The Films of Dario Argento: Opera (1987)

You won’t be able to look away…

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This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

Okay, deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

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

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

Tenebrae

Phenomena

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Crap Holiday by Jenny Morrill

Very bad holiday. Very good book.

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This is the first book review on my blog.  I was going to tackle Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it was still out on loan at the library where I work, so instead I decided to write up on the wonderful debut novel by Jenny Morrill, the delightful mind behind the thoroughly entertaining and often hilarious World of Crap blog. A hub for nostalgic oddities, humorous ephemera and super-profane retrospectives of the kids’ TV show Rainbow, where no one, not even that dickhead Bungle, is safe from Morrill’s targeting of the absurd, WoC showcases a naturally funny viewpoint that lends itself perfectly to the full-length novel.

Melissa is frustrated, alcoholic and works at the local mini-market where she has to put up with dreadful customers (mostly called Alan), one of whom is so desperate to not pay for a chicken that he resorts to claiming one is ‘used’ because, you know, someone earlier looked at it. Then there’s the ones who take exception at not being referred to by a preferred title, like ‘madam’. Anyone who has worked retail, frontline or counter work will get this. The pain-in-the-arse customers. The ones you give you unnecessary grief. The ones with not just one bee but a whole fucking hive in their bonnet.

Oh well, at least Melissa can escape all of that when she gets home, right? Whoops, sorry. Her house stinks, the washing-up never seems to get done and worst of all, her housemate Joanne is a New Age nightmare, prone to painting the walls fluorescent yellow, preaching about ‘fire energies’ and practicing ‘rage yoga’. She’s awful. Again, anyone who’s found themselves sharing a home with someone who is just one misguided reference to the self-help practice that is ‘anal breathing’ away from being murdered with the nearest utensil. Any utensil. Except maybe the Daniel O’Donnell mug.

Lots of us have our equivalent, our silly, totemic, often naff item that we find particularly lovable, usually at the scorn of others.  So when it comes to house sharing, where not everything is yours, and everything is potentially up for grabs, the silliest things can become unbearably precious to us. What starts off being a ridiculous possession ends up being something quite special. Melissa’s relationship with a mug that features the cheery visage of yer mum or nan’s one and only favourite singer Daniel however, has progressed from the platonic, skipped the sexual and moved onto a higher plateaux of spiritual connection, even if Daniel is prone to being rather judgemental and doesn’t always give the best advice. Still, he seems to be Melissa’s only friend, so he’ll have to do. At least he doesn’t embarrass her in McDonalds by drunkenly haranguing the staff or antagonising the police (as in ‘fuck tha’), but saying that, Melissa’s doing a bang-up job of making herself look bad, be it being too hungover to go to work, or making up appalling excuses for said absence by referring to a non-existent uncle who’s dying of leprosy.

An unfortunate incident involving an abducted children’s toy somehow results in Melissa finally accepting Joanne’s invitation to attend what sounds like a horrendous music festival with her and her strictly non-commercially inclined poet Fax, the kind where the attendees have names like Titania, Bee and Swallow, where no meat is allowed, where the ‘100% natural’ coffee substitute costs 8 quid and tastes like shit, where your next-tent neighbour loves playing the lute, where you are in close proximity to hippie-sex and the sound of over-enthusiastic grunting is complement by renditions of ‘I Gave My Love a Cherry’, where there are spoon carving, public wanking and spiritual dancing workshops, where hardcore environmentalists will give you grief for using ‘triggering’ language and call you a ‘body shaming Nazi’, despite you having, you know, not done anything wrong….

First of all, despite being a guaranteed pleasure for readers of the site, there are no in-jokes or nudge-nudge moments that only fans of Morrill’s previous work will get. Rainbow does not get a single mention. This is no indulgence (though I do loves me some of that), this is an astute, very funny, unsentimental but nonetheless very sweet tale of a lost soul, the kind I can all too easily relate to. The humour is very suited to the kind of reader who loves the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture and who remembers being dragged around shopping centres as a child, the kind of reader who can tell a Rumbelows from a Tandy, and who cherished their Beano annuals or Skeletor toys. It’s also deliciously rude – but never crude or vulgar (although you may have your limits – personally I’m comfortable with Morrill referring to possible traumas like ‘exploding fanny disease’). It’s gross, but never gross-out.

Also though, it’s for the kind of reader who’s simply found themselves lost. Lost in static employment, lost in their own indulgences (Melissa’s visits to her Slimming World class are dispiriting to say the least), lost in frustrated relationships.. made to feel inferior, be it by hectoring housemates, nasty customers, arsehole cousins, disappointed parents, etc. It’s a hilarious look at someone who is essentially alone and climbing the walls. Another, lesser book probably would have insisted on her being hooked up with a dream man, but Morrill’s too shrewd to go down that route. Or is she? There’s Aaron the barman, after all. I’m not giving anything away. It’s also for the kind of reader who, when having to put up with other human beings, has had to take a lot of shit, and yet also experienced those sweet, sweet moments of revenge, be it through sensible, professional means or by, say, deleting someone’s favourite series about ancient aliens off the Sky box.

This a wonderful first novel. It’s supremely confident, all-too relatable and like the best stories, I really didn’t want to it finish, which is why I made a point of being extra leisurely when reading it towards the end because I wanted to stay in this world, even if Melissa didn’t.

The Films of Dario Argento: Phenomena (aka Creepers) (1985)

The craziest Argento film, and that’s saying something…this review contains SPOILERS.

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Of all the films made during Dario Argento’s gold run of cinema (1975-1987), Phenomena is arguably the one with the most mixed fan reactions. Some people love it for the fact that it’s all over the place, and others hate it for those very same reasons.

Let me get my opinion out there straight away – I adore it.

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With the 1980’s in full swing, this saw Argento fully embrace the atmospheres and quirks of the decade – this is probably his most 1980’s movie of all his 1980’s movies – and then he threw in inimitable, mad quirks of his own. You know, chimps, insects, Iron Maiden, mutant children, telepathy, that sort of thing. It’s a delightfully, brilliantly bonkers and strange mix. Because of this, some have referred to Phenomena as something akin to an Argento greatest hits package. That’s not a bad description, but there are things in this movie that are unique to this movie, and so I’m loathe to consider this a mere retread of past glories. So, where were we back in 1985? Well, after the return to giallo that was 1982’s Tenebrae, Argento went back to the supernatural ambience of Suspiria and Inferno, albeit with one foot still rooted in the real world (relatively, anyway) by attempting to explain this film’s specific phenomena (cross-species telepathy) with science. It’s still pretty crazy stuff though, and what I love about this film is just how eccentric it is, yet it’s also played dead straight. It could all fall apart at any moment, and yet Argento, thanks to his sheer verve and bravura, keeps it together. You’re either with it, or you’re not, and I am so, so, so with this film that I can’t fathom why people think this is a lesser Argento work. It’s up there with his very best. If what we love Argento for is his mad streak, his originality, his individuality, then surely one of his most out-there movies surely has to be a must-see, right? Not everyone agreed though, and it didn’t help that in the US it was cut by over half an hour, rebranded Creepers (neat title, but it made the film sound like a creepy-crawly horror), and sold as a traditional shocker, which it most certainly isn’t.

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The opening scene is a corker, as a school bus takes off down a long, lonely road somewhere in Switzerland, leaving one of their class behind, stranded, alone and scared. It’s funny when you consider how this scene would play differently now – mobile phones would ensure a hasty return trip and poor teenage Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento, Dario’s daughter) would have ended up alright. Not back in ’85 though – she’s abandoned, cold and frightened, and in typical Argento fashion, the film decides to take a beautiful detour to gracefully pan up and up and up and up and up a very tall tree for the opening credits, backed by a creepy synthesiser score co-composed, surprisingly, by Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman! On the evidence of atmospheric pieces like this, it would have been nice if he’d had more of an influence over the Stones sound, which certainly needed livening up around this time. Blimey, have you ever heard their Dirty Work LP?

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After the credits have passed and the tree has been scaled, we go back to Vera, who’s hoping to find a nearby, friendly place where she can get in touch with someone for help. No such luck. She wanders towards a rustic, desolate house, sneaks in to look for help (calling out stuff like ‘help, I’m a foreigner’, which apparently incited giggles from audiences at the time) but someone else is in the house, someone chained to the wall. Not chained very securely, I must add. Those chains unsurprisingly don’t last long, and Vera is suddenly attacked by the mystery prisoner, who strangles her with the chains and stabs her in the hand with a pair of scissors. Just before that there’s a brilliant, foreboding shot of said scissors as they fall from a table and land on the floor with a horrible, piercing thud. When you see that shot, you just know they’re going to be used in some horrendous fashion moment later.

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Vera escapes the house but doesn’t last long, fleeing to a series of cavernous tunnels that approach the nearby river and waterfall, coming to a literal dead-end, courtesy of extendable spike, falling glass and then decapitation. Blimey, poor girl. The bit with the glass is an extraordinary moment – obviously horrific and yet filmed with such graceful elegance – and looks like it was very dangerous to film too, even if it was sugar glass in lieu of the real thing. Vera falls back into the window separating the tunnel from the waterfall and her head breaks the glass, its shattered pieces then falling down onto her face in spectacular slow-motion with the waterfall rushing behind her. It’s an awesome shot, one of the best in any Argento film. Saying that, the fact that her head unnecessarily gets cut off a moment later and falls down into the river is almost like a sick post-script to the whole affair – I wonder if Argento was daring us to laugh at that point, to react at the almost absurd excess? And there you have it, another great start to another great Argento film.

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Like Suspiria, we have a teenage girl/young woman thrown into a scary, threatening world of murder, magic and once again, maggots, but unlike Suspiria, where the childlike, fairytale ambience was given a dose of eerie unreality by casting adults in the adolescent roles, Phenomena‘s lead character is a child, played by the teenage Jennifer Connelly in only her second film. She plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous (and much crushed-after by everyone else, it seems) film star, who has been sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, only to find herself in the middle of a killing spree – girls her age are being murdered by a mysterious stranger.

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Jennifer has a tendency to sleepwalk, and on her first night in her new digs, she finds herself drawn in her slumber to a closed-off part the school where she comes face to face with a screaming girl who is trying to get away from the killer but ends up with a spike through her mouth. The killer remains unidentified and Jennifer is regarded as a freak not only because she sleepwalks but, and I’ll bet you didn’t see this coming, she has an uncanny affinity with insects. She loves them, and they love her. In fact, one of them later on in the film really seems to like her, but thankfully the relationship is never consummated.

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Meanwhile, entomologist and wheelchair user Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) is using his expertise of insects to help the police with the ongoing murder case. Yes, you read that right. It sounds wild, but in real life, insects present at crime scenes really have been studied to identify the time of death of a victim. This is because certain species of insects are attracted to corpses at certain stages of decay. This was what Argento was inspired by to begin work on Phenomena. I do love that Argento doesn’t really try to ease us in with this whole subject – after Vera is killed at the start we cut to a chimp (eh???) walking into McGregor’s house and we’re slam bang in the middle of a discussion about insects and their uses, and I’m all like – oh, cool, so this is how it’s going to be. By the way, the chimp’s name is Inge, and she is McGregor’s nurse. She’s great, and even her bad points (a tendency to goof around with razors and scalpels) end up being very useful before the end credits.

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Thanks to McGregor’s expertise and Jennifer’s affinity with insects, the two begin to work together to track down the killer before he strikes again. To do this, the two ‘greatest known’ (or shall we say ‘unknown’) detectives in the world must track down the perpetrator via its victims. These two detectives are Jennifer and a fly so attuned to the presence of hidden corpses that it goes wild when one is nearby. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: an old man recklessly sending a girl out into a situation where she might get murdered doesn’t sound responsible, but look, we all want her to go out there and catch the killer, don’t we? He wants to, she wants to, we wants to, Argento wants to, so I say put the Great Sarcophagus fly in that box, get on the bus and let’s find ourselves a maggot-ridden corpse somewhere in the Swiss countryside! Am I right???!!!

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Plus, McGregor has a personal stake in all of this – a young friend of his, Rita, disappeared some time back and was never found. He’s convinced she was one of the victims – chillingly, or frustratingly, depending on your Argento-tolerance, we never find out. As usual, everyone in an Argento film naturally assumes the killer is an adult male, and a lot of the time they’re wrong, and in this case there are two killers – mother and teenage son. Argento loves to lead us down wrong paths, and in Phenomena this particular path is akin to one you were always told not to stray away from, like in a fairy tale. saying that, there’s very little magic in this film, but there’s nonetheless a sense of the uncanny, predestined and mysterious which gives it an unearthly atmosphere. As we’ll delve into later, Phenomena is a relatively long film for this genre, but it’s extended scenes like Jennifer’s search for a body that pleasantly remind me of the leisurely direction of Deep Red when Marc enters the Murder House to try and find some clues. Oh, how I love Argento films – they just move at their own pace.

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Unfortunately, had Jennifer hurried up a bit, she might have got back in town to maybe prevent poor McGregor getting impaled with that nasty spike contraption. The murder itself is classic Argento – attempting to descend his staircase in his stairlift, the controls are taken over by the killer and McGregor is helpless to do anything as he approaches the spike-in-waiting. Poor Inge witnesses the death and only gets into the house long after her best friend is dead. Don’t worry though – she’ll get her revenge.

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The final half-hour is, as all horror films should be, an extended nightmare on screen. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about; you’re trapped in the Terrible House and somehow you find yourself delving even deeper into its horrors rather than finding the way out. Jennifer, distraught at the murder of McGregor and without a place to stay (although it’s not made clear where she stayed the night following her seeing his body) tries to get money wired to her at the local bank but doesn’t have much luck. That’s when Frau Bruckner shows up to offer her sanctuary until the next day, when she’ll be able to get a flight back to the States. It’s going to be a long night though. Things look immediately suspicious when Jennifer notices all the mirrors have been covered up. Apparently Bruckner has a son, a son who must be protected from gazing upon his own reflection. Then there’s the maggots in the bathroom – maggots in the sink, maggots on the soap, maggots on the towel. And what of the pill Bruckner’s just coerced Jennifer to take to calm her down? Not that Phenomena was insisting on being a whodunit – I mean, there wasn’t much in the way of clues – but yes, Bruckner is indeed the killer, or seems to be. She later admits to killing McGregor, and Inspector Geiger, who -and I’ve got ahead of myself here – hasn’t been murdered yet, but the killer of the girls is someone else. Someone else in the house. Geiger shows up as his investigation has led him to Bruckner, but she overpowers him with ease after knocking out Jennifer and locking her in one of the rooms.

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Jennifer manages to escape, but we’ve got some real out-of-the-frying-pan business about to occur, as she follows a telephone wire down into the catacombs of the house and into a ghastly room where a bloodied and battered Geiger is chained to the wall. He tries to help Jennifer but given he looks like a goddamn zombie she’s understandably terrified and backs into The Worst Pool of All Time. Seriously, this is worse than the one in Enfield Lock just outside London where, as a child, I swallowed some of the water and was ill for a week. That one was bad, but at least it didn’t have rotting corpses floating in it, whereas the one here has that, plus maggots, blood and general disease and decay. It’s absolutely disgusting, and makes my stomach turn every time watch it. Jennifer clearly swallows some of that water. Bleurgh. Enter Bruckner, laughing like an absolute psycho (which she is) – she doesn’t even say anything. She just keeps laughing and laughing. Geiger calls her a ‘fucking bitch’, but to no avail. Nothing’s going to stop her laughing. Jennifer tries to get out, but Bruckner just steps on her hand, making her fall back in. Cue more laughter. I’ll give Geiger this – what he does next is as inspired as it is horrific. He breaks his own thumb so that he can slip his hand out of his cuffs! He attacks Bruckner and this gives Jennifer time to get out of the pool and leave the two of them to it. She then finds herself in a weird subterranean corridor, and in one of the rooms there’s a weeping child, facing the corner – Bruckner’s son! Earlier it was revealed that he is the product of a sexual assault inflicted on Bruckner fifteen years earlier at the nearby mental institution when one of the prisoners attacked her. Jennifer insists that the boy needn’t be afraid of his reflection but as soon as he turns around to face her she quickly realises that wasn’t a smart thing to say – the kid turns around to reveal a visage that’s almost like a precursor to the Predator, but with added maggots and drool. Not that i ever saw any Argento films as a child, but I imagine the sight of this would have given me nightmares for weeks.

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Jennifer manages to escape through a worryingly, all-too accessible tunnel to the outside world and onto a small boat on the river, but Bruckner Jr. is after her with the spike, so there’s no doubt now that this bastard was the killer of all the girls – Jennifer becomes so scared that she screams the screamiest of screams, summoning the insects to help her. Every time I watch Phenomena and it gets to this point I always forget about the whole insect element, because the previous fifteen or twenty minutes have been so eventful and wild in their own right. So here they come, and unlike their relatively peaceful protest outside the school, they tear into the kid’s flesh until he’s pulling bits of himself off like that bit in Poltergeist. He falls into the river, and because the petrol tank had been pierced by the spike moments earlier, an attempt to turn on the engine and flee results in an explosion, forcing Jennifer to escape underwater, where of course, Bruckner Jr. is still alive and looking exceptionally worse for wear. Luckily the fire sees to him, and when the ‘Valley’ theme kicks in, we’re all ready to relax, knowing full well that things have come full circle, Geiger probably finished off Bruckner and we can all relax. Oh, and look – there’s Morris, Jennifer’s dad’s agent, come to bring her home! Yay!

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Oh wait. Shit.

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Oh well, so much for Morris. Yep, Bruckner’s still alive and ready to kill Jennifer with the same sheet of metal she just used to knock the other guy’s block off, but Inge then shows up with a razor she found in a bin earlier (!!!) and gets her own sweet, sweet revenge. The film then ends with Jennifer and Inge together, the start of a beautiful friendship – I must add that in reality Connelly and the chimp had a tougher time of it, as during the filming of a scene involving a malfunctioning stairlift, the latter bit the former’s finger in fright, leading to some understandable mistrust. Luckily both the finger and their friendship were patched up before the end of filming.

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As ever with Argento’s films, there are many terrific set-pieces and striking imagery. However, compared to the restless camerawork of Deep Red, the intense colour scheme of Suspiria/Inferno or the ultra-stylised futurism of Tenebrae, Phenomena (and Opera) are relatively (and I really mean relatively) conventional, with a cooler, less vivid visual palette – as a result the occasions when Argento does hit us with a great image really do stand out, like the gruesome close-ups of decayed body parts, the concluding underwater escape, the beautiful/icky close-ups of the insects, or the rather neat ladybird POV shot.

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Argento was often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock, but aside from a tendency to put women in peril, there wasn’t much else between them – however there is a great sequence where Jennifer attempts to flee the school before the mental institution staff arrive to take her away that the Master would have been happy to put his name to. Jennifer has to slowly remove her plaster and intravenous medicine (given my ickiness over needles, this is probably the most squirm-inducing moment in the movie for me) and get out without waking her nurse. There’s a bit where the nurse’s knitting needle falls from her lap but thankfully it lands point-end in the ball of wool. Reminded me of Mission: Impossible and the bit with the bead of sweat! Plus there’s a cuckoo clock. Bloody cuckoo clocks.

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Then there’s the use of live insects. Nothing fake here, it’s all real, and the insect footage is so natural that I didn’t notice how obviously tricky it must have been to get all this stuff on film – if you watch the feature-length documentary on the recent Arrow Video release, you’ll see the lengths that were taken to get the bumblebee to rest on Connelly’s hand, or how they got the Sarcophagus fly to crawl into a crack in a door (hint – it involved shit). Okay, I’ll admit – I just lied, there are a couple of shots that were obviously used with practical effects, like the magnificent shot of the flies surrounding the front of the school, which was achieved with water and ground coffee! Just brilliant. All of this done pre-CGI too!

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Given that her first role was in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Jennifer Connelly certainly can boast one of the most impressive starts to an acting CV ever. This is her first lead role too (her role in OUATIA was relatively small, Elizabeth McGovern taking over her character for the majority of the film as an adult) and she acquits herself well. There’s a radiant, ethereal quality to her, an innocence that puts her in line with Argento’s other leads in his supernatural films. She’s a persecuted character, at one point even accused of being in league with the devil, and is regularly bullied and victimised, but there doesn’t seem to be any vengeful, darker side to her. Jennifer is most certainly not Carrie.

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In a memorable moment, Jennifer’s trauma becomes so intense that she calls forth a cloud of flies to surround the school, but they don’t do anything nasty. They just hang around and scare the other pupils and staff to let them know who’s boss. And yet Jennifer herself has nothing but love to express to the others, and while she’s definitely put through the wringer in the final act, unlike other Argento protagonists, she is not left irreparably damaged at the end – she remains a ray of light in a world of dark.

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As usual, Argento’s direction and seeming awkwardness with English actors (plus his inclination for dubbing) means that there is the odd stilted moment, the unintentionally funny line of dialogue, the fumbling of rhythm and so forth. You have to take it or leave it. Some may find on-the-nose dialogue like Bruckner’s ‘Now I’m going to kill you… TO AVENGE HIM!!!’ totally disruptive of the atmosphere, but the hell with it, I love it. Anyway, despite these potential, occasional distractions, Phenomena really benefits from the engaging chemistry between Connelly and Pleasance, and chimps are never not entertaining. Okay, so Pleasance’s ‘Scottish’ accent is ropey, but he’s a warm, kindly presence and recalls the grandfatherly charm of Karl Malden’s blind detective in Cat O’Nine Tails. Daria Nicolodi, after her relatively bland characters in Inferno and Tenebrae, gets to have an absolute ball as the psychotic Bruckner, even if she doesn’t get to go crazy properly until the final act. Patrick Bauchau, who Bond fans will recognise as Scarpine from A View to a Kill, appears as Inspector Geiger, and Argento protege and assistant director Michele Soavi has a brief appearance as his assistant.

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Despite the dark undertones (Bruckner’s backstory is tragic and she could have been a sympathetic character were it not for the, er… murders) and strong violence, there’s a strangely uptempo mood to Phenomena that I can’t explain. There’s little to no comedy (there’s less here than in other, more overtly darker Argento films) but the sense of the fantastical, the fascination it has with its own plot, the use of speed metal, the almost ghoulish glee it has with its gore, the genuinely pretty exterior location shots – it’s definitely the most fun of Argento’s classic era. Hey, I know Deep Red is loads of fun too, but it’s also very dark, very twisted, very scary… and that final scene man….what a downer. It’s too disturbing to take casually, whereas a film that ends with a chimp slashing a psycho to death with a razor is fun, fun, fun in my books. It’s also an Argento film clearly aimed more at a younger audience – this makes sense given the demographic of his films around this time, plus the emergence of the teen movie.

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For the first time in an Argento film, we get a soundtrack that is made up of various contributors – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor’s ‘Valley’ was even given a music video (directed by Soavi) – I wonder if it ever got shown on MTV? It’s a moody promo, with Wyman hanging around the Bruckner house from the start of the film, setting up his bass in slow motion, integrated with shots of Vera and Jennifer approaching and then finally entering the abode, as well as some behind the scenes footage. It ends with Vera screaming, Bill covering his face with blood and then the classic cracked glass shot. Probably wouldn’t have been screened in the afternoon, I reckon. Still, I think it’s fantastic that this uncommercial, creepy instrumental actually got a music video in the first place! Wyman and Taylor also contribute another excellent piece ‘Valley Bolero’, which accompanies the scene when Jennifer’s roommate Sophie leaves her room to meet with her boyfriend – great guitars and harmonica on this one.

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There are also some terrific pieces from former Goblin members Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignaletti, like the terrific ‘Sleepwalking’, which could also pass for a Tangerine Dream theme of the same period. Its addictive, insistent pulse really suiting out-of-nowhere imagery like the shot above. Then there’s the title track, which we first hear when Jennifer sees the firefly that leads her to a vital clue. Clearly trying to outdo the pop rush of their Tenebrae theme, it’s a bright, bouncy and extremely enjoyable tune that serves the end credits well too. Aiming for a creepier, more unsettling vibe is Simon Boswell with his ‘Maggots’ theme, which is appropriately icky and weird.

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So yes, for the most part, the soundtrack all hangs together well, but of course, there the very loud elephant in the room: the use of heavy metal. It’s a weird stylistic choice – where normally we’d hear Goblin, Morricone or Emerson bringing the house down during scenes of stalking and slashing, here we get stuff like Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade’! It’s a great tune, and definitely ramps up the pulse, but for some viewers at the time and since, it just didn’t belong. If you are the kind of person – like me – who will watch Argento films more than once, then I can reassure you that you’re likely to get used to it. Opera would go even further with this method, but there it seemed to have a method, something I’ll go into further in that specific review.

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At nearly two hours, Phenomena is one of Argento’s longest films, but the 115 minutes flew by for me – clearly, US distributors felt that wouldn’t be the case for everybody. An ‘international’ version was created with six minutes removed. Most of the cuts were a multitude of barely noticeable snippets to shots in the hope of tightening the pacing, but there were some scenes substantially reduced, such as Jennifer arguing with Bruckner about taking the (poisoned) pills, or an argument about an open window on the bus. The recent limited edition Arrow Blu-ray offered both Phenomena cuts, and for me the longer version is the best, but bear in mind that the English dialogue for the previously domestic-only scenes no longer exist, so the soundtrack reverts to Italian for these moments. However, thanks to some very clever editing and mixing (a tricky feat especially given that the English soundtrack has a more natural, ambient sound as opposed to the dead-air, post-production feel of the Italian and jumping from one to the other could have proved very jolting), this new edit flows beautifully, so long as you don’t mind the occasional switch in languages.

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However, in the US, even the tighter International Cut wasn’t short enough, so distributors New Line Cinema, fresh from the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, took it upon themselves to re-edit and condense the movie. Some violent scenes were cut, but the majority of the edits were to narrative and dialogue scenes, as well as suspense scenes, and even a whole bit where Jennifer undergoes ECG. The editor in question would be Jack Sholder, who made the second Elm Street film, and the result is fascinating as an example of ruthless tampering. In the UK, Argento fans also had to make do with this butchered Creepers cut,and to add insult to injury, the BBFC made some extra cuts for violence, so we got an even shorter version than the one in the US!

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Creepers is an interesting curio for existing fans of Phenomena, but I seriously do not recommend it for anyone who has not seen either of the longer versions first. So much of the luxurious pacing, character quirks and atmosphere has been done away with here in a rapid race to get to the final act, which by the way, is the least tampered with stretch of the film. It’s so odd, being so used to the longer cut, to have Jennifer already arriving at Bruckner’s house with less than an hour of the running time having passed. Along with the export cut of Deep Red, Creepers marks the worst instance of an Argento film having been crudely and brutally edited to supposedly cater for mainstream demands. In no way is it superior to either of the Phenomena cuts.

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Weirdly, for what might seem at first like one of Argento’s most throwaway films, Phenomena has a hell of a lot of staying power. I’ve seen it many times now, and it genuinely gets better and better each time. It’s definitely one of his most fun films, and Argento at his most fun is about as pleasurable as cinema gets. If you can take shots like this one, of course:

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Oh, and it also features the best T-shirt ever.

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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

Opera

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 39: Drool, the Dog-Faced Goblin

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I’m a bit torn about this episode. I mean, it is extremely enjoyable and the ending is an absolute heartbreaker.

On another, the Ghostbusters are, well… jerks.

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Seriously, they’re worse than Team America: World Police in this one. They show up at some way, way, way, way out-of-the-way circus (so far away that Peter’s New York-based powers are fading) because Egon’s heard that there’s a goblin there. A goblin that nobody has complained about, a goblin who by all accounts, puts on a great (if icky) show at the circus, aka Madame LaFarge’s Wondrous and Amazing Travelling Sideshow. They’ve shown up at this circus uninvited to basically zap this harmless creature into oblivion.

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This doesn’t put the guys in a good light, and I blame the writing. If someone had actually contacted them with concerns about the goblin, then they might have had something to go with, an excuse to come out here in the first place. I’m also surprised Peter doesn’t get more uppity about any of this, because he doesn’t like to bust ghosts if nobody’s paying him, as evidenced by his protestations in previous episodes. Maybe if Egon had a previous, upsetting encounter with a goblin in the past (like he had with The Boogieman), then we could have had some explanation for his decision to drive to the middle of nowhere in order to get this thing. But no, they all just show up and think they can bust ghosts just because, and I quote Peter, they’re there. There is some odd writing in this episode. We’ll get to that later, because I’ve just spotted a literal case of odd writing too, right there on screen. A ‘unicon’? Whoops.

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There’s also some small print which is impossible to decipher, and I’ve spent many a sleepless night wondering just what exactly it was. It can’t be a disclaimer admitting that these wonders are really phoney, because Drool is totally legit. Maybe the ‘mermaid’ is a con? I hope it is, because I can’t see mermaids having much fun out there in this notably arid landscape. To drag it all the way out here is animal/human cruelty. Anyway, Peter’s having none of this ‘wondrous’ sell, dismissing LaFarge’s circus as a ‘sleazy, two-bit operation’, only to be shot down by LaFarge herself, who shows up out of nowhere and compares him to a ‘spokesman for a discount stereo store’. Harsh, but fair. Ray speaks up and reassures LaFarge that they’re here to solve her ‘goblin problem’, but she insists they have no problem. You see? No goblin problem. There isn’t a problem here. Peter insists there is. LaFarge insists there isn’t. So far, the only one out of the four Ghostbusters who hasn’t been a presumptuous prat is Winston.

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The show begins, and the admittedly very sparse audience is to be treated to a comeback of Elvis/Apollo Creed proportions as the legendary Little Egypt has been coaxed out of retirement. None of the crowd are impressed. Except Ray, who thinks she’s nice. I don’t get what everyone’s problem is with Little Egypt, she’s doing her little dance, doing her thing, and yet you can clearly see Egon covering his mouth, like he’s trying to stop himself retching. What’s his problem? The show appears to be disrupted when a Dog-Faced Goblin arrives on stage to ‘terrify’ Little Egypt (clearly an act), scaring the hell out of the crowd and alarming Winston. So now he believes there is a goblin, although I didn’t realise he didn’t believe there was one before. Peter thinks its an illusion, Egon and his PKE meter assures him it’s not, and even though all the ads promised otherwise, the guys still think the goblin represents a genuine threat. The audience I can forgive, they probably weren’t genuinely expecting a real goblin, but the guys? Seriously, their thought process is a little offbeat today.

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So, despite being told that the goblin is not a problem by LaFarge, it is now destined to become trap fodder, and Peter tells ‘Little Italy’ to move aside, only to have his cultural insensitivity highlighted by Little Egypt. She scarpers, and clearly doesn’t give two hoots about Drool because she doesn’t reassure the guys that he’s a good guy and shouldn’t be zapped. She just leaves him to be shot. It’s only when LaFarge steps in to block their aim that Drool is saved. They are shocked when she asks them not to shoot – well, first thing, she never requested their services, and since Drool’s part of the damn act and is advertised as such, why would anyone want him busted?

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Realising she’s talking to a bunch of idiots, she has to state it in clear terms that Drool is part of the show and all that business with Little Egypt was merely theatrics. We get a proper good look at Drool here, and bless him, he is an ugly spud – he appears to have three noses stacked above his gob. He sounds like a blocked drain too, although LaFarge is able to translate his gurglings and tell the guys that Drool is ‘pleased’ to meet the guys. So it’s a pet, Winston asks? LaFarge insists that Drool adopted them, and it’s clear she really does love and respect this little goblin. We get to see what Drool can do, which includes reducing himself to skeletal form and then changing into a bat and a furry slug. Impressed? Not Peter, who calls Drool ‘terminally gross’ and wants to blast him anyway.

Here we get the most telling line in the show, when LaFarge accuses the guys of being ‘trigger happy’ – this saves this episode from being overtly obnoxious, because despite all the oddball character logic on show, I think the writer could be making a point about how all this busting could be warping the guys minds and making them all too keen to bust anything with a PKE rating. At least the guys don’t push it and decide, very reluctantly in Peter’s case, to go. He’s still going on about it in the car. Winston tries to consider that he may be a good guy, but Egon’s having none of it. ‘Harmless’ and ‘goblin’ are mutually exclusive terms, which sounds wildly reductive and ignorant of him, I must say. What’s with all the prejudice in this episode? Karma gets its own back immediately by having Ecto-1 conk out and leave them stranded. Good. They have to push the car back into town, and Ray threatens Peter with ‘Kryptonite’ if he doesn’t help. I wonder what this is code for? I doubt it’s a literal thing, unless Peter is, say, the other son of Jor-El, aka Jailor to General Zod.

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At this point, a wicked cackle that sounds just as icky-throaty-gross as Drool emerges, and an invisible presence causes the overhead electrical wires to split apart and try and electrocute the guys. Then we see a pint-sized blur whizz past behind a nearby hedge. It’s got to be Drool, right? At least now the guys have some reasonable suspicion that the little dude could be a menace, and as such, the episode becomes more fun because they’re not just blindly accusing innocent goblins of mischief. I mean, they still turn out to be wrong, but I can forgive them a little bit now. Only a bit. Like I said, they’re wrong!

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The guys leave Ecto-1 in a local garage for repairs and stay in a hotel for the night, but the monster (spoiler alert – it isn’t Drool) wants to have some fun. First of all he interrupts Ray playing with his toys (obviously, bless him) with loud incessant barking, but when an annoyed Stantz opens the door to shut the presumed pooch up, all he can see is a little cat with the voice of a dog. Ray is utterly disgusted by this crime against nature (a ‘mutant strain’, he calls it), and shuts the door in horror.

That’s when we hear the miaows.

Of course, we’re all expecting a dog with the voice of a cat to show up, but I doubt any of us thought we were going to see the BIGGEST MUTT IN THE WORLD! It’s a crazy sight gag, and with his little mewling, quite adorable.

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Ray can’t handle it, and neither can we, so we cut to Egon busy at work in his room, so busy that he doesn’t even acknowledge room service with a look, just a cursory instruction and a thank you. If he had been looking, he might have noticed the hand placing down his cup of tea was slightly monstrous looking. Egon sips his coffee and spits it out in disgust, comparing it to mud. He backtracks (and even apologises!) when he realises it actually is mud. Bleurgh. Winston’s room is in a right state – everything’s floating, including him. Rather than act freaked out, he just seems disappointed with this latest turn of events. Anyway, time for some skin, as Peter strips off to give his buff bod a shower, only to be doused in what we probably all thought was blood on first viewing, but in reality it’s tomato soup. Horrible. I think I would have actually preferred blood. Ray asks for some croutons. Peter doesn’t have much luck with showers, as his previous experience in ‘Beneath These Streets’ proves.

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So all in all, not a happy and restful night’s sleep, and things are going to get even worse come sunrise. The guys are already to go home when it starts to rain hominy grits. I’ll admit I have heard of hominy grits. According to good ol’ wiki, they are:

A type of grits made from hominy, corn that has been treated with an alkali in a process called Nixtamalization with the cereal germ removed. Grits is often served with other flavourings as a breakfast dish, usually savoury.

Hope that helps. What doesn’t help is Ray’s comedy foreign accent – is that supposed to be Italian? It’s worse than Super Mario. The first act ends with them in the eye of a grit storm, which, by the time act two, has sharply decided to abandon them. Oh well, that was a bit underwhelming.

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No time to worry about that, because the real culprit has arrived, a frightful disembodied purple head with shaggy hair that takes great pleasure in flying about and lashing out at the guys with its enormous tongue. It also has some extra heads, all of which are even uglier than the main feature. The proton beams are doing very little, so it’s best to run away. Weirdly, this town seems utterly deserted, but it is a high street and I’m assuming the guys have left at sunrise, so maybe no one’s showed up yet for work or to shop.

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Sanctuary is found in a dry cleaners, although Mr. Multiple Heads is lurking outside. Winston reckons that Drool must be innocent, because this thing doesn’t look like Drool. Sounds logical. Peter shoos the monster away, and that seems to work, but all its done is turn into mist and get in through another door. In a weird turn, Peter says he’s going to get a burger, which I wasn’t expecting him to say. He opens the door and a new monster is there, one that reminds me a little of Hans Moleman from The Simpsons.

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Peter wasn’t expecting this, and runs in fright back to the others, and despite informing them quite coherently of the situation, is accused of ‘babbling’ by Egon. There’s a funny bit where Egon demands an elaboration of what Peter considers to be a monster. Said monster then shows up. ‘That’ll do’, Egon hastily says. Of course, there’s only one logical thing to do – run away again!

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Could a warehouse be a successful hiding spot? Nope. Incidentally, the guys have been doing an awful lot of running around in this act, and given that they’re wearing heavy proton packs, I think severe back pains and spasms are going to be an inevitability. Weirdly, there’s not one episode I can think of that features a Ghostbuster taking painkillers, or wearing some kind of back support. I’m assuming their proton packs were a lot weightier than the ones available to us kids from Argos. Remember them? The proton beam was represented by a twirly stretch of yellow foam that could turn when you pressed a button. Very disappointing. I wanted an actual proton beam, one that could kill.

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Deciding enough is enough, Winston insists that instead of running, they should trap the monster, which I thought was what they normally did in this kind of situation. Four proton beams is normally more than enough to hold a ghost of this or bigger size so that they could trap it. What’s so special about this one that they can’t do that? Anyway, it’s decided that they’ll have to use bait, and it’s Peter is chosen. His job is to keep the monster occupied while the other three get it from the rear. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Actually, it’s appalling, as it’s now that the monster – sorry, the non-amalgamated shape-shifter – decides to turn into a huge cockroach, and Peter’s terrified of them – I’m not scared of them myself, but they do give me the creeps a little and they are pretty grotesque, and a big version would utterly repulse me, especially one that decided to chase me all around a huge warehouse. Besides, a ruse doesn’t work, because the monster shrinks and disappears in a crack in the wall, which meant that Peter was traumatised for nothing. Egon even scolds Peter for not being much help. Gee, thanks mate. Peter seems to be pronouncing cockroach the same way Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface did, which is ‘cock-a-roach’. The guys are frustrated, downtrodden, and it’s only now that they realise that it could still be Drool who’s behind all this, as he was clearly seen to be a shape-shifter earlier. I mean, they’re still wrong about Drool, but at least they’re on the right kind of wrong track. Egon’s not convinced. Ray then recalls a free-floating miasmic phantom that they never managed to trap. Peter specifically remembers the scars he got from one of its forms, a carnivorous vacuum cleaner. He offers to show the others the scars. His request is flatly denied.

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Back at the circus, the guys are ready to capture Drool once and for all, despite still having no evidence. It’s a good thing their tenure as Crime Busters was so short and that the crooks they captured were so obviously crooks, because I think things would have got seriously ugly later down the line when they started busting innocent people on the basis that they were ‘pretty sure’ they were guilty. Winston’s now fully on board the prosecution train, and even Egon has gone back on board his ‘all goblins are scum’ train of thought. Drool gets blasted for an unnecessarily long amount of time, and even though it clearly looks terrified and innocent, the blasting continues. The trap is already be to be opened when LaFarge comes in alerting them to the presence of a hideous monster that’s got some of the public. The guys are then finally convinced that Drool is innocent, but the situation’s got seriously dire, as the monster, who is most likely the old shape changer they previously couldn’t capture, has the public well and truly cornered, and the guys can’t risk hitting the them. What to do? In act of extraordinary bravery, Drool attacks the monster just as its about to likely kill the people (seriously, it looks intent) and bites into its nasty tail. Unfortunately Drool has to keep biting in order to keep the monster at bay, and the guys can’t trap the bad guy without getting Drool too, but Drool insists they trap it anyway.

Which they do.

LaFarge asks the guys if there’s no way to release Drool from the trap, but Ray tells her that when you trap two ghosts at the same time, their molecules merge and they can’t be separated. At least he’ll be at home in the ecto-containment unit. Now this is odd – in ‘Xmas Marks the Spot’, three ghosts are incarcerated in the same trap, are put in the containment unit and eventually found and released, with no reference to molecule merging. Why can’t the guys just put Drool in the containment unit and get him back out again? No, it’s a done deal. Drool’s trapped. And it’s bloody devastating. LaFarge is utterly bereft, lamenting Drool’s fate, telling the guys that he was beloved and that he was a kind soul, and that he was lonely too, which was why he joined the circus in the first place. He will never be forgotten. The episode ends with a shot of the trap, light flashing, Drool and monster both inside, the music a curious selection – it’s the ‘job well done’ theme that usually ends a day’s hard work, and as such comes off as really harsh. Such a brutal ending. The guys look like they feel guilty, and they bloomin’ well should be too. This is a great episode, but one I have issues with.

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PS: A dybbuk, which is one of the many, many, many examples Egon, Ray and Winston suggest/taunt Peter with in regards to what the monster may change into next in the warehouse, is ‘a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. It supposedly leaves the host body once it has accomplished its goal, sometimes after being helped.’ Thanks again, Wiki!

Next time, we have an episode that’ll make you never complain about the long journey back home from work again.

Rose Elinor Dougall: ‘Make it With You’

The road to the third album begins here…

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So… last Tuesday… just another day. Sign in at work at 9am, sign out at 5pm, the usual. But somewhere in-between I see a tweet from Rose Elinor Dougall informing us to keep an eye out for something new in 24-or-so hours time and my attention is well and truly caught – a new song, hopefully?

Dougall’s last album, 2017’s Stellular, was frankly the finest album I’d heard this century. I can’t really say much more about it than I already have done, but I have to say here that it encapsulated everything I love about pop music in one concentrated blast of ecstatic, sad, beautiful, sexy, haunting, catchy and spine-tingling euphoria. I wish it had done better in the charts – songs these good deserve to be heard more, but there you go. It wasn’t to be. The public’s loss. What do they know, eh?

I remember writing at the end of my review that there was no need to look forward to what Dougall would do next, because what we had right there and then was more enough, but time passes, and new songs inevitably come along. Given that Stellular was an absolute high for me, what happens after that? Well, a fall isn’t necessarily inevitable. I mean, if Stellular was Dougall’s Ziggy Stardust, then her next album could very well be her Aladdin Sane, and that would be A Very Good Thing Indeed, right? Still, I was a little bit nervous – could Dougall deliver a song as wonderful as anything on Stellular?

Aaaaaagh! Enough with the suspense! Yes, she can, alright?!!! Happy now?

Well, you should be. What a gorgeous song this is.

‘Make it With You’ is recognisably Dougall, but also sounds like the start of new territory for her. There are shades of Without Why‘s occasionally forlorn balladry, but now it feels imbued with the richer textures of Stellular as well as a more mature, sadder perspective. It sounds like the next step from the latter’s album’s closer ‘Wanderer’, but the mood is even more intimate, even more personal. I imagine when performed live this is going to be very special indeed. I wonder how the rest of the album will sound. As a lead single it’s remarkably subtle and quietly emotional. Dougall has a way with balladry and melodic shifts that clutches the heart and reduces me to a right old state. Seriously. I’m talking close to tears here, people.

The song appears to be about a relationship which is at a crossroads – there’s doubt and uncertainty here, yet hope and optimism, albeit of the bruised kind, too. The words are sparse, but each line cuts deep. I won’t delve into them here, because the song is too new for me and I think these lines should only be heard within the context of the song itself. I don’t want to try and take the song apart, not just yet. I feel like I should barely be talking about this  – Dougall sounds like she’s putting her heart out on record and here I am blithely writing about it.

What I will say that there is a beautiful directness to the words  that is very affecting and, couple with the music, proves to be quite powerful indeed. I won’t go into specific moments, but I heard shades of Pulp’s mid-eighties sound – notably that eerie violin drone of theirs that gave some of their B-sides a particular chill. Also, a vaguely country feel somewhere between the layers of sound. Also, an ambient hum – is that a mellotron? Some achingly lovely piano. A bit of Bowie’s ‘Five Years’-in-slow-motion with its beat.

I’ve listened to this song loads of times already in just these few days, and it’s a really special slow-dance of a song that’ll turn those grey skies outside a deep, dark blue. Yes, blue. I hear this song bathed in dreamy, sad, beautiful blue and I want to fall into it, and that’s what playing the song on loop is for, I guess. Also, the song features the word ‘renowned’, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in a song before. Bravo.

Listen to or buy ‘Make it With You’ here – the single package also features an edit of the title track and a lovely cover of Dave Cousins blissful/spooky 1972 song ‘Two Weeks Last Summer’, which strips down the trippiness of the original and plays up its acoustic, bucolic core. It’s very, very nice indeed.