who lives next door to the killer’s home (Cory Garvin) sneaks into the murder house while chasing a butterfly; they feel more like unused tracks from Dennis the Menace than something created with the intent of increasing tension. The killer’s weapon of choice, a kind of bladed garrote, is a neat invention, but there’s too much tonal inconsistency present throughout, and the homages to Argento’s earlier work (especially Profondo rosso) only serve to demonstrate how much this film pales in comparison. I’m also unclear as to why Argento chose to shoot this picture in what he called “featureless Minnesota,” given that it adds to the overall banality of the film’s cinematography, especially given his masterful use of classic architecture and depth of field in his earlier work.

Having said that, this is not a bad movie, just an unmemorable one. For an Argento completist, it’s a movie that I would recommend over Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and the mystery, despite being at times incoherent, works well in spite of its implausibility and absurdity. There are some great visual flourishes as well, especially in Aura’s hallucinatory sequence and in the discovery of the creepy nursery filled with gauzy screens. There’s a laudable attempt to trace the relationships between media, family, and psychological disorders here; it’s misguided and dated in its discussion, but I appreciate that there was an attempt to address this issue, even if the conceptualizations of the root cause of eating disorders is somewhat facile. The scenes set in the mental hospital are also effectively unnerving, even if that trope smacks of ableism when viewed through a modern lens. More than anything, I can tell that this is a movie that suggests a sharp downturn in the director’s work from here on out, even if it is decent within itself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mother of Tears (2007)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.

Argento’s daughter with Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento, has often discussed the contentious relationship between herself and her father. Hailed at birth as the “Princess of Horror,” Asia has revealed in interviews that she never felt as if she had Dario’s attention until she was old enough to begin appearing in front of the camera. His passion, she says, was for film over family. On the DVD of the film, released by Dimension Extreme (ugh), there is a half hour behind-the-scenes video that includes portions of a panel in which both Asia and her father participated; in it, Asia talks frankly (while Dario very subtly squirms next to her) about how working as a director made her a better actress, how she was effected by Argento and Nicolodi’s separation when she was nine, and how she convinced him to hire Nicolodi for Tears as a gesture of goodwill. “It was beautiful to see them working together on set,” she says. “Now the film’s finished and they’re back to not speaking to each other.” It’s an intensely personal nonfiction monologue, and that depth of intimacy extends into the film itself. When Asia’s character within the film weeps over photos of her long-dead mother with a baby–real photos of Daria and baby Asia–it’s intensely compelling in a way that may not be entirely earned by the film itself, but nonetheless produces a sympathetic emotional reaction that’s difficult to ignore.

The plot of Tears is much more straightforward than that of the previous two films in the trilogy. A priest uncovers a rune-covered centuries-old urn buried with a minor saint, and sends it to Roman museum curator Michael Pierce (Adam James), who he considers to be the foremost authority on occult paraphernalia. Vice-curator Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and art restoration student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) impatiently open the box while he is out of the office. Within, they find a knife, three statues, and a small tunic that is insistently referred to throughout the film as a talisman. Sarah leaves to retrieve a book and returns to find Giselle being brutally murdered–three monsters slice open her abdomen and then strangle her with her own intestines–and flees. She is pursued by Mater Lachrimarum’s familiar, a monkey, and is cornered for a moment before hearing a disembodied woman’s voice directing her and escaping through a door that was locked only moments before. The police are incredulous, including stunningly handsome Detective Enzo Marchi (stunningly handsome Cristian Solimeno). An evil veil then begins to fall over Rome, as interpersonal violence breaks out on an unprecedented scale and witches begin to arrive in droves. How evil and violent is the influence of Lachrymarum (Moran Atias)? A mother hacks her toddler to death with a meat cleaver before murdering a priest and then slashing her own throat (an image that is reminiscent of the end of Tenebrae). Another mother throws her baby over the side of a bridge (the horror of the latter is somewhat mitigated by the fake baby’s bathetic tumble, but it’s still a better infant prop than the “baby” in American Sniper). By the end of the film, we’ve seen assaults, murders, churches being burned to the ground by neophytes of Lachrymarum’s coven, eye-mutilating torture, a woman’s head smashed open by repeated door slams, and a seven year old being cannibalized.

Michael disappears at the hands of the witches, and Sarah escapes the city by train after defeating a hench witch (Jun Ichikawa) and learning to turn invisible from the disembodied voice (just go with it). She makes her way to see an exorcist (Udo Kier of Suspiria, although this is a different character), who provides the exposition about the urn and its owner. In his vicary, she also meets Marta (Valeria Cavalli), a self-described white witch who recognizes Sarah as the daughter of the extremely powerful but deceased good witch Elisa Mandy (Nicolodi). Elisa, the two tell Sarah, was a great force for good who fought the powerful witch Helena Markos many years before; the Three Mothers killed her in revenge, but Helena’s battle with Elisa is what weakened her to the point that she could be vanquished pretty easily by Suzy Bannion in 1977. The events of Inferno are dismissed fairly offhandedly, as they mention another sister died in New York some years prior. After more deaths, Sarah tracks down Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy), an alchemist who provides her with a copy of Varelli’s The Three Mothers, from which she learns about methods of vanquishing the witches. Lachrymarum’s power grows as new acolytes join her, and the talisman/tunic ends the prolonged weakened state she has been in since the deaths of her sisters. Marta lives long enough to show Sarah how to cause her mother’s spirit to manifest, then is murdered along with her lover. Violence continues to roil as Sarah tries to find and kill the Mother of Tears.

Does it strain credibility that someone with an academic background in art history would be surprised by the three faces of Hecate, or need to research that motif? Is the “spirit” effect used to make Nicolodi’s spectral aura hilarious in its horribly Charmed-esque failure? Does the attempt to weld together a fairly disparate canon err a little too much on the side of contrivance? Is it weird that there’s a lingering shower scene of Asia, given that the director is her father? Do the witches who show up in Rome look like the lovechildren of Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Lost Boys and the distinctly unmenacing vampires of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie? Is there, perhaps, a little too much time spent training Sarah in her powers, given that she does very little in the way of magic and her ultimate triumph comes more from good hand-eye coordination than mysticism? Did I chuckle mirthlessly at the interview with Atias in which she talked about getting into the character of Lachrymarum, given that her entire “character” consists of being nude or nearly so while spouting ancient-sounding gibberish? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But did I thoroughly enjoy this movie? Also “yes.”

This movie is effectively creepy, pairing the psychological horror of a destabilizing and self-destructive society with the unhinged and violent imagery of a slasher, with some occult horror thrown in for good measure. Asia Argento turns in an absolutely dynamite performance, and looks gorgeous doing it, and her scenes with her mother are quietly beautiful despite the uncannily awful CGI–not the only bad CGI in the movie, but, to the movie’s credit, the effects are largely practical. The lighting and score are perfection, and the overall ambiance was reminiscent of Wes Craven’s work in the nineties like Scream and New Nightmare, with sumptuous visuals that play up earthtones in place of the vivid colors of Argento’s earlier work. Although the film seems to be rather widely reviled, it’s actually great–even perfect–in some places, and its weaker elements aren’t awful enough to weigh down the film as much as I expected.

This was a hard one to grade, but I’m going to have to give it four stars–with the Camp Stamp as caveat, the first time I’ve done so for an Argento movie. Partially, that’s in deference to the more silly elements (mostly the roving gangs of cackling witches and the eminently mockable sequences of Lachrymarum’s catacombs and catwalk sermons), but it’s also an admission that I can’t give this movie an exorbitant rating based on its straightforward merits alone. So much of my feelings about it are informed by the Argento-Nicolodi clan’s interpersonal relationships offscreen and my fondness for Suspiria that I couldn’t have found it within me to dislike this movie, even if it had truly been as awful as I was led to believe. Give Mother of Tears a chance; go in with an open mind, and you’ll enjoy yourself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond