Tag Archives: Dario Argento

CAPSULE: PHENOMENA (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , , Daria Nicolidi

PLOT: A teenage girl with a psychic bond to insects teams up with a forensic entomologist to hunt down a serial killer.

Still from Phenomena (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Phenomena certainly has a wacky premise, and a chimp, to boot. That’s enough to get it onto our radar. Set those features aside, however, and it becomes a standard slasher/horror that borrows too much from the same director’s superior Suspiria to stand on its own.

COMMENTS: So an American brunette ingenue travels to a dramatically lit European all-girls boarding school where she becomes involved in a series of murders… no, it’s not Suspiria, and that’s not , it’s Jennifer Connely. But there are so stylistic many similarities to Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece in Phenomena that, if it wasn’t made by the same director, you’d probably accuse it of being a poorly-conceived ripoff.

As it is, Argento gets so wild here that he nearly descends into self-parody, although there’s little reason to suspect that Phenomena was intended to be watched with tongue in cheek. The movie is a mixture of good stuff culled from Argento’s toolbox—fantastical lighting (though more restrained than some of his early works), bold camera angles , suspenseful gore, a fairy tale atmosphere—mixed with some clumsy new variations on the formula. The overall mish-mash of good and bad, nice ideas and crazy ones, results in a horror film that’s not really successful on any level (except possibly camp), but is seldom boring. On the good side of the ledger, Argento still has an decadent way with atmosphere. Also, the all-the-stops-pulled finale, with multiple false endings and a genuine surprise finish, is legitimately thrilling. On the bad side, the effects used to create insect swarms (and individual insects) are terribly dated and cartoonish (the locusts of the previous decade’s Exorcist II are a huge success by comparison). The score is another mix of good and bad, with the effective part supplied by Argento’s usual collaborators, Goblin (billed here as “the Goblin”). Unfortunately, Argento also had the bright idea to try to appeal to 1980s youths by inserting rocking tunes from Motorhead, Iron Maiden and something called “Andy Sex Gang” into the movie; at least one shock scene is destroyed by the incongruous pounding metal track that makes it play like a music video excerpt instead of a suspenseful stalking. The crazy insectoid premise also falls into an ambiguous category: maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, depending on your point of view and how seriously you’re trying to take Phenomena. But it definitely leads to some eyebrow-raising dialogue: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” deadpans Donald Pleasance’s wheelchair-bound entomologist.

Young Connely is not fantastic in the unconventional role—her line deliveries are so “blah” you may wonder if she was dubbed alongside the Italian cast—but her star potential is evident. If she’s not completely convincing, she is rosy-cheeked and stunning (in a chaste, high-school-crush kind of way). It’s no surprise she found stardom a year later in Labyrinth. Pleasance is, for reasons unknown, Scottish here; his performance is scaled back from his usual hamminess, and not the worse for the restraint. The real scene-stealer, however, is the chimpanzee Tanga, whose presence in the story is so inexplicably unnecessary that it becomes a sort of genius.

New Line cut 28 minutes from the film and released it in the U.S. as Creepers. The complete version is reviewed here. It makes for fine, not-too-serious Halloween viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Argento’s weird thriller was a huge box-office hit [in Europe]… Though Argento’s plot is often confused and grotesque, he has a remarkably energetic visual style (mobile camera, slow-motion, careful lighting, creative editing) that is never boring.”–TV Guide

CAPSULE: DEEP RED [PROFONDO ROSSO] (1975)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A pianist witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic and becomes obsessed with

 Still from Deep Red (1975)

tracking down the killer, even though everyone he associates with is being slaughtered.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not quite weird enough.  Deep Red flirts with the irrational, but at this stage of his career director Argento hadn’t fully committed to the bizarre yet.

COMMENTS: Previous to Deep Red, Dario Argento had made three stylish, well-regarded gialli (for those unfamiliar with the Italian giallo genre, imagine a slasher movie with an actual whodunnit plot and a near-Gothic atmosphere, and add bad dubbing).  With Deep Red, the director turned up the style meter several notches, and pushed further into his own esoteric brand of the fantastique: the Expressionist flowers that bloom in Suspiria grow from the blood spilled in Deep Red.  Still pitched as a traditional mystery, Deep Red does not abandon the primacy of plot, but the story becomes so convoluted, and makes so many concessions to atmosphere, that it begins to bear hallmarks of weirdness.  The film begins with a shadow-play prologue that reenacts a Yuletide murder, then segues into a parapsychology conference held inside a scarlet-cloaked opera house.  A panel of experts discuss telepathy in zebras (!) and then introduce a psychic, who senses the presence of an evil soul in the audience.  During her subsequent brutal murder, a pianist played David Hemmings witnesses the murderer leaving the scene of the crime and becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer (who strikes again several times).  Although the tale is intricately constructed and the resolution itself “makes sense,” the movie takes fairly arbitrary steps in its quest for closure.  Drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs used to have a saying, “this movie has so much plot it’s like it doesn’t have any plot at all,” an adage that fits Deep Red perfectly.  The story takes leaps that aren’t always clear to the viewer.  Barely introduced to each other at the scene of the crime, Hemmings and a female photographer (Nicolodi) suddenly begin working as a team to investigate the murder.  Hemmings is constantly following up on obscure clues, Continue reading CAPSULE: DEEP RED [PROFONDO ROSSO] (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: INFERNO (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Alida Valli, Daria Nicolodi

PLOT:  The second in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, Inferno follows his masterpiece Suspiria. The earlier film is not referred to explicitly, and it’s not necessary to have seen Suspiria to enjoy Inferno—though it might get you in the mood.

Still from Inferno (1980)

Rose, a poet living in New York, buys an old book about the Three Mothers from a neighboring antiques dealer and after reading it begins to suspect that the basement in her apartment block is home to Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, one of a trio of sisters who are the age old matrons of witchcraft.

After investigating a strange, flooded ballroom below the building, Rose and a neighbor are murdered by an anonymous, black gloved killer.

Rose’s brother Mark is a music student in Rome.  He receives a letter from his sister mentioning the Mothers and flies to New York to investigate.  The apartments she lives in are home to a small group of strange people, given to uttering premier league non-sequiturs, asking weird questions, and performing bizarre actions.

Mark explores the building, discovering the weird architectural features designed by the Mothers’ architect, Varelli, the one whose book kick-started the whole affair.  After a long ramble through tortuous crawlspace, Mark uncovers the lair of Mater Tenebrarum.  She reveals herself to be Death; the building burns to the ground; a dazed looking Mark wanders out unscathed; the end credits roll; you wonder what you’ve just witnessed.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Its dream logic story line and stylized cinematography mark it out as weird, but Inferno really pales next to Suspiria. It features some wonderful scenes and startling images, but they’re too widely spaced out, and the film is marred by some wooden acting and inadvertently hilarious dialogue.

COMMENTS:   Inferno is a very enjoyable film, not always for the intended reasons.  The dialogue is so disjointed and at times downright bizarre as to be chucklesome. It also features the inconsistent acting and wooden delivery common to any number of giallos (understandable given the speed of some productions and the vagaries of international dubbing); after watching a number of giallos, you may come to view them as a feature rather than a flaw.

Inferno features a number of Argento trademarks: an oneiric story flow, driving soundtrack Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: INFERNO (1980)

67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

“For Suspiria I was inspired by… everything that German Expressionism means: dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”–Dario Argento

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , Joan Bennet, Allida Valli, Stefania Casini

PLOT: Suzy, an American ballet student, is accepted to a German dance academy, but when she arrives there one stormy night she is denied entrance and watches as a young woman flees the school and runs into the forest. The next day she returns and is admitted to the academy with apologies, but she soon falls ill and becomes too weak to practice with the other students. After a series of bizarre occurrences and disappearances, Suzy becomes convinced that the faculty and staff of the academy are not who they pretend to be.

Still from Suspiria (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • Suspiria (concerning the “Mother of Sighs”) is the first and most notable of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Subsequent installments are Inferno (1980, about the “Mother of Darkness”) and Mother of Tears (2007). The idea of the Three Mothers came from opium-addicted English writer Thomas de Quincey, who invented a myth of three witches analogous to the three Fates in his collection of fantastical essays Suspiria de Profundis (“suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”).
  • Argento originally wanted the story to feature a school of girls in the 8-10 year age range, but producers balked at the idea of showing gruesome murders of children. Although he cast adults to play the roles, Argento left in some childlike dialogue, and actually raised the doorknobs on the set so that the actress’ would have to reach up to turn them, as if they were children.
  • Argento has said that the color scheme for Suspiria was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
  • In an early scene in the taxicab Argento’s scowling face can be seen momentarily reflected in the glass that separates the driver and the passenger; the effect is nearly subliminal.
  • Suspiria was one of the last films made using the Technicolor process.
  • Argento co-composed the remarkable soundtrack, performed by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin.
  • Rumors of a remake have been circulating for years. A project entitled Suspiria is (at the time of this writing) listed as “in development” on the IMDB, scheduled for a 2012 release. There are reports that Italian producer Marco Morabito has confirmed that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) will direct. Earlier rumors speculated that Natalie Portman would play the lead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isolating a single indelible image in the movie is an impossible task; Suspiria shapes its surreality from the play of supersaturated colors on the baroque walls of the dance academy, and from its impossible, unnatural lighting schemes. The colors as a whole are indelible; there are perhaps a dozen impossibly lit individual shots (scenes that look as if they were inked by a demented gnome) that together form an impression of a world gone luminescently awry. The image of Suzy posed in front on a neon peacock as she enters the witch’s chamber, with a background column glowing an improbable scarlet from an unseen light source, is as a representative an image as any.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are plenty of “weird” (in the sense of “uncanny” or“ occult”) occurrences in Suspiria—such as the rain of maggots—it’s the stylized sensual elements, the brilliantly unreal cinematography and the relentless unnerving score, that catapult the movie out of the realm of ordinary supernatural horror and land it in its own unique fairy tale nightmare realm.

Edgar Wright’s commentary for Suspiria trailer for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS: Suspiria is more an assault on the senses than a narrative; it’s Gothic horror Continue reading 67. SUSPIRIA (1977)