StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, StageFright: Aquarius is a 1987 giallo film directed by Michele Soavi, who got his start assisting Dario Argento and shooting second unit work on Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. His second film was the previously reviewed La chiesa in 1989, but this freshman feature has a lot of style, which spackles over the occasional slip-ups that are common in debut films. 

Our film opens on a grimy street, as a woman in a platinum wig seeks an honest night’s work, only to be attacked and pulled into a shadowed entryway. This causes a commotion as a dozen people gather and stare at her murdered body, only for the killer to suddenly and energetically burst forth from the door and begin to dance as we pan out to see that the street is just a set on a stage in a modestly sized theater, and our characters are but actors on it. Well, most of them are actors; some are dancers, and there’s also an inexplicable saxophone player in a billowing Marilyn Monroe dress perched on one of the faux rooftops. The killer happens to be wearing a giant owl head, and it’s one of the strangest but most fascinating openings I’ve seen in a film in this genre. The choice to open with offscreen traffic noise and slowly pan up a city street makes for a clever misdirect that is also ultimately a metaphor about the film’s own method of doing more with less

After wounding her ankle on-stage in the opening scene, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) acquiesces to the prompting of Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) to sneak out of the side door and get her ankle treated, without the permission of egomaniacal director Peter (David Brandon). They charm affable theater owner/property manager Willy (James Sampson) into letting them out through the side door. It turns out that the hospital that Betty knew about that was nearby is actually a psychiatric hospital, but as Betty points out, psychiatrists do attend medical school, so after an encounter with an unfriendly nurse, Alicia sees a doctor. On the way out, she asks about the room that has bars over the door, and the women learn that the prisoner is serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who’s awaiting trial. Wallace escapes from his room due to an orderly’s carelessness, and, hiding in Betty’s trunk, returns with them to the theater. Alicia is immediately fired upon return, and while Peter is dressing her down, Betty is killed outside with a pickaxe. 

Surprisingly, Alicia discovers this almost immediately and the police are called and arrive at once. Her body is taken away, there are reporters, it’s a whole deal. Two patrolman (Soavi in a cameo, with Mickey Knox as his older partner) are stationed outside of the theater and Willy clocks out for the night, entrusting Peter to lock the place up. Instead, he has “ingenue” Corinne (Loredana Parrella) hide the key so that everyone is locked in and forced to participate in an all-night rehearsal so that they can open the play early and capitalize on the tragedy. Of course, that means that Irving is now locked in with the cast as well as their producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida). The first to be subdued is Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, credited as John Morghen), who portrays the killer within the play; Irving takes his owl head mask and uses it as his disguise to get close to Corinne in the scene in which she dies, only for onlookers to respond too slowly to the dawning realization that she is actually being murdered. And, as she’s the only one who knows where the key is, they’re in for a long night. 

The play within the movie is about a fictional killer named The Night Owl who preys on vulnerable women and murders them. The characters within the film also recognize that the play is a stylish but trashy cheap thrill masquerading as something more; one character describes it as a “thoughtful musical” when asked, but this “artistic endeavor” is fully funded by a sleazy businessman who doles cash out of a briefcase like a gangster. The director of the play, a possible jab at Argento, is fully invested in his artistic vision … but that vision proves to be completely malleable if it sells a few extra tickets. There’s also a moment in which the director is confronted by the killer wielding a chainsaw and just throws a woman directly into the path of the blades, which, as someone whose knowledge of Argento is … extensive, seems like a pretty good jab at the older filmmaker’s less-than-modern take on gender dynamics. 

Speaking of the play, in order to enjoy the movie, it’s important not to worry about what the production’s narrative is or how it could possibly work, and I think this might be an intentional comment on Italian horror as a genre as well. We see several disparate scenes, included but not limited to: 

  • The aforementioned scene in which a sex worker played by Alicia is pulled into a dark alcove/building and murdered, then the owl-headed killer bursts out and dances while a woman plays a saxophone on a rooftop above. This appears as the film’s opening but is presumably not the beginning of the play, as Alicia’s role is repeatedly referred to as the “lead role,” despite her being killed in this scene. 
  • A scene in which Laurel (Mary Sellers) is dancing on a bed while wearing a red wig and dressed as Raggedy Ann–not just a dress like Raggedy Ann’s, but literally dressed as the doll, apparently. We later see that she’s even wearing pads that simulate a body shape that’s essentially identical to the patented Ann doll. This part is apparently non-essential to the plot, as Laurel is tapped to replace Alicia in the aforementioned lead role when Alicia is briefly fired for getting her ankle checked out, and there’s no mention of someone else taking on Laurel’s old role. 
  • The love/killing scene in which Corinne does an interpretive dance around her bedroom while mooning after but also fearing The Night Owl. Although Corinne is intentionally styled to appear more prudish/innocent than the other female characters, there’s no doll on the bed in this scene or any indication that she has a Raggedy Ann. 

I leave it to the giallo fanfiction writers of the world, which I assume exist (if only because I can’t be the only one, right?) to put together a feasible narrative in which these scenes might appear, but I like to think that this is supposed to reflect how most giallo films are often composed of striking individual scenes that ultimately add up to a whole that is greater—but less comprehensible—than the sum of its parts. This film is no exception, although it’s much more fun and compelling than many of its peers, despite occasional wonkiness. For one thing, I fully support the decision to get up in the catwalk above the stage more than once; in a theater, that’s a natural place to stage a scene, but the film puts both of its catwalk scenes in Act III, which makes it feel narratively unbalanced. The dubbing in this one is particularly funny, as there’s the characteristic slight syncing/emphasis issues that are pretty common in Italian cinema, but while most characters are clearly speaking (possibly phonetically memorized) English that’s been dubbed over, there’s no attempt to do so with Ferrari. Either he’s just straight up speaking Italian or every one of his lines was rewritten between filming and voiceover. There’s also an inconsistency of verbiage, as the events of the night are given the nickname “The Sound Stage Killings,” but this isn’t a sound stage; it’s a live theatrical performance space. Those quibbles are fun and easily ignored, but I did have some qualms with the finale. The movie reaches a natural conclusion (our final girl defeats the real Night Owl and escapes to notify the police), but it keeps going for some reason, following her return to the theatre, where she reunites with Willy. In shoddy ADR, he endlessly repeats a line about how the apparent prop gun that was found in one of his desk drawers and which turned out to be useless against Irving is, in fact, a real gun as the play crew had initially guessed, but that none of the actors had figured out how to turn the safety off, only for there to be one final altercation with Irving. The pacing of it is all off, and it feels like it was added to pad the runtime (even with this scene, it’s a lean 86 minutes); forgivable, but not very fun. 

StageFright: Aquarius is currently streaming on Shudder, although the title is styled much less interestingly as Stage Fright.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

If you want to be unnecessarily pedantic about what qualifies as a true giallo film, The Corruption of Chris Miller might not qualify. In the strictest sense, giallo is a schlocky, overstylized murder-mystery genre specifically made in Italy, mostly in the 1970s. Although clearly contemporary to that 70s Euro horror sensibility, The Corruption of Chris Miller is a Spanish production, performed in English, and stars a famous French chanteuse. However, even though it was staged on the wrong side of the Italian/Spanish divide, the film is a pure giallo experience by nearly every other metric. Its gorgeous visual palate (bolstered by Eastman color processing), needlessly complicated kills, acrylic paint stage blood, and consistently sleazy vibe all check off the exact tones & tropes expected from the genre. More convincingly yet, its slow-paced, convoluted mystery plot is incredibly confusing even after all the facts are presented in the final reveal, falling apart the second you think about it too long. That’s a giallo, bb.

Breathless-vet, pop star, and political subversive Jean Seberg stars as a young psychobiddy in training: a lonely, middle-aged woman who imprisons & psychologically torments her stepdaughter as revenge against the husband who left them both behind. She runs an explicitly man-hating household, teaching her step-daughter (the younger Spanish pop star Marisol) that “Men don’t love. They injure. They invade. It’s always cruelty and violence with them.” Meanwhile, she’s the sole source of the home’s cruelty & violence – gaslighting & sexually “seducing” her stepchild as a half-thought-out mode of revenge against a man who isn’t present and couldn’t care less. That is, until she expands her operations to a full-on bisexual harem by inviting a dangerous drifter into their home as a handyman: a British stud whom the audience suspects might be a thieving killer of local wealthy women. Is this drifter actually the killer, as all of the evidence suggests? Or is the killer one of the two central women-in-conflict? Or is it a throwaway side character the movie loses track of the minute after they’re introduced? The answer will only betray & confuse you, especially after you rewatch the kill scenes to review the evidence.

As always with gialli, the mystery itself is not as important here as the style & the mood. The tension in Seberg’s lavish home (i.e. lesbian torture dungeon) is wonderfully staged and feels entirely separate from the murders in the surrounding village. Even the kills themselves feel wholly distinct from one another, as the killer is wildly inconsistent in their choices of disguise, weapon, and victim. The closest the film comes to solidifying a recognizably iconic slasher villain visage (like a Jason or Michael Meyers mask) is a sequence where the killer dons a rain slicker, a scythe, and sunglasses while executing an entire family in their home. My personal favorite kill, however, is the opening scene in which they dress like a grotesque Charlie Chaplin pantomime to kill a woman they’ve just slept with. The way the killer continues to perform Silent Era schtick as The Tramp even after the murder had me howling, and I’m not sure the movie ever reached that level of upsetting amusement again. Attempting an entire proto-slasher about a killer in Chaplin drag might have been the film’s best chance as an all-timer in the giallo genre. It at least would have afforded it a sense of consistency, which it’s desperately lacking.

Unless you’re an Italian essentialist, The Corruption of Chris Miller lands squarely in the giallo pantheon – both in satisfying the requirements of the genre and in terms of quality. Replaying & picking apart the plot in your head is an exercise in futility that only gets more frustrating the further you drift away from it. At the same time, its sleazy atmosphere, over-the-top violence, and indulgences in gorgeous artifice reward that confusion with plenty in-the-moment pleasures.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the psychedelic giallo classic All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and the unforgiveable ways it was butchered in its alternate-title edit They’re Coming to Get You! (1972).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Puzzle of a Downfall Demon

In terms of its structure, tone, and imagery, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a daring, singular creation. Inspired by real-life interviews with a mentally fraught fashion model and filtered through her distorted recollection of real-life events, the film conjures a dissociative space between reality & fiction. Faye Dunaway is, on a practical level, the most unreliable narrator imaginable as a fashion model who can’t even trust her own recollection of past events, since her mind often defensively softens or alters the truth to protect itself. Her narration doesn’t sync up with the logic of the imagery it accompanies, and the exact nature of the Patriarchal trauma that snapped her mind is only vaguely hinted at as the film expresses her mental anguish through giallo-flavored sensory experimentations. For all that dissociative play in form & tone, however, the basic premise of the story it tells is an echo of a fairly ubiquitous trope in Hollywood narratives. This story of a beautiful, naïve young woman being chewed up & spit out by the entertainment industry is a classic template in mainstream filmmaking. From the sappy melodrama of The Valley of the Dolls to the twisted, excessive camp of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the story of Fame destroying a young starlet’s mind & body has seen an expansive range of cinematic interpretations. As formally daring as Puzzle of a Downfall Child can be, the macro view of its basic plot is yet another entry in that expansive canon.

Curiously, the best example I can think of where a film actively subverted the power dynamics of this trope is also specifically set in the fashion industry. My favorite film of 2016, The Neon Demon, was yet another entry into the woman-destroyed-by-fame canon, but it actively disrupts the usual power imbalances of the “genre.” Much like Faye Dunaway’s troubled protagonist in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (and hundreds of other fictional starlets besides), Elle Fanning stars in The Neon Demon as a young fashion model with big dreams and empty pockets. The wolves of the fashion industry – photographers, designers, agents, makeup artists, other models, etc. – surround her with ravenous intent in all the traditional ways, but what The Neon Demon engages with that most other adoptions of this genre template don’t is that there is a power inherent to that attraction. Elle Fanning plays the typical corrupted fashion model archetype in the film, right down to a violently tragic end, except that she acknowledges and shamelessly revels in the power her youth & beauty afford her in the industry. She warns, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” and often gains confidence & power in her lengthy stares into the mirror. When a fellow model asks, “What does it feel like to walk into the room and it’s the middle of winter and you’re the Sun,” she responds, “It’s everything.” Other characters around her pontificate “True beauty is the highest commodity we have,” and “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” even going as far as to single her out among other models as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” While most destroyed-by-fame narratives portray their gorgeous damsel protagonists as naïve & innocent, The Neon Demon mischievously plays around with the idea that there’s a power inherent to their alluring beauty, even if the result is ultimately the same.

As perversely fascinating as it is to see the young-starlet-in-peril enjoy the power her own beauty affords her in one of these pictures, it’s important to keep in mind that The Neon Demon is still honest about how outweighed & outnumbered its protagonist is in her industry. Just like in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, she’s immediately negged for her body (this time for a lack of plastic surgery) and her perceived naïvete. Her agent says, “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat,” in their very first meeting. She’s alone with no money and no social safety net in a motel run by a pedophilic rapist (Keanu Reeves playing drastically against type). There’s no explanation of her backstory and how she arrived in Hollywood with no family to speak of, but it’s not too difficult to her imagine her homelife was just as abusive as the one hinted at in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. As it also plays out in that film, the one acquaintance she considers to be a friend (a lesbian make-up artist played by Jena Malone) pressures her for selfish sexual gratification instead of getting her the help she needs. She’s hounded from all directions, to the point where a literal, honest-to-God mountain lion appears in her bed, read to devour her. The difference between that hounded-from-all-sides pressure in this fashion model tragedy vs. how it’s handled in Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that Elle Fanning’s character isn’t afforded enough time to have a psychological break. Instead, she’s devoured alive by a supernatural world of vampires, cannibals, witchcraft, and necrophilia. That sounds like a pretty major difference on paper, but the overall effect of her arc is largely the same: a young, damaged woman tries to make a life for herself as an artist in the fashion industry and is unfairly destroyed for that ambition. Her resulting destruction just fluctuates between the mental and the physical, depending on the example.

In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that “Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Knife+Heart (2019)

Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies-set giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?

It’s 1979, Paris. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) makes “blue movies,” better known as gay pornography, along with her best friend Archie (Nicolas Maury), cameraman François (Bertrand Mandico) and her lover of ten years, Loïs (Kate Moran), although that relationship has recently come to an end. Tragedy strikes when one of her actors, the insatiable “Karl” (Bastien Waultier), is stabbed to death by a man in a terrifying full face mask after a night out cruising. As a result, Anne is interviewed by Inspector Morcini (Yann Collette); back in the studio, she retitles their current production to Homocidal and recreates this interaction with Archie in her place and heroin addict Thierry (Félix Maritaud, of BPM and Sauvage) and José (Noé Hernández) in the roles of the police. Anne recruits a new actor, Nans (Khaled Alouach), who is noted for his twin-like resemblance (not his twink-like resemblance, although that could also apply) to a former star of hers named Fouad, which is fortunate; after Thierry is also murdered, most of the actors fear returning to set. In her personal life, Anne spends her days drinking straight from the bottle of whisky that she keeps on herself at all times and stalking Loïs around nightclubs when she isn’t too drunk to move. After a third murder, Anne traces the clues to a forest that, according to folklore, is used for faith healing via grackle—as with most gialli, it only makes marginally more sense in context—where she finds a small cemetery and the grave of Guy (Jonathan Genet), and the answer to the identity and motivations of the killer.

The only negative thing that I can say about Knife+Heart is that the fact that it now exists means that I may now never finish my own giallo script (titled Profundo Giallo, naturally, because I am a NERD), which features many of the same narrative beats, although for the sake of future copyrights I should note that Gonzalez and I were both drawing from the same well of archetypical giallo ideas. Still, it may end up being difficult to prove that we independently came to the idea of having a queer character (Loïs here, Oliver in PG) whose relationship with a primary protagonist ended poorly discover a vital clue while reviewing grainy footage. Really, we’re just both putting the same twist on the standard giallo trope that I call “Obscured Clues,” which was the most frequently recurring narrative element in Argento’s Canon; that is, a character witnesses something that they do not initially realize is a clue and then struggle to recall its importance.

Knife+Heart is a neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus. It’s surely no coincidence that the film is set in 1979, on the eve of what we would come to know as the AIDS epidemic; the establishment of the era, represented by the police department and their dismissive treatment of the killings of Anne’s actors, is largely unconcerned with a series of tragedies that befall society’s “undesirables.” This is made more manifest by the way that the pretty young things are killed: in cruising bars and by-the-hour hotels, in alleys with needles in their arms, etc. I could honestly live the rest of my life in happiness without ever seeing another AIDS allegory film, but this one manages to weave subtlety into this tapestry, which makes for a better narrative overall. That this can happen in a movie that also features an actor campily full-on humping a typewriter in one of Homocidal’s scenes speaks to a strong directorial vision.

Anne is no doubt destined to be a divisive character; in his review for MovieJawn, Anthony Glassman writes that Paradis’s character “metamorphoses from a drunken psychopath into a driven and caring mother figure,” and although I was fully within Anne’s headspace, horrible person though she is at times, I can’t really disagree. Repeatedly, we see that she is incapable of accepting that her relationship with Loïs has come to an end, and we realize that this love is far from healthy, given both Anne’s obsession and Loïs’s inconsistency as she verbally spurns Anne over and over again while also leading her on and admitting that she still loves her. That this leads Anne to stalk Loïs around a nightclub saturated with over-the-top radiant lighting and finally confront (and assault) her makes Anne despicable but no less sympathetic. The film almost dares you to try and hate Anne, but if you’ve a queer person who has ever had your heart broken to the point that you drink yourself into a stupor on a nightly basis and wake up in strange places, then you understand every drive that Anne has, even if her actions are occasionally unforgivable.

This is best epitomized in one of the most underrated scenes in the film (I’ve seen no mention of it in any other reviews that I have read), in which Anne attends an art performance at a lesbian bar where the two participants are a woman in lingerie and another woman in a bear suit. The human character begs for the bear’s love, and the bear attempts to refuse, claiming that to love the woman is to destroy her, but the woman doesn’t care. To love is to be devoured; to love is to devour. As the bear demonstrates its love for the woman, its claws leaving theatrical trails of stage blood all over her body, the woman begs for this destruction, demands to be completely destroyed, and the bear can do nothing but oblige, its love is so all-consuming that neither of them can stop. It’s so fucking powerful and real. To love is to die; love is to kill. Love is to consume and be consumed until there is nothing left but char and ash and fragments that say to every passerby: “A fire was here, and it destroyed all that it touched, but in those moments of destruction, each thing touched was brighter than the sun.”

I could go on and on about this movie for about 10,000 more words, but not without spoiling anything (the Golden Mouth is a delight!). This is a delightfully and unabashedly queer movie, and the world has never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Zombie (1979)

In what surely drives continuity & canon-obsessed nerds mad, Italian copyright laws allow any feature film to be marketed as a direct sequel to a previous work, regardless of intellectual property licensing. This is how Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 came to be marketed as a direct sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (or, more accurately, the Italian edit of Dawn overseen by Dario Argento & scored by Goblin, retitled Zombi), despite having nothing to do with that cult classic outside their shared depiction of the undead. That positioning of Zombi 2 as a direct sequel to the Romero classic is notably more of a marketing decision than a creative one, as the shopping mall modernity of Dawn of the Dead is the exact opposite approach to zombie lore than the one Fulci takes in his own work. If anything, Zombie (as it was more accurately billed in the US.), is more of a return-to-basics, traditionalist throwback to the origins of zombie cinema – most notably the 1932 Bela Lugosi relic White Zombie. On the surface, the film appears to be Lucio Fulci’s transition into making colonialist, Cannibal Holocaust-type “video nasties” after his previous run of psychedelic gialli like The Psychic & A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin. In practice, it’s more of a return to early, Voodoo-themed zombie cinema updated with more state of the art, grotesque gore effects we’re not used to seeing in that context. If Zombie has any relationship with George Romero’s work, it’s in amplifying his fixation on practical effects gore, while rolling back his influence on the zombie genre to the era that came before. Zombie isn’t a sequel to Dawn of the Dead so much as a traditionalist renunciation of that text, coated in an excess of sleaze.

The brilliance of this return-to-basics zombie filmmaking is that its dialing-back from urban modernity to the old-ways’ culture gazing at Voodoo rituals is signified in its basic plot. A disheveled boat arrives in the NYC harbor with most of its crew missing – and the remaining members turned into flesh-eating zombies. The daughter of the boat’s owner and an investigative reporter track its course back to the (fictional) Caribbean Island of Matul, which superstitious natives believe to be cursed. There, they discover an age-old plot so cliché it belongs on the lower wrung of a 1950s double bill: a white-man researcher strives to scientifically rationalize the local phenomenon of a Voodoo curse that can bring the dead “back to life” (as mindless flesh-eating copses, at least). His research is going nowhere, of course, and only invites violence as the zombie hoards surround his lab and attempt to eradicate the intruders on their island by eating them alive. It’s in this last-act zombie invasion that Zombie most resembles a George Romero picture, with a small group of cornered city-folk firing guns at a mindless hoard that surrounds & eventually engulfs them. Most of that Romero aesthetic is left behind in NYC, however, where an off-screen modernist zombie crisis Fulci doesn’t have the budget to properly stage unfolds. On Matul, the movie mostly bridges the gap between the latent racism of the Civilized Man Vs. Savages narratives of zombie cinema past and the more active racism of then-current Italian cannibal nasties like Cannibal Holocaust and Slave of the Cannibal God. Outside some questionable vocal dubbing & characterization among the (infrequently shown) native locals, however, Zombie mostly avoids the worst trappings of the colonialist cannibal genre of its grindhouse heyday: sexual assault exploitation, cultural Othering, documentation of real-life animal abuse, etc. Its likeness to that despicable subgenre is mostly in its grimy visual aesthetic; it most often plays like pastiche nostalgia for the more quietly problematic Voodoo pictures of the White Zombie tradition.

The closest Zombie comes to indulging in the typical animal abuses of the Italo-cannibal pics it superficially resembles is in its breathtaking underwater stunt in which a zombie fights a real-life shark. It’s a scene so infamous the film might as well have included The One Where the Zombie Fights a Shark among its various “official” titles. Whether the local “shark trainer” who costumed as a zombie to stage that stunt is abusing the animal is a much murkier issue than the straight-up animal slaughter included in Cannibal Holocaust-type pictures, but what’s made clear in that sequence is that Zombie’s strengths lie entirely in the grotesque beauty & unflinching audacity of its individual gags, their importance to the plot be damned. As the characters are first making their way to Matul, the boat stops dead, along with the plot, so that a free-spirit passenger can strip nude to take underwater photographs of marine life, stumbling directly into a zombie-shark fight. It’s a sleazy stunt on so many levels it’s hard to keep count (the camera’s lingering on the photographer’s oxygen tank strap across her crotch is especially slimy) and it serves little-to-no thematic purpose for the task at hand. Still, it’s so elaborately staged that you can’t deny its appeal. While Zombie’s overall narrative is a barebones, back-to-basics zombie genre throwback, its individual stunts & images are complexly crafted, grotesque wonders: an eyeball impaled on a splintered door, tendrils ripped from a victim’s neck, a zombie’s POV approximated in first-person camera work as it rises from the grave, etc. The perfect symbiosis of this thoughtfully complex imagery & traditionalist genre throwback energy is best represented in a scene set in a Spanish Conquistadors’ graveyard; muddy hands reach from beneath the ground as the dead rise, hungry for flesh. The image of a lone hand reaching from beneath a gravesite is much more typical to the zombie genre than an underwater shark fight, but it’s rarely shot with as much giallo-level stylistic detail as what you’ll find here.

As questionable as I find the impulse of rolling back George Romero’s modernization of the zombie picture to its White Zombie roots and as much as I despise the Italo-cannibal pictures it occasionally resembles, I can’t help but appreciate Zombie for its grotesque visual majesty. Rewatching the film restored on its Blue Underground Blu-Ray release is especially illuminating, since I’m used to seeing it through the grainy haze of a VHS cassette. I don’t know that Fulci deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the film’s racial politics or possible animal rights violations, but his imagery certainly deserves to be seen in crisp, Blu-ray quality detail. Most people aren’t going to seek out Zombie for its advancement of the genre or its thematic complexity (despite that being exactly what’s promised as a supposed follow-up to Dawn of the Dead). This is a film best enjoyed for its awesome brutality & the detailed beauty of its practical effects gore, two things Fulci is a master at delivering.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet