The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet: A brief look at Dario Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’

The wild and weird output of the landmark Italian horror/thriller director Dario Argento can neatly be split up into three chapters.

The middle and most famous chapter, from 1975’s Deep Red to 1987’s Opera, is heralded by those who love him as one of the all-time great runs of genre cinema, films of such verve, idiosyncratic extremes and horrific beauty that it’s no wonder they’ve inspired the kind of intense devotion that true cults are made of.

The third chapter, which covers everything from 1989’s Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes right up until now, is where Argento’s mojo starts to slip away and we get a much spottier output, some of it good, some of it bad.

Then there was the first chapter, when Argento was just starting out. In this period he delivered three fine thrillers that you could (and I try not to, but I ultimately do) regard as mere build-ups for what was to come, but they also mostly work very well as films in their own right. They’re often referred to as ‘The Animal Trilogy’ for no other reason than their titles. Those titles by the way are just so much fancy window-dressing – they sound cool, mysterious and unique, but they barely relate to the actual bloody films, bar a shoe-horned reference here and there. Compared to Argento’s golden period, these films are far more modest in their ambitions and impact, but something like 1969’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is actually a pretty neat entry-point for those who aren’t at all sure about how to approach this most extreme of filmmakers. What’s interesting about Bird is not only how relatively normal it is for an Argento film but also how many of his motifs and themes were right there from the start. Scary paintings, unreliable memories, helpless murder witnesses, obsessed protagonists, unique cinematic tricks, cats – it’s all here. The seeds were being sown.

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The plot involves blocked writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnessing the stabbing of a woman in a museum by a mysterious black-clad assailant. He’s unable to help because he’s trapped in-between two sets of glass doors (Argento would take this motif of helpless watching to one hell of an extreme in 1987’s Opera), but nevertheless develops his own obsession with the mystery as the film proceeds, becoming amateur detective (another Argento regularity) and dancing perilously close to death as a result. Argento’s been criticised for his unbelievable characters, and some might balk at the scene when Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are in bed going over the clues (and various grisly crime scene photos) with an enthusiastic glee that surely no sane person would adopt if any of this were real. But if you consider that Argento could be letting his characters approach the case in the same way a viewer would approach a mystery film, then it almost makes some kind of perverse sense. Sam and his girlfriend’s reactions are almost like if you and I were going over the plot of say, a TV crime series the day after it had been screened. This might put some viewers off though for being too remote, and not how people in real life would react, but Argento and ‘real life’ have always been a tricky combination. There’s also a bit earlier Sam is walking home (down a beautifully eerie, foggy street) and is almost hacked by the killer – he pretty much shrugs it off and later relays the previous night and day’s events with a wry dismissal. Blimey.  With stuff like that, you’re either happy to go along for the ride or you aren’t. Besides, this is nothing compared to the infamously odd scene in Opera where the heroine, having just been forced to watch her boyfriend get a knife up through his jaw, behaves if she’s only mildly inconvenienced. That really did annoy me.

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The violent extremes that Argento would become famous haven’t been reached yet – the first murder takes place entirely off-screen (!!!!), but there are still some unsettlingly nasty moments here – I imagine they were pretty damned strong for 1969, and to think that this director would only get more and more cruel, elaborate and gory from here on in! Also, one thing that differentiates this from Argento’s other gialli is that this has a reasonably happy ending – think of all the others from 1970’s Cat O’ Nine Tails onwards, they have a sting in the tail, are uncertain or are pretty damned bleak.

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Speaking of Cat, this is an Argento film that has always been relatively easy to find in the UK – on video it was distributed by Warner Bros. It got a rental release in 1987 to presumably cash in on Argento’s cult popularity (the cover refers to Suspiria and more recent films like Creepers – aka Phenomena – and the Argento-produced Demons) and was also re-released as part of Warners’ very cool Terror Vision collection of horror movies. However, while Bird was a hit in the US, Cat was not. Oddly enough, for a director who has featured kitties in many of his films, Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t star any felines at all. This is very disappointing. The plot is a twisty-turny tale of murder, theft, kind-of incest, genetics etc. and while it is no Argento classic, I love it for its tension between giallo grotesquerie and Stateside potboiler. Even though it’s not set in the US, it nevertheless feels like an episode of a crime series like Columbo and The Streets of San Franscisco at times, understandable given that the latter’s star Karl Malden is one of the two leads here.

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The plot – something about the criminality of the XXY chromosome and the killer’s desperate attempt to cover up that they have it – is even more convoluted and silly than the one for Bird, and hinges on implausibilities: the one that’s currently bothering me is the second murder: why would the killer bump off the photographer to conceal the fact that a murder took place originally? All you could see in the original photo was a hand! Talk about compounding the situation! To be honest, I’ve watched Cat three times now and the last two times I had forgotten who the murderer was, so this isn’t really a film that revolves around a particularly important revelation. Maitland McDonagh, author of the brilliant Argento book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, suggests that the film is a lot more fun if you already know who the killer is. I kind of agree with that – as a whodunnit, Cat is hardly a classic, but as an exercise in style and flair, it’s very enjoyable indeed. One thing that Argento has already upped his game with substantially is his handling of murder scenes. The first, a gruesome killing at a train station, is spectacularly nasty. We also get some pretty vicious first-person kills that are protracted, garish and pretty damned ugly. It’s also a cynical movie – note the way the photographers are distracted from the murder of Calabresi (the first victim) with the arrival of the celebrity arriving on the train for whom they were originally there for, and ‘Smile bitch, your train just killed a guy’ is one of the cruellest asides in any Argento film. In addition, it’s the little extra sadistic touches that stand out – after strangling the photographer, the killer slashes each of his cheeks. The vomit in Bianca’s mouth as she’s getting garotted. When the killer falls down the lift shaft, he/she attempt to hold onto the lift cables but that ends up causing so much friction that their hands begin to smoke – ouch!

And of course, this shot.

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Argento, more than in Bird, is clearly interested in set-pieces and individual stand-out moments. Aside from the murders, we also get a car chase, an excursion to a cemetery, a suspense-scene involving poisoned milk and a funny scene at the barber’s that’s half amusing, half squirm-inducing. These are the stand out moments, but Argento joins the dots nicely thanks to charismatic performances from James Franciscus (soon to venture Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and Karl Malden, whose character in turn has a cute double-act with his niece. Catherine Spaak represents that rare thing in an Argento film – a love interest – and even though the dynamic between her and Franciscus isn’t as sharp or fascinating as the one between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, it’ll do well enough, despite a love scene that’s so drained of heat it’s almost alien. Some neat uses of editing (like jumping back and forth in-between scenes as an arresting form of transition, the cutaways that suggest that Malden’s blind character has some kind of second sight), the memorably nasty (and oblique, if you go along with McDonagh’s theory that the killer wasn’t lying about his final victim) ending and great shot composition makes this is a relatively modest but still above-average slice of genre fare.

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Accidental murder, phoney murder and out-and-out intentional murder, as well as self-loathing gender identity, filial hatred, infidelity and yes, feline abuse form the bulk of 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which is the darkest and weirdest of the Animal Trilogy. It was given some kind of Holy Grail status over the decades due to how rare it was to track down but don’t get excited, this flawed film is most definitely not a ‘lost masterpiece’ as the cover of the eventual Blu-Ray excitedly release claimed it to be. Still, I like it for the most part – it sees Argento venture even further out there in regards to technique and idiosyncrasy. There are some tremendous moments to savour. The opening sequence blends music and visuals brilliantly as we get a prog-rock band in rehearsal whilst the camera explores a guitar by perching on the top of its neck or even occupying a space INSIDE it – we see the hand strumming the strings! There’s a great protracted suspense scene as a doomed maid finds the zoo she’s in becomes deserted and, as she’s pursued by the killer, seems to turn into some kind of cobwebbed catacomb! The final scene proves you can make anything beautiful as long as you add slow-motion and Morricone. Fans of Argento’s later work will notice little touches here and there that he’s repeated later on. Puppets, slow-motion bullets, that sort of thing. As for the absolutely insane method of detection that involves taking the last image seen by the victim before they died? Well, it comes out of nowhere so late in the narrative and is frankly complete twaddle, but it’s so mad that I can’t help but admire its nerve.

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However, any resemblance to conventional thriller fare that his first two films might have had are slipping away, and to be honest, we’re occasionally in an awkward middleground between the immediately satisfying if relatively unambitious likes of Bird and Cat and the more successful craziness of Deep Red. Sometimes the film feels flat, and this isn’t helped by Michael Brandon in the lead character of Roberto, a drummer who thinks he’s killed someone (in a spectacularly abandoned concert hall) but hasn’t, yet is still guilty of being a dickhead. He certainly looks the part (and his resemblance to Argento himself has been noted) but he’s one of the director’s more charmless leads. His performance is most odd – at times he seems to be barely reacting to anything. His scenes with girlfriend Mimsy Farmer as she’s practically breaking down in front of him are some of the coldest you’ll ever see. Is it because Roberto is so remote he’s barely there, or is the actor not really trying? Incidentally, Brandon was some way down the list of preferred actors for the role – if you can believe it, the likes of James Taylor (yes, that one) and Tom Courtenay (yes, that one) were considered!

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There’s also a would-be humorous element that doesn’t quite work – the bit when Roberto first encounters ‘God’ and this out-of-the-blue musical snippet of ‘Hallelujah’ appears out of nowhere is really bloody weird. Other broadly jokey bits, including a put-upon postman, don’t really work, though the digs at hipster arty-banter are quite amusing – I wish more of these prats had been killed off to be honest. The only light element that truly succeeds is the character of the gay private detective who is hedging his bets on a successful result after eighty-plus unsuccessful cases. It’s an affectionate performance and too sweet to be offensive or patronising, though some viewers might object to it. Nevertheless, he’s the most engaging character in the film. Incidentally, the fact that one of the reasons that a character in Cat O Nine Tails is suspicious because he’s he’s gay  is the kind of dated stuff you have to take as a given in a film that’s almost fifty years old, I suppose.

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In regards to subtext and themes, Four Flies is definitely the most complex of Argento’s first three films – the killer’s motivations are fascinating for example – but it’s difficult to get swept up in the whole affair mainly because the director has not found the confidence to go full-pelt with his vision. It’s simply not Argento enough. After an anomolous diversion into comedy for his fourth film (The Five Days of Milan), Argento would truly find his thriller-horror mojo from 1975 onwards.

One point of interest regarding these three films is the hiring of Ennio Morricone as composer – Argento’s collaborations with Goblin and its various members are his most celebrated, but the Morricone stuff has a magical appeal all of its own. Sometimes it’s generic, but othertimes it’s very nicely complementary, memorable and effective. Compared to the Goblin and Emerson stuff though, it’s just too damned normal!

These three films, had they been the only ones that Argento had ever made, would I’m sure still be as warmly remembered by cultists now as they are in real life. Those who object to the director’s more out-there and excessive later work might even find that the likes of Bird and Cat are their own personal favourites of the work. For hardcore Argento fans though, it’s unlikely any of these three will occupy the top spot, but they are still essential viewing for anyone who want to delve further into the man’s work, and also pleasing (if er, unpleasant) viewing for anyone who wants a bit of vintage late sixties/early seventies thrills.
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

One of the best remakes you’ll ever see.

It’s rare that a remake can not only equal the original but become wholly iconic in itself, but Philip Kaufman’s supremely creepy version has become just as enduring an example of science-fiction. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was and still is a classic of the genre, but Version 2.0 is up there with the very best remakes, up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Ominousness and uncertainty is everywhere in this film – Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman have an absolute ball milking paranoia and uncertainty from every potential moment.

Just like last time, mysterious plant life from outer space is slowly replacing humankind with sentient, emotionless duplicates. Right from the eerie opening credits, where unidentified alien life floats across the screen and towards Earth, the sense of icky, sticky foreboding is utterly tangible. It only gets worse/better from then on. In fact, the alien takeover happens more or less immediately, as Public Health Department worker Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) wakes up to discover that her lively, excitable husband has got out of bed with a seemingly different personality. Other people in the streets seem a little off too. Something’s not right. She confides in her work colleague Matthew (Donald Sutherland) and though he’s initially sceptical, there’s too much unprovable but uncanny evidence to suggest that San Francisco (although it’s unknown if any of this is happening elsewhere in the world, most likely methinks) really is being taken over…

Sutherland, an obviously well-known and well-loved yet fasinatingly unique leading actors, has a quietly authoratitive presence, and his chemistry with the warm and sympathetic Adams is wonderfully natural. You really feel the friendship and romantic tension between the two. Leonard Nimoy, as a psychiatrist whose calm, efficient demenaour means it’s difficult to tell if he’s already been turned, is weirdly unnerving – and that’s not just to do with the prospect of seeing Spock smile! Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright give great support as a couple caught up in the paranoia. In the pantheon of great cinematic cameos, the appearance of original star Kevin McCarthy, reprising his frenzied howls of ‘You’re next!!!’ has to be one of the all-time best. Keep an eye out fora genuine blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Robert Duvall. A more noticable mini-appearance comes from original Invasion director Don Siegel as a cab driver.

The now-famous pointing-and-screaming conceit is still wonderfully spooky (so much that the latest Blu-Ray artwork in the UK shows a certain character perform it, which is a bit a spoiler for those yet to watch the film), while the insane dog with a human face shock is still wildly weird (and a genuine reason for any character to break their phoney pod-person cover in surprised horror) and the plant effects are gloriously icky and freaky. Violence is sparse but when it comes it’s gooily effective, and the sight of a dispensed-with victim’s face caving in on itself is genuinely disturbing. One sequence as Sutherland is asleep in the garden and the surrounding greenery forms pods and human duplicates in a matter of minutes is absolutely gripping. Also, at times this film resembles a prototypical ‘running zombie’ movie, with effective scenes of the pod people relentlessly pursuing our heroes through the dead streets. The ending remains one of the most jolting and scary in SF/horror cinema – no music follows over the end credits. Sometimes silence is all that’s appropriate after a finale like that.

Two more versions would follow – the next in 1993, surprisingly directed by Abel Ferrara, was effectively creepy but not as well made as the first two. The last to date, simply titled The Invasion (2007) and starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, is something I’ve not dared approach given how ‘meh’ it’s meant to be.

PS: Just like the last film I reviewed here, Race with the Devil, this was a PG when it came out in the US! Considering the extremely creepy tone, occasional gore and nudity, it just goes to show how crazy the ratings board was back then. Crazy in a good way, obviously. We were a lot more sensible/wimpy here in the UK – the film got an X.

Movie round-up week ending September 29th 2013

Flight (2013)

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A plane narrowly avoids disaster, but what happens when everybody finds out the captain was drunk at the time? What starts off as a very spectacular, almost blockbuster-like experience soon scales itself down into being a portrait of alcoholism, as Denzel Washington’s hedonistic yet heroic, cocky yet hopelessly addicted pilot has to come to the terms of the effects of his drinking problem. The first half hour is extremely intense and very well directed – the special effects are remarkable and the tension very well handled. Then it changes tack (effectively, I must add) and we get a fine, solid character-based drama that doesn’t go for the easy clichés, doesn’t try and make its leading man a hero (in fact, Washington’s character is pretty loathsome on occasion, and he gives a great performance) and even riskily advocates cocaine as the lesser of two evils at one point. It’s no world-beater, but Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking has a confidence to it that makes for effective drama. Supporting performances from Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly and John Goodman are predictably great.

Plein Soleil (1960)

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Recently re-released in selected cinemas but already available as an earlier DVD edition, this was the first cinematic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the more famous Hollywood adaptation being made many decades later. This is a leaner film to be sure, and the moments that wracked the nerves in Anthony Minghella’s very good film turn out to have worked just as beautifully the first time round. Alain Delon makes for an enigmatic, compelling Ripley, who assumes the identity of the swish playboy whom he’s just murdered and who has to stay one step ahead of everybody else to avoid his cover being rumbled. For the most part, this is a deliciously dark treat – the gorgeous locations, the shock bursts of violence and the troubling likeability of the anti-hero make it a pleasure…if only the ending (which Highsmith apparently hated) wasn’t such a neat and tidy resolution, we’d have been talking about a major contender, but compared to the chilling finale of the remake, Plein Soleil doesn’t linger in the mind the way it looked it was going to for the most part. Still, a treat, nonetheless.

Rush (2013)

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Hollywood formula to be sure, but the best of its kind, Ron Howard’s thrilling Formula 1 biopic has a ball concentrating on the competitiveness between cocky, risk-taking and popular James Hunt and methodical, sensible and curt Niki Lauda during the 1976 World Championship. Sure, it’s sometimes sketchy, and a bit too obvious, but the two lead performances are fantastic – Chris Hemsworth has all the charm, swagger and magnetism that makes for a winning Hunt, while Daniel Bruhl is outstanding (and bloody funny too) as the occasionally rude, but no-nonsense and ultimately heroic Lauda. The racing scenes are phenomenally well directed, bordering on Michael Bay auto-porn, but whereas in Bay’s films they are an end in itself, for Howard it’s only the icing on the cake, a thrilling charge of sound, vision and editing that gives an extra charge to what is essentially a classic tale of rivalry and convincing depiction of why it is that racers race, despite the very dangerous risks involved. Obvious to say I know, but this really is a rush.

The Last American Virgin (1982)

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Recently re-released by Arrow Video, this surprising teen movie is two thirds pretty funny sex comedy and one third heartbreaking romance – although there are hints of the seriousness to come here and there, the eventual switch to a much darker tone is nevertheless quite a swerve, and a successful one at that. Awkward, shy Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is the eponymous young lad who falls instantly in love with Karen (Diane Franklin), the new girl in town, but she seems more interested in mutual friend Rick (Steve Antin), who’s got the confidence with the ladies shtick down cold. In the meantime, Gary, Rick and chubby third friend David (Joe Rubbo) get up to all manner of would-be sexual escapades involving passing off sugar as cocaine, an archetypal lonely housewife, a literal cock-measuring contest and the embarrassment of accidentally making out with your best friend’s mum. If this all sounds a bit like Porky’s, that’s because it is for the most part, although an encounter with a prostitute is surprisingly sordid and un-sanitised, leading to a case of the crabs for all three concerned. Then, when Karen realises she’s pregnant after a night with Rick, things get a lot more serious, leading to a stomach-punch of an ending that’s as painful as it is abrupt. So yeah, there’s tits, arse, crudity and farce, but there’s plenty of heart, and the final result is genuinely moving. Fantastic soundtrack too, featuring U2, The Police, Blondie and oh yes, REO Speedwagon.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

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The ultimate grimy horror of the seventies got a belated sequel twelve years later and offended the BBFC so much that they demanded twenty-plus minutes of cuts before a potential cinema release. Those cuts never happened, because in the end the film got shelved after that extreme ultimatum. You can see why the sexualised violence-phobic censors got into a panic – the most notorious moment in this wild and much more comedic follow-up involves Leatherface rubbing a failed chainsaw against the heroine’s crotch, but can’t ‘get it up’ so to speak because his actual penis is taking over rather than his substitute version. Tobe Hooper directs once more, and obviously the horror genre has changed substantially since the original, so self-parody, overt metaphors (the afore-mentioned crotch incident), extreme gore (remember, the original barely had enough blood to fill a shot glass) and cartoonish excess are on the menu. The result is not as unforgettable or immortal as the original, but this is a wild ride nonetheless – Dennis Hopper (who rated this as the worst thing he ever starred in) is top-billed but doesn’t get to do too much as the would-be hero, but Caroline Williams is a strong Final Girl, while the world’s most disgusting family get to have a lot of horrible fun, be it winning chili-cook offs (watch out for the stray human tooth in your meal), sawing the top of an obnoxious twat’s head off or, in a very, very twisted sequence, cutting off the face of one victim and draping over the face of another in order to disguise them. It’s all obviously horrific, but the excessive approach makes this a lot less disturbing than the original. Great Breakfast Club-riffing poster, too!

Sleepwalker (1984)

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This little-seen but recently re-discovered oddity was the semi-feature length debut of Lindsay Anderson protégé Saxon Logan, but despite a rapturous reception in Berlin was dismissed by any would-be distributors in Britain, which led to it being shelved and only reappraised around fifteen years later, after which it’s taken another decade-plus wait for it to finally get a home video release from the BFI (and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s the chief instigator behind the label’s splendid Flip Side division of obscure Brit films). The film is a very atmospheric study of four people (two hosts, two guests) whose wildly oppositional political views make for a tense dinner before things take a turn for the outright horrific. A reflection of Thatcher’s Britain, Logan’s vicious script doesn’t let anyone off the hook – its repulsive right-leaning antagonist may be the film’s most overt villain, but even the liberal characters are taken down a notch as well. The build-up and atmosphere is palpable, while the vivid lighting and scary natural location of the guest house makes for great tension. Nevertheless, when the film does lurch into outright horror, the shift is quite surreal. Is it successful? I’m definitely more than willing to watch again to see how well the mish-mash of genres gel on a second viewing, but it’s obvious even the first time that this is a totally unique experience, and its failure to even get the chance to find an audience was a real shame. The BFI’s Blu-Ray is fantastic, compiling the main, 50-minute feature with Logan’s earlier short films, a fascinating interview with the man himself, and on a seemingly unrelated note, another British semi-feature called The Insomniac (directed by Rodney Giesler) which tells the tale of a man who may have just started dreaming a dream or who may have just woken up from one. The Insomniac is pretty alluring and extremely watchable, rounding up the features on a disc that’s one of the rarest examples of myself having watched absolutely everything on a DVD, right down to reading the great booklet that came with it.