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

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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

Giallo (2009)

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three star

I don’t know if it’s fair to detract from this movie’s score based on what I learned about it after viewing it. I’m not talking about Adrien Brody’s high-profile lawsuit against the production company to block distribution of Giallo in the U.S. until he received the remainder of his paycheck; that sort of thing shouldn’t (and doesn’t) really affect an interpretation of the film’s quality. What I am talking about is the fact that I honestly thought Dario Argento had gone out and hired someone with an unusual, potentially deformed facial structure to portray the killer, much like he had hired an elderly prostitute to portray the briefly corporeal Helena Markos in the final moments of Suspiria, and it turns out I was very, very wrong. The prosthetics applied to the killer are hideous if you accept that this is the face of a real person, but, once their falsity is pointed out, they are embarrassingly obvious—in the sense that I’m embarrassed by the fact that I made it through the whole film without realizing that it was actually Brody under all that bulbous latex. So, completely outside the world of the film itself, I have to admit that this has the overall effect of making the film goofier in retrospect.

Following the kidnapping of a beautiful tourist, Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives in Turin to visit her sister, fashion model Celine (Elsa Pataky). When Celine doesn’t come home when expected, Linda goes to the police, who direct her to Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody), an antisocial detective who is on the trail of a serial kidnapper and murderer (also Brody) who uses his unlicensed taxi as a cover in his abductions. Linda forces her way into his investigation, and they learn from a not-quite-dead victim that her assailant is literally yellow, a fact which they use to determine that the killer, now nicknamed “Giallo,” has jaundice as a result of kidney problems and track him to a clinic. Meanwhile, Enzo reveals that his dedication to the job arose from the fact that he saw his mother murdered by a serial killer when he was a child, a butcher whom he later encountered and killed in revenge as a teenager. Giallo realizes that Linda and Enzo are closing in and takes Linda hostage, promising to tell her where Celine is hidden once he gets away.

When I hit the midpoint of this Dario Argento project, I decided to start keeping track of which of his recurring motifs were used most often and then, when we got to the end, I planned to use this info to determine which Argento was the most Argento of all the Argentos. Strangely, within the first few minutes of this film, it seemed like Giallo was aiming to be the most motif-heavy, as there was a brief scene where a character attended an opera, then a scene of running in the rain, the killer’s eyes being reflected in a mirror, and other elements that had already appeared in four or more films. And then it occurred to me: if The Black Cat was Argento doing Poe and Do You Like Hitchcock? was Argento doing Hitchcock, then Giallo is Argento doing Argento, and it works in some ways but fails in too many others.

The all-too-brief sequences of Enzo’s youth, which are shot to be stylistically similar to Argento’s movies of the late seventies and early eighties, are the most interesting part of the film. These shots are beautiful, and they really make me want to see the aging director craft a giallo period piece set during the era of his greatest successes, perhaps as the last project of his career before retirement. There’s also a return to form with regards to his cinematic eye here; the use of color throughout is particularly well done, especially as this element has been absent from his work for over a decade at this point (a chase sequence that makes its way down a giant yellow spiral staircase is notably both fun and visually appealing). I also appreciated that Enzo and Linda learned the name of the killer fairly early in the film’s run time and tracked down his location, prompting Giallo to be more proactive in a way that none of Argento’s previous antagonists had been. There’s even a fake-out downer ending with an ambiguous epilogue, which is another departure from some of Argento’s more tired ending tropes. Brody seems to be phoning in his performance as Enzo, perhaps to counterbalance his performance as the more striking Giallo, but Seigner is likable and sympathetic as a woman who refuses to give up on her sister, and she makes the character’s decision to acquiesce to the killer’s hostage taking believable.

On the other hand, the original ideas here serve to highlight just how much of this movie isn’t fresh or clever. While Seigner plays her role with understated franticness, Brody poorly acts each of his roles in a different way. The inspector is an interpretation of a hard-boiled NYC cop (it is explained that Enzo spent some time in the states growing up after the death of his mother) with a chip on his shoulder that prevents him from forming emotional relationships; Giallo is a grotesque Quasimodo who shrieks back at his victims and gets off on stealing women’s beauty by mutilating them. Both characters are too broad to leave much of an impression, and the revelation of Enzo’s backstory is more interesting in its execution than in the material revealed. Alternatively, the backstory of Giallo–that his junkie mother abandoned her jaundiced, hepatitis-infected baby to be raised by the church, where he was isolated by his yellow skin–is too maudlin to be taken completely seriously. That the film takes an unusual turn in its final third is interesting, but not interesting enough to save it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pelts (2006)

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three star

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When I wrote my review of Jenifer, I noted that it was unique among Dario Argento’s body of work in a few ways, for better or worse. Jenifer herself was imagined by Argento as an alien life form, even if that wasn’t explicit in the text itself, making her the only extraterrestrial in his canon (unless I’m in for the shock of a lifetime when I get to Dracula 3D); further, the effects work on Jenifer was grotesque and monstrous, with the only similar prosthetic work in his films that I can recall being the monstrous child in Phenomena. Argento’s second Masters of Horror episode, Pelts, is also quite unlike his previous work, although not in the way that is frequently referenced. Nearly every review of Pelts mentions the short film’s “political message,” especially given the generally apolitical nature of all of Argento’s work, but I don’t really think that there is one, at least not in the way the uninitiated interpret the word. As a composition scholar, I am obliged to perceive and interpret all forms of composition and creation as inherently political, as all creation is an act of expressing individuality and thus is a political act in and of itself; by choosing what to include and what to exclude in the created thing, be it a poem, speech, or painting, the author/composer makes a de facto “political” statement. And, yes, the fact that Argento focused this film on the fur trade does lend itself to the assumption that the director is making a capital-P “Political” statement, but I don’t think that was Argento’s goal, nor do I think that decrying fur played a larger role in the inception of this plot than wanting to show a man skinning himself of his own flesh and then working backwards to create parallelism did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jake Feldman (the one and only Meat Loaf Aday) is a fur trader who lusts after Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), a stripper who is disgusted by Feldman’s possessiveness and the fact that, as a furrier, he constantly reeks of dead flesh. She has made it clear that she will dance for—but never sleep with—him, no matter how pathetic he is. One of his suppliers, Jeb Jameson (John Saxon, who previously worked with Argento in Tenebrae), is an old drunk who takes his son Larry (Michal Suchánek) into the woods to check the raccoon traps he set earlier. Larry expresses some concern when he realizes that his father is taking him beyond a warning fence, onto the land of Mother Mater (Brenda McDonald), but the elder Jameson scolds his son for his superstition. The two come upon stone ruins, which Larry notices are carved with the faces of raccoons, while his father instructs him to crush the windpipes of the animals they have trapped, apparently in abundance, and to take a baseball bat and crush the skulls of any raccoon that does not die instantly. Jeb calls Feldman to tell him that he has secured a large number of pelts, the most beautiful he has ever seen. Later, after the two have skinned the animals and their pelts are drying, Jeb heads to bed while Larry ecstatically examines the animal hides with a spiritual reverence. Moved by their beauty, he goes upstairs to his father’s room and crushes his skull with the baseball bat before gleefully setting up a trap and then killing himself with it.

Feldman and his lackey find the two in this position and, thinking quickly, take off with the raccoon skins. Various workers in Feldman’s shop begin to self-harm in ways that are reminiscent of their interactions with the furs in the coat-making process, until the coat is finally completed. In the meantime, Feldman visits Mother Mater, who warns him that the nearby fenced-off woods are protected by the “pine lights,” which he laughs off when he realizes she means raccoons. Feldman presents the coat to Shanna, who sleeps with him in exchange for it. He excuses himself to the restroom, where he proceeds to skin himself, cutting off his own flesh in roughly the shape of a tank top and then attempts to gift this flesh to Shanna, who flees from him. Feldman pursues her to the elevator, where her hand is trapped and then torn off (symbolic of the animal that gnawed its own foot off to escape the trap), and then they both die. The end.

I remember watching Tenebrae and being shocked by how unusually violent it was in comparison to the (comparatively) understated violence of the films that preceded it; Pelts gives that film a run for its money. Argento brought back Howard Berger, who had done the make-up and visual effects on Jenifer, and he was again interviewed on this DVD. Berger, who has worked with director Quentin Tarantino numerous times, recalled in his interview for this project that Tarantino’s directions on the set of Kill Bill largely consisted of “make it bloodier than Tenebrae.” He felt he had come full circle by contributing to this project, citing that it was the goriest thing he had ever worked on, and I can’t argue with that. There’s not a lot to engage an audience here on a philosophical level (and certainly nothing on a political level), but there’s more than enough to satisfy even the sickest fans of gore. I consider myself to have a fairly strong constitution, steeled by many a midnight horror flick, but some scenes were almost too much for even my stomach. The scene in which Feldman flays himself is horrifying in all the best ways, and the scene in which the younger Jameson serenely plunges his face into a bear trap carefully combined tension and the grotesque in perfect measure. That’s a real feather in the cap of the people who worked on the short’s practical effects, but it also highlights the poor quality of much of the CGI work. The worst offender in this arena has to be the scene in which one of Feldman’s employees sews her eyes, mouth, and nose shut; there’s no real reason why this couldn’t have been done practically using a dummy head, especially given Berger’s talents, and it looks terrible and rushed in the final product.

Although Meat Loaf is most well known as a musician and his most memorable role since The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a supporting one in Spice World as the Girls’ driver, he has a willingness to completely immerse himself in a part the way that many actors who are more “legitimate” or noteworthy do not. Feldman is an utterly vile person, and any humanization that he has is as a result of Meat Loaf’s surprisingly nuanced and careful performance. Saxon is the only other actor of note in the production, and he does the opposite, playing up the campiness of the Jameson character; it’s a bit of a relief to see him killed off so early, as that frees Saxon from sullying himself too much. The rest of the cast is largely comprised of nobodies; each of them has an IMDb page full of “Man #3,” “Bouncer,” “Tough Guy,” and “Stripper #4” credits, and there’s not much to say about any of them. Ellen Ewusie really gets the worst of this, however, as her interview (like Moran Atias’s in the supplemental materials for Mother of Tears) illuminates her as a woman saddled with attempting to discuss building the background and motivations of a character who exists solely for titillation, and I wish I could see her in a role that requires more than that.

Overall, this was an experience that I neither loved nor hated. The message is less “fur is murder” and more “selfishness is self-destructive,” which is all well and good but not very groundbreaking. The acting is a mixed bag, and there’s so much gore packed into this short run time that it is worth a watch if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s by far the better of Argento’s two Masters episodes, and while it’s not very good, it is an unusual part of the director’s canon that gives some insight into his mind that is lacking in his other works.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Jenifer (2005)

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twostar

Steven Weber is not a movie star. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Every time I see him, all I can ever think about is his character from Wings, a sitcom that ran for the better part of a decade and then was syndicated for the entirety of my formative years. I can only see Brian Hackett. Even when Weber is supposed to be Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s poorly overproduced miniseries remake of The Shining, or whatever his character’s name was in that Larry David movie that Larry David hates, he’ll always be slacker Brian Hackett to me. The inverse is also true; Argento is not a director who should be bound by the limits of the small screen, as was seen in Do You Like Hitchcock? and here. Apparently Weber has a talent for screenplay writing, which he exercised here in this first season Masters of Horror episode, adapting a horror story from a 1974 issue of Creepy: “Jenifer.” This is also Dario Argento’s return to America after Trauma, which he chose to shoot in what he described as “featureless Minnesota” for presumably thematic reasons that I still don’t understand. All discussion about his crumbling auteurship aside, it can never be said that Argento does not put all of his energy into his work. The Masters of Horror DVDs are some of the best you can ask for, featuring hours of special features for each episode, including interviews with actors who worked with the director of that episode earlier in his career as well as featurettes and other behind-the-scenes footage; here, it’s really evident that Argento, despite being in his sixties at the time, is working just as hard on this one hour film as he did on the exalted films from earlier in his career. It’s just too bad that the end product isn’t really all that worthwhile.

Frank Spivey (Weber) is a police officer who shoots and kills a derelict when the man refuses to drop the giant blade he is holding to the neck of a woman whose face is unseen. With his dying breaths, the man warns Spivey that he can’t comprehend what he has done, before Spivey sees the face of the woman he rescued and recoils in horror. Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming), as we will learn she is named, has an attractive body but a terrifyingly hideous face, featuring enlarged and asymmetrical black eyes and a malformed mouth full of jagged teeth; she also drools profusely and her tongue appears to be covered in food bits at all times. Spivey becomes obsessed with her despite her appearance, inviting her to stay in his home while they look for her family. Things start to go awry almost immediately, as Jenifer gorily eats the family cat, prompting Mrs. Spivey and the couple’s son to leave the home, but Jenifer and Spivey begin to have sex and Spivey seems addicted. When he cannot curb Jenifer’s cannibalistic outbursts (which culminate in the killing and eating of the little girl who lives next door), Spivey moves Jenifer to a cabin in the woods and takes a job as a shelf stocker at a grocery store operated by a single mother (Cynthia Garris). Jenifer can’t help but kill yet again, eviscerating and feeding upon the entrails of the shop owner’s teenage son (Jeffrey Ballard). Realizing that he can never stop her, Spivey takes Jenifer into the woods to kill her, but is shot by a hunter before he can complete the deed; Jenifer goes with the hunter, to begin the cycle anew.

Jenifer succeeds in one way that Argento’s previous films didn’t: Jenifer herself is positively grotesque and disgusting. As in the original comic story, there’s never an explanation given as to where she came from or why she does what she does, although Argento imagined that she was an alien life form of some kind and instructed the makeup department accordingly, making this the first and only appearance of an alien life form in his body of work to date. I mention this not only because it is noteworthy, but because much of the short itself is not. Everything interesting about Jenifer is revealed and discussed in the supplementary materials, not in the text proper, which is a problem. The plot is paper thin, and the fact that this is apparently a recursive narrative is the only thing that makes it notable at all. Of the two television projects that Argento worked on in 2005, this one manages to be stronger than Do You Like Hitchcock? in its sense of style and its lush Oregon landscape, but this is still a paper-thin plot about a man whose sex drive is stronger than his will to live or his oath to protect people, which makes him difficult to care about. Although it is apparent that Jenifer is warping his mind somehow from the moment the two meet, we spend no time with Spivey before this event, so we have no way of knowing if he was ever a decent cop and good father who is turned by his weakness to his lusts, or if he was always as pathetic as he is presented to be at the conclusion.

Masters of Horror was always better in concept than in action. In practice, it seems that most of directors invited to be part of the series were past the point where they or their points of view could be said to have any cultural relevancy. The BTS materials demonstrate that Argento was somewhat hamstrung by the sensibilities of the network, even though you’d expect Showtime to have a loose hand. A monstrous woman with a hideously deformed face but great breasts eviscerating and feasting upon a cat and a seven year old girl? Fine. But show her chowing down on a victim’s penis? Too far! According to Howard Berger, who designed and applied the prosthetics and makeup for Jenifer, Argento also asked him to design a horribly alien murder vagina, which he then crafted out of chicken parts and prosthetic teeth; Showtime nixed this idea as well. And frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that. At the time of filming, Argento was still physically directing his actors, acting out how he wanted them to move and react to things like a person truly passionate about their craft; he was also trying to push the boundaries of horror and good taste, taking no prisoners and holding back nothing in the pursuit of an artistic endeavor. But not being able to realize his perversely horrifying or horrifyingly perverse ideas isn’t really the problem with the final product. Passion isn’t imagination, or talent, or relevance. It’s vital but insufficient, and the problems with Jenifer are that it’s just too blasé, too 1990s The Outer Limits, too television. Jenifer herself will give you nightmares, but that’s the discomfort of the uncanny valley, not tension. The story is repetitive despite its short run time (“Will Jenifer kill again? Yes.”), and it has no staying power.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)

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twostar

Way back when I first started working my way through the films directed by Dario Argento, I opened my review of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage with a reference to  the early U.S. promotional materials for that film, which banked on the connection between the young Italian director and Alfred Hitchcock. The quotation from Hitchcock cited therein, that he found Argento’s work to be troubling, fascinates me, especially as Argento himself was known at the height of his career as the Italian Hitchcock. As I reach the end of Argento’s C.V., I have to note that this comparison is reductive and does a disservice to both men. Even at their worst, Hitchcock’s stories always made sense, and his reprehensible antihero protagonists were viewed from a distance that was sufficient to allow the audience to have ambivalent feelings about them. For instance, famously, the intent of the scene in which Norman Bates pushes a
car into a bog was designed to elicit an anxious reaction when the vehicle failed to sink, because part of you wants him to succeed. After three and a half decades directing films, Argento was finally able to go full Hitchcock in this tepid made-for-tv picture.

The film opens with an utterly inconsequential sequence in which young Giulio (Elio Germano) is riding his bike in the woods before stumbling upon two women, who make their way to an abandoned shack. He spies on the two through the window as they excitedly slaughter a rooster and dance about in its blood. They discover him peeping and chase him away, screaming after him that they will catch him eventually (they don’t). We then see Giulio in the present day; he’s now a film student working on a thesis about German expressionism, whenever he can tear himself away from peeping on his neighbor, Sasha (Elisabetta Rocchetti), in various states of undress. He also bears witness to Sasha’s frequent altercations with her mother. One day, while visiting his local video rental outlet, he notices Sasha and a blonde woman, Federica (Chiara Conti), both attempting to rent Strangers on a Train. Sasha ultimately rents the movie, but promises to bring it back the very next day so that Federica can have her turn. Giulio befriends the slacker shop owner, Andrea (Ivan Morales). A few nights later, an intruder enters Sasha’s home and kills her mother. Because Giulio had previously seen Federica and Sasha laughing together in the park, he becomes obsessed with the idea that they’ve entered into a murder pact, Strangers on a Train style.

Giulio’s girlfriend Arianna (Cristina Brondo) thinks he’s being absurd, and her mood doesn’t improve when she realizes his evidence gathering technique involves spying on nude women. Giulio begins snooping around Sasha’s apartment while cleaners are there and goes so far as to steal a piece of her mail, which shows how much she stands to inherit from her mother’s death; Sasha realizes Giulio is spying on her. Later, while he is in the shower, an intruder breaks in but is scared off, prompting Giulio to have his locks changed. The next day, he meets up with Andrea, who asks him to mind the shop for a moment; Giulio uses this opportunity to get Federica’s address from the customer database, and to flirt with Sasha when she stops in. Giulio then follows Federica from her home to work one day, where he sees her supervisor behaving inappropriately. He follows the two back to the boss’s apartment, where it is revealed that she stole money from the company and that he is blackmailing her for sexual favors. Before he can force himself upon her, however, he notices Giulio doing what he does best, peeping, and pursues the kid into the street, where he sustains an injury to his foot before absconding on his comical scooter. He’s in full-on Rear Window mode now, with his binoculars and his foot cast, and when evidence starts to mount that he might not be as crazy as was initially suspected, including an attempt on his own life, Arianna joins him in his investigation.

Do You Like Hitchcock? is an unimaginative movie, full of twists that ultimately render the mystery moot and featuring a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Giulio is a creeping peeping tom, and there’s no way around it; his Harriet the Spy hijinx are not adorable when applied to an adult who only becomes aware of a murder because it interrupts his voyeurism. This is, apparently, the message of the film, given that the final frames are dedicated to reminding the viewer of all the times he spied on people without their knowledge. There’s no denunciation of his activities on the part of the film, and the only person who calls him out on the inappropriateness of this behavior is Arianna, who is presented as an unlikable shrew who lashes out and fails to believe Giulio when he needs her to.

As an Argento product, this is most clearly similar to The Black Cat, except that here the object of emulation is Hitchcock, not Edgar Allan Poe. There are a few reasons why that film worked and this one doesn’t; first and foremost is in the different lengths of the two films. It’s not as if giving Argento a shorter running time will guarantee a great picture (as we’ll see next time), but a lot of Black Cat‘s tautness can be attributed to its abbreviated running time, which ensured the director’s digressions were largely kept to a minimum. Secondly, the characters in the 1990 film were pastiches of ideas and character traits from several different Poe characters, so they felt both familiar and novel, grounded and immortal at the same time; here, it’s impossible not to compare Giulio to both James Stewart’s L. B. Jeffries and Harvey Keitel’s Usher, and where the latter two are consequential, the former is blandly nonpresent, existing only as a cipher through which the plot can happen. And that’s not even getting into the vast difference in acting ability.

There’s also the fact that, in Black Cat, characters couldn’t just walk around saying, “Oh, this killer’s M.O. reminds me of ‘Berenice’,” or “oh, this crime scene is just like ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.” Hitchcock could have gone all the way with this metatextual reframing of the narrative, making this movie like Scream with Hitchcock films in place of slasher flicks. Instead it falls flat, as Giulio says things like “I thought they were doing Strangers on a Train, but they’re doing Dial M for Murder!” Subtlety has never been Argento’s forte, but this movie has virtually no subtext whatsoever, save for one recurring visual that is probably unintentional. There’s a rather large poster for Il cartaio on the video store door, right next to a poster for Hitchcock’s latter day thriller Marnie, which is largely forgotten or reviled these days, with good reason (if you ever wondered what it would look like if James Bond raped Tippi Hedren, Marnie is the movie for you, you sick bastard). Cartaio and Marnie are very dissimilar films, but they both represent a period in each of their respective directors’ careers where the bloom was off the rose, so to speak; their best works already having been completed and canonized as classics, but neither director was ready to go quietly into obscurity.

The connection to Marnie is further underscored by Federica’s similarity to the title character of that film, as both are blackmailed and assaulted by their employers for having stolen funds. Aside from the obvious references to Strangers and Dial M, there are also a few other appearances of elements from Rear Window, some of which are updated for modernism in a way that I actually enjoyed. If you ever wondered how the finale of Rear Window would have been different if Stewart could have just called Grace Kelly on her cell phone, this is the movie that will answer that question for you, for better or worse. The rooftop pursuit has elements of Vertigo in it while also harkening back to a similar chase sequence in Cat o’ Nine Tails, which is a nice touch. Maybe it’s the inherently small nature of television that held this film back, but all in all, it’s one that’s not really worth bothering with. If you want to see Argento try his hand at Hitchcock and succeed, go back and rewatch the opening of Sleepless again; the train-bound chase sequence that centers around the retrieval of mysterious files and papers is very much a spiritual descendant of similar scenes in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, and packs more of a punch (and more respect for Hitch and his legacy) into 13 minutes than this film does in its entire runtime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Il cartaio (aka The Card Player, 2004)

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twohalfstar

Roughly ten to fifteen years ago, poker was everywhere. The boom of internet-based video poker played a huge role in the game’s rising profile, and as more people got to experience the game and hone their skills in a low-risk environment, suddenly everyone was an expert. The World Series of Poker became must-see television, or else you would be left out of the watercooler conversation the next day; at night, USA Network would force teenagers across the country to wait an interminable thirty minutes to see Strip Poker contestants in their underwear. If you could poker-ify a product, you could sell it, as obsession with the card game brought poker to a point of cultural saturation that normally only your Seinfelds and your Cosbys get to enjoy. It’s not hard to imagine why; poker is like the lovechild of lottery and sport, allowing players (and viewers, by proxy) to experience the pure adrenaline thrill of wagering on something that combines strategy with luck. Like all fads, it eventually faded away, but not before several filmmakers tried to herd gullible people into theatres by making poker a focal point; search Google for “movies about poker,” and you’ll see that most of the results come from 2003-2008. For better or worse, Dario Argento was one of those directors.

The script that would eventually become Il cartaio (The Card Player, 2004) began as an idea about a sadist challenging the police to a game of poker. He also envisioned the film as a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome, revisiting Inspector Anna Manni (presumably rehabilitated following her psychotic break in that film). When his daughter was not available to reprise her role, Argento reworked the script; since I went into this film with that knowledge, it’s impossible for me to say how much of the narrative is a holdover from its previous incarnation and how much of it merely seems that way because I was subconsciously looking for connections, but those apparent connections, be they real or imagined, fail to make this a standout film. Despite some new ideas, The Card Player feels as if it was dated from the moment of its release, and often plays more like a television procedural than a movie from one of the great living directors.

Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is an investigator who believes in healthy living and keeping her personal and professional lives separate, much to the chagrin of Carlo Sturni (Claudio Santamaria), a fellow officer. Mari begins to receive messages from a serial killer known as the Card Player, who challenges the department to a game of online video poker with the prize being the life of a young woman who is hooked up to a live feed, to be killed or freed, depending on whether or not the police can beat him in three hands. The police commissioner (Adalberto Maria Merli) initially refuses to play along, and the first victim is a British tourist whose murder brings in Irish-born London-detective-in-exile John Brennan (Liam Cunningham, aka Ser Davos the Onion Knight of Game of Thrones). The killer’s second victim dies when Sturni fails to beat the killer’s hand, and Brennan and Mari’s investigation brings them to young student Remo (Silvio Muccino), a poker prodigy whom Mari enlists to help them win against the murderer, or at least keep him online long enough to track. The third victim almost escapes uring the game, but is recaptured and killed. Meanwhile, Mari staves off a home invasion by the killer, which leads to her becoming romantically entangled with Brennan. then the fourth victim turns out to be the commissioner’s daughter (Fiore Argento), can she be saved in time?

The biggest problem with Cartaio is that it’s toothless and small. A contemporary New York Times review dismissively compared the film to CSI, but its focus on a culturally ubiquitous fad reminded me more of one of those tone deaf and out-of-touch episodes of Law & Order, where they try to tackle something like Bronies or Gamergate and completely fail to grasp it as a concept. Aside from Mari, who comes across as vulnerable but competent and self-assured, the characters are flat, and any personality they have is painted in the broadest of strokes. Cunningham tries his best to breathe life into the paper-thin alcoholic disgraced cop cliché with which he’s saddled, but there was only so much he could do with what was on the page. The other cops are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and it’s a testament to how irrelevant the characters are that the actor behind the killer isn’t even credited on the movie’s Wikipedia page. It’s a big step back from the best thing about Sleepless, which is a shame.

The film is not without its merits, however. As mentioned above, Rocca’s Mari leaves a distinct impression, and the sequence that revolves around her fending off the killer in her home is a tense one that calls to mind a similar sequence in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, in which blind Audrey Hepburn extinguishes all the lights in her home and puts herself and an invader on equal footing on her terms. Muccino’s Remo is also a likable screen presence, which makes his sudden death (as well as Brennan’s) all the more shocking. That’s not to say that I would have made the same storytelling choices, but it is an effectively sudden change after the first 70% of the film’s murders were displayed in a more distanced fashion, from the other side of a small chat window (again contributing to the film’s sanitized, crime-procedural aesthetic).

Overall, the lukewarm critical response to Cartaio is commensurate to its reheated plot. There’s nothing novel about the motivations of any of the characters, and making video poker the central focus of originality in the film was a mistake. The musical composition is simply terrible in places, and even the characters agree, as Mari eventually shoots and destroys a car stereo that has been playing the electronica score diegetically (you can get a taste of it in the film’s horrible, dialogue-free trailer; now imagine that playing in roughly half of a two hour movie). The romance between Mari and Brennan feels forced, and the plot reveal of “yeah, he’s dead, but she’s pregnant now, so hooray!” is trite and reductive. Sure, the ending, in which the killer chains both himself and Mari to train tracks and forces her to play very slow video poker to save her life, makes sense thematically. That still wouldn’t make for an exciting climax to an episode of the kinds of shows that Cartaio cribs from, let alone a feature. It’s not the worst Argento, but it doesn’t hover very far above the bottom either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Non ho sonno (aka Sleepless, 2001)

fourstar

Like Stendhal Syndrome, this one surprised me. The overwhelming consensus is that Dario Argento’s latter day work is universally abysmal, and after Phantom of the Opera, which is unequivocally one of the worst movies I have ever seen, I had little hope for what lay ahead. Unlike Syndrome, however, this is one that I can recommend without the same kind of reservations about problematic sexpolitik that permeated that film. Non ho sonno (Sleepless) was released in 2001; this is the inaugural Argento giallo of the 21st Century, but its success lies in the way that it revisits the director’s standard bag of tricks, reinventing some while playing others straight.

In 1983, Chief Detective Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) promises young Giacomo Gallo, a boy who just saw his mother murdered, that he will find the killer, even if it takes the rest of his life. The evidence indicates a person of small stature, and horror novelist Vincenzo de Fabritiis (Luca Fagioli), a neighbor who happens to be a little person, is convicted and dies while serving his time. Nearly twenty years later, a prostitute listens one night as an eccentric client babbles in his sleep about having committed the crimes of which Vincenzo was accused. In her haste to escape, she accidentally absconds with the killer’s envelope of newspaper clippings about the “Dwarf Killings,” as they were called; she boards a train and thinks she’s safe, but the killer silences her before she reaches her destination, although not before she tells another passenger about her discovery. He relates this information to the police, led by Inspector Manni (Paolo Maria Scalondro; the character shares a surname with both Asia Argento’s Inspector Anna Manni of Syndrome and the shoplifter whose murder opens Tenebrae which is an oddity worth remarking upon, even if it doesn’t amount to anything).

Manni visits the now-retired Moretti, looking for insight. A former department legend, Moretti’s mind has been clouded by age, and his sole companion on the road to dementia is his pet parrot. At the same time, the now-adult Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) gets a call from his childhood friend Lorenzo (Roberto Zibetti), who tells him about the murder, prompting Giacomo’s return to Turin. Lorenzo’s father (Gabriele Lavia, who previously portrayed two separate characters named Carlo in Profondo rosso and Inferno) disapproves of Lorenzo’s aimless wanderlust and laziness, and has sent the younger man all over the world to different schools, hoping to ignite some passion in him. Giacomo strikes up a romance with harpist Gloria (Chiara Caselli), also a childhood friend, but he spends most of his time with Moretti; the two team up to find the killer, and an encounter with Laura de Fabritiis (Rosella Falk), the late Vincenzo’s mother, leads the duo to wonder if this copycat murderer is a copycat after all.

The circuitous mystery is secondary to other cinematic elements that Argento rarely explores but are of larger import in this film. His decline in quality as a director is arguable, but the sparsity of the bombastic, provocative, and imaginative use of color, space, and composition in comparison to his older works is empirically evident. Tenebrae and Phenomena were more deliberately monochromatic, setting off a trend; Opera was dominated by shadows and earthtones, but was visually sumptuous and engaging in other ways, with each film that followed being more drab than the last, looking cheaper and shoddier with every passing movie. Sleepless isn’t necessarily a return to form with regards to inventive cinematography, but it does feature several set pieces that effectively ramp up the tension while also being visually dynamic in a way that the director hadn’t shown an aptitude for in the nineties–not even once. The first of such set pieces, the chase aboard the train, stands out as being particularly remarkable, and may be one of the best from the director’s entire career.

More surprising than the upswing in cinematic sensitivity is the focus on character here, an element in which Argento has heretofore never demonstrated much interest. Of course, one of the biggest problems with being an American Argento fan has always been dealing with the dubbings of the film into English, some of which are decent but uninspiring and others of which are simply terrible. When an actor’s body language is inconsistent with the line readings of his or her dialogue, it really spoils the moment for the viewer and makes it that much more difficult to suspend disbelief and immerse oneself in the narrative. It’s more distracting in some films than in others (Phantom is, unsurprisingly, the worst with regards to this phenomenon, especially given that Julian Sands isn’t dubbed, throwing the bad dubbing of others into even starker relief), and it’s a consistent issue that I haven’t really addressed to this point because of its ubiquity, although I do try to make a point of noting when viewers have the better option of subtitles. I point this out because, in many cases, this causes his films that already feature unremarkable characterization and little-to-no subtlety to seemingly have no character development at all. In contrast to other Argento protagonists, Moretti is very well-defined, a man whose best days are behind him and with nothing ahead of him save the slow shuffle toward death; his struggles to remember potentially important details and clues from such an old case are fascinating to watch, and von Sydow sells the hell out of this script like the professional that he is.

His relationship with Dionisi’s Giacomo is also a welcome change, as romantic and/or sexual entanglement has dominated the relationships between characters in every one of Argento’s films since Opera. Like the pairing of Arnò and Giordani in Cat o’ Nine Tails and McGregor and Jennifer in Phenomenon, Giacomo and Moretti are a pair of intergenerational investigators, and their strengths and weaknesses complement each other while their history lends the investigation more emotional weight than it would otherwise. This relationship isn’t the only homage to earlier films, either. There’s a lot of Profondo rosso and Tenebrae in Sleepless‘ DNA. As in Profondo, there is a red herring killer, again played by Gabriele Lavia, and the killer’s leitmotif revolves around nursery rhymes while the killings themselves feature frenetic calliope music of the kind emitted by children’s toys. What’s particularly exciting about the revisitation of older ideas is that it lulls you into a false sense of security with regards to other repeated elements, allowing Argento to play with them. Every clue leads you to believe that there are two killers, as in Tenebrae, but the surprise is that there is only one. Most of Argento’s murderous villains begin to kill only when some repressed memory is awoken; here, the killer is supposedly dormant for seventeen years, leading an audience familiar with these films to assume that some traumatic event has triggered the spree. Instead, the  the captured killer admits at the film’s conclusion that no one considered that he or she could have just been somewhere else.

It would be misleading, however, if I didn’t point out that Sleepless pales in comparison to those two films. There are problems here, most of them revolving around the identity of the killer, whose bad dubbing is notable even in this film, which features some of the more egregiously bad synching outside of Phantom. I also prefer when there is some logic to the selection of victims on the part of the killer, as in Trauma with its revenge list and Profondo, where each death is covering the tracks of an older crime. When the killings are more random or circumstantial, as in Phenomenon and Opera, there’s an added dimension of danger but less emotional investment, and I’ll take the latter over the former any day.

Still, so much of this film works that I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It’s hard not to see a little bit of Argento in Moretti, an aging genius facing irrelevance and failure in his twilight years, but one whose facilities grow subtly sharper and stronger when he finds himself immersed in his craft once again. Goblin returns to provide the soundtrack for the film (for what is, to date, their last collaboration with Argento), which further gives the movie the feeling of having fallen through a crack in time from an earlier point in the director’s career. There’s also no CGI here (at least any that I can recognize), and the murders are well-done and convincing; as far as practical effects go, the killing of Giacomo’s mother as he watches from his hiding spot is probably one of the best from Argento’s entire oeuvre. It’s worth tracking down, especially as a not-as-good-but-still-noteworthy companion piece to Profondo and Tenebrae.

-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