The Films of Dario Argento: Phenomena (aka Creepers) (1985)

The craziest Argento film, and that’s saying something…this review contains SPOILERS.

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Of all the films made during Dario Argento’s gold run of cinema (1975-1987), Phenomena is arguably the one with the most mixed fan reactions. Some people love it for the fact that it’s all over the place, and others hate it for those very same reasons.

Let me get my opinion out there straight away – I adore it.

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With the 1980’s in full swing, this saw Argento fully embrace the atmospheres and quirks of the decade – this is probably his most 1980’s movie of all his 1980’s movies – and then he threw in inimitable, mad quirks of his own. You know, chimps, insects, Iron Maiden, mutant children, telepathy, that sort of thing. It’s a delightfully, brilliantly bonkers and strange mix. Because of this, some have referred to Phenomena as something akin to an Argento greatest hits package. That’s not a bad description, but there are things in this movie that are unique to this movie, and so I’m loathe to consider this a mere retread of past glories. So, where were we back in 1985? Well, after the return to giallo that was 1982’s Tenebrae, Argento went back to the supernatural ambience of Suspiria and Inferno, albeit with one foot still rooted in the real world (relatively, anyway) by attempting to explain this film’s specific phenomena (cross-species telepathy) with science. It’s still pretty crazy stuff though, and what I love about this film is just how eccentric it is, yet it’s also played dead straight. It could all fall apart at any moment, and yet Argento, thanks to his sheer verve and bravura, keeps it together. You’re either with it, or you’re not, and I am so, so, so with this film that I can’t fathom why people think this is a lesser Argento work. It’s up there with his very best. If what we love Argento for is his mad streak, his originality, his individuality, then surely one of his most out-there movies surely has to be a must-see, right? Not everyone agreed though, and it didn’t help that in the US it was cut by over half an hour, rebranded Creepers (neat title, but it made the film sound like a creepy-crawly horror), and sold as a traditional shocker, which it most certainly isn’t.

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The opening scene is a corker, as a school bus takes off down a long, lonely road somewhere in Switzerland, leaving one of their class behind, stranded, alone and scared. It’s funny when you consider how this scene would play differently now – mobile phones would ensure a hasty return trip and poor teenage Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento, Dario’s daughter) would have ended up alright. Not back in ’85 though – she’s abandoned, cold and frightened, and in typical Argento fashion, the film decides to take a beautiful detour to gracefully pan up and up and up and up and up a very tall tree for the opening credits, backed by a creepy synthesiser score co-composed, surprisingly, by Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman! On the evidence of atmospheric pieces like this, it would have been nice if he’d had more of an influence over the Stones sound, which certainly needed livening up around this time. Blimey, have you ever heard their Dirty Work LP?

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After the credits have passed and the tree has been scaled, we go back to Vera, who’s hoping to find a nearby, friendly place where she can get in touch with someone for help. No such luck. She wanders towards a rustic, desolate house, sneaks in to look for help (calling out stuff like ‘help, I’m a foreigner’, which apparently incited giggles from audiences at the time) but someone else is in the house, someone chained to the wall. Not chained very securely, I must add. Those chains unsurprisingly don’t last long, and Vera is suddenly attacked by the mystery prisoner, who strangles her with the chains and stabs her in the hand with a pair of scissors. Just before that there’s a brilliant, foreboding shot of said scissors as they fall from a table and land on the floor with a horrible, piercing thud. When you see that shot, you just know they’re going to be used in some horrendous fashion moment later.

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Vera escapes the house but doesn’t last long, fleeing to a series of cavernous tunnels that approach the nearby river and waterfall, coming to a literal dead-end, courtesy of extendable spike, falling glass and then decapitation. Blimey, poor girl. The bit with the glass is an extraordinary moment – obviously horrific and yet filmed with such graceful elegance – and looks like it was very dangerous to film too, even if it was sugar glass in lieu of the real thing. Vera falls back into the window separating the tunnel from the waterfall and her head breaks the glass, its shattered pieces then falling down onto her face in spectacular slow-motion with the waterfall rushing behind her. It’s an awesome shot, one of the best in any Argento film. Saying that, the fact that her head unnecessarily gets cut off a moment later and falls down into the river is almost like a sick post-script to the whole affair – I wonder if Argento was daring us to laugh at that point, to react at the almost absurd excess? And there you have it, another great start to another great Argento film.

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Like Suspiria, we have a teenage girl/young woman thrown into a scary, threatening world of murder, magic and once again, maggots, but unlike Suspiria, where the childlike, fairytale ambience was given a dose of eerie unreality by casting adults in the adolescent roles, Phenomena‘s lead character is a child, played by the teenage Jennifer Connelly in only her second film. She plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous (and much crushed-after by everyone else, it seems) film star, who has been sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, only to find herself in the middle of a killing spree – girls her age are being murdered by a mysterious stranger.

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Jennifer has a tendency to sleepwalk, and on her first night in her new digs, she finds herself drawn in her slumber to a closed-off part the school where she comes face to face with a screaming girl who is trying to get away from the killer but ends up with a spike through her mouth. The killer remains unidentified and Jennifer is regarded as a freak not only because she sleepwalks but, and I’ll bet you didn’t see this coming, she has an uncanny affinity with insects. She loves them, and they love her. In fact, one of them later on in the film really seems to like her, but thankfully the relationship is never consummated.

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Meanwhile, entomologist and wheelchair user Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) is using his expertise of insects to help the police with the ongoing murder case. Yes, you read that right. It sounds wild, but in real life, insects present at crime scenes really have been studied to identify the time of death of a victim. This is because certain species of insects are attracted to corpses at certain stages of decay. This was what Argento was inspired by to begin work on Phenomena. I do love that Argento doesn’t really try to ease us in with this whole subject – after Vera is killed at the start we cut to a chimp (eh???) walking into McGregor’s house and we’re slam bang in the middle of a discussion about insects and their uses, and I’m all like – oh, cool, so this is how it’s going to be. By the way, the chimp’s name is Inge, and she is McGregor’s nurse. She’s great, and even her bad points (a tendency to goof around with razors and scalpels) end up being very useful before the end credits.

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Thanks to McGregor’s expertise and Jennifer’s affinity with insects, the two begin to work together to track down the killer before he strikes again. To do this, the two ‘greatest known’ (or shall we say ‘unknown’) detectives in the world must track down the perpetrator via its victims. These two detectives are Jennifer and a fly so attuned to the presence of hidden corpses that it goes wild when one is nearby. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: an old man recklessly sending a girl out into a situation where she might get murdered doesn’t sound responsible, but look, we all want her to go out there and catch the killer, don’t we? He wants to, she wants to, we wants to, Argento wants to, so I say put the Great Sarcophagus fly in that box, get on the bus and let’s find ourselves a maggot-ridden corpse somewhere in the Swiss countryside! Am I right???!!!

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Plus, McGregor has a personal stake in all of this – a young friend of his, Rita, disappeared some time back and was never found. He’s convinced she was one of the victims – chillingly, or frustratingly, depending on your Argento-tolerance, we never find out. As usual, everyone in an Argento film naturally assumes the killer is an adult male, and a lot of the time they’re wrong, and in this case there are two killers – mother and teenage son. Argento loves to lead us down wrong paths, and in Phenomena this particular path is akin to one you were always told not to stray away from, like in a fairy tale. saying that, there’s very little magic in this film, but there’s nonetheless a sense of the uncanny, predestined and mysterious which gives it an unearthly atmosphere. As we’ll delve into later, Phenomena is a relatively long film for this genre, but it’s extended scenes like Jennifer’s search for a body that pleasantly remind me of the leisurely direction of Deep Red when Marc enters the Murder House to try and find some clues. Oh, how I love Argento films – they just move at their own pace.

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Unfortunately, had Jennifer hurried up a bit, she might have got back in town to maybe prevent poor McGregor getting impaled with that nasty spike contraption. The murder itself is classic Argento – attempting to descend his staircase in his stairlift, the controls are taken over by the killer and McGregor is helpless to do anything as he approaches the spike-in-waiting. Poor Inge witnesses the death and only gets into the house long after her best friend is dead. Don’t worry though – she’ll get her revenge.

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The final half-hour is, as all horror films should be, an extended nightmare on screen. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about; you’re trapped in the Terrible House and somehow you find yourself delving even deeper into its horrors rather than finding the way out. Jennifer, distraught at the murder of McGregor and without a place to stay (although it’s not made clear where she stayed the night following her seeing his body) tries to get money wired to her at the local bank but doesn’t have much luck. That’s when Frau Bruckner shows up to offer her sanctuary until the next day, when she’ll be able to get a flight back to the States. It’s going to be a long night though. Things look immediately suspicious when Jennifer notices all the mirrors have been covered up. Apparently Bruckner has a son, a son who must be protected from gazing upon his own reflection. Then there’s the maggots in the bathroom – maggots in the sink, maggots on the soap, maggots on the towel. And what of the pill Bruckner’s just coerced Jennifer to take to calm her down? Not that Phenomena was insisting on being a whodunit – I mean, there wasn’t much in the way of clues – but yes, Bruckner is indeed the killer, or seems to be. She later admits to killing McGregor, and Inspector Geiger, who -and I’ve got ahead of myself here – hasn’t been murdered yet, but the killer of the girls is someone else. Someone else in the house. Geiger shows up as his investigation has led him to Bruckner, but she overpowers him with ease after knocking out Jennifer and locking her in one of the rooms.

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Jennifer manages to escape, but we’ve got some real out-of-the-frying-pan business about to occur, as she follows a telephone wire down into the catacombs of the house and into a ghastly room where a bloodied and battered Geiger is chained to the wall. He tries to help Jennifer but given he looks like a goddamn zombie she’s understandably terrified and backs into The Worst Pool of All Time. Seriously, this is worse than the one in Enfield Lock just outside London where, as a child, I swallowed some of the water and was ill for a week. That one was bad, but at least it didn’t have rotting corpses floating in it, whereas the one here has that, plus maggots, blood and general disease and decay. It’s absolutely disgusting, and makes my stomach turn every time watch it. Jennifer clearly swallows some of that water. Bleurgh. Enter Bruckner, laughing like an absolute psycho (which she is) – she doesn’t even say anything. She just keeps laughing and laughing. Geiger calls her a ‘fucking bitch’, but to no avail. Nothing’s going to stop her laughing. Jennifer tries to get out, but Bruckner just steps on her hand, making her fall back in. Cue more laughter. I’ll give Geiger this – what he does next is as inspired as it is horrific. He breaks his own thumb so that he can slip his hand out of his cuffs! He attacks Bruckner and this gives Jennifer time to get out of the pool and leave the two of them to it. She then finds herself in a weird subterranean corridor, and in one of the rooms there’s a weeping child, facing the corner – Bruckner’s son! Earlier it was revealed that he is the product of a sexual assault inflicted on Bruckner fifteen years earlier at the nearby mental institution when one of the prisoners attacked her. Jennifer insists that the boy needn’t be afraid of his reflection but as soon as he turns around to face her she quickly realises that wasn’t a smart thing to say – the kid turns around to reveal a visage that’s almost like a precursor to the Predator, but with added maggots and drool. Not that i ever saw any Argento films as a child, but I imagine the sight of this would have given me nightmares for weeks.

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Jennifer manages to escape through a worryingly, all-too accessible tunnel to the outside world and onto a small boat on the river, but Bruckner Jr. is after her with the spike, so there’s no doubt now that this bastard was the killer of all the girls – Jennifer becomes so scared that she screams the screamiest of screams, summoning the insects to help her. Every time I watch Phenomena and it gets to this point I always forget about the whole insect element, because the previous fifteen or twenty minutes have been so eventful and wild in their own right. So here they come, and unlike their relatively peaceful protest outside the school, they tear into the kid’s flesh until he’s pulling bits of himself off like that bit in Poltergeist. He falls into the river, and because the petrol tank had been pierced by the spike moments earlier, an attempt to turn on the engine and flee results in an explosion, forcing Jennifer to escape underwater, where of course, Bruckner Jr. is still alive and looking exceptionally worse for wear. Luckily the fire sees to him, and when the ‘Valley’ theme kicks in, we’re all ready to relax, knowing full well that things have come full circle, Geiger probably finished off Bruckner and we can all relax. Oh, and look – there’s Morris, Jennifer’s dad’s agent, come to bring her home! Yay!

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Oh wait. Shit.

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Oh well, so much for Morris. Yep, Bruckner’s still alive and ready to kill Jennifer with the same sheet of metal she just used to knock the other guy’s block off, but Inge then shows up with a razor she found in a bin earlier (!!!) and gets her own sweet, sweet revenge. The film then ends with Jennifer and Inge together, the start of a beautiful friendship – I must add that in reality Connelly and the chimp had a tougher time of it, as during the filming of a scene involving a malfunctioning stairlift, the latter bit the former’s finger in fright, leading to some understandable mistrust. Luckily both the finger and their friendship were patched up before the end of filming.

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As ever with Argento’s films, there are many terrific set-pieces and striking imagery. However, compared to the restless camerawork of Deep Red, the intense colour scheme of Suspiria/Inferno or the ultra-stylised futurism of Tenebrae, Phenomena (and Opera) are relatively (and I really mean relatively) conventional, with a cooler, less vivid visual palette – as a result the occasions when Argento does hit us with a great image really do stand out, like the gruesome close-ups of decayed body parts, the concluding underwater escape, the beautiful/icky close-ups of the insects, or the rather neat ladybird POV shot.

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Argento was often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock, but aside from a tendency to put women in peril, there wasn’t much else between them – however there is a great sequence where Jennifer attempts to flee the school before the mental institution staff arrive to take her away that the Master would have been happy to put his name to. Jennifer has to slowly remove her plaster and intravenous medicine (given my ickiness over needles, this is probably the most squirm-inducing moment in the movie for me) and get out without waking her nurse. There’s a bit where the nurse’s knitting needle falls from her lap but thankfully it lands point-end in the ball of wool. Reminded me of Mission: Impossible and the bit with the bead of sweat! Plus there’s a cuckoo clock. Bloody cuckoo clocks.

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Then there’s the use of live insects. Nothing fake here, it’s all real, and the insect footage is so natural that I didn’t notice how obviously tricky it must have been to get all this stuff on film – if you watch the feature-length documentary on the recent Arrow Video release, you’ll see the lengths that were taken to get the bumblebee to rest on Connelly’s hand, or how they got the Sarcophagus fly to crawl into a crack in a door (hint – it involved shit). Okay, I’ll admit – I just lied, there are a couple of shots that were obviously used with practical effects, like the magnificent shot of the flies surrounding the front of the school, which was achieved with water and ground coffee! Just brilliant. All of this done pre-CGI too!

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Given that her first role was in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Jennifer Connelly certainly can boast one of the most impressive starts to an acting CV ever. This is her first lead role too (her role in OUATIA was relatively small, Elizabeth McGovern taking over her character for the majority of the film as an adult) and she acquits herself well. There’s a radiant, ethereal quality to her, an innocence that puts her in line with Argento’s other leads in his supernatural films. She’s a persecuted character, at one point even accused of being in league with the devil, and is regularly bullied and victimised, but there doesn’t seem to be any vengeful, darker side to her. Jennifer is most certainly not Carrie.

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In a memorable moment, Jennifer’s trauma becomes so intense that she calls forth a cloud of flies to surround the school, but they don’t do anything nasty. They just hang around and scare the other pupils and staff to let them know who’s boss. And yet Jennifer herself has nothing but love to express to the others, and while she’s definitely put through the wringer in the final act, unlike other Argento protagonists, she is not left irreparably damaged at the end – she remains a ray of light in a world of dark.

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As usual, Argento’s direction and seeming awkwardness with English actors (plus his inclination for dubbing) means that there is the odd stilted moment, the unintentionally funny line of dialogue, the fumbling of rhythm and so forth. You have to take it or leave it. Some may find on-the-nose dialogue like Bruckner’s ‘Now I’m going to kill you… TO AVENGE HIM!!!’ totally disruptive of the atmosphere, but the hell with it, I love it. Anyway, despite these potential, occasional distractions, Phenomena really benefits from the engaging chemistry between Connelly and Pleasance, and chimps are never not entertaining. Okay, so Pleasance’s ‘Scottish’ accent is ropey, but he’s a warm, kindly presence and recalls the grandfatherly charm of Karl Malden’s blind detective in Cat O’Nine Tails. Daria Nicolodi, after her relatively bland characters in Inferno and Tenebrae, gets to have an absolute ball as the psychotic Bruckner, even if she doesn’t get to go crazy properly until the final act. Patrick Bauchau, who Bond fans will recognise as Scarpine from A View to a Kill, appears as Inspector Geiger, and Argento protege and assistant director Michele Soavi has a brief appearance as his assistant.

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Despite the dark undertones (Bruckner’s backstory is tragic and she could have been a sympathetic character were it not for the, er… murders) and strong violence, there’s a strangely uptempo mood to Phenomena that I can’t explain. There’s little to no comedy (there’s less here than in other, more overtly darker Argento films) but the sense of the fantastical, the fascination it has with its own plot, the use of speed metal, the almost ghoulish glee it has with its gore, the genuinely pretty exterior location shots – it’s definitely the most fun of Argento’s classic era. Hey, I know Deep Red is loads of fun too, but it’s also very dark, very twisted, very scary… and that final scene man….what a downer. It’s too disturbing to take casually, whereas a film that ends with a chimp slashing a psycho to death with a razor is fun, fun, fun in my books. It’s also an Argento film clearly aimed more at a younger audience – this makes sense given the demographic of his films around this time, plus the emergence of the teen movie.

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For the first time in an Argento film, we get a soundtrack that is made up of various contributors – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor’s ‘Valley’ was even given a music video (directed by Soavi) – I wonder if it ever got shown on MTV? It’s a moody promo, with Wyman hanging around the Bruckner house from the start of the film, setting up his bass in slow motion, integrated with shots of Vera and Jennifer approaching and then finally entering the abode, as well as some behind the scenes footage. It ends with Vera screaming, Bill covering his face with blood and then the classic cracked glass shot. Probably wouldn’t have been screened in the afternoon, I reckon. Still, I think it’s fantastic that this uncommercial, creepy instrumental actually got a music video in the first place! Wyman and Taylor also contribute another excellent piece ‘Valley Bolero’, which accompanies the scene when Jennifer’s roommate Sophie leaves her room to meet with her boyfriend – great guitars and harmonica on this one.

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There are also some terrific pieces from former Goblin members Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignaletti, like the terrific ‘Sleepwalking’, which could also pass for a Tangerine Dream theme of the same period. Its addictive, insistent pulse really suiting out-of-nowhere imagery like the shot above. Then there’s the title track, which we first hear when Jennifer sees the firefly that leads her to a vital clue. Clearly trying to outdo the pop rush of their Tenebrae theme, it’s a bright, bouncy and extremely enjoyable tune that serves the end credits well too. Aiming for a creepier, more unsettling vibe is Simon Boswell with his ‘Maggots’ theme, which is appropriately icky and weird.

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So yes, for the most part, the soundtrack all hangs together well, but of course, there the very loud elephant in the room: the use of heavy metal. It’s a weird stylistic choice – where normally we’d hear Goblin, Morricone or Emerson bringing the house down during scenes of stalking and slashing, here we get stuff like Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade’! It’s a great tune, and definitely ramps up the pulse, but for some viewers at the time and since, it just didn’t belong. If you are the kind of person – like me – who will watch Argento films more than once, then I can reassure you that you’re likely to get used to it. Opera would go even further with this method, but there it seemed to have a method, something I’ll go into further in that specific review.

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At nearly two hours, Phenomena is one of Argento’s longest films, but the 115 minutes flew by for me – clearly, US distributors felt that wouldn’t be the case for everybody. An ‘international’ version was created with six minutes removed. Most of the cuts were a multitude of barely noticeable snippets to shots in the hope of tightening the pacing, but there were some scenes substantially reduced, such as Jennifer arguing with Bruckner about taking the (poisoned) pills, or an argument about an open window on the bus. The recent limited edition Arrow Blu-ray offered both Phenomena cuts, and for me the longer version is the best, but bear in mind that the English dialogue for the previously domestic-only scenes no longer exist, so the soundtrack reverts to Italian for these moments. However, thanks to some very clever editing and mixing (a tricky feat especially given that the English soundtrack has a more natural, ambient sound as opposed to the dead-air, post-production feel of the Italian and jumping from one to the other could have proved very jolting), this new edit flows beautifully, so long as you don’t mind the occasional switch in languages.

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However, in the US, even the tighter International Cut wasn’t short enough, so distributors New Line Cinema, fresh from the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, took it upon themselves to re-edit and condense the movie. Some violent scenes were cut, but the majority of the edits were to narrative and dialogue scenes, as well as suspense scenes, and even a whole bit where Jennifer undergoes ECG. The editor in question would be Jack Sholder, who made the second Elm Street film, and the result is fascinating as an example of ruthless tampering. In the UK, Argento fans also had to make do with this butchered Creepers cut,and to add insult to injury, the BBFC made some extra cuts for violence, so we got an even shorter version than the one in the US!

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Creepers is an interesting curio for existing fans of Phenomena, but I seriously do not recommend it for anyone who has not seen either of the longer versions first. So much of the luxurious pacing, character quirks and atmosphere has been done away with here in a rapid race to get to the final act, which by the way, is the least tampered with stretch of the film. It’s so odd, being so used to the longer cut, to have Jennifer already arriving at Bruckner’s house with less than an hour of the running time having passed. Along with the export cut of Deep Red, Creepers marks the worst instance of an Argento film having been crudely and brutally edited to supposedly cater for mainstream demands. In no way is it superior to either of the Phenomena cuts.

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Weirdly, for what might seem at first like one of Argento’s most throwaway films, Phenomena has a hell of a lot of staying power. I’ve seen it many times now, and it genuinely gets better and better each time. It’s definitely one of his most fun films, and Argento at his most fun is about as pleasurable as cinema gets. If you can take shots like this one, of course:

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Oh, and it also features the best T-shirt ever.

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The Real Ghostbusters Episode 39: Drool, the Dog-Faced Goblin

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I’m a bit torn about this episode. I mean, it is extremely enjoyable and the ending is an absolute heartbreaker.

On another, the Ghostbusters are, well… jerks.

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Seriously, they’re worse than Team America: World Police in this one. They show up at some way, way, way, way out-of-the-way circus (so far away that Peter’s New York-based powers are fading) because Egon’s heard that there’s a goblin there. A goblin that nobody has complained about, a goblin who by all accounts, puts on a great (if icky) show at the circus, aka Madame LaFarge’s Wondrous and Amazing Travelling Sideshow. They’ve shown up at this circus uninvited to basically zap this harmless creature into oblivion.

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This doesn’t put the guys in a good light, and I blame the writing. If someone had actually contacted them with concerns about the goblin, then they might have had something to go with, an excuse to come out here in the first place. I’m also surprised Peter doesn’t get more uppity about any of this, because he doesn’t like to bust ghosts if nobody’s paying him, as evidenced by his protestations in previous episodes. Maybe if Egon had a previous, upsetting encounter with a goblin in the past (like he had with The Boogieman), then we could have had some explanation for his decision to drive to the middle of nowhere in order to get this thing. But no, they all just show up and think they can bust ghosts just because, and I quote Peter, they’re there. There is some odd writing in this episode. We’ll get to that later, because I’ve just spotted a literal case of odd writing too, right there on screen. A ‘unicon’? Whoops.

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There’s also some small print which is impossible to decipher, and I’ve spent many a sleepless night wondering just what exactly it was. It can’t be a disclaimer admitting that these wonders are really phoney, because Drool is totally legit. Maybe the ‘mermaid’ is a con? I hope it is, because I can’t see mermaids having much fun out there in this notably arid landscape. To drag it all the way out here is animal/human cruelty. Anyway, Peter’s having none of this ‘wondrous’ sell, dismissing LaFarge’s circus as a ‘sleazy, two-bit operation’, only to be shot down by LaFarge herself, who shows up out of nowhere and compares him to a ‘spokesman for a discount stereo store’. Harsh, but fair. Ray speaks up and reassures LaFarge that they’re here to solve her ‘goblin problem’, but she insists they have no problem. You see? No goblin problem. There isn’t a problem here. Peter insists there is. LaFarge insists there isn’t. So far, the only one out of the four Ghostbusters who hasn’t been a presumptuous prat is Winston.

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The show begins, and the admittedly very sparse audience is to be treated to a comeback of Elvis/Apollo Creed proportions as the legendary Little Egypt has been coaxed out of retirement. None of the crowd are impressed. Except Ray, who thinks she’s nice. I don’t get what everyone’s problem is with Little Egypt, she’s doing her little dance, doing her thing, and yet you can clearly see Egon covering his mouth, like he’s trying to stop himself retching. What’s his problem? The show appears to be disrupted when a Dog-Faced Goblin arrives on stage to ‘terrify’ Little Egypt (clearly an act), scaring the hell out of the crowd and alarming Winston. So now he believes there is a goblin, although I didn’t realise he didn’t believe there was one before. Peter thinks its an illusion, Egon and his PKE meter assures him it’s not, and even though all the ads promised otherwise, the guys still think the goblin represents a genuine threat. The audience I can forgive, they probably weren’t genuinely expecting a real goblin, but the guys? Seriously, their thought process is a little offbeat today.

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So, despite being told that the goblin is not a problem by LaFarge, it is now destined to become trap fodder, and Peter tells ‘Little Italy’ to move aside, only to have his cultural insensitivity highlighted by Little Egypt. She scarpers, and clearly doesn’t give two hoots about Drool because she doesn’t reassure the guys that he’s a good guy and shouldn’t be zapped. She just leaves him to be shot. It’s only when LaFarge steps in to block their aim that Drool is saved. They are shocked when she asks them not to shoot – well, first thing, she never requested their services, and since Drool’s part of the damn act and is advertised as such, why would anyone want him busted?

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Realising she’s talking to a bunch of idiots, she has to state it in clear terms that Drool is part of the show and all that business with Little Egypt was merely theatrics. We get a proper good look at Drool here, and bless him, he is an ugly spud – he appears to have three noses stacked above his gob. He sounds like a blocked drain too, although LaFarge is able to translate his gurglings and tell the guys that Drool is ‘pleased’ to meet the guys. So it’s a pet, Winston asks? LaFarge insists that Drool adopted them, and it’s clear she really does love and respect this little goblin. We get to see what Drool can do, which includes reducing himself to skeletal form and then changing into a bat and a furry slug. Impressed? Not Peter, who calls Drool ‘terminally gross’ and wants to blast him anyway.

Here we get the most telling line in the show, when LaFarge accuses the guys of being ‘trigger happy’ – this saves this episode from being overtly obnoxious, because despite all the oddball character logic on show, I think the writer could be making a point about how all this busting could be warping the guys minds and making them all too keen to bust anything with a PKE rating. At least the guys don’t push it and decide, very reluctantly in Peter’s case, to go. He’s still going on about it in the car. Winston tries to consider that he may be a good guy, but Egon’s having none of it. ‘Harmless’ and ‘goblin’ are mutually exclusive terms, which sounds wildly reductive and ignorant of him, I must say. What’s with all the prejudice in this episode? Karma gets its own back immediately by having Ecto-1 conk out and leave them stranded. Good. They have to push the car back into town, and Ray threatens Peter with ‘Kryptonite’ if he doesn’t help. I wonder what this is code for? I doubt it’s a literal thing, unless Peter is, say, the other son of Jor-El, aka Jailor to General Zod.

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At this point, a wicked cackle that sounds just as icky-throaty-gross as Drool emerges, and an invisible presence causes the overhead electrical wires to split apart and try and electrocute the guys. Then we see a pint-sized blur whizz past behind a nearby hedge. It’s got to be Drool, right? At least now the guys have some reasonable suspicion that the little dude could be a menace, and as such, the episode becomes more fun because they’re not just blindly accusing innocent goblins of mischief. I mean, they still turn out to be wrong, but I can forgive them a little bit now. Only a bit. Like I said, they’re wrong!

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The guys leave Ecto-1 in a local garage for repairs and stay in a hotel for the night, but the monster (spoiler alert – it isn’t Drool) wants to have some fun. First of all he interrupts Ray playing with his toys (obviously, bless him) with loud incessant barking, but when an annoyed Stantz opens the door to shut the presumed pooch up, all he can see is a little cat with the voice of a dog. Ray is utterly disgusted by this crime against nature (a ‘mutant strain’, he calls it), and shuts the door in horror.

That’s when we hear the miaows.

Of course, we’re all expecting a dog with the voice of a cat to show up, but I doubt any of us thought we were going to see the BIGGEST MUTT IN THE WORLD! It’s a crazy sight gag, and with his little mewling, quite adorable.

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Ray can’t handle it, and neither can we, so we cut to Egon busy at work in his room, so busy that he doesn’t even acknowledge room service with a look, just a cursory instruction and a thank you. If he had been looking, he might have noticed the hand placing down his cup of tea was slightly monstrous looking. Egon sips his coffee and spits it out in disgust, comparing it to mud. He backtracks (and even apologises!) when he realises it actually is mud. Bleurgh. Winston’s room is in a right state – everything’s floating, including him. Rather than act freaked out, he just seems disappointed with this latest turn of events. Anyway, time for some skin, as Peter strips off to give his buff bod a shower, only to be doused in what we probably all thought was blood on first viewing, but in reality it’s tomato soup. Horrible. I think I would have actually preferred blood. Ray asks for some croutons. Peter doesn’t have much luck with showers, as his previous experience in ‘Beneath These Streets’ proves.

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So all in all, not a happy and restful night’s sleep, and things are going to get even worse come sunrise. The guys are already to go home when it starts to rain hominy grits. I’ll admit I have heard of hominy grits. According to good ol’ wiki, they are:

A type of grits made from hominy, corn that has been treated with an alkali in a process called Nixtamalization with the cereal germ removed. Grits is often served with other flavourings as a breakfast dish, usually savoury.

Hope that helps. What doesn’t help is Ray’s comedy foreign accent – is that supposed to be Italian? It’s worse than Super Mario. The first act ends with them in the eye of a grit storm, which, by the time act two, has sharply decided to abandon them. Oh well, that was a bit underwhelming.

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No time to worry about that, because the real culprit has arrived, a frightful disembodied purple head with shaggy hair that takes great pleasure in flying about and lashing out at the guys with its enormous tongue. It also has some extra heads, all of which are even uglier than the main feature. The proton beams are doing very little, so it’s best to run away. Weirdly, this town seems utterly deserted, but it is a high street and I’m assuming the guys have left at sunrise, so maybe no one’s showed up yet for work or to shop.

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Sanctuary is found in a dry cleaners, although Mr. Multiple Heads is lurking outside. Winston reckons that Drool must be innocent, because this thing doesn’t look like Drool. Sounds logical. Peter shoos the monster away, and that seems to work, but all its done is turn into mist and get in through another door. In a weird turn, Peter says he’s going to get a burger, which I wasn’t expecting him to say. He opens the door and a new monster is there, one that reminds me a little of Hans Moleman from The Simpsons.

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Peter wasn’t expecting this, and runs in fright back to the others, and despite informing them quite coherently of the situation, is accused of ‘babbling’ by Egon. There’s a funny bit where Egon demands an elaboration of what Peter considers to be a monster. Said monster then shows up. ‘That’ll do’, Egon hastily says. Of course, there’s only one logical thing to do – run away again!

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Could a warehouse be a successful hiding spot? Nope. Incidentally, the guys have been doing an awful lot of running around in this act, and given that they’re wearing heavy proton packs, I think severe back pains and spasms are going to be an inevitability. Weirdly, there’s not one episode I can think of that features a Ghostbuster taking painkillers, or wearing some kind of back support. I’m assuming their proton packs were a lot weightier than the ones available to us kids from Argos. Remember them? The proton beam was represented by a twirly stretch of yellow foam that could turn when you pressed a button. Very disappointing. I wanted an actual proton beam, one that could kill.

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Deciding enough is enough, Winston insists that instead of running, they should trap the monster, which I thought was what they normally did in this kind of situation. Four proton beams is normally more than enough to hold a ghost of this or bigger size so that they could trap it. What’s so special about this one that they can’t do that? Anyway, it’s decided that they’ll have to use bait, and it’s Peter is chosen. His job is to keep the monster occupied while the other three get it from the rear. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Actually, it’s appalling, as it’s now that the monster – sorry, the non-amalgamated shape-shifter – decides to turn into a huge cockroach, and Peter’s terrified of them – I’m not scared of them myself, but they do give me the creeps a little and they are pretty grotesque, and a big version would utterly repulse me, especially one that decided to chase me all around a huge warehouse. Besides, a ruse doesn’t work, because the monster shrinks and disappears in a crack in the wall, which meant that Peter was traumatised for nothing. Egon even scolds Peter for not being much help. Gee, thanks mate. Peter seems to be pronouncing cockroach the same way Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface did, which is ‘cock-a-roach’. The guys are frustrated, downtrodden, and it’s only now that they realise that it could still be Drool who’s behind all this, as he was clearly seen to be a shape-shifter earlier. I mean, they’re still wrong about Drool, but at least they’re on the right kind of wrong track. Egon’s not convinced. Ray then recalls a free-floating miasmic phantom that they never managed to trap. Peter specifically remembers the scars he got from one of its forms, a carnivorous vacuum cleaner. He offers to show the others the scars. His request is flatly denied.

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Back at the circus, the guys are ready to capture Drool once and for all, despite still having no evidence. It’s a good thing their tenure as Crime Busters was so short and that the crooks they captured were so obviously crooks, because I think things would have got seriously ugly later down the line when they started busting innocent people on the basis that they were ‘pretty sure’ they were guilty. Winston’s now fully on board the prosecution train, and even Egon has gone back on board his ‘all goblins are scum’ train of thought. Drool gets blasted for an unnecessarily long amount of time, and even though it clearly looks terrified and innocent, the blasting continues. The trap is already be to be opened when LaFarge comes in alerting them to the presence of a hideous monster that’s got some of the public. The guys are then finally convinced that Drool is innocent, but the situation’s got seriously dire, as the monster, who is most likely the old shape changer they previously couldn’t capture, has the public well and truly cornered, and the guys can’t risk hitting the them. What to do? In act of extraordinary bravery, Drool attacks the monster just as its about to likely kill the people (seriously, it looks intent) and bites into its nasty tail. Unfortunately Drool has to keep biting in order to keep the monster at bay, and the guys can’t trap the bad guy without getting Drool too, but Drool insists they trap it anyway.

Which they do.

LaFarge asks the guys if there’s no way to release Drool from the trap, but Ray tells her that when you trap two ghosts at the same time, their molecules merge and they can’t be separated. At least he’ll be at home in the ecto-containment unit. Now this is odd – in ‘Xmas Marks the Spot’, three ghosts are incarcerated in the same trap, are put in the containment unit and eventually found and released, with no reference to molecule merging. Why can’t the guys just put Drool in the containment unit and get him back out again? No, it’s a done deal. Drool’s trapped. And it’s bloody devastating. LaFarge is utterly bereft, lamenting Drool’s fate, telling the guys that he was beloved and that he was a kind soul, and that he was lonely too, which was why he joined the circus in the first place. He will never be forgotten. The episode ends with a shot of the trap, light flashing, Drool and monster both inside, the music a curious selection – it’s the ‘job well done’ theme that usually ends a day’s hard work, and as such comes off as really harsh. Such a brutal ending. The guys look like they feel guilty, and they bloomin’ well should be too. This is a great episode, but one I have issues with.

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PS: A dybbuk, which is one of the many, many, many examples Egon, Ray and Winston suggest/taunt Peter with in regards to what the monster may change into next in the warehouse, is ‘a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. It supposedly leaves the host body once it has accomplished its goal, sometimes after being helped.’ Thanks again, Wiki!

Next time, we have an episode that’ll make you never complain about the long journey back home from work again.

Rose Elinor Dougall: ‘Make it With You’

The road to the third album begins here…

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So… last Tuesday… just another day. Sign in at work at 9am, sign out at 5pm, the usual. But somewhere in-between I see a tweet from Rose Elinor Dougall informing us to keep an eye out for something new in 24-or-so hours time and my attention is well and truly caught – a new song, hopefully?

Dougall’s last album, 2017’s Stellular, was frankly the finest album I’d heard this century. I can’t really say much more about it than I already have done, but I have to say here that it encapsulated everything I love about pop music in one concentrated blast of ecstatic, sad, beautiful, sexy, haunting, catchy and spine-tingling euphoria. I wish it had done better in the charts – songs these good deserve to be heard more, but there you go. It wasn’t to be. The public’s loss. What do they know, eh?

I remember writing at the end of my review that there was no need to look forward to what Dougall would do next, because what we had right there and then was more enough, but time passes, and new songs inevitably come along. Given that Stellular was an absolute high for me, what happens after that? Well, a fall isn’t necessarily inevitable. I mean, if Stellular was Dougall’s Ziggy Stardust, then her next album could very well be her Aladdin Sane, and that would be A Very Good Thing Indeed, right? Still, I was a little bit nervous – could Dougall deliver a song as wonderful as anything on Stellular?

Aaaaaagh! Enough with the suspense! Yes, she can, alright?!!! Happy now?

Well, you should be. What a gorgeous song this is.

‘Make it With You’ is recognisably Dougall, but also sounds like the start of new territory for her. There are shades of Without Why‘s occasionally forlorn balladry, but now it feels imbued with the richer textures of Stellular as well as a more mature, sadder perspective. It sounds like the next step from the latter’s album’s closer ‘Wanderer’, but the mood is even more intimate, even more personal. I imagine when performed live this is going to be very special indeed. I wonder how the rest of the album will sound. As a lead single it’s remarkably subtle and quietly emotional. Dougall has a way with balladry and melodic shifts that clutches the heart and reduces me to a right old state. Seriously. I’m talking close to tears here, people.

The song appears to be about a relationship which is at a crossroads – there’s doubt and uncertainty here, yet hope and optimism, albeit of the bruised kind, too. The words are sparse, but each line cuts deep. I won’t delve into them here, because the song is too new for me and I think these lines should only be heard within the context of the song itself. I don’t want to try and take the song apart, not just yet. I feel like I should barely be talking about this  – Dougall sounds like she’s putting her heart out on record and here I am blithely writing about it.

What I will say that there is a beautiful directness to the words  that is very affecting and, couple with the music, proves to be quite powerful indeed. I won’t go into specific moments, but I heard shades of Pulp’s mid-eighties sound – notably that eerie violin drone of theirs that gave some of their B-sides a particular chill. Also, a vaguely country feel somewhere between the layers of sound. Also, an ambient hum – is that a mellotron? Some achingly lovely piano. A bit of Bowie’s ‘Five Years’-in-slow-motion with its beat.

I’ve listened to this song loads of times already in just these few days, and it’s a really special slow-dance of a song that’ll turn those grey skies outside a deep, dark blue. Yes, blue. I hear this song bathed in dreamy, sad, beautiful blue and I want to fall into it, and that’s what playing the song on loop is for, I guess. Also, the song features the word ‘renowned’, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in a song before. Bravo.

Listen to or buy ‘Make it With You’ here – the single package also features an edit of the title track and a lovely cover of Dave Cousins blissful/spooky 1972 song ‘Two Weeks Last Summer’, which strips down the trippiness of the original and plays up its acoustic, bucolic core. It’s very, very nice indeed.

The Films of Dario Argento: Tenebrae (1982)

Back on the giallo brick road….

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This review contains spoilers.

Tenebrae marked Dario Argento’s return to the giallo genre after a detour into supernatural horror for Suspiria and Inferno, and it remains one of his best, most fascinatingly multi-layered thrillers. I first watched it in slightly censored form on VHS at the turn of the century, when Nouveaux Pictures unearthed it from unavailability ever since it was blacklisted as a video nasty back in the early eighties. Note the above UK quad poster, where a red ribbon was superimposed over the original artwork’s slashed neck. It’s since been released totally uncut, and that’s really the only way to truly appreciate this blood-soaked classic.

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Despite the title (it means ‘darkness’ in Italian), it’s actually one of Argento’s most brightly lit, starkly shot movies, and in one scene, we’re shown that even hanging out in a public spot in broad daylight is no guarantee of safety. The horror genre had come a long way since Argento’s last giallo – 1975’s Deep Red – and Tenebrae does more than enough to ensure that Argento was not going to be dismissed as out of touch. The gore is bang-up-to-date in line with the expectations of an audience brought up on the grisly likes of Halloween II, The Burning, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dawn of the Dead and the Friday the 13th series, the music is the most electronic of any Argento film to date and the plot so outrageous that even hardened giallo fans would have had difficulty second-guessing it. Oh, and there’s an arcade cabinet in one scene – hello, 1982!!! There’s also far more sexual undertones than in any Argento film to date – I’m not talking about actual sex, although some characters do have it offscreen, but more the seamy, sleazy essence of it in the air, and the darker side of its consequences. The film itself is not sleazy though, this ain’t Fulci’s New York Ripper!

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The plot is bound to confound on first viewing, so it’s best just to enjoy the ride. For what it’s worth, it involves American bestseller Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arriving in Rome only to be questioned by police over the recent murder of a woman who had pages of his recent paperback hit Tenebrae stuffed in her mouth. It turns out that the murderer is an ultra-prudish psychopath who wishes to cleanse the world of its filthy sinners, and Neal maybe the intended final victim, so in true Argento fashion, he decides to play amateur sleuth, with (in even truer Argento fashion) very unpredictable results. There’s an assortment of characters, and only one with them will make it to the end credits, including Neal’s devoted secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi), his hat-loving agent Bulmer (John Saxon), Bulmer’s wide-eyed junior assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), detectives Germani (Guilano Gemma) and Alteri (Carola Stagnaro), journalists Tilde (Mirelle D’Angelo) and Christiano (John Steiner), friendly neighbour Maria (Lara Wendel) and Neal’s estranged wife Jane (Veronica Lario). Who’s the killer? Who’s going to die in the most grotesque way? Such fun awaits….

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The opening scene is a belter – a fire crackles and burns as an unidentified figure wearing black glove (no, really?) turns the pages of a book – Tenebrae by Peter Neal – and a voiceover narrates the text. A voiceover begins that sounds an awful lot like David Warner, even though he’s not credited. It’s got to be him though, right? The words are an incredibly foreboding and frighteningly vivid depiction of the twisted allure of murder. Really, it makes me think Tenebrae should have been a real-life novel. It could have been a best seller. The book is then thrown onto the fire and then the music kicks in and everything is all well and good in Argentoland. The score is by Goblin in all but name – almost all the band members worked on the film and the results are tremendous – the opening theme replaces the band’s flirtations with prog and updates it with an electro-disco vibe that’s brilliantly catchy.

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Apparently set a few years in the future, Tenebrae has no supernatural leanings, but plenty of surrealism. The set-design is clinically neat, full of white (all the better to contrast with the blood), brutalist architecture and (I didn’t notice this until it was brought up) lacking in any obvious signs that this is set in Rome. Really, this film could have been set anywhere, and as such, gives the action a weirdly universal setting. It’s a far cry from Suspiria and Inferno – the whole experience is to be honest, especially given that everybody expected Argento to wrap up his Three Mothers trilogy at this point (especially since the name of the film recalls Mater Tenebrarum, the antagonist in Inferno).

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Style is in abundance in Tenebrae. The editing is excellent, especially the cutaways to the whirring camera whenever the killer is documenting their handiwork. The jump scares are great – you know they’re coming, but they still get you. Then there are the times when you don’t know they’re coming. For example, there’s a remarkable shot at the end when a character moves out of frame to reveal the killer standing directly behind them – he was there all that time but perfectly obscured by the man in front of him. Brian de Palma borrowed this trick for the closing shot of Raising Cain, and there it scared the living fuck out of me, especially because it ended the film on such an unexpected and WTF shock, perfect to cut to black from and leave the audience flabbergasted. I watched Raising Cain a long time before I saw Tenebrae though, so when I did experience this killer visual jolt once more, it was just as susprising and breathtaking. Saying that, the beauty of this precise kind of shock is that there’s absolutely no way you can see it coming, not unless you remain on edge during every single minute of every single thriller for the rest of your life. No thanks.

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Above all else though, we have the film’s most admired set-piece, and one of the most delightfully unnecessary examples of sheer cinematic flair ever executed. Peter’s friend Tilde comes back to her house, annoyed that her girlfriend has gone off with some beefcake for the night and while she throws a strop in her room, we cut to the outside of the house, where the camera, that we initially assume is representing the POV of the killer, decides to go off on an aerial wander of its own. Soon it becomes obvious – there’s no way this could be the killer – no one could be this graceful. No, the camera is Argento, the camera is YOU, the camera is ME and we’re just getting off on the views. The main Tenebrae theme accompanies this segment, and it’s one of the most delightful cinema-for-cinema’s sake scenes ever. Once we’re done with the scenic route, we cut back to the inside of the house, and in an extra neat touch, it’s revealed that Tilde’s girlfriend is the one playing the Tenebrae theme on her stereo, and naturally it’s too loud. ‘TURN IT DOWN!’. She then attempts to change clothes, but whilst she’s caught up inside her top, the killer (now in the house) has realised that this is the perfect opportunity for a beautifully framed shot, one for the posters, the ads, the trailers – he slashes a hole in her top so that we see Tilde’s shocked face inside the space. There’s a moment to savour the elegance, and then the bloody aftermath.

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Oh yes, the violence. It’s utterly full-on – no holding back here. Of all the films of his to feature violence against women, Tenebrae probably has the most of it, despite, or maybe even because of the fact that the script itself calls to attention this very accusation of the director’s output, with Neal essentially an Argento surrogate for the scenes when he’s under fire. This could have been a dreary act of finger-pointing to his critics, but Argento keeps points short and sweet, and often pretty witty. I must say that of all of Argento’s films, Tenebrae does boast some of his liveliest, most allusive and clever dialogue. The bright script clearly bled into the performances, given the weird glee with which our detectives tread towards the dark side, calling to mind the seemingly at-odds enthusiasm of Argento’s previous giallo sleuths. Take the character of Gianni, Bulmer’s young apprentice, who seems to be loving all of this whodunnit lark. Even after he’s found out that Maria is dead (he seemed to like her; you think he’d have been shaken up by her murder), he’s still going about all of this with a perverse enthusiasm. Of course, like most of Argento’s overly keen sleuths, he ultimately sees too much and ends up pretty messed up because of it, but only in a film like this could he have maintained that much sanity so long into such a blood-drenched narrative.

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Of course, being an Argento film, there’s that unmistakable humorous vibe that may or may not be intentional – the performances are ever-so-slightly broad, slightly soapy, yet very entertaining. Sometimes the comic beats are a little off, but compared to other, later Argento films, it’s a masterclass in timing. Anthony Franciosa is one of Argento’s best leads – engaging, fun and charming, which makes it all the more shocking when Neal turns out to be an absolute psycho. Daria Nicolodi wasn’t too impressed with the character of Anne – indeed, it’s the most functional of all the characters she played in an Argento film and she admits she would have preferred to play Jane – and yet she gives a fine, warm performance and of course gets to scream her head off in the final scene, so much indeed that her voice bleeds over into the end credits after the fade to black. Supporting performances are fun too – there’s a fine roster of actors here who are enjoying the ride up until the point they get brutally murdered.

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Argento has gone on record saying that he’d much rather watch a beautiful woman being murdered on screen, and in that dubious respect, Tenebrae succeeds, with a cast of gorgeous actors who look great and make for glamourous victims too. God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yet Argento has always staged his murder scenes like art installations, and their look is absolutely vital, and there’s always been a digusting beauty to his killings, with the juxtaposition of beautiful victim and horrendous act indeed making for powerful cinema. Besdies, men often get the bad end of it too in Argento’s films – in fact, the second most spectacular death in this film is indeed inflicted upon a man. The big one though, the one that got the BBFC in a flutter, is the death of Jane, Neal’s wife, who has humiliated him by having an affair with Bulmer. When she gets her hand chopped off by an axe, the ensuing spray of blood resembles an artist throwing paint on the canvas. It’s absolutely spectacular, horrendous and troublingly beautiful. You can see why the British censors got worried about it (though they were overreacting to everything with a vengeance around this time), because it looks too damn good. Yet to be honest, this is what divorces the violence in this film reality – it’s so artfully staged that even the messy stuff has a kind of intentional, staged look to it. Real violence wouldn’t look this good.

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That scene is just one of many acts of violence in an ending which amounts to a total bloodbath, real Grand Guignol stuff – indeed, it this ever had been performed on stage, the first ten rows at least would have been drenched in claret. Pretty much all of the cast are dead by the end, and the lone survivor is clearly going to need therapy for years to come. Inferno more or less killed its cast by the end too, but whereas the deaths of those characters were arguably void of any real emotional impact (barring the two of the earliest victims), by the end of Tenebrae the cumulative effect of all this murder is pretty damn chilling. I’m not saying that the film is a masterclass in three-dimensional characterisation, but Argento does seem more invested in the fate of these characters and their inevitable demises. Whereas I couldn’t really give two hoots about the deaths of Kazanian, the maid, the butler, Varelli, etc. in Inferno (they were all dicks anyway), the brutal dispatching of the nice guys in Tenebrae remains shocking, and even the deaths of the less sympathetic characters chill to the bone. This is definitely Argento at his cruellest and most harsh. And yet, like the enthusiastic response of the characters, it’s difficult not to get swept up in all of the gory chaos. After all, it’s just a film, and when everything comes together in such bloodily spectacular fashion by the end, it’s difficult not to walk away from the film as satisfied as you would be after a great meal.

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Of all of Argento’s films, this is probably the most self-reflexive, and raises a hell of a lot of questions. Does art inspire its viewers to commit crimes? Does the content reflect the views of the artist? In the opening press conference, Tilde, despite being good friends with Neal, uses this opportunity to critique him about the content of his novels, specifically the problematic instances of ‘women as victims, ciphers, the men with their hairy macho bullshit’, to which Neal insists that his novels are not sexist, and what’s more, he supports women’s rights. Tilde retorts with ‘okay, so explain the books’, a question which sadly is never answered because she’s murdered before the planned follow-up interview. This does however bring up the question of an artist’s responsibility when it comes to their content – having evil or sexist characters in a book doesn’t necessarily mean the author is evil or sexist, but if the general tone is sexist, then it’s only to fair to assume that the author is too, unless, as Tilde suggests, Neal is writing to a pattern and knows fully well that this ‘kind of sexism sells’, which in theory makes him just as bad as the authors who do believe this stuff. The message is still the same. Incidentally, Argento himself was stalked by an obsessive fan before starting work on this film, so it’s easy to understand why the subject matter would be so close to the director’s heart, which is maybe why he concentrated on this rather than follow-up on Inferno.

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At the same time, Argento is showing up the mechanics of the horror and exploitation film. Brian de Palma was doing a similar thing near this time with Body Double – check the end credits scene and its ‘film-within-a-film’ gag, where what normally would be a half-convincing scene involving a vampire biting a woman’s neck (causing her blood to seep down onto her breasts) is exposed, thanks to editing, to reveal that the woman having her neck bitten and the woman whose breasts are covered in blood are not the same person. It’s a body double! Tenebrae does a similar thing, if not so blatantly-meta, where Neal slices his own throat with a razor only for us to discover moments later that it was a staged death – the razor is a dummy which spurts fake blood whenever a button is pushed. It’s a neat trick, and it makes one realise that all the horrific gore that we’ve witnessed so far is also fake. Axe in the head? Fake. Strangulation? Fake. This is a bold move, because it potentially takes you out of the film, but Argento’s almost always been one for disrupting narratives and pulling the rug out from underneath us. This may be why Suspiria remains his most popular movie, because it’s arguably the one that plays the least amount of tricks with us, opting for an unrelenting, uninterrupted nightmare.

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Essentially, Argento is saying it’s just a movie, just like Peter Neal’s Tenebrae is just a book. It’s a safe outlet for our fears, and yes, our latent, voyeuristic and even sadistic desires, as well as those of the artist. Hey, I have these desires too, but, I must add, only in the context of movies! I know this is just a film, I know this isn’t real, and yet I do allow myself to suspend disbelief so that I can indulge my desires for a powerful, effective cinematic experience. Horror films wouldn’t be much fun if I kept saying it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie… I want to be scared, I want to be (safely) disturbed, I want to lose myself, I want to experience this illicit (and I must repeat, fictional) danger. In the end, it is just a movie.

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Yet, we also have a bit at the end where Neal is killed with a work of art (a rather pointy sculpture), and some critics have taken this to be Argento’s way of saying that art is dangerous. He definitely believes that art has the power to affect us intensely, as his later thriller The Stendhal Syndrome would prove. Indeed, the novel Tenebrae is the trigger for Berti’s murder spree, if not the root cause. To quote Scream, ‘movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative’. In fact, it’s suggested that organised religion may be a key factor, both killers admit to being brought up as Catholics during their interview together. Yet Berti is no stereotype – he says he believes in abortion and divorce, for example. Berti’s disgust with his victims – and it’s telling that they’re all women, while Neal is definitely an equal ops murderer – is rooted by some kind of sexual repulsion towards the female sex, which may or may not be rooted in his religious upbringing. He pretty much suggests this himself during his interview with Neal. He thinks homosexuality is ‘deviant’, something incidentally, that Neal disagrees with. According to Neal, the killer in his novel doesn’t have a sensible moral outlook because he or she ‘is insane’. Odd that this line is spoken by someone who turns out to be totally insane himself!

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This is where the logic of Tenebrae becomes confusing – Neal seems perfectly normal for the first two thirds of the movie. The reason the final twist is so shocking is because no one could have seen it coming. When we find out that not only is Neal the second murderer, but that he also killed decades earlier, it makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve just seen. Watching Tenebrae again knowing the facts, it’s interesting to observe Neal as he goes about his business. There’s nothing here that suggests he’s insane, even latently so – some mild frustration with Jane over the phone at the airport, that instant, curt brushing away of the photo of the shoplifter’s body when shown to him by the police, that’s about it.

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Let’s consider the flashbacks. Seen from the point-of-view of the killer, we witness a woman (Eva Robins) seducing a group of young men on the beach, an act which clearly disgusts Neal (for that’s who ‘we’ are here) as he slaps her face. This leads to the woman sending the men after a fleeing Neal, who pounce on and pin him down as she forces her blood-red stiletto into his mouth, a bizarre act, but one loaded with sexual, violent connotations. Many have commented that this is an act of rape upon Neal, which humiliates him to such an extent that he later kills the woman and steals her shoes for good measure, thereby regaining his masculine control. He later anonymously gives the shoes to Jane as a present (she thinks they’re from Bulmer), possibly to anticipate the inevitable renactment of his earlier killing. When watching Tenebrae for the first time, we assume (retrospectively, from his confession onwards) that the flashback scenes are from the mind of Berti, but they turn out to be Neal’s. This is good wrong-footing, as we instantly assume these tormented flashbacks to be those of the killer – never mind that they belong to another killer, it’s still a good twist, even if the character of Berti ends up being a loose end. I mean, what made him the way he is? Argento literally takes an axe to that plot thread. Never mind. Anyway, now that we know that the flashbacks belong to him and not Berti, it’s clear that even from the start of the film, Neal is clearly disturbed, and yet it’s difficult to reconcile the later Neal and the agonised silhouette suffering from memories of past crimes with the cheery, happy-go-lucky amateur sleuth whose company we so enjoyed the first time around. Maybe he’s just too good at supressing this dark side of his nature for the most part, but it would have been nice if Argento had given Neal some characteristics that would have made it all come together on repeat viewings, but then I suppose it wouldn’t have been as shocking a twist, and Argento does love a rug-pull, even if it is at the expense of common sense.

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Tenebrae continued Argento’s golden run in spectacular fashion, but there are some who would argue that this is where it ended for him, with Phenomena and Opera considerable steps down, which is a fair assessment, as they are both flawed films, but they’re also too damned brilliant to be regarded as anything less than prime Argento. Nevertheless, this is super-prime Argento, a giallo classic, a thrilling ride and infinitely rewatchable. After all, there is only one answer to the fury that tortures you when you’re struggling to think of a classic thriller to watch. Well, there’s actually more than one answer, but one of them is definitely Tenebrae.

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

‘The Animal Trilogy’, aka The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

 

’18 and Cry? A Look at the new Never Let Me Down by David Bowie

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Another year, another new David Bowie box set with, among other things, a new take on an established classic.

Oh wait, this is Never Let Me Down we’re talking about here, right?

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Bowie’s 1987 album, his seventeenth, is usually regarded as his absolute worst, his great misfortune, as bad as or even worse than its similarly lambasted predecessor, 1984’s Tonight. Thirty- one years later, it’s getting a belated makeover, or a dressing down at the very least. Each of the box sets in Parlophone’s Bowie retrospective programme has featured an alternate version of a particular studio album. The first two sets – Five Years and Who Can I Be Now? – featured down-mixed-from-5.1 versions of Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station respectively, but last year’s A New Career in a New Town went one step further and explicitly set out to improve what was considered by creators, critics and fans as a compromised album, 1979’s Lodger.

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Lodger had been long criticised for it’s ‘muddy’ sound and was regarded as the runt of the Berlin Trilogy, so news of a buffed-up remix, addressing what producer Tony Visconti and Bowie had considered to be flaws in the production, was eagerly anticipated. Having initially struggled with the original album myself when I first heard it nearly twenty years ago, I soon came to adore Lodger, warts and all, and loved the messy, queasy, claustrophobic sound of it. I wasn’t sure it needed any further work, but I had to admit that the thought of it getting a makeover to approximate Bowie and Visconti’s original vision did intrigue me.

In the end Lodger ’17 was a bit of a disappointment – it sounded bigger for sure, but its cavernous drum sound sounded at odds with the original era, its revisionist mixing occasionally crass and clumsy. On the other end of the spectrum, the stuff originally on Lodger that was intentionally clumsy, most notably the famously twisted, atonal guitar solo at the end of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, was removed, a decision I don’t think I’ve heard a positive word about. Lodger wasn’t perfect, but that kind of made it perfect in a weird way. After all, one of the album’s original titles was Planned Accidents, and this new mix made me realise that, yes, the album that we got in 1979 might not have been the one its makers had dreamed of, but it still turned out great. They should have left it alone. But then box sets aren’t sold with that kind of philosophy. They need tantalising hooks to draw us in. And that brings us to Never Let Me Down 2018, aka, Okay, We Admit It, We Let You Down.

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Bowie’s 1980’s has been a problematic phase of the man’s career for many fans. If we put aside the valedictory, phenomenal achievement of 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the odd single like ‘Under Pressure’, nearly everything Bowie released in that decade was tarred with the ‘too commercial’ stick. Much of this music shifted units, but it didn’t rank as highly as Bowie’s 70’s, which, lest we forget, is home to one of the finest runs of recorded music ever released. Case in point: when EMI re-released the Bowie albums on CD in 1999, I remember reading a review in Q Magazine where the writer reckoned that Let’s Dance, despite selling more copies than any Bowie album, was in fact no one’s favourite Bowie album. That review was a long time ago, though, and I think things have changed and that quite a few people would indeed hold that album very dear to their hearts. Indeed recently, the band Let’s Eat Grandma, whose members weren’t even born when that Q review that came out, included Let’s Dance in their list of their thirteen favourite albums. So I guess anything can eventually rise to the top, and stuff that’s not initially considered ‘classic’ era material can mean just as much to a listener as say, Hunky Dory or Low. Yep. Anything.

Except Never Let Me Down.

I can say with complete confidence that it is definitely no one’s favourite David Bowie album, and I doubt it ever will be. It was intended by Bowie at the time as a return to rock roots and artistic form following his misplacement of the muse on 1984’s Tonight, an album not as quite horrible as you’ve heard, but nevertheless a somewhat thin stew of odds and sods, covers and tepid production. Still, it had ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Loving the Alien’, not to mention the ambitiously bonkers ‘Dancing with the Big Boys’, so it had some merit. But at the time it was seen as a let-down. Three years later, during which time he’d worked in film, soundtrack work and of course, gave us ‘Dancing in the Street’, work on Bowie’s next album began. Peter Frampton was the new lead guitarist. Apart from the by-now-requisite Iggy Pop cover version, there was more original material on Never Let Me Down than there had been on a Bowie album since Scary Monsters. Also, Bowie was playing instruments again, even taking lead guitar on a few songs, the first time since…. is it Diamond Dogs?

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Nevertheless, the released album did suffer from a lack of truly strong material, not to mention some questionably OTT production, and despite selling well initially (there were some good reviews too), it quickly came to encapsulate all that was wrong with 80’s Bowie in the eyes and ears of long-term fans and critics, not to mention Bowie himself. One fair criticism was that it could have been recorded by absolutely anyone, that it was pop/rock in the broadest and blandest sense (at least by Bowie’s standards). Bowie may have gone ultra-pop and sold millions with Let’s Dance, but he did so in a way that was supremely distinctive, mixing Nile Rodgers’ trademark funk with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar howls. Never Let Me Down on the other hand, was seen as the dismal culmination of ‘what’s been referred to as The Phil Collins Years’.  Bowie, it was said, had never been so irrelevant. When I first heard it, its reputation as a stinker was already set in stone (oh, let’s say one of those stepping stones from The Bog of Eternal Stench), and I didn’t think much of it either, bar the undeniable loveliness of the title track (more of which here). But time will crawl, and so eventually I returned to the album with even fewer expectations, and in that respect, it didn’t let me down. In fact, I found it quite entertaining, quite catchy, and, thanks to its glossy sheen, quite appealing. No, it’s not one of Bowie’s best albums, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, and I continue to appreciate it more and more.

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I mean, this is the album that boasts the sparkling loveliness of the title track, the whirlwind rush of ‘New York’s in Love’, ‘the ugly/pretty’ bounce-funk of ‘Shining Star’ (yep, even the Mickey Rourke rap), the serious/goofy strut of ‘Beat of Your Drum’, the overblown but spectacular ‘Zeroes’…., and that’s not even mentioning the song that everybody’s legally allowed to like from the album, ‘Time Will Crawl’. Okay, not all the songs land, but I can’t help but warm to it. Bowie is on many levels is utterly untouchable and I find it quite endearing that he lost the plot a bit around this time, be it him rollerskating in the video to ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the This Morning/Pebble Mill-style daytime sax that introduces ‘Too Dizzy’, the WTF, out-of-nowhere concept that is ‘Glass Spider’ and its accompanying tour….ultimately I think its bad reputation is more to do with what is and what’s not deemed cool. It definitely doesn’t deserve one star out of five, which is what that Q review from decades ago gave it. Saying that, it is at most a fifth (arguably a twentieth) as good as Low, so maybe one star is appropriate, after all. And that’s why I hate star ratings. Look, if you like 80’s pop, you’ll probably enjoy it. Hey, if you like David Bowie, you’ll probably enjoy it. It isn’t ‘Starman’, but I don’t care. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.

Or….take it and remix it!

Well, not quite remix, because the novelty of the new Never Let Me Down is that, unlike Lodger ’17, where certain existing instrumentation was brought to the fore and others pushed to the background, here we have totally new sounds played by current musicians, including long-time Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar. In other words, it’s a case of ‘look, we couldn’t salvage this knackered old banger, so let’s just replace the parts’. Not all the parts, mind, but a fair few. The most obvious holdover from the original is obviously Bowie himself, who’s not around to redo his vocals. The fact that he’s not here anymore has led to some fans regarding this project as a desecration of his legacy, something made against his wishes and without his involvement. Yet it must be noted that Bowie had long expressed his satisfaction with Never Let Me Down , and had made a point of wanting to try re-do the album, and given that these box sets were most likely planned well in advance whilst Bowie was still alive, I can see this project being very much in line with his intentions. After all, the seeds for this project were sown around a decade ago, when a stripped down, reworked version of ‘Time Will Crawl’, mixed by Bowie collaborator Mario J. McNulty, was released as part of the iSelect compilation in 2008. It was drastically altered, with the bombast removed and its protest message more explicitly transparent. Since then though, there had been no further work done on the rest of the album’s songs.

Until now.

So let’s track-by-track this thing. There are no tracklisting changes or shifting here, unless you count the continued absence of ‘Too Dizzy’, that notorious blast of throwaway sexism that Bowie deemed so objectionable he removed it from all pressings of the album from 1995 onwards. It’s kinda fun, moronically catchy even, but those lyrics about a jealous lover, including the infamous ‘who’s this guy I’m gonna blow away?/What kind of love is he giving you?’ couplet, was enough for Bowie to retrospectively scrap it. I can see why fans might be upset at its disappearance, and to be honest, if that’s where Bowie’s head was at the time of making it, then the album in all its pressings should continue to reflect that state of mind. Oh well, let’s start at the start, shall we?

The stomping ‘Day-In Day-Out’ was originally the lead single for the album, complete with mildly controversial video, a more socially-conscious Bowie lyric (which didn’t convince some) and a massive sound that seemed tailor-made for the stadiums (indeed, it was). As much as I like the song, it was probably the most anonymous Bowie single to date. It sounded like a million other songs from that time. It was good, but was that good enough? The new version does a fine job in easing you into this project gently – it’s different for sure, but compared to some of the later reworkings on this album, not so much so. The essence of the original is very much still there, and aside from those very cool Reeves Gabrels guitars which can’t help but make me think of later-period Bowie, it could pass quite easily as an genuine alternative take from 1987. I do miss the guitar that was in the background during the verses of the original, but overall this is a really good paring down of a song that admittedly suffered from an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production. You know, synthetic, clipped brass. Drum machines. The works. It all became fatiguing after five minutes. On an aside, the vinyl version of Never Let Me Down featured shorter edits, and is slightly preferable to the CD release. The positives of the stripped new version is best showcased on the middle-eight, where the ‘la-la-la-la’s of the original, which used to be submerged, are now brought to the forefront and sound all the better for it. Overall, it’s like a layer of fat has been taken off the surface. Sometimes though, the stripped down approach leaves the song sounding incomplete – take that missing guitar in the verses that I mentioned earlier. It makes the song sound like a demo during these stages. However, at other times, when Gabrels’ new guitars take over (replacing the original, nondescript solo) near the end, the results are brilliant and stop the song from sinking into monotony like before.

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The reworked ‘Time Will Crawl’ is already familiar to fans – I’ve got to be honest, and I never thought I’d say this about a track off this particular album, but this song has almost become overrated, in that it’s the only bloody song on the album that ever seems to get a good review at the expense of everything else, and yet I can sometimes take or leave it. It hits all the right notes and was the sort of thing that sounded good on the radio, but like ‘Day-In, Day-Out’ hardly outstanding. The 2008 MM mix got a lot of praise at the time for scaling back the original’s excesses, but I still think, even in this later version, that it’s merely a decent song, nothing special. Yet it is pretty well loved, even by Bowie himself. The newer version makes things a bit more palatable for the anti-80’s crowd – stronger acoustic guitars, less reverb, real drums, etc. but it also suffers from excessively dry vocal production, just like on the verses of the new ‘Day-In Day-Out’, and stuff like this makes the song occasionally sound like a demo or radio session. For all the flaws of the 1987 Never Let Me Down, at least it sounded like a proper, finished album! This is the problem with making songs ‘nude’, they sound incomplete as a result. On this basis I prefer the original ‘Time Will Crawl’. It sounds fuller.

Now, this is going to seem perverse, but seriously, I prefer ‘Beat of Your Drum’ to the two songs that precede it. In fact, I fucking love this song! On the original it was a very enjoyable mix of cavernous, exciting verses and a rambunctious, supremely dumb chorus that recalled Lou Reed’s similarly silly ‘Banging on Your Drum’. On the new version, the fun element has arguably been removed and in its place a more sober mood – this works well on the verses, where sharp strings replace the synths of before and prove almost as effective, but the once goofy, throwaway, carefree ebullience of the chorus now sounds older, more respectable – it’s still base-level (you can’t get away from that horny, salacious lyric), but more sophisticated, formal and mature, and I don’t know, maybe that makes the words even more decadent and wrong-sounding as a result? Like the Bowie on this version should really know better? Isn’t this song about shagging groupies, and young ones at that? It’s still a great new version though, and the first thing on ’18 that sounds like a genuine, startling alternative, not just a case of a bit of trimming here and there.

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The title track was notably recorded after the bulk of the sessions for the main album, and ended up being the best thing on it. I wrote about this excellent song in further detail before, but just to recap, the 80’s bounce, the great use of slap bass (yes, you read that right), the lovely harmonica, the spot-on homage of Lennon with the vocals helped make it an utter delight of a song, and I think of all the tunes on the album, this is the one that didn’t need altering at all. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happened here. It’s a decent alternative – no slap bass, unsurprisingly – but it does sound a bit more lumpen compared to the original. The new bass feels too loud and overbearing too. To be honest, the original could never be bested in my ears, so that’s a point to the ’87 version.

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‘Zeroes’ was confidently selected as the lead single for NLMD ’18 (it really should have been a single back in ’87), and it was a wise choice – not only is it the album’s most anthemic and joyous song regardless of whether your listening to it in ’87 or ’18, but the new version is a great example of the kind of changes this project has brought about. Originally it was a great, upbeat and admittedly overcooked explosion of a tune, but the new one strips it down and makes it more intimate and yet still huge. Both versions are excellent, and Peter Frampton’s sitar is wisely maintained on the new one, but it still has that ‘dry’ sound on the vocals that occasionally make it sound like a soundcheck.

Still, as much as ‘Zeroes’ has been given a new lease of life, none of the songs have been so drastically altered as the album’s erstwhile laughing stock – ‘Glass Spider’. Since Bowie’s vocals remain unchanged, his opening narration, which details the tiny glass arachnids mourning the disappearance of their formidable mother, is as crazy as ever. Close your eyes and you can almost glimpse a miniature model of Stonehenge being lowered onto the stage. In fact, the original ‘Glass Spider’ may very well be the most preposterous song in the entire Bowie canon. Once the music in the original kicked in, its theatrical, high-concept approach was at odds with the less fantastical tone of the rest of the album. Now however, the up-tempo music has been entirely altered to the extent that it sounds like something from 1.Outside, which is as about as far removed an album from Never Let Me Down as Young Americans is from Earthling. It’s doomy, dystopian and just like before, doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album at all! I’m not sure if this is what Bowie had always preferred the song to sound like, but it sounds pretty damn good anyway!

‘Shining Star (Making My Love)’, despite lyrics alluding to Sinn Fein, bodies covered in scabs and whatnot, was musically the bounciest and most upbeat track on the album. Seriously, you could imagine the Gummi Bears doing their opening titles thing to this song. Maybe Bowie and his band originally recorded it on a trampoline, I don’t know, I haven’t checked. I wouldn’t be surprised though. Some find it unbearably silly, others (like me) think it’s immensely entertaining, especially Bowie’s almost wide-eyed vocal. This is also the song with Mickey Rourke providing a rap, a bizarre turn of events to say the least. The new version remains bouncy, but in a manner closer to 90’s trip-hop than the bubblegum pop of before. A little bit Black Tie, White Noise in fact. I’m surprised they didn’t get Al. Be Sure! to guest rap, but instead it’s Laurie Anderson who replaces Rourke, which is a bit of a cruel move, especially since her delivery is almost identical to Rourke’s anyway, but I guess the cool kids will find it easier to digest the hipper Anderson on record than the guy who ended up playing one of the title roles in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. I hope this new version finds them well.

‘New York’s in Love’ is still a rush, but with an emphasis more on the stomp than the glide, with the drumming recalling the insistent beat of Reality‘s ‘Looking for Water’. On an unpopular album, ‘New York’s in Love’ is exceptionally unpopular, but I really like the original, especially the way it takes flight during the chorus. Like ‘Beat of Your Drum’, it rides along on sheer spirit and bounce. It’s very dumb, it’s not clever, but fuck it, I love it. Funny thing is, near the end of the song, I used to think Bowie sang ‘I can smell a B-side’, as though he knew this wasn’t one of his best songs and he was prepared to relegate it, but on the new version it’s more obvious that he sings ‘Ugly (or ‘ug-er-lee’) on each side’, which may also have been a critique of the original vinyl, I’m not sure. One thing’s for sure, Bowie’s love for the album dwindled sharply after its release. Very sharply. This new version is less excitable, and as such, less exhilarating, but it’s still a lot of fun. I like Gabrels’ guitars, occasionally sounding like vapour trails throughout and blending nicely with Frampton’s original leads. I miss the silly organ from the original though.

‘ ’87 and Cry’, whilst being reasonably catchy, is a pretty nondescript bit of filler on a notably nondescript Bowie LP. Musically, it’s the slackest, most throwaway thing on the album as it presently exists, and to be honest, by this stage, the dependence on straight-up rockers would start to get a bit wearying and conceptually depressing, even if it and the deleted ‘Too Dizzy’ fun bits of filler in themselves. The new version does a fair job in giving it some alternate oomph, I suppose. There’s not much I can say about this song. Skipping over the now deleted ‘Too Dizzy’, we come to closer ‘Bang Bang’, originally an Iggy Pop song from his Party LP, and a song that I had difficulty with on the old album – the production seemed especially dated, particularly during the chorus (the way everything came to a standstill just before Bowie sings ‘I got mine!’ seemed so silly), but I’ve come to like the song quite a bit, it gives the album a little extra push before calling time on Bowie’s commercial phase. One thing’s for sure, the original music better suited the original vocal, which was Bowie at his most flippant and cavalier. Replacing the ultra-glossy pop of ’87 with the moody ’18 music sounds bloody weird, to say the least. Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek voice mixed with an atonal string section makes for an unusual blend, and I’m left thinking – like ‘Glass Spider’, is this really what Bowie wanted ‘Bang Bang’ to sound like all along? Never mind, the awkward tension between old vocal and new music does give the song a new edge.

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It sounds like I’ve been a bit dismissive of the new Never Let Me Down here. On the plus side, the changes are mostly impressive, and there’s nothing here as anachronistic as the weird percussive updates on last year’s Lodger. It’s very rewarding to hear the substantial alterations made to ‘Beat of Your Drum’, ‘Glass Spider’ and ‘Bang Bang’, and when the changes are more subtle, like on ‘New York’s in Love’ or ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the effect is quite pleasing. Nevertheless, I must admit that, having now listened to it, there’s something about this endeavour that I’m not sure about. I truly believe its intentions are noble and passionate, but I also feel at times like it’s trying too hard to court the cool crowd, the kind of listener who’s far too hip or even grouchy to admit liking the original version, as though its brash pop-rock hybrid was something dirty, something to be ashamed of. However, in draining the album of its excesses, some of the original spirit has been taken away too. The new version sounds more tentative, as though the music’s lost its nerve a little, opting to keep a cautious step back while Bowie’s original vocals remain set to full-throttle. Some songs, like ‘Time Will Crawl’ or ‘Never Let Me Down’ don’t match or provide a truly satisfactory alternative to the originals. Still, the whole enterprise works very nicely as an experiment, an interesting ‘what if?’ and I like to think that Bowie would have been very happy with it. I think a lot of listeners will prefer it to the original too. On one level it’s definitely ‘better’, in that all those embarrassing 80’s quirks that many would now consider dated have now been ditched, but you know, I like those quirks! Like it or not, the album is a part of Bowie’s canon, influenced by what came before and an influence on what came after. The album was a response to Tonight and in turn it paved the way for Tin Machine, and I’m glad Parlophone or whoever’s responsible have respected the original’s place in history by making sure it will still be the most commonly available edition (it’s guaranteed to get an individual reissue next year, while this new version will only be available as part of the box set), unlike the recent tinkering of some of Felt’s albums, where the first versions tragically look set to be consigned to obscurity.

So there you go, that’s the new Never Let Me Down. It’s definitely the best of the alternate versions of Bowie albums that these box sets have offered, and I’d like to think that it will also urge listeners to re-evaluate the original. Incidentally, I think this Loving the Alien box set marks the very first time that Bowie’s ‘Phil Collins Years’ have been focused on exclusively, with no overwhelming shadow from either the earlier, classic period or the later comeback material cast over it. On previous compilations and box sets, the likes of ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Underground’ were always going to seem lightweight after “Heroes” and ‘Starman’ and ‘Golden Years’ and all that, but with strict emphasis on this period and with no distractions on either side, this era’s pleasures become all the greater – Let’s Dance sounds like a total classic for probably the first time since 1983, all those odds and ends on soundtracks shine even brighter (‘This is Not America’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’ are absolutely ace, and in its own soppy way, ‘As the World Falls Down’ is really quite beautiful) and you realise that Tonight could have been much better if some of those alternate mixes found on the accompanying Dance compilation had been used instead.

The 80’s Bowie comeback starts here!

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