Inferno (1980)

When is a sequel not a sequel? When it’s Inferno.

Capture

If you’ve read my previous piece on Dario Argento’s 1977 occult horror Suspiria, then you’ll know that I rate it as the most perfect horror ever made. Inferno was Argento’s follow up, and I guess you can call it a sequel because it’s set in the same cinematic universe as before. And yet no characters from it (apart from one tiny cameo) make a reappearance, although one of the actresses – Alida Valli –  does re-appear in a different role. The thing is, Suspiria could have remained a closed movie – yes, it featured plenty of allusions to a wider world where the prospect of sequels could happen, but it didn’t leave you wanting more. It was and is an utterly satisfying cinematic experience.

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Inferno takes Suspiria and builds a bigger mythology around it, introducing the concept of the Three Mothers; three witches devoted to evil, suffering, etc, and who each reside in their own house of monstrousness. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Helena Markos, the Black Queen of the Tanzakadamie in Suspiria, was the Mother of Sighs, aka Mater Suspiriorum, the oldest and wisest of the three, who by now has already been dispatched. This leaves the Mother of Tears, who will get her own movie much further down the line in the rubbish film of the same name, and The Mother of Darkness/ Mater Tenebrarum, who is the focus of Inferno, and who resides in New York.

Get it?

Got it?

Good.

Unfortunately, compared to the success of Suspiria – both critically and commercially – Inferno floundered. However, like all of Argento’s films from his classic 1975-1987 period, it has garnered a substantial cult reputation, and there are even some horror critics who rate it a notch above Suspiria. Undoubtedly, it showcases the director at his wildest, throwing all kinds of logic, structure and normality to the wind. It has a truly insane, unpredictable charm that genre fans will get a kick out of, despite, or maybe because of its apparent problems. Of all of Argento’s classic-era films, those all-too familiar accusations of zero plot and incoherence are arguably best levelled towards this one. I never thought Suspiria was incoherent myself, but I must admit that Inferno often resembles a stream-of-consciousness that can be as thrilling as it is infuriating. Unlike its predecessor, which delved deeper and deeper into its catacombs of terror with such delectable and crowd-pleasing precision that it managed to cross over into near-mainstream acceptance, Inferno regularly jolts you out of its occasionally hypnotic pull with a random subplot or a tendency towards silliness. People have berated scenes in Suspiria like the bat sequence (which I love), but that’s nothing compared to the cat-attack in this film. To put it mildly, cats are not the most disciplined of actors, and they’re not going to pounce under anyone’s orders, not even Dario Fuckin’ Argento, so what we get is a set-piece involving felines being somewhat inelegantly thrown into shot onto poor Daria Nicolodi, possibly by the crazy cat lady from Zombie Simpsons, and it’s more amusing than funny.

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Stuff like this added up to an ever-so-slightly disappointing experience for me upon first viewing – Inferno seemed all over the place, too silly. Yet there were many – dozens at least – examples of stunning little moments, bravura set-pieces, insane music and gorgeous visuals that made me realise I should give it more time. No, it didn’t quite satisfy me first time round but that only made me hungry to watch it again, to try and make sense of it all. I wanted to love it more. And indeed, I soon loved it for what it was, not for what it wasn’t. Inferno is illogical if you try and treat it as a regular horror film – unlike Suspiria it is far too choppy and odd to have caught on with the mainstream viewer, but for those who are willing to be taken for an idiosyncratic ride, it delivers many, many twisted pleasures. This is the kind of film cult cinema is made of – it follows its own rules, is totally individual and yet thanks to Suspiria‘s success, has had a delightfully large chunk of money thrown at it. I mean, it looks amazing. Let’s be honest, story and dialogue are not Argento’s strong suits, and the bigger budget he had to work with, the more he was able to go full throttle with his visions and as such compensate for his failings in other areas. Low-budget Argento movies as a result are usually pretty scrappy, cheap affairs – Inferno isn’t one of those movies. In fact, when you see the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare that some prints of the film begin with, you’re almost fooled into thinking that this might be a mainstream film. Yeah, right. Okay, the film feels more contemporary and tied to the real world than Suspiria, where the shut-in atmosphere was very oppressive, and granted, the film is set in New York, and that might suggest a more Hollywood influence, but it’s a Big Apple viewed through the Italian horror/Argento lens. Central Park has never looked less like Central Park than it does here.

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The plot, on the surface at least, is very simple. Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle – yes, that really is her surname!) has been reading up on The Three Mothers and it turns out that the apartment block she lives in is the dwelling place of the Mother of Darkness. She writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) about the weirdness of her surroundings, but gets murdered before he turns up. Mark takes over detective duties but only finds out what we all knew from the start – this house is FUCKED and the Mother of Darkness is not a very nice person. It all ends with…. an INFERNO.

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In addition, we get side-characters like Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who unwittingly gets dragged into this whole conspiracy when Mark leaves the letter Rose sent him behind without reading it. She reads it, does a little detective work of her own and gets murdered, along with a sleazy but ultimately good guy (Gabriele Lavia – Carlo from Deep Red!) who ‘has nothing to for the next few hours’ and decides to keep Sara company right up to and including both of their deaths. There’s also Kazanian, the crotchety old antique seller who really, really hates cats and who knows a little about what’s going on, but not enough to help him make it to the end credits. There’s a countess who knows too much – she doesn’t last long. Other residents in the building seem to be in on the Three Mothers game to varying degrees of importance. None of them make it either. I think the only characters who do survive are Mark, but even he seems oblivious as to how he’s managed to do so, and the mysterious Third Mother, who has an unforgettable brief appearance in a lecture theatre, along with her astonishing cat. She will re-emerge decades later in Mother of Tears, albeit played by a different actress. The actress playing her in this film – Ania Pieroni – would star in Argento’s next film Tenebrae, but as payback for her having survived Inferno, her character’s the first one to be murdered.

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The first half or so of Inferno is unrelentingly fantastic. Fuck three-act structure, it’s just non-stop weird momentum all the way. Not quite as unforgettably intense as the opening of Suspiria, admittedly, but a magnificent, immediately hypnotic experience nonetheless. Unlike the sparse, direct information directed to us by the narrator in Suspiria, here we get an onslaught of mythology derived from The Three Mothers, a tome written by an architect named Varelli who built the dwelling places where the eponymous witches settled. It’s best not to try and take it all in – to be fair, the narration is even drowned out at one point by the music score, so it’s pointless trying to keep up. There’s some stuff about hidden keys, one of which is in a cellar, and another, somewhat cryptically, can be found ‘under the soles of your shoes’. Our main character, Rose Elliott is reading The Three Mothers, and appears to be residing in the New York house of the Mother of Darkness, which, unlike the dance academy of Suspiria, is an apartment block. Rose visits Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) to try and get a grasp on the weirdness between the pages and her surroundings too (it literally smells funny round these parts). She checks out the cellar (there may be a key down there…) – and, you know, what the hell, she only goes inside, where there’s a leak in the pipes that leads to a shallow-looking puddle that’s not shallow at all – in fact, it’s a hole that leads into a sunken ballroom!

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This is bizarre Argento logic at its best – this is like a dream set to celluloid, and just like a dream, inexplicable behaviour ensues. That’s right, Rose accidentally drops her brooch into the ballroom and decides to swim underwater to retrieve it! What follows is pretty much what you’d expect to happen in a film like this. From there on we’re rolling, and Argento doesn’t let up – the next scene introduces Mark and Sara at music theory class, and Mark seems to be the only one who can see the Mother of Tears staring directly at him, mouthing incomprehensible whispers, and petting her super-fluffy cat. No one else seems to notice, not even when the windows burst open and gales of wind come through. He’s so freaked out by this he doesn’t even read the letter Rose sent him, and just as we were getting used to Rose being out of the narrative, Mark takes a walk too and we’re left with Sara. This kind of perspective jumping might rub some viewers up the wrong way, but for a good chunk of this film, it works. Now, the music in this film has been impressive, yet almost restrained given who the composer is. Until now.

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Yep, fair play to Argento for trying new things – the formidable Goblin were jettisoned here in favour of Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer – his approach is even more prog-influenced than this predecessors. After all, he was one of the major players of the genre at the time, and he doesn’t hold back in his ornate, wildly over-the-top approach. Sometimes chilling, sometimes beautiful, often extravagant, Emerson gives Inferno a feel all of its own. His tendency (as was ELP’s) to update classical pieces to modern-day instrumentation is in full flow here, as evidenced by his (some would say garish) update of Verdi’s Nabucco during Sara’s taxi ride sequence. When I first heard this music, I almost choked – it is so, so, so silly. And yet it’s kinda brilliant! Absolutely, utterly mad. The eagle-eyed will notice that Sara’s cab driver is the same bloke who drove Suzy to the Tanzakademie in Suspiria – a brilliant touch. Who’d have thought a cabbie’s route would encompass continents? More crazy logic ensues as Sara arrives at the library to find The Three Mothers. She asks the librarian where she might find a copy – turns out there’s one right behind her! Now this is the sort of shortcut storytelling that might piss off a fair few viewers. To be honest, I found it quite funny. She attempts to steal the book (very naughty) but winds up getting lost, finding herself in some odd subterranean kitchen. The chef seems quite happy to point her in the right direction, but then he realises she’s got The Three Mothers in her possession, and ends up trying to kill her over it. Sara relinquishes the book, but she’s already doomed. Talk about entrapment. I mean, why make the book loanable if you’re only going to kill anyone who tries to borrow it? Trust me, I work in a library. This stuff is important.

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Sara goes back to her apartment block but doesn’t want to be alone, so sleazy Carlo is more than happy to keep her company. Carlo is a sports journalist and given that he has no artistic bones in his body (he believes only in what he can see….and what he can touch) and doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, he’s just got to die. Saying that, almost everybody dies in this film, regardless of their outlook. Sara tries to steer things towards the highbrow by putting on that same Verdi piece we heard earlier (‘you probably recognise this’, she says – I bet dollars to donuts he bloody well hasn’t), but when she tries to ring Mark to tell him about the letter, the electricity in the room starts to go off and on, making the music stop abruptly before restarting. This is great, this bit – instead of a quiet-quiet-LOUD shock we get a loud-loud-QUIET scare, and it’s very effective. There’s also a bit in this sequence that really stands out – we cut to a pair of gloved hands creating a daisy chain of cut-out figures, proceeding to decapitate them with scissors. It recalls the extreme close-ups of the gloved hand playing with their mementos in Deep Red. Then we cut to a woman being hanged. Who is this woman? It is never explained. It throws you out of the narrative with immediate effect, and it’s quite unnerving. It’s proof of Argento’s willingness to experiment – there is nothing like this moment in Suspiria, nothing that knocks you sideways in this manner. Now some may say this is a good thing or a bad thing – for all of Suspiria‘s otherworldliness, its approach is nevertheless streamlined and consistent, whereas Inferno disrupts its own spell with a new spell, and the effect may intrigue as much as it may annoy.

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Back to the film though, and Carlo tries check the fuse box but Sara next sees him with a knife through his neck – we get some grisly close ups as he slobbers gore over her during his death throes. Sara’s the next to go – ouch. Mark shows up with no idea as to what’s happening, and the telephone line’s glitchy when he tries to call Rose, so he’s still none the wiser. We stay with Rose, who has proved to be too inquisitive for her own good. She ends up dead in a terrifically creepy scene where she hopelessly wanders the building. The lighting in this scene is amazing. Like Suspiria, Inferno has a rich, intense colour scheme – the first great example of this is in the opening scene where the camera moves away from Rose writing her letter to Mark and focuses on an illustration of her apartment block. The music builds up and we cut to the building itself from the outside, the lower section bathed in lovely pink lighting.

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The lighting goes into overdrive for Rose’s final scene, which ends with a horrible shock as a pair of wizened hands seize her head and place it under a broken window, which is used as a guillotine that doesn’t quite get the job done – the first attempt to kill her has the window stopping just before it hits her neck, and the decisive strike doesn’t even give her the easy option of a swift decapitation, with the killer letting the window settle halfway through her throat, her fingers still moving. We never see her get decapitated, if indeed she does, and while the gore hound in me might have wanted more, I’m actually pleased Argento fades out the scene when he does. Decapitations can be unforgettably scary in some horror films (The Omen‘s ‘pane of glass’ scene remains the final word on the matter), but sometimes it looks goofy. In the third A Nightmare on Elm Street film, the character of Taryn (the former junkie turned bad ass dream warrior) was originally meant to have been injected with so much drugs that her head exploded, but the effects never really worked out so they ended the scene early. I’m quite glad about this, because the scene in the final cut is really, genuinely disturbing. In both this and Inferno, both scenes are incomplete enough for us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, and they’re all the better for it.

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Up until now, Inferno has been relentlessly brilliant, a bit silly, and lots of fun. There’s still an hour to go though, and all of a sudden I’m thinking about David Lynch’s Lost Highway, another film where the first third and a bit is unimaginably brilliant, director on top form, etc. and the rest of it is scattershot and not quite so focused. New characters are introduced – the fey countess (Daria Nicolodi, back in front of the camera after missing out on Suspiria, which she co-wrote) is one of the better ones, yet she’s dispatched post-haste. We see more of Kazanian, and then there’s the building’s concierge (Alida Valli, who thanks to dubbing, sounds very different from Miss Tanner) and the countess’ servant, neither of whom are interesting, except when they get killed, especially the latter – bleurgh!!! Then there’s also a mute old man (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr) and his nurse (Veronica Lazar), who appear to be strictly comic relief….or are they……? Mark wanders in and out of their schemings and shenanigans, is sometimes ejected from the narrative altogether and ultimately solves almost nothing in the process. There’s a telling bit when one character says ‘I suppose you know who I am?’ to Mark and the latter admits he has no idea! The character of Mark has been slated being inactive and clueless, but I think it’s all part of the joke.

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One big problem I have is that the two best characters are killed too soon. Rose and Sara exude curiosity, vulnerability and their deaths are the film’s most effective dramatic moments. However, this is where Argento’s love for narrative mischief works against him, as he kills both of these characters way too early! You know how Argento used to get called the Italian Hitchcock early in his career, but then that cute title got rebutted by critics and even the man himself? Well, it’s not entirely unwarranted. After all, he can’t resist the rug-pull shock of killing off his main character halfway through, although to be fair he seemed to have lost interest in Rose for a brief while a third of the way into the plot anyway. However, while the shock of killing of Marion Crane was a bold move in Psycho, it was compensated by focusing on the fascinating character of Norman Bates. In Inferno all we’re left with are a bunch of randomly assigned nobodies, the most intriguing of which is an old bastard who likes to drown cats.

Ah yes, cats.

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Censorship in the UK has been a history of ups and downs right from when it began, and the 1980’s were one of the most turbulent periods. This was the era of the video nasties, and James Ferman with his edit-happy tendencies. Seriously, I’m surprised he wasn’t nicknamed James Scissorhands. Maybe he was. I should check. Many of Argento’s films suffered from BBFC-enforced snips, and most of them were for the intensity and longevity of his murder scenes. However, there was also the instances of animal cruelty. Now while the BBFC has become far more lenient towards sex and violence in its guidelines, its stance on animal cruelty is still pretty immovable, and I’m fine with that. If you’re killing an animal in the name of entertainment, then fuck you. As I’ve already said in my review of Wake in Fright, I’m a hypocrite because I’m not a vegetarian, but there you go. Argento’s always had a predilection for animal cruelty, but in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it was all cool because all that stuff about eating cats wasn’t real (it wasn’t even seen on-screen), but by the time we got to Deep Red he was actually sticking pins through lizards and filming dog fights and it all started to get a bit ugly. Luckily, only a fake bat got done over in Suspiria, but with Inferno Argento’s mean streak had returned.

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Please understand that I’m not against simply depicting animal cruelty on screen – hey, if it’s all fake, and no one got hurt, then it’s okay. I suppose. But I don’t think some of this was faked. The bit when Kazanian takes a bag full of cats and drowns them in Central Park isn’t a problem because it’s not real, but the scene just before where actor Sacha Pitoeff grabs a feline and carries it over to the other side of a room is a hell of a lot more problematic. At first it doesn’t seem so bad because holding cats by the scruff of their neck shouldn’t actually hurt them (indeed, that’s how mother cats hold their kittens) but after a while it’s obvious the cat’s clearly in distress (see above), and it’s not like we’re talking about the cat pretending to be in distress. It’s not an actor. Cats can’t act. That poor animal is clearly not having a good time. Bizarrely, the BBFC left this bit in the UK print, whereas the shot of it’s head being knocked on the side of the chair to render it unconscious was removed. I mean, of course if that bit really happened then fucking hell, Argento needs to be cat-scratched more than a few hundred times for that one, but that may be a fake cat we’re looking at. I can’t tell. Still, it looked real enough, so out it went. I don’t know why the blatant animal cruelty of the previous shots were allowed to stay in though. There’s also a later scene with Mark is close to discovering the answer to the mystery when we get a few cutaways to a cat eating a mouse. It’s fucking gross, but, I hear you say – cats eat mice, so what’s the big deal about showing nature at its nastiest? Well, I suppose the issue was that the mouse was deliberately served up as dinner for the sake of art, and cats usually eat mice for the sheer fuck out of it, not for survival reasons, so out it went.

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Elsewhere, there are loose ends, stray plot threads, bizarre cutaways, strange motifs (water = bad omen/just cut yourself on something? Uh-oh/ seen a cat? = you’re fucked) and some of it does kind of make sense the more you watch it, and some of it doesn’t. Maybe it all makes complete sense to Argento or maybe he’s just working on instinct and having fun? People end up getting murdered and I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure who did the dirty deed at any given time- the killer with the freaky hands is never identified, and unlike Suspiria there aren’t any plausible suspects! Later on, it looks as though the concierge and the butler appear to be in on the whole scheme, but the latter is murdered for no real reason – maybe the death of the Countess (for which I think the concierge was responsible) angered Mater Tenebrarum? But why would she be angry? I guess I shouldn’t be thinking too much about this – after all, this is a film where a bloke screams for help whilst being devoured by rats and the nearby hot dog vendor who comes to ‘assist’ hacks the back of his neck! For no reason! I mean, where the fuck did THAT come from? It’s a bit like the dog turning on Daniel in Suspiria, but even more insane. You may be stunned beyond belief or crack up at the sheer madness of it all.

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To be honest, I’d have forgiven the second half its eccentricities more if the ending had made it all worth it, but it is anti-climactic. You know that tagline for Suspiria that went something like ‘the only thing more scary than the last twelve minutes of this film are the first ninety?’ – despite that tagline being utterly inappropriate (it makes it sound like the ending’s a disappointment!), it actually would have been far more appropriate for Inferno. While Mark’s descent into the hidden chapters of the apartment block is pretty fun, and a bit like Being John Malkovich‘s secret floor, overall it’s not just very frightening, no matter how hard poor McCloskey tries to look terrified during the final confrontation, which is a let down to say the least. Whereas Suspiria‘s conclusion was an astonishing culmination of dread and horror, Inferno‘s is rather silly. This isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s just…. okay, let’s take the music: this is where we first hear Emerson’s thunderous ‘Mater Tenebrarum’ piece, which on many levels is absolutely terrific – think a funk version of ‘Ave Satani’ from The Omen. Now that obviously sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? And it is! It’s so, so, so overblown, a great example of Emerson at his maddest. The problem is that it’s just not scary. Maybe being scary wasn’t the point? Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing this film to Suspiria all of the time? I can’t help it, sorry. Well, either on its own terms or any others, the final stretch of Inferno remains enjoyable without really being suspenseful. The first of the two final confrontations is pretty good actually: the mysterious Varelli turns out to be the bloke in the wheelchair that Mark encountered in a lift earlier on, and there’s some good dialogue where he compares the structure of the building to a human body. However, after that we get the limp showdown with Mater Tenebrarum (Varelli’s nurse), which also ties in with another of my issues with Inferno.

The acting.

Or is it the directing, or maybe the dubbing?

Either way, something’s a little off. Okay, Suspiria‘s performances weren’t quite award-worthy, but they were great for what they were. Inferno‘s turns don’t work quite so well. They snap you out of the spell of the film all too often – here are some lines that, taken out of context, won’t mean much, but every time I watch the film they make me laugh:

‘Not really’

‘Tell me who you are!’

‘I’m coming to get you!’

‘They’re eating me alive!”

Mater Tenebrarum’s big speech at the end doesn’t have much punch – some of it is to do with the strange, almost distant delivery, but it’s more to do with how on repeat viewings you can’t ignore what’s about to happen on screen. That’s right, I’m talking about the true face of death, also known as the tall person in the skeleton costume.  It looks a little like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 1970 musical version of A Christmas Carol, the one with Albert Finney. It’s not too bad looking, but it’s just a bit too obviously artificial. In fact, it’s so underwhelming that it negates the rather clever trick shot leading up to it, where we discover that the approaching Mater Tenebrarum is actually a reflection, culminating in her smashing through the glass. In true Mark fashion, he doesn’t even deliver the killer move that ignites the inferno that destroys Mater Tenebrarum. The fire just kinda starts. He makes a run for it through the building that’s falling apart (very reminiscent of Suspiria) and Tenebrarum just stands there and screams with her arms up in the air as she perishes in the fire. Meh. I was bemused, a little amused, but not frightened. Pity. Cue Emerson’s theme. Roll credits.

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To be fair, there’s also some humour in Inferno, and by that I mean intentional. Argento dabbled in humour in his Animal Trilogy – remember that absolutely mad bit where ‘Hallelujah’ comes in out of nowhere on the soundtrack to Four Flies on Grey Velvet? Or the bloke who ate cats in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? He also once made a comedy of sorts – The Five Days of Milan – and no one apart from anyone writing dissertations on the man has watched it. There was some comedy in Deep Red, most of which was rather cruelly edited out of the international version, but I thought was rather splendid. Then there was that scene involving ‘people whose names start with ‘s’ are the names of snakes!’ bit in Suspiria. Here we get a scene where a seemingly innocuous nurse (she’s actually a MOTHER) confuses musicology with toxicology, possibly in purpose. I mean, it’s not actually funny but you can tell it’s trying to be. Then we get Carlo, the guy who lives in the same block as Sara. The joke about him assuming The Three Mothers are ‘those black singers’ made me laugh enough at the time to have not realised that Sara actually incorrectly refers to them a moment earlier as ‘The Three Sisters’, which does sound more like the name of a girl group I suppose, but would she really have made that error after only almost having died over a copy of the book? Why am I questioning logic in a film like this?

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Inferno is a progression from Suspiria in some respects – there’s more experimentation in technique and narrative, but this ambition can serve to detract from the atmosphere. Whereas the former enshrouds you in its cloak of atmosphere, I spend a lot of Inferno distanced from it, admiring it for its spectacle and neat cutaways and cool tricks. It makes for a consistently dazzling viewing experience, but not one likely to cut into my core being and scare me senseless. Still, it’s not fair for me to berate the film for what it’s not. What it is still a remarkably inventive film, always entertaining, and an essential watch: my advice is to see Inferno on the biggest screen possible – there its flaws will be as close to obliterated as possible.

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PS: It has been brought to my attention that the woman in the lecture theatre with the cat isn’t actually referred to as the Third Mother. This is absolutely true, and to be honest, I didn’t identify her as such when I first watched it, but it seems like everyone agrees that it is her, even if we’re all just guessing!

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Yes: Relayer (1974)

 One prog-rock album to rule them all…
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When I was growing up, prog-rock was seen as a bit of an embarrassment. You know what I’m talking about, all those mammoth bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, and so on – a lot of overblown, noodly, high-concept, fanciful nonsense that started off with good intentions but soon got way, way out of hand and there was all those blokes playing organ solos in capes and wasn’t one of them performed on ice and wasn’t it great when punk destroyed it and all that?Prog-rock did commit more than a few sins – it’s not sexy, for one thing. Just you try fucking to ‘Wot Gorilla?’. Impossible. You can’t dance to prog either. It’s rarely intentionally funny. It didn’t inspire many decent fashion movements. True, at its best it took the limits of the rock song to its logical limit, encompassing a huge scale of ambition, imagination and spectacle. Yet at its worst it was a whirlpool of interminable solos, pomposity and embarrassing lack of self-awareness. To give yourself over to prog is risk ridicule.

The thing is, who gives a shit about what other people think of your musical tastes? I first heard Yes in my twenties, when my uncle played me side one of The Yes Album (that was a very smart move on his part, for that LP is about an effective an introduction to the band as possible) and the sheer scale, giddy enthusiasm and restless changing of musical scenery caught my attention immensely. From then on, I explored Yes’ other works, fully aware of their ‘uncool’ status, fully aware that this was music of a certain time, and also fully willing to dive in head first.

Yes, for me, are the all-round best of the prog-rockers. Their sound, like many of the genre, became anathema to many after their early to mid-seventies peak in popularity – a common but amusing rejoinder to any positive talk about Yes is a succinct ‘NO’ –  but they were indeed massive back in the seventies. Their albums sold, and for a long time they were critically beloved too: they even managed to wring out some charting singles out of those monster compositions of theirs. Their most beloved songs are rich, complex (but rarely muso) and epic creations that made other genres seem so hopelessly small and closed-in. Songs like ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘The Revealing Science of God’ can be awe-inspiringly cinematic, truly enormous, adrenaline-surging and spectacular. In particular, ‘The Gates of Delirium’, which I will be raving on about in this piece, is a song that, unlike some songs that you feel would work perfectly in a film, essentially IS a film in music-form. Adding visuals would be unnecessary. I’m not blind to Yes’ faults – they were often over-the-top, sometimes indulgent and pretentious, but that’s sometimes what happens when you dare to go so close to the edge.

They started off with a couple of impressive, if relatively modest albums that had more than their fair share of spectacular moments, but for many, their imperial phase is usually regarded as when classical guitar virtuoso Steve Howe joined the band for The Yes Album. This is also when they started stretching out their songs to epic length, delivering dazzlingly melodic, rhythmic and yet very accessible rock songs like ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’. Each member of the band was a major talent – alongside Howe’s remarkable dexterity and tuneful ear, we had the chunky, addictive bass of Chris Squire, the kinetic and thrilling drums of Bill Bruford and the panoramic keyboards of Tony Kaye, not to mention the inimitable, ethereal vocals of Jon Anderson…

God, I sound like Homer Simpson rattling off the respective virtues of Grand Funk Railroad.

Seriously though, Yes were a band of superb individual parts that, when put together, created magic. Kaye was out the door by the time of follow-up album Fragile, which heralded the introduction of Rick Wakeman on the keys, whose baroque, classically influenced approach was, for many fans, the final piece of Classic Yes. Fragile took the epic achievements of the previous album and ran with them. Songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ were mammoth works, nicely balanced by the neat inclusion of little solo pieces by each member of the band. Don’t worry, the drummer’s contribution only lasted thirty seconds, and yet even that was great! Such little touches were gone however by the time of Close to the Edge, which for many remains THE prog-rock album. For the first time, Yes delivered a side-long opus – the eighteen minute long title track – and they’d achieved the impossible and managed to create even bigger, more sumptuous soundscapes than ever before to get lost in and be blown away by. Other songs like the awesome (and I mean that literally) ‘And You and I’ and the super-charged rock-funk of ‘Siberian Khatru’ tapped in to a world of astonishing musical possibilities. Close to the Edge isn’t my favourite Yes album, but it is the one that sees them teetering on that musical precipice, where the band pushed themselves to the limits of their own exploratory voyage without going overboard. Critics loved it, it sold a load and everything was Good. Okay, the album was apparently a nightmare to make (Bruford would quit, to be replaced by Yes mainstay Alan White), but everything seemed to point to further greatness.

Of course, blow a balloon up too much and it’ll burst, and Tales from Topographic Oceans represent the POP! Only four songs, you might note, but each one took up a whole side of vinyl: add that to Jon Anderson pushing Yes-naysayers’ already shaky tolerance of his lyrical flights of fancy past the point of no return, not to mention that yes, it was too big, too much and too bloody long, and Yes had finally lost their footing. It’s still a bloody spectacular album though: ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a classic opus that goes for the (big) one and succeeds, and ‘The Remembering’, while clearly guilty of padding, is still lovely and pastoral. Even the third and fourth sides, whilst guilty of losing focus, had loads of wonderful stretches. True, it was overblown, but I’d rather go for an album that aims high and occasionally gets lost along the way than anything more modest and workaday. Saying that, prog-rock isn’t recommended listening any time or all the time – sometimes I want something else, but something else isn’t what we’re talking about.

Relayer, the album that followed Tales, is the apotheosis of progressive rock – it learns from the excesses of its predecessor and yet still manages to take the genre as far as it can, albeit in a different, more focused direction. It’s half as long as Tales yet achieves twice as much. After this, even Yes had nowhere else to go back down to Earth, and only after a three year break too. Prog-rock gets bashed for its pomp, but the best of it represents a truly exploratory, exciting idea of just how vast and spectacular pop/rock music could go. Much of my love for Relayer stems from the extraordinary achievement of its first side. To be honest, anything else that followed a first side that amazing could be dismissed as mere bonus material, so it’s wonderful that the second side is actually a superb thing in itself.  It was the last of Yes’ truly fearless prog-rock albums, the last one where they lived entirely in their own universe, a world where musical possibilities seemed infinite, ambition was colossal and musical chemistry was near-supernatural in its skilfulness and magic. After this, there was the break (solo careers, etc), punk came along and there was more a sense of the band second-guessing themselves, of trying to change with the times.

If you consider Tales the all-encompassing (for better or worse) centre, then Close to the Edge and Relayer are satellites on either side – the former, when Yes were only getting bigger and better and, even five albums into their career, still full of possibilities, promise, beauty, splendour and colour, and the latter, created after the band delivered their first (in the eyes of critics and some fans) their first blunder, an album that ranks as their darkest, greyest (that’s a very apt Roger Dean-designed cover they decided to go with) and most violent.

At first, the album may sounds like too much – unstructured, cluttered, incoherent. Of its three songs, only the closer, the resigned and beautiful ‘To be Over’, sounds anything like a normal song, albeit one that’s nearly ten minutes long. The first song  in particular is so overwhelmingly massive that one listen won’t be enough to take it all in. The second is an immense racket that doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. Relayer has been often noted as the Yes album with the most obvious influence of jazz or jazz-fusion. I’m not a fan of jazz, and don’t have the patience for it (to the point where I don’t even think there would be something worth hearing after repeated listens – sue me), but I often notice how often I love songs or albums that betray a jazz influence. It’s like these bands are taking this form of musical expression that I don’t have the time for, twisting it to their own means and making it palatable for listeners like me. There are moments on Relayer‘s first two songs that are quite ‘jazzy’, but this isn’t a bad thing for me. In fact, I find something like ‘Sound Chaser’ one of the most exciting things ever recorded by anyone, ever. I didn’t think that at first, mind. Anyway, back to the first song…

‘The Gates of Delirium’ may very well be the most accomplished achievement of Yes’ entire musical legacy. It was the last song of theirs to encompass an entire side of vinyl (although ‘Awaken’ on the next album is still epic at fifteen or so minutes), and unlike some of the band’s mammoth efforts, there are absolutely no spare minutes, nothing that can be taken away from it. Only ‘The Revealing Science of God’ from Tales does as much with so much time. Hey, what about ‘Close to the Edge’, I hear you ask? Well, it is a classic, but I feel it peaks at the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section around two-thirds in and then ebbs away after that. ‘Delirium’ is a full-blown conceptual masterpiece, an attempt to encapsulate Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty-two minutes, beginning with preparation, heading into and then immersing itself in battle, followed by victory/defeat and then reflection. Personally, I think it is the high-water mark of progressive rock – a veritable Bayeux Tapestry set to music.

Praising such things as musicianship risks coming off as sounding drearily muso – technique is always something to be admired, but can it be loved? Yes were consummate players – each one a undeniable expert in their field. Steve Howe is an amazing guitarist. Chris Squire is an incredible bassist, and so on. We can all sit back, stroke our chins and pay head-nodding respect to these guys. They know their chops. And yet all of that would be mere academic achievement if it were not the fact that these guys played off each other amazingly well. At their best, the sound of Yes is the sound of absolute musical chemistry at its most astonishing. You can admire this music, but fuck that, you need to FEEL this music.

The opening section is an instrumental notable for the introduction to the group of Swiss keyboard dynamo Patrick Moraz, following the departure of Rick Wakeman. You see, Wakeman had had enough of Yes, was bored of the his bandmates’ indulgences, so much that he was likely to pass the time eating a curry on stage whilst Alan White delivered one of his drum solos. He’s been on record to say that he’s glad that he didn’t like Relayer when it came out, as it was too free-form for his tastes, therefore validating his earlier decision to leave the group. Then again, he did come back for the next record. Yes land is a mixed-up land. Moraz’s playing is less classically inclined than Wakeman, more complementary, though when he does get the chance to take centre stage, the results are pretty spectacular and totally his own. This makes Relayer a sometimes unique entry in the Yes catalogue, though to be honest, this is a band that has thrived on change, especially on the personnel front. Let me put this way – Wakeman is not missed, bless him.

The first eight or so minutes is magnificently exciting and foreboding – you really get the sense of warriors preparing to battle. Scared souls, brave souls, full of bloodthirsty determination and/or terrifying self-belief. It is indeed a war song, but through the lens of Yes it becomes something like a futuristic fantasy that non prog-rock fans might dismiss as Dungeons and Dragons-style make-believe, but if you’re willing to surrender to its cinematic scope, becomes intensely powerful. It all begins with an extended instrumental opening as Moraz sprinkles keyboard dust over Howe’s metallic, bone-scraping guitar – the latter’s playing had rarely been this harsh. There’s no prettiness here. When Anderson arrives a few minutes in, his lyrics turn out to be darker and meaner than they’ve ever been before, or ever would be. Talk of killing, warning that ‘peaceful lives will not deliver freedom’ and the memorable clincher, ‘slay them/burn their children’s laughter/on to Hell’. His voice, hitting a new kind of desperate harshness which is at times hysterical, is a far cry from the angelic tones of yore, though later on we’ll get that good old-fashioned choirboy vocal of his, albeit a far sadder version than what we’ve been used to. Alan White, who had only just joined the band an LP earlier, feels truly integrated into the band. His playing on Relayer is tremendous, full of oomph, variety and power.Squire’s trademark full-fat bass provides a constant ominous hum during this opening act and melodic counterpoint to Howe’s guitar- they’re such a vital, inimitable double-act and an essential element of Yes that one without the other just ain’t Yes. Even when Jon Anderson left the band, 1980’s Drama still felt quintessentially Yes because Howe and Squire were still there delivering the goods. Honestly, Drama is one of the very few albums where a lead singer has temporarily left the band and yet it still feels like a legitimate album, whereas the massive but Howe-less follow-up 90125 (the one with ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on it) felt less like a Yes album even though Jon was back behind the mic!

Back to Howe though, and there’s little of the fleet-of-foot, rural loveliness or even electric heroism that was a key element of his work to date. Taking the spikier sound of his work on Tales‘ ‘The Ancient’ to the next level, Howe is reborn here as a much more intense six-string proposition. Of course, we’re still talking Yes here – this ain’t punk music, but ‘Delirium’ definitely sees him and the rest of the band freak out, thrash out and let loose in a way that’s quite thrilling. You could almost call it careless abandon (especially during the battle section), but I get the sense Yes knew what they were doing from start to finish. This ain’t an aimless jamming session. It might take a while to successfully put all of these pieces together, but once you have, you might question why anyone would call this music ‘incoherent’ or ‘lacking in structure’, as some reviews did at the time and still do now. There are many spectacular hooks, refrains and melodies in this first act of ‘Delirium’, admittedly nothing long enough for Yes to pull off one of their unlikely single edits (more on that sort of thing later) but the progression, escalation and sense of trepidation is hypnotic. Of course, it all leads to….

…the battle sequence, which lasts for around six minutes and will very likely at first sound like an unholy, godawful mess. It sounds utterly mad. When I first heard it, I was like ‘aww shit, and it was all going so well!’ and I was relieved when something approaching a hook re-appeared later on. The thing is, the more you listen to the whole song, the more this bit becomes focused, makes sense and turns out not to be a load of random jamming, crashing and explosions, but something closer to a truly spectacular, thrilling depiction of battle that remains unparalleled in rock music. It’s scary, confusing, strangely exciting and totally immersive. It resembles jazz in that each player gets their own chance to shine – there’s a super clunky-funky bass riff here, a shrill keyboard attack there, a vicious guitar onslaught there, and there’s also loads of sound effects, some of it literally crashing scenery, that just adds to the madness. It builds and builds to a psychotic crescendo, as keyboards and drums reach the peak…. and then…

…the sequence after all this chaos is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music. I like to call this the victory section, as it does sound like the winning side is riding majestically over the battlefield, the vanquished fleeing in terror. Moraz kicks it off with a triumphant, yet almost foreboding keyboard melody that sounds truly monstrous. It stands tall, surveying the shattered wastelands. You think that might be valediction enough, but then Howe takes over the same melody with his guitar and lets rip with an absolutely enormous solo (air guitar on standby) that threatens to tear the skies in two,and fuck me if it doesn’t sound like the other side has been well and truly BATTERED. War is over. I must add that the rhythm section on this bit is stellar. Squire and White giving it everything. Then the sound dies down, the mist clears and what follows is a deeply eerie, quiet section of proto-ambient that Eno might have been going nuts over if he hadn’t already been praising the birth of ambient with Miles Davis’ ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from the same year. Both examples are ultimately ambient, although Davis went the whole hog and went on for thirty minutes, whereas this bit only lasts sixty or so seconds.

The ‘Soon’ section follows, as mournful, beautiful and elegiac as any piece of music found on an album. Interestingly, it was this section that was selected as a single for the album – indeed, it is the most straightforward part of the song, but blimey, despite its ultimate optimism and hope for a better future, it has to be one of the most mournful singles ever released. If guitars could gently weep, Howe’s playing would cry an ocean. Anderson’s voice has rarely been so lovely. The melody flows and falls, building to an astonishing finale that, while hopeful in terms of lyrics and vocals, musically loses itself in pure, heartbreaking sadness. Howe has never, ever been more powerful. Chord changes stab at the heart and there’s one lurching, staggering shift in key near the end that is almost too much to bear, and it’s here that you know the song’s finally going to end, and it does so with an utterly haunting, spectral and uncertain ebb and flow that sounds like it is literally dying before your very ears. Listen to it in the dark and it gets scary. Twenty-two minutes long, and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’ve just been through the wars. Hey, I love a three minute pop classic as much as anyone, but sometimes I want this. You got to play it loud, mind.

After this remarkable achievement, where the hell do Yes go from here? I mean, we’ve just been put through the wringer, came out the other side emotionally drained, and we could have been given more of the same, which frankly would have been too much. No, they do the only sensible thing and go NUTS. MAD. INSANE. ‘Sound Chaser’ is easily the most experimental, wild and exhilarating thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s absolutely fucking mental. Rick Wakeman didn’t like this album? His loss! This song is bound to make no sense at first. You feel like it would only makes sense to five people, and they’re all in the band Yes. At least ‘Delirium”s mad section was cushioned by relatively accessible material. This is just a ten-minute space trip. And yet like that ‘Delirium’s battle section, the more you listen to ‘Sound Chaser’, the clearer its vision becomes. Hey, I can understand if you don’t want to give it time. If I genuinely didn’t see anything worth investigating in these songs to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered. But right from the start ‘Sound Chaser’ has lots of moments that make you go, ‘wow!’ – yes, they’re all disparate and all over the place, but it was enough to make me return to it, again and again. And now it makes perfect sense to me, and yet it’s still such an amorphous, seemingly undisciplined thing that I still encounter lots of little surprises me every time I listen to it.

As soon as it starts we’re on edge – nothing stands still for a second. Moraz slinks in, then White charges through, Squire hippity-hops – no guitars yet. Not yet. I don’t know how Yes do it, but they’re even making drum soloing sound great on this track, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then Howe bursts in on the scene unleashing ridiculously complex (but still thrilling, never forget that) guitar lines and then it all makes way for Anderson barking lyrics like he’s been on the uppers and the non-stop sermons for two days straight, and it’s all got something to do with the ‘LOOK IN YOUR EYES!’ – this bit in particular, and the skyrocketing keyboards straight after, is sheer bliss! There are times during ‘Sound Chaser’ where you almost have to laugh, so addictively mad it is. It slows down here and there, even though no one told Howe about the change in tempo (he’s still on nitrous oxide). Soon even he gets the message and everything crawls to a shimmering oasis of eerie trepidation, only occasionally broken up by White giving it the full sturm-und-drang on his drums. Anderson has calmed down a bit, but deep down we know he’s just getting his breath back so that the band can go happy-go-madly once more. In the only predictable bit of the song, they do. Vapour trails of music stream on, and it’s here I start to think, ‘it’s around now that Jon’s going to do his bonkers ‘CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit. When he does you can either throw your hands up and give up praying for Yes, or you can surrender to the sound and start praying to Yes.

Oh, as for that ”CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit, well I bloody love it. It’s absolutely mad. I’ve heard that some people really hate this bit, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense. I also love the ‘huhhhmmm!!’ backing grunts during this bit too. Yes were seriously possessed around this time. They were gods. Moraz then has his moment in the sunshine with a hilarious keyboard wig-out, the guitars start to skyrocket and there’s a huge build-up and then it’s all ‘CHA-CHA-CHA!’ again, a quick, final freak-out then it’s all over. This song may leave you breathless. We need to come down.

‘To Be Over’ is the calm after the storm. God knows, we need it. Actually, all that stuff I said earlier about Relayer being the darkest and most violent Yes album of them all is contradicted slightly by the sheer loveliness of this song. It has nothing to do with the themes of ‘Gates’ but flows perfectly from the ground zero of ‘Sound Chaser’. The first few minutes are actually serene. The song even fades up at the start! It’s really very calming indeed. Still, when you think about it, there is after all literally only a single letters difference between ‘Relayer’ and ‘Relaxer’. This is pastoral, very pretty music – sitting by the lake, taking in the early morning mist, such calm, such peace. And hey, there’s a sitar too! Nice to hear from you. Jon’s lyrics only add to the sense of bucolic charm further: ‘We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly/By the breeze’ – sorted. However, the song’s not content to drift along calmly down the same river for too long, and it opens up spectacularly, as Howe’s guitar switches from gentle acoustic to chiming, glittering and eventually properly chunky electric, before opening up to take in the widescreen view: in fact this section, almost foreshadows the more lighter-waving end of 80’s stadium rock in its big, anthemic sing-a-long mid-section. Also, this section recalls the finale to Tales‘ most blissful song, ‘The Remembering’. All valediction, extended triumph and swaying happiness. Moraz gets a cute, cuddly and perky solo near the end too. That would be it for him and Yes, sadly. Hey, I’m not going to complain about Rick Wakeman – his contributions to Going for the One are fantastic, but Moraz’s all too short tenure with the band nonetheless feels brutally curt. Oh well, at least the one Yes album he did play on was…you know, the best one they ever did.

Still, that three year gap between the albums…. Relayer feels like the end of an era. Punk came along and changed a lot – right from the opening guitars of the title track, Going for the One feels like a deliberate effort to get scale it back to relative basics (well, as much as is possible for Yes), to modernise their look (as evidenced by replacing Roger Dean with Hipgnosis for the sleeve art), and they even delivered a song that didn’t even need to be edited to make for a successful single (the lovely ‘Wonderous Stories’). The sound on that album was also their sleekest, cleanest and streamlined – the songs themselves were still in thrall to their prog-rock peak, but even ‘Awaken’ sounds far more refined. elegant and comfortable than the infinite possibilities of their earlier epic tracks. It’s a great album, though. After that there was the fun but messy and badly-produced Tormato, the surprisingly thrilling Yes + Buggles = Yeggles supergroup shenanigans of Drama, and after that a second wind of 1980’s MTV-aided superstardom. But Relayer was the last time this band truly achieved astonishing transcendence. Don’t be embarrassed for loving this. Yours is no disgrace.

PS: Come to think of it, what’s a relayer?

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 38: No One Comes to Lupusville

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VAMPIRES!
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I remember being quite apprehensive about this episode in the build-up to it being screened. You see, I had a fear of vampires when I was little, which is a silly fear as they don’t exist, but I was ten and was still shaken up by The Lost Boys, so anything with fangs sent the shivers down me. At the time, I had recently watched an episode of the wonderful and very self-aware animated spin-off of the film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes called ‘Prinz Spatula – Prince of Dorkness’ in which the town, as if being under regular attack by mutated tomatoes wasn’t enough, now had to contend with a vampire outbreak, which resulted in many of the townsfolk sprouting fangs and flying around trying to kiss the unturned (no biting or blood – this is a children’s show, so said the series’ regular Censor Lady). The episode scared the hell out of me, especially when the adorable Tara became a vampire and joined a load of the recently vamped in trying to raid the local pizzeria, crowding up against the windows whilst the owner stood petrified inside.
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Yes, I was a bit wimpy when it came to even very, very mild on-screen horror like this, and therefore ‘No One Comes to Lupusville’ had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish the first time I saw it. I was dreading a parade of scary vampire faces pressed up against the other side of the TV screen, but as it turned out, the fear-factor was relatively low in this episode, at least compared to other Real Ghostbusters outings that had disturbed me greatly. That doesn’t mean to say the episode’s a flop, far from it – it’s yet another Michael J. Stracsynski gem! Mood and atmosphere is the preferred approach here – the head vampire is more of a devious, charming villain than the personification of nightmare fuel, while the supporting bloodsuckers, whilst agreeably ghoulish looking, don’t cross the line into outright scary. Hell, there isn’t even any sucking of blood in this episode! Come to think of it, there’s no blood full stop! Now you might find that laughable, but to quote Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it izzz no laughing mattaaaggh.
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We start off the episode with the guys asleep at night in the HQ- Peter and Winston don’t need anything so childish as a plush toy or whatnot to help them get to the land of nod, but it turns out that Egon is quite partial to sleeping with his complex scientific notes, calculator and pen (he’d later admit to sleeping with a jar of slime in the second Ghostbusters film) and Ray snuggles up with a Stay-Puft toy, which is a bit weird given their antagonistic relationship in the past. Now I know Stay-Puft, before the events of the first film, was a symbol of wholesomeness and marshmallow-flavoured wonder, but a lot’s happened since then. Hasn’t he tried to destroy the city twice? Weird.
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Janine’s downstairs, tired and playing Ghostbusters-branded cards with Slimer, who’s not above cheating in order to win. Now it’s obvious from this scene that Janine’s work pattern is all over the shop – I mean, she’s the only secretary the guys have, and you’d think the norm would be for her to do a regular nine-to-five shift, given that she does have a life and a home to go to, but it turns out that when the narrative demands it, she’s more or less a stay-in secretary. Her presence this late at night is necessary to greet the utterly, hilariously suspicious Gregor when he arrives in the dead of night to request the Ghostbusters’ service. He’s ridiculously tall, his skin is very pale and he keeps banging on about not being able to be seen in the daytime. All he needs is the standard cape and for him to go ‘BLEAAHH!’ to give the game away completely, but Janine, bless her, is blissfully unaware. I like the down-to-earth moment when she calls out for Gregor’s name so that she has something to write on the invoice – little moments like this are what made the show so cool. There’s also a bit earlier when she complains about her job being pension-free and without a union.
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We then have a rather neat ‘slimy’ edit wipe (see pic) from Janine at HQ to the guy arriving in Lupusville (hint-hint), which is a privately owned town which reminds me of the similarly shut-off community of 1987’s hilariously nutty A Return to Salem’s Lot, which was about a town of vampires that just wanted to be left alone. Ray ‘down-with-the-people’ Stantz insists that town folk are plain folk – all you have to do is show them you’re one of them, but that might prove to be difficult when it’s revealed that some of the town are absolutely huge, making Gregor look like Yoda. Seriously, some of these are officially giants. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the other townsfolk are very small, making Yoda look like the Rancor. Gregor comes out to greet the guys in his jim-jams – he’s a friendly host to say the least. He’s also one hell of a weatherman, predicting the rain seconds before it shows up. Everyone runs inside, but Peter takes the time to observe the outside world and says ‘Gregor’ for no other reason than that it sounds foreboding. He’s right to be wary. Oh, there’s also a little girl named Leda who takes a shine to Egon, even calling him cute. It’s weird, Peter is the meant to be the show’s so-called ladies’ man, but it’s only Egon of the four who everyone else seems to fancy, be it little girls, pervy librarians and of course, Janine. In all cases he doesn’t seem to care about this female attention. At one point, out of nowhere, Leda produces a turnip to Egon, after which an old, old joke is delivered. If you’ve seen Airplane! you know what I’m talking about.
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The subject of vampires is then brought up, with Gregor insisting they have a bloodsucker problem. Interesting that Gregor considers this a problem, given that he is so blatantly a Vlad himself, but the guys are too busy pooh-poohing the idea of facing vampires to deal with the obvious. The thing is, vampires aren’t ghosts, so how do you deal with them? Who cares, when the surprise appearance of an actual treasure chest filled with gold and shiny things is enough to make the previously sensible Winston insist they accept the job. In another example of the show not dumbing down to the audience, the vampires are referred to as ‘revenants’, shoehorning the word into the popular mindset decades before that Leonardo DiCaprio film. Weirdly, these ‘revenants’ only appear after midnight, which sounds cool, but that does mean they’re wasting the hours of darkness available before the witching hour.
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The guys delve into the forest, singing long to themselves blithely (never a good idea), but something’s not right. What’s that noise? Oh, never mind, Winston says, it’s gone now (it isn’t). However, a quick turn-on of the PKE meter reveals that they’re surrounded. Bats show up, and Peter doesn’t put two and two together, the doofus. The bats transmogrify into old-school, Barlow from Salem’s Lot-style vampires (with added red wings that make them resemble Venger from Dungeons and Dragons, although he only had one wing), and they’re fearsomely massive. The problem is is they like to fiddle around with buttons they shouldn’t be touching, and one of them sets off the self-destruct switch on Egon’s proton pack. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it does disturb me that a nuclear proton pack can be set to self-destruct with just one button. Even the Predator had to faff around with a few combinations before he was able to nuke himself at the end of the first film. Anyway, the pack explodes, knocking everyone out, and Leda, who had followed them to the forest, is shocked to hopes Egon hasn’t just been killed. She shows no concern for anyone else. And that’s our act break.
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….and we’re back. Peter and Ray have woken up but Egon and Winston are gone. One of the vampires, a delightfully urbane but unnamed Kif-from-Futurama-soundalike (that’s our Maurice LaMarche!) has stuck around to greet them, and tells them that there are essentially two warring vampire factions, and that Gregor is the leader of the other side, the bad side. This relatively good vampire basically wants to live in seclusion and not bother the outside world, but Gregor wants to destroy everything and take over everyone, so Kif, despite remaining untrustworthy, and also despite being called a ‘weirdy’, agrees to join forces with Peter and Ray to save the town from itself, lest they suffer the same fate as Lupusville’s original residents (hint-hint), of whom we know little about.
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Meanwhile, back in town Gregor greets Egon and Winston and is insistent that they help him wipe out Kif and his army, and only now does Egon suss out the real deal with Gregor, thanks to the old-fashioned ‘no reflection’ giveaway. As Gregor says, he’s too smart for his own good. Winston agrees – it’s always been the case, and that anytime he’s tried to bring the subject up, it’s been all in vain, ‘like talking to your own armpit’, which incidentally is what George Michael seems to be doing on the front cover of his album Faith, which was released around this time. Worked out alright for George though, with sales of 25 million to date.
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Not that Gregor’s interested in any of what Winston or I have to say. ‘SILENCE!!’ he hilariously demands (no one tells people to shut up in real life like this nearly enough), before threatening him and Egon with destruction if they don’t help him to defeat the other vampires. Gregor’s fed up with keeping quiet about his own existence, and wants to take over the world, just like Stephen Dorff in Blade. He leaves them in their cell, only for Leda to call to them through a window. Egon asks her to get one of their proton packs, and in a nice bit of logical continuity, the pack itself proves exceptionally heavy for her to drag back to the window. This is when we find out that she is Gregor’s servant, so betraying him by revealing where the original Lupusville residents have been imprisoned is an act too terrifying to contemplate…. for about two seconds. There’s one catch – the guys must take them with her when all this over. Egon gives her his word.
Back to the good vampires, and Ray has an idea as to how to save the day. However, you may notice that in his explanation of his great plan, he refers to the vampires as ‘you types’, which is one step away from ‘you people’, which is never a good thing to say when talking to someone of a different race, or in this case, species. I’m surprised he didn’t get a slap down or worse for that slip up. Ray’s plan is some cobblers about getting the proton packs to simulate sunlight, and Kif warns them not to use them on him and his mates. Egon and Winston meanwhile proceed to free the Lupusville folks. Egon warns them to flee to the forest before things get ugly, but their leader insists on staying so that they can take back their town ‘their way’. Oh, and by the way, it wouldn’t happen to be a full moon tonight, would it?
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Yes. Yes it is.
You see, when Gregor imprisoned the townsfolk, he forgot to check one thing…
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…like, were they werewolves or not? To be fair, it’s an easy mistake, so I’m letting Greggsy off the hook for this, but it’s too late, as things get severly doggystyle, Ray remembers what Lupus means in Latin, and before we know it we’ve got the original vampires vs werewolves showdown decades before Twilight. There are some brief but pretty nifty morphing sequences as things take a turn for the lycanthropic, and maybe it’s because the episode’s almost over, but sadly we don’t get to see nearly enough vamp v wolf battles. Peter wouldn’t mind sticking around to see a little more, but he’s outvoted three to one. Yet we do get to see what happens when a werewolf bites a vampire and a vampire bites a werewolf. Oh yes.
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Just to make sure no one leaves town, the guys burst the nearby dam in order to surround the town with running water, which as we all know, is impossible for a vampire to cross over. That didn’t stop the vampires flying over the sea towards the amusement park in the opening titles of The Lost Boys though. By trapping the town with water, this essentially condemns the werevamps to a life of starvation. To be fair, it was never explained how the good vampires had survived all this time whilst simultaneously ‘living in peace’. Maybe, like in the second Salem’s Lot movie, they had bred cows for feeding. Or maybe not. Anyway, as Winston puts it, this new crossbreed is a classic example of ‘democracy in action’, so I suppose everyone’s mates now. Except for those giants and dwarves the guys met when they first showed up. Were they part of Gregor’s vampire crew? It’s not really explained. Finally, Egon didn’t stick to his word when he said he’d take Leda away from all of this. However, it’s revealed she has indeed hitched a ride on the back of Ecto-1, and Egon does seem to be aware of her presence with his cryptic aside to the others as they drive off.
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However, I reckon what really happened is this: Egon simply just forgot about Leda because he’s ultimately selfish, he then saw her in the rear view mirror after she stowed away and a desperate attempt to try and save face, goes on to pretend that he casually knew all along that she was there. Oh Egon, you blagger you.
By the way, what is Leda? Human? Vampire? Oh, never mind. The episode’s over thirty years old, and I’m not going to get any answers now.

Felt: A Decade in Music – Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985, 2018 remix)

The fourth Felt album gets a surprise de-mix – does it work?

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It’s funny, of all the albums in the world to undergo a revisionist remake/remodel, I never thought Felt’s fourth album Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun would be one of them. I just didn’t think there was enough of a market for it. I mean, even William Shatner couldn’t get the money to give us an improved version of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, so what chance did Lawrence have? For those who don’t know, Ignite the Seven Cannons (as it became more commonly known down the line) was a radical sonic departure from Felt’s previous albums thanks to the presence of Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie in the producer’s chair, who wreathed the songs in that reverberated Cocteau shroud that we all know and love. Except many Felt fans didn’t love it. Felt were Felt! Not the Fucking Cocteau Felty Twins! The approach was more noticeable on the tracks with vocals than those without, but essentially everything had that Guthrie feel (think Treasure in particular) and for some it was too much. Personally, I thought the album sounded great – cluttered, crazy, overripe, yes, and sometimes a mess, but more often that not, exhilarating. Nevertheless, I was always curious to hear what the songs sounded like before Guthrie got his hands on them.

Well, now we can. All of those Guthrie production tricks are to be removed, thanks to Lawrence and Felt collaborator John A. Rivers.

The new ‘A Decade in Music’ reissue campaign of Felt’s ten albums has been a long time coming, and it wasn’t until recently that it was announced that Ignite would be undergoing a major sonic overhaul. Rewriting Felt’s past is not a new concern of Lawrence. Some of these changes have been relatively minor. The first LP, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, had its front cover cropped for later editions. Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death has been re-released with differently cropped versions of the original full band cover photo over the last few decades. Also, this year’s reissue of Snakes has changed that hilariously verbose title to the more palatable The Seventeenth CenturyThe Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, somewhat inelegantly, had one of its tracks (‘Crucifix Heaven’) omitted from nearly every eventual CD release, while the album’s cover was drastically altered from its mysterious, arcane original to a plain red design on its 2003 release. Thankfully, ‘Crucifix Heaven’ has been re-instated on this year’s reissue, but it’s been heavily edited (grrr). On Ignite the Seven Cannons, the instrumental ‘Elegance of an Only Dream’ had its title changed to ‘Elegance’ back in 2003. On the compilation front, Gold Mine Trash had its glitzy cover changed to something much more minimal later on, while Bubblegum Perfume had a few tracks removed and replaced with rarer non-album songs, which is no bad thing at all, personally speaking. Relatively minor changes admittedly, (‘Crucifix’ and Bubblegum Perfume excepted), but evidence that Lawrence was not averse to toying with his legacy. 

This new version of Ignite however, marks the most drastic change of Felt’s work. The announcement of this remix, or should I say de-mix was met with excitement, but also frustration, as it appeared that this new version was to be the only one to made available, with the 1985 release being consigned to obscurity. This is annoying. I don’t like that the original that we’ve all lived with has been suddenly denied to us. Okay, we can all keep our existing versions, but for new fans to miss out on the original mix is a disservice. Stuff like this rewrites a band’s history and legacy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the treatment of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner remains the best example of tampering with an original and yet still respecting its place in history. Blade Runner has been messed around with so many times, and yet every incarnation is still available for us to compare and contrast. Weirdly, Blade Runner is the only example of a cultural artefact that genuinely gets better the more it’s been played around with, but I love that the flawed, compromised theatrical cut is still out there for us to enjoy. Compare that to say, George Lucas, whose treatment of the original Star Wars trilogy showcases little concern for the fans, with the original theatrical versions still yet to be released in anything approaching HD.

Albums get fucked around with a lot too. A new CD reissue is almost always ‘remastered’, and sometimes even ‘remixed’. Whether it’s little tweaks (The Who), removed songs/heavily rearranged tracklistings (Morrissey) or artwork alterations (although it’s funny how films get away with this all the time, as there’s rarely a single established ‘cover’ to a film, with alternative posters for different territories available right from the off). What’s annoying about most of these changes are that they aren’t presented as alternatives – they are usually given to us as the new standard. Oh yeah, that version you’ve always loved? That’s not legitimate anymore. 

What interests me are examples where the changes that are made are in the interest of the band’s ‘original vision’. Killing Joke’s underrated Brighter Than a Thousand Suns was given a last-minute remix before its release back in 1986 and for a long time that was the only version we had. Then the album was re-released in 2007 with the original mixes replacing the released ones, and all of a sudden, the version of the album that fans had lived with all those years was obsolete and unavailable. The same goes for Kiss’ much-mocked 1980 folly Music from ‘The Elder’, which is currently only available in the version that was originally proposed before it was re-jigged for its actual release. Yes, that release was not the one the band wanted, but hey, it’s the one that we the people got, and a lot (well, not a lot – it’s not a favourite with Kiss fans) of people took that version to their hearts. Now you can only get it on an old CD that’s out of print.

Sometimes we must be careful for what we wish for. Last year’s Tony Visconti-helmed/David Bowie-permitted remix of Lodger was highly anticipated by those who considered the 1979 release to have suffered from an overtly muddy mix. I must admit, even as someone who came to adore the album warts and all, that a version that somehow cleaned it up a bit and gave it more punch sounded exciting. However, despite garnering much acclaim, I found the remix often gimmicky and often clumsy. It sounded too much like a modernised version rather than something that could have genuinely come out at the time. It must be noted that this was not a genuine 1979 mix that had been rejected. It was an approximation of what Lodger could have sounded like if it had been ‘mixed properly’. The new mix of Ignite the Seven Cannons appears to be a different story – here we seem to have an album that has been simply stripped back to its original elements, a bit like The Beatles’ Let it Be…Naked from years back, when that album was unshackled from its Phil Spector overdubs. However, Ignite the Seven Cannons…Naked would not have worked as a title, as I believe that igniting anything in the nude is a dangerous, reckless pursuit.  

Oh well, at least the 2017 Lodger did not ultimately replace the original – it’s strictly part of the A New Career in a New Town retrospective box set, and the regular Lodger is still widely available. I think that this new take on Cannons should have complemented the original version, not replaced it. Like it or not, that original version released all those years ago is an essential part of Felt’s story, and the medium is just as important as the message. And now it’s been swept away like it was something embarrassing. What we have in its place is an awkward revisionist replacement that, for all its virtues (and there are many) doesn’t feel right. This should have been a 2017 post-script, not a retrospective shoe-horn into the fabric of 1985. Yet that’s what we’re stuck with. If you want the original Ignite, you’ll have to fork out a fuck-load for the original vinyl, or try and get your mitts on a second-hand CD (and they don’t come cheap either).

Anyway, let’s forget about availability, how do these restored mixes actually sound?

Pretty damn good! The original performances were always great, so if you liked them before, you’ll still like them now. At times it’s amazing to think that they’re literally the same takes, such a difference the Guthrie approach made to them. It’s like being without glasses for years and finally getting a pair, and all is crisp and clear to see. Everything is clean, totally free of reverb or embellishment. You hear little touches that may never have picked up on before. For example, there’s an guitar flourish in the chorus of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ that I never even noticed in the original, but when I went back to the Guthrie version, it is indeed there among the fog! ‘Scarlet Servants’ seems to have been affected the least – there’s actually not much difference between the two versions, but the other de-mixed tracks are noticeably altered. For anyone who hates overproduction, eighties excess and whatnot, these mixes will be a massive relief. But personally, do I think they’re better than the Guthrie mixes?

For the most part, no. Absolutely not. 

I must repeat that for all their occasional imperfections, the Guthrie elements really made something spectacular out of these songs back in ’85. The inviting warmth of ‘My Darkest Light Will Shine’, the ecstatic downpour of ‘The Day the Rain Came Down’, the nautical rush of ‘Black Ship of the Harbour’ the thrilling buzz of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’…. it was an embarrassment of magnificently overcooked riches. Okay, you couldn’t make out all the details amongst the blur, but that made for an intoxicated, mad pleasure ride nonetheless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because the de-mixed replacements have more clarity, doesn’t automatically make them superior. The feel of these songs now approximate closer to demos, albeit very well performed ones. They sound two steps shy of actually sounding finished. To compare, the songs on The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories were free of any overtly gimmicky production touches like those on Ignite and were delivered pretty much straight, but they nevertheless sounded complete, vivid and flawless. These new Ignite mixes sound like dry-runs, rough drafts, in need of that final, definitive touch. I mean, fair play that Rivers hasn’t added anything that wasn’t originally there, but for these to be now considered the definitive versions is preposterous. They sound like Peel Sessions in an alternate universe where John Peel actually liked the band.

What’s weirder is that Rivers has only applied the de-mixing trick to only six of the tracks, which means that half or so of it sounds really pared down and half of it still has the original ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach. Say what you like about the Guthrie-mixed album, but at least it sounded consistent and had a definitive character. Here, the flow becomes messy. Saying that, for most of the first side you don’t notice because all of the first four tracks have been altered, but then along comes ‘Primitive Painters’ in all its Guthrie-enriched glory and it throws you off balance completely. ‘Painters’ is the only track with vocals that hasn’t been messed with – why? Anyone who had issues with the ‘problems’ of the other songs would surely find them here too. Maybe it’s because ‘Painters’ is Felt’s most famous song, the one that came closest to transcending the band’s obscurity, and to mess with it would probably piss off a lot of people. The problem with leaving the song untouched is that it disrupts the atmosphere of the album entirely. It makes the preceding four tracks sound hopelessly small in comparison. 

Well, that’s the first side done with – as for the second side, well it was always a bit of a let down after the perfect run of the first five songs. Of the six tracks, four were instrumentals, and while they were all pleasing and often dazzling, we were hardly talking Bowie’s Low. There were two tracks with vocals – the resplendent ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ came close to matching the first side, while ‘Caspian See’ did not, a slight throwaway on a side of vinyl that really couldn’t afford to have any. While mostly an accomplished run of tracks on its own terms, side 2 desperately needed another ‘Primitive Painters’ to give it some more weight. As for the instrumentals, none of them have been subject to de-mixing, but side 2 of Ignite nevertheless has been drastically altered in regards to structure. 

In an attempt to make the flipside “focused, edited and made symmetrical”, one of the four instrumentals has been removed (the lush, pretty ‘Serpent Shade’) and another (‘Elegance of an Only Dream’, now re-titled for the second time – it’s now ‘Elegance in D’) has been arbitrarily edited down from over five minutes to just under four. This does result in an even number of tracks per side (Lawrence has often made a point of preferring this), but if we’re going to get picky, the second side is now literally shorter than the first, and given that its original content had always felt less substantial than its flip, now it feels even less so. Honestly, the excellence of the first side’s structure is that it started off leading you in with a guiding hand, and then it took you on a journey to an epic crescendo. The second side just felt less well thought out, and honestly, I don’t think this new structural meddling has improved the album at all. It’s weird. If Lawrence and Rivers had really wanted to make the album more symmetrical, maybe they should have gone the whole hog and spread the instrumentals all over the album and put some of the heavyweight songs on the second side. Who knows, maybe it would have been a fucking disaster, but at least it would have had more ambition than this effort.  As for the two de-mixed songs on side 2, ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ brings the album back down to a demo-level small-scale after the untouched ‘Painters’ and ‘Textile Ranch’, and I must say that it’s this track that suffers the most from De-Guthrieisation. The way the original kicked in with that wave of sound was genuinely spine-tingling. Here it has a fraction of the impact. Then again, ‘Caspian See’, the weakest track on the original album has been improved a little. It was a bit of a sloppy song, and this de-mix sounds alright, a bit sharper. It’s still the album’s weak link though. 

So to conclude, this album has not been improved. In trying to rectify perceived errors, the album has cut its nose to spite its face. Yeah, you could say the 1985 album was flawed, but so is this; far more so, I’d say. Less an album than a something resembling a compilation of odds and sods, the new Ignite the Seven Cannons fails to spark. Look, I know it sounds like I’m being overtly harsh, but I can’t deny my disappointment at the handling of the band’s past. Nevertheless, it is so wonderful that their music (well, most of it) is being made available again: I was in Rough Trade East near Brick Lane the other day and the sight of a display stand loaded with nothing else but Felt was an utter joy to witness!

For an in-depth look at Felt’s albums and singles, click here.

PS: I’ve since discovered that the original mix of Ignite is still available as a digital purchase from many of the major outlets, which is great – let’s hope it remains available!

Suspiria (1977)

This piece contains spoilers, although to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend reading anything about Suspiria before watching it for the first time. It’s best just to dive in…

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A Little Prelude…

If you ask a horror fan what their all time favourite example of the genre is, there’s a very, very good chance it’ll be something they first watched in their childhood or adolescence, or at the very least, from a time when the horror film was more than just another genre. When it was something more primal, more instinctual. All of my favourite horrors are the ones I watched when I was sixteen years old or younger. None of them were films that I were legally allowed to watch at the time. I think this is important. I’m talking as someone from the UK, where films are given stricter age classifications than, say in the US, where the R-rating essentially legitimises a child watching something like Saw so long as they have an adult with them. For me, one of the core attractions/repulsions of a horror film is knowing you’re not supposed to watch it. It’s the forbidden fruit.

I had an early period in my life of being absolutely terrified of horror films – the mere thought of watching one was a no-no, and yet curiosity or circumstance sometimes got the better of me. I happened to stumble on to a Channel 4 screening of The Company of Wolves one Thursday night back in 1987 when I was six, and its impact on me was akin to experiencing a living nightmare. I lasted five minutes and ran upstairs. A few years later I, in an attempt to not seem too cowardly, braved a the terrestrial premiere of The Lost Boys with my family, watching as much of it as my nerves could handle before fleeing in terror two-thirds in. After being burned like that, I continued to avoid horror; the best I could muster was little acts of bravery like sneaking a peek at the covers of horror VHS tapes in my local rental shop, before quickly putting them back in their place as they scared me too much. The back covers of the first two Demons films were so scary that the thought of watching the actual films seemed unthinkable. The turning point was when I braved myself to revisit that earlier trauma of The Lost Boys, only to discover that not only did I make it through the whole film without fleeing but a part of me got a kick out of the scares. And that’s when it began.

Suddenly horror had an appeal.

And yes, I was too young to watch these films, but that didn’t really stop me. I suppose it helped if your local video shop is particularly lax on rules regarding age classification. The period of my life from around twelve to sixteen years was probably the purest for me in regards to watching horror films – no preconceptions, no cynicism or weariness towards the genre… just pure visceral cinema. Hellraiser, The Shining, The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween…good times. However, good times never last, and the older I got, the more aware I became of horror’s history, its acknowledged peaks and depths. I started getting picky, became more demanding. And then I started being able to watch horror films at the cinema because I was the right age, and while some of them were pretty effective, already I was becoming immune to the genre’s impact. It didn’t help that mainstream horror in the late nineties was pretty rubbish, with even the best ones so drenched in irony that it was difficult to truly lose yourself in them.

Looking for the ultimate horror rush is like looking for the lost chord or the lost ark, and even though many a great horror film can turn up and unnerve you, freak you out, make you jump or even linger long in the memory after you’ve left the cinema…. it just isn’t the same. I’m still longing for that special new film that will terrify me the way the horror films used to as a child, but is such a thing possible? I truly envy those who are still terrified of horrors, or those who have watched a million already and can still get a primal kick out of them. I suppose I can still replicate the buzz I got when I was younger today– for example, when watching horrors from the 70s and 80s that I never actually saw in my youth but nevertheless could have. I imagine myself having watched it in some alternate history, and here I just happen to be rewatching it. The similarities and tropes of horror films means that even if you haven’t seen a particular example literally, you kind of already have by the fact that it shares so much of its contemporaries’ DNA. For example, last year I endured all of the ‘classic’ era Friday the 13th films. Some of them were being watched for the first time, ones like Part 2 and The Final Chapter. And yet, even though they were newbies for me, they settled in very comfortably amongst the first film and Part 3 because to be honest, they’re all so bloody similar anyway. And it was a weird feeling, watching Part 2. I was getting nostalgic pleasure of watching something I had never seen before. Yet as much as I try and relive that old feeling, it’s still not the same as that earlier, purer time when I would approach these films with genuine trepidation.

Anyway, I digress…

The Greatest Horror of All Time?

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Luckily, I managed to catch what I regard as the greatest horror of all time just as my ‘pure’ era of horror films was nearing its end, and that film was Suspiria. It was probably the last horror film that I remember being truly enraptured by. After this, the bar had been raised so high that nothing else could match it. Today, Suspiria is getting truly lavished upon – currently there are two different 4K remasterings doing the cinematic rounds, with debates online as to what is the purer distillation of the film. The film has been dissected, analysed, pored over and I’m addicted to all discussion of it. And yet, with each further analysis (and I’m contributing one more to the pile right here), we continue to move further and further away from that first viewing, arguably the most important one of the lot. But who can blame us for wanting to pore over Dario Argento (and co-writer Daria Nicolodi)’s masterpiece and want to try and understand this most beguiling of nightmares?

Suspiria is a remarkable film because even though it wasn’t the first horror film ever made (obviously), it often feels like the purest. I remember watching it for the first time and feeling as though this, at last, was the horror I had been waiting for, the one I had always dreaded and yet wanted. Time Out magazine absolutely nailed its appeal when they said that ‘it seemed like what horror films were like when you were too young to get into them’. Argento gave us the ultimate horror, the final word on the genre, and yet it is also not universally adored. His extreme approach by definition was always going to divide audiences, but then the best horror is in one way or another extreme. Make your horror film too polite, too mainstream, too mannered and you get The Sixth Sense, which I’m sure most people would agree is a fine film, but the fact that everybody seems to like it is a sign that it’s too safe, you know?

The first time I watched Suspiria was when it was re-released on video in the UK in widescreen and in a distinctly below-average transfer in the late nineties. I’m sure existing fans would have been happy enough with the fact that it was in its original ratio and was uncut, but the picture quality was distinctly blurry and unrefined. Yet I didn’t really notice at the time. So legendary in my mind was the reputation of Suspiria that its muddy picture seemed to be the point, as though I had discovered an ancient tome or crackly old 78 from olden times. If the picture had been too perfect I don’t think it would have got to me as much. What I do know for sure is that Suspiria is a classic of sound and vision. There is rarely anything mundane in its approach. Only some of the supporting performances and dialogue approach anything resembling banality. For the most part, it transcends the genre, in fact transcends 99 per cent of cinema, to become something truly spellbinding. It has been charged with accusations of incoherence and plotlessness. In regards to the latter, I honestly think a plot more complex than the one we get on screen would be too distracting. As for incoherence, the only thing I don’t understand about the film is why people would call it incoherent. Yes, there are moments of outright bizarreness (the piano wire room, for instance), but they totally work within the film’s logic. I don’t feel cheated or played about. Accusations of incoherence could arguably be levelled at Suspiria’s follow-up, Inferno, but I’ll delve into that another time. The plot of Suspiria is breathtakingly simple – any loose ends that one might notice aren’t really that important. There is only as much plot here as we need. Enough to fill up the space of a nightmare…

The First 15 Minutes…

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Suzy Bannion (a wide-eyed, innocent but resourceful hero, perfectly portrayed by Jessica Harper) arrives in Freiberg, Germany in the middle of a vicious thunderstorm to stay at the dance academy where she’s due to study, but it turns out that her teachers have wicked, malevolent intentions… that’s all you really need to know really, and a re-telling of the plot’s minutiae here obviously does the film no real favours. This is something you need to experience first hand. You need to dive in, and few horrors do as magnificent a job as getting you right from the very beginning as Suspiria. The first fifteen or so minutes are pretty much legendary in horror circles for representing the essential apex of the genre. The thunderous percussion of Goblin’s music score gives us no quarter, building and building to a deafening peak before crashing into silence and then into the soundtrack’s most famous motif, the gentle but sinister music-box melody that rivals the immortal repetition of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme for sheer iconic creepiness.

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As if not wanting to bother with boring things like plot exposition, a voice-over quickly tells us what we need to know and then we’re into the action – the elements are in full force, the colour-scheme is growing wild, the sense of dread and unease (beautifully evoked in seemingly innocuous things like the gears of an automatic door or a storm drain) and the quick ‘what was that??’ reflection of a deranged looking Argento in the cab’s inside window (see above), something I didn’t even notice during those early, blurry VHS viewings. The music meanwhile is building and building to an unbearable crescendo of madness, with hisses and taunts of ‘WITCH!!!’ from various Goblin members acting as a clear spoiler for those who don’t know what’s to come. In fact, despite far-out, more-or-less fantastical elements being present in earlier Argento films, Suspiria is his first out-and-out supernatural work, and as such there’s a chance that existing fans of his might not have been prepared for the new twist in his style. Indeed, it represents as much a staggering leap in Argento’s style from Deep Red as that had made from his relatively modest ‘Animal Trilogy’. I’d go as far to say that no director has managed to deliver what Argento did with this film.

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Now, even if Suzy had arrived at the ‘Tanzakademie’ and been let inside for a much-need night’s rest with no drama, this still have made for a mightily impressive introduction, but Argento’s not done with us, even if he is temporarily done with Suzy. No, instead we switch to Pat, the doomed student whom we later find out knows far too much about her teachers for her to be able to make it through the night. For many, this is where Suspiria really gets going. She seeks sanctuary in her flat, which is located in a remarkable tenement that boasts a wild glass ceiling, outrageously ornate lifts and utterly bizarre internal geography. It’s like that bit in that Shining documentary where it’s revealed that the manager’s office has a window to the outside world that couldn’t possibly exist, given the layout of the building. Pat and her room mate are then murdered in an astonishingly protracted and brutal act of directorial malevolence that is as horrifying as it is spectacular.

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The build up is unbearable: Goblin’s soundtrack descends on Pat as she fruitlessly tries to peek through her window to see what’s outside with the aid of a lamp, only to be faced with her own reflection, as well as those weird eyes staring back at her… and then… quiet. Oh God, what’s going to happen?

This.

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An arm, which could belong to an ogre, or something Neanderthal, smashes through the window and pushes Pat’s face hard up against the pane in front of her, not stopping until her head smashes through it. The music has come back with a vengeance, the percussion pummelling us into submission. Then we start to lose our sense of perspective as Pat appears to be now in an attic (?) – a jump in location which, yes, you could regard as incoherent, but I love it for its bad-dream logic.

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Then we get a dozen or so stabbings when one or two might have done the trick, including a shot of her punctured heart, which is still beating and still getting stabbed. Then, seemingly for no other reason than for the killer (and Argento) to show off, Pat has a noose tied around her neck, then she’s placed on top of the glass ceiling and she smashes through it, falling until the noose hangs her. We then cut to what is essentially a grand summation of all the chaos that has just transpired – we slowly pan down Pat’s bloodied body, we see that the shattered, fallen ceiling glass has killed her room mate. The music, made up of a creepy, sepulchral synthesiser, surveys the damage, and then we cut to the next morning.

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Wow.

The Rest of the Film

That opening act reaches heights that most horrors in their final act couldn’t hope to rival, and it’s terrifying to realise that the film has only just begun! We return to Suzy and her eventual misadventures at the dance academy, which as we all know (and love), involve maggots, cut throat razors, scary snoring, wild wallpaper, very white teeth, possessed doggies, blue irises, and even (in a nice nod to an earlier Argento film) a crystal plumage, all presented in glorious, vivid colours and backed by the most gloriously wild music. We all have our favourite moments from this film, and I’d like to delve into a few of them. Three in particular, although to be honest, the last example lasts well over ten minutes.

1. “We’ll all sleep together…”

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It’s been revealed that Suspiria was originally meant to feature children in the lead roles, but upon realising this would be a tricky road to carry on down given the story’s vicious content, the ages of the characters were bumped up to what I presume are early twenties, although the film sneakily still manages to exude a childlike feel by doing this like making the doorknobs higher than normal so that the adult actors would have to reach up to use them, by casting Harper with her afore-mentioned innocent visage, by avoiding any sexual overtones, and simply by emphasising the boarding school atmosphere of the academy. This is most evident in a deeply strange sequence where, after the upper floors of the Tanzakademie are revealed to have been infested with maggots, the students are made to sleep together ina  big hall with hastily arranged makeshift beds. I slept in a set-up just like this when I was a boy spending a week away on a trip with my local Cubs group, and it’s a weird atmosphere, like camping but indoors. Thankfully I didn’t have a demonic directress snoring the snores of the damned next to me, but it was still an unusual feeling, everybody together like that, sharing sleeping space with all these other people. Plus there was the size of the hall which, when crammed with all these other children, made for an intimate yet at the same time cavernous setting.

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Watching Suspiria, especially this scene, evokes these feelings of childhood, but an evil, twisted version. The students bicker, tease and pout just like kids, and Harper and Stefania Casini (as Suzy’s new friend Sara) in particular do very well in acting as though they were adolescent best friends, with their hushed whispers as they try not to be overheard, their fear of adults, in particular the ghastly, monstrous one just behind them. Okay, you could quibble at the totally unrealistic red hue the scene has been bathed in, or why the directress is sleeping in such close proximity to the students, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. What Suspiria does so well is present its absurdities in such a persuasive manner that I never feel like questioning them.

2. “Suzy, wake up!”

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Another remarkable scene is the stalking and eventual murder of Sara a cruelly drawn out set-piece that you know it going to end particularly horribly. It’s just a matter of how horrible. It’s unusual for a lead character to be so passive, but Suzy does spend a fair amount of the film drugged and/or out of the picture, and it’s when Sara needs her the most, when she realises that the witches are on to her, that Suzy ultimately fails her, drifting off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the killer’s presence when he/she walks past her sleeping in bed. Sara runs off on her own, deeper into the labyrinth of the academy, up to the attic where the maggots were previously taking up residence. There’s a terrific, understated scare when a door behind her opens out of the blue (talking of blue, the lighting in this sequence is beautifully vivid), an the wait for inevitable attack becomes unbearable. There’s even a return of those spooky eyes from the first scene lurking in the background, something I never even noticed in the blurry-VHS days. When the killer does attack (we never see their face, but given we see him with Sara’s lighter later on, it’s most likely the mute, ugly servant Pavlo, a revelation all the more disturbing given the film treated him as a figure of fun earlier), it’s a swift, brutal act that is dragged out even more than Pat’s demise, as Sara actually manages to temporarily evade death, having locked herself in a room. Much is made of the film’s remarkable score, but there’s a moment when it stops and all we hear is the ghastly scraping of the killer’s razor as he attempts to lift up the latch of the door with it, and this is where the adrenaline of the scene, emphasises by the music, is drained away and a very real dread seeps in, a horror of knowing that this character is definitely not going to make it.

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This scene plays out like a very bad dream, with a ridiculously inaccessible, small window the only means of escape. Sara does make it out, but if there ever was a textbook horror film definition of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, then this is it. We all know what happens next, and it is a reveal so outrageous that I am genuinely amazed that I didn’t think it utterly preposterous at the time. Instead it was so shocking, and the suspense leading up to it so effective that, frankly, there could have been anything in that room and I would have bought it. 

3. “She must die…”

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The curious, albeit immortal, marketing for Suspiria declared that the only thing more frightening than the last twelve minutes of this film were the first ninety, a memorable tagline for sure, but clearly one that suggested the ending of the film was going to be a let-down! For some, the ending is a bit anticlimactic, but each to their own. For me, the ending is a brilliant culmination of a gradual, increasingly unbearable escalation of terror. Suzy is all alone in the academy, with all the other students and staff having apparently ‘gone to the theatre’, which is the kind of way a bad dream would start – the sense of being left out, the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of friends, being alone in what is essentially a haunted house. Alone in her room, illuminated in the kind of blue darkness that doesn’t exist in real life but looks utterly, spookily beautiful nonetheless, Suzy is attacked by a bat, its incongruous presence actually kind of understandable in a film like this. After that she decides to do a little investigating, cannily working out the secret route to the witches’ lair by correctly recalling the half-heard clue that was said to her by Pat at the start of the film. Suspiria continues Argento’s tradition of a detective struggling with their memory to try and solve the big mystery, although in the case of this film, we actually get as close to a happy ending as is possible in the director’s canon, a rare instance of the mystery being unravelled but the character managing not to be unravelled themselves, though admittedly it’s an ordeal to get to that ending.

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When Suzy turns the ‘secret, blue iris’, a little door opens and one of my favourite moments in any horror film begins. I’m talking about the golden corridor that Suzy walks down – in any other scenario, this would actually be quite a beautiful scene. It looks tranquil, regal and yet… we know where we are. This is the calm before the storm, and I find this corridor utterly creepy as a result. It doesn’t belong here, much like a lot of things in this film. There’s a bit just before the room with the iris when Suzy sneaks past a kitchen where two maids (who are in on the witches’ scheme and are not to be trusted) are laughing happily and going about their business, and it’s such a jolt to see these people who are privy to murder and evil being so jolly. Also, at the very start of the film, as Suzy tries to hail a cab, we see a McDonalds in the background. The thought of people cheerfully enjoying their Big Mac, so near yet so far to this demonic story sends shivers down me. You’d think that the sight of the golden arches would snap you out of Suspiria’s spell, but I think it enhances it. There’s so many classic instances of weird, unusual touches in this film – the bat, the out-of-nowhere lighting, that where-are-we?-attic from the opening murder… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but Suspiria takes dream logic and applies it so seamlessly to the art of film that it’s no wonder that Argento went even further in Inferno, but there I find it too distracting and showy, and I can’t lose myself in it, despite the film’s many, many virtues.

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Suzy then sees the staff, who are definitely not at the theatre (so where are the other students?) and are in fact preparing to cast a spell to bring sickness and death upon Suzy. This marks the first time we have actually seen characters who we have suspected to be evil committing acts of evil. Everything so far has been acted out by anonymous characters whose identity is only possible to gauge in retrospect. Deep down we knew these characters were bad, but here is the proof. Even worse than that is the moment where we see Sara’s corpse, laid out as a grisly tableaux in a room that Suzy backs off into. Her once alive friend, now a grotesque with pins in her eyes and nails in her wrists. This room is the room, the most terrible room in a terrible house, the sleeping quarters of the directress, one Helena Markos, the Black Queen and, as we discover in Inferno, one of the legendary Three Mothers who wish to bring darkness, tears and sorrow upon the world. Suzy accidentally disturbs Markos (there’s a wonderful shot as the ornamental balls Suzy has knocked over head inevitably, unstoppably towards her bed) and the unthinkable happens – she awakens. When I first watched this, the tension was horrible.

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Now it’s true, the long-awaited confrontation between Suzy and Markos is short, but boy, is it deliciously sickly. The voice of Markos in the dubbed version might sound to some as very hammy, but she scared the fuck out of me when I was younger, and her promise to Suzy that she’s ‘going to meet death…the living dead!’ is one of the genre’s most chilling moments, as is the earlier line ‘Hell is behind that door!’ What happens next is a moment scarier than anything in the film’s more celebrated opening 15 minutes, as an undead Sara walks in, brandishing a knife, bleeding from the mouth and laughing maniacally. I’ve written before about the ultimate horror of a kind, good or heroic character turning bad, and the terror of when that person wants to hurt or even kill their former friend, loved one or relative, and while Sara’s return from the dead only lasts a few moments, it’s enough for it to leave a lasting, chilling impact. Yep, in swift time, Suzy dispatches Markos and successfully escapes from the now self-destructing academy, after which the film ends with her relieved, laughing and walking away from the burning building, from which we can hear the screams of the doomed staff. Roll credits.

You have been watching Suspiria…

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And that’s that. Suspiria. Is it the greatest horror film ever, like I boldly claimed earlier? It’s all personal, isn’t it? What I find scary, others won’t. What other people find scary, I won’t. I mean horror, of all things, is so difficult to calmly, analytically rate. What I’m confident of is my opinion that Suspiria, more than any other film, captures the essence of what makes a horror great. So even if it isn’t officially the greatest horror film, it is the film that encapsulates best of all what it is that makes a horror film a horror film. Did that make sense?

Okay, it has dated in some respects. If you were feeling picky, you could point out the obvious use of a model dog’s head when the doomed, blind pianist Daniel’s erstwhile beloved mutt has his snack. Yeah, I guess Sara’s slit neck looks a bit, well… rubbery, I suppose? The clearly exaggerated red of the blood, although obviously an aesthetic choice to match the outrageous splendour of the surroundings, might turn off those who like their grue more realistic. Some of the dubbing is undeniably distracting, most obviously in the case of Pat and her room mate, and bitchy fellow student Olga too. 

Ah yes, the dubbing. Normally, I avoid dubbed versions of films like the plague, but for a long time Suspiria was only ever available here in the UK in its English language incarnation, and with it came the natural awkwardness of not-quite right lip-sync, weird dialogue and not quite natural ambience. Oddly, like many Argento films, some of the actors on set were actually speaking in English, and others in Italian, and then everything was re-dubbed afterwards, so even performers like Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett sound slightly strange. We all had to make do with the English version for a long time, but to be honest, such is the all-encompassing visual and aural assault of the film that I genuinely feel subtitles would be a distraction from all those sights and sounds.

 

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So to conclude, even though Argento would go on to make a very good film later on called Opera, Suspiria is genuinely operatic, a visceral assault of crescendos and high-impact spectacle that can arguably be regarded as the most musical of all horrors. In the same way that the precise impact of a piece of music can be difficult to define, so too is Suspiria’s power tricky to convey. Of course, its technical virtues are easy to applaud, but the other stuff, the stuff that crawls under your skin, gets into your head and invades your dreams… well, that’s magic. That’s Suspiria. 

PS: If you would like to listen to an audio commentary for Suspiria recorded by me and my good friend Mark, then click on the commentaries link to the right of the page and download the free Suspiria track. Enjoy!