Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes: You Can Count on Me

[This is a repost from last month. Why repost? Well, because the wonderful blog Film for the Soul is Counting Down the Zeroes. Click the link for the explanation. This is one of my contributions to the ongoing discussion involving films from 2000. I'll be back later with another film (re)view: the sorta-ingenious "slasher" film Final Destination. Until then, go check out the other fine entries over at Film for the Soul.]

Almost ten years ago Kenneth Lonergan made a film about a brother and sister that seemed painfully realistic. Buried beneath the nuances was something universally identifiable for those of us who have siblings. The film had two breakthrough performances from Laura Linney, one of our finest actresses working today, and Mark Ruffalo, channeling his inner Brando (his characters name is even Terry, reminding the viewer of Brando's finest performance from On the Waterfront) and doing a helluva job never hamming it up. The film is You Can Count On Me, a small, almost completely forgotten film from 2000 that will probably go unremembered by the time all the "best of" lists commemorating the decade in film come out next year; however, it's a film of tremendous power and honesty, a film that evades every conventional emotional "gotcha" moment to deliver something honest and understated. In other words: real. Executive produced by Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese, it's easy to see how he was attracted to such a familial story (think about the families in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull), but friendship aside (Lonergan went on to help write Gangs of New York) I think Scorsese saw a film that had special elements in it: a film that doesn't play by Hollywood's conventions when it comes to a family drama.

Sammy (Linney) and Terry (Ruffalo) are brother and sister, and as the film opens we find out their parents have died. Immediately Lonergan shows great control of the dramatic action as he handles this opening scene with visual language, rather than having the characters spell it out for the viewer in a fit of false tears and overacting. A policeman comes to the door to inform the babysitter that something awful has happened. Lonergan then cuts from the police officer, who hasn't said exactly what's happened (we knows there's been a crash, but we don't know how bad it is) to a church steeple. The effect is far greater than how these types of scenes are usually handled.

Flash forward to present day and we see Sammy taking care of her eight-year old son Rudy. Sammy is taking care of Rudy by herself, and we get the sense early on that she raised Terry, too. Sammy hears from Terry and prepares for his return. There is something especially recognizable and wonderful about the way Sammy glows at the news of Terry's arrival. The prodigal son (or brother in this case) is returning.

When we meet Terry he is bumming money off of his girlfriend and telling her that when he gets back she may want to think about moving out. Terry is someone who is not sure what they want, a borderline drifter who feels happiest when he isn't challenged or asked to honestly excavate his feelings. Meanwhile Sammy is preparing for Terry's return only for Terry to tell her that he "got on the wrong bus". Terry is in town, he's just not ready to face his sister yet.

Their reunion, when it does finally happen, turn sour quickly as Terry makes his intentions known. He plans on asking Sammy for money, and then bolting the next day. Later Terry spends the night at Sammy's and learns of his girlfriends attempted suicide. This breaks Terry, and in a great scene of power Lonergan stays on the scene just long enough for us to feel something for Terry, but he doesn't dwell there; this is a special moment shared between brother and sister, and the viewer isn't meant to see the whole thing. What follows is Terry staying in town, getting to know his nephew Rudy (disappointing him along the way), and Sammy acting like an immature high school girl towards the two men (her lovers, more on them later) in her life.

What I love about the film is the way Lonergan just kind of hangs around and lets us watch these characters grow, think, mess up, and just act like normal people, not over wrought caricatures designed solely to tug-at-the-heart-strings. Linney earned herself an Oscar nomination for the film, which is amazing considering that there aren't really any "Oscar" scenes in the film. Everything is underplayed, and played for a more contemplative effect, rather than a spur-of-the-moment, manipulate-your-emotions effect.

There's one moment in particular that I'm thinking of that sums up the many layers to the film. Terry and Rudy are getting along great, and Terry is something of a positive male role model in Rudy's life, something he's never had. Terry treats Rudy like an adult, talking to him like an adult, taking him to to adult things like playing pool and such. Terry has told Rudy that he will take him fishing, only later int he week Terry is upset with Sammy because she has sabotaged him by asking the local priest to come over and see what's "wrong" with Terry and his lack of direction in life. How does Terry take out his frustrations? Not on Sammy, the person who raised him (and is still raising him), but by punishing Rudy and simply telling him, in a very eight-year old manner, that he is no longer taking him fishing. Later that night in the hallway Sammy, immediately on Terry's game, tells him that he can punish her any number of ways, she understands that he's pissed at her, but don't take it out on Rudy by canceling the one event he's been looking most forward to. Terry passively aggressively states that he isn't punishing Rudy and that after what she and the priest said he just doesn't think that it would be a good idea for Rudy to around such a poor role model. Sammy's response: "you suck", and she throws some towels at him.

It's a scene that could have been played a number of different Ordinary People type ways, ways that serve as nothing more than Oscar-bait. But I love how Lonergan writes that scene, putting an exclamation on it by having Sammy say something that is real, and actually kind of funny. Is it a crap thing for Terry to do? Yes, but it's the type of moment that happens in a lot of families, and it's not the end of the world. It's something that makes you laugh because the scene has a familiar ring to it.

Terry does redeem himself by picking up Rudy for fishing the next morning, but he continues his buffoonery and immature actions by taking Rudy to see his estranged father. This scene is a forgone conclusion the moment we hear Terry talking about it. Once again, watch the way Ruffalo acts through this scene. Always sure of what he's doing, but as the viewer we know that his immaturity will get the best of him and the scene can only end badly.

Terry isn't the only one who is immature and unsure of their life path, Sammy is also trying to figure out what she wants. Once Terry moves in we see that Sammy is now back to raising Terry, in addition to raising Rudy. Lonergan makes the obvious connection here that Terry is no different than the eight-year old Rudy. Terry tries to make Rudy aware of how bad life is and how much of a simulacrum their little town is, and that he's be wise to get out of the town as soon as he can. Terry is just as fake though, never quite knowing what it is he wants, not only does his body language and temper-tantrum moments make him no more mature than Rudy (there is even a moment when he makes Rudy "promise" not to tell Sammy about taking him to a pool hall, making Terry sound just as much the kid as Rudy), his pseudo philosophies and the way he evades deep questions by firing back at Sammy's phoniness is no better than thousands of first time Cather in the Rye readers. Terry obviously is an emotionally underdeveloped male who resorts to brat-like moments when he thinks he has been wronged. There is a scene where he thinks Rudy has gone back on his "promise" about the pool hall incident, so instead of spending the day with him he drops Rudy off at his babysitters and tells him if he doesn't want to be adult about things and tell mommy about everything then he's going to spend the afternoon at the babies house. Ruffalo is astonishingly annoying and affective in this scene as he clearly gets across Terry's insecurities and childishness.

Sammy is not necessarily above Terry, either. Her downfalls are in the fact that she has always been responsible for raising boys, whether it be Terry, her childish ex-husband, and now Rudy, she has never had time for herself. She mistakes the abrupt nature of her having to act like an adult as a free pass for her to act childish herself once Terry is there to look after Rudy during the night. Sammy's been dating a man named Bob off and on. A year ago she was probably ready to marry him, but thinking on it now she's not ready; however she still calls him every now and then for some afternoon delight. The way she rings him up and her flippant "it's just sex" attitude shows how she too is as mature as high school student. Bob eventually pops the question, and all Sammy can do is laugh. Her response is to sleep with her new micro-managing boss Brad (played wonderfully by Matthew Broderick), who is in an unhappy marriage. Her and Brad rendezvous often, and it's an added layer to Sammy's character as we see her screw up time and time again that she knows Bob is the solid one, the obvious choice for a husband, but even during somewhat of a reconciliation with Bob after the proposal fiasco she realizes that she is late for her afternoon romp with Brad, and immediately leaves Bob with many unanswered questions.

Sammy may be seen as an irresponsible mother -- bouncing back and forth between two lovers, leaving Terry to put Rudy to bed so she can go off and have a good time -- but it's in these mistakes that makes Sammy's character so recognizable. The town priest sees her as an example, a beacon of how to do life right, but when she goes to see him and tells him that she is sleeping with a married man while stringing a decent guy like Bob along, the priest (played by Lonergan) simply feels compassion for her while Sammy is looking for more of a fire and brimstone type of punishment. This is what causes the visit from the priest to sting so much for Terry. He knows she's been sleeping with Brad, so when the priest says that Terry should be more like Sammy, it hurts, because now Sammy, the closest person to Terry, has become nothing more than a contradiction, one of the phonies that Terry rails against.

Terry and Sammy (and Brad for that matter) are real character types that we know, work with, or are ourselves. To err is human, and so rarely do we get a film that understands that people screw up, and that it doesn't have to be so extreme, it doesn't have to be an intense drama about a flawed character like Leaving Las Vegas (which is a great film, don't get me wrong) or a hokey parable about flawed people who learn to right their wrongs ala Bruce Almighty (not such a good movie). Lonergan's film is filled with the emotions that correlate with dealing with everyday problems and the results of trying the best you can to work those problems out.

Through all of the muck and mire Sammy will always love Terry, no matter how many times he screws up, and no matter how many times he reminds her that she's not the saint that everyone in town thinks she is. Lonergan's film touches on something deep and true about sibling relationships: even though we may be frustrated by them, it's almost impossible to severe those ties. The ending is so subtle in its power, not to mention it's a clinic in great acting. Terry is leaving and him and Sammy sit on a bench at the bus stop. They are thinking about the events that have occurred since he's been there, and how they as brother and sister have grown-up a bit. Sammy is crushed that Terry doesn't know where he's going or when he'll be able to get a hold of her. Terry pleads with her that she just has to trust him; trust him that he cares about her and Rudy, and trust him that he is responsible to take care of himself (something that is probably hard for a big sister who raised a little brother with no parents around). Terry comforts Sammy the only way he knows how, by telling her to remember and hold onto the "thing" they used to say to each other all the time as kids. This causes Sammy to cry uncontrollably, nodding her head she hugs Terry as he continues to ask "do you remember?" Here Lonergan does the right thing by never telling us what it is. This is Sammy and Terry's secret, their moment of the past, their password that made everything okay for a brother and a sister who had their parents taken away from them. And we don't need to know it, rather the viewer is left to think about their own "moments" with their brother and sister, and Lonergan and his wonderful actors nail this scene and make it better than any kind of Chris Columbus-type scene with "We Are Family" playing in the background.

Even though Sammy ultimately roots for Terry and will always believe in him, and no matter how powerful the final scene of the film is, there is also a more ambiguous feeling to the end scene. The moment Sammy cries and pleads for Terry to stick around, he is uncomfortable, and it's fair to say that one can view the ending as nothing more than Terry pulling out cliches from his bag of tricks he's used on Sammy over the years. When Terry tells Sammy that they'll have Christmas together, you can't help but think he's trying to do anything to make the tears stop for Sammy, perhaps alleviating some of her grief over him leaving, but more than anything just trying to make the moment less awkward for him. I think the moment when he tells her to remember what they used to say to each other as kids undercuts the selfish-Terry reading, but it's definitely there, and the fact that the ending (or the entire film) provides no real major epiphanies for the characters, you have to at least consider the fact that Terry hasn't changed by the end of the film.

You Can Count On Me is a rare film, a family drama that has genuine moments shared by the characters, moments that we as the viewer are not privy to, but have an inkling of what it is they're getting at because of our own experiences with the people in our lives who remind us of Sammy and Terry. This isn't an over-dramatic, screaming sibling rivalry film that goes for the easy emotional punch; it's a film that lingers on moments. Lonergan's camera takes its time and meanders though the small town capturing real-life moments that remind the viewer of the kind of honest, documentary-like filmmaking style of John Cassavetes. This film really is a testament to what a talent Lonergan is, he uses some great visuals like the opening and the way he uses buses to show the transitional phases of these characters; not to mention the fact that Sammy has to pick up Rudy and Terry (her children) at bus stops throughout the film. But it's also a film that showcases what tremendous actors Linney and Ruffalo are. Ruffalo's Terry is a performance that catapulted him to many starring roles, and Sammy got Linney a well deserved Oscar nomination and solidified her place as one of the go-to actresses who may not grace the cover of magazines (Joan Allen and Catherine Keener are others, too), but turn in great, under-appreciated performances film after film. This was 2000's best film of the year and it's certainly an under-advertised masterpiece.

It's sad that Lonergan hasn't had anything released since this film. He did help Scorsese write Gangs of New York, but it's been a Malick-like absence from him since he wrote and directed this film. He's had a ton of issues getting his next film, Margret released. The film stars Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Alison Janney, and Rosmarie DeWitt, but it has yet to get a solid release date. The film was made in 2005 or 2006 and was set to be released in 2007 and has just kept getting pushed back. The film sounds an awful lot like The Sweet Hereafter, but based on Lonergan's work here with You Can Count On Me and the way he handles big dramatic moments delicately (making them almost feel too nuanced or subtle) I have faith that Margaret can be a great film.

Monday, March 30, 2009

White Elephant Blog-a-thon: Kaliman and the Sinister World of Humanon (1976)

Hooray Kaliman!

This is my contribution to the White Elephant Blog-a-thon over at Benjamin Lim's site Lucid Screening. The premise is simple: pick a really awful movie and then that film is randomly assigned to a fellow blogger who has signed up for the blog-a-thon. You can read the rest of the entries here. I nominated Nightmare City, one of my favorite bad movies, so it should be interesting reads all around as we all try to make sense out of the really bad films that were chosen for us.

Kaliman is a Latin American icon. One quick Google search and another quick perusing of Wikipedia and you find that it was famous comic book read with millions of fans, the comic then spawned a radio show – and so naturally they decided to make a film version. The 1972 film was apparently three hours long and cut down for television. It was shot on location in Egypt with actors from Italy, USA, Canada, and Mexico. It was so popular it was in theaters for an entire year. However, the film I viewed was not the original 1972 Kaliman, which I’m sure isn’t any better, but that’s what I thought I was going to review; no, this is the 1976 sequel called Kaliman in the Sinister World of Humanon. I think Netflix screwed up here, because the film I rented was what I thought was the 1972 version, but it turns out their listing on their website and their DVD sleeve for the film was wrong. But I’m glad I got this film. It seems like it’s much worse than the 1972 film sounds and it contains the world’s greatest villain and zombies that roar like lions! I can’t make this stuff up.

I knew I was in trouble the minute I saw this title card.

The sequel, filmed four years later, was also shot on location in Rio and looked to have a decent sized budget. But wow what an awful film. One of the things my brother and I like to do when we watch truly awful movies (which is often) is re-cast the film or mention which characters look like recent celebrities. It’s a snarky exercise, influenced directly from our upbringing with “Mystery Science Theater: 3000”, but it’s really the only thing one can do in order to remain sane through such an awful affair.

Kaliman and Solin practice their moves.

The film involves Kaliman (Jeff Cooper), a superhero who uses telepathy and words to destroy his enemies (sorry kids no violence), and his sidekick Solin (he’s one of those little annoying sidekicks who says cutesy things, even amidst violent moments) who arrive in Rio for the convention on telepathy (or as they call it in the film the Congress of Psychology) and learn of a conspiracy to bring down his fellow doctors and scientists. That’s your basic setup as you get inane scene after inane scene of horribly edited filler. Lots of shots of the locations (they had to make good use of them) and lots of footage of a bare-chested Jeff Cooper walking through the jungle.

Finish Him! Humanon Wins!

Eventually Kaliman is led to a mysterious jungle locale where there are exotic animals and people known as numbers (hmm, because that doesn’t sound familiar) and are not allowed to have individual thoughts. They are ruled by the coolest villain in all of film: Humanon. This guy looks like a deleted Mortal Kombat character. His red hood and aviator sunglasses really evoke a sense of evil and dominance over his peons. This is simply some of the laziest costuming I have ever seen. They essentially just went wild at the local costume shop and donned all of their characters with what they found there. They even use noises on the island and in the diabolical Humanon’s laboratory that are straight off of a Halloween sound-effects tape.

More like an "Evening Shade" Burt Reynolds than a Hooper Burt Reynolds.

Anyway…Humanon is amazing. We learn that he is lured all of the doctors and scientists to his island in order to turn them into mutants. Now about these mutants: earlier in the film there is an amazing villain who looks like a cross between Burt Reynolds and Dave Wannstedt. He wears the same brown turtleneck throughout the entire film and he unleashes a band of lion-roaring zombies called “zombie-tronic’s”.

Just brilliant stuff. Okay, so Kaliman learns of Humanon’s diabolical plan to turn all of the smart people into zombie-tronic’s, you see that way there won’t be any original thoughts in the world. That dastardly Humanon. The most maniacal plan of Humanon’s (who spends about 50% of his screen time laughing diabolically) is at the end when we see that he’s kept the missing professors head (this is the guy that Kaliman was meeting in Rio, sorry if this is confusing, I didn’t get it until I looked up the plot synopsis) hooked up to all kinds of wires and plugs. In order to make sure he gets what he wants, Humanon threatens to kill him (the head, mind you) if he doesn’t obey. Is it just me, or is there something irrelevant about threatening to kill a severed head?

Wacky Disney effect of the movie...

Another bizarre thing about the villain is his penchant for hiring little people. One is a crazed, whip-happy warden of the zombie-tronic cages, and the other is a bizarre woman who is always by Humanon’s side, laughing when ever he laughs. She’s his MAD cat. In an utterly bizarre and wonderfully hilarious moment she disappears at the end while watching Humanon die. But she doesn’t go out without style, she laughs and then disappears to a BOING sound that is straight out of Benny Hill.

Threatening the severed head. One of my favorite scenes.

The entire film plays like a Saturday morning cartoon. And that’s probably what they were going for, but there are many moments that seem straight out of Inspector Gadget or Scooby-Doo (there’s a reveal at the end where we find out who Humanon really is, and it has the same effect a Scooby-Doo reveal has). The action is incredibly lame as there is a lot of kick and punch with people barely hitting each other (or missing altogether); the other usual bad movie elements apply here. The music is something out of a swinger’s party. It has flute and jazzy piano aplenty, and it reminded me of times of the “MST3K” classic Manos: The Hands of Fate, where the viewer is left watching lots of scenery scenes with this wacky, jazzy music playing in the background. There are other wonderful moments like when a guy who looks like Billy from Predator falls off a roof and explodes with sparks and all! Or how about when the little person with whip is out of line for beginning a sentence with "I thought..." and thus has to face his punishment, which is a swift kick in the ass. I can't make this up people. It's just an amazing film.

Kaliman and his wacky fez wearing sidekick.

Jeff Cooper as Kaliman is amazing, too. Not to be outdone by his villain, this is a superhero that can break a gun over his knee as if he were Bo Jackson. He also grunts a lot, and laughs a lot, too, although he’s more jovial than Humanon. He’s a ladies man as we find that telepathy has its advantages with the fairer sex, as long as what they’re thinking is nice. (BOING, indeed) Kaliman has a lot of fun as he and his sidekick go on some wacky adventures, tour the city, learn about Rio's rich history, and take time to realize that you're never too old or too powerful to learn something from somebody else. It really makes you think, no? He also likes to walk around without his shirt on, so naturally if this film were remade today there is no doubt in my mind that McConaughey would be the perfect choice to play Kaliman.

Yup...I could play Kaliman.

Films like this are always a fun experience. They entertain because of their awfulness alone, and they’re short enough so really they aren’t too excruciating to get through. The film is awful no doubt, but if you’re anything like me and you’re idea of a fun night of movie watching is really bad cinema, then Kaliman is sure to satisfy.

I even wrote some poetry to describe the lesson I learned from the movie. (Ahem):

Independent thought
Will win the day.
Be yourself,
That’s the Kaliman way!

Why do I have a sudden urge to watch Zardoz?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Final Girl Film Club: "The Beyond"

Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is one of the best films of the Italian Horror genre. The film is definitely better than most horror movies, and it is doubly better than most Italian horror movies. The problem some people have with the film is that it makes no sense and has no interest in following any kind of sensible or linear story path. Fulci was not interested in making stories that made sense, and really to his credit, The Beyond, for all of its craziness and inane moments, probably makes the most sense when held up to his other films. Fulci and the Italian's love to stylize things -- really ever since Fellini decided to abandon the neo-realist movement in Italy, all bets were off -- and Fulci takes after filmmakers not just within the horror genre. Look at some of the films of Bertolucci (like The Conformist) which are almost all style over substance; or the surreal, ethereal nature of Fellini’s final films; but Fulci’s style is mostly akin to the supernatural, non-linear stylings of Dario Argento. The Italian's had an eye for imagery and for how something could just pop on the screen; whether it be beautiful shadow play (like The Conformist) or the bright neon and somewhat otherworldly colors seen in Argento’s Suspiria, and Fulci’s The Beyond was no exception.

The "plot" of The Beyond, however, is another thing, and usually with Fulci you have more fun at the expense of the story, rather than actually being chilled or thrilled by it. The Beyond is about a favorite theme of Fulci's, the "gates of hell" being opened up for some reason by some ancient artifact or painting, or because a priest hangs himself (all themes from his films). Time travel also comes into play as do psychics and yes, even when they don't belong: zombies.

This was the first film in Fulci's "gates of hell" trilogy and it's his most accomplished work as a director. I could try to go on and on about how there are themes at work here and Fulci really was trying, but I would just be lying and trying to turn a hack filmmaker into something more than he could possibly be. There are a number of retrospectives by people who think Fulci was a great artist, and there are no doubts that he had the eye of a very astute student who studied the Italian masters. But I just don't think he can be taken too seriously. Now to his credit it was the producers who made him add a hospital full of zombies at the end of The Beyond, not Fulci, so he wasn't completely hack-tastic here. Fulci succeeds in making The Beyond one of those ethereal experiences I always attribute to Argento’s early work. Unfortunately for Fulci, this was about it for him as he would give up any remnants of talent he had for the easy buck, as he would finish his career with awful slasher films like The New York Ripper and Murder Rock. But what about this film, well it is indeed better than any other Fulci film, but if you are looking for a scary story – something that moves beyond the eeriness of the images, then you should probably look elsewhere.

The film opens when a warlock/artist in 1920's Louisiana paints something evil looking which ends up rousing the interests of a lynch mob. They burst into the 7 Doors Hotel (The butchered American version of the film is called The Seven Doors of Death) and find the man in room 36, they pour lots of quicklime (a favorite of the Italian's) on him as Fulci proceeds to film the scene in typical Italian horror film fashion. Meanwhile there is a little girl downstairs reading out of some book of the occult with a made up name. As the quicklime does its thing, the book (gasp) goes up in flames. That's about all of the story I can relate because there really isn't much else to tell. It's all set up for scene after scene of Fulci's most famous gore moments. And they’re good ones.

The best part about Italian horror (and especially Italian zombie) movies is the fact that things take so long to happen, usually with a really weird funky bass line or synth playing over the action. What easily begins as unsettling and somewhat unnerving, turns into a gross out fest that sometimes turns laughable because of how long the camera lingers on something so grotesque (the famous spider scene or the moment where acid burns off a ladies face are two scene’s that come to mind). Often times these loooong moments of gore seem like filler, and other times they work in evoking a sense of otherworldiness that displaces the viewer and unsettles the nerves, but whatever the affect one thing is for certain: it's no wonder Fulci didn't tighten things up through the editing process, the film would only be 50 minutes long.

In the opening scene mentioned above the mob pour quicklime on the artist and for about two minutes you get to listen Fabio Frizi's synth play over the imagery while the calcium oxide does its thing. Skin pops, eyes fall out, and then if that weren't enough, Fulci has to nail the dude up to the wall. It's a pretty brutal scene that gives the viewer a sense of things to come and showcases some of what made Fulci so popular with Zombi 2; here he ups the ante substantially.

(Back to the “plot”) Well sure enough cut to present day and the heroine Liza buys up the hotel where the artist was murdered. During the remodel she notices a bad leak in one of the rooms. She calls Joe the plumber and he goes down to investigate. Well this takes him under the hotel and face to face with the artist...who is now a zombie! It's all academic from there as poor Joe the Plumber dies by means of Fulci's favorite death: injury to eye.

The injury to eye death is seen all through Italian horror and Fulci was the master of it. This shot usually consisted of the cheap scare of something that you think is dead springing to life and grabbing the face of the living. This leads to a POV shot and once again the plodding camera of Fulci lingers on things just long enough so we realize how fake things look and how horrible the violence is going to be. Once we (as Joe) see that the fingers are going straight for the eye socket...out it goes. Once Joe is dead, the picture the artist painted reappears and dun dun dun...the gates of hell have been opened.

Another scene that is brilliantly strange and hilarious is when some guy (you can tell just how defined these characters are, I've seen the film numerous times and don't even remember characters names) who is researching the gates of hell and the weird occurrences around town and the hotel climbs a ladder in the hotel to reach an old book about the hotel’s history. For no reasoning whatsoever lightening strikes and what started out as a normal scene turns into something so bizarre and hilarious I think I'll just let you see it for yourselves:

Click here to watch video

Again, the staples of Fulci's "craftsmanship" are at work here. The scene goes on forever, the spiders make a ridiculous hissing noise, they chomp when they eat this guys flesh as if they were the Simpson's sitting down for dinner, and I love how they could only afford two real tarantulas, the others are obviously fake and are set on the actor all while the obviously real spiders crawl onto him. It's wonderful isn't it? However, to Fulci’s credit, the scene is pretty squirm inducing.

There are other great moments like when the zombie artist (remember him) is hooked up to a machine to indicate its heart rate (that should make it obvious what scene will follow), or how about when a beaker of acid (why is there acid just sitting around in a room of corpses?) tips over and eats away at an entire face for what seems like an eternity (again, Fulci getting every last minute out of his budget) and then that same acid slowly approaching a creepy girl in what looks like jell-o; also in this same scene, how does the girl escape? We don’t know because Fulci just ends the scene with the girl screaming, looking up at all the zombies about to attack her in the morgue. But the girl comes back later in the movie (in what is probably the most famous death in the movie, and perhaps in all of Italian Horror).

Click here to watch video

Or, how about the scene where a blind girl gets eaten alive by her seeing eye dog in an obvious homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria? All of these are wonderfully memorable scenes from what is one of the seminal horror films.

The Beyond is full of wonderful gory death scenes, and that is why it's fondly remembered and so fervently sought out. Every low budget independent zombie (or regular horror) film made today in some way borrows Fulci's philosophy and style of gory filmmaking. Watch when Joe the Plumber’s (I swear the McCain/Palin campaign stole from Fulci) wife is shocked to see her dead husband approach her. There is a spike in the wall right behind her and then watch how long this scene takes to develop. The pay off is great, and you can see this pacing today in gory torture porn like Hostel and Saw. There's also a head being shot off and glass from a window somehow finding its way onto some poor guys face. If Fulci knew anything, he knew that if you had to wait for the big bad gory moment, it made it all the better.

Click here to watch video

Fulci never made anything as good as The Beyond. For all of the crap I am giving it, the film really does look good on DVD, and Fulci was good a creating an eerie atmosphere and some really nice shots (I especially like the shot of the little crazy girl with no pupils on a vast and expansive highway) that created a unique, ethereal (there’s that word again, but it works so well when talking about Italian horror) mood rare to the horror genre. I would liken it to what Wes Craven did with A Nightmare on Elm Street where you never knew what was real and what was fantasy (and actually Fellini’s 8 ½ , too); however, where Nightmare creates an unsettling feeling as you watch, The Beyond fails to reach that kind of unnerving of our emotions. For example, Fulci never really takes the material seriously or really approaches it at all. Secondly, the Italian filmmakers had Fulci's blueprint from Zombi 2 on every set, so screenplays received very little attention, because they knew the blueprint for making enough money that would insure they could finance their next movie -- Italian hack-filmmaker Umberto Lenzi is a perfect example of this "blueprint theory", only working once with both the cannibal (Cannibal Feroux) and zombie genre (Nightmare City); however, both were arguably his two most famous and profitable films -- This blueprint causes the zombie moments of The Beyond (read: the ending of the film) to feel flat and passé . However, the rest of the film is daringly original, unlike most horror films of that era.

Some would prefer to see The Beyond as a really crappy film, but I prefer to view through the lens of ethereal horror that displaces the viewer, and it's wonderfully fun camp, too. I can see why Tarantino loved the movie enough to give it a midnight revival in the late 90's. The film has many charms, looks great, has hilarious dubbing, and some of the iconic gore moments in all of horror cinema. If you're a horror fan, there should be no reason that you haven't seen this film yet.

Fulci would go on to complete his trilogy with his other famous gore fest The House by the Cemetary (City of the Living Dead was the first film of the “gates of hell” trilogy), but neither film is quite as good or memorable as The Beyond, because of the tripe that Fulci was making in the late 80’s and 90’s. What made The Beyond so special was that it was so utterly different from anything being released at the time, and was truly the last great work Fulci’s name would be attached to.

The Beyond should be seen by anyone interested in film. It's amazing how under-appreciated some of the Italian filmmakers are. Even if they create stories that are completely incoherent I don't think that should be held against them, I think it adds to the strangeness of the experience that is an Italian horror film. Plus, if audiences today can praise directors from the likes of Michael Bay to indie darling Michel Gondry for creating films that are nothing but style over substance, then I think these Italian filmmakers like Fulci and Soavi and Argento deserve to be revisited and examined under a less scrutinizing lens.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's more absurd than a giant blue shlong?

A review of Watchmen nearly a month after its release, that's what! Okay, so I know I am way late to the party on this one (as usual) but here it is, THE definitive review of Zack Snyder's film adaptation of the seminal comic book created by Alan Moore (who had his name removed from the film) and Dave Gibbons. Welll not really. What can I say that hasn't been said already by much smarter people than I? I'll give it a go, but before the jump check out two of my favorite reviews of the film. Here's a wonderfully articulate review by a mysterious blogger that champions the films successes....and here is one by Alexander Coleman that is just as articulate in explaining why the film is a failure. I think I fall more in line with Andrew's review here, which I'll explain after the jump...

Zack Snyder's film is an orgy of beautiful imagery -- some of it comes at you in that annoying, Snyder-esque slo-mo, and other times it sits there beautifully framed for you to be in awe of -- it's a film that is an experience to be had; however, whether that experience is good or bad is something I had to think about.

My initial reaction to the film was that it was great. It fulfilled its duty in entertaining me, making me think about the comic while I was watching it, but not longing for the film to be more faithful to its material. There are changes, yes, and although I am by no means a fanboy (I just came to the comic recently) I was immediately able to recognize those changes, and you know what, most of 'em aren't half bad.

The real question with the film (I'm skipping any remnants of plot description here, as I assume since this is a month overdue everyone knows by know what the story is about) is whether or not Snyder succeeds in raising the film above a mere postmodern exercise. I personally feel that film succeeds in being more than just a pastiche full of flashy slo-mo action and music video moments (although the first part of the film is filled with music) and gives the viewer something that has not been experienced in the genre of comic book films: quiet moments. These quiet moments are just as jaw dropping as the action scenes from something like Iron Man or The Dark Knight, there is an silence and an attention that is focused on the screen in Watchmen that is not attributed to its awesome effects or action sequence (which there are very little of), but to the films quieter moments where Dr Manhattan pontificates about the past as he constructs his future, or where Rorschach philosophizes about the dirt and scum of the world in moments of narration that remind the viewer of Travis Bickle. The film works in the sense that I was all ears, more than willing to sit through the three hours of philosophy and dialogue driven scenes. It's an experience that I think is not only easier on the senses than The Dark Knight, but more fulfilling.

The opening of the film has two beautiful home-run sequences as Snyder shows the death of The Comedian in slo-mo to the tune of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable". The scene is filmed like a dance, a violent ballet of bloody pirouettes that is edited perfectly to the croons of Cole's song. Snyder gives the viewer context in the opening credits (and some nods to fanboys who love the comic) with a virtuoso credit sequence that features the aptly chosen song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan. I won't even mention how great the use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is, because my hope is that you will click the link to the review on The House Next Door and read that critics thoughts on the song -- which I think are some of the most brilliant that have been said about the film.

I can see where viewers have thought the film to be boring, overly long, and all surface with no depth; but I found the film to be a fascinating experience. Will I want to see it again? Absolutely. Do I think the film is a masterpiece? Not by a long shot. But it is one of the great experiences I've had the movies in a long, long while. The acting is universally strong across the board, especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan who just finds the right notes as the brooding superhero. What makes the film so fascinating is all attributed to Moore's original story and the very idea that there is nothing super about super heroes; especially the Watchmen who happen to only have one member of their group with any kind of super powers. They are all flawed, and that's the interesting thing about the film version of this story (really there was no way to get all of the postmodern, meta-elements of Moore's story into the film).

The visuals are wonderful and the playfulness of Snyder's use of music and slo-motion to open the film is wonderful. The acting is strong across the board and I'll always remember those scenes on Mars with Silk Specter II and Dr. Manhattan debating, philosophizing, and re-constructing as secrets are revealed and epiphanies are made. It's a beautiful and poignant (when was the last time you heard that word described with a comic book movie) moment in the film and really, these moments outweigh the moments where Snyder's direction get in the way.

About Snyder: I have never been a fan as I despised 300 and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. But here Snyder tones down his go-to elements after he uses a lot of them in the opening (which as I mentioned before, in this film worked wonderfully) and wisely avoids the over-the-top effects he's employed in his other films. It's always going to be a catch-22 with Snyder -- I was thinking about this during the prison break scene in Watchmen as the slo-mo came back with a vengeance (and really if it weren't for the nicely done, Matrix like panning of the camera, then the scene would have really stood out as an annoyance) and this where Snyder, and the film, started to annoy me, but really which is worse, the slo-mo, heavily stylized editing of Snyder or the hyper-kinetic, whooshing cameras of a Michael Bay film. I think prefer Snyder's style (even though I don't always like it) because at least you can slow down and understand where you and where the action is happening, which is a problem with Bay's films or the Bourne movies for example.

Watchmen works so well because it slows things down, and the film is faithful to the source material in a sense that the story isn't about action or extravagance, it's about ideas and listening, and that's where Snyder is so successful. He accomplishes the feat of getting the audience to listen to the film, working for the ideas and themes, rather than the film doing all the heavy lifting with loud noises, frantically paced action sequences, and paper-thin philosophies.

There are flaws with the film, no doubt, and if you were to argue against certain aspects of the film, I may be able to be swayed one way or the other. The best word to describe the film is "experience". It was an experience I was glad to have and one I wouldn't mind having again. The best parts of the film I mentioned throughout the review, those are where I think the film is a masterpiece, but there too many aspects that don't always work, and many failed attempts at nuance; however, for me the good of the ultimately outweighs the bad.

I can't believe it, but I like a Zack Snyder movie, even if he didn't keep in the giant squid thing at the end of the movie.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Can I Interest You in a Meme?

Thanks to Edward Copeland over at Edward Copeland on Film, I've been tagged for a meme. So beware. Some of you may be next. The idea is simple....kind of: list your ten favorite film characters. Not actors, but characters. This is hard because a lot of my favorite characters come from the same films, but in the interest of not having a list full of characters from a total of three movies, I decided to try and mix it up a little. In no way is this a definitive list; however, it's a pretty good idea of what characters have stuck with me over the years. Some are recent, some old....at the end of the list I will complete the rules of this meme, which is to tag five more people to continue the meme. So, let's get on with it...

In no particular order:

1.) Nathan Arizona - Raising Arizona

Not the conventional pick from this classic Coen Brothers comedy, but really it's the one character that stands out the most to me. I almost did go with the conventional pick, Nicolas Cage as H.I. McDunnough, but the late Trey Wilson's performance as Nathan Arizona is the performance that still resonates with me. He epitomizes everything that is great about supporting characters in Coen Bros. movie, and his speech at the end of the film is a beautiful mixture of Coenisms and authoritative advice. Plus who could forget this exchange:

Policeman in Arizona house: What did the pyjamas look like?
Nathan Arizona Sr.: I don't know - they were jammies! They had Yodas 'n' shit on 'em!

One of the all time great supporting performances and one of my favorite Coen Bros. characters (my favorite is coming up later). It's sad that Wilson, a gifted character actor, died fairly early into his acting career at the age of 41. He was one of the best. Or my name aint Nathan Arizona!

2.) Ellen Ripley - Aliens

The ultimate bad ass in all of sci-fi is one of the most memorable characters in all of film. Sigourney Weaver made the role her own, proving that a female could open an action movie (or a big budget movie) without the help of a male lead. It's the one film in the series where we see Ripley's maternal instincts as she cares for the waif like Newt. It's some of the best acting Weaver has done as she portrays one of the strongest female characters in all of film. Also, she gets one of the most memorable and cheer-inducing last lines when she screams "get away from her you bitch!"

3.) Frank T.J. Mackey - Magnolia

Tom Cruise this caricature of a character into something deeper and more profound. Yes, the entire film goes for big operatic moments, and no actor is more up to the task than Cruise. His character, a sex guru who specializes in the 'art' of not just being able to get women in bed, but how to to do it while being unattached. Mackey is one of those characters that you know exists in the real world, thinking that women are always out to get him. What's so memorable are the completely hilarious conferences he holds for his product called "Seduce and Destroy". It's one of the cinemas most bizarrely funny moments, because really we're looking at an individual who is so obviously empty and has issues from his past with women (or the way they were treated by people he loved) that director Paul Thomas Anderson is able to evoke both empathy and laughs out of Mackey's speeches. When it's all said and done (the film that is), the reason why this character stands out for me is that even in the most 'disgusting' people, there is hope for redemption. Cruises' Mackey is one of the actors greatest creations.

4.) Shelley Levene - Glengarry Glen Ross

Shelly 'the machine' Levine is one of the all time memorable characters. So pathetic in his attempts to try and make it in the modern day sales world, that he can't see that the times have passed him by. Once a great salesman, the truly pathetic thing about Levine is that he spends more time selling his bosses on the fact that he still can cut it, instead of going out an making sales. There are moments in the film that prove why Shelly is one of my favorite characters, none more obvious than the ending, when we see a man broken and beaten, committing an act he will have to pay the price for all because he loves his daughter and feels lost, confused, and misused in the modern day sales world. Jack Lemmon played Levine to perfection, and what makes the character memorable for me is that every time I watch the film (which is often) I always wish he would not to do what he does at the end, and that his phantom sale actually does mean redemption for the character. When you're still that emotionally involved with a character after more than 20 viewings of a film, then that's how you know you have a special actor creating a special character. The character lives on in the form of Gil Gunderson, the pathetic do-anything salesman on The Simpson's

5.) Clarence Boddicker - Robocop

One of my favorite villains from any movie, Kurtwood Smith created the perfect nihilistic monster in a futuristic Detroit devoid of any police presence. "Can you fly, Bobby!" and "Are you a good cop, hot shot", are memorable lines that come to mind, not mention the maniacal way he sizes up Peter Weller's cop (pre-robo) before he shoots his hand off. It's a great performance, filled with beautiful over the top moments (dipping his finger in wine and then snorting it) that really, for me, epitomizes what the 1980's action villain was all about.

6.) The Bride - Kill Bill

There was no journey I was more invested in than The Bride's in Quentin Tarantino's masterpieces Kill Bill Vol.1 and 2. It's one of those journeys of revenge that is found in all of the usual Tarantino films he studies and adores, but what made this one more enjoyable was the emotion that Uma Thurman brought to the character of The Bride. This wasn't a simplistic grindhouse revenge picture, Tarantino's film was more than a pastiche of film references from his youth, it was a tremendous story of what a mother will do to get her daughter, and all of that emotion and deeper analysis that comes with the film is due to the seriousness Thurman brings to her role. The Bride kicks a lot of ass, yes, but it's with purpose, and when that final act comes in Volume 2, it's truly heartbreaking....and when we see the final scene of the film, The Bride cradling a stuffed animal on the bathroom floor, tears of joy streaming down her face, and all she can do is let out a noise that is a mix between a sob and laugh, we sob and laugh with her. It's the best acting Thurman's ever done and it's one of those characters that you don't mind revisiting because they are super cool and they get a happy ending.

7.) Dr. David Huxley - Bringing Up Baby

Probably my favorite character that Cary Grant ever played, Huxley is one of those memorable screwball characters who is so uptight, that you love watching their transformation into a more laid back, less self-serving person. It's one of those roles, too , that show why Grant was such a tremendous comedic actor. Howard Hawks' film is one that I never mind revisiting, and a lot of that is due to Huxley, a character that you don't mind spending time with, even if he is uptight, because we know he'll experience things along the way that will help him see the err of his ways. Plus, there are few greater moments in classic comedy than when Huxley is left to wear a female robe and resorts to screaming a response as to why he's wearing those clothes when he says "because I just went gay all of a sudden!"

8.) Del Griffith - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

John Candy may not have been the funniest guy in the world, but his portrayal of Del Griffith is his zenith as an actor, and it's how I'll always remember him. Griffith is one of those creations made specifically for a John Hughes movie, which means we've all met someone like Del before because Hughes was so great at creating real to life characters. Griffith is one of those characters you tell yourself you'd love to sit and talk with and hear his stories, but then it becomes too much. Neil Page (Steve Martin) discovers this throughout the film as a friendship does indeed grow between the two men, it doesn't come without its rocky parts. Griffith is a guy we constantly feel for because he seems likable enough, but which one of us wouldn't snap at him like Page does in the famous scene in the hotel room. "Here's Del Griffith he's got some amusing anecdotes for you, here's a gun you'll thank me." Those lines sting, and the viewer feels the sting, too, because we care so much about Griffith. He's another in a long line of these kinds of characters where I ask myself, would I like to spend another two hours with him, and the answer is yes.

9.) Marge Gunderson - Fargo

I wish we could all know someone as nice as Margie. Frances McDormand created a brilliant character for the ages with her portrayal as pregnant sheriff Marge Gunderson. The dialect, the mannerisms, the famous lines; they've all been mentioned to death. What makes Margie such a memorable character for me is her warmth. Consider the scene where she meets with an old high school 'friend', the way she is cognizant of what he is trying to do, and how she balances trying to let him know she's married and not interested, and the way she tries to spare his feelings is a tremendous balancing act. Another scene is in the way she assures her husband, an artist who has has one of his paintings of a bird selected for the three cent stamp, that even though it's not the stamp everyone uses, lots of people still use the three cent. Her reasoning for this is so warm and compassionate. McDormand pulls is off perfectly creating one of the warmest characters in all of cinema.

10.) Dean Miller - Nightmare City

Well, last but certainly not least is the man I've named the blog after, Hugo Stiglitz. Dean Miller is the ultimate representation of the male character in every Italian Horror film. Dedicated to the cause, no matter the price he pays or the risk he puts his wife in. He even slaps her around for a bit because she is hysterical, and then they immediately kiss and make up. Really, this selection is just a conglomerate of all the great and memorable characters I've seen over the years in Italian Horror films. And, it was yet another excuse to mention the brilliance of Hugo Stiglitz.

Okay --- five blogs that I'm choosing to participate in the fun (sorry if you've already been asked):

Elusive as Robert Denby
Cerebral Mastication
Coleman's Corner in Cinema
Gateway Cinephiles
The Film Doctor

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson: 1963 - 2009

Damn. This is just too sad. I remember watching her on an episode of Top Chef this year and she seemed quite humble and down to earth. Her family is acting royalty (mom is Vanessa, aunt is Lynn Redgrave, and husband is Liam Neeson). What a horrible day for the arts.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Am Curious (giallo): A Visual Analysis of Two Early Argento Masterpieces

It’s interesting when one goes back and views Dario Argento’s early work. As a fanatic of the Italian Horror genre, it is unavoidable to feel nothing but nostalgia when talking about the films and their directors of this very specific, unique genre. They don’t make these kinds of films anymore, and there is no more solid proof of that fact than when you look at Argento’s early films and compare them with his recent attempts. It’s almost as if the director himself is fulfilling an obligation; trying to tap into that nostalgia so that fans of the genre will still pay money to see his films. I don’t want this to turn into a retrospective on the glory days of Italian Horror; rather, I’d like to focus on Argento, specifically his first feature as a director The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and a film he made a few years later, a more matured version of the same idea, Deep Red.

With Argento’s first film you see a director using the successes of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out a decade before The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and using them to make a film that succeeds in not being a mere aping of Hitchcock’s classic. Darker themes lie within each of his films; themes that have caused some critics to rail against Argento’s work. Some critics think Argento is a misogynist -- that he is like other Italian Horror directors (Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi) who love to not just show women in peril, but love to linger on death and exploit the film’s female characters. The exhibitionism and voyeuristic elements are there, especially in these two films. In both films the “hero” of the film is an innocent man, a passer-by who has no connection to the murder victims (a classic Hitchcock theme). A man watches a woman get murdered; however, unlike recent Argento films (and the giallo of Fulci and Lenzi) there is nothing misogynistic about the murders – they’re just really creepy.

The very genre lends itself to ruthlessness, though. Giallo (which in Italy means ‘yellow’ because a lot of the giallo novels were yellow paperbacks – this is also why you see lots of yellow in Argento’s giallo films) usually deals with a black-gloved killer stalking his prey. The viewer almost never sees who the killer is until the end, and all we ever see is from the POV of the killer. The only images in the foreground are the black gloves holding a razor or knife (Brian DePalma literally takes this idea and employs it in The Untouchables in the scene where Sean Connery is murdered). Gialli (there is a difference) usually deals with psychological issues. Like Psycho these films are concerned with attaching pseudo-scientific explanations to the reasoning behind the killer’s insanity.

Deep Red (the more “refined” version of the style's and themes experimented with in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and what many critics consider the greatest giallo ever made) is not as violent towards women, but definitely more violent in general, and really was the jumping off point for Argento’s glossy, highly visualized blood splattering. Also, with the films incredibly influential musical score by Goblin, Deep Red was the introduction to the more ethereal feel that we associate with Argento’s supernatural pictures (Susperia, Inferno, and Phenomena). This otherworldly feeling would later seep into the Italian Zombie subgenre, where it no longer mattered what was happening between point A and point B, it was the experience that mattered. What’s most interesting about Deep Red is how you can see the seeds of what I’m referring to as ethereal filmmaking trying to grow in a more conventional, mystery-suspense plotline – the murders may be gory, but they weren’t necessarily targeted at exploiting women (which sadly recent Argento films are guilty of, and it’s even doubly disturbing that most of his stuff from the 90’s dealt with him putting his daughter, Asia, through horrific murder scenes).

That being said, I don’t think there is anything exploitative or misogynistic about the murders in these Argento films. They are tame in comparison to what would follow for Argento in the late 80’s as he completely dumps the idea of gialli, and implemented a more conventional, Americanized form of giallo (read: slasher film). However, with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red Argento was more interested in the psychological aspects of the genre, using the mind and pseudo-sciences to create a displacing atmosphere, an ethereal experience where everything is not what it seems. With these two film he also created his most successful giallo’s (although Deep Red seems more like a gialli); two films that when viewed one after the other are early proof of the evolution of Argento’s craft in the 70’s and 80’s.


The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) was really the transcendent film for the Italian Horror subgenre of giallo, or black-gloved-killer movies. The genre was put on the map with Mario Bava’s much homaged Bay of Blood (as well as Blood and Black Lace), which later American slasher films stole from ad nauseum (i.e. Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.). Argento’s influences obviously came from the work he did while working for Sergio Leone (Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci both wrote Once Upon a Time in the West) as he employs a healthy dosage of close-ups, snap zooms, and multiple shots of eyes darting back and forth.

The film opens with the snap shots of what we presume to be victims. Here, Argento seems to be evoking the imagery associated with the Euro-thriller at the time (think Blow-Up and films of that ilk), and the effect is neat, even though it seems superfluous. As mentioned before, Argento isn’t really interested in setting up characters, so the first key event to the film is that of the American writer who is living with his model girlfriend in Rome. His name is Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) and on the eve of him and his girlfriend leaving for home, he walks by an art gallery and sees two people struggling inside. As he approaches he notices the killer flee the scene and a women crawl towards him for help. She has been stabbed, and wants Sam to open the doors and help her. He can’t though because the doors are bulletproof, sound proof, and whatever else proof, and are operated on a timer. He realizes that the killer has locked him in between another set of doors. So all he can do is stand there and watch her plea for help. She eventually dies in front of him. It’s a tense scene that the first time director Argento handles to perfection, playing with the soundproof glass and creating an eerie moment where the victim’s screams are muted as Sam watches helplessly.

That’s your basic set up for what is a tense, near-perfect thriller considering it was made by a first time director. Like with most Argento (and giallo) pictures, the main character that happens to be the only person who may have seen the killer’s face is obsessed by the ever-elusive clue that will bring the entire jigsaw puzzle together. This almost always results in him putting himself and those he loves in danger. Argento also loves to toy with the psyche, as our hero always tries to re-imagine the murder scene (this is more prevalent in Deep Red) so that he can recall that one vital clue. With this film and with Deep Red Argento uses art, more specifically paintings, to piece the clues together. In The Bird With Crystal Plumage it's an eerie painting of a trench coat wearing murderer stabbing a woman in the park. Dalmas is obsessed with this picture, and when he pins it up on the wall of his apartment his girlfriends objects; it’s too scary for her. Argento then zooms in on the picture, and the black and white copy becomes the original colored picture as Argento pulls back and reveals the killer staring at the picture on his wall. It’s a minimal effect, but it is used brilliantly.

Argento’s control of some of the more tense scenes, not to mention the murders, is all pleasantly subdued. In one famous scene where a woman enters her apartment, the killer is waiting for her, and in what seems like is going to be a rape turns into an even more horrifying experience as the killer uses the knife to undress her, and then kill her. Argento wisely keeps his camera on a steady shot of the knife through most of this scene. The viewer is left watching the knife go down, then come back up, each time with a little bit more red on it. The scene is chilling and far more affective than if Argento would have showed us the murder. The sounds of the scream are enough, and it’s rare for a first time director to have such restraint.

There are some shots that are beautiful to look at, too. It’s always the case with Italian Horror that its directors love to juxtapose its imagery with music or content. What is beautiful to look at may be the scene of a horrific murder, or a tense scene may be scored to children’s music (this is definitely the case with Deep Red). It is also the case with most Argento films that elaborate set pieces provide a great backdrop for these images. Here Argento uses the art gallery to great effect; the clean white walls evoke the feeling of a hospital, a location where both rescue and death meet. The red juxtaposed with the white of the art gallery is a striking image, and one that Argento would rely on in subsequent films.

The film’s cinematographer was the great Vittorio Sotaro, and he loves to linger on neat looking shots for long periods of time, almost as if were looking at a painting. One scene in particular that still stands out to me is a shot towards the end of the film where Sam chases the killer into a “secret room” (I dare not reveal the secret, because the way the plots mystery resolves itself is kind of ingenious), as Sam opens the door Argento cuts to a wide shot of mostly darkness with a lighted doorway. Sotaro just lets the camera linger on Sam in silhouette. It’s a beautiful shot that is eerie and affective at creating an aura of displacement.

Argento’s film evokes themes of Psycho in the sense that Argento is very much interested in the use of pseudo-sciences in order to solve mysteries. And really, that’s what The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is more than anything, a mystery. Not a traditional Italian Horror film that we’ve come to associate with Argento. The film even has psychiatrists telling us why the killer did what they did (it reminded me of the famous line, horribly delivered by the doctor from Psycho when he says: “yes and no”). The film is incredibly restrained compared to his other works (arguably the works where he grew more assured of his abilities), and although the film is silly in its premise, it’s probably the lesser contrived of his giallo films. (Especially the super-awesome, but super-convoluted Tenebre, which followed 12 years later after a hiatus Argento took from making giallo’s). It shows a master of his craft experimenting with his style and trying to figure out what it is he wants to say with his camera instead of his script. It’s actually kind of weird to go back and see such a subdued Argento. Five years later, however, Argento would make Deep Red a film that shows the maturation of the director’s skills, and gives the viewer a looser, less subdued; ethereal; and bloodier version of his first picture.


Deep Red (1975) may very well be Argento’s masterpiece. I think I prefer Suspiria for the sheer audaciousness of that project, but as far as his one film that makes the most sense both visually and logically; it has to be Deep Red. The film, like his first feature The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is a jigsaw puzzle. And the puzzle actually makes sense. Here is a film that isn’t confusing for the sake of keeping the viewer guessing; rather, it’s a film that upon multiple viewings enriches your experience. Subsequent viewings have only made my love for the film grow. The mystery, the oddness, the puzzle; they are all so fun to go back and revisit. Here is a film where you can see Argento’s trademark style firmly stamped upon film forever – it could be said that if you’ve seen a Brian DePalma movie, then you’ve seen Deep Red.

The film opens with Goblin’s incredible soundtrack guiding us through the credits, which are then interrupted by a children's song and the shadow of a figure stabbing someone. We see the knife go up and down, and then the shadow disappears and the knife is thrown to the ground. This is followed by two feet, presumably a little girl, entering the frame and staring at the knife; there are screams in the background. The horrible act juxtaposed with the children’s music is one of the most disorienting and haunting things about the film. Argento stays in long shot throughout the entire scene, never focusing on the gruesomeness of the murder, instead wisely allowing the music to do its thing and make the viewer uneasy based on something so innocent playing while something so horrific is occurring. Argento then cuts back to the opening credits and Goblin’s score. Immediately we are displaced. As a viewer, you don’t expect to be jarred like that in the opening credit sequence. It also is a perfect example of how Italian Horror films begin. There is no studio logo to usher you in, the music starts and the credits role and you’re off. This has always added to that ethereal feeling I attribute to Italian Horror. What are we to think of a movie that just begins? The immediacy of it all, the having to brace oneself from the onset is what makes this genre so fascinating, and fun.

The film has a similar premise (as mentioned before) as The Bird With the Crystal Plumage: an innocent man, this time a British composer who has set up shop in Rome, is witness to a brutal murder. In this case our hero is Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who is standing outside of a diner and hears a woman scream, the friend Marcus is with (an important part of the story, again though, I dare not reveal its secrets) is drunk and jokes about it, proposing a toast to the screaming woman. This evokes the symbolism of Hopper’s “Nighthawks” -- isolated individuals in a big city. Argento films the two actors in front of a diner not unlike the one seen in Hopper’s famous painting. There is no entry way, and large panes of glass separate the people inside from what’s happening on the outside.

Daly’s friend seems content remaining isolated, but it is Daly’s curiosity and overall good nature that cause him to investigate the scream, upon which he finds a woman in a window being murdered. He rushes up to the apartment to investigate and thus begins Daly’s bizarre journey into the psyche of a killer.

Daly teams up with a spunky reporter Gianna (played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s wife at the time) to investigate the murder of the psychic. Daly remembers parts of the whole, as he tries to piece together the images from when he ran up to the apartment and walked through the house – a kind of funhouse lined with mirrors. As mentioned earlier, this is probably the first time Argento abandons any semblance of a linear timeline, and even though the mystery makes sense once you see all of the elements revealed, the film is like a dream upon first viewing. Daly and Gianna investigate further and find the house (the scene from the opening credits) that the killer may have lived in. Like the art gallery in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage the house in Deep Red is one of those Argento set pieces that is truly magnificent to look at. It contains one of the big secrets of the film, and Argento has a lot of fun filming some traditional Gothic style horror scenes within the house. It’s one of the most eerie set pieces in any Italian Horror film.

Argento has a lot of fun in Deep Red. One of his favorite toys (aside from having Goblin’s score to play with) is his use of a macro lens. Early on in the film we are introduced to the killer and their array of children’s toys, dolls, and various objects that lead us to believe the eerie opening to the film was the killer’s memory. There are series of image (mostly evil) followed by the close-up of an eye and the killer (we presume) putting on mascera. Argento succeeds at making this stuff creepy as hell, but this is also the first evidence of Argento thinking something would look creepy so he put it in his film, there may be clues there, but I think here the importance of the effect of the image was more important to Argento than the purpose of the image.

There is another scene that is evident of this when Daly’s friend is helping him investigate the murder. He is at his office after he has discovered some crucial clues from a murder scene. The camera switches to the classic giallo POV as we are now outside the office looking in. Then a figure bursts through the doors, and it’s nothing more than dummy. The scene is amazingly affective – it’s unsettling and eerie – really though the scene is nothing more than a reminder of the killer’s affinity for child’s play. Which we have seen numerous times thanks to Argento’s call backs to the toys that he shoots with the macro lens. Of course such a bizarre scene exists to scare us, displace us, and distract the characters in the movie so that the real killer can, of course, sneak up behind him and kill him.

Argento is seriously interested in psychics, too. The murder of a famous psychic (or medium) is the catalyst for Daly’s descent into the unknown. This coincides with Argento’s love of the pseudo-sciences found in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and it is here that the similarities between the two become much clearer. Both films involve innocent bystanders getting involved in a mystery that puts them and their loved ones in danger. They both also deal with the idea of the hero trying to remember exactly what happened on the night of the murder. In both films the heroes try their hardest to remember details about the murder, and they both have to return to the place where it all began in order to fully understand the mystery. And of course as is the case with any horror movie, nothing is what it seems, and when a killer is caught or killed by the police, it is almost never the case.

Argento also loves to paint his film in red. Keeping with the psychological aspect of Argento’s films, this is an interesting ironical flip as red, psychologically speaking, is usually associated with confidence – a sense of protection from fears and anxiety. It also encourages action and stimulates energy. We get the opposite in a film entitled Deep Red, we are ensconced as viewers in colors that are supposed put us at ease, but they also stimulate action. Daly’s investigation into the murders and what he finds (especially when he runs across a caretaker and his daughter who seems to be a medium also, who lead him to the house with all the important information) is an apt representation of what red means. Like Daly, we are anxious about what lies in that house and behind that wall inside the house; however, we don’t feel safe, ever.

The film ends in another amazing set piece: an abandoned school. There’s just something disorienting about an abandoned school. This is also where Argento lays it on thick with the nonsensical editing techniques. One of the staples of Italian Horror is to use quick jump cuts that disorient and cause the viewer to do a double take. Often times you want to rewind because you think you missed something, and other times you are just left wondering: did I just see that?

The film ends in red. Lots of it. It has one of the most surprising, innovative deaths I’ve seen in a horror film. It also just ends. Unlike The Bird With the Crystal Plumage where Argento was obviously interested in doing what Hitchcock did in Psycho and having psychiatrists explaining things, there doesn’t seem to be a traditional explanation in Deep Red. The proof is in the final image: Deep Red is an experience as the final shot of the credits remind us how we’ve spent the last two hours.

Even though Deep Red is the first film where Argento implements his ethereal style of filmmaking that is now associated with Italian Horror, it is also a clever murder mystery that ingeniously reveals all of its clues in unconventional ways (specifically a scene where the killer murders a woman by sticking her face in boiling hot water from a bath tub, when the woman is dying she writes something on the glass wall of her bathroom. The way the word is revealed later to Daly’s friend is surprisingly not contrived). It shows a director more in control of his set pieces, his camera, and his gore. The film is bloody and gruesome, but again, not exploitive like his later films in the 90’s.

It’s an otherworldly experience watching Deep Red and certainly is a prime example of Italian Horror as high art. In both films the witnesses see the murder through long shot. Argetno and other Italian directors love their long shots because they create uncertainty. How can we be so sure of what we saw if we were so far away from it? In both of the Argento films discussed here, that is one of the key stylistic elements that has been found throughout Italian Horror post-Deep Red.

And that’s Argento’s major contribution to the genre: American Horror films seek to disorient the viewer through claustrophobia (shaky-cam and close ups) and nihilism (think of American horror like Texas Chainsaw Massacre), where Italian Horror seeks to disorient through bizarre images, dream-like atmosphere, and murders witnessed through long shots. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red are essentially the same film, and it’s interesting to see what Argento did in 1970 with his first feature, and then five years later was able to master with Deep Red. It shows the incredible skill and influence he had not only on the subgenre of giallo film, but also on American filmmakers like Brian DePalma who has used Argento’s tricks in numerous films like The Untouchables, Raising Cain, and Femme Fatale.


It’s interesting revisiting these early Argento films as just a few years after Deep Red he would abandon the giallo for more supernatural pictures, plots and themes (and definitely style) that have their roots in Deep Red. With his “Three Mothers” trilogy (specifically Suspiria and Inferno) Argento threw down the gauntlet and claimed that the horror genre could be visual poetry. Suspiria contains one of the most gruesome deaths in film history, and yet it is shot with the beauty and poetic style of a Malick film. In the 80’s Argento returned to the more traditional style of Italian Horror he helped put on the map when he made Tenebre and Opera; the latter which he called a “horrible” filming experience, although it remains an influential piece of horror cinema, unfortunately it paved the way for the Hostel’s of the world.

Argento is an intriguing figure in film history. His recent slate of films is damning proof that he has indeed “lost it”. His films are more and more relying on the shock of gore to get his name mentioned as he seems to have abandoned all sense of style and atmosphere. I don’t know if he could have survived though, because in reality Italian Horror died in the early 90’s with Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man. The genre worked best in the 70’s and 80’s and it seemed like it was doomed to move beyond those decades with the move to digital video and straight to DVD releases. However, Argento has left us these two early masterpieces to ponder his brilliance. His importance and influence in the film world cannot be denied, and these films certainly make the Italian Horror buff long for the glory days.