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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
‘Guess what, Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker!’
This charming little bit of advice comes from To Live and Die in L.A’s ‘hero’ to the informant on probation he’s just slept with. Yeah, he’s a bit of a shit. He’s also played by Billy Fuckin’ Petersen! Oh wait, sorry – William L. Petersen, as he was known back in the 80’s days. Petersen is the none-too subtly named Richard Chance, and he’s the ultimate reckless cop. Riggs ain’t got shit on this guy. I mean, Riggs is crazy, but he was essentially a nice guy. Chance is hotheaded, selfish, harsh and irresponsible. He wants to take down the bad guys, but, in his own words, ‘doesn’t give a shit’ how he does it. He also makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes in this film. That’s what makes William Friedkin’s classic thriller (based on a novel by former secret service agent Gerald Petievich) so thrilling – it’s an off the chain, unpredictable ride that hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the dark conclusion. It also screams 1980s to breaking point. I mean, the opening credits are in orange and green for God’s sake! Plus the font is so LARGE that the screen can only fit ONE or TWO words of the TITLE at a time. Plus, in any other film, a scene where a suicide bomber is yanked off the top of a building (and explodes mid-air) would probably the most shocking scene, but here that happens in the first three minutes and we’re already moving on straight after. No time to lose, that’s Friedkin’s approach.
I suppose on the surface it’s another cop thriller (one character even says ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’!), and the plot is essentially just about two secret service agents trying to take down a master counterfieter, but there’s a wild streak coursing through its veins – the characters are not stock types, they’re real – they fuck up, but they’re also surprisingly resourceful and clever. I was constantly hooked and intrigued, wondering what was going to happen next. This all reaches fever pitch in the film’s final half-hour, which I won’t spoil, but I promise you that there is a car chase that outdoes the one Friedkin delivered for The French Connection. It’s a blinder.
That’s the big showstopping moment, but there are lots and lots of other highlights, including an extended bit near the start where we see Willem Dafoe’s counterfeiter on the job, creating his fake dosh, making his phoney dollar bills look as convincing as possible. Not many thrillers of this era would take the time to show us stuff like this, and real counterfeiters were consulted to make this scene as real as possible. There’s are some cracking foot chases, including one in an airport (which pissed off airport security because Petersen wasn’t supposed to jump on the platform dividing the moving travelators but did it anyway), some great heated confrontations between not just good guys and bad guys, but also between good guys and good guys as well as bad guys and bad guys.
The violence is often sudden, messy and shocking – Friedkin seems to favour gun shots to the FACE, the sick puppy. There are a few surprise moments which are unparalleled for the genre. No wonder an alternative ending was recommended by the studio (you can see it on the Region 1 DVD, and it’s crap) because the one we got is one of the most uncompromising you’ll see. I won’t spoil anything, but full props to Friedkin for having the nerve to see the film’s vicious streak through to its logical conclusion. The performances, from Petersen and Dafoe intense leads to John Pankow’s frustrated, desperate partner and John Turturro’s scumbag cash mule, are vivid and visceral, as is Friedkin’s depiction of L.A, which I suspect I suspect the Grand Theft Auto games were influenced by, especially the most recent instalment.
Boosting things and then some is Wang Chung’s brilliant soundtrack – they’d already scored a hit in the charts with ‘Dance Hall Days’, and Friedkin’s decision to have them score the film was a genius move, much like his hiring of Tangerine Dream for Sorcerer. When their ‘City of Angels’ piece comes in over the sunset-hued main credits/crime montage, the effect is thrilling. Properly pounding (it’s all about that bass) and exciting, it sets the scene perfectly. Similarly, the use of ‘Wait’ over the end credits as the camera takes to the road and heads out of the city is pretty damned epic. And who doesn’t love that title theme? If you don’t, then I can only wonder why (in L.A/To Live and Die in L.A). Having the soundtrack steeped heavily in synth pop definitely makes it a product of its time, but instead of feeling dated, the film feels like a snapshot, one of the key, iconic films of the 80’s. Saying that, I can’t imagine a moment where a sleazy creep describes the weather as ‘groovy’ would have worked in any time period – maybe Summer 1967. This line always gets a laugh. Always.
I love this film – it’s from a major studio, but it has the reckless, edgy feel of an independent, and further proof that there’s far more to Friedkin than those two massive films he made in the 70s.
Akira Kurosawa’s last big film did not see him fizzle out, or go gently into that good night. It is an absolutely remarkable epic, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and transferred to 16th century Japan, which remains one of the all-time great adaptations, one of the best cinematic spectacles and…well, I’ll say it, one of the BEST FILMS EVER. It is an epic of high drama, betrayal, revenge, family, madness, death, war and regret. The title means ‘chaos’, and although there is an inciting incident that bring about chaos, the world that these characters occupy was already mired in it – it was just simmering, waiting to explode. When the film is not mired in violence, silence and stillness are integral. While not exactly Ozu, Ran’s verbal dramatics are staged in a manner that whilst betraying their stage inspiration, nevertheless make full use of the beautiful Japanese countryside.
The Great Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) oversees the lands he has conquered, but he realises he’s getting older and older, so he decides to pass on his spoils to his three sons – Taro, Jiro and Saburo. The former two are falsely obsequious and garland their father with patronising compliments and promises, but Saburo knows all too well that the peace that he imagines will prevail under the rule of his sons is just a fantasy, and essentially shows up Hidetora for the old fool he is, which doesn’t go down at all well. Proud and refusing to accept Saburo’s cruel-to-be-kind hostility, he banishes his youngest and commences his retirement.
Almost instantly, the true nature of his other two sons are revealed, and the peace of the land is overthrown by civil war. Hidetora becomes haunted by the brutality of his past, be it through his own dreams or by his encounters with those whose lives he has ruined. Of chief interest in the chaos of the plot is Lady Kaeda, whose own family was butchered by Hidetora many years back – she is married to Hidetora’s eldest son and is using her position to further bring down her father in law’s kingdom.
Ran is a desperately sad film – despite Hidetora’s cruel past, we are asked to pity him as his past actions catch up, the cruelty of his past mirrored in the callousness of his two eldest sons. Yet the love between father and youngest son is still evident. The relationship between Hidetora and Saburo is the most heartbreaking, as obstinance and stupid pride from the former prevent them from happiness together.
The Great Lord Hidetora is a remarkable character – his face is a frieze of perpetual astonishment, anger, hurt, pride and eventually terror. The make-up effects exaggerate his performance to vivid extremes. Amazing beard, too. Because we only see him in these twilight years of his, the cruel monster he once was is only ever referred to. He has done dreadful things, killed many innocents, and his ludicrous attempt to impose order and peace (having been so brutal to get to this stage) by presuming that a split rule between his sons will actually work is a deluded one that is taken advantage by two of his offspring. There’s a jaw-dropping moment when his faithful servant Tango informs him that the local peasants have offered the wandering Great Lord charity, but in his insane pride, he sees the gesture as an insult and demands that their villages be destroyed! The presence of his Fool, who acts as a kind of running commentary on the Great Lord’s own foolishness, might try some viewers patience with his early theatricality (you might even end up siding with one of Taro’s henchmen who tries to run him through), bur his presence becomes more heartfelt as the film progresses.
Also, and this is important – the film is very funny in parts. I don’t know if this was intentional, mind you. Hidetora is such a larger-than-life character, and his pent-up, emotional, expressive rage borders on comic. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all, by the way. His face is the definition of theatrical drama. You can’t take your eyes off him. He says so much without speaking, especially during the raid on his castle where he silently falls into madness as his room is destroyed around him.
The Lady Kaeda character, who could have been a mere ‘evil woman’ type bad girl, is ruthless and chillingly focused, but her motives are undertandable, her revenge almost justified, if ultimately misguided and horribly loaded with collateral damage. Yes, her ‘womanness’ is criticised, but by who? A man whose maleness has contributed nothing but war. She could almost be the film’s hero if she wasn’t so bloody scary – her seduction/blackmail of Hidetora’s son is astonishingly visceral.
However, although sadness is the overwhelming emotion driving the film, Ran is justly lauded for the scope of its action. Maybe because battle scenes are ten-a-penny these days, but the sheer ambition and scope of Ran’s biggest set-pieces might not stand out for some viewers. Well, they should. This is real, non-CGI, proper large-scale stuff. The midway battle is a masterpiece of sound and vision. All diegetic sound is removed – instead there is the grand, but funereal, tragic music score to accompany all the chaos, destruction and bloodshed. Despite the ‘12’ certificate, the violence is bloody and shocking, although the vivid red pallete of the gore is far from realistic, closer to an impressionist’s brush strokes. The film’s most swift and ruthless act of violence, performed near the end, is delivered like a painter’s final, decisive touch – it’s as spectacular as it is horrific, expertly framed and – yes, executed. Additionally, the colour scheme, specifically in regards to the colour coded armies, is simple but effective, and frankly very helpful in a battle scene.
By the end, tragedy has conquered our characters’ worlds. The culmination of all this drama is heartbreaking, if inevitable. Played out against such a desolate landscape, with the only warmth emitting from the increasingly setting sun, it is overwhelming. The gods are questioned, but are ultimately seen to not be responsible, In fact, they are believed to be weeping. And like the gods, we can only act as helpless spectactors, knowing that this isn’t going to end well, but unable to stop the horrors from unfolding. Humanity is to blame here, not the gods, not nature, just us. The skies seem so empty – is God or the gods up there? It’s a barren, bleak and even nihilistic land our characters occupy.
Ran has been recently remastered and re-released in cinemas – anyone who already loves this film needs to see it on the big screen if it’s still around. If you haven’t already seen it, then prepare yourself. The Great Lord demands it.
In what is probably the best chain letter ever, I have been nominated to list my Top 15 films ever. True to form, I have decided to elaborate on my choices with some self-indulgent reasoning. Please note, these aren’t The Best Fifteen Films Ever, so don’t expect all the usual suspects. Oh, and apart from film #1, none of these are in any real order of personal love.
1. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
Is it the greatest film ever made? Of course not. Nothing is. Yet Blade Runner is a remarkable experience. You can slate it for its uneven plot, its loose ends, its unsympathetic ‘hero’ or its vague ending. Yes, it has all of those things. And it has more. So, so much more. If people ask me what cinema is, what it is capable of, what it can deliver, I think of Blade Runner. I’ve watched it so many times and still be utterly mesmerised by it, and there are many reasons why – the future visuals and smoky, neon-tinged atmosphere, still breathtaking today. Vangelis’ astonishing electronic score – the best of its kind. The script – a masterpiece of enigmatic mystery. Rutger Hauer’s beguiling, strange ‘villain’ and the range of great supporting characters. Then there’s the things I can’t pin down, the emotional kick it delivers, that strange blend of awe, beauty and sadness. It’s honestly one of the greatest achievements in cinema – my mind boggles as to how it was all done. I can simply lose myself in it for its two hours, I can sit back and admire its sheer scale, immensity, or I can think about what it all means.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
Okay, let’s try the obvious – imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy was a single, regular film – a magnificent single film. Then take the best bit – the middle stretch – and make that an entire movie on its own. Except that now it’s a whole film, you can expand what would have been an hour into twice that amount. You can stretch out (with your feelings, not a priority) and explore the best worlds the series had to offer, like the huge snow planet of Hoth, the beautifully murky swamp of Dagobah or the beautiful aerial trap of Bespin. You don’t even have to waste time establishing plot or initial character because you already did that in the first film. Here you can go deeper, broader and oh yes, darker. You can do things you couldn’t have dreamed of in the first film- nightmarish dream sequences, a wickedly mean streak of humour and a shocker of an ending. Oh yes, forget a big, big action sequence, for now you can have your big, big set-piece near the start of the film if you like, and what would have been your end-of-Act 2 cliffhanger can now be the ending. The ending!!! Oh yes, The Empire Strikes Back is so phenomenally excellent it leaves the first Star Wars whimpering hopelessly in its shadow – the script is funnier, the drama more emotional, the direction far more confident and sweeping (take note, George – you can write stories but you can’t direct them) – every move is so expertly played that it more or less represents the Star Wars universe at its apex. PS: I must give an honourable mention to Return of the Jedi, for no third chapter has ever been given so much unfair criticism/begrudging love. It might be my 16th favourite film.
3. Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
To call it the best action film ever mate does reduce the way that James Cameron’s finest hour skilfully blends a handful of genres: science-fiction, war movie, horror AND action. Oh, and it’s also the greatest sequel ever made. Sorry Don Corleone. The original Alien is a 5-star, timeless, magnificent experience, but Aliens takes that film and enhances it to such a expansive degree that the mind truly boggles. Okay, we miss the artistry of Ridley Scott’s visuals, the elegance of Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the quiet, unnerving chill of those empty corridors, but here we get Sigourney Weaver given the role of a lifetime as Ripley is given extra dimensionality, guts and heart. We get Cameron at the height of his ability to engineer unbearable, claustrophobic, intense set-pieces. We get James Horner’s astonishingly exciting score, which rips off his own work for Star Trek and pumps it up to the max – ‘Futile Escape’ is probably the most heart-poundingly thrilling surge of action music I’ve ever heard in a film. We get a wonderfully colourful but believable and enduring range of supporting characters/victims. We even get a villain who isn’t just a stereotypical corporate slimeball, although at the very least, he is definitely that, and then some. We get a child-in-distress character who not once did I secretly want to get killed. We also get the absolute best ‘it’s not dead’ twist ending ever. Aliens is a total thrill-ride.
4. Withnail and I (1986, Bruce Robinson)
Probably the finest comedy ever, and it’s all down to character chemistry, peerless dialogue, perfect performances, emotional clout and classic set-pieces. That’s all, really. It’s just that easy! Seriously though – comedy is the most personal of all movie tastes, and there are many who won’t find Withnail and I funny. Like, where’s the jokes? Then there are those who will derive the most joyous pleasure from Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann’s never-better turns and how they respond to their domestic squalor, the unwelcome presence of characters who we probably wouldn’t want to know in real life but can’t get enough of them here, the horrors of hangovers, the exhilaration of winding up stuffy cake shop owners, the threat of dead fish, the fear of The Fear….I mean, it doesn’t really have a plot, but that’s the point, I suppose. These guys are drifting, and it’s a ride that the two of them will probably laugh about eventually, although at the time it was terrible, and then all of a sudden it’s over. Grant’s Withnail recites his soliloquy in the rain outside the park and the effect is genuinely quite heartbreaking. The script may be the finest ever.
5. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
Despite the presence of the director’s cut and another director’s cut, the theatrical version of The Wicker Man is pretty much perfect in dropping us head-first into a world of unparalleled paranoia, beguiling eroticism and twisted tradition. It’s probably the most gleefully chilling horror ever – it delivers its unwinding mystery with a devilish smirk before punching you in the gut for that ending, that astonishingly bleak ending that I always hope will end differently even though there’s no chance of that ever happening. The sense of atmosphere, that unnerving stranger-in-a-strange land feeling, a May Day/carnival/cult mood that has you very much feeling utterly alone, pranked, suspicious, in danger and ultimately utterly clueless; it’s like a nightmare, with the ultimate nightmare ending. Except unlike in a dream, poor Edward Woodward never does wake up. And just how good is Woodward in this? He takes a stuffy, pious party pooper and makes him one of the most sympathetic protagonists in all of horror. Christopher Lee’s utterly charismatic Lord Summerisle makes for the perfect counterpoint. The delightful, creepy, seductive and unforgettable score/song selection is a vital element, Anthony Shaffer’s script is ingenious, and the whole thing amounts to just about the best British horror ever made.
6. The Lost Boys (1987, Joel Schumacher)
Not a great film, certainly not when compared to many others in this list, but The Lost Boys is the movie I’ve seen more than any other, ever, so it really deserves to be here. And there is an awful lot that is very, very special indeed about this most beloved of Eighties vampire horrors – for one thing, given that it’s an exploitation film, it has a heck of a classy crew – the art direction, photography and lighting are second to none, the cast are wonderful, the script delightfully engaging (if somewhat patchy plot-wise) and its first half in particular a breathlessly enjoyable depiction of temptation to the dark side. Joel Schumacher’s limitations as a director were never better utilised – the film looks and sounds great (cheesy in the best sense), his handling of unforgettable set-pieces like the brilliant motorcycle chase/sunken cave ritual/train bridge dare sequence are classics. True, it does become a (admittedly very fun) mess of riotous action and special effects by the end, but this is the kind of slick, ghoulish B-movie fun that cult followings are made of. Oh, and Kiefer Sutherland’s teen vamp is 100% pure joy.
7. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
A classic example of what happens when a director is given full reign to make a blockbuster movie entirely on his own terms- Tim Burton may have made more personal films than this, but the thrill of the tension between big summer movie expectation and the unshackled perversity of what actually ended up on screen resulted in the man’s finest film. Just how this kinky, violent, melancholy, cracked, eccentric tale of troubled heroes and villains ever got a toy and Happy Meal tie-in beggars belief. It’s probably the most lusciously sensual, wickedly funny, tragic and yet delightfully escapist, imaginative and sweepingly lush blockbuster ever. Michael Keaton is still the best Batman, Michelle Pfieffer the most alluring Catwoman, Danny DeVito the most repulsive Penguin and Christopher Walken strangely enough the worst villain of the lot. The final subterranean confrontation has a twisted sadness and line-crossing tension that’s rarely been equalled.
8. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
It’s loosely based on fact, yet Cameron Crowe can’t help but glisten his memories with the kind of sun-kissed, heartbreaking, joyous nostalgia that makes it almost seem too good to be true. Even the painful moments are kind of beautiful in their own way. This really is exquisite, wonderful entertainment – Crowe simply wants to share his love of music and his love of being in love with music with everybody, as well sharing the pains of unrequited love, of not being in with the in-crowd and not being cool (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s telephone conversation with Patrick Fugit near the end of the film about this very subject is just perfect) and yet he even takes the time to make the potentially balloon-popping worrier of the mother who stays at home whilst her son follows his dream a great character. It’s also bloody funny. The songs choices are amazing. And Kate Hudson arguably peaked right from the start of her career with her turn as Penny Lane – what a heartbreaker of a performance, absolutely lovely. Seek out the director’s cut – it’s more indulgent for sure, but that’s all part of the charm.
9. Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest)
This rivals Withnail for the sheer wealth of quotable dialogue, genuine warmth, killer set-pieces and brilliant supporting characters. On the surface it’s a simple road movie, but George Gallo’s script ensures that no one gets an easy ride, concocting hilarious dilemma after stressful dillemma to the point where it’s amazing none of the characters explode from sheer rage. Of course, this is a comedy, so the stress and rage is absolutely hilarious throughout – Robert de Niro gives a performance that’s (seriously) as vital as his ones for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the like – Jack Walsh is one of his finest characters. Charles Grodin can get away with all of those Beethoven sequels he later did, for he earned a free pass with his turn here – his and De Niro’s chemistry is the stuff of movie magic. And then there’s all those supporting characters like Eddie Moscone, Marvin Dorfler, Jimmy Serrano, Alonso Mosely… brilliantly drawn, all of them. Yet it also has a final act that’s genuinely gripping, and a final scene that’s really quite sweet. It is crowd-pleasing entertainment at its absolute best.
10. Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)
I wasn’t sure about putting two vampire films on this list, but to ignore Near Dark and not The Lost Boys (and vice versa) is just downright dishonest of me. Probably the finest vampire film ever, a confident, totally assured masterpiece of lean, medium-budgeted ingenuity, crammed with poetic visuals, nocturnal atmosphere, choice dialogue, brutal violence and no-spare-fat writing. Features probably the best screen kiss ever, definitely the greatest bar room massacre ever, the funniest vampire ever (stand up, Bill Paxton) and a very memorable score from those Eighties mainstays, Tangerine Dream. Kathryn Bigelow made bigger and more important films than Near Dark, but this will always be my favourite of hers.
11. The Company of Wolves (1984, Neil Jordan)
Sheer fairytale imagination and beauty abound in this remarkable adult take on, among other things, Little Red Riding Hood. Neil Jordan and Angela Carter weave a tale that delves into dreams inside dreams, conjuring images and atmospheres that deeply frightened this viewer many, many years ago. The subtexts are plentiful, but you can also simply enjoy it on a purely visceral level, thanks to the stunning sets and photography, gorgeous score and unforgettably creepy special effects. I’ve written about this film in slightly more detail here: https://fletchtalks.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/movies-i-love-the-company-of-wolves-1984/
12. Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
Aliens is the best action film ever, but it’s not the purest action film ever. That goes to Die Hard, which you can simultaneously get all historical and academic about it by going on about how influential it was and all that and how today’s action films a) owe everything to it and b) don’t come close to it, and you can also simply get your rocks off to it every SINGLE time, because the fact is, Die Hard still kicks arse. Every time. Nothing comes close to its ruthless, precision-tooled expertise – the direction (well done, John McTiernan) is so unfussily magnificent that it takes a few viewings to realise just how well staged it is. Bruce Willis took the action hero role and redefined it, Alan Rickman more or less established the urbane Euro-villain (and no one’s beaten it), and the violence really, really feels like it hurts. You watch it and by the end you feel exhausted, but in a really, really good way. Not the Transformers way.
13. Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)
Well it’s definitely the best horror ever, that’s for sure. Dario Argento is a great director, but a frustrating one, as his handling of actors and plot over the years has shown. And yet Suspiria (and Deep Red) is where none of those things matter. The performances are actually good to be honest, especially Jessica Harper, who gets the little lamb amongst the wolves thing down just right. Plot? This film is not about plot. It’s not trying to be about plot. It’s basically only interested in just shaking you up. It only wants to scare you. In that respect, Suspiria is probably the purest horror ever made. It looks and sounds like a dream. A nightmare. Argento’s visual splendour is in full effect. The colours and the sets get you right in the eyes. The set-pieces are unforgettably full-on. The violence is still insanely imaginative. And the music? Bloody hell, words won’t do any of that any justice. Time Out said in its original review that this film feels like what you imagined horror films were like before you were old enough to get to see them. That, my friends, is absolutely spot-on.
14. An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)
No horror has ever been this funny. No comedy has ever been this scary. I mean, what the heck is An American Werewolf in London? It really shouldn’t work – it’s a total explosion of genres, tones and mood, and yet, and this is the magic of cinema, it works perfectly. Every moment feels right, even the seemingly wrong ones. It is bloody funny. It is flippin’ very scary. And it is also incredibly sad. There have been fewer tonal jolts as effective as the use of soundtrack (‘Blue Moon’) to snap you out of such a downbeat ending. This film takes you for a ride, and it’s a thriller every time. PS: Best transformation scene ever – don’t let the revisionists fool you, the one in The Howling is not as good as this.
15. Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)
What, a third vampire film? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but once the ball’s rolling, I couldn’t leave Fright Night out. Not when it’s a film this delightful. I mean, this film is a pleasure to revisit every time. It makes me smile. It’s warm, funny, exciting, spectacular and a masterclass in scriptwriting – seriously. Chris Sarandon might just be the most delightfully smooth vampire ever. Evil Ed – love him or hate him, I suppose. I know where I stand. The Lost Boys might be more imaginative and Near Dark a far more dramatic, beautiful film, but Fright Night sometimes feels like it’s an even better film than those two because it just feels like a best friend come to visit.