Suspiria (1977)

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

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A Little Prelude…

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

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

Suddenly horror had an appeal.

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

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

Anyway, I digress…

The Greatest Horror of All Time?

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

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

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

The First 15 Minutes…

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

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

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

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

This.

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

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

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Wow.

The Rest of the Film

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

1. “We’ll all sleep together…”

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

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

2. “Suzy, wake up!”

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

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

3. “She must die…”

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

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

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

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

You have been watching Suspiria…

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Predator (1987)

El Demonio Que Hace Trofeos de los Hombres…
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Predator is thirty years old this year, and you know what? It’s still a remarkably entertaining, spectacularly impressive piece of work, and the first of two films from director John McTiernan that catapulted him to the very top of the action genre. Die Hard is arguably the more accomplished of the two, but Predator is no mere warm-up. What’s particularly great about it is just how stunningly well made it is – compared to Arnie’s other films of this era like Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man and Red Heat –  Predator stands out in the way it showcases a director with an expert handling of action, suspense, atmosphere and intensity. As much as I love Commando and The Running Man, their direction is merely solid, whereas McTiernan is clearly a filmmaker of exceptional skill and confidence.
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Just like Die Hard, it has an dazzling attention to craft. Rare is the Arnie film where you can sit back and truly admire how it is mad. Its humid, oppressive South American jungle setting is utilised to remarkable effect – you really feel like there in the bush, with no escape. The camera moves in and around this world and you’re totally immersed. The cinematography, lighting and sound design is first-rate. Also, there’s a claustrophobic, intense and very memorable, all-encompassing score by Alan Silvestri that is loaded with killer hooks.
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The plot is utterly straightforward: bad-ass Major ‘Dutch’ (Schwarzenegger) and his squadron of soldiers – all-round nice guy and explosives expert ‘Poncho’ (Richard Chaves), intense, razor-happy medic Mac (Bill Duke), stoic navigator Billy (Sonny Landham), behemoth gunner and self-proclaimed ‘sexual tyrannosaurus’ Blain (Jesse Ventura) and resident joker and communications operator Hawkins (Shane Black) – are sent by untrustworthy colonel Dillon (Carl Fuckin’ Weathers) to the jungle of what (outside of the film) is revealed to be the fictional South American country of Val Verde (as also depicted in Commando and Die Hard 2) to rescue a cabinet minister being held hostage by bad (read that as non-Americans) guys. Once the (failed) rescue is over and Dillon is revealed to have set Dutch’s team up on what could have been a suicide mission, the soldiers – plus Anna, a hostage from the raid – soon find themselves the target of an alien predator who appears to picking them off one at a time for sport and who can also camouflage itself within the trees. Totally outclassed by the Predator, the team are swiftly dispatched until only Dutch remains, culminating in a battle between human and alien…
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Of course, if you’re reading this review, the odds are you already know the plot, making the previous paragraph a complete waste of time, but I loved summarising the story and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Let’s move on, shall we?
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Strangely, despite being what you could reasonably argue is the archetypal Schwarzenegger movie, Predator is a unique entry in the man’s classic era. Rare is the Arnie film where he is part of a team – admittedly, it’s a team that’s wiped out by the end, but he doesn’t stand head and shoulders ahead of everybody else. For the most part he’s one of the guys, even if he is in charge. His musclebound presence is more than matched by most of his colleagues. Also, this is the only film of his, barring Terminator 2, where his adversary poses a serious, lethal challenge. The final act of Predator is a fight to the death, and unlike the no-contest finales of Commando, Raw Deal, Total Recall, etc, you actually fear for his character’s life instead of curiously worrying about the bad guys. Also, has any Arnie film ended with him looking so beaten down and forlorn?
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Predator eschews the traditional Arnie finale, which even at this early stage was becoming recognisable. You know, tool up, kill every motherfucker in the room, that sort of thing. In fact, you could argue that the typical shoot-em-up set-piece that would normally close every other Arnie film takes place a mere twenty or so minutes into Predator. The ambush set-piece, where Dutch and the guys lay waste to some cannon fodder in guiltily spectacular fashion could plausibly be the culmination of any other Arnie film. After that we enter new, unexplored territory. The first act of Predator, discovery of skinned bodies and quick Predator POV shots aside, plays out as a straight-up action movie. After that, the science-fiction and horror elements creep in. We’re not in Kansas anymore. This is new territory. Okay, if you take the film apart, you’ll recognise elements of Alien and Aliens, not to mention the plethora of post-Vietnam action films like Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood, Part II, but really, it’s difficult to see the joins.
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For me, Predator was one of the first films that acted as an in-road to the horror genre, which I would have been too scared to approach at my early age back in the early nineties. Yes, it’s an Arnie film, yes it has enough firepower to level a small planet and yes, the machismo is through the roof, but when the second act kicks in, it’s essentially a slasher film with bells on. The Predator heat-vision POV material is straight out of the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th – but by playing around this gimmick, by making the Predator’s vision an essential part of his character and something that can not only be used to its advantage but also to its detriment (see the brilliant “he couldn’t see me” scene), you end up with a truly novel spin on a horror staple that by the late eighties, had become very, very old indeed. True, the whole heat-vision element wasn’t entirely original – you can spot it in embryonic form in Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 horror Wolfen – but Predator ran with it and made it truly iconic.
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The violence is also rooted in the horror genre – we’re talking gore here, people. It still packs a punch – it knows when to show stuff and when not to. Some of the worst stuff is left to our imagination, some of it isn’t. Also, the Predator’s M.O is hinted at but not really explored – later films in the canon would tell us more, but ultimately it was all unnecessary. The original Predator is still the best because it pretty much tells us all we need to know, and frankly, it makes his rituals and methods all the scarier. The special effects – cute electrical malfunctioning glitches and one ropey ‘camouflage’ shot just before Hawkins is murdered aside – are still amazing, and Stan Winston’s design for the Predator is, hands down, the best monster the cinema has ever seen. The film brilliantly teases us with quick hints as to just what exactly this creature is – a brief shot here, a camouflaged outline there, a shot of a hand, a trail of blood, and even when we’re very late into the film, it’s still wearing a mask. When that mask comes off…. wow. I mean, what can you say? I mean, you can say ‘ugly motherfucker’ if you so wish, but the design on that face is frankly extraordinary. Utterly repulsive, utterly fascinating and with a grotesquely dazzling attention to detail. I totally believe that I’m looking at an alien, and Kevin Peter Hall’s physical performance adds a hell of a lot too. He also played Harry in the same year’s Bigfoot and the Hendersons (or Harry and the Hendersons outside of the UK).
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The action is also tremendously visceral. The film has an arsenal and knows how to use it. The raid on the enemy soldiers is just kill, kill, KILL. Who were those bad guys? It doesn’t matter, they’re bad guys. Just kill them. Shamefully, this scene is utterly thrilling, and we all get off on those shots of evil bastards getting shot up or blown up or stabbed up or whatnot. There’s also the ‘stick around’ dispatching, which, thanks to Dutch’s outright glee during this moment, remains one of Arnie’s most hilarious one-liners. The bit where Mac begins what ends up being a outright destruction of a small section of jungle is outrageously executed. Scenes of preparation and booby-trap setting are gripping (if ultimately hopeless – these guys don’t stand a chance), and the Predator’s kills are still sudden, gruesome and full of impact. One extraordinary bit follows the brief moment of quiet following Billy’s death, when Poncho is suddenly killed (notable for being the only death in the film with virtually no build-up or warning), Anna goes for the nearest gun, Dutch kicks it away and lets rip with a fucking ENORMOUS onslaught of firepower, yelling as he does so, Silvestri’s score banging away and I, the viewer, gripped, pumped and breathless.
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 Ah yes, the score. Continuing to move on from the synthesised joys of his Delta Force and Flight of the Navigator soundtracks, Silvestri proves to be a master of the orchestrated score, rivalling the splendour of his Back to the Future work and delivering a pounding, militaristic, (surprisingly) sad, chilling and outright frightening array of timeless themes. One of my favourite moments of sound and vision in this film is the camouflage scene. When Dutch thinks he’s found some rest time, after having survived two death-defying drops and a brief but intense swim, the Predator suddenly lands in the river behind him… he crawls up through the mud and awaits what looks like certain doom, but thanks to the Predator’s compromised heat vision being unable to detect Dutch through all that mud, he moves on and walks away. This for me is one of the most gripping moments in the film – true, the script spells it out a bit too clearly with Dutch’s ‘he couldn’t see me!’, a line that I’m surprised the Predator didn’t hear and swiftly react to – but the direction, chilling score and that eerie slow-motion shot of the Predator walking away (don’t know why, but it used to freak me out!) makes it, more than any other moment in Schwarzenegger’s films, a scene where I genuinely feared for his character’s life. 
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As for the characters, well they’re two-dimensional for sure, but they’re vividly portrayed and acted with gusto – we all have our favourite Predator character, who’s yours? Dutch is the obvious choice, but what about the jokey, doomed Hawkins? The bad motherfucker (but ultimately doomed) Blain? The ever-so-slightly-crazy but strangely sad-eyed (and doomed) Mac? The no-nonsense, doomed Everyman Poncho? The sixth-sense blessed but ultimately crazy and ultimately doomed Billy? The cynical and bastardly but nevertheless he-was-still-Apollo Creed (and just as doomed) Dillon? Or how about the utterly non-doomed Anna? Mine was Mac. I loved Mac. I felt awful for him. His death always seemed the cruellest. He never stood a chance did he? And he never did have him some fun tonight, did he? Poor sod.
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Ultimately, Predator is one of the most purely enjoyable, thrilling genre films of the 1980s – it’s a precision-tooled, perfectly executed and still outstanding experience – its ubiquity (how many times has it been on TV now?) hasn’t dulled its edges. Watching it on a big screen for its 30th anniversary was like seeing it for the first time all over again, and given that I’ve watched it three thousand times already, that made for quite an evening of entertainment.
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PS: The end credits are a wonderful/hilarious montage of the main players, all of them smiling and/or laughing, as if almost to reassure the viewer, that they’re not really dead, that everything is okay. The one of Sonny Landham as Billy is amazing.
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PSS: A few years back, my good friend Mark and I recorded a commentary to listen to whilst watching the film. You can listen to it/download for free by clicking on the relevant link to the right!
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Deep Red/Profondo Rosso (1975)

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

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What a film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freejack (1992)

Freejack

This review of Freejack contains spoilers.

Mostly forgotten now, Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)’s 1992 SF-action turkey Freejack got some attention back on its release for starring the one and only Mick Jagger. And as a twelve year old at the time the film was getting premiered on Sky’s movie channels, I was certainly interested in it because I thought the ads looked good, plus anything futuristic was always going to fascinate me after having been bowled over by Back to the Future Part II on the big screen a few years earlier. Unfortunately (or so I thought), those movie channels were out of our price range so I forgot about Freejack until it was premiered on BBC1 a few years later.

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By then I had become more aware that the film was meant to be… how can I put it… a bit shit, so I geared myself up for a bumpy ride of some sorts. I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it’s awful, but from the moment Jagger’s bounty hunter/’bonejacker’ Victor Vacendak lifts up the future-visor on his head and says, in that unmistakable camp London accent of his, ‘Okay… let’s do it! I knew I was going to love this film.

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I had the foresight to tape Freejack at the time and made a point of rewatching it over and over again. Well, the good bits anyway. Bits of this film are really dull. But the good bits (and by that I mean the really bad bits) were pure comedy gold.

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Based on Robert Sheckley’s novel Immortality, Inc. (more on that later), Freejack is set in a future where advancements in technology have made it possible for a mind to be transplanted into another human body. Meanwhile in present-day 1992,  hot shot racing driver Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is apparently killed mid-race when his car explodes in front of his adoring fans, his adoring girlfriend Julie (Rene Russo) and his adoring agent (David Johansen from the New York Dolls!). However, he’s not really dead because he re-materialises in the year 2009, surrounded by baddies in bacofoil who are ready to lobotomise him with a freaky laser. Luckily, Furlong escapes into a dystopia where people are either living at the top in sleek, plush surroundings or at the bottom where the only things to eat are rats or soup that’s so tasty that people are willing to kill you if you spill it all over them.

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Furlong realises that he’s now a ‘freejack’, a fugitive wanted for his BODY by a mystery party. Everyone he turns to for help either betrays him or slams the door in his face, except for a gun-toting nun, aka Mother Exposition, played by Amanda Plummer a few years before she threatened to execute every motherfuckin’ person in the Big Kahuna burger joint in Pulp Fiction. It turns out there’s a thing called the Spiritual Switchboard, which is a kind of cloud where human minds can be uploaded and then downloaded into a different body. Furlong’s body appears to be hot property because it comes from a time before something called the Ten Year Depression and isn’t contaminated with all the toxins, poisons and mutations that today’s underclass have been exposed to. Ah, but why doesn’t Furlong’s mystery party just take his pick of a body from 2009’s non-toxic cultural elite?

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Nope, it’s got to be Furlong, and the one who wants him is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who I forgot to mention in this review so far because he didn’t make much impression on the plot up until now. I’m sure he made an impression on viewers at the time – this was the first film he’d made after his award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs. This was not the first instance of an actor starring in a total turkey immediately after their Oscar win, and it wouldn’t be the last. It turns out his character in this – the mysterious and recently deceased tycoon McCandless who owns everything in the future and therefore was always untrustworthy – has fallen in love with Julie and of course the only way to win over someone who’s already attached is to possess the body of her boyfriend!

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The ending was clearly this was meant to be the Ultimate Trip, the kind that would leave Kubrick whimpering. Forget 2001, this was 2009, baby! This is where Furlong and Julie enter the Spiritual Switchboard, past loads of pixels, squares, time lapse skies and altering environments, culminating in a confrontation with McCandless, who seems to be able to smoke cigars in this virtual world – how does that work? – and who also suspiciously appears to have regretted his rash decision to try and nab Furlong’s body, offering to give everything to him, his riches, his job as an apology … but we know it’s all lies and stalling, as Vacendak shows up and Furlong still ends up undergoing the old switcheroo in a sequence of, and let’s be generous, rather funny special effects that includes a trippy flashback nightmare that, like all bad dream/hallucination sequences, features not one but two random bits of people laughing wickedly.

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Weasely deputy villain Michelette (Jonathan Banks), who doesn’t want McCandless in any form to survive as that would prevent him from inheriting the company, destroys the transfer device and we’re all left wondering which mind is currently occupying the disoriented body of Furlong. Michelette has the right idea – if whoever this guy is can correctly identify McCandless’ personal security clearance number then he’s obviously the real deal. The thing is, he actually can! It must be McCandless, god damned McCandless! Michelette shakes his head in despair, laughs to himself and attempts to go out in a blaze of glory before being instantly gunned down by Vacendak.

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So Furlong’s dead, right? No. He was just guessing the security number and Vacendak went along with it because, let’s face it, nobody likes Michelette. Furlong’s a bit of a twat about it though, not telling Julie what’s happened until we the viewer also got to find out, which was a bit mean of him, stringing her along like that for what must have felt like a long few minutes. So, Furlong assures Julie that everything’s going to be alright and off they drive. In fact, his specific final line is ‘Come on, buckle up, let’s see what this baby can do!’ which is a line almost as cheesy as the one in this clip:

Haul Ass to Lollapalooza!

Cue anthemic metal from whistle-friendly favourites the Scorpions and roll those credits. Terrible ending. Saying that ‘Hit Between the Eyes’ is a fun song. I remember hearing the guitar squeals over that old Sky ad for the movie and I remember thinking this film was going to be ace.

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So, what we have here is a film that was probably the last attempt to make Emilio Estevez an action star, but he’s just not well served by the direction or the script. Also, he just doesn’t convey enough of the overwhelmed mind-scramble of what it would be like to be in a new time. Even though the Estevez smirk is almost as good a thing as the Bruce Willis smirk, he’s just too cocky here for us to really care too much. We also have future Breaking Bad legend Jonathan Banks in the role of Michelette, and compared to the dry, been-there-done-that persona of Mike Ehrmentraut, his character here is entertainingly obnoxious, stressed-out and seemingly despised by everybody. The scene where Jagger crushes a Faberge egg and chucks it over to him whilst calling him an asshole is one of the funniest in the film. Banks and Hopkins get the play-it-straight-but-chew-the-scenery-at-the-same-time thing beautifully, which can’t be said for Estevez and Russo. There’s little to no chemistry between the two, which makes their potentially thrilling, 16-year overdue catch-up a little flat. To be fair, the tragedy of their extended separation isn’t helped by the bit just as Furlong ‘dies’ when the camera rapidly zooms into Julie’s face – it’s hilarious. I think even Warners/Morgan Creek realised it was funny as early as 1993, because Brad Pitt’s waster character in True Romance is watching that exact same moment on the telly.

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But never mind that.

Let’s talk about Mick Jagger.

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Now I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love their sixties stuff, I love their seventies stuff and I even like some of their eighties stuff. And I love Mick Jagger. What a frontman. I mean, there’s precious few like him. Yet there’s always been something kind of hilarious about him too. It’s that preening, camp, lip-smacking sense of mischief, right there even from the start. Like David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg found something intrinsically cinematic about him and both of them enjoyed their best big-screen performances under his wing. However, unlike Bowie, Jagger didn’t really have much of a film career afterwards. I’m not saying Bowie was a screen legend, but he also had The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Prestige among others under his belt, whereas Jagger had few other roles of note. There was Ned Kelly, and then there was Freejack.

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I love Jagger in this film – he can’t really act but he does his individual thing and he does it very entertainingly. As I’ve already mentioned, his very first line is a classic of camp delivery, but pretty much everything he says here has this kind of delightful amusement to it. How the hell do nothing lines like ‘power it up’ and ‘he’s good’, both uttered by him in the opening race sequence, end up being so gigglesome? It’s all in the execution. His best extended sequence outside of the Faberge bit is the chase scene involving the ugliest and reddest tank in history. Furlong has escaped in a car/champagne crate and Vacendak and crew are in hot pursuit. Using some kind of bluetooth connection to tap into Furlong’s car, he starts pestering his quarry throughout the car chase, and even though Furlong tries to hang up on him (leading Vacendak to hilariously exclaim ‘Oh no! I hate the dark!’) he just won’t go away. He laughs like a madman, delivers lines like ‘you can’t get rid of me that easily!’ ‘I want him without a scccraaatch!’ and ‘the brake pedal’s the one on the right’ and of course ‘DON’T DO IT!!!!’ with the kind of relish someone who actually gets paid a lot of money to say this stuff does.

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So what about the book that Freejack was based on? I wasn’t expecting Robert Sheckley’s 1958 Immortality, Inc. to be so entertaining, but it really is a proper tear-through ride of a novel that is crammed with ideas and twists. Okay, the female characters get short shrift, but for the most part it’s great. To be honest, to adapt it faithfully might have made for a pretty crammed feature-length film, but compromises could nevertheless have been made and we could have got a striking, spectacular SF experience.

When you come down to it, Freejack is mostly a lot of chases, fights and shoot outs, only really going into overdrive (some would say for the worse) for its finale. Immortality, Inc. has a lot more fun delving into the future world that Thomas Blaine (not Alex Furlong) has found himself in. At first his arrival into the future is exploited as a publicity gimmick for the Rex Corporation (there’s no McCandless here) who want to show him off as the world’s first person to be snatched from the past and put in a new body, but is soon forgotten by the media and even his own captors once the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a target for capture, Blaine is more or less stranded in the future in a new body and with no way to make a living… I don’t want to spoil the rest of the novel as it’s a revelation for those only aware of Freejack, but if you do get round to reading it you’ll be dazzled by how much stuff there is here. Then you think about all that could have been accomplished in adapting this novel and you see what was actually made and released in 1992 and it beggars belief. Freejack essentially adapts a tiny portion of the story – the concept of an old mind occupying a younger body and the presence of the Spiritual Switchboard – and scraps the rest. I mean, there were suicide booths in the novel! Why would you not put something like that in the film? There’s merely a small electronic billboard for ‘suicide assistance’ that you can just about make out in a couple of shots. At least Futurama recognised a great (if fucked-up) SF idea when it saw one. It’s frankly insulting to see what they’ve done to the novel. If there are better examples of just how dumb the worst of Hollywood can be in adapting other mediums, then please let me know.

Of course, there was nothing in Immortality, Inc. that was as funny as the shot below, so both have their own individual merits, I suppose.

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PS: Amazingly, one of the co-writers is Dan Gilroy, who would end up directing the terrific Nightcrawler!

PSS: Some of the main characters have alliterative names, like Victor Vacendak and Mark Michelette. Those that don’t are nonetheless played by actors with alliterative names, like Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. The only exception is Anthony Hopkins as Ian McCandless, but given he had just won an Oscar, I suppose he could get away with it.

PSSS: two non-Jagger highlights from the tank chase scene to mention – the music by Trevor Jones here is really enjoyable, great chase music. And secondly, yes that is a sample of James Brown screaming as a pedestrian jumps out of the way. There’s a few of these in this film, but it wasn’t the first action romp to feature a Brown sample. Raw Deal did it too, spectacularly. Hit me!

PSSSS: Here’s a shot of David Johansen, simply because there hasn’t been one yet in this review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course, this shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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