Thursday, July 31, 2014

Giallo July - Late Night Double Feature: Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava, 1970) & Opera AKA Terror at the Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)


As per usual, I've spent far more time watching movies than writing about them recently, hence the highly sporadic output during this sorry excuse for a theme month. All that aside, I figured I'd try and get one more post in before the month comes to a close.... and seeing as I had something of an impromptu giallo double bill last night, I figured I'd share some brief thoughts I gleaned from re-watching the films...

First up, an atypical example of the genre and one that was pretty much pre-convention (it being contemporary to Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which itself cemented most of the tropes that would later become cliches)... Hatchet for the Honeymoon...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Giallo July - Five for Friday: Five American Gialli

As I said in the previous post, the Italians aren't the only ones to have made films one could arguably label as gialli. It's well known what a seminal influence this European sub-genre had on American horror cinema and specifically the slasher but for the most part these later films divert from their elder relations enough to be considered their own separate thing. Unsurprisingly though, there are times when these two worlds have overlapped, bringing things, as we'll see, essentially full circle

Before we begin though a quick controversy alert(!)... depending on your definitions, you may or may not consider some or all of these gialli at all... and if you don't, please feel free to hit me up with your two cents in the comments

For your consideration then, here are five "American gialli"....

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)

An appropriate film to start with for a couple of reasons... Firstly, it's very much a Transatlantic affair, having a German born director but being American made. But more importantly, there seems to be a direct line of decent from these old dark house thrillers to Italian gialli. For one thing, we know Argento is a fan as he's openly said so... and even if he hadn't, a murder scene from Tenebre, which is staged in a strikingly similar fashion to one from Siodmak's film, would make it pretty damn obvious.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Giallo July: A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (León Klimovsky, 1974)

As giallo aficionados will well know, Italy wasn't the only country to produce films that can be seen as belonging to the sub-genre.... and without getting into the can of worms that whole area presents (though we may return to it before the month is through), I'll simply say for now that after the Italians, the Spaniards were among the most prolific in terms of producing gialli. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy ended up appearing in a few in his time... and out of the three I've seen, the film we're looking at today is perhaps not the best... but if pressed, I'd say it's probably my current favourite.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Giallo July/1984 Turns 30! Murder-Rock: Dancing Death AKA Murderock (Lucio Fulci)

Released in Italian cinemas on 30th April 1984, Murder Rock is perhaps the least well known of Lucio Fulci's gialli and certainly the most maligned. Sure, anyone going in expecting something like Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Don't Torture a Duckling, the infamous New York Ripper (the film of most similar vintage to this) or even the relatively restrained and slightly similar Seven Notes in Black (AKA The Psychic) will probably be left somewhat dissatisfied... but taken on its own merits, this is a stylishly shot, engaging and enjoyable giallo with plenty of points of interest for fans of both the director and, more generally speaking, of this most decadent and deranged of sub-genres... 

Before we continue, a quick note of thanks is due to someone who will (to protect the innocent) remain known as "The Black Gloved Patron"... without your continued generosity and edification, much of this month would have been impossible... you know who you are! And worry not, your secret identity is safe with me! Now on to the film...

How much you enjoy this movie, without even getting into the plot yet, will probably be determined within the first five minutes of watching... Basically, if you have a taste for mid-80's cheese and music video-esque dance numbers, then you're gonna get a kick out of this, regardless of whether you're a giallo aficionado or not... If you lack the palate for that sort of thing though then this movie might be a bit of a harder sell... it's hard to say, everyone's mileage varying and all... but hopefully you'll get a better idea whether this is for you or not as we proceed...

At New York's prestigious Arts for Living Center (which will obviously be in dire need of a name change very soon), a group of dancers are working up a serious sweat trying to perfect a routine in order to impress the higher ups. Overseeing their progress is Candice Norman, played by the first of many familiar faces from Fulci's filmography we'll encounter during the course of the film, Olga Karlatos of Zombie... worry not though, anyone out there averse to images of eyeball related trauma... her peepers are safe this time... but the lady herself... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it? 

Following the rehearsal, one of the dancers is killed in the changing rooms by a black gloved assassin with a hat-pin (of all things)... and as it transpires that the dancers were being potentially head hunted by some big wigs promising fame and fortune and, more crucially, the victim was seen as the most likely candidate, suspicion falls immediately on the other dancers. Overseeing the police investigation is Lieutenant Borges, played by the next of our Fulci repeat offenders, Cosimo Cinieri of New York Ripper and the also underrated Manhattan Baby. I enjoy this guy's performances in all three of these Fulci flicks but probably this one the most... his character seems to almost defy you to either like him or dislike him... it's hard to explain... but at any rate he makes for a wonderfully curmudgeonly copper and has most of the film's best lines. And speaking of The New York Ripper, I find it curious that both it and Murder Rock partner their detectives with academics called Davis... though this time he's a professor as opposed to a doctor and is played by Giuseppe Mannajuolo rather than Paolo Malco. 


As the bodycount increases, so do the list of suspects, especially after Candice has a crazy-ass nightmare where a beardless Ray Lovelock (who will hereafter be referred to as Ray Loverock) tries to stab her with a hat-pin of mindbogglingly indeterminate size. Soon after this she sees the same man on a billboard and it isn't long after that that she's somehow snuck into his hotel room, avoided an altercation with a drunken Loverock but left her handbag there while fleeing and then, despite this slight trauma, still meets up for drinks with this dubious character later on anyway...

I think we can probably leave it there as far as the plot goes. This is nothing earth shattering narratively (and arguably somewhat familiar territory to Fulci fans) but it kept my interest for the duration.... though a lot what kept me engaged is probably more related to my enjoyment of the aforementioned 80's cheese and what the assembled cast and crew brought to the film than anything else...

Which brings us neatly to the other talents from in front of and behind the camera... As far as the former goes, we have quite a few appearances from people who worked within the Italian horror/giallo genre, such as Claudio Cassinelli of What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, Cristian Borromeo of Tenebre and Robert Gligorov of Stagefright... and two more (uncredited) Fulci repeat offenders in the forms of Al Cliver (who is sporting some very studious looking spectacles this time around) and Silvia Collatina of The House by the Cemetery, who plays a creepy, wheel-chair-bound, insect obsessed kid who goes all Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window at one point in the film. And speaking of Hitchcock, there's an obligatory (and all too brief) directorial cameo for fans of Fulci's acting to enjoy.

Regarding behind the scenes, the film was written by Fulci and three others, all of whom had worked with the director before and on many other Italian genre films... and as I said before, there's some delightful dialogue to be savoured. And as far as I can tell, the plot itself is fairly tight... though I'm not someone to trust as far as story goes, my attention usually being focused on other elements of the film. Editor Vincenzo Tomassi returns to work with Fulci again and does a spot on job, especially in splicing together those wonderful music video montages. Regular Fulci cinematographer Sergio Salvati is curiously absent but Giuseppe Pinori does excellent work in his place, excelling especially in the murder set-pieces, dance numbers and the climactic unveiling of the killer.

And last but not least, a few words about the music: Keith Emerson provides the music and lyrics to another New York set giallo (the other being Argento's Inferno, which I know many may not regard as one but that's a debate for another time...) and helps immeasurably with keeping up the 80's kitsch quota. Most of the music from this movie is currently stuck in my head but perhaps no track more so than this little number... I apologise in advance... it's ridiculously catchy.

While admittedly nowhere near as gory as his other films of the period, Murder Rock is still an above par entry as far as Fulci's filmography and gialli of this era go. The cast are consistently compelling, there's plenty of production value to be savoured and overall I found it a lot of fun... so for anyone sold on Fulci and/or the giallo I'd say give it a shot... just don't expect it to be typical of the director or the genre and you'll fare just fine... and for those unversed in either I'd say just lap up the period charm and enjoy!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Giallo July: Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

I've been meaning to get back to Italy and the giallo properly on the blog for over six months now. During that time I've had the pleasure of discovering countless gems I'd previously never seen and sometimes never heard of... and during the process I accumulated a shit ton of notes. In fact, it got to the point where it was hard to know where to start in terms of writing it all up. As a result, I decided (probably against my better judgement) to have a bit of an impromptu giallo blogathon this month. Now, this won't be a daily thing or anything but the intention is to cover as many gialli as time and circumstances allow before July is through. 

To kick off, I could think of no movie more appropriate to talk about than the first giallo (if we don't count Suspiria and other titles from the supernatural giallo sub-genre) I ever saw, which is Tenebre (or Tenebrae as it was released over here).

Generally regarded as one of Argento's greatest films, it arguably rivals Deep Red as the director's finest giallo. Both represent high watermarks as far as the genre goes but personally, if forced to choose between the two, I'd take Tenebre any day of the week. I'm not sure which I'd say is superior (or if such an argument could even be made either way without resorting to hair splitting) but there's just something about the atmosphere of an early '80s Argento film that makes Tenebre overtake its older brother for me. But I am admittedly biased by nostalgia, this being such a formative giallo for me and all...

A quick synopsis for the uninitiated: popular American mystery writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) visits Rome to promote his latest book (also called Tenebre) but soon ends up playing detective when a murderer, inspired by his work, starts wreaking bloody havoc across the city.... and that's really all you need to know. 

The set-up outlined above is deceptively simple and acts as a springboard for what arguably became the most acutely self-aware and deliciously subversive thriller of Argento's career. What I mean by the former should be obvious enough, even to those who haven't seen the film and have only heard about it, but regarding the latter I can only say so much without giving the game away. For now, let's just say this is pretty far removed from the routine as far as gialli go...

Aside from inverting and playing with the conventions of his early '70s gialli, Tenebre is also a dramatic departure from his two previous films Suspiria and Inferno, which were both supernaturally based, shot in sumptuous, psychedelic colour schemes, generally set at night and overflowing with an atmosphere reminiscent of your trippiest nightmares. This film, by comparison is set in the "real world" (though Argento claims it was meant to be the near future) and is, for the most part, filled with light. If memory serves, this was supposedly done to contrast against the internal darkness (or shadows, to translate the film's title) festering within the film's characters. 

This difference of aesthetic was probably the main thing that stopped me from loving this film earlier than I did, being as enamoured as I was of the Technicolour delights of Suspiria... but over time I've certainly come to appreciate Tenebre's look for what it is. While not as obviously ravishing to the retinas as those earlier films, it's still a pretty stunning affair visually. Working again with Suspiria's cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Argento employs a much more restrained colour palette this time around, which while lacking the more immediately apparent dazzle of their earlier work, still provides the backdrop for some astonishing set-pieces... and perhaps none more so than a climactic scene where red meets white in spectacular fashion.

Like probably all of Argento's earlier films, there's also some serious technical showboating on display for all to enjoy, the case in point scene obviously being the few minute long crane shot that climbs up, over and back down a house, all to the groovy strains of Goblin (credited here as Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli... I'm guessing they'd all fallen out by this point). Now one could accuse this as being a completely gratuitous piece of directorial show-offerery (i.e. "Look at my fancy new toy!")... and you'd have a point... but this would also arguably miss the point... Argento being one of those visually dynamic directors who is enamoured with the possibilities presented by the camera for exploring the worlds of his films.

About the cast: Anthony Franciosa is decent enough as protagonist Peter Neal and plays him in a way that makes him walk on a razor's edge between likeable and unlikeable for me... though let's face it, almost all male giallo protagonists can be guilty of acting like dicks on occasion. Daria Nicolodi appears as Neal's assistant Anne and is a joy to watch as always, though of course one wishes she were given more screen time. Also reappearing from Inferno is the otherworldly Ania Pieroni, who proves she really is the Mother of Tears when she kicks a oversexed wino in the nuts. And she's another lovely lady who is underused in this, her being the film's first victim and all... sorry, belated spoiler alert! Also of note to genre fans are the two Johns... Saxon and Steiner. The former I'm sure needs no introduction to anyone reading this, but the latter is probably only familiar to Italian horror junkies. He appears, funnily enough, with Daria Nicolodi, in Mario Bava's superb, underrated possession movie Shock and Ruggero Deodato's cheesetastic summer camp slasher Body Count. And last but not least is someone I'm not familiar with but whose performance in this I very much enjoy... Giuliano Gemma, who plays Detective Germani. The actor was apparently a veteran of many Italian films (especially westerns it seems) and plays one of my favourite giallo policemen here... it's hard to pin down exactly what it is, but I find the guy to be very likeable. 

One last cast related caveat: I'm not sure if this is true or not, but according to IMDb's trivia page, Christopher Walken was considered for this, presumably for the starring role. Now while I'd certainly love to see that version, I think it perhaps worked out for the best that he wasn't in it... for reasons that will probably be obvious to anyone who has seen the film... 

As far as behind the scenes goes, we already mentioned the top drawer cinematography by Tovoli and the Goblin score, which is undoubtedly one of their catchiest... but two other names also leapt out at me as the credits were rolling... Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi, who were the 1st and 2nd assistant directors respectively.... and anyone who has seen any of their movies can probably detect some shared DNA between those and Tenebre. Both men would go on to make some excellent Italian horror films themselves, with Soavi especially being the seeming new hope for the next generation of Italian horror, until the industry died and the director also had to start spending more time caring for his sick son. 

For anyone who hasn't seen it and is generally uninitiated as far as Italian horror and the giallo goes, I think Tenebre is a damn fine place to start. Audacious, entertaining and of course, jaw droppingly gory, it's arguably never dull and should even grip the attention of those unacclimatised to foreign genre films of this vintage. And to everyone else I'd say go and re-watch it if you haven't in a while... you know you won't be sorry... in fact you'll be sorry if you don't as Argento will have to don his black gloves and come over and kill your ass! Y'all have been warned...