Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Argento-thon Miscellania

As I gather my thoughts on the ambitious trainwreck that is Argento's Phantom of the Opera, why not check out some other articles and reviews on Italian horror? Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies is running an Italian Horror Blogathon, and in addition to his own reviews has compiled a great collection of links as well as a wonderfully comprehensive Italian horror primer. Check it out!

And if that's not enough, here's a recent interview with the Italian Maestro himself, conducted at Film 4's FrightFest earlier this year.

The best part has got to be when the interviewer mentions that David Gordon Green's proposed remake of Suspiria is supposedly going to try to be "more psychedelic" than the original - Dario just laughs. However you feel about his recent work, Argento himself remains as charming as ever.

For all those getting hit by the Frankenstorm, stay safe out there - it can be a vicious world.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Art and Death Collide in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME [Argento-thon]

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Troma Entertainment DVD (R1)
Rating: 7.5 / 10

When I began watching films for Argento-thon, one trend I did not expect to see at the beginning was a general increase in quality. Granted, we're only three films in, but when sitting down to watch The Stendhal Syndrome I didn't aniticpate the climb from the "good enough to kill an hour" of The Black Cat to the "so bonkers it's awesome" of Trauma to continue to take another step up to "a thoroughly hallucinatory good time".

I was really happy to see Asia Argento back for more insanity in this film - it's clear from the opening scene that once again, she's going to be playing a character with some deep mental issues. We first see her anxiously wandering through Florence, clearly uneasy. When she enters an art museum, she loses it completely, and is apparently overcome by some truly menacing pieces of art. The creepy paintings and sculptures showcased here are undercut with Ennio Morricone's unsettling score, to open the film on a high note.

After fainting in the museum, Asia's helped by a stranger who returns her purse. Disoriented and confused, she slowly pieces together her apparent identity - that of Anna Manetti, a detective on the case of a series of brutal murders occurring in Florence. It's in her hotel room when we get the first clue as to what's triggering Anna's fugue state after a staring at a painting induces aural hallucinations. It also seems that the killer has a special interest in her, one that puts both her life and sanity in danger.

Don't worry - Argento still has his penchant
 for innovative kill sequences.
The ensuing cat-and-mouse game between the killer and Anna really only occupies half of the film. The other half is dedicated to exploring how Anna deals with her bizarre mental illness and her seemingly constant quest for a firm identity in the face of a series of awful events. Anna's problem seems to be a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli such as art, pain, and human interaction. As she descends into madness it's questionable whether her actions are the result of an insane mind lashing out at random or those of a person who's just had enough of an overly malevolent world and has decided to fight back. I'd vote for the latter, at least for a little while, mostly due to a scene where Anna reverses the power dynamic in her otherwise lackluster relationship and gets really physical with her boyfriend.

It's a shame that the ending broadcasts itself so loudly and so early in the film. While it fully intends to surprise, it's hard not to see how things are going to play out in the end. There's some misdirection along the way, but you can probably figure this one out pretty early given that Anna's level of crazy only increases over time. Still, while it might not be the strongest murder mystery, as a character study this film works incredibly well - largely in part again, to Asia Argento. She seems to have reined in her performance a little bit compared to her previous role in Trauma, and is still willing to go batshit insane, but only when the script demands it.

How closely does this follow Argento's old style? To be honest, I don't really care. The Stendhal Syndrome really stands on its own as a film. While there are a couple of sequences reminiscent of the films of Argento's past (particularly in a POV kill midway through the film), overall it omits the lavish sets, bombastic score, and outlandish kills in favor of a more down-to-earth tone. Okay, at least when Asia's not hallucinating, stepping into paintings, or losing her mind. On an absolute scale, this film enters some pretty out-there territory, but it feels more measured, more in-control. The quieter scenes aren't there as space for filler or requisite exposition, but as a chance to really dig in to Anna's character. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.

The Good:

Asia Argento continues to be convincingly insane. Her character is the most interesting part of the film, which bodes well for the somewhat well-trod mystery story that's layered underneath.

Tons of great hallucinations, including one with graffiti coming to life.

The Bad:

While the film might keep you guessing for its first half, you'll probably figure things out well before the end.

The rape scenes get a little excessive. Again, it's a little weird that Dario continually puts his daughter through the wringer in his films, especially considering how graphic some scenes get. More power to Asia for having the daring to handle some really tough material.

...the hell?

That's Asia Argento kissing a fish. I wish I could put this into context, but really - there is none.

The Verdict:

Having now wrapped up my Argento-thon viewing (but not the writing - much more is coming!) I can confidently say that The Stendhal Syndrome takes the award for best Argento film I'd never bothered to see. If you haven't bothered, give it a shot and be sure to let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fixated on TRAUMA [Argento-thon]

Trauma (1993)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 7 / 10

Questionable psychology and psuedo-science are some of Dario Argento's favorite things. In the realm of psychology, he seems to be a huge fan of throwing a Freudian fixation on top of his killer's psyche as an explanation for their impetus to murder. Following an exposure to some horrifying event, they're obsessed with recreating and reliving the conditions of whatever drove them off the deep end. After breaking from the usual with his short homage to Edgar Allen Poe in Two Evil Eyes, Argento decided to return to form and head back to the realm of Freud in what's probably his most overtly psychology-focused film: Trauma.

First off, anyone who missed the murderous black gloves in The Black Cat can rejoice, because they're back in full force here. The film opens with the brutal murder of a chiropractor with some sort of bizarre mechanized garrote. In case you were wondering, those paper cutouts of the French Revolution that appeared right after the opening credits weren't just for show; decapitation is the name of the game in Trauma.

After the murder, we're introduced to a young girl named Aura who's trying to commit suicide by throwing herself from a bridge. Thankfully, she's rescued by a young artist named David (Christopher Rydell). Aura, played by Dario's daughter Asia, is clearly crazy, and we find out later that she's anorexic, which in this film is treated like some sort of exotic mental illness. Aura's promptly snatched up by a couple of suited men sent by her parents, and brought home where she'll presumably be locked away again.

What follows is a flurry of off-the-wall events. Aura's parents have invited a curious cast of characters over to have a seance. They're hoping to determine the identity of the killer who's running loose - the same one who killed the chiropractor. After Aura's mother channels a spirit claiming the killer is in the room, a storm hits and knocks the power out, Aura breaks loose, chaos ensues, and Aura's parents are murdered. Aura flees back to the city, only to run into - you guessed it - David. This'll repeat throughout the film: David and Aura's paths are constantly intersecting and diverging. Whenever Aura's around, things are pretty interesting. Asia Argento is definitely one of the more fascinating parts of this film, and I can't quite place why. Maybe it's her acting, which is just off enough to make me wonder if she intended it to be this way. Maybe it's the creepy thought of Dario directing his own daughter through all these morbid events. Most likely, it's because she can scream bloody murder and make me believe it. Sorry David, you're just sort of boring compared to Asia.

Now David and Aura set out to discover the identity of the murder, while navigating their emerging feelings for each other (which are complicated by David's understandably pissed girlfriend). Meanwhile, we also get some pretty great scenes focusing on the killer at home, all shot in a way that conceals his/her true identity. This person is clearly motivated by something - s/he only kills when it rains, favors the strange auto-garrote as a method of killing, and knocks off people with a common past one by one. Our lens into the killer's lair is a young neighbor boy who's just a little too nosy. As you might expect, people who see too much in an Argento film end up playing a role in the denouement, whether they want to or not. (And while we're mentioning Argento tropes, if you're watching for unusual POV shots, there's one here from the perspective of a butterfly that the kid is trying to catch).

Keep those binoculars away from the neighbor's windows, kid...
especially since your neighbor is a serial killer.
While the plot compiles tons of classic Argento themes, the transition to filming in the U.S. also brings along the somewhat diluted atmosphere that started with Two Evil Eyes. As a former Minnesotan I really enjoyed that the film was set in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but again, this drastically subverts the distinctly European flavor you tend to get in gialli. More than anything, this has the feel of a 90's horror film, reinforced by an abundance of practical effects, slightly goofy kill sequences, more traditional soundtrack, and even a touch of green-screen.

Fun Fact: Decapitated heads continue to scream for up to 10 seconds
after they're removed from the body.
Still, there is lots to enjoy. It's like Argento took all his favorite plot devices and blew them up by a factor of 10. Just a short list would include: berries that induce hallucinations of the past, some extremely warped motherhood, unsuspecting witnesses being drawn into twisted killings, not one, but two psychologically damaged characters, and a fixation on a past event that is absolutely bonkers when it's revealed. It's manically uneven in a lot of places, and can't ever establish a truly serious tone, but I found it thoroughly entertaining.

The Good:

Asia Argento. She's fascinatingly crazy and only becomes more so in Argento's later films. This isn't her debut by any means - she'd starred in a number of previous films including The Church, directed by Michele Soavi and written by Dario (which has just jumped to the top of my watch list).

The overblown ending is just the icing on the cake to all the insanity that's preceded it.

Playing spot-the-landmarks in Minneapolis / St. Paul is a lot of fun (although this might not have the same appeal for you).

The Bad:

Dario filming Asia in the shower is more than a little creepy.

Chris Rydell just isn't that interesting or compelling next to Asia.

The beginning of the film is wildly uneven, and takes about half an hour to find its groove.

...the hell?

What's up with the Reggae band at the end?

Decapitated heads are very chatty in this movie.

The verdict:

This one is definitely worth seeking out if you haven't seen it. For those purists who deride it as somewhat silly, I'd invite you to rethink Deep Red or Phenomena. Remember the walking doll? Remember the killer monkey?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Argento Takes on Poe: TWO EVIL EYES [Argento-thon]

Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Director: George Romero & Dario Argento
Seen via: Blue Underground DVD (R1)
Rating: 6/10 (for "The Black Cat")

To kick off Argento-thon, I started with the earliest film I hadn't seen: 1990's Two Evil Eyes. To be fair though, Argento is only really responsible for *half* of the film, which is a two-part Edgar Allen Poe-themed collaboration with U.S. horror legend George Romero. (Initial plans to make it a four-parter with John Carpenter and Wes Craven didn't pan out.) Romero's film is an updated version of the story "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," which focuses on a couple attempting to swindle a dying man out of his fortune. Little do they know that his ghost won't be quite so happy to see what they've done. I won't really talk much about Romero's film, mostly because it's not very good. Overlong and overly dramatic, it's really sort of a drag, albeit with a couple of creepy moments toward the end.

Argento's half of the film is much more entertaining, and doesn't take its inspiration from a single Poe story. Instead it mashes up themes from several. Playing "spot the references" is pretty fun during this one, although you don't need to be familiar with Poe's work to enjoy it.

The film opens with a particularly grisly gore setpiece, in which the aftermath of a pit-and-the-pendulum style murder is being investigated by Roderick Usher, played by a questionably sober Harvey Keitel. Usher shows up in a beret, which is how you know he has artistic leanings. Rather than being sort of an obvious move, it's perhaps a clue that he's not the most subtle when it comes to displaying his feelings. Most of the rest of the film involves Keitel wearing his frustrations and anger on his sleeve.

There is lots of this in "The Black Cat"
He's a thwarted artist at heart, one who wonders why his book of crime scene photos entitled "Metropolitan Horrors" won't sell (you know, aside from the questionable legality). His marital life isn't going so well either, especially when his girlfriend brings a cat home. Usher is not a cat person, and in a bout of frustration and twisted inspiration, Usher strangles the cat, while photographing the whole process as art. Whether it's his high stress job, failed aspirations, or failing marriage, something is pushing Usher over the edge.

I'm not sure as to what degree Keitel adopted method acting for this film, but it's worth noting that he seems legitimately drunk in quite a few scenes. Maybe he's acting really well, but those bags under your eyes are hard to fake.

The crime scene photos alone wouldn't sell the book,
but kill a cat or two, and it takes off? What's wrong with you, Pittsburgh?
The remainder of the film focuses on Usher's rather quick descent into madness. Killing a cat is only the beginning for him. After that, we get a strange hallucination scene of a pagan ritual where Usher is impaled, and then we watch his anger escalate into murderous rages that are no longer limited to the animal kingdom.

The elaborate kill sequences and POV shots from older Argento are mostly absent. There are still little bits of creativity though, including one absolutely brutal stab that involves a knife to the hand. (Very similar to the stab to the jaw in Opera.) One thing that Dario has clearly maintained is his ability to craft cringe-worthy kill scenes. The gore is amped up a little bit as well... a trend that I've noticed continues throughout Argento's career. This film (not being a giallo) eschews more of the giallo tropes that Dario did well, but it also leaves out a lot of the style. There are thematic nods to Deep Red and Tenebre, but they're just that - little nods. Since we don't have an antagonist whose identity is secret, there isn't really a need for many POV kills, but instead there are an abundance of cat POV shots!

Argento sets this film in Pittsburgh, and it isn't the first time he'd filmed in the U.S.; Inferno and Tenebre both had scenes shot in New York. It does mark the first time he'd set a film exclusively in the U.S. though, and in that sense it's sort of a turning point. There is a strong sense of place in this film, and it's very clearly not Europe, which to my American eyes grounds it more firmly in the real world. This film was also a big move away from his past themes, although it's likely due to the fact that he was focusing on a Poe-themed story as opposed to a genuine desire to shift gears.

Overall, this is an entertaining little film if you ignore Romero's contribution. Aregento-thon is off to a good start! Next up is Trauma - stay tuned!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argento-thon Begins!

Pull on those black gloves, and crank up the Goblin... It's time for Argento-thon!

Dario Argento is by far one of my favorite horror directors, but he certainly didn't start out that way. I remember being unimpressed by the director's cut of Deep Red and underwhelmed the first time I saw Suspiria. Part of the problem was me. At the time I first encountered Argento I wasn't prepared to absorb the mix of style and surrealism he brings to his films. Also, the conditions under which I saw both were atrocious - on my tiny CRT TV, lights on, sound down, wine mostly gone. You get the idea. But tastes change... After learning to appreciate some other older Italian horror (primarily Bava), then heading back to Inferno, I was sold. I was lucky enough to catch both Deep Red (in its original, cut incarnation) and Suspiria theatrically, which had an enormous impact on how I perceived these films. Both are now firmly cemented in my own personal canon of favorites.

Argento's films aren't easy to swallow. I'm convinced this is partly due to how the conventions of the giallo differ from those of mainstream modern horror, but also partly due to some of Argento's directorial idiosyncrasies. Regardless, Argento was one of the first directors to really challenge me, and that's one of the reasons I'm such a fan now.

Recently, I noticed that I've stayed away from everything Dario has done since the 90's. Whether this has been some sort of unconscious decision I'm not sure, but I can say that I've heard way more bad than good about late-stage Argento. Hints that I might be biased in the wrong direction came up when I was talking to a friend about how I had Trauma sitting around on VHS - he replied "You have it and you haven't watched it?" I wondered... what was I missing out on?

My mission in Argento-thon is to fix this by watching all of Argento's films that I haven't seen. To be honest, this is everything from 1990's Two Evil Eyes to 2009's Giallo (I have no idea if or when I'll be able to see Dracula 3D). Everything pre-Opera I've tackled (well, with one exception...), so I'll try to drop any preconceptions I have and approach things fresh. But I'm going to inevitably be looking for some of Dario's old style in everything new that I see.

So what are some of the things that characterize Argento's style in my mind? Many of them are carried over from the typical tropes found in the gialli that launched his career, but even in those old films he managed to put his own unique spin on things:

From The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The giallo killer - The iconic faceless, black-gloved antagonist clad in a trenchcoat and fedora. This was a staple of the gialli that launched Dario's career, but even when he isn't strictly adhering to the giallo formula, the gloves pop up frequently in Dario's work.

1st-person POV - Speaking of that killer, allowing the camera to take on his/her perspective allows you to see all the slaughter without revealing his/her identity.

From Deep Red
Horrors from the Past - Why is this masked stranger killing? Usually it's not simply bloodlust, but due to some psychological trauma that's happened in the past. Murder gives the killer a chance for revenge, or a chance to recreate the circumstances of whatever past event they're fixated on. The sense that there are buried secrets also adds a bit of gothic atmosphere.

Outsider protagonists - Rather than following a detective, the film's hero is often an artist, musician, tourist, or average Joe who'd really rather be minding their own business than getting wrapped up in whatever grisly deaths are occuring in the area.

From Deep Red - You shouldn't have watched...
Seeing the Forbidden - The hero IS involved though, often against his will, much of the time because he's seen something he shouldn't. Seeking out hidden knowledge or secrets that are better left buried also usually end with Bad Things Happening.

Evil Mothers - And when we finally find out who's behind it all, it's often someone's mother... These women are powerful and occasionally supernatural, but always very, very angry.

From Suspiria
Lurid Lighting - It seems like Dario drew upon inspiration from his predecessor Mario Bava and often soaks his sets in a wash of garish colors.

Artsy Death - It's not just the lighting that's pretty. The death sequences are often meticulously-composed and choreographed affairs.

From Inferno
Dream logic - Things don't always make sense, either, and whether it's writing that lacks a little backbone or a deliberate turn toward the oneiric, Argento enjoys infusing a surreal nightmarish air to his films.

Killer music - Goblin's scores to Suspiria and Deep Red are incredible, and Ennio Morricone's work in Dario's early gialli was also great. Later on, he progressed to using more metal, to questionable effect. One thing's for sure though - music has always influenced Dario's work.

These are just the visual and thematic elements that stand out the most to me - there's lots to discuss about common threads running through Argento's body of work, and I'll undoubtedly hit upon some additional points in my reviews. I'd love to hear some of your opinions on what best characterizes Argento's style - don't be afraid to comment.

Also, if you've got articles (new or old) on any of Argento's work, feel free to send them to me at dollartheatermassacre@gmail.com (or leave a comment), and I'll be happy to link to them in a later post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

This Is More or Less How I Dance [DTM Video 004]

Here's a clip that may well be the most disturbing 30 seconds of your day.

I think it's awesome when it's completely out of context. If you're curious, check out Guinea Pig 4 (or 6, depending on who you ask): Devil Woman Doctor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Problem with Pascal Laugier's THE TALL MAN

This isn't so much a review as it is an addendum to lots of other reviews I've read. For fear of spoilers, many people seem reluctant to give away the shocking secret of The Tall Man, but in my opinion the ending is worth talking about more than anything else.

Some background, just in case: The Tall Man is the third feature from French director/screenwriter Pascal Laugier, who generated lots of attention with his previous ultra-violent/psuedo-spiritual film Martyrs. I really enjoyed Martyrs myself, mostly because it genuinely shook me up and showed that Laugier was willing to subvert what horror fans wanted and expected in a film. I also really enjoyed his debut, Saint Ange (retitled to the forgettable House of Voices for the U.S.) which explored some of the same themes as Martyrs in an atmospheric gothic horror tale. If anything, with his first two films Laugier showed himself to be adept at evoking emotion and in possession of a keen eye for truly haunting and visually appealing scenes. He's one of the directors I always point to when I hear complaints about new horror having nothing to offer. (He's also the one person I think who really gets what a good Hellraiser revision would look like. It's a shame he was dropped from the project.)

So The Tall Man - essentially a boogeyman tale about an apparition kidnapping children from a rural town in the pacific northwest - seemed to mark a move away from extreme violence back toward something a little more subdued. As before, Laugier is willing to subvert expectations, although when the curtain is pulled back on this one, there's some really questionable stuff hiding behind it.

[Spoilers begin here. Also, some bitching.]

The existence of the film's mythical Tall Man is called into question within the first half-hour of the film. Jessica Biel plays a local nurse whose son has just been kidnapped, and she chases the kidnapper down to make the discovery that he appears to be human. Long story short - we're looking at things backwards. Biel is the one who's kidnapped the child, and he's just been taken back by his actual mother. This isn't the first kid Biel has snatched either. It turns out that she and her husband are the ones behind the whole Tall Man myth. Why is Biel kidnapping kids? To deliver them from the misery that they'll face in this poor rural town and give them a wonderful life in the big city.

Whoa, wait.

Biel is stealing poor country kids and giving them to rich urban parents.  Because there's no way they can have a fulfilling life in a small town. Note that she's not selling them - that would be wrong. 

Now it suddenly makes sense why everyone in this town is portrayed as a dumb, grimy, hick.

  • Early in the film, Biel assists a pregnant teenage girl by delivering her baby. The mother refuses medical care for the girl and the child, presumably because of her ignorance and distrust of those big city doctors.
  • Said mother gets in a fight with her boyfriend (who incidentally was the one who fathered her daughter's child) and smacks him with a wrench after he assaults her other, younger daughter. The two laugh it off together, because you know, domestic violence is pretty funny.
  • There's "no school" in this town. Which apparently means kids simply don't go to school. Shot after shot shows them running around the streets, lingering in junkyards, and sitting on dirty cars, all the while looking filthy and disheveled.
Without first establishing this town of straw men, Laugier's whole premise falls apart. He's essentially posing the question: "Is kidnapping okay?" and the answer is, supposed to be "well, in this awful fictional town, maybe." In the real world, the answer is unequivocally "no."

The suggestion that rich people are better suited to raising kids than poor people is absurd, but it's one this film asks us to, if not agree with, at least consider thoughtfully. Throwing an obnoxious one-dimensional idea like this out there as "controversy" doesn't make a film smart. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Come with me, kid, I know what's best for you!"
This is a real shame, because if you can ignore the awful stereotypes you've got a very suspenseful and nicely crafted film. I have a new respect for Biel as an actress after this, and was glad to see Jodelle Ferland (more commonly known as the girl from Silent Hill) deliver a convincing performance as well. Laguier has an eye for creating really foreboding sets and an extremely tense atmosphere, and he's in full form here.

I didn't intend to write anything about The Tall Man initially, but after reading review after review that praised the film for keeping the viewer guessing, I just felt like we needed a little balance. Using offensive caricatures to pose a stupid question might make a film interesting, and it certainly leads the plot in unexpected directions, but it doesn't make it smart. I don't like dwelling on things like this, but they really stand out when I watch a film, and inevitably color my opinion.

Laugier still has most of the respect I have for him as a filmmaker (although maybe not as a writer), and I hope this is just a small misfire. There's a voice-over sequence by Ferland's character at the end of the film that feels like a last-ditch attempt to soften the film's message. Biel was just doing what's best for the kids... they'll be happier this way... "Right? ... Right?"

Sorry - wrong.

The Tall Man is streaming on Netflix at the moment. If you've seen it and have an opinion, let me know whether you agree or if you just think I'm just overreacting. Also, Happy October!