Saturday, July 4, 2020

Phenomena (1985)

... aka: Creepers
... aka: Dario Argento's Phenomena
... aka: Nadnaravni pojavi (Supernatural Phenomena)
... aka: Phenomenon
... aka: Satánica inocencia (Satanic Innocence)

Directed by:
Dario Argento

Controversial opinion: The heavily-cut U.S. version of this film is superior to the original version. There, I said it. Somebody needs to. And I completely understand this sounds like blasphemy or perhaps even a tad hypocritical on my part. I usually hate when censors or distributors alter a director's original vision... except when it actually benefits the film. While that's a very rare occurrence, it does occasionally happen. After New Line Cinema acquired the U.S. distribution rights to the film, they re-titled it Creepers and then cut it down to a brisker 83 minutes; an edit supervised by director Jack Sholder. That may not sound too bad until you realize the fullest version, the Italian release, runs a whopping 116 minutes. That's over 30 minutes removed. That's quite significant! Only in this case it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. Unlike with the butcher job committed on Argento's earlier DEEP RED (1975), which irreparably harmed that film, very little of what was removed here negatively effects the original cut's pacing, story, characterization or even the film's coherence. After recently comparing the two versions side by side, I completely understand why they removed most of what they did. The plot itself doesn't change in any significant way even shorn of 30+ minutes; only the amount of extraneous material does.

Unnecessary opening narration has been scrapped and several minutes from an overly-long detective scene at the beginning were removed, which is no big loss seeing how it's redundant, poorly scripted and kills momentum after the excellent opening sequence. An entire scene of our heroine, Jennifer, receiving an electroencephalogram has been taken out but the scene is awkward and pointless. In the uncut version, a large portion from Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade" plays two different times; once during an early scene where a victim walks around a room, finds a candle, lights it and walks around and, later, when our heroine is trying to find her way out of a locked room. In the cut version, the vocal portions of the song only figure during the later scene, which creates more of a surprise when it suddenly erupts on the soundtrack during one of the film's more suspenseful moment. That surprise is not there in the uncut version as we'd already heard a large chunk of the song used prior.

Most of the other snips are to tighten up the film and reduce the amount of time spent lingering on establishing shots, people standing around, cumbersome dialogue exchanges, needless exposition and the like. The only significant cut that does much damage is a nice character bit when Jennifer first arrives at the school and talks about her mother having an affair and abandoning the family, which should have been left entirely intact as it helps viewers sympathize with, and relate to, the lead character.

While some of the others edits made for Creepers are likewise not ideal, they're hardly crippling. The few jarring jumps in picture and sound bizarrely manage to only heighten the film's surreal qualities. Since it was released during a time when the slasher-hating MPAA demanded cuts to nearly every depiction of on-screen violence, most especially those in a horror context, New Line did trim some of the more violent moments. However, we still see most of the murders even in the cut version as only strategic frames were eliminated, not the kills themselves. For instance, in the uncut version we see a pair of scissors nailing a hand to a doorway and lingering for a few seconds while the victim screams and pulls the scissors out. In the cut version we only see the scissor impact before it cuts away. Personally, I'm willing to trade off that and a few shots of a razor sliding across a face for a viewing experience that glides along instead of one in a constant state of start-stop throughout the first half.

Phenomena casts future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, then just 14-years-old and with only a small but memorable role in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America under her celluloid belt, in her first leading role. It proved to be a pretty apt casting choice as Connelly emerges here as one of the most uncommonly well-rounded and appealing female leads in any Argento film. Hell, glancing back through his filmography, she probably IS the most well-rounded and appealing. Not saying her lack of experience isn't evident at times, but she at least manages to shade her strong-willing, determined heroine with vulnerabilities and insecurities to keep from coming off as one-dimensional. Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous movie star / heartthrob who's dumped off at an exclusive girl's boarding school, the Richard Wagner Academy, in Switzerland. There, a psycho killer is running around offing teenage girls with a steel spear and hiding their bodies. Sounds like your typical slasher movie plot, right? Well, not so fast...

Jennifer isn't really your normal final girl trope and is much more akin to a troubled protagonist like Carrie White. First, she's a sleepwalker who doesn't remember anything that occurs while she's under. Second, she's a young teenager set adrift in a foreign country surrounded by strangers thanks to the self-serving preoccupations of her negligent parents. Third, she has a bizarre relationship with insects that's both telepathic and telekinetic; meaning she can communicate with, control and even share visions with insects. While those qualities may make her an outcast at school and the target of bullying, have her being labeled an epileptic devil-worshiping schizophrenic drug addict by the school staff and put her in harm's way on more than one occasion, they eventually come in handy when she becomes the killer's primary target. Jennifer does manage to find a couple of non-bug allies in the area. She's befriended by wheelchair-bound Scottish entomology professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), who understands what it's like to be different ("People have the ability to almost make you hate yourself"), and his pet chimpanzee "nurse" Inga (Tanga).

With the cruel headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and most of her peers convinced she's evil incarnate, her roommate (Federica Mastroianni) failing to protect her and getting herself killed in the process, her mom busy with her new lover, her father busy on location shooting in the Philippines and impossible to get in contact with and the father's Jewish agent and attorney (Mario Donatone) busy during Passover, Jennifer is stuck in a situation where she must uncover who's responsible for the killings or potentially become the next victim. And she must rely on her own courage and (super) natural gifts to do so since her parents, short-term (human) friends and authority figures have all failed her. Even assistance from her mentor and kindred spirit Professor McGregor, who had a previous relationship (perhaps even a sexual one) with an underage schoolgirl who's been killed, comes with limits. He does at least first hook her up with one of the world's greatest detectives, "the great sarcophagus fly," which is drawn exclusively to decaying human flesh, to get the ball rolling on her investigation.

Whether one watches the longest or shortest cut, you're ultimately rewarded for enduring some uneven moments in the first half with the liveliest and most entertaining finales in the entire Argento oeuvre, which features one surprise after another in pretty rapid succession. Not that what's leading up to that is necessarily bad. A lot of it is splendid actually. The visual pallet here is essentially the same steely blue look as what was used in TENEBRAE , which is a bit odd considering this was shot by INFERNO's cinematographer Romano Albani and not Tenebrae's DOP Luciano Tovoli. Even lacking the ultra-colorful, superficially gratifying look of some of the earlier films, just as much style seeps through here and it's even more imaginative.

Unlike many of his previous films, which are rather set-bound, excellent use is made out of outdoor locations, including a lake, a patch of woods near the school (Argento has a neat way of photographing even trees to make them look ominous!) and a stretch of road leading to a secluded cottage with the Swiss Alps, rumored to put off wind that leads to madness, in the backdrop. The sleepwalking scenes are a mix of a camera traveling down a white corridor past black doors at various speeds, Vaseline smeared lens and overbearing lighting. There are even POV shots from not just the killer, but also kaleidoscopic visions from a ladybug and even a maggot! Oh, did I mention there are a LOT of maggots in this film? Yes. Indeed there are, including a large pit of them feasting on the remains of the killer's victims.

Many film historians, including a good number of genre aficionados who are otherwise big defenders of the director, were highly critical of the film when it was released. I find that bizarre seeing how every issue they complained about, from the poor dubbing of the supporting cast to the inconsistent plotting to the occasional senseless / idiotic character actions, is present in every single other Argento film they'd praised. Only those debits, to me, are far less pronounced here due to its melding of giallo / slasher with supernatural / fairy tale and just how weird, wild, gory, creative and unpredictable the whole thing is. The audacious soundtrack, featuring contributions from Bill Wyman, Simon Boswell, Goblin, Motörhead, Claudio Simonetti and others, also polarizes with its mix of classical, synth / electronica, heavy metal and even opera. It's a truly bizarre soundscape, yet it's in service of a truly bizarre film, so should it be anything but?

Regardless of the initial reception, Phenomena / Creepers became Argento's biggest international hit since SUSPIRIA almost ten years earlier. It was popular in Europe, the U.S., Asia (especially Japan) and elsewhere, was one of Argento's most widely distributed titles during the video era and remains one of his most viewed films. The fact it features future star Connelly has also helped ensure that it's kept in circulation. This film also provided Daria Nicolodi, then-girlfriend of the director, with her only memorable part in one of his films and she gives a gloriously over-the-top performance as a seemingly-reserved schoolteacher who figures prominently during the finale. Patrick Bauchau and Michele Soavi (also the assistant director) show up playing police inspectors and Argento's eldest daughter Fiore Argento plays the Danish schoolgirl killed in the opening scene. The gory makeups are from Sergio Stivaletti while Luigi Cozzi worked on optical effects.

There have been countless releases for this title over the years. Media was the initial U.S. VHS distributor in the States (of the heavily-cut version) while Anchor Bay introduced American audiences to most of the previously-unseen cut footage with their 1999 DVD release. The 2016 release from Synapse includes three different cuts of the film: the 83-minute Creepers cut, the 110 minute English-language international cut and the 116 minute Italian language version. One of the many extras on the 2 disc set is the feature-length documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror (1985). It also comes with a soundtrack CD. Perhaps the definitive version to be released is the UK Arrow 4 DISC release, which contains the various cuts of the film, loads of extras and a brand new 2 hour documentary on the film titled Of Flies and Maggots.

Aside from the usually-lauded Deep Red and Suspiria, everyone seems to have their own opinion about which other Argento film(s) are the strongest in his filmography. For me, this one is right at the very top. It includes pretty much everything I want out of this particular director... plus a few things I didn't even realize I wanted until I saw them here. A straight-razor-armed chimp with a vendetta is just the tip of the iceberg.


Friday, July 3, 2020

Inferno (1980)

... aka: A Mansão do Inferno (The Mansion of Hell)
... aka: Dario Argento's Inferno
... aka: Feuertanz der Zombies (Fire Dance of Zombies)
... aka: Horror Infernal
... aka: Pokol (Hell)
... aka: Rædslernes inferno (Inferno of Horror)

Directed by:
Dario Argento

This continuation of, and elaboration on, what went down in SUSPIRIA deals with The Three Mothers; a trio of evil witch siblings whose reign of terror leaves behind a string of bizarre, grisly murders stretching from Europe all the way across the Atlantic to America. An architect / alchemist named E. Varelli, whose diaries comprise a book on the gruesome gals titled - you guessed it! - The Three Mothers, designed three homes for the sisters to hide out in as they plot their nefarious schemes... whatever those may be. Mater Suspiriorum - the "Mother of Sighs" - calls Freiburg, Germany home. The eldest of three, Suspiriorum is the same witch who was featured in Suspiria and referred to as Helena Markos there. Seeing as how she's killed by Jessica Harper at the end of the film, she's not featured here at all, though the other two are. Mater Lachrymarum (or "The Mother of Tears") is the most beautiful of the sisters and resides in Rome, Italy, while Mater Tenebrarum ("The Mother of Darkness"), the youngest and most cruel of the three, operates out of New York City in the United States. Though the former is featured here in a few scenes (she becomes a greater focus in Argento's 2007 conclusion of the trilogy: The Mother of Tears), the primary focus here is on the latter.

For the record, this mythology is loosely based on Thomas De Quincey's Suspiria de profundis, in particular the essay "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" which involves Roman childbirth goddess Levana and her three companions: Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum. Luigi Cozzi's unofficial pseudo-sequel to these films (1989's The Black Cat), which was made when it looked like Argento had completely abandoned his trilogy concept, concentrates on the Levana character, who's also a powerful witch and causes problems on a movie set filming what's basically an updated remake of Suspiria. Meta!

New York writer Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), who also happens to be a tenant in the same large, barely-occupied brownstone as one of the Three Mothers, gets her hands on Varelli's book from a next door bookstore run by the mysterious Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff). We can only assume the book has been left there intentionally to lure inquisitive victims to their doom, though that kind of flies in the face of the concept that the witches want to remain hidden from the world as not to have someone interrupt their evil deeds. Either way, Rose becomes obsessed with the book and the story of the sisters. Three "keys" are pointed out in the text. The first states that the land around the witches' homes will become "deathly and plagued" and start smelling horribly. Second, the secret of the witches is hidden in the cellar underneath the home, which will contain a painting of and the name of the sister occupying it. The third secret "can be found under the soles of your shoes." In this case it turns out to be literal.

After mailing out a letter to her brother, receiving little information from the bookstore owner and already picking up on a foul odor surrounding the area, Rose decides to see if the second clue contained in the book is real. She explores her building's cellar, finds an underground room flooded with water and, hidden down there, the painting of Mater Tenebrarum... along with a rotting corpse! Instead of phoning the police, she rushes up to her apartment and apparently just stays there... for a week or so... or however long it would take for a letter to arrive overseas back in 1980. Meanwhile in Rome, Rose's brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) has received her letter but he's too distracted in class by his "musicology" final and a mysterious beauty (Ania Pieroni) who's seemingly materialized out of thin air with her cat, to actually read it.

After Mark accidentally leaves the letter behind, his friend and classmate Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) hops in a cab and heads his way. However, she decides to first investigate Rose's claims all by herself after reading the letter, which clearly isn't going to end well. That leads her to a library, trying to check out "The Three Mothers," becoming lost at closing time and ending up in the basement for a freaky encounter with a deep-voiced man who appears to be not quite human. Soon after, both she and a neighbor (Gabriele Lavia) are viciously murdered. When Mark finally decides to fly back to the states, he finds no sign of his sister when he arrives as she's been killed herself. He receives little help from the building's other suspicious tenants aside from the mentally-imbalanced Elise (Daria Nicolodi), who really isn't much help herself as she's killed off shortly after she appears, leaving Mark alone to uncover the secrets of the building and of Mater Tenebrarum.

For your money you get a cat eating a rat, a cat attack, a rat attack after someone drowns a bag of cats (?) during a lunar eclipse (??) and a handful of bloody murders, including a neck slashing via window pane, a head hacked with a cleaver, a knife through a neck, eyes gouged out and a burning body falling through a glass window. Giuseppe Bassan's art direction and Romano Albani's photography are both great and it's all drenched in blue, red, green, yellow, orange and purple light so nearly every shot looks vibrant and visually pleasing. Beyond that, this is one of Argento's most frustrating films to sit through.

Inferno is unfortunately sorely lacking in narrative drive. Compound that with the complete absence of a compelling central focal point and the film has a tendency to lurch along looking pretty but otherwise feeling rather empty and aimless. The closest thing we get to a lead is former soap opera actor McCloskey and, while he's not a very interesting on-screen presence, it's difficult to blame him since he's not alone in that regard. Second lead Miracle also doesn't make much of an impression, but in the interview she gave with House of Freudstein, it's not difficult to see why. According to the actress, she was given little direction, no real character to play and more of an outline of the story than an actual script. She also claimed that Argento wasn't even on set when she filmed many of her scenes. Since there's not much of a plot to advance, most of the other actors are there merely as props to die, resulting in long scenes of bland cardboard cutouts wandering around colorfully lit sets looking confused and / or bored.

I've seen the story written off as incoherent but I don't necessarily agree with that sentiment. The film does make sense for the most part. The problem is it's lacking in plot complication, story interest and character motivation. We learn the witches are doing evil things from their residences and that's about all. What's the end game? Why leave obvious clues around for bystanders to find? Why are these all-powerful women doing everything so small scale? Why is so little time spent on them and why do these potentially fascinating characters come off as being so bloody uninteresting and non-threatening here? They're also ultimately defeated in rather pedestrian fashion after their whereabouts are discovered, leaving the final confrontation here feeling extremely underwhelming.

Stylistically, there's too much carried right over from Suspiria, which isn't just limited to lighting, camerawork and set design. Exact moments are duplicated, like the taxi ride with the flashing colors, the exploding lights, shots of street drains, shots of things like the moon shown in three progressively-closer jump cuts and basically the entire fiery final scene. While Suspiria had a genuinely memorable, scary and unnerving score from Goblin, Keith Emerson provides a score here that's a mix of more elegant-sounding compositions with noisier and more thunderous ones, which gets to be distracting and even irritating at times. One thing it's decided not is scary.

Inferno was not given a wide theatrical release outside of Italy, nor did it receive the same glowing critical reviews of Suspiria. It was released by 20th Century Fox on a very limited basis and was considered a box office disappointment upon release. Retrospective reviews since then have typically been much more kind, but I'm not on the same page with people like Kim Newman, who referred to it as "perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s," (Nope! It's not even Argento's most underrated film of the 80s. That would be PHENOMENA.) It also occasionally ends up on Top 100 horror lists, though usually / rightfully left off in favor of Suspiria and DEEP RED (1975). Time Out threw it on the tail end of their list, with Nigel Floyd complementing it for its "free associative fluidity of the unconscious," which is basically critic-speak for "it lacks a proper plot."

This film is as noteworthy as anything else as being the final film Mario Bava ever worked on. He helped with lighting, special effects, direction and photography, though all curiously sans credit, while his son, Lamberto Bava, actually does receive credit as assistant director. Parts were filmed in New York City, including at Central Park. Andrew W. Garroni and William Lustig (who also isn't credited) worked as production managers on these scenes shortly before filming MANIAC (1980). In fact, at one point Maniac was slated to co-star Nicolodi, be co-produced by Argento and feature a Goblin score but none of that came to pass. The cast includes Veronica Lazar (who later appeared in Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome), Feodor Chaliapin Jr., a completely wasted Alida Valli and Fulvio Mingozzi reprising his Suspiria role as a taxi driver.

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