As I wrap up my #31DaysOfHorror, I'm getting to some interesting things indeed. I'm a big fan of Dario Argento, but it's really just been for Phenomena and Suspiria, two incredibly beautiful Italian horror movies. I discovered Suspiria in high school and it changed my life, the way a handful of horror movies have. However, up until this month, those were the only Argento movies I'd seen. That felt shameful (rightfully so), and so this month I've really been taking the opportunity to step up my Argento game. Earlier this month, I caught up on my old Dario Argento gialli, with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o' Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Today, I'll talk about three more of his movies that I watched this month: Profondo Rosso, Inferno, and Tenebre. I've now seen everything he directed up through 1985, but I'm leaving a few unwatched at this point; word on the street is that there are a few more good ones, and then a great big pile of schlock. Anyway, the three I watched were all pretty good. Let's go from newest to oldest (which also happens to be least to best).
Although I referred to this movie one sentence ago as the "least" of the three, that doesn't mean this wasn't a good movie. It's a gripping story, full of murders, twists, and turns; the blood flows tempera-red and plentiful. An American horror author, Peter Neal, comes to Rome, which has been racked with a few murders. The murderer's most recent victim was found with pages from the author's most recent novel stuffed into her mouth. The murderer himself calls Neal and threatens him.
Argento had this to say about the basis for the movie:
[S]omebody called me... to talk about Suspiria... [and] called again the next day to ask if he could meet me. He confessed that Suspiria had made a very strong impression on him, like a jolt of electricity, and he wanted to ask me if making the film had given me the same sensations. That put me on my guard. Day after day he called me to confide more and more horrible things and, at the end of the fifteenth call, he told me that he wanted to kill me. He was insane... He swore he would have my skin.
This movie is incredibly deliberate in its construction and progression. Every character serves multiple purposes; each societal role is fulfilled by more than one character, and each character fulfills at least two societal roles.
Ideally, I'd have time to watch this again and do a more thorough deconstruction (and maybe at some point I will), but it's already the 30th, and I have two more movies to watch, and two more movies to discuss in this blog post.
Here's an image of a dude getting an axe to the skull.
I didn't include any animated gifs for Tenebre because I wanted to maintain at least some semblance of brevity while still discussing three films, but there are a number of choices, had I gone that route; there are a number of incredibly shocking and beautiful death scenes, and a single two-and-a-half-minute uncut crane shot that circles and swoops around the outside of a house. A two-and-a-half-minute animated gif would break the internets, so I'll just put a YouTube link here.
Four out of five stars.
Of the three, this is the movie that I was the most looking forward to watching. The direct follow-up to Suspiria, this is the second movie in Argento's proposed "Three Mothers" trilogy (the last movie, The Third Mother, came out more than a quarter-century later, in '07, and I have not seen it). Additionally, it's one of only two of Argento's pre-1990 ventures into supernatural horror (the other being Suspiria), although I'd make an argument for Phenomena as well.
The world of the three mothers has its own, Argento-built mythology, which is itself based on a tiny scrap of feverish, opium-addled writing by Thomas De Quincey. There are three mothers-- Maters Lachrymarum (tears), Suspiriorum (sighs), and Tenebrarum (darkness). Each of them has a horrible, evil house in which they dwell, and from whence they spread suffering and sadness. In Suspiria, the antagonist was Mater Suspiriorum; in Inferno, it's Mater Tenebrarum, who occupies a massive, odd apartment building in New York City.
Rose, a poetess, finds a book about the three mothers, and pieces together that she is living in one of the mothers' houses; that screenshot at the top of this blog entry is from her initial discovery. She writers a letter to her cousin Mark in Rome, asking him for help. He tries to read it in his music class, but is distracted by this daffy broad staring at him:
Mark leaves the letter behind and bails. The letter is found by a friend of his, Sara; she reads the letter, is alarmed, and tries to express this to Mark. Eventually, he makes his way to New York, to aid Rose.
By the time he makes it there, a whole lot of people are already dead, caught in various nightmarish scenarios.
Once in the building, he befriends another resident, and the owner of the pawn shop next door, but his path is already beset and plagued by Mater Tenebrarum. The rest of the movie plays out beautifully. While it lacks the supersaturated color of Suspiria, the set pieces retain their creepy beauty, and the fairy-tale, dreamlike logic of the film follows its predecessor masterfully. All of this was helped by the fact that Argento had Mario Bava on hand to handle a fair amount of the special effects and matte work. Two masters at their craft, creating a gorgeous nightmare.
Four and a half out of five stars.
Profondo Rosso (1975)
This is the one of the three that I was most curious about. It had always been held up as one of his masterpieces; my friend Jay maintains that it's his favorite, even over Suspiria, which made me question his taste altogether. Alternately, I had hoped that he'd be right. Although I've thoroughly enjoyed all of the other Argento movies I've seen, nothing comes close to Suspiria. Well, after watching it, I can understand Jay's point completely. The movie is beautiful, it's really well acted, the sets are outstanding, and the plotting is tight.
Nothing can touch Suspiria, but this comes the closest of all the Argento movies I've seen.
The movie's about an Marcus, an English piano teacher in Turin. While walking home, he can see her from the street, banging on the window and screaming for help. As he watches, unable to provide assistance, her attacker forces her halfway through the window, where she lands neck-first on the jagged broken pane. Marcus rushes up to provide assistance, but it's... too late.
Haunted by the murder, and certain that he holds the key to the identity of the murder in his memories of rushing up to the apartment, Marcus begins to investigate alongside the police. A number of people meet their ends in various beautifully horrifying ways: a woman is scalded to death in a hot bath. A man has his face-- his teeth, really-- bashed into various pieces of furniture until he's senseless, at which point he's given the coup de grace.
These death scenes are pretty rough, man.
The movie uses a number of interstitial flashbacks and dreamlike sequences to masterful effect-- there was an inciting incident years in the past, involving a small child who may or may not have grown up to become the murderer, and a number of low-and-slow pans over childrens' toys and other objects.
Eventually, through convoluted research methods, Marcus tracks the killer to an old abandoned villa, and tracks a killer-- and is tracked in turn-- through a darkened and beautiful shambles.
Eventually, things boil to a head.
This movie is fucking great.
Five out of five stars.
I watched The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Sergio Martino's first film. It's a murdery mystery giallo about a lady with a weird blood fetish. She's since married respectably, but then her old bloody lover shows up and she gets scared, so she decides to embark on a new affair with a square-jawed fellow, because of course she does. Also, there's a razor murderer on the loose, and people around her start dying.
It's a fairly odd entry in the giallo annals. The plot is surprisingly convoluted, with a lot of characters to keep track of, a number of pretty great death scenes, a huge locale change halfway through, and then a very twisty-turny (but great) ending. This movie stars Edwige Fenech as Julia Wardh. Fenech is a mainstay of gialli from this period, and it's easy to see why-- she is beautiful. The problem is that she can't really act very convincingly. She's good at expressing turmoil and anguish, and that's about it.
The standout in this film for me was Ivan Rassimov, who plays her old flame, Jean.
Here's an interesting side note. For all of the Italian horror movies I've watched this month, I've preferred to watch them in the original Italian, with English subtitles. For this one, technical problems precluded the inclusion of the subtitles, and I watched it with the English dubbing in place-- and then when I took the screenshots, I included the subtitles (different device, no technical problems). It led to this interesting little tidbit. In the above screenshot, Julie Wardh is at the police station, confronting Jean. She expresses her negative feelings toward him, and that's part of his response.
However, the reason I wanted to include it at all was because the line as delivered was pretty incredible. The dubbing was actually better written than the subbing. Here's the dubbed version, preceded by Julie telling Jean, "I loathe you."
The only thing I cannot bear is indifference. Your best emotion is violent, raging hatred. Love is nothing compared to that.
And here's the subbed version, preceded by Julie telling Jean, "I hate you."
The only thing I can't stand is indifference. Hate is a good feeling, it's fiery and violent; like love, only more so.
Weird, right? I wish I spoke Italian, so I could actually take a listen to the original and compare it to both translations.
This is a weird-ass movie, man. I don't know how I keep stumbling into these bizarro S&M gialli; eroticism (and gratuitous nudity) is a hallmark of the genre, but this one, coming on the heels of The Whip and the Body, takes it to some weird places. The two follow similar trajectories, for their female leads: in both cases, the ladies have moved on, remarried, and attempted to leave their (perceived-as) troubled pasts behind them; in both cases, they get drawn back into their perversions, unable to resist that intractable fetishism.
And hoo boy, that fetishism.
This particular gif comes from a dream sequence, but it's fairly representative of the domination-driven sex scenes in this flick. In fact, it's fairly tame, in comparison with others. A flashback shows us another instance of Julia and Jean getting freaky, only this time he breaks a wine bottle first, flinging the shards onto her; then he falls on top of her and they do the deed whilst grinding the broken glass between their writhing forms.
Holy balls, man.
Another thing this movie does pretty well is provide arresting visuals. Not great, but better than good. The dream sequences are filmed in a sort of gauze fisheye style; the long shots are filmed with a great eye and scope; the action sequences are gripping and well choreographed.
The soundtrack is also pretty good. Tarantino took chunks of it for Kill Bill vol. 2.
So. What are my thoughts on this movie overall? I didn't hate it, but I couldn't quite bring myself to love it. I guess you could say I thought it was...
So, here's a thing about me: I love rock 'n' roll horror movies. I love them. I can't get enough of them. They can be amazing (like Black Roses or Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare). They can be awful (like Slaughterhouse Rock, co-starring Toni Basil, or Dead Girls). Mostly, they're mediocre (like Paganini Horror, or Lone Wolf, or Deadline, or... well, most of the rest of them). If it's a horror movie and there's a rock band in it, I'll watch it.
The thing about rock 'n' roll horror movies is that they really peaked in the 1980s. The right-wing majority was decrying the moral turpitude of that hard rock music, Metallica and Judas Priest were incorporating backwards-masked satanic messages, and there was a fear and misunderstanding around rock 'n' roll that allowed filmmakers to really easily import the trappings wholesale and base a horror movie around them. Plus, you know, mad style. Leather! Studs! Spikes! Makeup!
Because they peaked in the 1980s, there haven't been a lot of really good rock 'n' roll horror movies that have come out since then-- there were a handful in the 1990s, some of which were decent, and then about a baker's dozen since the turn of the century. (Full disclosure, here-- I have most of them, but I haven't watched them. I'm talking about Suck, Neowolf, Reverb, Studio 666, 13 Seconds, and other movies of their ilk. I haven't watched them because 1) I'm pretty sure they're going to be terrible; and 2) I don't want to watch a terrible rock 'n' roll horror movie unless I'm with someone who will also enjoy a terrible rock 'n' roll horror movie (probably with a couple of beers).
Anyway. I'm delighted to say that there's a new, modern entry in the rock 'n' roll horror canon, and it's a masterpiece. That movie is Deathgasm, a New Zealand comedy-horror flick about a couple of metalhead teenagers who summon a demon. So, yes, double-whammy: rock 'n' roll horror AND a Kiwi comedy-splatter flick.
It's pretty magical.
I don't really need to explain the plot to you. Teen metalheads summon demon, must try to banish demon before extinction of earth. There's some surrounding set dressing and frippery, but no one's watching this movie for the plot. They're watching it for the performances, the special effects (gore and demons), the humor, and the metal.
And hoo boy, does it deliver.
The titular heavy metal band is a group of angry surly high-school-aged kids. Whoever did the casting here did an amazing job-- the bassist and guitarist look like every metalhead I knew in junior high and high school-- one hulking angry dude, one skinny frenetic dude. The keyboardist is the nerdy bespectacled kid, and the drummer is the chubby one. They nail that stereotypical / archetypical High School Metal Band aesthetic. The main character gets a crush on a popular girl, who reciprocates-- at which point, Bill said "They even have the popular girl who lets her freak flag fly!"
Beyond the acting, there's a pretty good plot point revolving around a specific bit of weird bullshit high-school drama, which causes a bit of a rift in the band-- and the bit of drama is exactly the kind of drama that I saw happen in multiple high school and college bands.
These guys absolutely nail the dynamics and characteristics of teenage bands.
Also, it's hilarious on many levels.
When they can't find other weapons to use against the demons, they come out swingin' pipe like this (and a string of anal beads).
The antagonist is an honest-to-goodness satanist who wants to summon the demon for his own ends, and who employs a number of idiotic cultists, who can't manage to get anything right. They behead a fellow on a really nice rug, for instance:
And that isn't even the funniest part of that particular beheading scene.
This movie even has a bit of poignancy, albeit wry, smirking poignancy.
Also, it's metal as fuck.
This movie, upon its emergence, has taken a rightful place in Keef's Top Five Rock 'n' Roll Horror Movies of All Time. If you like super-goofy Kiwi splatter horror, you probably also like rock 'n' roll horror, and you should shell out for this movie.
I've continued my streak of new movies with Cooties, which came out last month in theaters and VOD. I first heard about it nearly two years ago, when it was prepping for Sundance, so I've been waiting for a while-- thankfully, it was worth the wait.
The basis plot is this: tainted chicken nuggets are fed to a child at a school, who then becomes a murderous rampaging cannibalistic monster-demon. She spreads the disease to other children, who then all eat the adults. The movie follows a group of teachers as they try to avoid being eaten, and escape the hordes of tiny murder-cannibals.
The cast of teachers is incredible. Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, and Leigh Whannell. Elijah Wood plays a substitute teacher who's moved back in with his mom to work on his book (a terrible possessed-boat horror novel called Keel Them All). Alison Pill is charming and fantastic, fully justifying the fact that I've been kind-of in love with her since Scott Pilgrim. Rainn Wilson is absolutely hilarious as the PE teacher, and Nasim Pedrad is great as the conservative weirdo.
Truly, however, the standout for me was Leigh Whannell. Known primarily as a writer-- he wrote the first three Saw movies, Dead Silence, Insidious, et cetera, but he can actually act. In Cooties, he plays the science teacher, Doug, who had a traumatic brain injury as a child, and now lacks any social skills, leading him to make a whole bunch of weird honest blurtings that offset the potential terror. For example, after a heart-wrenching and meaningful monologue from another character, Doug says "I always wanted to have sex with a prostitute who was non-white."
When Elijah Wood's character gets attacked by a murderous child:
This is only part of what he hollers during that scene. Other tidbits: "He's gonna bite your face!" and "You'll look like that chimp woman!"
Whannell and Rainn Wilson steal the show. I watched this with Bill, and when I commented about how impressed I was with Wilson's acting, Bill said, "Yeah, I really like him when he gets to not be Dwight."
I should note also that I tried to watch this once before, at dinner time, and got about three minutes into it before needing to stop. The first three minutes are a straight-up disgust-fest taking place in a chicken factory farm, as the audience watches a chicken from the moment of procurement, through killing and butchering, and completing the nuggetization process.
This time, I made sure it was the top feature of a double-bill, and that dinner would be served after this flick.
In terms of overarching plot, this movie is completely by-the-numbers: a group of heroic teachers strive to outsmart, outrun, and outlast a group of zomboids. Where it really sings is in the characters and in the humor-- the dialogue in this thing is on point, from the little kids being assholes, to Elijah Wood being obsessed with his (terrible) novel and being a narcissist-writer archetype, to the little kids themselves. I can't really dump too much dialogue into this review, so I'll just urge you to see it, and then give you a couple visual gags that I thought worked.
There's a point about halfway through the movie where the weird cannibal zomboid kids are all on the playground, and there aren't any adults to murder and eat, so they resort to playing some games. Up until this point, the only games we've seen the kids playing involve their phones, so it's pretty hilarious to suddenly have this montage of new-age kids playing old-school games with gory components.
And perhaps best of all:
This movie was a darkly funny evil-child movie that worked perfectly for me. If you need further details to sell you this movie-- which you shouldn't-- I'll just mention that at one point, Rainn Wilson picks up a small child and uses it as a bludgeon against other small children.
You should probably see this movie, if that sounds hilarious to you (and it should).
Last night, I watched a couple of basic home invasion horror movies. The first was Death Game, a 1977 movie starring Seymour Cassel (the dad from Rushmore), Sondra Locke, and Colleen Camp.
Then I watched Knock Knock, which just came out; it's directed by Eli Roth, and stars Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, and Ana de Armas.
Death Game is about a family man whose family leaves for the weekend, and then he gets a knock on the door: it's two cute girls who can't find the right address to a party they want to attend, and they're drenched in rain and freezing. He lets them in, they seduce him, and then they reveal that they're completely insane. They torture him, wreck his house, and commit a murder, before returning to the dad-torture. Knock Knock is about a family man whose family leaves for the weekend, and then... well, it's a remake of Death Game, so I won't go through the whole thing. It's updated and changed for a modern era, to include social media and cellphones, basically; also, it can get way more explicit and gross:
It also has some kind of weird ideas about youth culture. Let's get into it first with Death Game.
Spoilers ahead. Yarr. Ahoy.
Seymour Cassel is fantastic as the dad in the movie. He's rockin' the 70s old-man dad bod and moustache, and his house is perfect: really nice stereo, everything in muted 70s earth-tones and not a lot of natural light, shrubbery all around the front door. He's celebrating his 40th birthday, and sees his wife and kids off for the weekend. That night, the girls show up, he lets them in, rebuffs a couple of advances, and then succumbs to their wily charms. That succumbing, by the way, is so weird and hilarious-- straight-up porn music starts blaring, and then there's about five minutes of double-exposed film, usually a long-shot of writhing bodies and a close-up of a face or an arm or something; it's clearly meant to be hellaciously titillating, but it ends up looking like a weird flesh-tone squid occupying two or three dimensions at once, especially because the source film for this movie never had any sort of preservation or cleaning measures taken. The soundtrack pushes it over the edge into weird absurdity.
The next morning he wakes up and the girls are making breakfast. He joins them, and then it becomes clear that they're straight-up insane, picking up eggs with their fingers and not using napkins and dredging pancakes through eggs and jelly and all manner of transgressions against polite society. The whole time during breakfast, the old man is quietly and civilly smoking and ashing into a little saucer. You know, like a grown man does. Until he tells them that they're behaving like animals.
They start destroying his furniture and playing his stereo too loud and beating the shit out of him. He threatens to call the cops, but they tell him that they're both underage. They tie him to a bed and continue their rampant destruction. This continues pretty much unabated for the rest of the movie. Locke and Camp both manage to strike a weird balance between malevolence and wide-eyed naivete: Camp, at several points, proclaims her actual fondness for the man that they're victimizing, and Locke's character seems to be operating as pure id, chaotic but not necessarily evil (except for a few points).
This movie's kind of hard to pin down, thematically.
Maybe it's about the 1970s perceived breakdown of social order, as represented here by the sheer barbarism of an untended bottle of ketchup pooling and spilling, splattered on the base of a fine silver serving platter, and staining the tablecloth:
A shot which, no shit, lasts thirty-seven seconds. I know because I timed it.
Perhaps it's a message about the things that go wrong when the lecherous older generation preys on the younger, as represented here by a shot of a rotten banana trailing up and down a milky-white thigh.
Maybe it's about the new generation having no respect for the old, as represented by this shot of Max Fischer's dad getting drenched in foodstuffs:
But in actuality, I think it's probably just a weird exploitation movie that's taking advantage of the relatively recent home invasion and multiple murders of the Manson Family, and the willingness of Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp to disrobe. That super-weird five-minute, flesh-toned, porno-soundtracked montage at the beginning defies any other description.
Oh, yeah, spoiler: in the last five seconds of the film, an SPCA van literally swerves around a corner out of nowhere and mows down both girls.
Now let's move on to Knock Knock.
I have some problems with Eli Roth in general. He hasn't made any movies that I have thoroughly and unabashedly loved. Don't get me wrong, here, I like his movies just fine, especially Cabin Fever, but it always seems like there's a running thread through all of them of cruelty for the sake of cruelty. The times when it works the best are the times when you, as an audience, have a character to empathize with-- in Hostel, Paxton was a swaggery but ultimately good-natured character through which to encounter the mindless cruelty of the movie, and it made that movie much more palatable.
The problem is that all of Roth's movies, aside from Hostel, fail to give you that empathetic character. Cabin Fever has Karen, but she's the first to go, and then we're stuck with a bunch of assholes. Hostel 2 never intends to let us empathize with any of the characters-- it's just intended to be a cartoonish, grisly murderfest from minute one. Knock Knock continues that trend, with weird douche-dad Keanu Reeves (whose wife and kids are the only decent characters in the movie, and they're only onscreen for the first ten minutes).
The opening shots of this movie are a slow tracking shot through the house, where literally every wall has huge photographs of Keanu and his family. Literally every wall. I can't even tell if this is supposed to paint a picture of a family that's deeply tied together and wants to display it to the world; or a deeply weird and narcissistic family member demanding representation; or just tell us that the family is tone-deaf when it comes to what normally passes for domestic decoration. I just know it's fucking weird and immediately makes me wonder who these weird people are and dislike them. One row of pictures on the mantel? No problem. A few hanging pictures throughout the house? Hey, fine by me. Three-foot by three-foot studio shots on literally every wall in your house? There's something wrong with you.
Ten minutes of footage showing us the happy family, blah blah, they leave for a weekend at the beach, blah blah, the girls show up at the door. He invites them in, blah blah. The one part of this movie that was really novel and fairly clever was that it actually incorporates modern technology in a legitimate and encompassing way-- he calls the girls an Uber (or Uber-alike) and tracks its progress on his phone; because it'll be a while, it gives him a chance to interact with them more, and turn down their initial advances.
Eventually blah blah he bangs them both, blah, then he wakes up, breakfast, blah. Then his wife FaceTimes him, and he runs out into the yard to take it. There's an actually really well done hilarious moment where the two girls attempt to photobomb by doing the lady-front equivalent of a pressed ham:
Then blah blah blah, jailbait revelations, can't call the cops, torture, bondage, makeup...
Throughout the torture, the two crazy girls are perpetually snarling at Keanu for being a philanderer and a pedo, which, you know, they've got a point. They've got none of the goofy naivete of Death Game here: these girls are psychopaths, cruel and smart and mean. Their motives are a bit more clear than in the original-- they're clearly taking revenge for something they've endured. There's a running thread about de Armas' character's childhood that's disgusting and awful.
At one point, they throw a mock trial, and Keanu defends himself by talking about how they threw themselves at him, referring to the girls' showing up at his door unannounced and pressuring him into sexual compliance.
So, none of the main characters in this movie warrant any empathy at all. An SPCA van could have swerved around a corner halfway through this movie and mowed all of the characters down, then backed up and done it again until they were a patch of jelly on the road, and I wouldn't have really cared. They're all eminently unlikeable.
The reason this movie isn't 100% hot garbage is just because of its use of technology: the Uber, the FaceTime, the cellphones-as-cameras, and then a "Twilight Zone"-y ending bit where the girls upload a sex tape to Facebook and Keanu has to sit there, buried in the dirt, and watch the comments roll in from all of his friends and loved ones. In an era where there's a movement to 1) make a period piece to avoid modern tech altogether; 2) contrive extenuating circumstance to separate characters from their tech; or 3) inexplicably have all cell providers collude to provide "no service" areas when a phone is needed most, this is refreshing in that it full-on embraces modern technology and actually uses it in interesting ways to further the plot.
Now, some general notes on both movies, and a compare-and-contrast.
In Death Game, the old-man dad smokes as a signifier of maturity, while neither of the girls smoke. In Knock Knock, both girls smoke, a signifier of immaturity, while none of the adults do.
Another interesting saving grace in Knock Knock: they don't hurt his pet. In Death Game, the girls hurt the dad's pet, which is always among the cheapest, shittiest moves a horror flick can do to win empathy / sympathy / horror, and which almost always enrages me. Knock Knock sidesteps that, which is a point in its favor.
Keanu's character is older than Cassel's, but looks about twenty years younger. Chalk it up to all Cassel's Cassavettes movies, I guess.
In any case: Do Not Recommend. Either of them.