Friday, September 27, 2013

Italian Horror/Giallo Double Dayer - Part I: Black Cats, Devils, Diabolical Art, and The Past Stalks the Present

I've indulged in a few spaghetti flavoured horror-thons between my first one last November and the present day, and I may eventually do write ups of one or two. But to be honest, none of them felt fully satisfying compared to my initial one (though I certainly enjoyed parts), so I'll be re-ordering and re-running most of them in the near future. That's something I've learned so far with these things... organisation really is key and putting together a decent playlist is almost an art-form in itself, so I try to avoid winging it last minute, wherever possible. However, as we'll see in these next two posts, a bit of improvisation/chopping and changing, even in the midst of things, isn't always a bad idea...

Wednesday 11th September 2013

14:00 - The Black Cat (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

The first movie of the day is becoming more of a favourite with every viewing and seems like an ideal starter on this wet and windy Wednesday afternoon. And it feels as warm and cosy as the cup of tea I'm currently drinking. 

It occurs to me during this particular re-watch that this is arguably another supernatural giallo, with the usual black gloves being traded for the similarly shaded eponymous pussy. Admittedly it's not as much of a mystery as is typical for the form, but there are certainly enough other elements for it to qualify (stalking scenes, a reasonable body-count and an amateur sleuth to name a few).

There's plenty of other Italian horror/giallo staples to be enjoyed here too. In terms of cast we have Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck, Al Cliver, Dagmar Lassander and Daniela Doria, who could have formed some kind of supergroup on the set of this one... I'd sure as shit check that CD out. And there's other wonderfully familiar sights, such as a good old bat attack and those ever ubiquitous reel-to-reel tape recorders. Some of these things will later form part of the check-list for the inevitable drinking game that was calling my name even this early on.

Speaking of drink, there's a line in this movie that I always get a kick out of, which functions as a bit of borderline foreshadowing for what will no doubt take place later in the moviethon: "God knows what you're capable of seeing when you've had a few".   

Finally, a quick shout out to three other crucial cast and crew members. First and foremost, to Patrick Magee (and his sinister eyebrows), who practically steals the movie. Secondly, to Fulci regular Sergio Salvati, who provides some striking cinematography (especially loving those cat-cam POV shots). And last, but by no means least, to Pino Donaggio, who provides a memorable, appropriately sinuous and sometimes sinister score. 

For some more about Fulci's pussy (ahem), click here...

15:33 -  "The Black Cat" (Dario Argento, 1990) from Two Evil Eyes (Argento & George A. Romero) 

I've written about this anthology movie on the blog before, so I'll try and be brief. I originally suspected George A. Romero (who directed the film's other segment) may have been Italian American, but some quick research informed me he's actually the son of "a Cuban-born father of Castilian Spanish parentage and a Lithuanian American mother" (thanks Wikipedia!) so I won't be watching his half today. And to be honest, his bit (while still enjoyable) doesn't have the same lure of compulsive re-watchability to me that Argento's does, so I've no problem at all with skipping it. 

Here's a quick list of stuff I noticed this time around...
  • As in Fulci's film, it seems that cats really don't like having their photo taken, even if the camera is completely imaginary, as it is during one scene here.
  • Speaking of taking pictures, Argento's take on this story also features a photographer as the principal protaganist, though this time he seems to do crime scenes for a living, rather than just as a one off.
  • Finally on the subject of cats and cameras, there's some more great pussy POV shots on display here (so to speak), many of which are technically outstanding.
  • Martin Balsam appears as Harvey Keitel's nosy neighbour Mr. Pym (whose name is one of many nods to Poe in this segment), and has one particularly great bit which is a clever riff on his famous scene in Psycho.
  • And Pino Donaggio reappears, with a slightly more synth-laden score this time around, although like his music for Fulci's flick, it also contains a bit that sounds like it belongs on a PA system at a renaissance fair (and that piece is more appropriately used here, not that it was incongruous in the other film of course). 

That's all for now on that one folks, but seeing as the next item on the playlist serves as such an arguably ideal companion piece, I'll be returning Mr. Keitel and his feline nemesis very soon...

16:46 - "Toby Dammit" (Federico Fellini, 1968) from Spirits of the Dead (Fellini, Louis Malle & Roger Vadim)

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I'm neither hugely familiar with Fellini, nor particularly enamoured with any of the films of his I've seen, though admittedly I've only watched most of them once (with the exception of Amarcord, which I quite enjoyed), so I'm certainly far from sure where I stand on the guy. At the current stage of my ever-continuing film education though, all I'll say is this: if Fellini had only ever made this one mini-movie and then disappeared into the ether for ever, he'd still be a legend in my book. Even though it's barely forty minutes long, I'd say this still beats the pants off most feature length horror films. There's not a single throwaway moment here, and from beginning to end I find it simply mesmerising. Probably my favourite Poe adaptation, it's also easily top ten material as far as Italian horror is concerned. 

As with Two Evil Eyes, the latter part of Spirits of the Dead is really the only essential bit. Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein" is good bawdy fun and worth and look, but I seem to remember being thoroughly bored by Louis Malle's seemingly pedestrian take on "William Wilson". To be fair though, I've only seen those first two segments once and I'm certainly curious to revisit them. But as those two dudes are French anyway, it matters not for now. And as luck would have it, Argento's "The Black Cat" and Fellini's "Toby Dammit" (based on Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", which I badly need to read... not that I have an excuse either, seeing as it's included - I think - in the liner notes of Arrow's absolutely gorgeous looking Blu-Ray edition), make for a truly formidable, and frankly more appropriate pairing, as they share some similar subject matter and profound thematic resonances. 

A quick disclaimer before we continue... POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT... or to put it another way, if you haven't seen this one, please bugger off (in the nicest way possible :)) and come back when you have... but if you are sticking with this and haven't watched it, you're welcome anyway, and I'll try not to give too much away... though I suppose it's fairly obvious where this one's going from almost the opening frames onwards.

For anyone unfamiliar, the story follows almost-rock-star-ish actor Toby Dammit (a magnificent Terence Stamp, who turns in my current favourite performance in an Italian horror film here, period) as he reluctantly travels to Rome to do a gun for hire job, starring in a western re-take on the redemption story, merely so he can claim the Ferrari the producers are paying him with. As we see from very early on, Toby is a tragically hopeless, alcoholic misanthrope, who has already seemingly given up on life and in to his fate. And as a further seeming signifier that he has gone off the deep end (mentally and perhaps even spiritually speaking) he encounters a possible personification of his own personal demons (and maybe even the devil itself) upon arriving at the airport, while he is seeking refuge from a barrage a paparazzi flash bulbs. We don't see what he does until later on, when he's recalling the vision during a TV interview, but when we do, one can almost understand the strangely serene allure that Toby's impending self annihilation seems to promise him. In a blatant nod to Mario Bava's Kill, Baby…Kill!, Dammit sees the devil as a young girl with a white bouncing ball, who's inviting him to come and play... forever...and ever... and ever... sorry, wrong movie, but the point still stands.

I'll say no more regarding the plot. For me, Fellini's take on Poe is endlessly re-watchable for several reasons. Firstly, I find it immensely compelling, as it's alternately funny (the aforementioned TV interview especially), scary and almost heartbreakingly sad. On the latter point, I'd say the part I find most moving is where Toby, who is drunk as a skunk at the Italian Oscars, sees a brief glimpse of his salvation (and maybe even God, if you want to read further into the religious angle here) embodied as a stunningly gorgeous lady dressed in black (a costume choice which may be meant to sign-post her status as the antithesis of his little white devil). In case you haven't seen it, I won't tell you how that one pans out, but from everything else I've said, I'm sure you can probably guess.

This being Italian horror, it goes without saying that this is a feast for the eyes (and ears; kudos to Nino Rota and, in the scene I just mentioned, also Ray Charles), but just one or two brief points on that. The most striking characteristic of "Toby Dammit" is undoubtedly its busy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it production design, which in some ways recalls another (admittedly very different) multi-lingual tale of a stranger in a strange land from the previous year, which is Jacques Tati's sublime Playtime. There's also a slight pop art vibe at play here, the cardboard cut-out people we see dotted around recalling the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Also, the film's hallucinatory cinematography, courtesy of Giuseppe Rotunno, is an apt visual means of further bringing the audience's perception into line with Toby's delirious way of seeing the world. 

As I suggested earlier, this makes for a brilliant companion piece to Argento's "The Black Cat". Both are essentially cautionary tales about the perils of misanthropy and alcoholism, although Argento's is perhaps arguably more ambiguous, with his wife being almost as much of an antagonist as her adopted cat. Plus, Harvey Keitel's character actually somewhat fights against his fate, where as Terence Stamp, as I said earlier, seems to have almost entirely embraced his oncoming oblivion from the very start. As a final side note, and believe me, I'm really not being facetious here, I wonder what the response would be if they screened these two back to back during an AA meeting...

Brief hiatus: At this point in the movie-thon I had something of a crisis of conscience, if you could call it that. In other words, I really couldn't bring myself to go forward with my original plan, which was to watch the bastardised version of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil known as The House of Exorcism, for reasons which will become clear with the movie after this one. I won't go into the details behind that tragic affair as it's been written about extensively elsewhere. But after just re-visiting Fellini's mini-masterpiece, there was no way in hell I could shift gears like that and watch something that ran the risk of making me go red in the face with anger at the injustice of it all (though I will watch it at some point as a curio). So I decided fuck it, after already scaling such giddy heights so early in the 'thon, there's only one place I can go from here....

18:17 - Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)

Now, despite what I just said above, I was still initially a bit uneasy about putting this movie on half way through today's playlist. I mean this is really the sort of film that I'd ideally stick on at the end of a movie-thon and in the wee hours of the morning, but as I haven't seen two of the three films that are following it and the one I have is another arguable masterpiece, I've still got loads to look forward to and can rest easy. Anyway, enough pre-rambling...

As the title sequence starts to roll, any residual doubts I had about re-watching this right now are almost instantly evaporated by Carlo Savina's sublime musical accompaniment. Furthermore, once this has ended and the film has properly begun, I soon spy another encouraging affirmation of my decision to put this movie on. This auspicious omen takes the form of the fresco seen by Lisa (Elke Sommer) during her travels round Toledo. It depicts the devil carrying away the dead (in fact this is something echoed by the film's Spanish title, El diablo se lleva a los muertos, which Wikipedia translates as The Devil Carries The Dead) and provides the first instance of several we'll encounter today of pieces of religious art that seem have to have a destabilising effect upon the film's characters and perhaps even the fabric of time and space itself.

This is one of those movies where any kind of extensive synopsis won't really benefit the uninitiated; the title and what I've said in the above paragraph will probably suffice. Or, to put it another way, like say, Argento's Suspiria (reviewed by yours truly here), this is one of those films that is better experienced than talked about. And like with "Toby Dammit", if you haven't seen this one, you really owe it to yourself to stop reading and seek it out immediately. But as I'll be relatively brief here (and again, hopefully somewhat spoiler free, though I'm not promising anything), if you wish to carry on regardless, I doubt it'll diminish your enjoyment of the film.

As others much more deeply versed in the work of Mario Bava have pointed out (especially Tim Lucas and Stephen Thrower; the latter provides some insightful liner notes to Arrow's Blu-Ray release), Lisa and the Devil functions not only as the director's most personal movie, but also as a summation of his entire career. As a result, if you decided to play a drinking game during this one, taking a shot whenever you spot something distinctively Bava-esque, then you'd probably be on your arse fairly early on. Amongst other things, there are human simulacra galore (in the form of many mannequins), creepy faces at the window, a general feeling a push and pull between worlds old and modern, and, last but not least, that other perennial favourite of Signor Bava's, an obsession with necrophilia.  

The entire cast is excellent, with special mention going to Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas as the eponymous protagonist and antagonist, Alida Valli (whose presence provides another link to Suspiria) and last but not least, Alessio Orano, who plays Maximilian. And as much as I love Telly Savalas in this movie, I'd say it's Orano who is probably my favourite screen presence here. To me, he looks, and even somewhat sounds, like a Italian Bruce Lee who seems to be dressed up to go out to some kind of 19th century disco; and like Patrick Magee's eyebrows in The Black Cat, his shirt collar threatens to steal the entire movie.

On a completely unrelated side note, I started getting hungry during this one (the film's hilarious lines about "chocolate sprinkles" really didn't help), so I got a couple of quick snacks; an apple and a white chocolate rabbit (that I got from work for free as it was out of date Easter stock); and while watching this particular movie, both of them seemed to hold almost ominous portents.

Finally, in an arguable callback/connection to "Toby Dammit", this movie suggests that we should stay far away from planes, as all they seem to promise is a one way trip to hell.  

20:46 - The Night Child aka The Cursed Medallion (Massimo Dallamano, 1975)

This is the first of two movies today that are unseen by yours truly. And as it's fast approaching 9pm, it seems like an ideal time to crack open a beer. The remainder of the moviethon (well, today's instalment at least) will be sponsored (I wish! but if you work for either of these companies, please send me some freebies) by Peroni (specifically Nastro Azzurro) and Birra Moretti. So be warned, these notes might start to go a little bit off the rails...      

Wow, my head is totally spinning from this wonderful movie (and not the booze, honest... I'd don't get drunk that quickly!) and frankly I barely know where to begin. I'll need to re-watch this one before going in depth on it. But I'll share a few thoughts from my initial experience of it.

Without going into too much detail, the plot follows documentary film maker Michael Williams (played by Richard Johnson of The Haunting and Zombie), who is doing research on diabolical art for a current project. His daughter Emily (an amazing Nicoletta Elmi, who I'd say has never been better) is suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress disorder related to her mother's death in a fire. Apart from screaming the house down occasionally, she's also having visions of being pursued by some kind of medieval mob and generally making life difficult for her babysitter (Ida Galli). On that latter point, and in one of the most awesome scenes I've seen all year, it turns out Emily has also taken up smoking!

In the midst of these tough times, Michael has to travel to Italy due to work commitments. It's suggested by Emily's psychiatrist that he should take her along for the journey, as she is understandably quite dependant upon him emotionally.

I'll say no more regarding the story, but needless to say, their trip to the continent is far from plain sailing, as elements such as that eponymous evil artefact, murder and another seemingly mind warping painting begin to effect the already troubled characters.

Apparently written off by some as a mere Exorcist rip-off, Italian style, this actually owes more to our previous movie, with a heavy emphasis on regression into/being doomed or haunted by the past. Regarding this subject, a statement made by one character seems particularly suggestive: "Living here is like living out of time", a quote that could just as easily have come from the Countess or her son in Lisa and the Devil

Featuring a beautiful, appropriately haunting score by Stelvio Cipriani, gorgeous cinematography from Franco Delli Colli and an appearance by a pre-Blade Runner Joanna Cassidy, this is a restrained, relatively violence free affair (and this may go without saying, but neither of those things are criticisms), that still plants itself firmly in the memory, refusing to budge, until you give in to its magnetic allure and watch it again (it was barely more than a few days between my own first two viewings).

And as a complete side note, I really wish I'd picked up some J&B for today's viewing, as the characters go through an almost heroic amount of the stuff in this flick (and on that point alone it's almost an honorary giallo)... on second thoughts though it's probably a good thing I didn't, as if I'd been matching them drink for drink, I probably wouldn't have made it to the end of this one without hitting the deck! 

22:44 - Time for a smoke break. Got a couple of movies left to go and the next one's a doozy. It's frankly mind-bending enough on its own, but surely a bit of psychotropic enhancement can't hurt right? Well, there's only one way to find out....

23:15 - The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)

I've written about this film fairly recently in my top ten gialli, so I'll try to be brief. This isn't really going to be too hard though, as I didn't write many notes this time around (having a spliff isn't really conducive to such an activity, especially if you wanna decipher what you've written later), so I'm gonna have to wing this one from memory... this could be interesting...

Calling forward to Fulci's The Beyond, the film opens with a sepia toned sequence of horrific violence (though it's slowed down and somewhat obfuscated here) and also features an artist (only heard instead of seen) who seems to have jumped off the deep end and into deeply disturbing territory. The particularly bizarre thing about all this is that Avati is sort of putting his cards right on the table from the off, and then after this terrifying title sequence, quickly removes them again. As a result, I was, for some reason, totally unprepared for where this film would take me when I first watched it, even though in retrospect I should have seen it all coming. But I'll say no more on that, as I don't want to give too much away... in fact, I think I've said too much already... wait, who's that at the door?... Shit, they've come for me.... aaarrrggghhhh!!!!

For the uninitiated (and if that's you then I advise you to seek this out immediately), the film follows an art restoration expert (played by Lino Capolicchio) who goes to a small village to restore a fresco of the martyred St. Sebastian, painted by a local named Legnani (whose extremely unsettling self-portrait looks, to me, actually a little bit like Dario Argento did around this period, especially the hair), who is often referred to as "The Painter of Agonies". Apparently, the guy died in mysterious circumstances, furthering adding to the ominous aura surrounding his history. As with most gialli (and as I've probably said previously, this one's something of a borderline case), it isn't long before someone who knows too much is murdered and our protagonist is compelled to start his own investigation.

To avoid getting nearly killed off again myself, I'll remain tight lipped regarding any further plot details. Suffice to say though, shifty looks and hostile locals abound and our hero starts to find himself getting dragged in deeper and deeper.

As I suggested earlier, Avati's film can be quite disarming due to the slow burn that makes up much of it's duration, but that's not to say it's boring by any means. Like the last two films, there's a doomed, haunted quality that suffuses the entire thing, from the end of that aforementioned credits sequence onwards. I really don't want to say much more, to obviously avoid ruining anything for those who haven't seen it, but I just want to briefly mention the music by Amedeo Tommasi, which is movingly melancholic and insidiously creepy, in equal measure. The composers motifs are simple, yet highly effective, and his score will easily be going into my top ten Italian horror/gialli soundtrack list when I get round to putting it together.

01:25 - Time for another break me thinks. My eyes are starting to try and escape from my skull so they can toddle off to bed and get some rest it seems. As I'm also getting a little bit tired I decide to stick the kettle on. While it's boiling I nip outside for another smoke and some fresh air to perk me up a bit. I really can't get some of the music from the last movie out of my head, and to keep my mood from cycling too far one way or the other, I'm alternating on my internal jukebox between the scary stuff and the sad bits. The door's open so I soon hear the kettle click announcing it's time for some tea. I finish my cheeky jazz fag and beverage while sitting outside a little longer, allowing my peepers a bit of much needed time off before continuing...

02:00 - Murder Obsession (Riccardo Freda, 1981)

The last movie of the day is the second that I bought sight unseen. And this time it's via several recommendations from those awesome dudes Brad and Richard of 'Hello! This is the Doomed Show' (links to their respective blogs, 'Yellow Razor' and 'Cinema Somnambulist' can be found on the sidebar of this site). And seeing as it's also on Blu-Ray, I'm very very excited.

Now considering the late hour I first watched this, and my somewhat twisted state of consciousness, my memory is admittedly quite hazy upon many of the details (though in the interest of full disclosure I'll tell you I re-watched it a few days later), so while I say this frequently and it's usually bullshit, this time I actually will be quite brief.

In fact, in the interest of brevity and because for the most part I was completely entranced by the film's imagery, here's a random list of some of the main things that stuck out :
  • We've got sleaze aplenty from the first frames and J&B being chugged barely three minutes in.
  • There's some interesting philosophical dialogue from the director character; in fact, he mentions an idea that the painter from The House with Laughing Windows would no doubt concur with.
  • It contains a mesmerising freaky/sleazy extended dream sequence with a hilariously fake spider and bats, some groovy bleeding skulls, more Vaseline on the lens (if that's how they did it) than you can shake a stick at, oh, and lots of exposed boobage.
  • Animal sacrifice?!? I shouldn't be too surprised if I've ordered Italian I suppose...
  • Creepy crusty people who look a bit like their contemporary Dr. Freudstein from the same year's The House by the Cemetery
  • And speaking of 1981, holy crap! I only just realised this and it was totally unintentional, but we've gone full circle and back to where we started in the afternoon (and exactly twelve hours ago, which is also accidental)... that magical, bountiful year of many a horror classic. You're in good company Freda!
  • Black gloves and red herrings abound.
  • Oh and more of that same lovely lady running round with her boobs hanging out.

That's pretty much it for now. I'll be returning to this in more depth at a later date, and once I've got round to checking out the slightly shorter English dubbed version. But generally speaking, I frickin' loved this wonderfully unhinged gothic giallo/slasher thanks to its mix of (among other things) old school atmospherics, unashamed sleaze, blatant artifice, incest and Satanic shennanigans. 

03:44 - The End... well, for today at least... to be continued.....

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Coming Attractions...

Hey people, just letting y'all know there'll be no Top Ten this week I'm afraid. I was tempted to try and put something together last minute but I've got some other stuff to do for the blog that I want to press on with and get finished.

First and foremost, I'm in the middle of writing up my recent Italian horror/giallo-thon which should be up in the next couple of days. And after that I'll be turning my attention to that seemingly polarising chap, Mr. Rob Zombie.

And seeing as next Tuesday is both my birthday and the start of the most awesome month of the year, I'll be making up for the lack of this week's top ten with something special...well, special for me anyway :) 

Furthermore, that post will be the first of what (as long as nothing catastrophic happens *touch wood*) will be a month long celebration of all things horror, in the lead up to Halloween. That's right folks, I'll be attempting the whole post a day thing again throughout October... next week really can't come soon enough :)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon!

Just a quick note and some details regarding the upcoming '4th Annual Italian Horror Blogathon' that's being hosted by Kevin J. Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. The following comes verbatim from his superlative site:

What: 4th Annual Italian Horror Blogathon 
Where: Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 
When: October 24-31 
Who: Anyone that wants to watch an Italian horror movie and write about it! (Seriously, you don't have to be some horror maven to participate.) 
Why: Because it's fun! (Check out past years here, here, and here to get in the spirit) 
How: Just watch an Italian horror film and write about it; any time during the blogathon send me the link either via email or the comments section, and I'll post it for all to see.

As it was the blogathon of two years ago that first compelled me to make my initial posts (though obviously only I can claim responsibility for the epic slacking that followed), I'm hugely looking forward to taking part again this year. Click the above image for a link to Kevin's blog and more details y'all!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: My Top Ten Gialli

Today's list seemed like the ideal choice to follow those from the last two weeks, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, (and as will be blindingly obvious to anyone with even a slight awareness of the two sub-genres) the giallo is one of the main parents of the slasher film, and probably the one that has most influenced it. And secondly, I had a giallo-thon last week, so I'm in the mood to indulge my yellow fever further and share it with you wonderful people!

10 - Liz and Helen aka Double Face (Riccardo Freda, 1969)

There'll be a few somewhat controversial choices/borderline cases on this list and this is the first. Apparently, it's also derived in part from the German 'krimi' (though I can't comment on that as I'm currently unfamiliar with them), but it contains more than enough typical giallo elements and imagery to qualify (black gloves, lesbians, hippies and a delightfully casual attitude to sex with strangers, to name a few). Like some other early gialli it also riffs on Hitchcock (in this case with Vertigo), which is always going to earn you extra points with us film nerds... Brian De Palma, I'm looking right at ya! Finally, there's a few wonderfully bad effects in this movie; exploding toy model cars and a rear-projection tobogganing scene are two cases in point. This seemingly carefree approach to artifice is something I noticed when I first watched Freda's Murder Obsession last week... and come to think of it, that movie will probably leap into this list when I revisit it; my initial viewing was very late at night so recollections are somewhat hazy...    

9 - Phantom of Death aka An Uncommon Crime aka Off Balance (Ruggero Deodato, 1988)

A much more atypical example of the sub-genre, Deodato's film is also very late to the proverbial party, being released years after the the giallo fever that gripped Italy from the early to mid seventies had subsided. In many ways, I'd be reluctant to call this movie a giallo at all, but seeing as plenty of people have referred to it as one, and I also have quite a big soft spot for it, onto the list it goes. It's occurred to me just now that it certainly shares some specific qualities with many of the more traditional gialli I've seen; a strange, yet intoxicating blend of psycho-sexual madness, infused with a haunting melancholy... oh, and a few good ole' WTF moments thrown in for seasoning... oh, and Edwige Fenech, of course. Donald Pleasence seems a bit elsewhere for most of the movie but gets in at least one awesome scenery shredding scene before the credits roll, and Michael York pretty much carries the film with a compelling, highly affecting performance. 

8 - The Cat o' Nine Tails (Dario Argento, 1971)

Being the most underrated of Argento's 'Animal Trilogy', I first approached this one with a certain amount of trepidation; but as is often the case with these things, my somewhat lowered expectations probably helped me to enjoy the film much more (and on its own merits) than I would have if I was expecting something the same as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Speaking of Bird... I'm still warming to it, but I enjoy it more every time I re-watch it, where as I was completely sold on Cat with the first viewing. I suppose with the former I experienced the polar opposite of the 'misplaced expectations' phenomenon... that is, it's formidable reputation was always going to be hard to live up to (though don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it first time round... just didn't love it). This is also something of an atypical giallo, but only in the sense that two of it's principal protagonists are an aging blind man (Karl Malden) and his prepubescent niece (Cinzia De Carolis, who would go on to appear in Giorgio Ferroni's stunning Night of the Devils the following year). James Franciscus plays the other likeable (yet more conventional) lead in the film, and he gets some great scenes, the one with the barber being the standout; it's as delicious a slice of blackly comic, dramatic irony as I've ever tasted. 

7 - Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973) and The New York Ripper (Lucio Fulci, 1982) - tie

Yup, this is my list so I can cheat if I want to, so there! Seriously though, I found it impossible to pick between these two... but, they're arguably pretty similar in tone (luridness dial rolled up pretty damn high on both... maybe up to eleven in Fulci's flick) so it makes sense for me to pair them together. Furthermore, as I initially encountered them back to back (as detailed here) and watched them again as a double feature during last week's giallo-thon (write up coming soon), they'll forever be sister films in my mind. If I really had to pick, then I'd say that New York Ripper probably wins out very slightly, but I've seen Torso considerably less times, so this could well change. Finally, as these movies are (in varying ways) closer to the American slasher movie than most gialli, they both make for ideal gateway movies for the uninitiated... though I'd probably advise starting with Torso, which is what I did the first time round.  

6 - Deep Red/Profondo rosso aka The Hatchet Murders (Dario Argento, 1975)

As with Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this is another seminal giallo that I've been gradually warming to, and also one that gets richer and more satisfying with every viewing. There's really not a lot I can say about this movie that hasn't been regurgitated to the point of cliche, but I suppose what I could say quite happily is that if someone unfamiliar with gialli was told that they can only ever watch one (before they get fired out of a canon or whatever), then I would strongly advise them to choose Deep Red... for sheer bang for your buck (and running time alone), said hypothetical person really couldn't do better. 

5 - A Lizard in a Woman's Skin aka Schizoid (Lucio Fulci, 1971)

This used to be my favourite Fulci giallo, and depending when you next ask me, it could well reclaim this title. I'd say that this is another good gateway movie for the uninitiated, but definitely not for the squeamish or easily freaked out (though I think we can probably say that about gialli in general). Containing perhaps the most labyrinthine plot of any film on this list, Lizard is not particularly one that I go to for its narrative (again, I can probably say this of gialli - and Italian horror - in general). However, for a heady blend of erotic and often nightmarish imagery, I've yet to see a giallo that surpasses it. 

4 -  Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)

Though I prefer his later gothic, apocalyptic films, this is arguably Fulci's masterpiece; it's certainly the most affecting of the ones I've currently seen by him. A rich, fascinating story concerning child murders, the potentially corrupting power of religion and the dangers of vigilante 'justice', this is also surprisingly entertaining, considering how sad and harrowing it is at times. Everything in this movie is pretty much pitch perfect, but Florinda Bolkan (from Lizard and Luigi Bazzoni's underrated, unique giallo Footprints, which very nearly made this list) practically steals the film as the Gypsy witch La Magiara. I really don't want to say any more, to avoid the risk of spoiling anything for those unfamiliar. All I'll say is this... it contains a piece of music that's haunting my brain as we speak and will probably refuse to leave for days now... if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about. 

3 - Suspiria and Inferno (Dario Argento, 1977 and 1980) - tie

I should probably issue another slight 'controversy alert' here, but as plenty of lip service has already been paid to the notion that these two sister films are gialli, such a disclaimer is no doubt unnecessary. In fact, they arguably form the zenith of that sub-sub genre known as the 'supernatural giallo', or what Kim Newman (I think) refers to as the 'giallo-fantastico'. Now really I should probably have thought of doing a separate list of such titles (Phenomena and Fulci's The Black Cat are two that are currently springing to mind), but frankly it's a bit late for that (oops!) and furthermore, I don't think I've seen enough of em to collate such a top ten yet; I'll no doubt put one together when the time is right though and revise this list accordingly. Again, I find it nigh on impossible to pick an actual favourite here; Suspiria was the gateway drug (as I explained in my first ever blog post here), so will always be hard to beat, but currently Inferno has the slight edge for some reason (it actually having a decent Blu-Ray release no doubt plays a big part). Sure, neither is exactly perfect (I know story is pretty much irrelevant here but I do have slight problems with the pacing of both movies) but for sheer transporting, otherworldly power they remain almost unsurpassed. 

2 - The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)

The penultimate film on this countdown is another borderline case, and in more ways than one. Is it another supernatural giallo? Arguably somewhat, yes. Is it a giallo at all? Same answer. Issues of pigeon-holing aside, this is, without a doubt, the creepiest of all the gialli that I've seen so far. It's one of those movies that buries itself in your mind and refuses to leave, and I feel slightly unsettled just thinking about it. This is something of a slow burn (the seriously fucked up, title sequence aside) so it won't appeal to all tastes, but if you have the patience then do yourself a favour and watch it immediately. Several repeat viewings this year alone have done nothing to diminish the strange, insidious and borderline destabilising (read - mind raping) power this film has over me.  

1 -  Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Dario Argento, 1971)

Anyone who's read this previous post will no doubt have seen this coming, but for sheer re-watchability alone, this is still my number one giallo. As I've discussed the film in detail before, I'll try and be as brief as possible, as I'll no doubt end up repeating myself. I think what really makes this one so endlessly entertaining to me is its sense of sheer, sustained eccentricity. After watching a few gialli, you come to expect (hell, even demand) a mix of the sometimes wacky, occasionally implausible and often downright freaky, and this movie has generous helpings of all three. There's kooky characters galore, a dash of pseudo-science, sprinklings of psycho-sexual trauma and dreamlike imagery, and to top it all off, a thick, tasty coating of technical show-off-ery from the mad maestro himself, Signor Argento (with due respect to everyone else of course, and especially Ennio Morricone). And the ending (even though I'm not exactly sold on the revelation/motivations of the killer) is perhaps the single most sublime scene that I've so far encountered on my travels through Italian genre cinema.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: My Top Ten Slasher Sequels

And This Time It's Personal... OK, it was last time too...

This follow-up to last weeks list was much harder to compile than its predecessor, due to a few, somewhat related reasons. Firstly, for every slasher film ever made, there's maybe, I dunno, 5% that received a sequel/became a full-fledged franchise (this figure is a total guess on my part; if anyone can ever be arsed compiling proper statistics on it I'd be curious to see how close that guess-timate is). Due to the resultant drop out of many of the unique or high-concept one-off slashers that never made it past their first film, any favourites list compiled from what is left is inevitably going to be somewhat homogenous, with certain series dominating and a few underdogs filling up the remaining slots. Finally, with some of these franchises I find it really difficult to pick certain entries over others. So as you might guess, this list is even more subject to potential change than the last.

10 - Jason X (James Isaac, 2001)

As anyone who read the previous top ten will have noticed, Jason was completely conspicuous by his absence. Don't get me wrong, I love the original Friday the 13th and, to be fair, it probably should have been on my list of originals, seeing as it was another watershed movie from my youth. But frankly, I've drained the blood out of it through over-watching, so these days I'm much more likely to reach for one of the sequels. Jason X is certainly one of the more unique entries in the series, mainly due to it future setting and sci-fi tropes. Probably my favourite film of the 'slasher in space' sub-sub-genre, it's also one of the most overtly humorous and knowing of the Friday the 13th movies, and this, coupled with the delightfully over-the-top nature of much of the action, makes it for eminently re-watchable to me.  

9 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

This is another of the first slashers that I saw as a kid, so nostalgia obviously plays a big part in my continued enjoyment of it. But beyond that I'm genuinely of the opinion that it's highly underrated, even if it has undeniable flaws/slightly irritating elements; mainly, I'm not completely sold on the kid, but the little bugger certainly makes an effort to be fair to him. On the positive side I'll just mention two elements that make it stand out for me. Firstly, and most obviously, this is a relatively early (although probably not the first by far) example of the playful, post-modern 'meta-movie' that Scream later popularised (and possibly perfected). Also, the inclusion of certain autobiographical elements (i.e. Heather Langenkamp apparently had a real-life stalker) give the story (and the leading lady's performance) an element of believability that makes the film, for me, actually quite affecting.

8 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986)

Perhaps something of a borderline-slasher (edging into the 'backwoods brutality' sub-genre, mainly by proxy to its predecessor), TCM 2 still contains enough of the key tropes and conventions to count as far as I'm concerned. This would probably be higher on my list if not for a for a recent re-watch that I had with a friend who found it disappointing, which has given me a bit of a temporary contact downer on the movie. I'm sure I'll get over that when I next re-watch it alone though, especially if (okay when) I get the Blu-Ray that Arrow's releasing in October. To be fair to my friend though, I don't think he was expecting such a highly stylised black comedy, with its comic book visuals and a tasty sprinkling of 80's cheese, even though I think I told him he wouldn't be getting the same vibe from it that the original exuded so potently. But the real draw of this movie for me is Dennis Hopper's characteristically unhinged performance. He ploughs through the entire film like Dr. Loomis gone postal, chewing (and eventually chainsawing) through all the scenery in sight in order to "BRING IT ALL DOWN!!!" upon the heads of the bastards that have wronged him. Finally, there are a couple of scenes here which are as arguably unsettling as anything the first film had to offer.  

7 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

I remember seeing this years ago as a VHS rental (ah, those were the days...) and writing it off, probably due to similar reasons to those that led to my friend disliking TCM 2... I'm sure many a snarky, adolescent comment was hurled at the TV set that night. Earlier this year though I was compelled to give the film another chance, after hearing some interesting comments about/defences of it, mainly relating to its heavy homoerotic overtones. And I'm glad I did as this is now another of my go-to guilty pleasure slasher flicks. There's a few scenes in this which make me chuckle just thinking about them, but at the top of the pile has to be this gratuitous dance number, which always makes the room I'm sat in at the time feel a little bit gayer... I mean as in cheerful, in case anyone's thinking I'm some kind of bigot... okay, I meant it both ways.... probably shouldn't use those words in this context... Moving on...   

6 - Slumber Party Massacre II (Deborah Brock, 1987)

Wow, I'm starting to see a pattern here... this is the third movie in a row from the mid-80's-ish that leans perhaps more heavily towards humour than it does horror, and, come to think of it, what a riotous triple-bill that would make for. This is another movie that never fails to brighten my day, even just in recollection. Owing more to A Nightmare on Elm Street than Halloween, this is almost a world away from the original movie (though both certainly contain their fair share of tasty cheddar), but is just about as equally entertaining. I'm not sure whether it'll hold up to multiple repeat viewings as well as its predecessor (having only seen it twice so far) but for a fun, and in places, frankly fucked up (in a good way), party of a movie, you can't go wrong with this.  

5 - Friday the 13th Part 2 (Steve Miner, 1981)

I enjoy all of the Friday the 13th sequels that I've seen in varying degrees, especially the aforementioned Jason X, Part IV (The "Final" Chapter) and Part VIII (Jason Takes Manhattan), but if pressed (and depending when you asked me) I'd probably say that Part 2 is my favourite, though this wasn't always the case... in fact, far from it. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll confess that this was another film from my bygone VHS days that failed to find an appreciative audience at the time, due to me and my friends being philistines. If memory serves, I think it was one of the only movies from that era that we failed to get all the way through... though now that I think about it I have a feeling that we might actually have been watching Part 3... in which case this confession is completely redundant... fuck, I really can't remember... At any rate, when I did finally get round to watching it properly, I absolutely loved it, from the atmospheric, bold (in a Psycho-esque sense) beginning, right through to the awesome final showdown, which was made particularly ass-kicking via the presence of one of my favourite final girls... the smart, hard-as-nails (even if she does wet herself at one point) Ginny Field, played by the appropriately named Amy Steel.   

4 - Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009)

My favourite of the three Rob Zombie movies that I've seen so far, (I'll be getting to the others later this week, and revisiting those previously seen, when I sit down for my 'Rob Zombie-thon'), and the one that completely sold me on the guy, this has gone straight into the top half of my list based on the first viewing alone. From the first Halloween remake and House of a Thousand Corpses, I knew that Zombie is capable of taking us down some dark, strange, yet oddly alluring roads, throwing in some abrupt left turns along the way to keep us on our toes, but I never anticipated how wonderfully weird this movie would prove to be. I'll say no more for now, as I'll be revisiting this in depth very, very soon... 

3 - Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988)

Another formative film for me, this is one more that's mainly on the list for nostalgia reasons. However, despite its flaws and occasional deficiencies (mainly the mask and some fairly weak peripheral characters), I still find it immensely re-watchable. This is mainly thanks to the presence of future genre star Danielle Harris (in her feature film debut here), who makes the movie, for me, the most emotionally involving of the series. Furthermore, some of her scenes (especially those involving that clown costume) never fail to give me the creeps for some reason. 

2 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988) - tie


Admittedly I'm somewhat cheating here, but I found it practically impossible to pick between these two. The former is another old favourite, which I've probably watched to death by now, where as the latter is a much more recent discovery, and, if I really had to choose, probably my current reigning favourite of the two. Now some write The Dream Master off as merely a hollow exercise in showcasing special effects (and what spectacular effects they are) but personally, I think there's a lot more going on here than mere visual pyrotechnics. I won't go into it too deeply here, but I really dig the arc that Lisa Wilcox's character Alice follows throughout the film (cleverly signalled through the repeated use of the mirror, which is gradually unveiled as the the story progresses), and I absolutely love the final showdown, even if elements of it (such as Alice's awesome preparation scene, where she clothes herself in various personal totems inherited from her fallen friends) are pure, Grade-A, 80's cheese (not that I'm complaining of course). Both movies have some rather stupid parts that I can't really defend, but I wouldn't have it any other way as they're now part of the films' charm. By the way, I know I've barely said anything about Dream Warriors, but that instalment gets more than enough love, so I don't really feel the need to sing its praises any further.  

1 - Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)

So, how many of you saw this one coming? Sorry if it seems like another lazy or obvious choice, but as with last week's number one, I really couldn't conceive of any other title I've currently seen topping it. And to be honest, if that former list had featured sequels, then this would have made joint first place with its older brother, as the two are completely inseparable in my mind. This is for two reasons, one of which is completely obvious and the other being more personal. Firstly, and this somewhat goes without saying, but seeing as it's a direct continuation of its predecessor, it arguably makes sense to see Halloween and its sequel as one film in two parts. Furthermore, as I first encountered both of them back-to-back on a single VHS cassette, they'll always be one, three-hour long slasher epic (with a short interval) in my mind. By the way, I managed to find a photo of the actual tape and sleeve from eBay (thanks random person!)...

But nostalgia, and the movie's proximity to its progenitor aside, I still really love Halloween II, even as a stand alone film. For one, any slasher set in a hospital is always going to score highly with me, as those places give me the creeps, period. And thanks to using some of the same talent, this shares many technical merits with the original; kudos especially to cinematographer Dean Cundey for providing all those strangely cosy looking blue and orange hues for us to ravish our retinas with. There's not a lot more I can say here that hasn't already been endlessly repeated, so I'll simply finish by saying that for me, Halloween II is "comfort horror" at it's best; I know exactly what I'm getting, sure... but watching it, I feel strangely at home... or to put it another way, I find myself frequently drawn back to it, but never bored when I stick it on.