Posts Tagged ‘italian giallo’

Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder

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Inferno (1980)

By now, at least some of you will be aware that I’m a nascent fan of Italian giallo. While my experience of it is not massive, my adoration at least for Bava and Argento is real and passionate. So of course I could not let an October pass by without getting at least one more Argento film under my belt. This time it’s Inferno, a quasi-sequel to Suspiria that takes that film’s nightmarish quality and tries to raise it by half.

Inferno involves musicologist Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student in Rome who heads to New York City when his sister Rose (Irene Miracle) mysteriously vanishes from her haunted apartment building. Rose had recently grown obsessed with a book called The Three Mothers that she obtained from the antiques dealer next door – a book that supposedly reveals the locations of three forces of evil, who live in Rome, Freiburg, and New York, in houses built for them by the architect Varelli. Mark attempts to solve the riddle of the three, and find out what has become of his sister.

This being an Argento film, the plot is simple but the film itself is complex and full of plot holes – some of which the director doesn’t really care about filling. What he does care about, and what this film has in spades, is stylish murder, bizarre music, and freaky set-pieces that combine art house aesthetics with exploitation film structure. No one quite put these elements together like Argento did, and if Inferno doesn’t hit the high points of Suspiria, it comes dangerously close.

Murders there are a-plenty, though Inferno, like its sister film, does take its time in setting up the suspense and horror before actually getting down to the bright red blood and terrifying acts of violence. It aspires to the same fever dream aesthetics as Suspiria, featuring art deco apartments within Gothic settings, reds, blues, and yellows vibrant against inky blacks. Much can be written, and probably has been, about the juxtaposition of confusing plotting, art house aesthetics, and brutal murders within Argento’s oeuvre, and Inferno is an excellent example of the combination of the schlocky, the extreme, and the brilliantly artistic that so characterizes his films. The murders, when they come, are horrible artistic acts, with grasping hands, knives slicing through throats, and one epically disturbing death involving rats.

Inferno doesn’t quite live up to Suspiria, though, as it lacks the latter film’s malevolent energy and sense of claustrophobia. Inferno could have done with keeping its focus on that apartment building, constructing the suspense from that, rather than the somewhat haphazard jumping between locations. The movement between New York and Rome gets confusing – as do the reasons behind the killings – and the film only really gains momentum when it embeds our hero (and several heroines) in their apartments and labyrinthine corridors, stalked by an apparently supernatural killer. Yet some of its set-pieces – like an underwater sequence that leaves you breathless – are brilliant and audacious, even if they feel ultimately nonsensical.

Of course, the point of an Argento film is never to make sense. In his best work, he achieves a dream logic that falls apart if interrogated too closely. He constructs art house nightmares, terrifying without quite putting a label on why. It’s always hard to find precise logic in an Argento film, and futile to try with Inferno. Just let the horrors wash over you.

A Bay Of Blood (1971)

How did I make it this far into October without watching a Bava film? And how have I managed to not see his most controversial, and probably most influential, work of complete bloody mayhem? For shame, Lauren. For shame.

A Bay of Blood is Mario Bava’s bloodsoaked entry into the slasher genre and, unlike some of his more polished films, jumps from one murder to another with reckless abandon. The plot, such as it is, encompasses the murder of an elderly countess by her husband, who is in turn murdered by an unknown killer. That starts the ball rolling, as a series of people show up at the bayside community where Countess Frederica (Isa Miranda) was killed, many of them with a vested interest in the deceased countess’s property. They’re systematically murdered by one or more killers, rising to a convoluted denouement that explains everything but isn’t nearly as fun as the carnage that has come before.

A Bay of Blood contains all of the set pieces we’ve come to associate with the slasher genre, each of them increasing in brutality to the point of absurdism, featuring a smorgasbord of character types introduced just so they can be mercilessly slaughtered. There’s the relatively innocent hippies who come to the bay for a sex/dance party, and are subjected to the film’s best murders. There are the less innocent real estate developers, the countess’s apparent heirs, and the weird couple who live on the bay and get caught up in the proceedings. Whether intentional or not, there’s a delightful absurdity to the plotting of A Bay of Blood, with motivations both convoluted and mundane. Something that I continue to enjoy about Bava is that his films have a self-evident sense of humor, a nasty enjoyment of their own violence, and acknowledgment that, yeah, we’re all here to see unpleasant people being disemboweled. And A Bay of Blood provides all of those, without apology and without remorse.

It’s quite obvious how influential A Bay of Blood was on the horror genre in general, and on slasher films in particular. The blood explodes off the screen in a shower of lurid red, totally unbelievable and marvelously entertaining. The seventies decor of the bayside cottages only contribute to a sense of the ludicrous and the grotesque, as the camera weaves among shag carpets and art deco lamps to zero in on someone brandishing an ax, and someone else losing their head in extreme close-up. Bava’s aesthetics define giallo and pop up in more polished genre films like Argento’s Deep Red, but unlike many influential films, A Bay of Blood is not unpleasant in its gleeful enjoyment of murder. This is Grande Guignol, this is opera, this is Jacobean revenge tragedy. This is bloody melodrama. It’s all a bit silly, but that’s the fun of it.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

Evil Eye (1963)

*Evil Eye is available to stream on Shudder.

the-evil-eye

Continuing my probably unhealthy love affair with the films of Mario Bava: Evil Eye, Bava’s 1963 film that combines psychological horror, sexploitation, and some stylized horror to become the first true giallo. The Italian title is La ragazza che sapeva troppo, or: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and that actually makes more sense than the American title tacked on, I suppose, to give the film more supernatural horror credentials that it doesn’t really have. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is very much in keeping with the film’s underlying satire on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is referenced a few times with tongue quite firmly in cheek.

Evil Eye opens with Nora Davis (Letícia Román) traveling to visit her ailing aunt in Rome. Nora’s obsessed with murder mysteries, turning her life into a romanticized pulp novel. After a rather nightmarish experience at the airport, she arrives at her aunt’s house to find the old lady seriously ill in bed, attended by the good-looking doctor Marcello (John Saxon). During a terrible storm that night, the phone and electricity flickers out just as Nora’s aunt goes into cardiac arrest, leading Nora on a desperate run through the rain down the Spanish steps to contact Marcello at the hospital. She’s mugged and knocked out, and awakens just in time to witness the violent stabbing of a young woman.

Nora spends the next few weeks going in and out of consciousness, attended by the kindly Marcello, who tells her that there was no murder victim: she must have been hallucinating. More or less recovered but still convinced that she witnessed a death, Nora attends her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a friend who lives in the Piazza di Spagna, right where the murder occurred. Rather than cutting Nora’s trip to Italy short, Laura offers to let the young American stay in her house. A series of somewhat confused events prompt Nora to believe that she’s still being pursued by the shadowy murderer she saw the night of the storm. She enlists Marcello’s help in tracking down the killer and possibly saving her life.

evil-eye-giallo

Evil Eye certainly earns its title as the first giallo – not overly bloody, it’s still a bizarre, nightmarish film, full of extreme emotions and stylized cinematography. The imagery emphasizes the psycho-sexual pulp of the details while not being fussed with developing a particularly coherent plot. The film wanders from point to point, introducing weird characters – like a doctor who convinces Nora that she has second sight – who suddenly vanish. Nora’s parade of bizarre experiences have a comedic edge to them, as Bava proves himself aware that this story is really just a ridiculous piece of camp.

The humor is the most unnerving element in Evil Eye. Nora’s hysterical terror is played partially for laughs, as in a scene where she prepares an elaborate trap to catch the killer. She’s also quite right to be scared, as the viewer knows, but Bava punctures some of his own stylization by calling attention to just how silly it all really is. Evil Eye, like Black Sabbath, bears more than passing resemblance to Corman films of the same era, taking the terror seriously while simultaneously allowing the audience to delight in the camp.

Evil Eye is a bit boring spots, especially the transition between Nora witnessing the murder and becoming convinced that she’s actually in danger. The secondary romance with Marcello, while amusing, takes up too much time, as do the pair’s endless investigations into the possibility that Nora actually had a vision of a murder that occurred ten years ago. The meandering, dream-like nature of the film might place it in the giallo tradition (anyone who has watched enough Argento knows that those films aren’t exactly coherent), but unfortunately that doesn’t make it altogether interesting.

I was told that Evil Eye was secondary Bava, and I’ll certainly go along with that assessment. While interesting for those of us who want to trace the foundations of Italian horror traditions, it’s not compelling enough to warrant a second viewing. Still, the combination of humor and the horror is so weird that I found myself giggling about the film long after I’d finished it. That’s as good a recommendation as any.

Evil Eye is streaming on Shudder, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

Black Sunday (1960)

black-sunday

Mario Bava is another one of those classic horror filmmakers whose work I have (unforgivably) managed to miss. Considered the grand-daddy of Italian giallo – and one of the most influential of Italian horror artists – Bava married Corman-esque gothic sensibilities with more extreme (for 1960) horror gore. Black Sunday was one of his biggest critical and popular successes, and remains a touchstone for horror filmmakers to this day.

Black Sunday features Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful vampire/witch sentenced to death by her own brother. Following the execution of her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), Asa vows vengeance on her brother’s descendants, right before a devil’s mask studded with spikes is pounded into her flesh (the original title of the film was The Mask of Satan). Two hundred years later, we meet the descendants of the cursed family: Katia (Steele again), her father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). They become acquainted with two traveling doctors who stumble upon Asa’s tomb one stormy afternoon. Investigating the crypt, the elder doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) accidentally awakens Asa after cutting his hand and dripping blood on her corpse. This sets off a chain of events as Asa attempts to take back her life – and her beauty – while wreaking horrible vengeance on her descendants.

Black Sunday is very similar to a 60s Corman film, down to the involvement of Steele (who appeared in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum one year later), the gothic trappings, and the use of more gruesome violence than we expect from a black and white horror movie. Corpses ooze pus and blood, masks are nailed into living flesh, and witches are burned alive. While the black and white takes away some of the impact, the chiaroscuro is so deep and pulsating that it makes up for the lack of lurid splashes of red and green. The opening execution in particular is perfect horror filmmaking, the camera unflinching in documenting all the nastiness. In some ways, Black Sunday more closely approximates the weird sadism of 18th and 19th Century sensationalist literature than do the more sanitized versions of Frankenstein and Dracula produced by Universal.

Black Sunday fits right into the context of the horror films made by Corman in America and Hammer Studios in England, becoming a precursor to the far nastier films made by Dario Argento and Bava himself. And it’s a good film, if read in that context. But, Black Sunday misses the key ingredient that Corman managed with his Poe adaptations by failing to hire even one competent male actor as a lead. Vincent Price made Corman’s films wild-eyed and palatable, chewing the scenery with such loving gusto that one wants to enjoy the luridness just as much as he does. Neither the romantic lead John Richardson, playing the young doctor Andre, nor the actors in the villainous roles are of any real note. Steele is the real draw here, but a girl can only do so much.

Black Sunday is a perfectly enjoyable horror film. Does it make much sense? No. Is the acting all that great? Not really. But there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Black Sunday is available to stream on Shudder.