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

Crimson Peak’s Giallo Treats

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A lot has been made about the genre mashups to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s most recent foray into horror: Crimson Peak. As Erin mentioned in her review, the film boasts an oldschool horror vibe that longingly looks back to the infamous Hammer horror productions of the 50s & 60s, while also recalling the romantic parlor dramas & ghost stories of the Victorian era. Indeed, those points of reference are worn proudly on the film’s sleeve. It’s impossible to look at the ancient, spooky, castle-like haunts that plague the film’s three central characters (played by Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Waskowska) without conjuring thoughts of the Hammer horror style. The romantic, Victorian ghost story aesthetic is referenced by Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist directly (along with apt name-checks for Jane Austen & Mary Shelly for good measure) because she herself is writing one & submitting it for publication. Something I could not stop thinking about while I was watching Crimson Peak, however, (and I’m sure I’m far from alone) was the stylistic influences of the Italian giallo genre of the 1960s & 70s, particularly the work of Dario Argento & Mario Bava.

While the narrative of Crimson Peak is much more closely related to the Hammer horror classics & Victorian ghost stories mentioned, the film’s visual palette & style-over-substance mentality are deeply rooted in giallo. I’m not talking the traditional murder mystery giallo films where the genre gets its name (though there certainly is a good bit of that), such as Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, but more of the spooky witchery in works that came later, like in Argento’s Suspiria. The most easily recognizable giallo element at work in Crimson Peak is the film’s lighting. Stark red, blue, green, and yellow lights clash in the film’s internal spaces as if Bava himself were alive & running del Toro’s lighting on set. Also present is Argento & Bava’s love of a gleaming straight razor just begging to slit a throat, as well as a masked, gloved, mostly offscreen killer shrouded in black-clad secrecy until the last-minute reveal. The giallo influences get more specific from there– be they the creepy dolls from Deep Red, Phenomena‘s fascination with close-up shots of insects, or the image of characters spying through keyholes, which is so prevalent in giallo that it appears in two of the genre’s recent pastiche tributes: Amer & The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

What’s most striking about Crimson Peak‘s giallo heritage, though, is just as elementary as the Mario Bava lighting, but also important enough to be referenced in the film’s title: blood. There is a ludicrous amount of blood in this film. Just ridiculous. It flows from the sink & the bathtub faucet. It seeps through the floorboards & runs down the walls. Characters cry blood. They cough it up. Snow is blood-red in Crimson Peak, as are the film’s beautiful CGI ghosts. I should mention here that most of this “blood” is actually the red clay that rests below the trio of central characters’ haunted household. The effect is, of course, intentional, allowing del Toro to fill the frame with absurd amounts of a thick, blood-red substance (stored even in gigantic bloody vats in the house’s basement/workroom), without relying on a supernatural source for it. It can be no mistake either that the film’s blood-red clay is much more akin to the vibrant hue you’d see in an acrylic paint or a ripe tomato. Giallo films were particularly fond of this cartooonish style of stage blood as well, tending to shy away from the more brownish hues of the real stuff.

So, if you happen to have any buddies out there who are huge giallo nerds & haven’t yet shown an interest in Crimson Peak (is that possible?) it might be worthwhile to shoot them a recommendation. The film’s tendency to value visual style over narrative substance should fit in snugly with their tastes, as should its over-the-top lighting & untold gallons of crimson blood. Of course, the film will play even better if these hypothetical giallo nerds also have a taste for Hammer horror & Victorian ghost stories. I’m sure there’s a great deal of overlap on that Venn diagram & the movie will eventually find a sizeable cult following, even if it currently isn’t doing so hot at the box office. It genuinely deserves it, if nothing else, just based on its visual accomplishments alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Trauma (1993)

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three star

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Due occhi diabolici (aka Two Evil Eyes, 1990)

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Following Opera, Dario Argento set to work drumming up enthusiasm from his peers for a collaborative horror anthology film based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, despite that genre having already gone fairly quietly into the night after peaking with 1982’s Creepshow. By 1989, the only two directors still involved with the project, Argento and George A. Romero, each directed a roughly hour-long horror short, with both episodes released under the banner film title Due occhi diabolici, or Two Evil Eyes.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

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Initially, Romero conceived of his segment as an adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” reimagining it as a parable about AIDS and updating the setting to a luxurious high rise. Argento argued that this would be inconsistent with his vision of the film. With Argento’s segment capitalizing on many of Poe’s most famous pieces, Romero was forced to choose from the writer’s lesser known works, finally settling on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

The 55-minute segment opens as Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) makes her way to the office of Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall), the lawyer of her dying husband, Ernest (Bingo O’Malley). Jessica was once a flight attendant whom the much-older Ernest brought home after a trip, and she’s ready to get her literal and metaphorical payment for acting as his escort and trophy all these years. Pike’s suspicious protests about Ernest’s deathbed money reshuffling are overturned when he speaks with the man himself over the phone. He is, of course, unaware that Ernest is doing so under hypnosis, perpetrated by his physician, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who was Jessica’s lover many years before. Jessica and Hoffman must keep Ernest alive in order to make sure that Jessica inherits everything, but he succumbs to his disease while hypnotized. Although his body is dead, his mind is trapped between worlds, and he begins to bemoan that wherever he is, there are “Others” there who want to use his body as a gateway into the world of the living; he begs to be released from his hypnosis and embrace death.

This segment is not without its merits. Barbeau’s appearance here further connects this film to Creepshow, although this segment (and the next) lacks the dark comedy that made that anthology so memorable. When the Others finally track down Hoffman after he escapes, their spectral appearance and creepy, featureless humanoid forms are legitimately scary; film legend Tom Savini’s makeup on both the undead Ernest and the rotting corpse of Hoffman is the work of a craftsman at the top of his game. The problem is that the story feels somehow like a very small story. Watching it, you get the sense that you aren’t watching the first half of a movie as much as you’re viewing a vaguely familiar episode of Night Gallery. The mediocre “Valdemar” takes place almost entirely within a single location, but instead of inspiring feelings of claustrophobia or entrapment, it contributes to the overall perception that it was produced on a budget more suited for television than a theatrical release. If you happen to catch it on television, give it a watch; that’s where it belongs.

“The Black Cat”

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Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes was much more compelling, although it too suffers in comparison to the source material. Its other primary weakness is in the seemingly odd choices Argento makes about what to spend time on given the segment’s 63ish minute run time. Primarily based upon (and sharing its name with) Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Argento’s segment of the film also incorporates elements from various other Poe stories, well-known and otherwise, as the director paid homage to one of his favorite writers.

Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with a morbid streak; his amicable relationship with Detective LeGrand (John Amos) gets him into plenty of crime scenes, where he captures intimate images of the grotesquery that humans can visit upon one another. His live-in girlfriend of four years, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a contrasting spirit: a sensitive, meditating concert violinist who gives lessons to teenagers. Annabel adopts a stray black cat with a white spot on her chest, and Roderick takes an instant disliking to the animal. Under pressure from his editor to shoot some material with the same tone as his crime photos but a different subject matter, Usher waits until Annabel takes a couple of her students (Holter Graham and adorable widdle 17-year-old Julie Benz in her first film role) to the opera and then tortures and strangles her poor cat, photographing the whole thing.

Annabel becomes distraught and is correctly suspicious that something horrible has befallen her pet and that she did not run away, as Usher insists. He grows increasingly irritated by Annabel’s grief and, after an afternoon of drinking, he slaps her; he then falls asleep and has vivid dream about a medieval witch who looks like Annabel. She cryptically says that his fate is written in the cat’s white spot before he is brutally executed and starts awake. Annabel discovers Usher’s newest book, Metropolitan Horrors, and realizes that her earlier suspicions were true. Meanwhile, Usher is haunted by the sudden appearance of an identical cat, which he takes back to his home and attempts to kill again, but not before noticing that the cat’s white spot is in the shape of a gallows. He is interrupted by Annabel, and the true horror begins.

Although the plot structure is mostly based upon “The Black Cat,” Argento’s interpretation is also a pastiche of Poe’s other works. When we first meet Usher, who is named for the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is attending a crime scene where a woman was murdered via a descending blade, just as in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Later, he takes photos of a woman whose body was dug up by her cousin (an uncredited Tom Savini) so that he could remove her teeth, as in “Berenice.” The inspiration for Annabel’s name is obvious, while the couple’s elderly neighbors (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter) have the surname Pym in honor of the main character of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel; yet another character takes her name from the title character of “Eleonora.” There are probably even more that I missed, and, as a love letter to Poe, the number of references packed into this relatively brief outing show how much Argento deeply cares about Poe’s work.

The primary issue here is that the truncated running time of the piece works both for and against it. Argento is, for the most part, forced to keep the focus tight and thus is allowed no weird and unnecessary digressions from the plot. On the other hand, Roderick’s downslide from safety-negligent pranking to drunken domestic abuse to coldly calculated murder cover-up occurs too quickly to incur the kind of gravitas that Argento is presumably hoping to invoke, which makes Usher’s indulgently overlong medieval dream sequence seem even more out-of-place upon reflection. I suppose he could have been banking on Keitel’s general “perpetually on the verge of losing it” aura, but Usher consequently seems like a horrible person from the beginning, so it’s hard to elicit the kind of sympathy that was present in the original text. There, the unnamed narrator struggles with his alcoholism, decrying it as something akin to a curse or a hex, which possesses and controls him in a way that he despises but cannot escape. Here, it’s just Harvey Keitel knocking back tequila shots at a bar and one scene in which he becomes enraged and hits Annabel, and then it’s on to full blown murder and sealing corpses up in walls.

Despite being based upon Poe’s narratives, there is Argento to spare here as well. The director’s giallo trademark of a character struggling to cognitively and consciously understand a clue that was passively observed is given a slight twist, in that the clue comes in a dream rather than the waking world. Instead of observing other characters talking and later discern what was said, the main character watches the Pyms and one of Annabel’s students discuss the possibility that he is a murderer, reading their lips in the moment. Still, there’s something quintessentially American about Poe’s work that shines through in this, the oddly culturally cryptic first film Argento made in the states. (I’ve heard conflicting stories about whether or not any part of Inferno was actually filmed stateside, with the primary point of contention being whether or not the scene at Central Park Lake was shot in NYC or Italy; most sources say NYC, but an interview with Inferno‘s SFX director on that film’s DVD seems to suggest otherwise.) The place where this is most notable however, is in the presence of people of color. Argento’s films are usually awash in white faces, even in crowd scenes. Part of that may largely be the result of ethnic homogeneity in the Italy of the era in which Argento was doing his primary work, but this film is a refreshing exception. John Amos’s character is very likable, as is the pastor with whom Annabel is friends. Even many of the extras are black, causing “Cat” to stand out among Argento’s other work. Overall, it’s definitely worth watching, despite its problems with pacing and tempo.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Opera (1987)

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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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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)

EPSON MFP image

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