Monday, October 31, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Eight Top Italian Horror Soundtracks

Note: The following is an (admittedly) 11th hour piece written for the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies that is finishing today. I had hoped to be able to get out a couple of more posts on actual films before today rolled around but both time and surplus brain-cells have proved to be in shorter supply this weekend than initially hoped. However, in the interest of getting another contribution out before the day is through, I decided I'd do something a little different instead. I'd say I'm probably as equally obsessed with/distracted by music as I am with film. And when the two are mixed, well, I'm just happy as a pig in shit. In fact, almost invariably, most of my favourite films usually have (for me) equally memorable soundtracks. So, for this second brief foray into the world of Italian horror, I decided I'd take a quick tour through some of my favourite scores from the genre. The following are in no particular order.

Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/Lizard in a Woman's Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1971)
Whilst I'm a big fan of Morricone's work on Argento's animal trilogy, his work on this trippy, labyrinthine thriller from Fulci is undoubtedly my favourite of the giallo scores I've heard from him so far. The central elements - such as a seductive, swinging female solo vocal and some eerie downtempo whistling to cite two disparate examples - are often deceptively simple. Yet these catchy melodies are often quickly coupled with layers of creeping dissonance which transform the whole mix into a heady brew of potential menace and suggested intrigue.

E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldila/The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Frizzi's memorable score for Fulci's face-melting, spider spawning opus of crawling chaos, like much of Morricone and Goblin's work, mixes traditional orchestration with jazz-funk jamming to consistently fascinating effect. A creepy ascending then descending piano theme also features throughout the film, adding tremendously to the full-on gothic ambience of proceedings. Finally, there's even a wonderful, boozy, bluesy track that plays when Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck are sat in a Louisiana jazz bar that provides a bit of local flavour (just in case anyone was in any doubt where the film is set I guess).

Profondo rosso/ Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
Composed by Goblin and jazz pianist Giorgio Gaslini, this seminal score arguably owes a few debts to the earlier soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (e.g. the sinister lullaby that soundtracks the opening murder is a case in point). However, something in their collective DNA allows this group of musicians to create something much more crazed and seemingly free-form than Morricone ever seemed to achieve during his giallo work with Argento and Fulci.

Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985)
Eclectic, even by Argento's standards, this soundtrack includes contributions from such diverse artists as good ole' Goblin, Simon Boswell, Iron Maiden and others. Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor's sublime "Valley" is, for me, the musical highlight of the movie; a serene, yet sinister soundscape that perfectly matches the chilly beauty of Argento's Swiss-shot photography. Goblin's tracks, whilst certainly not on the same level of their earlier work with Argento (to be fair, I think the band was starting to fragment at this time, if I'm not mistaken, which would explain a few things) are still an excellent accompaniment for this delightfully barmy Gothic fairy tale. And the inclusion of Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade", whilst perhaps somewhat incongruous, in no way diminishes my enjoyment of the film; in fact, quite the opposite...

Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)
Compared to that of its sister film, Suspiria, the soundtrack for Argento's equally extraordinary, yet relatively underrated Inferno by Keith Emerson sadly doesn't seem to get much praise. It's certainly a more traditional score than Goblin's celebrated work and, perhaps, maybe a little overly operatic/seemingly overwrought for some tastes. However, despite the more conventional approach to instrumentation, Inferno's score is still, even when compared with its more celebrated cousin, incredibly dynamic and seething with movement and violence. Whilst it probably goes without saying that Goblin's soundtrack is the more groundbreaking, I find myself listening to Emerson's music for this film more often for some reason. The main theme is simply gorgeous, and sets the appropriate mood of intrigue mixed with a sense of impending catastrophe. "Rose's Descent into the Cellar" helps conjure a fairly consistent feeling of creeping unease and imminent peril. And, last but not least, Emerson's remix of Giuseppe Verdi's "Va, pensiero", in 5/4 time (to mimic the feeling of being shunted round a bumpy Italian taxi) is, whilst possibly somewhat misplaced (despite the lysergic visuals), still certainly inspired.

Quella villa accanto al cimitero/The House by the Cemetery (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Whilst perhaps not as audacious or accomplished as Fabio Frizzi's scores for the previous installments of Fulci's loosely connected "Gates of Hell" trilogy, City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981) (and this goes when comparing the movies themselves as well I'd say), I seem to have, for some reason, more of a soft spot, so to speak, for both this film and its soundtrack, despite (or maybe even because of) its slight creakiness.

Un delitto poco comune/Phantom of Death (Ruggero Deodato, 1988)
Deodato's underrated and underseen giallo stars a fantastically affecting Michael York (i.e. Basil Exposition from Austin Powers) as a famous pianist suffering from a degenerative illness that is not only making him age prematurely but is also turning the poor guy into homicidal maniac. Genre luminary Donald Pleasence also features in a typically (yet wonderfully) scenery chewing performance as the police inspector out to stop the madness. The score, from the similarly underpraised singer-songwriter turned composer Pino Donaggio (who surely belongs in the horror/exploitation composer Hall of Fame for his work on Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980) and Joe Dante's The Howling (1981), among many others) arguably lifts what might be otherwise be considered somewhat modest material (although Deodato is certainly not without his occasional directorial flair) up to another level. There is an eclectic mix of styles and instrumentation throughout the soundtrack but the highlight is probably the opening piano solo played by York's central character; a piece that (along with the flashbacks glimpsed during this sequence) gives us an incredible amount of insight into his both his backstory and his psychology, in just a few short minutes.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
The high watermark of Goblin's association with Argento, this score is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary ever produced, especially for a horror film. The title track, with its hypnotic music box motif set against a slow burning soundscape that sounds like it's been specifically composed for a black mass, seems the perfect aural counterpart to the feverish images of Jessica Harper's heroine tripping through the dark fantastic. Other tracks, such as "Witch", shriek and caterwaul with hysterical abandon (unsurprisingly, this piece underscores some of the film's shockingly brutal (yet strangely beautiful) murder set-pieces). Instrumentally, it's almost as though Goblin have thrown in everything and the kitchen sink. Thankfully however, the results proved to be stupendous, yet sadly somewhat of a hard act to follow. The aptly named "Sighs" and the gorgeous "Black Forest" (which doesn't actually feature in the film itself, if memory serves) are among other standouts on this OST.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Suspiria

Note: Having thoroughly enjoyed reading many of the entries posted for it last year, I figured, for my first ever blog post, I'd take the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon this time around for the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon currently being hosted over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies by Kevin J. Olson.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Dario Argento’s baroque ballet of blood, satanic soundscapes and kaleidoscopic coloured gel lights has often been described as the “gateway drug” of the Italian horror film. This seems a highly apt way of describing it for several reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it is arguably the movie from within this particular subgenre most responsible for initiating new audiences into the weird and wonderful world of Spaghetti Nightmares. Secondly, such a metaphor also pays lip service to the extraordinary, psychedelic, sense-shattering qualities of the film. Basically, if before watching this movie, all you are familiar with horror-wise are American slasher films and/or the Universal and Hammer horror classics, then upon starting to watch Argento’s phantasmagoric fairy tale you would be forgiven for suspecting that some lunatic had slipped some dubious substance into your tea. Finally, and most frustratingly as far as this review is concerned, the film can also be likened to such an initiatory drug experience in the way that it is something better experienced than talked about (case in point – after first viewing it, you may find yourself only able to describe the lure of the film to outsiders by saying something inane like “look at all the purdy colours”).
Due to the fact that the style dial on this particular beast has been turned up to 11, the film’s plot (and for anyone who hasn’t seen it, for heaven’s sake stop reading and go hunt down a copy) seems to transcend its apparent simplicity and takes on an almost archetypical/mythic quality. The story follows doe-eyed ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, who was apparently cast after Argento saw her in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974)) as she arrives in Germany to attend a new school and almost instantly passes through the looking glass (signified by some downright sinister automatic sliding doors at the airport) to enter an acid-tinged, rain-soaked (in fact, if it turned out there was acid in the rain then much would be explained) cityscape where - in an arguable example of the dream logic that often renders the film’s characters somewhat helpless - the cab drivers are apparently averse to picking up fares, including, somewhat surprisingly, ones as attractive as Harper.

After finally managing to flag down a taxi (whose driver also appears to have an aversion to rain, physical labour and general chitchat), Suzy is taken on what can only be described as a Trip (with a capital T) to the Tanz Akademie. Inside the cab, the lighting goes into overload, bathing Suzy in a palette of variegated, prismatic colours, giving her an expression that seems to oscillate between the terror-stricken and the awe-struck. Outside, features of the landscape begin to loom with ominous portents (a gushing fountain seems especially unheimlich), no doubt aided immensely by the conjuring power of Goblin’s otherworldly soundtrack.
Upon arriving at the school Suzy crosses paths with a panicked student who, before fleeing the scene in a display of gothic-heroine histrionics, can be heard making barely audible, portentous remarks to an unseen companion. Suzy’s attempts to gain entrance to the school are blocked by said friend of the damsel in distress, who is understandably confused by her pal’s swift exit and now somewhat paranoid as a result. After failing to convince the girl on the intercom that she’s expected, Suzy retreats back to the taxi and onwards to find a hotel for the night.
Whilst en route to find temporary accommodation Suzy glimpses the departing student bolting through the woods like Snow White in full arm-waving, freak-out mode. It is at this point in the narrative that we temporarily leave our protagonist to instead follow the escaping girl, Pat Hingle (Eva Axén).
Pat arrives in town to seek shelter with a friend, who lives in an apartment building with a borderline diabolical art-deco foyer, where every architectural angle seems seconds away from potentially maiming passers-by. Such seeming foreshadowing is most likely intentional as it isn’t long before Pat is brutally murdered by a supernatural assailant in a shockingly audacious set-piece that ends with her hanging from her neck in said lobby (after crashing through a stained-glass skylight) with her friend lying beneath her, head cleaved in two by the falling shards of glass.
This astounding opening sequence proves, unfortunately, a hard act to follow, although other sequences throughout scale very close to the same giddy heights. The remainder of the film follows Suzy and new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) as they uncover a coven of witches that operate in the Tanz Akademie at night, using the school’s respectable facade as a convenient cover for their activities. Various characters that become perceived as potential threats to this cabal are either dispatched in invariably left-field, Grand Guignol ambushes or, in Suzy’s case, hypnotized and then drugged so that they are unable to interfere.

After eventually deducing how the school’s mistresses have been keeping her comatose, Suzy awakens from her slumber to find herself companionless and therefore left to fend for herself (Sara having been killed off due to apparently getting too close to the truth). Whilst visiting with Sara’s psychologist friend Dr. Frank Mandel (played by genre legend Udo Kier) in order to try and locate her missing friend, Suzy learns about the occult history of the Tanz Akadamie and its queen witch, Helena Markos. Whilst Mandel himself seems skeptical (“Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.” he states, in one of the film’s most memorable lines), his colleague Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler) seems decidedly more open minded on the subject. “Magic is everwhere...” he informs us in the assured tones of the initiated occultist that he seems to be.
These conversations seem to have a restorative effect on Suzy’s memory, as soon after this (whilst left alone in the deserted school one night) she remembers the conversation she had (whilst still borderline catatonic) with Sara about counting footsteps in order to ascertain the whereabouts of the school’s disappearing staff. Not long after this revelation the previously gibberish remarks uttered by Pat at the film’s beginning also come into clear focus, thereby granting Suzy access to the witches’ inner sanctum for a final showdown with the leprous Helena Markos.

Argento’s originally wanted the school’s students to be portrayed by adolescent girls (assumingly to further underscore the fairytale ambience of the film) but this was abandoned due to anxiety the film might be banned. However, due to touches such as having door handles placed at head level and dialogue that occasionally seems inane or absurd (when it is not merely providing an expository function), one could argue that the feeling that Argento wanted to conjure by casting such naive innocents is somewhat retained. He would revisit this territory again with the Hansel and Gretel influenced Suspiria follow-up Inferno (1980) and also in the much maligned and wonderfully bonkers Phenomena (1985).

The film’s acclaimed, chimerical cinematography - created by DOP Luciano Tovoli by taking Eastman Colour Kodak stock and printing it through one of the last remaining machines used for the 3-strip Technicolor process – often turns the screen into a kaleidoscopic cacophony of light and colour, further adding to the film’s relentlessly hypnotic, psychedelic feel and transforming the Disney inspired material (Argento had Tovoli watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to show what kind of aesthetic he was aiming for) into a trippy, fevered dreamscape. And the soundtrack, by jazz-fusion band Goblin (who had previously collaborated with Argento on Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975)) is such an unprecedented, genre-blending melange of aural madness that it deserves a separate review by itself.

All of these factors, plus fine performances by Harper and her supporting cast (including a wonderfully arch Joan Bennett as the school’s benefactress and Alida Valli as a continuously grinning, Gestapo-styled dance instructor) and the roaming, sweeping camera work that is a trademark of Argento’s films, contribute towards making Suspiria the justly celebrated cult classic that it is. It goes without saying that it’s not for the faint of heart (or for those overly obsessed with the machinations of plot and narrative), but for those with even the slightest predisposition towards the horror genre, it is essential viewing. In sum, it remains one of the most technically astonishing, visually ravishing and downright diabolic films of the fantastique ever made.