The Films of Dario Argento: Opera (1987)

You won’t be able to look away…

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This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

Okay, deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

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

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

Tenebrae

Phenomena

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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!

Predator (1987)

El Demonio Que Hace Trofeos de los Hombres…
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Predator is 30 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 pair, but Predator is no mere warm-up. What’s particularly great 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 made. Its humid, oppressive South American jungle setting is utilised to remarkable effect – you really feel like you’re 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 (Elpidia Carillo), 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, 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. So 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 also 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, 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, 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. Incidentally, 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 an 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 all the while 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… Dutch 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 him 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, so 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’s no mean achievement.
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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.

To Live and Die in L.A (1985)

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‘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.