Piercing (2019)

Piercing is A Strange Movie, both in pretension and in practice. It’s a tightly wound, carefully mannered character study that titillates with deadly violence & sexual kink for a purpose neither its creators nor its audience can ever quite fully figure out. If the overall goal of the film is to humorously parody the roleplay of adult kink scenarios through the societal manners of buttoned-up dramas from the past, it’s an effect that’s been archived much more convincingly in recent titles like Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy. If it’s simply trying to titillate & amuse voyeuristic onlookers with no further purpose, though, it’s living up to its full potential admirably. Sex & violence are entertaining enough on their own merits, whether or not they serve a greater purpose, and Piercing has plenty of fun with the shameless voyeurism & throwback genre payoffs its buttoned-up kink play parody affords it. It may be a little weird-for-weird’s sake, but it still at least passes for pleasant, playful entertainment – though not quite fun for the whole family.

Halfway between a giallo throwback and a snazzy Euro heist like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Twelve in an aesthetic sense, Piercing is largely a two-hander detailing the deranged sexual & violent impulses of two star-crossed combatants. Christopher Abbott stars as an uptight, sexually frustrated husband who plans to channel his violent resentment towards his wife & baby into murdering an anonymous sex worker with an ice pick. Mia Wasikowska costars as his potential victim – an S&M equipped prostitute who threatens to self-destruct before he has the chance to kill her himself. The film is constrained to stage play-scale settings & act structures as their mysterious, clashing plans play out to disastrous ends. Like all seasoned kinksters, the uptight murderous husband gets most of his thrills from planning & anticipating the act, only to find that reality doesn’t exactly match up with his fantasy. The prostitute proves to be a wild variable that chaotically derails his thoroughly detailed plans in the heat of the moment – perhaps to his own peril. As with Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy, the exact power dynamics of those two sly combatants become the central mystery of the story being told, as they conceal as much of their true selves as they can beneath a falsely calm, civil surface.

Your own appreciation of Piercing may depend on your appetite for these cheeky 70s genre throwbacks in general. If your patience was tested by High-Rise, Free Fire, or Hotel Artemis, for instance, there’s even less fun to be found here despite the allure of the sex & violence in the premise. Its genre nostalgia is blatant, expressed through VHS tape warping in its opening credits, Goblin needle-drops on its soundtrack, and its high-rise apartment exteriors being digitally constructed as impossible miniatures. Still, puzzling your way through the hidden motivations & strengths of its two leads can be wickedly fun. Is the wife giving her husband permission to murder this unsuspending sex worker or is that his auditory hallucination? Is he into auto-erotic asphyxiation or just practicing his choking skills? Is he going to stab his own baby with an ice pick or just having a lark? Watching the film yourself won’t provide any clearer answers to these questions that you could derive from reading this review. Questioning the intent, motivation, and meaning in this violent kink scenario is the entirety of the entrainment value offered here – whether or not it’s been achieved before in better, more meaningful works.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Tenebrae (1982)

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fourhalfstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suspiria (1977)

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fivestar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional notes:

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Profondo rosso (aka Deep Red, 1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond