Opera (1987)

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fourstar

Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera.

The film opens with an unseen prima donna diva (this role was to have been played by Vanessa Redgrave, but Argento, hilariously, simply fired Redgrave when she tried to throw her weight around for a higher salary; the role was reworked to be played entirely unseen) being injured after throwing a tantrum and storming out of the the theatre. Her understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), feels unready for the role, but she is encouraged by the director, Marco (Ian Charleson), and her friend and agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi). Marco is himself a newcomer to this realm, having made his name as a director of shocking horror films. After her first performance, she discovers that she has a fan in Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), who is at the opera house to investigate the murder of an usher who was killed during the performance. The usher’s killer begins to stalk Betty, tying her up and taping needles beneath her eyes in order to force her to watch as he murders others: first stage manager Stefano (William McNamara), with whom Betty has a tryst; later, he stabs and slashes costumer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni).

This image, of eyes forced open and surrounded by pins, became the movie poster’s centerpiece, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s haunting, primal, and memorable, much more so than the film as a whole. It’s also hyper-real, like much of the film itself, which is a note in its favor. This is one of Argento’s darker movies, and the violence is visceral in a way that his earlier films, with their limited special effects and beautifully vibrant but utterly unrealistic blood palette, were not. Instead, reality is elevated to emulate the same ultra-aesthetic and slightly histrionic approach that permeates the operatic world, and although this is a much more successful approach to experimental film-making than is present in Argento’s other works, it doesn’t quite work for me. I know that this one is Brandon‘s favorite, but it never gels into a cohesive whole in the way that some of the director’s other films do, despite their more disparate plot structures or occasional tonal dissonance. This movie is certainly good, but it never quite manages to be great; not having seen any of Argento’s movies that followed this one (other than Mother of Tears, which is a very different animal), I’m not ready to say that this is the first evidence of his genius starting to crumble. If anything, this journey has taught me that Argento’s earlier, reputedly greater body of work is a mixed bag. For every Tenebrae, there is a Four Flies on Grey Velvet; for every Suspiria, a The Five Days (maybe the real lesson here is to never use a number in your title).

Despite its opulent and sumptuous visuals and its decision to forego many of Argento’s favorite tricks, Opera is a relative step down from the pedestal that he had largely lived atop in the ten years following Suspiria. Again, the killer is acting out repressed fantasies after something, in this case Betty, reminds him of an earlier, sexually violent experience. The reveal of the killer’s identity and, more importantly, his motivation, works for me not at all, and I feel like Opera is all but daring the audience to feel insulted by its audacious defiance of logic. It’s not illogical, per se, but it feels disingenuous. The killer’s age, upon reveal, is at odds with what we learn about his backstory through Betty’s flashbacks, and it feels more like a “what a twist!” moment than any of Argento’s other sudden, third act plot complications. Misleading clues–not red herrings, but clues that are utterly meaningless in the end–are scattered throughout, the most prominent being the gold bracelet with an engraved date. What’s the importance of the date? What year is engraved on the bracelet? Whose bracelet is it? How did Betty’s mother even die? Did the killer do it? None of these questions are answered.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Opera. It’s an imperfect film, but that hardly differentiates it from Argento’s other works, even some of his unequivocal classics. Its hyper-realistic energy and frenetic camera work are wonderful, and there are some absolutely beautiful giant spectacles that are a lot of fun. Betty, despite Marsillach’s weak work and tepid screen presence (Argento has been quoted as saying he should have gotten an actress who could sing instead of hiring a singer and trying to force her to act) is much more of a triumphant final girl than his other heroines, excepting Jennifer Corvino. She’s quick on her feet and demonstrates surprising cunning for a character whose primary attribute is meekness. Still, other than the haunting image on the front of the box, there’s not much that gives Opera much staying power. It’s a paradoxically luminous but forgettable gem.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Phenomena (1985)

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fivestar

I approached this movie with ambiguous feelings. Since beginning this journey, I’ve cited Phenomena as my favorite Dario Argento movie in several reviews, and as its time in the spotlight grew nearer, I felt some trepidation about whether or not it would live up to my memories. I hadn’t seen it in over five years, and I was concerned that my recollection of it as a pitch-perfect film would be ruined upon revisitation. As it turns out, it’s even more beautiful than I remember, and still holds its place as not only my favorite Argento, but as one of my favorite movies period, regardless of genre. There are some superficial similarities to Suspiria, given the setting and the protagonist, but Phenomena is undoubtedly its own movie, and a departure from Argento’s other movies in that it contains very few of his common elements. There are no attempts to recall and decipher a misunderstood or misremembered clue. None of the violence is sexualized. The main character and the detective investigating the series of crimes don’t meet until they both wind up in the killer’s dungeon in the final act. The main character is not an artist, and the resolution of the mystery, while unforeseeable, doesn’t feel like a cheat.

It occurs to me that I haven’t defined what “giallo” actually means in any of my reviews. When the works of English-language mystery novelists like Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and my man Ed McBain were first translated into Italian, they were exclusively published by Mondadori, the largest publishing company in Italy. These mysteries were published with dust jackets featuring a yellow color scheme; “giallo” is Italian for yellow, and over time the word came to mean any mystery or detective story, but especially those which included horror or thriller elements. Phenomena is not a giallo picture in the way that many of Argento’s works definitively are or even Suspiria arguably is; although there is a mystery at its core, the crimes cannot be solved by the audience, making this much more of a slasher movie than other entries in the director’s canon, which may have contained elements of the slasher genre but were narratively focused on investigation. Running throughout the film is an undercurrent of terror, which is paired with distinctly beautiful imagery to create a film experience that is more haunting than inquisitive.

Jennifer Corvino (a young Jennifer Connelly, one year before her star-making role in Labyrinth), the fourteen-year-old daughter of a famous American actor, has been sent to a boarding school in Switzerland while her father spends the next year shooting on location in a remote part of the Philippines. She arrives just eight months after the beginning of a spree of murders of young girls about her age, as she is warned by her roommate, Sophie (Federica Mastroianni). Meanwhile, entomology professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) is assisting Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau of The Pretender) in the investigation using his knowledge of insect life cycles. The wheelchair-bound McGregor is himself attended by a monkey nursemaid, Inga (Tanga). After she meets school chaperon Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) and the school headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro), Jennifer is revealed to suffer from bouts of sleepwalking, exacerbated by the eerie local mountain wind, which local superstition states causes madness; furthermore, she has an unusual bond with insects, bordering on telepathy. This fascinates McGregor, whom she meets after sleepwalking away from the school and ending up near his home. As more girls begin to disappear, Jennifer’s fellow students increase their bullying to the point that she unconsciously summons a swarm of flies that surround the school; when she overhears that the headmistress plans to put her in a mental institution, she escapes and takes refuge with McGregor, who enlists her and her supernatural powers in his pursuit of the killer.

Despite the murders on display (and depending upon each person’s individual threshold for insect imagery), this is the movie that displays a characteristic that we don’t often use when referring to Argento: Phenomena has a lot of charm. Connelly is a magnetic actress, and even Jennifer’s brattier moments don’t render her unlikable, especially given that the circumstances under which she finds herself would fray the nerves of anyone, let alone a child. Pleasence is also great here, demonstrating a warmth and tenderness that he didn’t get to show as Blofeld or Dr. Loomis. It’s also great to see Nicolodi given the chance to play a completely different character than any that she has before, and she is genuinely menacing when the script calls for her to be unsettling. The murderer, despite prosthetics that look dated by modern standards, is legitimately freaky and scary, and allowing the protagonist to come out ahead because of her innate powers, rather than triumphing over the otherworldly powers of others, is a fresh idea for Argento, and it works quite well. The soundtrack features some noticeably jarring missteps, most notably when scene changes are accompanied by sudden quiet, but this works in the movie’s favor as a discomfiting element just as often as it serves as a detractor; others have taken issue with the presence of Iron Maiden and Motörhead on the score, but I find it appropriate in the way that it sets the nerves against each other. The worst thing I have to say about this movie is that it never got a sequel; of all Argento’s works, it’s the one that is both best suited for and most deserving of one. Sure, there are some moments that are silly (Inga’s rescue of Jennifer at the end is particularly bizarre, although I love it), but overall, this was even better than I remembered. Track it down and watch it!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mother of Tears (2007)

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fourstar

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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

Tenebrae (1982)

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fourhalfstar

Ironically, the more Dario Argento I consume, the more novel I find his seemingly obsessive repetition of concepts and ideas to be. When I discussed Profondo Rosso, I talked about how it represented the apotheosis of his metaphorical color pallette, a brand new story done up in the same “shades” as his other gialli but narratively perfected; Tenebrae (aka Tenebre, although this is less of a translation of the title as it is a miscommunication about promotional material from day one), released in 1982, is Argento’s first picture to be filmed in the eighties and is the definitive giallo of that decade, despite being less well known than his preceding films in that genre. Most importantly, however, this is the first time I’ve really felt that Argento had a thesis with his movie. His previous gialli ranged from good to bad, but one thing they all had in common was that they were first concerned with cinematography and mystery, with meaning and metaphor playing inconsequential roles in the overall structure. “Here’s a mystery, and it twists a lot! And everything is beautiful!” with occasional “Here’s a mystery, and there’s witches, because why not,” essentially. Here, however, Argento addresses criticism of his work and its themes as well as what he perceived to be a rise in random acts of violence in his contemporary world.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa, doing his best, worst, Shatnerest Shatner) is an American thriller novelist who travels to Rome to promote his latest work, Tenebrae, a book told from the point of view of a deranged serial killer who murders those he considers sexually or socially “aberrant.” He meets with his agent, Bullmer (John Saxon, here credited as “Saxson”), and attends a meet and greet with the press, including beautiful lesbian reporter Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo), an old friend who accuses his work of being misogynistic, surprising him. Also present is Channel 1 afternoon talk show host Christiano Berti (John Steiner), who stalks about quietly. Neal then reunites with his secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and meets Gianni (Christian Borromeo), an intern with his publisher who will be his driver and gopher during his time in Rome. Arriving at his temporary apartment, the three meet Detectives Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and Altieri (Carola Stanaro). It seems that, just before Neal’s arrival, a shoplifter (Ania Pieroni, who last appeared as the beautiful Mater Lachrymarum in Inferno) who bribes her way out of an arrest with the promise of sexual favors is murdered in her apartment: Elsa was slashed, with crumpled pages torn from Tenebrae stuffed in her mouth.

Tilde and her polyamorous lover Marion (Mirella Banti) are murdered by the slasher, and Berti’s intense interest in Neal’s work makes him suspicious. His landlord’s young daughter, Maria (Lara Wendel), is also murdered, after she coincidentally makes her way to the killer’s home while fleeing from a vicious dog. His time in Rome is further complicated by the apparent sudden appearance of Neal’s disturbed ex, Jane (Veronica Lario), although his glimpses of her are so transient he can’t be certain. Giermani and Neal work together to try and figure out who the killer is. Every time you think you know who the killer is, that person ends up dead. Also, the villain has recurring nightmares about being sexually humiliated and abused by a woman in red heels, then later stabbing her to death. There are quite a few twists that all work quite well in this movie, so I won’t spoil the reveal here, but suffice it to say, this is probably the best mystery plot so far, rivalling or perhaps even surpassing Profondo rosso.

As a basic plot sketch and in some of the details, there doesn’t initially seem to be anything new on display here. The protagonist is again an artist (as seen in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Profondo rosso, and even Suspiria and Inferno), specifically a writer (as in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Cat o’ Nine Tails), assisted by a lady sidekick (BCP) played by Daria Nicolodi (PR). The police initially suspect him of guilt but later enlist his assistance in the investigation (BCP, PR). A death is staged using a prop knife that squirts fake blood (FFGV), and a character learns about the killer’s fascination with taking snapshots of victims (FFGV again) by discovering a photographer’s development studio (C9T, although that was actually a crime reporter’s collection of pics of dead folks). Mirrors hold clues and significance (PR, Suspiria), and, like clockwork, a character witnesses something important but struggles to resolve its relevance (BCP, C9T, and PR, with the “struggling to effectively pair partially heard dialogue with the memory of moving lips” lifted directly from Suspiria, although this is the first time that this clue is witnessed by a secondary character and not the protagonist). The killer’s descent into madness is caused by the revisitation of an earlier trauma, recalled and brought on by dark imagery (BCP). And, of course, the film ends completely abruptly once the villain is dispatched (literally all of them, even The Five Days). Hell, Neal’s apartment even has some creepy statues from the gallery in Plumage sitting in the entryway.

The mystery plot here is very polished and precise. Detective Giermani jokes with Neal that, despite solving crime during the day, he can never figure out “whodunit” in the novels he reads, name-dropping Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle as well as, to my amusement, Ed McBain (only a movie that came out in 1982 would reference good ol’ Ed so reverently, during the height of his popularity and before he all but vanished from the public consciousness). Every time I knew who the killer was, that person was slashed or axed in the very next scene, and I never saw the twist coming. There were certain points in the film that initially irritated me, but which I realized were subtly ingenious clues after I had time to let the impact of the movie marinate in my mind for a minute. The cast is great, and it’s a lot of fun to get to see Nicolodi play against type as long-suffering, vaguely smitten survivor for once.

Although this may be one of the more overlooked Argento films, it’s also one of the most influential. Although I didn’t mention it in my review, Argento is credited with being the first director to use a high-speed camera to follow the trajectory of a bullet in Four Flies; here, Argento uses several long one-shots, including one which goes around and over Marion and Tilde’s house, said to have inspired the similar scene in The Untouchables. There’s also a scene in which Detective Giermani bends over and out of the frame, revealing the killer directly behind him and perfectly silhouetted by the lawman, and Tenebrae is generally considered to be the originator of that particular image, which has been imitated and given homage innumerable times by directors like Brian De Palma and Wes Craven. This, incidentally, ties into Argento’s recurring reflection imagery, more present here than ever before. When Giermani is introduced, he stands as a mirror image of Neal, both of them flanked by their respective partners, who are of similar build and hairstyle. Two typewriters are placed side by side as if they are twins, and Neal has two reflections: Giermani, as the real-life equivalent of Neal’s fictional avatars, and the killer, as the twisted reflection of the darker parts of Neal’s own psyche that give birth to his novels.

This reflection has been the subject of no small amount of film scholarship, as has the way that Neal’s work elicits similar criticism to that of Argento’s own (in fact, the plot was partially inspired by a series of harassing phone calls that Argento received from a fan in California who threatened to exact revenge on the director for the having caused the fan emotional distress brought on by watching Suspiria). More interesting to me is the fact that so much of the film depends upon circumstance, unplanned encounters, and apparently unmotivated violence. Doomed shoplifter Elsa is accosted and assaulted by a vagrant before she arrives home, where the killer is waiting for her. Tilde’s jealousy of her (verbally abusive) lover leads to a thrown vase and the opening salvo of a domestic dispute. Maria ends up in the home of the murderer, not because she was an intended victim, but because she was fleeing heedlessly from a tireless and aggressive pitbull (after she herself antagonized the animal out of anger that it scared her). While waiting at a bench in a plaza, a character sees a fistfight break to his right and an unrelated couple arguing violently to his left just before he himself is stabbed; his slashing goes completely unnoticed by anyone until he physically grabs a person walking past. While in reality most crime is committed by an assailant the victim knows, when this is not the case, it’s simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Argento seems to be arguing that, in the eighties and the decades to follow, the wrong place was potentially anywhere and everywhere, and the clock was going to be stuck on the wrong time perpetually.

There’s a lot to recommend this movie. There are some things that are recycled from other movies that probably should not have been, and the sterile aesthetic of the film, which Argento has said was meant to be evocative of television procedurals, is a disappointment after the sumptuous visuals of Profondo rosso and especially Suspiria. Still, Argento reunites with (three quarters of) Goblin here, and the score is absolutely fantastic as a result; I can’t put my finger on it for certain, but I have the feeling that I’ve heard it sampled many times. Although not a perfect film, it’s a near-flawless giallo, and I highly recommend it.

When I went to rent this movie, I attempted to also rent Phenomena, planning to watch both and do two Argento reviews in the same week. Unfortunately, the fine folks at Vulcan Video informed me that it was already rented out, and was in fact already overdue. When I returned Tenebrae last night, whoever rented my favorite Argento still had it, meaning that I stood in the aisles of the video store for what felt like hours, trying to decide what to do. Should I skip Phenomena and go straight to Opera, and then double back later? Should I put the Argento retrospective on hold until I got my hands on Phenomena? Should I review a film by one of Argento’s contemporaries or apprentices? After much deliberation and hesitation, I decided to skip ahead to 2007 and watch The Mother of Tears, the long-delayed concluding chapter of the Three Mothers trilogy. So for those of you out there who were disappointed by how distant that conclusion was, congratulations. If you’re the witch who magically caused this chain of events to occur so I’d have to complete the trilogy faster, kudos to you, and please e-mail me; I will trade cash for hexes.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Inferno (1980)

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threehalfstar

After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.

Suspiria took its name from the title of an unfinished work, Suspiria de Profundis, by Thomas de Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. Although the book was never completed, the section entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” was, and its concept, that there are three Sorrows just as there are three Fates and three Graces, was the initial inspiration for Suspiria, although you wouldn’t know that simply from watching the movie. After all, Suspiria was a largely self-contained story, with nothing to imply that Markos was one of these three Sorrows, or that her power reached far beyond Freiberg, or that her influence did not begin and end with her coven. Even if this was always intended to be the case, an audience who is not familiar with this idea can’t help but feel that Inferno is attempting to graft new plot elements onto Suspiria retroactively, in a way that cheapens the earlier film’s nigh-perfection; Inferno feels like a cheat and a knock-off at the same time.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was hired for her ability to hold her breath for a long time—no kidding), a poet living in the most baroquely Old World apartment building in New York. She reads in a book titled The Three Mothers that there are three evil sisters who rule the world with tears, sorrow, and darkness, and that the book’s author, an architect and alchemist named Varelli, was hired by the sisters to build a home for each one: in Freiberg, Rome, and New York. Rose has become obsessed with the idea that the building she lives in was one such home, based on clues left in the book. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student living in Rome, asking him to visit her. Mark is distracted by a beautiful woman (Anna Pieroni) in his classroom who is mouthing words at him* and loses the letter, which is collected and read by his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi).

After reading the letter, Sara tracks down a copy of the book but is attacked by a strange figure who recognizes the tome. Sara narrowly escapes this person and returns to her apartment building, where she asks her neighbor Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who previously appeared in Profondo rosso as Carlo, although they cannot possibly be the same character) to stay with her while her nerves settle, only for both of them to be murdered by an unseen figure. Mark arrives at her apartment and finds their bodies, before seeing the same woman from his class leaving the area in a taxi. He calls Rose, who begs him to come to New York before she is murdered herself.

Mark arrives in New York and meets the building’s caretaker Carol (Alida Valli, previously Miss Tanner in Suspiria), elderly and infirm tenant Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr), Arnold’s nurse (Veronica Lazar), Rose’s rich but sickly friend and fellow tenant Elise van Adler (Daria Nicolodi, Gianna Brezzi in Profondo rosso and Argento’s wife and writing partner at the time), van Adler’s creepy butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni), and neighboring antiques dealer Kazanian (Sacha PitoËff), who sold Rose The Three Mothers in the first place. Each of these people come to a tragic end, save for the nurse, who turns out to be Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, as revealed to Mark by Professor Arnold, who is actually the ancient Varelli. The apartment building burns to the ground (accidentally, which says more about the nonsensical nature of this plot and the irrelevance of all intentional character action than I ever could), and Mark escapes while Tenebrarum seems to be crushed by falling rubble.

Inferno is… not a very good movie. It has too many good moments in it to be a bad movie, but the overall structure leaves much to be desired and the experimental approach to narrative is rather frustrating. Like Suspiria, Inferno has an intentionally dreamlike ambience, but lacks the former’s vivid color and narrative intensity and is (somehow) an overall less coherent movie, despite the fact that there are parts of Inferno that are superior. Inferno feels like a series of vignettes, each one designed to exploit a particular fear; devoid of context, they are actually scarier, creepier, or more unsettling than analogous scenes in Suspiria, save for the fact that each one goes on just long enough that the impact is diminished, and that they are held together with a narrative so flimsy that it ultimately does a disservice to the dark imagery and mood contained within itself. Argento’s decision to forsake the previous film’s focus on witchcraft for an investigation of alchemy is ironic, given that even he could not turn the disparate, good parts of this film into a cohesive whole.

The score, composed by Keith Emerson, is particularly awful, especially when compared to Argento’s collaborations with Goblin; it features terrible rock organ music paired with Omen-esque Latin chanting, and the result is far too silly to be effectively unsettling. The sets, some of which were designed by the great Mario Bava himself, are fantastic, however. As for other elements that are effective, Rose’s underwater scene near the start of the film is a particular highlight, as is every scene with Nicolodi (who contributed to the story for this film as she had for Suspiria, but she had to fight so hard for her on-screen credit in that film that she decided not to bother to do the same here). The death of Sara and Carlo is extremely well done, as the record Sara is playing cuts in and out along with the lights as the electricity flickers. The scene in which Kazanian attempts to drown a bag of cats (evil cats which do the bidding of Tenebrarum, it should be pointed out, although it is still horrifying) only to be eaten by hundreds of rats is also well-done despite the scene’s inexplicable conclusion. If anything, “inexplicable” is the watchword here, as much of the narrative is clunky and scenes fail to flow organically from one to the next.

This is perhaps best evinced in Rome: Sara, inspired by Rose’s letter, goes to an unidentified building for some reason. There, in a library, she finds the copy of The Three Mothers, and then descends into the building’s basement for some reason, rather than checking the book out or coming back the next day. She somehow finds a room where, like, potions are being made, and she tries to communicate with the misshapen person tending the pots for some reason. Apparently she knew that this library would be the place to find this book, and that this library was also (maybe) the home of the third sister, somehow? It’s creepy and effectively unnerving, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most passive narrative scrutiny, which is the best description of the film as a whole as well. There are elements here that work very well, but this is more of a clip show of ideas Argento couldn’t put anywhere else than a movie. If you do choose to check it out, make sure to rent/buy the Blue Underground DVD release, which features Italian audio and English subtitles, as well as interviews with Argento, Miracle, and assistant director Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.

*I can’t decide if this is an effective misdirection or the vestigial remnant of a cut subplot. If you know how Argento works, this first seems like one of his giallo trademarks–the misunderstood early clue that is later explained, much like the unheard words said by Pat at the beginning of Suspiria. Even if you’ve never seen an Argento movie before, the focus on and attention paid to these unheard words seems like a clue. Regardless, nothing ever comes of it, and this character does not reappear after Mark leaves Rome, although it can be inferred that she might be Mater Lachrymarum. We’ve got nearly three decades of Argento movies to get through before we reach Mother of Tears, though, so I wouldn’t expect an answer soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suspiria (1977)

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I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Profondo rosso (aka Deep Red, 1975)

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Released in 1975, Profondo rosso (Deep Red) is considered by many to be not only Dario Argento’s greatest work, but also the highest example of the giallo form. Although I still think that Suspiria is probably a superior film, and Phenomena is my personal favorite, it’s not hard to see why Deep Red was the recipient of such wide international critical acclaim (including being the first of Argento’s films to garner an audience in Asia, especially Japan), or why that popularity is so enduring, even forty years later.

Following the commercial and critical failure of the mediocre period dramedy The Five Days, Argento returned to the genre that had always served him well, revisiting many of his older ideas. Notably, memory often plays a key role in giallo narratives in general and Argento’s films in particular; specifically, vital details are witnessed by a character or characters but are forgotten by these witnesses because of their apparent irrelevance. Both The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails featured protagonists who realize that seen or overheard clues contain minute details or discrepancies that, after much struggling to recall and decipher, ultimately reveal the identity of the killer. In Plumage, Sam Dalmas was repeatedly told by the police inspector that he must have seen some clue about the murderous assailant while trapped in the gallery entryway, and Dalmas spends the rest of the film experiencing brief flashbacks to the attack while trying to track down the murderer. Here, Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) also witnesses something when he tries to save the life of Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril), and he recognizes immediately that he has seen something significant but forgotten that will assist him in his investigation.

If you watch enough Argento films, you start to notice a pattern. For instance, the protagonist is always an artist or writer of some kind: Sam Dalmas, the author struggling with writer’s block; Cat‘s Carlo Giordani is a reporter, and Arno is a retired reporter making a living as a designer; Flies‘s Roberto is a drummer. Here, Marcus is a piano teacher. In Cat and Flies, a character (Bianca in the former and private investigator Arrosio in the latter) deduces the identity of the killer and tells another character over the phone that they will reveal this information at a later time and date, only to be killed before being able to pass this information along; in Deep Red, this happens twice–Helga deduces who the killer is and tells someone over the phone that she wants to make sure the information is brought to light before she leaves Rome and Dr. Giordani unsuccessfully attempts to phone Daly after he learns the killer’s identity from a note left by the most recent victim. In both cases, the characters are immediately killed.

I don’t bring up these repeated patterns because I think there’s something inherently wrong with this practice. I recently unpacked a box of old documents and stumbled across a small trove of sketches and drawings I had done about eight years ago, and many of them were individual pages covered in a single image repeated over and over–birds in flight, open mouths–as I had attempted to master the creation of a particular image by drawing it over and over. I was doing then what Argento did with his early giallo pictures, producing variations on a theme in order to perfect it. Although this runs the risk of becoming repetitive, Argento deftly reuses the same devices in ways that manage to stave off the staleness and apparent creative stagnation that permeates the work of other directors whose body of work orbits or exhibits the same images and ideas over and over again (compare to the regurgitated adulation of the military and simplistic patriotism filtered through blue/orange color correction of Michael Bay, for instance, or the tiresome recycling of the deification of family coherence in latter-day Spielberg).

In addition to polishing already successful elements of other films, Argento reuses ideas that didn’t work before. I mentioned in my review of Cat that I felt that film’s straightforward detective narrative, in contrast with the more eccentric paths that Plumage took in its route to the final frame, was somewhat detrimental to the overall feature, as its focus on the mystery itself overshadowed the cinematic and psychological elements that make Argento such a notable auteur. Cat was followed, of course, by Flies, which unsuccessfully attempted to merge the two, featuring a mystery narrative that doesn’t make much sense and could not have been solved by the audience at the same time as the characters, as well as experimental editing techniques that were more disruptive than helpful. As with Cat, the investigation in Deep Red is straightforward but manages to be more captivating because of the more well-constructed mystery, coupled with Argento’s unique talent for artistic gore effects and unsettling and discomfiting imagery. Perhaps more importantly, this is the first instance in which the revelation of the killer’s identity can be solved by the audience along with the protagonists (not counting Flies, in which the killer’s identity was made obvious early on as a result of a flaw in the film’s design rather than deliberately), as we collect clues alongside Daly.

There is a well-developed romance here as well, which works in the film’s favor (even if this subplot was cut from the original US release for reasons unknown). In Plumage, the romance between Giulia and Sam has already solidified, and the only conflict between them comes from her growing frustration with his obsession with the string of murders. In both Cat and Flies, there are insubstantial love scenes: Giordani and Terzi’s was likely crafted simply to throw some last-minute suspicion her way, and Roberto’s pointless adulterous dalliance with Dalia seems to exist purely for titillation. But, just as Arno and Giordani worked as a team in Cat, Deep Red also features a reporter sidekick, Gianna, portrayed by longtime Argento collaborator and partner (romantically and creatively) Daria Nicolodi. Unlike other women from Argento’s stock of female characters, she is earnest, forthright, and professional while also being light-hearted and serving as the film’s much-needed comic relief. Like Roberto in Flies, Daly is a bit of a misogynist; here, however, the film paints him as being clearly in the wrong, and his occasional sexism towards the affable and likable journalist is shown to be completely unfounded. He declares that men are more inherently intellectual, but she deduces the importance of clues before he does; he pompously declares that women are delicate and fragile, but she beats him at arm wrestling and, later, pulls his body from a burning house. It’s rare to see a romantic subplot treated this well in a contemporary film, much less one that’s four decades old. This is also a huge step forward for Argento with regards to sexual politics, and it’s important to note that his next few films center around multidimensional female protagonists, with great success.

Deep Red is the apotheosis of many of Argento’s tropes, but it also reflects his growth as a director and the instigation of newer concepts that would become part of his repertoire in the films that followed. His new focus on developing women characters is cited above, but this was also Argento’s first of many collaborations with prog-rock legends Goblin, who composed most of the score for the film after Argento was dissatisfied with Giorgio Gaslini’s initial composition (although some of Gaslini’s tracks are still present in the final score). This was also the film on which Argento and Nicolodi met; the year later, she would give birth to daughter Asia Argento, who has starred in several of Argento’s later films and become a director in her own right. Nicolodi also has a co-writing credit on Argento’s other opus, Suspiria, and she would later star in four of his other classics: Inferno, Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. The two had parted ways by the time of Opera‘s production in 1987, and both have cited difficulty working together on that film, but they reunited in 2007 to work on Mother of Tears, the long-delayed concluding chapter in a thematic trilogy that began with Suspiria and continued through Inferno.

This film is one of the quintessential works on Argento’s CV, representing the codification and perfection of the elements that made up his prior canon while introducing and inducting collaborators who would be part of his think tank through the next, best stage of his directing career. Avoid any VHS copies you may find, as they will be missing most of the subplot of Gianna and Daly. To avoid accidentally viewing a truncated version of the film, I would also recommend avoiding any DVD released by Blue Underground, as they released two pressings, one of the uncut film and an “Uncensored English Version” that is missing the same scenes as the original US release. Your best bet is to track down Anchor Bay’s release, which features English and Italian audio and subtitles.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond