Bacurau (2020)

One of the major benefits of genre filmmaking is that you can repeat & mutate stories audiences have seen hundreds of times before and still make them freshly exciting. In its most basic terms, the Brazilian whatsit Bacurau is a delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game”, a short story that has been reshaped into countless genre films as wide ranging in tone & purpose as Hard Target, The Hunt, The Pest, and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. Bacurau is so deliberately disorienting in its own psychedelic mutation of “The Most Dangerous Game”, however, that it’s not until well into its runtime that you even recognize that’s what it’s going for, despite the story’s cultural familiarity. It’s a film that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit its central scenario is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Yet, it incorporates trashier genre filmmaking signifiers like screen-wipe transitions, extreme split-diopter framing, 1950s UFOs, and the casting of Udo Kier as its central villain so as not to lose its traditional action movie cred while pursuing its more artsy-fartsy ambitions. This is a film that uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

The title Bacurau refers to a fictional small town in near-future Brazil, “a few years from now.” The town begins the film in mourning, having lost its community leader & matriarch to old age. Then, the town descends into full on crisis mode as it is mysteriously erased from all online maps of Brazil and is surveilled by retro UFO-shaped drones. The film delays allowing its audience any solid footing for as long as it can, deliberately bewildering us in the first act to mimic the mental state of the Bacurau citizenry. Once the hunting-humans-for-sport aspect of its plot emerges from the confusion, however, the crisis only becomes exponentially more intriguing & thrilling. Like all great genre films, Bacuaru deploys its familiar plot template to address something intimately specific & fresh in metaphor that its premise has not been applied to before (not to my knowledge, anyway). This small Brazilian community is literally hunted from all sides by outside capitalists who see them as subhuman: gun-crazy American tourists, wealthy São Paulino elitists from the opposite end of the country, and even their own local government. It’s a literalized exaggeration of the kinds of exploitation that strains nearly all low-income POC communities no matter how remote, which only makes the exaggerated ultraviolence of the town’s bloody revenge on their oppressors all the more satisfying once it inevitably arrives.

If there’s any clear message being communicated in Bacurau, it’s to be found in the film’s emphasis on community & solidarity. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to get your footing in the first act is that the film has no clear protagonist. Each member of the community is allowed their own command of the film’s POV in time, and it’s the way they equally value each other’s contributions to the town’s daily survival (from doctor to musician to sex worker) that eventually sees them through what looks like an impossible crisis. Meanwhile, the racist, capitalist scum who seek to destroy the people of Bacurau for frivolous entertainment end up destroying each other in the process instead, as their selfishness & individualism makes them too weak to function. There’s a lot to praise in the way the film reshapes its “Most Dangerous Game” inspiration source to make it freshly exciting in both its aesthetics & politics. If nothing else, it has a low-key hallucinatory effect in its matter-of-fact handling of surreal circumstances that I can only compare to other recent South American films of a similar political bent: Monos, Zama, Icaros, Good Manners, Electric Swan, etc. It’s the focus on communal solidarity and de-emphasis of the individual that really distinguishes the film as something freshly exciting for me, though, especially considering the action genre’s long history of Lone Muscle Man hero worship.

Bacurau traffics in such familiar tones & thematic territories that it takes a while to fully register just how overwhelmingly odd it is in its distinguishing details. It’s clearly one of the stranger new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I don’t know that I fully realized that until I was fully immersed in its climactic bloodbath. This is genre cinema alchemy, the kind of bizarro outlier that reminds us why repeating these stories in new, evolving contexts is a worthwhile practice in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

The Story of O (1975)

For the first half of the 2010s we lived on a street that was absolutely perfect for yard sales. Our version of Spring Cleaning was always kicked off by a seasonal yard sale to get as much accumulated junk out of the house as possible (a tradition that has since been supplanted by the hassle of hauling our excess bullshit to thrift stores & second-hand shops), and they were always a success. They were such a success, in fact, that friends & family would dump their junk on us to help distribute it into the ether (for a very minor payout). This ritual frequently involved my sister handing off giant Rubbermaid bins overflowing with DVDs she was eager to get rid of as streaming movies online became more of her standard entertainment routine over that half-decade. The shameless movie nerd that I am, I’d always pick through those bins myself before offering them up to the vulturous public and pull out a few titles here or there to store up in my own house, where they’d also go unwatched. My sister’s cinematic castoffs were usually recognizable mainstream movies (often good ones), but there were always one or two deeply strange outliers in there if I was committed enough to search for them. I don’t remember many specific examples, but I do remember this: No film was ever as strange to find in my sister’s discarded DVDs than the X-rated softcore drama The Story of O. It was, of course, one of the DVDs I kept for my own collection before dragging the rest of the bin to our old porch steps. I don’t want to dwell for too long on why my sister purchased this vintage S&M smut or why she chose to get rid of it, which is partly why it took me over a half-decade to finally watch the film myself – allowing it to collect dust along with the rest of my dreaded Shame Pile in the meantime. I do know why I’ll finally be selling this disc off after just one single viewing, though, which is all I can dare to report on this blog.

The Story of O arrived in an era where pornography had delusions of going mainstream, initially under the guise of being distributed as European “art films.” This particular example of French erotica wasn’t nearly as seedy as its NYC contemporaries from the 42nd street epicenter of smut, but it was still considered filthy enough to earn an “X” rating in America and an across-the-board ban in Britain all the way until the year 2000 (a familiar treatment for the appropriately-named director Just Jaeckin, who had just experienced the same censorship for his debut feature Emmanuelle). The Story of O‘s eponymous source novel had experienced prudish censorship in its own time as well, penned under a pseudonym by journalist Anne Desclos in the 1950s only to face obscenity charges (in France of all places). It’s a modern continuation of the Marquis de Sade brand of S&M, where secret societies of immense wealth torture (in this case, consenting) women in cult-like rituals for communal sexual gratification. This movie adaptation wastes no time diving headfirst into that shamelessly contrived premise. The titular O (whose full name is never disclosed) is introduced en route to her masochistic training facility, on a car ride where her lover (a baby-faced Udo Kier) instructs her on what to wear and how to act as she suffers the ritualistic torture to come. We don’t learn until many whippings later that O is a fashion photographer with an inner life & artistic sense of control all of her own, since her submission to this secret sex cult is entirely predicated on her transformation into a pleasure object (and, later, a recruitment tool to draw in future pleasure objects from her industry). It’s an absurdly artificial scenario that immediately becomes grotesquely immoral if you prod at it in terms of real-world gender & sex politics, but it’s also a familiar one to anyone who’s ever spent a minimum of ten minutes reading erotica.

I was immediately struck by the soft-focus psychedelia of this film’s imagery, with its archaic occult S&M costuming and its obsessive reflections of mirrors against mirrors to achieve a kaleidoscope effect. It has all the gorgeous visual trappings of the artsy-fartsy Euro horrors of its era, just with the straight razor giallo murders being supplanted by sadistic sex acts. And, honestly, my only chance of ever truly loving the movie was if it had applied its soft-psychedelic imagery to the horror genre instead, since its repetitive tableaus of women “willingly” being whipped while saying “No” wasn’t really My Thing (in every implied meaning of that phrase). Its total lack of pre-play negotiation, agreed-upon safe words, and tender aftercare didn’t jive at all with how I engage with S&M in my own (admittedly modern) understanding of these sexual power dynamics. At risk exposing too much of my own internal erotic imagination here, I’ll admit that I did perk up once O started exhibiting control as a top in the dungeonous playpens where the movie gets its kicks (and in her fashion photography shoots, where she commands her models in a position of excited authority), but that’s more of a last-minute afterthought than a genuine engagement with any particular theme. The most interesting narrative thread in the film is about how the cathartic power play staged in the secret society’s closed-off rooms affects O’s public persona in “real” society (and how she gradually learns the pleasures of being the objectifier, not just the object). The only problem is that The Story of O is much less interested in themes & narrative than it is in the imagery of women being sadistically bound & whipped by men, which is either going to be Your Thing or it isn’t. No amount of visual aesthetic nor historical interest can save a niche porno you just don’t find pruriently enticing, just like how no stylistic flares can save a comedy you don’t find funny.

Speaking as an outsider to this particular corner of kink, it’s probably best to avoid passing any kind of moral judgement on the erotic imagination illustrated here. There are troubling ways in which this material is reflected in real-life misogynist violence, but that’s probably a large part of what makes the taboo so enticing in the first place. Also, not for nothing, the film is ultimately about female pleasure & self-discovery, whether or not it takes a rocky, roundabout way of getting there. All I can say is that it wasn’t really My Thing, which is something I already knew as soon as I picked it out of the Yard Sale pile. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten more pleasure out of seeing which of the curbside weirdos picked it out of the Yard Sale bin instead of hoarding it for myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Overlook Film Fest’s New Orleans Debut

It’s an exciting time to be a film nerd in New Orleans. It feels like our art cinema scene is finally bouncing back from when the AMC Palace megaplexes wiped out smaller independent venues in the 90s & 00s. The Broad Theater, The Prytania, and Chalmette Movies are keeping adventurous arts programming alive on local big screens on a weekly basis. Both New Orleans Film Fest and New Orleans French Film Fest are gaining steam in screening the most exciting films of any given year in a city that would have to wait to catch them on VOD otherwise. Joining this embarrassment of riches is the Overlook Film Festival, a nomadic horror film fest that originated in Oregon and has yet to find a permanent home. Over four beautiful late-April days in the French Quarter, the Overlook festival made its welcome New Orleans debut, making me question what we did to deserve such a magical, unprompted blessing from the indie cinema gods. Like WrestleMania’s recent return, the festival felt like a birthday present to the city on its 300th anniversary, one I very much appreciated even if we ultimately don’t get to keep it.

The tricky thing about holding onto Overlook Film Fest is that it’s young and looking to expand. A four-day festival that originated at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge (which was used for exterior shots in Kubrick’s The Shining, where the festival borrowed its name), Overlook quickly outgrew its original locale in both size & tone. Festival organizers noted in an interview with Indiewire that the theater space was too small to accommodate their planned expansion, but it also seems like their mission statement as “a summer camp for genre fans” was at odds with the hotel’s Shining-rejecting nature as “a family-oriented establishment.” This branding conflict forced the festival to shift its focus away from association with Kubrick’s shooting location to a wider range of “iconic locations that evoke the spirit of the Overlook hotel, horror’s most infamous haunted fictional location.” For its New Orleans debut, the fest landed itself in the Bourbon Orleans, which unlike the Timberline, leans into its spooky reputation by billing itself as “one of New Orleans’s top haunted hotels.” The brilliance of the move is that the Bourbon Orleans’s French Quarter locale opens the festival to several screening venues instead of one self-contained building. It transforms the French Quarter, an area crawling with “ghost tour” tourist traps, into a horror nerd’s playground the fest’s site describes as being “home to countless apparition sightings voodoo legends, and vampire curses.” They also propose that a ghost child spotted at the hotel was likely on influence on the creepy twins in The Shining, which sure, why not? Of course, the French Quarter is a limited space with its own set-in-stone boundaries and the Overlook’s arrival during peak festival season means it might have to fight for screening venues as it outgrows the mere two it reserved this year, but for now the events weren’t at all overcrowded and the city seemed to have the exact vibe they’re looking for. Let’s hope that lasts.

Speaking of gradual expansion, Swampflix was too small to secure a press pass for this year’s festival. I wanted to support Overlook as best as I could to welcome its return, though, so I bought tickets to a few individual screenings and signed up to volunteer for a shift helping organize the fest. By happenstance, my volunteer shift turned out to be a total joy, as I worked the door for live recordings of two podcasts I regularly listen to anyway: Shock Waves and The Canon. Outside taking tickets & headcounts and occasionally providing information to attendees, I mostly just listened in as guests Thomas Lennon gushed about The Exorcist III (and for a brief, glorious moment, my beloved Monster Trucks) and Barbara Crampton discussed the highs & lows of horror as a medium from the POV of a woman who’s lived them at both extremes. I got to have some brief exchanges with guests, like telling Blumhouse producer Ryan Turek how much I appreciate his podcast & wishing a panel-crashing Udo Kier a good morning (he, Lennon, and Crampton were all promoting the festival’s premiere of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich). The whole event was staged inside the Bourbon’s Orleans’s “haunted ballroom,” the site of frequently reported ghost sightings and, thus, a wonderful podcasting venue. Basically, I’m sure the festival (or, more specifically, the New Orleans Film Society folks who organized the volunteers) appreciated the extra hands, but the whole event felt like something I would have attended for fun anyway.

Since I couldn’t afford an All Access Pass for the festival and couldn’t negotiate my way in as press, I had to be choosy in selecting movies to cover for the site. Major event screenings at the Le Petit Theatre of films I’ve been dying to see like Hereditary, Upgrade, and the Unfriended sequel were calling out to me like genre film Sirens, but I decided to seek out smaller films instead. I knew I’d be able to see Hereditary on the big screen if I could be patient for a couple more months, but the joy of film festivals is often seeing proper screenings of smaller films that you’ll otherwise only see distributed on VOD (if at all). As such, I watched three foreign language horror films directed by women that I’ve heard heavy buzz behind (on podcasts like Shock Waves) for months, but I suspect might not even make it to venues like The Broad: Blue My Mind, Tigers are Not Afraid, (and my personal favorite) Good Manners. All three films (all screened at Canal Place) were excellent, adventurous participations in & subversion of familiar genre tropes – the exact kind of programming you dream of for a horror-themed festival. The programming of Good Manners & Tigers Are Not Afraid as an effective double bill was especially harmonious, as both films operate on a similar post-del Toro dark fairy tale vibe while still varying wildly in visual & thematic material. The body horror transformations of Good Manners & Blue My Mind were also interesting reflections of each other, as discussing the very nature of their exact creature feature premises could constitute spoilers given their patient reveals (even though seasoned audiences know what monsters to expect long before they arrive). It was an incredibly small sampling of the two dozen features that screened at the festival, but I could not be happier with the titles I saw. At the very least, I expect to be evangelizing for Good Manners as one of the Top Films of 2018 for the remainder of the year.

It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for the Overlook Film Festival as it expands in size & ambition. I doubt even the festival organizers themselves have a clear idea of where they’re going. I can report, though, that the first year in New Orleans was an ooky-spooky delight, an experience I’ll gladly repeat for as many years as they’re willing & able to return. The crowds were simultaneously more laidback and more enthusiastic than what I’m used to seeing at our local film fests, which made for a wonderfully nerdy genre film environment. I hope everyone who traveled here had as rewarding of an experience as I did. I also hope they saw some ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

I’m struggling fully getting on board with the macho genre throwbacks of S. Craig Zahler. I did enjoy his instantly infamous cannibal gross-out Bone Tomahawk, despite my general distaste for Westerns and the feeling that its participation in “Native savage” tropes is a little too easily excused. I guess on some level I also enjoyed his follow-up to that attention-grabbing debut, the violent prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99. The overdose of testosterone running through Zahler’s films is wearing me down, though, a feeling that’s only compounded by his work’s slow-to-act, self-serious tone that “elevates” schlocky concepts with extended runtimes & deliberately over-written dialogue. Zahler is very good at what he does: revitalizing long-dormant “trash” genres with a fresh sense of meticulous craft & feel-it-in-your-bones brutality. There’s just a large part of me that misses the versions of these pictures that were quick, goofy, and less steeped in unexamined machismo.

I’m usually not a fan of his “lovable asshole”/Tough Guy with a Heart of Coal routine, but Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast here as a broken macho man on the wrong side of the law (and economic hardship). Recently laid off and facing the early signs of a crumbling marriage, his overly muscled protagonist becomes a reluctant drug-runner for some sneering, racial & homophobic slur-slinging Bad Guys, a career path that obviously lands him in jail. Once inside the pen, eternally typecast creep Udo Kier threatens the safety of his pregnant wife unless he assassinates a man held at the Maximum Security population of Cell Block 99, a prison within the prison. Motivated by this wicked act of blackmail, our anti-hero descends into the lower levels of the prison, as if clearing obstacles in a video game, by violently attacking/physically dismantling the guards & fellow prisoners. He eventually finds his target, but also engineers a spectacular act of revenge on his blackmailers in the process, leaving many destroyed bodies of (literally & figuratively) faceless baddies in his wake.

This plot feels just as akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris cheapie from the 1980s (especially the part about the wife being held ransom as blackmail) as it does to the grindhouse prison movies Brawl in Cell Block 99 lovingly pays tribute to. The setup to the violent spectacle of the payoff takes much longer to develop, however, attempting to build a genuine emotional response out of its narrative those films never achieved. I’m not convinced Zahler achieved it either. I was on board for the film’s scraped-against-concrete, Saw-level torture device violence. However, outside being impressed by a stray turn of phrase, I was left completely cold by the emotional core of the story it told. This detachment was only made worse by its ugly, high-contrast digital photography and even uglier commitment to brute force masculinity. It’s not like the movie isn’t critical of Vaughn’s brutal machismo either. Early on, unchecked masculine rage is made to be monstrously grotesque, especially as he dismantles an entire car by hand out of romantic anger and benevolently lords over his tiny, shrinking domain. It only gets worse as he applies that same destructive masculine anger to human bodies, something the movie is well aware of. I just found the experience of dwelling in that headspace for over two hours to be exhausting & ultimately alienating, a similar feeling I had with Zahler’s previous film. Not everyone will have that experience, of course. Much like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a technically well-made picture and your patience for diving into the depths of destructive masculinity will determine much of your experience with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Mother of Tears (2007)

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After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.

Argento’s daughter with Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento, has often discussed the contentious relationship between herself and her father. Hailed at birth as the “Princess of Horror,” Asia has revealed in interviews that she never felt as if she had Dario’s attention until she was old enough to begin appearing in front of the camera. His passion, she says, was for film over family. On the DVD of the film, released by Dimension Extreme (ugh), there is a half hour behind-the-scenes video that includes portions of a panel in which both Asia and her father participated; in it, Asia talks frankly (while Dario very subtly squirms next to her) about how working as a director made her a better actress, how she was effected by Argento and Nicolodi’s separation when she was nine, and how she convinced him to hire Nicolodi for Tears as a gesture of goodwill. “It was beautiful to see them working together on set,” she says. “Now the film’s finished and they’re back to not speaking to each other.” It’s an intensely personal nonfiction monologue, and that depth of intimacy extends into the film itself. When Asia’s character within the film weeps over photos of her long-dead mother with a baby–real photos of Daria and baby Asia–it’s intensely compelling in a way that may not be entirely earned by the film itself, but nonetheless produces a sympathetic emotional reaction that’s difficult to ignore.

The plot of Tears is much more straightforward than that of the previous two films in the trilogy. A priest uncovers a rune-covered centuries-old urn buried with a minor saint, and sends it to Roman museum curator Michael Pierce (Adam James), who he considers to be the foremost authority on occult paraphernalia. Vice-curator Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and art restoration student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) impatiently open the box while he is out of the office. Within, they find a knife, three statues, and a small tunic that is insistently referred to throughout the film as a talisman. Sarah leaves to retrieve a book and returns to find Giselle being brutally murdered–three monsters slice open her abdomen and then strangle her with her own intestines–and flees. She is pursued by Mater Lachrimarum’s familiar, a monkey, and is cornered for a moment before hearing a disembodied woman’s voice directing her and escaping through a door that was locked only moments before. The police are incredulous, including stunningly handsome Detective Enzo Marchi (stunningly handsome Cristian Solimeno). An evil veil then begins to fall over Rome, as interpersonal violence breaks out on an unprecedented scale and witches begin to arrive in droves. How evil and violent is the influence of Lachrymarum (Moran Atias)? A mother hacks her toddler to death with a meat cleaver before murdering a priest and then slashing her own throat (an image that is reminiscent of the end of Tenebrae). Another mother throws her baby over the side of a bridge (the horror of the latter is somewhat mitigated by the fake baby’s bathetic tumble, but it’s still a better infant prop than the “baby” in American Sniper). By the end of the film, we’ve seen assaults, murders, churches being burned to the ground by neophytes of Lachrymarum’s coven, eye-mutilating torture, a woman’s head smashed open by repeated door slams, and a seven year old being cannibalized.

Michael disappears at the hands of the witches, and Sarah escapes the city by train after defeating a hench witch (Jun Ichikawa) and learning to turn invisible from the disembodied voice (just go with it). She makes her way to see an exorcist (Udo Kier of Suspiria, although this is a different character), who provides the exposition about the urn and its owner. In his vicary, she also meets Marta (Valeria Cavalli), a self-described white witch who recognizes Sarah as the daughter of the extremely powerful but deceased good witch Elisa Mandy (Nicolodi). Elisa, the two tell Sarah, was a great force for good who fought the powerful witch Helena Markos many years before; the Three Mothers killed her in revenge, but Helena’s battle with Elisa is what weakened her to the point that she could be vanquished pretty easily by Suzy Bannion in 1977. The events of Inferno are dismissed fairly offhandedly, as they mention another sister died in New York some years prior. After more deaths, Sarah tracks down Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy), an alchemist who provides her with a copy of Varelli’s The Three Mothers, from which she learns about methods of vanquishing the witches. Lachrymarum’s power grows as new acolytes join her, and the talisman/tunic ends the prolonged weakened state she has been in since the deaths of her sisters. Marta lives long enough to show Sarah how to cause her mother’s spirit to manifest, then is murdered along with her lover. Violence continues to roil as Sarah tries to find and kill the Mother of Tears.

Does it strain credibility that someone with an academic background in art history would be surprised by the three faces of Hecate, or need to research that motif? Is the “spirit” effect used to make Nicolodi’s spectral aura hilarious in its horribly Charmed-esque failure? Does the attempt to weld together a fairly disparate canon err a little too much on the side of contrivance? Is it weird that there’s a lingering shower scene of Asia, given that the director is her father? Do the witches who show up in Rome look like the lovechildren of Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Lost Boys and the distinctly unmenacing vampires of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie? Is there, perhaps, a little too much time spent training Sarah in her powers, given that she does very little in the way of magic and her ultimate triumph comes more from good hand-eye coordination than mysticism? Did I chuckle mirthlessly at the interview with Atias in which she talked about getting into the character of Lachrymarum, given that her entire “character” consists of being nude or nearly so while spouting ancient-sounding gibberish? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But did I thoroughly enjoy this movie? Also “yes.”

This movie is effectively creepy, pairing the psychological horror of a destabilizing and self-destructive society with the unhinged and violent imagery of a slasher, with some occult horror thrown in for good measure. Asia Argento turns in an absolutely dynamite performance, and looks gorgeous doing it, and her scenes with her mother are quietly beautiful despite the uncannily awful CGI–not the only bad CGI in the movie, but, to the movie’s credit, the effects are largely practical. The lighting and score are perfection, and the overall ambiance was reminiscent of Wes Craven’s work in the nineties like Scream and New Nightmare, with sumptuous visuals that play up earthtones in place of the vivid colors of Argento’s earlier work. Although the film seems to be rather widely reviled, it’s actually great–even perfect–in some places, and its weaker elements aren’t awful enough to weigh down the film as much as I expected.

This was a hard one to grade, but I’m going to have to give it four stars–with the Camp Stamp as caveat, the first time I’ve done so for an Argento movie. Partially, that’s in deference to the more silly elements (mostly the roving gangs of cackling witches and the eminently mockable sequences of Lachrymarum’s catacombs and catwalk sermons), but it’s also an admission that I can’t give this movie an exorbitant rating based on its straightforward merits alone. So much of my feelings about it are informed by the Argento-Nicolodi clan’s interpersonal relationships offscreen and my fondness for Suspiria that I couldn’t have found it within me to dislike this movie, even if it had truly been as awful as I was led to believe. Give Mother of Tears a chance; go in with an open mind, and you’ll enjoy yourself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suspiria (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional notes:

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond