I went on a tear over the holiday break and watched a bunch of stuff, mostly giallo.
Opera: I haven’t seen Opera in about ten years. I remember not loving it at the time, but it’s always stuck with me, and most of Argento’s other work pales in comparison for me (I like Suspiria but it never hooked me like it seems to have for so many.) Argento movies function sort of like musicals (or porn) where there’s a series of set pieces strung together with a story solely designed to move us along. The nonstop camera movements and atmosphere here make for the best exposition scenes for me in any of his movies that I’ve seen, along with the kills being top notch. What draws me to giallo movies are their dream-like magical realism quality, and this is fantastically haunting in the same way Fulci’s House By the Cemetery is for me. It’s also very self effacing, with a major element of the story being about a self-indulgent horror filmmaker trying to achieve mainstream acclaim by making bold, exorbitant production choices. I’m always a sucker for a lurking killer in a theater (so much so that I watched another similar movie shortly after this.) It’s hard to believe after making the single best Phantom of the Opera takeoff that Argento made such an awful Phantom movie with Julian Sands a decade later.
Tenebrae: This was my favorite of the Argentos I watched for the first time. Beautiful, unseemly, absurd. Anthony Franciosa has that effete middle aged man swagger that made Elliot Gould and George Segal stars. He’s one of the most engaging leads in any of Argento’s movies; I’m sure it helps that he speaks English and doesn’t require the overdubbing. Plus, he has John Saxon as a scene partner (Saxon returns in another somehow more insane movie I watched later.) Daria Nicolodi is lovely and has a quality that grounds a lot of Argento’s work in something approaching reality. The scene where a woman is chased by a wild dog until she seeks shelter in the worst possible place is perfect. It has a really great ending punctuated by one of Goblin’s sickest scores.
Cat o’ Nine Tails: I think this is the earliest Argento I’ve seen. It plays a bit more like a 70s paranoid thriller whodunit than what would later be known as slashers. Karl Malden as the blind protagonist is the opposite of Franciosa in Tenebrae; I don’t know if it was the Tower of Babel shooting style throwing him or he was just trying to match energies with his costars, but he’s very odd. There are plenty of Argento staples here: 70s pseudoscience, child waif orphans in danger, amateur sleuth’s interfering with murder investigations, etc. Not bad by any means, but not my favorite.
Inferno: This was the weakest of the Argentos I watched. I love the idea of the Three Mothers and a trilogy about each of the coven headquarters, but in practice this one didn’t do much for me. I think I prefer his slashers that sometimes hint at the supernatural more than his witch movies (I haven’t seen Mother of Tears yet, but I doubt I’m missing much.) The performances here are more stilted than the eerie or funny ones in the other movies I watched, and even most of the kills don’t do much for me. Pretty underwhelming ending as well.
Lords of Salem: I was on enough of a witchcraft kick that I revisited this for the first time since seeing it in a theater and I liked it more this time. One reason is that I visited Salem on an awesome trip last year, and seeing the location shots of places I was familiar with was fun. It’s a mood piece more than a structured story, and Rob Zombie really goes for it with the atmospheric horror. My two biggest criticisms from initially seeing it stand: the little Devil guy needed a creepier character design, and it was a mistake to give the main character (a totally game Sheri Moon) almost no dialogue for the last the third of the movie.
Stage Fright: I’ve been circling this one since I saw the Blue Underground trailer a few years ago. The premise of a psycho imprinting himself on a ballet dancer because she sought treatment for a sprained ankle at an insane asylum is so funny. The birds head mask is cool, there are some great kills, and a pretty spectacular climax and closing scene. It’s campy and grotesque fun, which is all I can really ask for from this kind of picture.
Nosferatu the Vampyre: I did not expect to see my favorite Dracula movie at this stage in my life, but here we are. Werner Herzog’s gorgeous and poetic remake of the Murnau silent classic gets to use the character names from the Stoker book as they’d recently entered the public domain. Herzog pays tribute to the Murnau film and the Dracula films that followed it while finding his own way to approach the material. The opening scenes are lovely and serene. The brilliant Bruno Ganz and the otherworldly Martje Grohmann are the best Harker and Mina. They’re more mature than in other versions, already married, and they’re love feels genuine. I love Ganz’s journey to the castle; the beauty of the natural world dissipates into a dour, hellish, nightmare. Klaus Kinksi’s Dracula isn’t a suave sexy aristocrat or a demonic harbinger of doom like Count Orlok. He’s a man trapped inside a rodent-like body who’s minimal supernatural powers hardly diminish his absolute misery and ennui. Even being able to control the minds of the Renfields of the world has become a burden and he greets his slave with bored contempt. The way the plague subplot is explored really hits different these days. The deviation from the source materials’ endings is a welcome bleak twist that I didn’t see coming. I’m not going to go overboard on the Kinski praise since it seems he was a real life monster. I am perversely curious about the awful looking unlicensed pseudo-sequel Vampire in Venice. It’s on Shudder so I’ll check it out eventually.
Church: Another picture from Stage Fright director Michele Soavi. I was mostly intrigued by this one because it had begun production as Demons 3 before being reshaped into a new story. Everything feels ill defined, the movie can’t make up its mind about who’s the protagonist, and it feels like they struggled with practical effects budget. It has an early performance from Asia Argento shortly before she became a frequent collaborator with her father. one thing going for it is that it has an all timer priest kill, which covers a lot of ground in horror movies.
Hellmaster: I may have seen this twenty years ago or I’ve just seen a ton of clips of it over the years. This is a bewildering movie that can’t make up its mind about whether it’s a slasher, sci-fi horror, or religious allegory. It takes place on a sparsely populated college campus where everyone is a philosophy major (I think.) We get brutally performed poorly written dialogue involving some philosophical concepts (although the way the objectivist bully eats it after discovering maybe survival of the fittest isn’t where it’s at is pretty good.) John Saxon is the villain, although his government experiment mutant hellspawn are the primary anfagonists. The mutant from the vhs cover is about as close to both Freddy and Pinhead as they could’ve gotten without getting sued. Saxon seems to have filmed nearly all of his scenes in the same room in one day by himself. It hardly ever looks like he’s actually sharing space with the other actors. Dawn of the Dead’s David Emge plays a reporter (I thought he was a professor but Wikipedia says otherwise) out for revenge against Saxon. Wikipedia also says one of the protagonists had psychic powers and I have no recollection of that. Yikes. There’s an insanely abelist character on forearm crutches that has a self pitying breakdown and yells at a woman who just watched her boyfriend get murdered because she won’t date him. Not worth really delving into more, it’s just bad.
Audition: I haven’t watched this in about 15 years. Still holds up. I wouldn’t say I didn’t “get it” when I saw it in my early twenties, (I understood it as a relationship movie using a horror framework) but I don’t think I realized the double meaning of the title. Asami passes Aoyama’s audition but he doesn’t pass hers. There’s a lot about the male gaze and its affects on relationship dynamics, especially during Aoyama’s unconscious vision at the end featuring all of the women in his life.
I also just started Yellowjackets, so I’m looking forward to reading @J.T.’s posts when I’m caught up.