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.

Into the Night (1985)

From a time when Jeff Goldblum was a lead actor. Those were the days!

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One of John Landis’ more overlooked gems, this is a delightfully offbeat comedy thriller that has nothing special to boast plot-wise, but more than gets by thanks to the often unpredictable tonal swerves (poor doggie), not to mention some winning performances – remember when Jeff Goldblum was a leading star? We should have loved him more at the time – now all we get is the news that he’s going to be in the upcoming Independence Day sequel. Meh. Here he plays Ed, an aerospace engineer whose life is going nowhere slowly – he suffers from insomnia, his work is boring, his wife is having an affair… it’s enough to make a man go out for an aimless car drive to the airport, you know? That’s when a terrified smuggler named Diana jumps onto his bonnet trying to get away from killers. The killers are Iranian, and given that this is the eighties, this is one of many films of that time where all Middle Eastern characters are dodgy/crooked. One of the killers happens to be played by the director, who is not Iranian, but passes off as such convicingly. He doesn’t talk, and if you’ve heard Landis speak, then you know why he didn’t do so playing the part of an Iranian. There are around sixteen other directors who make cameo appearances in this film – Landis was awfully fond of doing this, and Into the Night might be the apex of such shenanigans. For some though, this was the height of self-indulgence. I didn’t care, to be honest – I didn’t recognise all of them anyway, the obvious exception being David Cronenberg, who shows up at the start.

Anyway, Diana the smuggler is played by an extraordinarily beautiful Michelle Pfieffer (the camera loves her, and I guess I do too – it’s been that way since I saw Grease 2), and she gets poor Ed caught up into a convoluted plot that probably makes sense if you can be bothered to think about it. The most important thing here is that the film succeeds on sheer brio and charm – the pacing is surprisingly lesisurely, which makes sense given Ed’s exhausted-but-can’t-sleep condition, and the blending of physical comedy with surprisingly tough violence gives it all an edgy excitement. A very welcome element is the appearance of David Bowie as a moustachioed hitman who only gets a couple of scenes but makes the most of them, especially in the first where he exudes utterly genial charm whilst forcing a gun in poor Ed’s mouth. Pity we never find out what happens to his character though. This, plus a rather casual attitude to another supporting character’s murder two-thirds in does mean that the film is somewhat guilty of being pretty slapdash. There’s also the overcooked bluesy score which dates the film a bit – it’s that eighties blues style which manages to make this usually timeless form of music utterly tied in with its time, and not in a good way. Have you ever heard this Eric Clapton song called ‘Same Old Blues’? It came out in the mid-eighties and is basically the same old blues that he’s relied on for most of his career, except now he made it all contemporary by covering everything with slabs of synth. It’s not great. Stick with ‘Behind the Mask’. Don’t recognise it? Yeah, you do. It’s the one that goes ‘who do you love?’ about a millon times. It’s brilliant. So is Into the Night, by the way. It’s slight, it’s forgettable, but having seen it for the first time in twenty years, I’d forgotten just how much fun it was.

Oddly, the film seems to end in the exact same way as Landis’ later film Innocent Blood, but without all the vampire references.