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 close 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

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso (1975)

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

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What a film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course, this shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Snake of June (2002) review

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Unsettling, perverse and weird, the Japanese and disturbingly erotic A Snake of June is a film from Shinya Tsukamoto, the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which is one of the most horrifying, head-fucking, bad-trip SF films of all time. That film involved a man who started to mutate into a cyborg in the messiest, most nightmarish way imaginable. This 2002 film isn’t as horrifying in terms of sensory overload, but it’s still quite a ride – transgressive, troubling and compelling.

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) is a call-centre worker for what I assume are the Samaritans, and she’s married to Shigehiko (Yuji Koutari), who spends all the time he’s not at work obsessively cleaning their home. It’s a very neat, tidy environment and a very neat, tidy relationship, but Rinko’s serenity is disrupted when she recieves some photos in the post, photos taken of her by a stranger without her knowledge, and these are pictures of her trying on a mini skirt alone at home and as well as pictures of her masturbating. There’s also a mobile phone in the delivery, and it turns out that the photographer is someone she helped via her call centre work. She saved his life, and now it’s time to save hers, or at the very least ‘liberate’ it. This means getting her to embrace her desires, such as having the nerve to wear that mini skirt she put on in private out in public, as well as buying a vibrator and… well, I won’t spoil anymore of it, but the first half of this film is a classic of escalating tension. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio tightens the frame and emphasises the claustrophobic, inescapable situation poor Rinko finds herself in. Then there’s the blurring between what clearly looks, sounds and well, is victimisation but also suggests sexual freedom – could it be that her mystery tormenter is genuinely helping her? It’s a grey area, and one that’s as disturbing as it is beguiling. The decision to tint the picture in a cool, serene blue only helps to lure us further into this troubling world. It also rains all the time,  which could represent the deluge of sexual abandon that’s unstoppable once it’s been tapped.

I suppose it should be stated that the world in which Rinko and her husband live in seems very repressed, and not just their home environment. It’s precisely the cityscape where wearing a miniskirt in a world of suits and buttoned-down decorum really is going to turn heads, where the only evidence of a sexual undercurrent is the out of the way shop where Rinko is forced to buy her vibrator. Yet as inevitable as the rain, repression will only push things to bursting point, and by the end the film is pretty much out there in a back street masturbating in a downpour in a scene that is exhilarating as it is weird. I have to say the film loses focus for me when it decides to follow the husband on his journey, mainly because he’s not as sympathetic a character, plus Tsukamoto (who interestingly, also plays the part of Rinko’s tormenter) throws in some surrealistic, mad elements such as a freaky peep show, a smackdown involving a tentacle (natch) and some odd behaviour with a gun that don’t have the same punch as the scary intimacy of the first half. Nevertheless, it’s a striking, beautiful, disquieting experience, and at only 76 or so minutes, it does what it does with lean, effective brevity.