The Films of Dario Argento: Opera (1987)

You won’t be able to look away…

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This review contains spoilers.

Opera, or Terror at the Opera as it was rather crudely re-titled outside of Italy, is for many the last great Dario Argento film, a magnificently twisted, deliriously accomplished mix of high and low art. Following the brilliantly mad Phenomena, Argento went back to the world of the straight-up, non-supernatural giallo, and, on the surface, seemed intent on delivering a knockout, crowd-pleasing, crowd-shocking thriller. After all, the plot is one of the director’s most conventional – deranged fan stalks opera singer, that sort of thing, but the execution is anything but. Of the classic-era Argento (1975-1987) movies, Opera was one of the trickiest to acquire in the UK when I was younger, and my anticipation for it was through the roof. I remember a feature in an issue of Total Film which talked about various movies that were still only available in cut form – I imagine a complete list would have been enormously long, but amongst the issue’s list of highlights was indeed Opera, and they were talking about (but not showing any pics of) stuff like knives going up someone’s neck and inside their mouth – horrible! I wanted in.

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Around the same time (2001-2002) I was writing about Argento for my dissertation at university, and was obsessed with tracking down a copy of Opera. eBay was in its infancy, and even then the only copy I would have been able to acquire would have been the UK Orion VHS which, on top of being the shortened US version, had also been censored by the BBFC. I wouldn’t have minded – anything would been okay. Luckily the film got a US release by Anchor Bay in late 2001 (just in time for me to still be able to use it as vital research for my imminently due dissertation) and it ended up being my first imported title. Unfortunately it was a very glitchy transfer (it was eventually repressed, but I must have missed the memo) but I was still able to watch it from start to finish without too much bother. From those early viewings when I was watching partly as a fan and partly as a note-taking film student, via the period where I avoided it, just like all other Argento films, for years to put the stress of that dissertation behind me, to the joy of getting back into Argento with a vengeance, Opera is a film that gets better and better every time, a fascinating, fantastic thrill-ride.

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Compared to say, Suspiria or Inferno, Opera may seem like an Argento film that’s relatively restrained in regards to primary-coloured visual pop, but don’t let that fool you (although there is some great use of colour in a few scenes) – I mean, just look at that camera move! Working with DOP Ronnie Taylor, Argento delivered by far and away his most ambitious and insanely exciting film in terms of sheer kinetic verve. It’s the sort of film you want to watch immediately again afterwards because one viewing is just not enough to take in all the magnificent flourishes, tracking shots, miniature close-ups, pulsating screens, POV shots and so on. I remember reading a Time Out review saying that the impact of Opera was doomed to be lost on video, and while the average TV set-up is more impressive now than it was 1987, I still totally get what the reviewer was driving at. Simply put, I would absolutely LOVE to see this on a cinema screen. The impact must be absolutely exhilarating. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about plot. Yeeeeah, I know Argento isn’t usually bothered about things like that (not when there’s a beautiful murder scene he could be concentrating on instead), but I have to do this.

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Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is a young opera singer who is shocked to discover that she’s no longer an understudy to the ‘Great Mara Cecova’ for the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in an avant-garde production of the Verdi opera directed by Marco (Ian Charleson), a filmmaker chiefly known for his career in horror movies. Incidentally, Opera came about shortly after Argento failed to get a bloodthirsty production of Rigoletto on the stage. Argento has also admitted that Mark is essentially a stand-in for himself. Join the dots, peeps. Betty is wracked with nerves, thinking she’s too young and not ready for the role….and isn’t Macbeth meant to bring bad luck? Nah, says everyone else, including her agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi), it’ll be fine. Unfortunately, there’s a total psychopath who’s obsessed with her and proceeds to make Betty’s life a living hell. After a magnificent opening night that goes off without a hitch (barring the death of a stage hand, small matter), Betty adjourns to the house of assistant director Stefano (William MacNamara) and, after an unsuccessful attempt at sex, he goes off to make some jasmine tea (as you do), which is when the psycho seizes her, ties her up against a pillar, tapes over her mouth and then….

Okay, deep breath.

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Let me state it loud and clear for the cheap seats – Opera‘s most terrifying and famous hook, so good that they put it on the posters, is one of the greatest in all horror cinema history. Seriously, this is up there with ‘you can never sleep again’ from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and just like that nightmare, it involves not being able to close your eyes. Imagine not being able to shield your vision from the worst sights imaginable. More specifically, imagine having a row of needles taped under your eyelids so that ‘if you try and open your eyes, you’ll tear them apart’. The thing is, like Elm Street‘s ‘sleep and die’, it’s such an original concept that no one’s dared to copy it because it’s just too unique, and yet unlike Elm Street, Opera hasn’t had sequel upon sequel follow it, so it still feels utterly fresh, still shocking.

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So there we are, tied, bound, taped, and helpless. The killer then waits in hiding as Stefano walks back into the room, who is understandably confused with seeing Betty stood up, tied up and mumbling in panic. He walks closer and closer, Betty’s muffled screams intensifying and just when he’s close enough for Betty to get a proper good close-up of the action to come, the killer stabs him up through the jaw with one hell of a nasty-looking dagger. Of course, being Argento, that alone isn’t enough, so we get a really spectacular shot (clearly a fake head, but fuck it, it still looks great) of the tip of the dagger visible inside Stefano’s screaming mouth.

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All the while Betty is forced to look on, unable to turn away or close her eyes as the killer continues to stab the hell out of Stefano’s helpless, flailing hands, with raucous heavy metal pounding over the soundtrack. The killer, finished with Stefano, moves over to Betty and proceeds to grope her, telling her that, contrary to her earlier confession to Stefano that she’s a ‘nightmare’ in bed, ‘it’s not true you’re frigid…you’re a bitch on heat’. Then he unties her.

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A sick game is being played with Betty, and the mechanics behind it are more twisted than she could have ever guessed. It turns out that the killer – who is actually Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), the policeman who will end up investigating the case and who had shown up at her dressing room earlier with flowers and an autograph request – had been in a sadomasochistic relationship with Betty’s mother. The two would play murderous games whereupon he would tie her up and she would be ‘forced’ to witness him as he murdered random young women. A classic case of the one being tied up actually being the one in control, Betty’s mother’s insatiable demands led the killer to murder her in frustration, and now he wishes to replay the past with Betty herself. Of course, unlike her mother, Betty is no sadist, and we can only presume the killer is hoping to unlock some latent darkness in her by forcing her to watch these appalling acts. Despite the killer’s hopes (and those deluded, ugly claims that she’s a ‘bitch on heat’ are essentially the same as a rapist’s ‘you love it really’), Betty is not this idealised figure he wants her to be, no matter how hard he tries to change her.

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Of course, and this is to be expected in an Argento film, there are logical flaws in characterisation – Betty’s reactions are often a bit baffling, none more so than directly after Stefano’s murder. Not the whole ‘wandering around at night in the rain’ bit, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when Marco picks her up in his car and the two have a conversation about how men are always assuming that whenever a woman is upset it’s always about a bloke and I’m thinking, er…didn’t someone just get murdered? I mean, if I was feeling generous I could say that Betty’s odd behaviour at this point are the actions suffering from immediate post-trauma, but I think it’s more likely bad writing. Sorry, Dario. It totally spoils the mood, even if we do get a rather revealing line of dialogue from Marco about how he always ‘jerks off’ before he shoots a scene. Remember, Marco is supposed to represent Argento, so we the viewer now have some nicely sticky info about how one of the world’s greatest genre directors gets through his day. Lovely!

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Luckily, Opera recovers swiftly after that misstep of a scene and continues to deliver the goods (more about those later), building to an insane final act where Marco, during Betty’s second performance, unleashes an unkindness/conspiracy/shitload of ravens mid-show in order to identify the killer, who earlier had murdered a few of them and ultimately pissed off the others. And ravens never forget. So it’s not just elephants then. The ravens target Santini and proceed to eat his eye out, so he goes utterly ballistic and opens fire on the audience and the actors. There’s a rather funny bit just before Santini starts shooting where Betty gives Marco a happy thumbs up on a job well done – never mind that they’ve just unleashed absolute fucking chaos, the end justifies the means, I guess!

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Betty retires to her dressing room (a bit too casually, given that Santini’s still in the building!) and Marco comes in to comfort her, but they’re not alone. Santini’s already in there; he knocks out Marco and takes Betty to another room where he ties her up and confesses his crimes, both past and present. Distraught at the idea that Betty could now never love him due to his new disfigurement, he decides that the two of them should die together, so he sets himself on fire and leaves her to burn.

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Now I must admit that writing down the plot, twists and turns of Opera is making explicit just how crazy it is, and there will be lots of people who, maybe stumbling onto this film somehow, will laugh it off the screen. I admit, I do find the occasional ridiculousness of Opera amusing, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t knocked out by it when I first watched it. When your first Argento film is Suspiria, everything afterwards will suffer in comparison. I say that as someone who thinks that Suspiria is the quintessential horror movie, where everything is perfect, nothing is flawed… while the other Argento films from the classic era are not perfect, and as much as I love them all, I do usually get some amusement out of their lapses into silliness, and Opera is definitely no exception. I think when I first watched it I wanted to be flat-out terrified the way I was with Suspiria, and Opera just isn’t that film. It is scary for sure, and shocking, but it’s also host to a lot of silliness, and it’s not helped by the below-par dubbing job the film got. Dubbing in Argento films has always been contentious issue for me – even when the actors are recording their own lines, there’s often a sense of remove and artificiality to the exercise that can sometimes work (like in Suspiria) but here it does take getting used to, especially when the delivery and dialogue is as hysterical as it sometimes is here.

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Anyway, the film appears to be over – Betty survives, Santini’s dead – but then we suddenly find ourselves in pastoral, sunny Switzerland, where Betty and Marco now seem to be in a relationship living in splendid isolation. You might have realised that this is where key scenes in Phenomena were also set. Argento has pointed out that Marco attempting to film a fly with his camera is a deliberate nod to his own attempts to do the same during the making of his previous film, while critic Mikel J. Koven has suggested that setting the epilogue here means that both Opera and Phenomena may very well be set in the same universe. The news report that reveals Santini’s death was a fake is broadcast by the same network that reported the death of Vera in Phenomena. The backdrop of the Alps and the shot of Betty running through the grass are reminiscent of Jennifer walking down the path towards the murder house. There’s also the very final moments, which I’ll get to in a mo. So Santini has tracked down Betty and pursues her across the fields – Marco tries to intervene but is stabbed to death, forcing Betty to resort to a ruse to stop Santini from killing her. She says that yes, the two of them were made for each other, and that they should flee together. This was going to be an actual ending for the film, which would have really ended things on a twisted note. But no, in the final cut that was just a lie for the police to arrive in time. Santini is apprehended and Betty furiously protests that she is nothing like her mother. Then, unexpectedly, Betty surrenders herself to nature, decrying humanity and falling down into the grass, freeing a trapped lizard (an interesting counterpoint to the lizard that was perforated as a sick joke by a twisted child in Deep Red) and lulling herself into blissful escape.

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This very last bit – Betty’s descent/ascent into another way of life – was edited out for the US release. For some, that was a merciful act of pruning. In fact, the ending to Opera is often ridiculed, but I love it. After the relentless madness, sadism and torture Betty has endured, her friends killed and her faith in humanity shattered, it’s no wonder she has decided to unshackle herself from her past. The fact that Santini is not killed at the end – a first for an Argento villain – means that on one literal level, Betty’s nightmare continues, although it’s probably likely she would have gone this way even if he had suffered a spectacular demise. The embracing of nature is also a logical extension of Argento’s new found cinematic respect for animals that was established in Phenomena – remember, they were eaten, feared, literally hurt and given evil qualities in the past, but here even the bleedin’ ravens, who are not normally a signifier of goodness, are heroic!

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Now Argento was, as we all know, a notable example of a director who pushed on-screen violence to its extremes, and while I love Phenomena, for some fans it was a bit of a dip, and maybe one of the reasons was the lack of a truly jaw-dropping death scene, something that rivalled those gruesome kills in Deep Red, Suspiria or Tenebrae. Hey, we love Argento for the beautiful camera work, the gorgeous visuals, the stunning music, the wild storylines, but we also love them for the absolutely great violence. Opera‘s murder scenes really pack a punch, and are an utterly essential component of the film’s overall impact. No wonder Argento was so incensed when it ended up being censored in country after country. Given that the medium of opera itself has been home to extreme violence in its storylines, it only makes some kind of sense that Argento’s film should deliver the bloody goods too. We get that very icky dispatching of the stagehand earlier on – upon discovering Santini the poor man is viciously pushed back onto a coat hook, which goes in and out of his neck rapidly. Grisly sound effects here. Stefano’s murder is an absolute classic – the suspense building up to it is amazing, the bloody release shocking and spectacular. Not content with the ‘knife in the mouth’ shots, we get a load of grisly hand-stabbings too. Oh, and of course, those amazing shots of Betty’s eyes with the needles.

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And yet, for all its gore and brutality, Argento seems to know when to hold back. The infamous ‘scissors’ sequence, in which Betty’s costume designer Guilia (Coralina Cataldi-Satoni) swallows an incriminating bracelet whilst she’s being stabbed to death, is notable for what it doesn’t show. Santini takes the rather drastic measure to cutting open Guilia’s throat to retrieve the bracelet, and this moment is a masterclass in ‘less is more’. The build-up is deeply unpleasant, and certainly explicit – Santini’s fingers and the scissors prodding around Guilia’s bloodied mouth made it an unsurprising target for the BBFC, who have an issue with sexualised violence such as this, but the actual moment, the cutting of the throat, is achieved with clever close-up shots of the scissor handles being gripped and a hell of a lot of nasty sound effects. When the bracelet is retrieved, the surrounding gore is out of focus – just enough for us to imagine the horrendous mess that’s just been made.

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For many though, the absolute highlight of Opera is the extraordinary peephole sequence. After Guilia’s death, Betty seeks sanctuary in her apartment, and Santini has assured her safety by promising that a policeman will be visiting to guard her. The problem is, after the policeman has arrived, another policeman knocks at the door saying that he’s here to protect her! Which one of the two is the killer? Mira speaks to the policeman outside the door, spying through the peephole to get a better look at him, demanding to see his face. Just as she realises that she recognises him, Santini puts the gun to the peephole and pulls the trigger. In an insanely brilliant shot, we see the bullet pass through the inside of the peephole (!!!!) and then we cut to a side shot of Mira as the bullet comes out of the door and then into and out of the back of her head. The bullet then destroys the telephone that Betty was trying to call for assistance with. It’s such a fucking incredible moment, so good that it was many viewings before I realised the trajectory of the bullet meant that it probably wouldn’t have hit the phone on the floor. Oh who cares? After all, ask Marco says earlier on, ‘it’s unwise to use movies as a guide to reality’.

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Argento has been on record as saying he was annoyed when people closed their eyes whenever the gore came on screen during his films – whether or not he seriously proposed the idea of having audiences wear the needles-and-tape get-up as a result of that frustration or if that was just a joke is unclear, but it would have been one hell of a marketing tool. However, for other, more hardened viewers, the violence is as much an attraction as it is a repellent. The act of looking, of seeing, is a key allure of cinema. It is a primarily visual medium, and right from the very beginning, it has been exploited as a means of seeing the forbidden, the illicit, the dangerous, all via the safe shield of a movie screen, safe in the knowledge that this is all unreal. Opera is about, among other things, the act of looking. Opera itself is a spectacle, a precursor to cinema, and we the audience are watching audiences watching opera, as well as watching others watching television, watching monitors, through binoculars, through peepholes, through vents…

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Yet as much as the characters in this film enjoy looking, there is as punishment inflicted on those who indulge in this act. Eyes undergo all manner of abuse in this film – aside from Betty’s own ordeal, we have Mira being shot through the eye (after looking through a peephole of all things – punishment maybe for daring to look back at the killer?), Mark has a gun shoved in his eye by Santini and Santini himself has his eye pecked out by ravens. Also, Betty’s vision is compromised when she applies eyedrops to herself, meaning she’s unable to identify the man in her apartment who may be a helpful police officer or a psychotic killer. Sight – its use, its power and its vulnerability, is a major source of tension in Opera.

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Funnily enough, for a film obsessed with looking, stalking and obsession itself, the character of Betty, and Marsillach herself, rarely feel objectified, despite moments like the one above, where Santini traps her in a display cabinet, as though he’s trying to keep her as a possession. This may have something to do with Marsillach’s insistence on not being sexualised throughout filming (refusing to wear clothes that accentuated her body, for example), and as such, Opera avoids a potentially nasty, leering quality that may have resulted with another director or even simply another lead actor. Despite the point-of-view shots from Santini and Betty’s horrific experiences, we’re rarely asked to gloat or indulge in her plight. Her ordeal is terrifying, they are the acts of a sadist, but the film merely about sadism, and is not sadistic in itself even though Argento is a self-confessed admirer of the beauty of an on-screen slaying. It’s a fine line Argento’s treading here, and he gets the balance right.

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As I mentioned near the start of this review, the cinematography is astonishing. Belying the fact that Argento was already seventeen years into his career as a director, Opera has the excitable restlessness of a first-time filmmaker. He’s worked with incredible cinematographers before – Vittorio Storraro, Luciano Tovoli, Romano Albani, Luigi Kuvieller and so on, but with Ronnie Taylor (and of course, editor Franco Fraticelli) it’s like his appetite for a deliriously mobile camera went into overdrive. Technically, Opera rivals Suspiria in terms of technical excellence, albeit in different ways. So where do I begin? Well, following the super-cool opening shot of an opera house reflected in a raven’s eye, we have an instance of crisis turning into opportunity regarding the character of Mara Cecova – originally Vanessa Redgrave was supposed to play this role but, depending on who you’re talking to, she was cut out because her star power would have lopsided the movie, or she left the production willingly. Either way, with no diva, we only get to see her through POV shots, including an extended one which sees her leave the opera house in a huff and we see her retreat, seemingly backwards, towards the exit, all the while haranguing Mark and his damn ravens and being pampered by her manager and Guilia. There is a brief shot of her outside the opera house, but she gets knocked down by a car a couple of seconds later. Whatever the circumstances were leading to this shot, it must be said that the execution we ended up with is more memorable than a star cameo probably would have been.

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We also get some very cool transitions like the one near the start that moves from the inside of a vent grille into darkness and then up to the grand interiors of the opera house, the conductor in the foreground. There are deliriously dizzying shots that defy gravity, such as the one with the feather being dropped into Mark’s hand by Santini, or Betty and her neighbour climbing up into the vent to escape. We have shots of Santini’s pulsating brain. We have shots where the screen ‘thumps’ to mimic said pulsating brain. There is an amazing 360 degree shot inside the opera house that represent the ravens circling the audience, looking for the killer. We have elegant Steadicam shots descending staircases, hovering over a series of tables, passing through corridors and flowery fields. We get Betty’s POV with the needles dominating her vision (as well as the occasional lowering of her eyelid whenever she blinks). We even get a shot from the viewpoint of a plughole! Then there’s the sparing but ravishing use of colour – like the application of icy blues during the flashback sequences to Santini and Betty’s mother’s crimes. Rarely has a dagger been filmed with such silky beauty.

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You also have the vivid greens and reds of the kitchen where Betty and Mira hide in the apartment, which can’t help but bring to mind Suspiria and Inferno. Why the lights would be this colour in an ordinary building I don’t know, but oh, doesn’t it just look amazing? And yet the film never becomes excessively flamboyant to the point of exhaustion. Argento and Taylor know when to slow things down, when to not move at all and when to simply let the on-screen action speak for itself. The peephole sequence could have been even more wild when you think about it – we could have had a POV from the bullet, we could have had a frenzy of shots, that sort of thing. The fact that this amazing moment is achieved with just a few edits and a static camera is proof that sometimes you don’t need the extra flash.

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Like Phenomena, Opera avoids the single-composer route and features a variety of contributors, including heavy metal bands. However, whereas the use of of metal in Phenomena seemed to represent little more than Argento’s own then-love for the genre, and in Demons it was all part of a big fat commercial soundtrack, here in Opera it’s a very interesting counterpoint to all that Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. If classical music is regarded as the high watermark of musical achievement, then heavy metal must surely be somewhere near the bottom of the respectability-o-meter. High and low art in beautiful harmony. Just like the violence of Macbeth and the music of Verdi is regarded as something refined, classic, artistic, then the violence of Argento and the base-level impact of metal are dismissed as exploitation. Indeed, when I first watched Opera, I wanted those murder scenes to be accompanied with something more, well.. operatic. Now though, I think the metal really works with the violence. Other musical contributions are just as noteworthy – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor make a welcome return, delivering two great pieces. The main theme by Claudio Simonetti (played after Stefano’s death and over the end credits) is more melancholic and sad than his one for Phenomena but just as memorable. We also get some pieces from not only Brian Eno but his brother Roger Eno too! And of course, there’s the classical music. It’s one of Argento’s most disjointed yet fascinating soundtracks.

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In regards to performances, the beautiful Marsillach is a fine lead – score one more point for Argento’s run of strong female protagonists. Some may find her characterisation occasionally difficult to reconcile with – as previously mentioned she seems to be able to keep her cool in the aftermath of what are horrendous ordeals, but you’ll have to take or leave that. The just-as-beautiful Barberini, fresh from playing the the co-lead in the Argento-produced Demons, is a handsome, bashful supporting character to begin with but loses his shit spectacularly once he loses his eye. For the most part Santini is an anonymous killer in a mac and disguise, and is most likely played by Argento rather than Barberini (at the very least, his hands are Argento’s during these bits), but the final act gives the actor a chance to go full throttle. Amusingly, the ‘shock’ reveal of his identity was spoiled by the plethora of Italian lobby cards used to promote the film’s release back in 1987 – there are loads of publicity stills of a bloodied, eyeless Santini attacking Betty! Ian Charleson is very good indeed as Marco. He has great screen charisma and presence (plus a cool voice), and it’s horrible that this would be his last film (some TV work followed) before he died of AIDS-related causes in 1990 aged just 40. Cataldi-Tassoni, who the year before transformed into something exceptionally unpleasant in Demons 2, gets to have plenty of fun as Guilia, up to and including her spectacular death scene. William McNamara, who would later star as the killer in the underrated 1995 thriller Copycat, is a cute and boyish initial love interest who, bless him, comes off as very safe compared to his vicious rival Santini. He never stood a chance, poor man.

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And then there’s Daria Nicolodi. Her impact and influence on Dario Argento can never be underestimated, and it’s probably no coincidence that the era that most would consider to be the director’s golden period syncs exactly with the pair’s professional relationship. However, by the time of Opera, their personal relationship had soured, and it would be their last film together. You could say that Argento and Nicolodi’s most impressive collaborations were Deep Red (in which she starred as Gianna Brezzi, definitely her best character in any of his films) and Suspiria, which Nicolodi did not star in but who co-wrote the screenplay and was a major factor in the film’s success. Nicolodi was responsible for Inferno‘s story but didn’t receive credit, and from then on her influence, or at least her credited influence on Argento’s films seemed to diminish more and more. Her characters never matched the classic Brezzi, and it was telling that the most interesting things about them were the amount of terror and trauma they undergo. Nicolodi’s character in Opera is pretty rote – she’s simply there to encourage or console Betty. The most interesting thing she does is look through a peephole and get shot through the eye, which in reality was a pretty damn dangerous stunt involving a small explosive being attached to her head. Following Opera, Nicolodi and Argento only collaborated once more (to date) on 2007’s Mother of Tears, the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.

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So there you have it – it’s time to draw the curtains on Argento’s classic period. From Deep Red to Opera, he and his collaborators delivered a golden era of idiosyncratic, stunning genre cinema. After this he would try to break the States, but that’s another story…

PS: Much gratitude to Maitland McDonagh, Chris Gallant and James Gracey, whose writings on Argento and Opera have really opened my eyes. And they didn’t even resort to using needles.

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

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

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

Tenebrae

Phenomena

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

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

On another, the Ghostbusters are, well… jerks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when we hear the miaows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which they do.

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

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

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

The Films of Dario Argento: Tenebrae (1982)

Back on the giallo brick road….

Capture

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

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

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except Never Let Me Down.

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

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

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

Or….take it and remix it!

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 80’s Bowie comeback starts here!

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Felt: The Pictorial Jackson Review (2018 version)

Another round of reissues, another round of problems…

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This year’s ‘A Decade in Music’ retrospective of Felt, that most wonderful of indie bands, continues with Cherry Red’s recent reissuing of the latter half of Lawrence and Co.’s ten albums – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1986), Poem of the River (1987), The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988), Train Above the City (1988) and Me and a Monkey on the Moon (1989) – in long-awaited vinyl re-pressings and deluxe CD sets complete with odds and sods (badges, posters, etc) as a contemporaneous 7″ single. Felt were one of those bands who, back in the day, gave fans value for money, rarely releasing tracks from albums as singles, instead preferring to do it the old fashioned away and give us exclusive, non-LP A and B sides. This current reissue programme however has been a bit a funny one – compiling the 7″s with the CD version instead of the LP edition, for example, and ignoring the far superior 12″ releases which featured even more exclusive tracks. To be honest though, that’s not been the only problem with this programme.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not bought any of these new editions – I’m more than happy with the LPs and 12″s that I already have, not to mention the 2003 CD reissues (although there was an early screw-up regarding The Pictorial Jackson Review that switched its first eight songs with the entirety of Train Above the City, a problem since rectified with the second, more commonly available Cherry Red CD pressing) and I’m really not fussed about things like posters and badges, so I limited my exposure to this year’s Felt reissues via streaming platforms. That’s how I heard the surprise ‘de-mix’ of Ignite the Seven Cannons, the band’s fourth album that had long been criticised for its reverb-heavy Robin Guthrie production. The new mix had done something like what Paul McCartney did with his Let it Be…Naked project, which was to strip the album of its excesses.

Unfortunately in Felt’s case, the new Ignite (or at least the tracks that had been restored – weirdly, half of it was still left alone) sounded like a bunch of demos, and as someone who loved the original production, despite or maybe even because of it’s over-richness, I was left pretty underwhelmed. What made this exercise worse was that, in terms of physical presence, this restored mix was to be the only version made available to buy over the counter, with Lawrence getting all George Lucas on our arses and insisting that these new versions were the only ones he wanted physically available. Hey look, I love Lawrence, I think he’s a genius, but I have found this preservation of his legacy (and it’s not just his, let’s remember – Felt were a band) pretty perplexing. Today if you want to hear the original Ignite the Seven Cannons, it’s streaming/download options only.

There was also some tinkering on third album The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories (the instrumental ‘Crucifix Heaven’, rudely deleted from the 2003 edition but reinstated here but in edited form) and the hilariously mad title of fifth album Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was replaced with the more palatable The Seventeenth Century, but they were relatively small changes compared to the sonic overhaul of Ignite and now, with this new round of reissues, the structural overhaul of The Pictorial Jackson Review, a change which is so ruthless it’s almost funny.

To refresh your fuzzy Felt memories, The Pictorial Jackson Review was the eighth album by the band, a curious LP of two halves which boasted short, snappy, delightful and relatively lo-fi pop songs on one side and spooky, jazzy instrumentals (composed by organist Martin Duffy) on the other. The two sides didn’t resemble each other in the slightest, and the second half probably alienated more than a few fans, but this kind of perverse manoeuvre was classic Felt, and it was also a helpful warning sign for the all-out cocktail-bar jazz of Train Above the City later that year. Although the band’s exposure was nowhere near on the level of David Bowie, Felt’s ‘pop on one side/ambient on the other’ risk on Pictorial was very reminiscent of what had been done eleven years earlier on Low – and arguably even more uncompromising, if ultimately not as risky in regards to public acceptance. The twelve-minute length of ‘Sending Lady Load’ may try many listeners’ patience (I prefer the shorter, creepier ‘The Darkest Ending’) but the sheer audacity of combining these disparate sides definitely made it a Felt album worth admiring. However, what Lawrence has done with Pictorial ’18 is to completely remove the two Duffy tracks and add a couple of songs closer in approach to the original first side. That still makes ten tracks, but the new LP has split them up evenly so we now get five per side and with some of the original first side songs moved to the second. This makes the album slighter in more ways than one. I mean, it’s literally a shorter album, but instead of an eight-song side punch of vinyl, with pop gem after pop gem, all the way from ‘Apple Boutique’ to ‘Don’t Die on My Doorstep’, we get an unnecessary split down the middle.

So yeah, let’s not mince words – the concept of the original album has been completely obliterated. Now what we have is a straight-up pop album that despite featuring splendid vocals and lyrics, amounts to a work as small as Felt’s two all-instrumental LPs. It’s a terrific set of songs in its own right, of course. The original pop side of Pictorial was a great run of songs, a kind of 80’s Basement Tapes for Lawrence, with warm, friendly Hammond organ from Duffy, a strident and lively rhythm section (courtesy of Felt mainstay Gary Ainge on drums and the late Mick Bund on bass) and melodic, supremely catchy guitars from Marco Thomas and Lawrence himself, who also indulges in his most overt Lou Reed/Bob Dylan vocal homages here. Compared to the epic Maurice Deebank years, or even the grand likes of Forever Breathes the Lonely Word and Poem of the River, the first side of Pictorial kept things small and cosy, yet also lively, raw and garage-like at times. It’s quite an unusual approach for a band already eight years into its existence. At times it sounds like debut. A bloody great debut, but still a debut. That is, until you flip the record over and you get those Duffy instrumentals, which sound absolutely nothing like what we just heard. On vinyl the difference is more pronounced and arguably more effective. On CD it’s a bit too much like someone switched the radio station when your back was turned. It’s almost too brutal a swerve. Still, it’s preferable to what we now have here. I’m sorry, I respect an artist’s decision to do what he or she or they want to do with their work, but I do think this album has been neutered somewhat.

If the album had always been released this way, then I’d have nothing to criticise, except maybe that I’d have liked it to have been a bit longer? But, just like with Ignite, Lawrence has changed something established and denied listeners a chance to hear it as it was originally heard. Re-writing history, essentially. The new additions, an embryonic version of Denim song ‘Ape Hangers’ (here named ‘Jewels are Set in Crowns’) and an alternate take of later ‘Space Blues’ B-side ‘Tuesday’s Secret’ (with a production closer in line with Pictorial rather than the brighter, cleaner sound of the single) are absolutely fine and help to bulk up the remaining tracklist well enough. Like I say, the new Pictorial Jackson Review of 2018 is excellent, a great bundle of songs that’ll always bring a smile to my face. But I know all too well about what the album used to be. And to change the essence of the original album, to change what made it so unique and most fascinating just seems irritatingly cavalier. Then there’s the baffling decision to move ‘Bitter End’ to a slightly later spot on the album. Instead of following ‘Until the Fools Get Wise’, now it comes after ‘How Spook Got Her Man’. Why? Who knows?

Oh well, that’s Felt for you. Like New Order, the handling of their back catalogue can be described as wayward (hey, that rhymes with ‘Hayward’, Lawrence’s supposed surname) and bound to frustrate. Still, for the most part, it’s amazing that most of the band’s music has been made physically available once more. And there’s always Lawrence’s present incarnation as Go-Kart Mozart to savour, with the new Mozart’s Mini-Mart album having turned out to be one of the most delightful releases of 2018.

PS: Poem of the River, the album that preceded The Pictorial Jackson Review, has also been subjected to changes, though nowhere on the same level as what I’ve just described. ‘She Lives By the Castle’ appears here in a slightly different version – the guitars are noticeably unfamiliar to what I’m used to. It’s a fine alternate version, no better or worse than the original. I can live with it! The album also seems to be mastered a little louder than before, at least from the sounds of opening song ‘Declaration’, which used to begin so quiet that Lawrence’s hushed vocal sounded like a little mouse. Now he sounds like a bigger mouse. Good for him!

PSS: Here is my earlier look at the de-mixed Ignite the Seven Cannons.

PSSS: Here is my even earlier look at the whole of Felt’s output.