Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Theater of Blood #2: DARIO ARGENTO SPECIAL

by Shaun Anderson

In 2010 British DVD distributor Arrow Video developed into a label of major repute. For some time now the UK has lagged behind the US with regard to uncut pristine transfers of cult horror movies, but Arrow is starting to redress the balance. The centrepiece of 2010 was a series of high definition Blu-Ray releases that included Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Caligula (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), Inferno (1980), Battle Royale (1999) and A Bay of Blood (1971). The 2011 Blu-Ray schedule is even more lip smacking with Deep Red (1975), The Beyond (1981), Vamp (1986), Phenomena (1985), Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Tenebre (1982) all appearing on home television screens in crystal clarity. Although the Argento titles can be enjoyed within their own limits and for their myriad merits, I find it difficult to watch his older films now without a wave of frustration derailing the experience somewhat. Argento’s incredible deteoriation from 1990 onward is one of the most enormous capitulations to mediocrity I can think of. The extent of this is indicated by the fact that only the most optimistic of horror enthusiasts expect anything decent from him, while the majority spend their time mocking his latest efforts. In a perverse way the only thing to look forward too is the new depths Argento plumbs with each new film.

While I admire a number of Argento’s films I have always been firm in my belief that Argento has always been a mediocre filmmaker. Therefore my frustration at his abject efforts in recent years rarely becomes full blown disappointment. Few acknowledge for example that his debut feature film Bird with the Crystal Plumage was actually preceded by nineteen giallo productions. What Argento did was make the giallo a major commercial proposition with the ability to succeed in a greater number of territories. However at the level of form and convention there is little in Bird to distinguish it from many of its contemporaries. In its favour the film is one of Argento’s most supremely plotted efforts, and the film moves along with an energy and wit rare for the cycle. But it is one of numerous Argento films that appear far better due to the creative poverty of later films. If placed within the context of the giallo cycle however there is nothing extraordinary about it. The same can be said for Argento’s next two gialli - The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). By the admission of the director himself these are lesser films. Aside from one or two trademark set pieces the only thing to recommend in these two films is the music by Ennio Morricone.

This makes Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) all the more exceptional. These are the two films for which Argento is justifiably remembered. The former takes the gialli into a heightened realm of gothic violence as it interrogates questions of art, sexuality, and conceptions of femininity and masculinity - themes which are united by an appropriate and at times exceptional collage of music from the progressive rock band Goblin. Suspiria takes the gothic leanings of Deep Red a step further by totally committing itself to an irrational vision of the supernatural. Argento’s first true horror film remains a powerful and impressive work largely due to an audacious attitude to stylisation and an experimental attitude to the sonic and aural possibilities of the soundtrack. It is an experience to be enjoyed unthinkingly. A film that does not allow for an intellectual response, only an emotional one. The problem for Argento however at this point is that horror was beginning to gain serious critical attention from the esteemed halls and libraries of academia. As an emotional exercise in film form and stylistics Suspiria is flawless, as an intellectual experience the film is a failure. The sheer physical awesomeness of Suspiria (and don’t get me wrong, it’s a marvellous film) managed to paper over numerous cracks in plotting, construction and continuity. This is no bad thing, if you can pull it off. Unfortunately for Argento he only pulled it off the once. His sequel Inferno becomes a confusing mess because of Argento’s self-conscious determination to construct an elliptical narrative. Inferno is a frustrating viewing experience, and while many dismiss the need for carefully plotted narratives in Argento’s ‘dream like’ or ‘hallucinatory’ film world you have to ask yourself what is it exactly that makes so many of his films only partially satisfying.

In 1981/2 Argento found himself having to once again adjust to the plot complexities of the giallo with Tenebre. The attitude to narrative displayed in Suspiria and Inferno could not be repeated with this film. But this method of storytelling was hard to dislodge and in the 1980’s Argento embarked on a series of films which were successful in part, but never as a whole. Films punctuated with flashy music video moments, elliptical and fragmented editing patterns, and an over abundance of heavy rock music which only served to jolt audiences out of the fictional world of the film. This reached an apex with the nonsensical Phenomena (1985), a film of thinly sketched ideas and characters, and hollow moments of sadistic violence totally lacking pathos. With Opera in 1987 Argento did at least show he still possessed an ability to subvert convention, and displayed a very self aware attitude to critical perceptions of his work. But even Opera with its majestically framed sweeping camera movements and brilliant stylisations is unable to resist heading into the murky territory of flashback in order to build up a more complex picture of protagonist and antagonist. The tacked on ending is particularly damaging, but Opera still remains Argento’s last great film.

In the early 1990’s Argento’s cinema began to gain serious critical interest from scholars and academics. In some quarters Argento was acclaimed as an auteur, a view I don’t agree with at all. There is a self-consciousness to his output in the 90’s and 00’s that convinces me that Argento was well aware of this academic and scholarly interest. A conception of gender framed within a psychoanalytic discourse has long been a fundamental aspect of Argento’s films. But only in the 1990’s did Argento begin to actually construct films around psychological conditions. This seems to almost invite further theoretical and academic debate. The chief offender is The Stendhal Syndrome. This is a tawdry little rape/revenge thriller that has pretensions well above its sadistic content. I would concede that the obscure psychological condition the protagonist suffers from does set up a tension between fantasy and reality, but the film doesn’t really develop this in an interesting way. Aside from the increasing self-consciousness (in other words the ‘hey look at me I’m Dario Argento‘) aspect of his films, Argento was also determined to make his daughter Asia an international star. The problem is no matter how much you rub you can’t polish a turd. Asia is blandness personified, she totally lacks charisma, and exhibit’s the enthusiasm of a mouldering corpse for the roles her old man gives her. In amidst these twin concerns poor old Dario forgot that he was meant to be telling exciting stories and delivering them with stylistic aplomb. Talk about taking your eye off the ball!

Of course there is something else that has affected directors like Argento for the last twenty years. This is the deterioration of the horror genre as a site of social, political and cultural innovation. The quotient of sadistic violence has now reached unheard of levels, but modern horror films only appeal to moronic adolescents or adults who haven’t developed past this stage. Or maybe adults who find the real world too distressing and instead return to the comforting mindset of the juvenile. I’m glad to say my interest in the horror genre has always been from a dispassionate and objective stance. Therefore I don’t think the term ‘fan’ really applies to me. This comes has something of a relief to me, because if I was a horror fan I’d be deeply embarrassed by the excrement that passes for modern horror. Those occasional blips of brilliance on the horror landscape almost always draw on the past. There is nothing new in the torture trash of the odious squeaky schoolboy Eli Roth and the retards that follow in his wake - the Japanese Pinku-eiga films were doing similar thing decades ago. So perhaps Dario Argento and others are victims of their age, great talents who are just unfortunate enough to still be making horror films at a time when mouthing gibbering cretins are the main audience.

DEEP RED (1975)
Dir: Dario Argento
Country: Italy

After the critical and commercial failure of Dario Argento’s historical comedy The Five Days of Milan (1973) he returned chastened to the familiar terrain of the giallo. This was a province that Argento had helped to both popularise and innovate with such trend setting thrillers as Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and the obscure Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). For his fourth and ultimately defining entry into this cycle he enlisted the writing skills of frequent Fellini collaborator Bernardino Zapponi and between them they concocted a witty, literate, and truly exhilarating example of post-Hitchockian suspense. Almost every formal trick conceived of by Argento succeeds here. From the saturated and vivid colours brought to life by the Technicolor cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller, to the smooth and seamless tracking shots that offer a subjective glance into the scheming and voyeurstic mind of a psychopath. These stylistic attributes are given added resonance and impetus by an inspirational and much imitated soundtrack composed by Giorgio Caslini and arranged by progressive rock band Goblin. Led by Claudio Simonetti Goblin would almost single-handedly define the sound of Italian genre films in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The music shifts from the mysterious bass driven opening theme (itself indebted to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells), to a creepy nursery rhyme leitmotif, to funk rock atmospherics, and ultimately create a college of contemporary sound that fits perfectly with the artistic credentials of the film.

In one deft movement Argento manages to successfully bridge the gap between the trashy and exploitative realm of the giallo and the lofty traditions of Italian art cinema. He achieves this partly through his collaboration with Zapponi, but also through the self-conscious decision to cast David Hemmings as avant-garde musician turned amateur sleuth Marcus Daly. This provides an extra-textual link to Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential exposè of swinging London Blow Up (1966). The themes of Argento and Antonioni crisscross regularly and one can see that Argento was as much informed by the art cinema of his native country as he was by Hitchcock or the horror genre in a wider sense. However a key difference here is that rather than explore the isolated psyche of the alienated loner contending with the difficulties of modernity (a major preoccupation of much Italian art cinema) Argento subverts this subjectivity to explore the perversity and insanity beneath the pretence of the bourgeois art world. In Deep Red artistic endeavour is strongly liked to femininity or homosexuality and through art Argento is articulating a crisis in masculinity. This is played out in a number of witty encounters between Daly and the assertive and liberated journalist Giana Brezzi (played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Daria Nicolodi). The most obvious moment comes when she beats Marc in an arm wrestling contest.

Art is being used in a metaphorical fashion. A metaphor for madness, insanity and eventually violent death. This is taken to an extreme when the murderers face and identity is almost submerged into a painting, the identity of the psychopath at one with the nightmarish artwork. Gialli live and die by the success or failure of their set piece murder sequences. In Deep Red not only are they exceptional, but they seem to go beyond the narrative and into the realm of the poetic. They become the most artistic element of the film. They include a memorable and chilling sequence involving a mechanical dummy and perhaps most horrifying of all a death by scalding. This is not an unconventional giallo though, and like most examples the narrative hinges on a past event that has been repressed - this is superbly hinted at by a prologue sequence that breaks up the opening credits, and offers us a murder shot from a peculiarly low angle. This scene becomes the key to the whole film and it remains a satisfying enigma until the films violent conclusion. One can even put aside the clichéd criticism of Argento’s narrative faults. In Deep Red every aspect of the plot works seamlessly with the story. One or two mistimed comedy moments aside Deep Red emerges as a lucid, artistic, metaphorical, symbolic and visually impressive film that even finds time for a progressive discussion of gender politics.

First published on The Celluloid Highway 19/02/2010 - reproduced by permission of the author.

Dir: Dario Argento
Country: Italy

As each new piece of cinematic excrement is ejected from the mind of Dario Argento I begin to think that Suspiria might have been a fluke. Each successive Argento picture is puked up onto a wounded and insulted fan base, one which has no option but to retreat into the mists of time to remind themselves why they liked Argento’s films in the first place. This period is generally recognised as being the 1970’s. There has developed a rose tinted view of this decade in horror circles; propagated by those who were around at the time (unfortunately this generation pretty much still sets the parameters when it comes to horror discourse) and their nostalgic agendas to tell us it was better in their day. Argento directed six films in the 1970’s, three of them (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Suspiria) were very good, the other three (Cat O Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and The Five Days of Milan) were poor to average. Even in Argento’s decade of peak creativity he only had a strike rate of 50%. The 1980’s was even more frustrating, a series of the films that were impressive in part, but failures as a whole. Argento has proven himself to be a mediocre filmmaker, time has shown him to make more poor and dissatisfying films than good ones. So what makes Suspiria such an exceptional film? The answer of course lies in the talents he surrounded himself by. There are three key elements to Suspiria, which if extracted, would damage the film irrevocably.

The first is the influence of Daria Nicolodi. Her interest in witchcraft and the occult, the family anecdotes that formed the centre of the idea, and her writing of the screenplay is vital. This is the only film of Argento’s upon which Nicolodi had a major creative influence, and it just so happens to be one of his best. The second is the stunning aural assault of Goblin’s soundtrack. The third is Luciano Tovoli’s saturated cinematography; it might have been Argento’s idea to use the 3 strip Technicolor printing process, but it was Tovoli who had to light the scenes. The removal of any one of these aspects would be fatal to Suspiria. Argento brought the set pieces, and one cannot fault his use of camera here, these sequences achieve a brilliance that Argento would never repeat. But therein lies the reason why Suspiria is such an exceptional film in a mediocre career; the strength of the collaborators. Ironically Suspiria is sometimes included by scholars as evidence for Argento’s authorial stamp, but in fact this film totally opposes the auteur theory, and it is the strongest proof that Argento is not an auteur.

A great deal of the success of the film lies in the manner in which Argento draws upon the uncanny. This is one of numerous allusions to Freudian psychoanalytics that litter Argento’s films. Argento invests the opening scenes in and around Munich airport with a sepulchral atmosphere, danger lurking in the most unexpected places; the automatic doors for example swish closed with eerie menace. When Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) makes it outside the rain and wind lashes her frail form before she embarks on a hellish taxi journey. The overflowing storm drains, and barely glimpsed figure fleeing in the words add multiple layers of disquiet. Also of note here is the way in which the sound design works; switching from diegetic to non-diegetic makes us aware of a manipulating omniscient force (this is of course the filmmakers) but it also establishes instantly the reach and powers of the witches coven. This technique is extended most successfully in the set piece which sees the blind pianist meet his fate in an empty plaza. Though this sequence pales in comparison to the audacious double murder that opens the film.

The ballet school in Freiburg is a nightmarish space replete with labyrinthine passageways, secret entrances, a maggot infested attic, and a room full of barb wire for anyone whose curiosity gets the better of them. The architecture is decadent and self indulgent. It is presided over by a severe matriarchal presence, all of whom belong to the secret coven. These cruel matriarchs are powerful enough to use men, who in this film are weak, ineffectual, and easily manipulated. They are led by an ancient witch; The Mother of Sighs, Elaina Marcos, a rotting hag who controls events through her pliable minions. Despite the fact that Argento favours aesthetics over plot, the structure of Suspiria is not dissimilar to the gialli in which he specialised. Banyon is a foreigner in a new and frightening environment, she also takes on the role of the amateur detective in order to root out the mystery, in many ways Suspiria dramatises the incursion of the supernatural into the narrative strategies of the giallo. Although the narrative is slight, the mystery at the heart of the film is a strong unifying force, and even allows Argento one or two moments of self-reflexivity. It is also interesting to note the fascistic undertones of the coven, an appropriate stance considering the weight of history on that region of Germany. The film has the hysterical tenor of a fairy tale, a fable of caution which brings with it aspects of Germanic folklore. Fairy tales achieve resonance through their conclusions, and its only right that Suspiria should build to a fitting climax with heavy doses of stylisation. This is an emotionally hollow experience, but an utter triumph of technicality.

First published on The Celluloid Highway 23/11/2010 - reproduced by permission of the author

Dir: Dario Argento
Country: Italy/USA

The monumental capitulation to mediocrity that has beset the cinema of Dario Argento from 1990 onwards (with the honourable exception of Sleepless (2001)) remains one of the most perplexing chapters in horror history. Argento’s cinema has for the past twenty years been a creative wasteland. Part of the reason in my view was a steadily building sense of self awareness that appeared from Opera (1987) onward. I think Argento began to believe all of the ‘auteur’ nonsense hype of a number of under researched academic and critical pieces that sprang up in the 1990’s. Along with an awareness of this status came a self-consciousness within the films themselves. Where before Argento explored psychoanalytical concepts and gender issues (usually in a playful manner) as part of the plot dynamics of his films, in the 1990’s these theoretical paradigms began to take centre stage over the plot. This reached a ludicrous extremity in the utterly abysmal The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) in which Argento sought to use an obscure psychoanalytical device to cover up for the fact that the film was essentially a tawdry and grimy rape/revenge thriller with little redeeming value. The revisionist criticism this cinematic offal has received should not in any way convince you the film is any good. This is something scholars, academics and critics do very often - in a bid to be different (usually for the purposes of funding) they will attempt to reclaim those films which are lesser known or have been dismissed. With this in mind Mother of Tears will probably also experience a period of critical revisionism in the future, I wish whoever takes on the task all the luck in the world.

The Three Mothers’ trilogy which began with the distinctive Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) achieved an almost mythical status throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The question of when the third and final instalment would see the light of the day dogged Argento’s movements. For horror fans of a certain generation this was a big deal, ever the optimists fans were even willing to momentarily forgive and forget unwatchable garbage like Trauma (1993), The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and The Card Player (2004) , as long as Dario got this film right. Before the action of the film even begins the writing is on the wall. Mother of Tears had five writers, which is never a good sign - joining Argento was Walter Fasano, Simona Simonetti, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch. It’s the last two names that should have sent alarm bells ringing. The ’talent’s’ behind such moronic monstrosities as Crocodile (2000) and the pointless remake of The Toolbox Murders (2004). The evidence in these two films is that Anderson and Gierasch would struggle to write their own names on an exam paper - yet Argento in an act of supreme senility felt that these two were of value. The film opens with an extended cliché as an ancient urn is dug up in a graveyard. The most important artefact within is a red tunic (which believe it or not holds the key to the Third Mother’s powers!). The majesty of Suspiria and Inferno which gave a real sense of omnipotent evil on a global scale, is reduced to being dependent on a cheap red t-shirt.

The resurrection of Mater Lachrymarum (Moran Atias - who looks as though she’d be more at home in a strip joint) creates what we are led to believe is apocalyptic chaos. This involves a few robberies and beatings, a tasteless scene in which a woman throws her baby off a bridge (a classy touch Dario…thanks for that!) and several random acts of violence….and that’s it! - it’s the end of Rome as we know it. In addition lots of gothic witches descend upon Rome. Their first appearance at an airport is embarrassing in its over statement. It’s a huge bonus for these witches that the reawakening of Mater Lachrymarum also coincides with the Italian leg of a Siouxie and the Banshees European tour. The heroine of the piece is Sarah Mandy (the atrocious Asia Argento), an art history student who suddenly discovers she can will herself too appear invisible. She is guided by the ghost of her mother Elisa (played by the cadaverous Daria Nicolodi) who appears to her at random intervals in a blur of bad special effects. Mandy takes all this in her stride, and goes from one expert to another in episodic fashion to piece together the ‘mystery’. One such expert is Father Johannes (Udo Kier) who in a few seconds explains it all away and gets his head cleaved in for his troubles. The camp presence of Mr. Kier is the only highlight in this derisory effort.

The set pieces reach a new high in absurdity, surely a scene in which a woman is strangled to death with her own intestines is intended as a joke? A monkey acts as the Mother of Tears’ spy, it puts in the best performance of the film. Argento opts for a very different aesthetic presentation, one which is more in line with his recent efforts, than the Technicolor glory of Suspiria. Its drab, its dull, this is a visually unappealing film. When the action descends predictably into the catacombs beneath Rome, the film reaches an apex of stupidity. Is this really how the ‘cruellest and most beautiful’ of the Three Mothers would enact her evil? Characters that are totally forgotten suddenly reappear, and yes The Mother of Tears is defeated when Mandy removes her t-shirt! Her and a bland cop end the film in fits of giggles, I’d like to think that Argento et al are not intending this laughter at the idiocy of those who actually spent their hard earned cash on the film (me included), but I’m not so sure. This is possibly the most cretinous film that has ever come down The Celluloid Highway, but I’m going to cut Dario some slack. This is what happens when you employ writers with the intelligence of plankton, I hope you’ve learned your lesson Dario!

First published on The Celluloid Highway 21/10/2010 - reproduced by permission of the author

(See these and many more reviews and articles on horror at The Celluloid Highway )