Deep Red/Profondo Rosso (1975)

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Dario Argento reached the artistic stratosphere with his fifth film, the stunning and breathtaking Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). His first three big-screen features, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, all have their merits and pleasures (I still haven’t seen his atypical fourth film, the comedy The Five Days of Milan, but by most accounts it’s not great). Yet, for all that’s fine and formidable about his pre-1975 work, The Golden Age of Argento truly began with Deep Red.

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What a film.

Truly, one of the most dazzling, relentlessly bravura, entertaining and sleek thrillers ever made. The quantum leap from 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet to this is astounding – no more fumbling, no more steady steps – now we’re in the hands of a master, one who appears to be in total control of what he wants to do and who loves fucking around with our expectations. Deep Red on one level is a suspense thriller, a giallo and a crowd pleaser and yet on the other hand it constantly keeps one on edge with its subversion of genre tropes and off-kilter direction. With this, Argento became one of the major players – he would remain so until 1987’s Opera – a director who became the subject of intense cult adoration and admiration. His very next film, the remarkable Suspiria, may for me be his greatest achievement (and my all-time favourite horror movie), but Deep Red runs it awfully close. They were first two Argento films I ever saw and as such towered over everything else he’d made that I’d eventually watch.

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The plot, in some ways quite similar to that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, involves a witnessing of a brutal crime (an attempted murder in the earlier film, an actual murder this time round) and the subsequent amateur investigation undertaken by the witness. The onlooker and eventual sleuth is out-of-towner jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings), who finds himself the unwelcome target of the killer when headstrong journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) rather insensitively plasters his face all over the next day’s paper. Marc’s obsessed with his belief that a painting that he saw just before he discovered the victim’s body has since disappeared, and that this fact must represent something important (or ‘importante’ in Italian – this word is used about a million times in the film and I love the pronunciation). His best friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) – a fellow pianist who is suffering from depression and alcoholism – warns him to back off but Marc’s too fascinated by the morbid mystery, which leads him to an abandoned ‘murder house’ that may reveal the answer to what he’s looking for.

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Despite the later controversy surrounding Argento’s supposed misogyny (not helped by that infamous comment of his regarding his preference to seeing a beautiful woman murdered on screen as opposed to an ‘ugly’ one or a man), there are some interesting toying with characters’ and possibly the viewer’s own expectations regarding gender. Viewers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will already have a head start in this respect, but Deep Red goes one further by making the otherwise likeable Marc an old-school chauvinist (though we pity rather than hate him for this), and then having fun taking down his conservative assumptions down a notch or two, be it his frenzy over losing at an arm wrestling match between him and Gianna, or him looking like a fool sitting on a broken seat in her car. However, both apart and together, they get closer and closer to revealing the killer’s identity, culminating in a shocking, gruesome conclusion.

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Ah yes, grue. Argento upped the violence considerably for his return to the giallo thriller – the first victim, clairvoyant Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) who unwittingly reads the thoughts of someone who has already killed in the past, is dispatched with a hatchet before being pushed through a window, where she dies having been perforated on the broken glass. We get a vicious, frankly outrageous act of violence towards a set of teeth that’s merely the build-up to a stabbing. Then there’s the death by scalding hot water, something Halloween II borrowed a few years on, and may very well be the most unpleasant moment in any of Argento’s films. Saying that, the most sadistic moment may be a wildly protracted death (the film’s penultimate) that, as shocking as it is, is something you can almost imagine Argento rubbing his hands together in malevolent glee whilst directing.

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Viewers may spot the weird foreshadowing of these deaths (mirroring Helga’s second sight): Marc is burned by hot water from a coffee machine before the scalding murder, the shot of the water seeping out of Helga’s mouth at the start eerily mirrors a shot I can’t detail (spoiler reasons) right near the end. The supernatural element that is introduced at the start of the film is quickly ignored but at the same time never disproven – genuine clairvoyance is simply a part of this film’s real world logic. Argento would fully enter the world of the fantastic with his next film, but he started all of that here, although to be fair there were elements of his earlier films that also flirted with far-out elements. I’d say they were more successfully woven into the narrative with Deep Red though.

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If you attempt to approach this film as a straight-up genre film, then the thriller element of Deep Red is engaging, satisfying and occasionally pretty damn chilling. Argento has yet to throw all of his logical caution to the wind at this early stage. However, the film’s greatest pleasure lies in the sheer verve in which Argento delivers all of this.

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As Michael McKenzie states in his great documentary that was included as part of the Deep Red’s Arrow Films Blu-Ray release, to criticise Argento for being all about style over substance misses the point. The style is the substance. I mean, we get a five-minute plus sequence of Marc investigating the interiors of the possible murder house and there’s no dialogue – just pure visual and musical splendour, and I dig every moment of it. The house is beautifully eerie and full of atmosphere, so why not take the time to check it out? The music, chiefly by eventual Argento regulars Goblin as well as original composer Giorgio Gaslini (of whom only a few pieces of his made it to the final cut), is utterly spellbinding. The more conventional Gaslini stuff is lush and chilling, but the Goblin stuff is a fantastic prog-funk concoction that brings to mind Rick Wakeman (solo and Yes) and is utterly addictive, delightfully heavy on the bass-groove and full of still-iconic melodies that elevate the film to an even higher degree. They give the murder scenes in particular a real charge that’s unforgettable.  A non-murderous musical highlight is during the house-investigation scene when the score suddenly stops when Marc accidentally steps on some broken glass, stays silent for a moment or two, and then abruptly comes in again when a set of curtains falls to the ground. Yep, it’s totally bringing attention to itself, and it’s having lots of fun doing so. I suppose the burning question is whether or not you as the viewer end up having as much fun.

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Ah, but what about the performances? Well, whatever disinterest Argento would apparently later have for actors hasn’t manifested yet – his cast here is arguably the most in-sync, engaging and on-form he would ever work with. Hemmings is a delightful lead – he has a great, expressive face and a vulnerable presence which suits the film remarkably well. He’s brilliantly matched by Nicolodi as Gianna – their back-and-forth chemistry is a delight and she is one of the director’s most fun characters. They were a couple in real life during and after this film and as their relationship became more tempestuous, the treatment of her characters got a little nastier to say the least. Here, Gianna is the strongest and resourceful of all Argento’s characters from his classic era – she rightly takes down Marc’s sexism, is brave, funny and confident, even if she does ultimately cheat at arm wrestling. The supporting performances are lively and entertaining, especially Lavia’s tragic Carlo, Clara Calamai as his eccentric mother and Glauco Mauri as the enthusiastic professor Giordani. Not once does any of the acting take you out of the film, which is sadly something that some of the more wooden turns in later Argento films have been guilty of doing. No, here they are essential parts, rich and all part of the film’s lush fabric.

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Notably, Deep Red was edited by around 22 minutes for export release, and while this tightens the narrative and surprisingly doesn’t become incoherent in the process, many of the pleasures of the full-length version are missing. The character of Gianna is severely truncated and in the process, much of the film’s gender politics are gone. Elsewhere, lots of nice character touches, humorous elements and moments that may not seem to add much but are just pure pleasure to watch are gone. Take the bit when Marc is snooping around the murder house – there’s a bit where he gets distracted by something and runs outside to investigate. It’s nothing, so he goes back in. The export cut edits this out to make Marc’s detection run a lot smoother, but I did miss this little aside in the shorter cut. Also, there’s the issue of which dub to go for – I’ve always watched the film with the Italian soundtrack because that’s the one I first watched (when it was released by Redemption Video in the 90’s – an almost entirely uncut version) so for me it’s weird watching the English dub, even if that really is David Hemming’s voice!

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Deep Red’s entertainment factor may depend on how many thrillers you’ve already experienced – it definitely shakes the genre up a bit, for those who think they might have had their fill of this sort of thing, you may have a lot of the fun seeing the form played around with. That’s not to say it’s a wink-wink parody – no way. As I said, the film is a first-rate thriller and full of suspense, shock and gore. But it’s also gleeful too. Like the investigators in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Marc and Gianna seem to having too much fun at first in their sleuthing, which they probably wouldn’t be having in real life. However, if you think of the characters as stand-in viewers of this kind of mystery, then their enthusiasm makes sense. And wisely, when the stakes become seriously dangerous, that playfulness dissipates to make way for some serious chills. The final scene, as over-the-top as it is, is nonetheless disturbing, horrific and home to one of the all-time great final shots, which I won’t reveal here.

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So there you go – on one level a classic chiller of the genre, on the other, one of the all-time great visceral experiences of cinema, a disorienting, off-kilter and wildly odd masterpiece that’ll still knock you sideways and have you coming back for more.

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.

David Bowie: The Gouster (1974)

Bowie’s ‘lost’ album – aka Young Americans: The First Attempt. It’s brilliant.

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The second in a series of box sets covering the career of David Bowie has just been released, and this time the focus is on ‘The American Years’ – that’s Diamond Dogs, David Live, Young Americans and Station to Station, a formidable selection of albums I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, maybe not David Live – appreciation for that album is mixed to say the least. We also get the Station-era Nassau ‘76 gig that was doing the bootleg rounds for years and which finally got an official release when Station was re-re-re-released in 2010. The 2005 remix and re-edit of David Live accompanies the original version, and there’s also a new fold-down of the 5.1 remix of Station by original producer Harry Maslin, which, on first listen, is not something I’m keen on at all (turn those drums down!)

The main selling point of the box set however, has been the inclusion of The Gouster, an embryonic version of Young Americans that was well on the way to being the follow-up to Diamond Dogs before Bowie scrapped it. One of the reasons for it being dropped was that it was ‘too personal’, but the arrival of John Lennon on the scene also sealed The Gouster’s fate when the immortal ‘Fame’ and not-so immortal (but still pretty damned good) cover of ‘Across the Universe’ (g)ousted the likes of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, as well as a radical re-working of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, off the playlist. In addition to some of the remaining tracks being jiggled around and re-recorded/remixed, we got the mighty likes of ‘Win’ and ‘Fascination’, and the result was Young Americans.

A long time ago, I was somewhat ambivalent towards Young Americans – along with Lodger, I severely underrated these two albums. No more. It’s a beautiful, funky, dazzling work, and a seriously exciting one when you consider the kind of musical swerve Bowie was making at the time- true, there were hints of the soul and funk direction to come on Diamond Dogs songs like ‘Rock and Roll with Me’ and ‘1984’, as well as the covers of ‘Knock on Wood’ and ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ on David Live, but this is as far from glam and Ziggy as imaginable. It’s also one of the most amazing Bowie albums in regards to vocals – his singing here is outstanding, and difficult to try and resist belting along with.

So what of The Gouster? Well, when its release was announced, and was somewhat misleadingly reported as a ‘lost’ album, it wasn’t long before fans made the quite understandable point that none of The Gouster was unheard as such – ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ had already been released as bonus tracks on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD edition of Young Americans, while ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ had been available since 1979. It was noted that you could quite easily compile your own Gouster if you already had the extra songs, which were still available digitally as part of the 2007 edition of Young Americans. However, it soon became apparent that said suggested compilations wouldn’t be quite the same as the version of The Gouster that was due to come out. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ would be the version without added strings, only available on the long-deleted Ryko CD. ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, ‘Right’ and ‘Can You Hear Me’ would be earlier versions, previously only available in sub-par quality bootleg form. Therefore it was too soon to start banging on about how this so-called lost album wasn’t really that elusive after all. In fact, the only identical link between The Gouster and the original Young Americans was the title song itself.

Still with me? Oh yes, let’s not forget the complaints from fans that not everything recorded around that time was going to be included, such as ‘After Today’ (which was released on 1990’s Sound and Vision box set) ‘Shilling the Rubes’, ‘I am a Lazer’ (which would be recycled for ‘Scream Like a Baby’ on Scary Monsters) and ‘The Gouster’ itself. It’s possible these songs were never seriously considered for inclusion on The Gouster (title tracks don’t necessarily ensure a place on an album, as Led Zeppelin fans will know). The previous Bowie box set, Five Years, had made a point of only including stuff officially released at the time, which meant no stuff like ‘Bombers’ or ‘Sweet Head’, so we all expected the absence of ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’, ‘The Gouster’ and the like on Box Set #2 too. Therefore it came as a surprise that The Gouster was going to be included, considering it was never released at the time.

Yet here it is, and although lots of us over the last few months could already imagine how The Gouster would sound like because we knew the tracks in some form or another, it was with excitement that I sat down to listen to it properly. How would it compare to the LP that replaced it, how would it flow, and what would it feel like hearing ‘Young Americans’ right near the end of the album instead of at the beginning?

Well, kicking off with the disco-funk re-recording of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ couldn’t be a more obvious heralding of a new direction – admittedly the idea of taking an older hit single and re-doing it to fit in with the new sounds of the time could seem a bit desperate, a bit lacking in ideas, maybe? Remember when The Beach Boys took a great little bit of R&B from their Wild Honey album called ‘Here Comes the Night’ and turned it into a ten-minute disco monster ten years later? No? Remember when Neil Young turned ‘Mr. Soul’ into a gloopy synth remake? Or what about when you get a greatest hits album and there’s the artist’s biggest hit has been given a new remix or -shudder- a re-recording? Kate Bush’s The Whole Story would have been a lot better if she’d just stuck with the original ‘Wuthering Heights’. Same goes for The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86’ from their Every Breath You Take compilation. What were they thinking?

However, as a reworking and an opening statement of intent, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) is mightily impressive– Bowie has well and truly become someone new, everything is in its right place, it all clicks and struts and funks immaculately. It’s not just a straight-up funk cover though – aside from the chorus, the words are all new, and the it’s about three times as long as the original. It’s not as good as either of the original ‘Johns’ though, but what can you do? It totally succeeds as an example of the Gouster sound. Bowie is saying, that was then, this is now. Hearing it in the context of an album also does it many favours – before I’d just regarded it as a bit of a throwaway, something Bowie himself wasn’t bothered about, given that it wasn’t officially released until 1979, by which time he had well and truly moved on musically. Here it sounds far more substantial.

The epic ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ follows, and this is what I had always hoped it sound like ever since I’d heard The Gouster would feature a different version – I’d heard this take as a bootleg, and it is so, so, so much better than the already excellent Young Americans version. Why? It’s that guitar. That gorgeous, simple, languid and smoky guitar hook that you could almost make out underneath the layer of electronic keyboards on the album mix is now upfront and it’s a thing to savour. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ is gorgeous, one of Bowie’s loveliest ballads, wonderfully sung – it’s quite an intimate experience and one of the most naked, least adorned songs from this era. The version with the strings as a bonus track on the 2007 edition of Young Americans is more epic and sweeping (and is in more in keeping with the more embellished, commercial feel of the released LP), but this earlier mix remains one of Bowie’s most convincing and heartfelt soul songs. There’s a bit near the end where the music pares down and it’s just Bowie’s voice, and it’s one of the most heart-stopping, beautiful moments in any song of his, ever.

The glorious ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, which gave the new box set its name, is a stirring, powerful ballad – that a song this good was held back beggars belief. The chorus in particular is brilliant – real goosebumps stuff. I can only imagine how delirious with happiness Bowie fans were when this and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ were first made available in 1991. Like ‘Sweet Head’ on the Ziggy reissue of that time, the realisation that these brilliant songs had been MIA for so long was revelatory. A different take of ‘Can You Hear Me’ follows next, less bombastic. Is it better than the YA version? I can’t decide. I like the gentler, more intimate delivery of this version, but it’s difficult not to surrender to the oomph of the more familiar take, especially when it kicks in the way it does at the start, and I’ve always loved the a cappella ending, which isn’t present on The Gouster. The always-welcome ‘Young Americans’, a remarkable, powerhouse song full of pleasures, treasures and killer hooks, is the same version as the one we all know and love, although there have been reports of different track lengths between the Gouster and YA versions on the new box set. From the streamed version I heard online, I can’t tell any difference between this and the one I’ve been listening to for years. What I do know for sure is that’s it’s strange to hear it this late into the album – to be fair, it would have made a better closer but I suppose we needed a bit of oomph to pick the LP up after a run of ballads. I do think though that the alternate ‘Right’, which closes this album, would have been a better penultimate track. The song, which fitted perfectly at the end of YA’s side one, feels ever-so slightly anti-climactic as The Gouster’s finale, and it doesn’t help that this version isn’t as quite good as the Young Americans take – it just isn’t as refined or tight, and the whole thing sounds a bit muddier (especially when it comes to Bowie’s vocals), but it’s a fine alternative. The ‘wishing’ vocal breakdown a third of the way in doesn’t have as cool a guitar accompaniment, and overall it feels more obviously demo-ish than the other two early versions featured here, but it’s still a delectable performance, and I love it.

Is The Gouster better than Young Americans? No. Is it worse? No. These are equal works- sibling albums, recognisably related, both excellent, though I think Bowie made the right choice in released the album we did end up with. It feels more substantial. Okay, having the fine but inferior ‘Across the Universe’ at the expense of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ remains a baffling error of judgement, and adding those keyboards to ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ was a mistake, but we did end up with the utterly spine-tingling ‘Win’, the super-funky ‘Fascination’ and the immortal ‘Fame’, which are full-on Bowie classics all the way. I also think that Young Americans is a better structured album than The Gouster, but the latter is nevertheless a pleasure all the way, and I’ve been listening the hell out of it this weekend. It’s a very welcome addition to the Bowie canon. Additionally, not including ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’ and the like doesn’t bother me in this specific case as this The Gouster represents the tracklisting of an actual proposed album and is not a compilation of odds and ends from the era. True, it would be nice if these Bowie box sets had a disc of unreleased tracks to gather up all the lost stuff, but that’s another argument…

Of course, you could compile the ultimate combination mixtape from the two albums, a Young Gouster from America album if you so wished…

Grizzly (1976)

Jaws with Paws? Jaws with Claws? Nope, it’s Jaws with Flaws.

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Look, you can throw whatever insults you like at Grizzly – it can take it, it’s only an EIGHTEEN FOOT TALL BEAR, after all! Or is it? The (brilliant) poster makes that dubious claim, but the film itself has one character suggest that it’s merely FIFTEEN FEET TALL! Yet when we do see the grizzly in all its terror, it’s REGULAR BEAR-SIZE at ELEVEN FEET TALL! Hmm, now that’s proper false advertising, that. Grizzly is a shameless quickie rip-off of Spielberg’s immortal shark thriller, only this time the horrors take place in the bucolic locale of a National Park rather than the mystery of the ocean and the attractions of the beach.

Quick similarities of note include a trio of intrepid heroes, one of which is a Roy Scheider-style enforcer of the law who struggles to fight the bear admist selfish bureaucracy represented by a callous mayor-type (natch), and another is an Robert Shaw-like obsessed bear-fanatic who wants to confront Grizzles mano-a-bear-o. The third doesn’t quite resemble Richard Dreyfuss, but he does have a USS Indianapolis-style anecdote to give us like Shaw so wonderfully did. I thought the actor who played him was the same one who portrayed the reclusive Howard Hughes-esque fall guy from Diamonds are Forever, but it’s not. Even the fate of the bear is just as explosive as that of the shark, though unlike Jaws, where said outrageous demise was cleverly set-up throughout the course of the final act, here we simply get a rocket launcher produced from somewhere in the back of a helicopter. BOOM!

Just like Jaws, the villain in this has no real back story or reason to show up, it’s just there. Oddly enough, its first victim is played by Susan Backlinie, who also played the famous h’ors douvres in Spielberg’s iconic opening sequence. Her death here becomes a quick afterthought though, as we move onto a second victim within mere seconds. We’re also spared a full shot of the bear for the first part – just a few teases of swiping claws and the use of point-of-view shots, which in retrospect make the bear’s stalking resemble that of Jason or Michael Myers. When we do see the monster in all its glory, its true size is thoroughly disappointing given we were expecting this behemoth of a bear.

The film attempts to outdo the already bloody violence of Jaws with a bigger kill count and plenty of gore. We get a severed arm ten minutes in, and a nasty slashed face soon after. Later on we get torrents of blood spilled through the rapids, a shocking attack on a mother and son and various bloody maulings. Luckily a rabbit is spared. A horse is not so lucky. This film has recently been doing the rounds on the UK’s Horror Channel, but only during afternoons, where its surprisingly grisly (grisszzly?) violence gets mauled by the censors in a manner in which our eleven-feet tall killer would almost be proud. Yeah, Grizzly has no qualms about who it eats, and this is one of those films that got a PG in America – before the PG-13 arrived in 1984, PG films in America were far more extreme in content than they are now, and in recent reviews of mine I was surprised to discover that films like Race with the Devil and the 70’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were rated PG. Audiences were made of sterner stuff back then, I suppose. In the case of Grizzly, I hear some of the truly nasty bits were nevertheless trimmed on theatrical release.

Either way, there’s a grim tone throughout – humour is mostly absent (most of the laughs come unintentionally – I love the line ‘that’s all we need – a killer bear on the loose’, delivered like it’s a mild inconvenience), no one is automatically safe from the film’s body count and the ending is more sober than happy. The script and performances are servicable, although it’s nice to see the dependable Christopher George in the lead – he’s probably best known for his definitive death throes in B-movie spectacular Enter the Ninja and being the pick-axe happy co-lead in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. He’s got a pretty one-dimensional character to work with, but he brings warmth, seriousness and lead presence to the role. All of the other actors, stuck with what they’ve got, just get on with it, and some of them even survive to the end. The forest locations are well used and best experienced in widescreen, while the music resembles the more heroic themes from….yes, Jaws. Actually, if this was a Jaws film, it would rank quality-wise somewhere between Jaws 2 and 3. So not bad at all. But not very good.

P.S: Note that the above poster actually refers to the bear as ‘Grizzly’ as though that was its name. That’s definitely a step-up from Jaws, which chickened out from actually having its characters refer to the shark as ‘Jaws’, though that didn’t stop Bart Simpson from saying ‘this is where Jaws eats the boat’ when watching it on TV. He did go a bit far when excitedly claiming such things as ‘this is when Die Hard jumps through the window’ and ‘this is where Wall Street gets arrested’.

Five Great Final Shots in Horror Films

It’s all about the final image, the one that, if truly effective, will stay with you long after the credits have finished. Here I pick some of my all-time favourite closing shots from the horror genre… okay, one of them’s closer to a SF film, but there’s loads of gore in it, so sod it.

Obviously, there be spoilers ahead…

Psycho II (1983) (Directed by Richard Franklin, Dir.of Photography: Dean Cundey)

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Richard Franklin and Tom Holland’s risky sequel to the one of the most iconic horror films of all time surprised a lot of people by actually being pretty excellent, and for some of us 80’s kids, the odds are that if pressed to put on a Psycho film on a spooky Friday night, it may very well be this one and not Hitchcock’s original. Or is that just me? Anyway, the consistently unpredictable story comes to a shocking climax as we discover that rehabilitated Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) really is innocent of all the grisly crimes second time around, and that it’s actually Mrs. Spool (Claudia Bryer), the friendly, elderly owner of the local cafe who a) not only is the real killer but b) was Norman’s real mother all the time! Norman takes this news as well as he can – he offers Mrs. Spool a sandwich and bashes her head in with a swift strike of a spade. He then carries her up to the upstairs bedroom, speaking with her voice and talking to himself through her. Outside, the ‘no’ in the ‘no vacancy’ neon switches off. The Bates Motel is open for business, and in a visual masterstroke, the final shot sees Norman stand outside the Motel against a deeply unsettling, foreboding cloudy sky, his dead mother posed behind the window in perfect silhouette. The weird thing is that Norman looks strangely artificial, almost as though he’s returned to the youthful version of himself from the first film, while closer inspection reveals that you can kind of see through him! He looks like a ghost… it’s such a vivid image, one that was unsurprisingly used for the main promotional artwork, while Jerry Goldsmith’s scary score adds a hell of a lot. This closing shot scared the wits out of me when I was younger – the horrible twist being that Norman was actually the good guy second time round, but by the time of this final shot, I’m not so sure anymore. The image cuts to black, good old 80’s red-on-black credits rise up and for many a spooked night, I could still see that final shot when I was trying to get to sleep…

The Fury (1978) (Directed by Brian de Palma, Dir. of Photography: Richard H. Kline)

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I’ll be honest – The Fury is not one of Brian de Palma’s finest films. The script is a load of psychokinetic cobblers, and all too-often the suspense is bogged down with talky exposition. However, the set-pieces are pretty spectacular, such as the opening murder attempt, a shocking fairground calamity and a nail-biting slow-motion sprint. However, the best is saved for last. De Palma had already delivered one of the most extraordinary endings in cinema history with Carrie‘s last-second shock, and he’d continue to leave us shaken and shocked with his conclusions to Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. However, as final shots go, nothing beats the absolutely mental ending to The Fury. Highly volatile telekinetic Gillian (Amy Irving) is at her lowest ebb. Her friends are dead, including poor Peter (Kirk Douglas), whose son Robin’s psychic talents had been exploited by the utterly despicable bastard Childress (John Cassavetes, who made it clear he only did this film for the dollars). Robin is also dead, and Childress seems to have Gillian right where he wants her, but she twigs out that he’s the enemy, and in the final scene she unloads all of her psychic power onto him – and then some. First of all he seems to be suffering from a slight bit of discomfort, but the pain starts to get worse and worse. And worse and worse. It’s all building up to something, but what? Man, you thought Scanners was heavy duty with its exploding head? Well never forget that The Fury, three years earlier, gave us an EXPLODING BODY! Seriously, I don’t think anyone was expecting that, and like  The Omen‘s brilliantly edited decapitation shock, De Palma replays the scene over and over from different angles so that anyone who had instantly covered and then uncovered their eyes hoping the gore had come and gone were shocked to discover it was still being played out! It all culminates in a remarkable final image where Childress’ severed head spins towards the floor in glorious slow-motion, John Williams’ urgent but ultimately triumphant score adding grandeur, and there’s that satisfaction of watching the head bounce off the carpet just before the cut to black.

An American Werewolf in London (1981) (Directed by John Landis, Dir. of Photography: Robert Paynter)

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A true one-off, An American Werewolf in London is so successful at blending horror and comedy (no other film has matched it) that you wonder if the whole thing was just a fluke, that John Landis just got lucky, because how come no one else has managed to pull this kind of thing off? The scary is stuff is seriously scary. The funny stuff is seriously funny. And yet the final shot and immediate impact of the credits that follow are an amazing juxtaposition of tragedy and farce. Let me emphasise – the final shot in itself is only half the story. You need what comes straight after for it to really work. Essentially, poor David is not in a good place. Either he kills himself before the next full moon, or he turns into a werewolf and most likely kills a lot of people. He tries to kill himself. He can’t do it. The moon comes, and he transforms. A fair few people die. The action leads to an alleyway not far from Piccadilly Circus. The armed police have David-as-wolf cornered, but in one last desperate attempt to save him, his girlfriend Alex offers to try and talk him back into himself. It’s a beautiful moment, and for a brief moment, the real David is somewhere in there, behind those wolf eyes. But the animal takes over once more, goes in for the kill and he’s shot down. What’s left? David’s human form, dead. Alex is in tears, the police are stunned. The final shot is the stark image of David’s dead, bullet-riddled body, soundtracked by Alex’s whimpers. It’s about as unhappy an ending as the genre has ever given us. And then we cut to black as the ‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom’ rowdiness of The Marcels’ cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and it’s like a slap in the face. How can the film be so blithe after that ending? It’s so cruel, but it’s so perfect. I can’t imagine what cinema audiences must have felt with that cut. Stunned? Baffled?

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (Directed by Tobe Hooper, Dir. of Photography: Daniel Pearl)

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The only appropriate ending to a film like this is hysteria. Remember, this film got banned by the BBFC because of the sheer intensity of it all. The final half hour is an unrelenting descent into horror as poor Sally (Marilyn Burns) is pushed to the breaking limit of sanity as she suffers drawn-out psychological torture and the threat of imminent death from her captors. When she finally escapes on the back of a random guy’s truck, she’s wild with exhilaration, but possibly at the cost of her sanity – damaged by her ordeal (plus none of her friends made it this far) and likely to be in need of intense therapy for years to come. As for Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), he’s just as crazy, but with livid frustration. The last shot is utterly deranged and one of the most vivid and memorable of any film, ever – Leatherface is flailing about on the deserted road with abandon acting out the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum, waving his still-on chainsaw all over the place, with its horrible, piercing sound acting as a substitute for the mute madman’s screams. All of this takes place against a burning, lens-flared sunrise. The sound of the chainsaw is then cut short by a sudden, silent edit to black. The effect is shocking and disconcerting. Even today, that quick cut is like the filmmakers giving you permission at last to breathe. Funny how so many horror films end with a cut to black instead of a fade-out. Only one example in my five has a fade-out. See below.

The Omen (1976) (Directed by Richard Donner, Dir. of Photography: Gilbert Taylor)

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The bad guys win. Simple as that. It’s weird to think that, at the time, The Omen was never intended to be the first part of a trilogy, and if you approach the first film with that in mind, the ending’s wicked final touch is ultimately much more satisfying and disturbing. Little AntiChrist Damien has survived to the end of Richard Donner’s classic horror while everyone else who wanted to stop him is dead. Except for Leo McKern of course, but the sequel would get rid of him in its first scene. The weird thing is that little Damien isn’t directly responsible for any of the deaths in this first film. Who is? His daddy, most likely, as well as nasty Billie Whitelaw. There’s also the theory put forward by screenwriter David Seltzer that there is no absolutely no supernatural element in the film and that what we’ve just seen is merely a string of horrendous accidents and coincidences (bit difficult to accept, that). It wasn’t until the sequel that Damien started to get personally involved in the action. Here, Damien is almost innocent, unaware of his destiny. That is, until the final shot. His adoptive parents are dead, and we’re at their funeral. What’s to become of Damien? Oh wait a minute, who’s this couple with their backs to us? It’s the President of the United States. And the First Lady. Then the camera pans down and zooms to reveal the back of a child. It’s Damien. That’s right, he’s hanging out with the most powerful man in the world, which means the world is doomed. But the masterstroke is having Damien turn to face us, the viewer, and that’s when it comes. The smirk. The little devil. He knows. He knows. In a brilliant example of directing actors, Donner used reverse psychology on Harvey Stephens, warning him that if he broke character and smiled during this shot, he would never speak to him again or something along those lines. Cue the can’t-help-it grin. Cue Jerry Goldsmith (him again)’s amazing score. We fade out to a quote from the Book of Revelations about the Number of the Beast, but the true final image, the one we all remember is of that little blighter – a deliciously evil and utterly chilling ending.