Saturday, January 31, 2015

Back in Time - A 1985 Retrospective: Phenomena (Dario Argento)

Originally released in Italy a whole 30 years ago today, Phenomena is generally seen as one of Dario Argento's last great movies (his next film, Opera, being sometimes described as the beginning of the end). It doesn't seem to be as highly regarded as now canonical works such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria (and by extension, the more underrated Inferno) and Tenebre, where Argento was seen to be at the height of his powers. But for me personally, this film still feels very much like a director at his creative peak. Admittedly I am biased as this is my favourite Argento movie but I think it's with good reason, as I'll attempt to illustrate. 

Before we continue, I should also say to anyone who hasn't taken the plunge into this director's work or the wider weird and wonderful world of Italian horror cinema that this is arguably an ideal place to start... in fact, and as I heard someone suggest recently, probably more so than the more lauded Suspiria, which can be a hard sell for some people. And assuming not everyone reading this has seen Phenomena, I'll try my best not to spoil some of the wonderful surprises contained within...

Set in Switzerland, the film opens with a young girl (played by Dario's eldest daughter Fiore) left stranded by a country road, after missing her bus. As she walks off to find assistance, a jaw dropping crane shot begins, the camera climbing over tall trees as the credits roll. As it passes over the tops we see the girl heading towards an isolated house. The accompanying music, beautiful but icy and eerie, imbues the whole landscape with a sense of mystery and potential menace. When she reaches the house, this suggestion practically becomes a promise as we see chains attached to a wall being pulled violently, threatening to come loose. 

Needless to say (and this being the opening, it's not a spoiler), things don't end well for poor Vera Brandt. But about this introductory sequence I'll say no more as you really need to see it for yourself. For me, it's as audacious and spectacular an opening as any of Argento's best and gives a clear indication of the wild ride the viewer is in for.

Next we're introduced to one of the film's central characters, Professor John McGregor (played by genre legend Donald Pleasence), who is meeting with police (played by Patrick Bauchau and Argento protégé/future director Michele Soavi) to assist them in their search for a killer who is picking off local schoolgirls (including, presumably, Vera). He's an entomologist (i.e. an insect expert) and in this scene he deduces how long a body is dead based on the state of decomposition of a severed head. He's unfortunately disabled but has a loyal chimpanzee assistant named Inga (more on her later). 

In the next scene we finally meet our heroine, Jennifer Corvino, played by none other than future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly (who'd probably rather not talk about this film now, sadly) in her second film role and her first leading one. She's the daughter of a famous actor, headed to stay at a boarding school while her father makes a movie (and her mother having left them both) and we discover pretty much immediately that Jennifer is not your average teenage girl... she has a tremendous empathy towards insects and possesses an extraordinary rapport with them, which will lead her into her later adventures...

Arriving at the Richard Wagner School for Girls (as we're told by a narrator who then disappears for the rest of the movie... he was killed off too apparently), Jennifer attempts to settle in. Her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni, niece of the great Marcello Mastroianni) is friendly but the teachers (and especially the headmistress, played by Dalila Di Lazzaro) are as chilly as the Swiss landscapes look. Furthermore, it isn't long before more schoolgirls end up meeting a grisly end at the hands of the killer.

After bumping into Inga while sleepwalking (something Jennifer does frequently, to the accompaniment of awesome pulsating synth music courtesy of Argento favourites, Goblin), she meets Professor McGregor, who obviously warms to her. He teaches her how to utilise her amazing ability to telepathically communicate with insects and the two team up to hunt down the killer.

Now I realise I've actually detailed quite a bit of the plot here but I don't think I've given anything away that will detract from the first time viewer's enjoyment... but I thought given the highly unusual premise, it'd be a good idea to give as clear an idea of the setup as possible. From there though, you're on your own. 

While this is a longish film (115 mins approx), and those unacclimatised to Argento's tendency to really wallow in the moment (which allows you to soak up the gorgeous cinematography, production design and music) may start to tune out a bit during certain sequences, I promise you, stick with this till the end and you won't be sorry. 

And as awesome as the opening is, it's probably fair to say it's the insane, epic ending which tips this to being my favourite Argento film and one of my favourite horror films ever... and as I've said before, depending which day you asked me, it could be my number one. For the record, today is one of those days, especially after pretty much living and breathing the film during the last day or so.

Seriously, if nothing else, if the opening and/or ending of Phenomena do absolutely nothing for you, then there's a good chance Italian horror won't be your bag at all. But if you dig this, then oh boy have you got a lot of future treats to look forward to!

I feel like I've discussed this film for a long time already but I'm not sure if I've communicated yet what makes it so damn special to me. I think what gives this the edge in my personal canon, not just as far as Argento is concerned but within Italian horror (and by proxy the genre in general) as a whole, is this is a movie where absolutely everything (well, perhaps bar the odd bit of misused music, though that itself is up for debate too) seems to come together (and I'm not saying it doesn't in others too of course). It's usually a given that an Italian horror film will be sublimely stylish (and this one is a case in point) but often at the expense of there being much going underneath (which is not always a bad thing of course). Not so here I'd say. I don't want to get into it all here as we risk spoilers by doing so but I'll say there's enough going on sub-textually to make this compelling to me on a level that transcends the purely aesthetic. Specifically, the film seems to explore the varying ways difference and disability might be treated by others and the results such treatment might potentially manifest. 

As a heroine, Jennifer is arguably one of Argento's strongest (next to say, Suspiria's Suzy Bannion, played by Jessica Harper). And as I might have said already, the story is without a doubt the most bizarrely unique not only in Argento's canon, but one of the strangest to be found within Italian horror as a whole, which is really saying something. 

The cast are all generally very good, especially Connelly, Pleasence and the always awesome Daria Nicolodi (who with Dario, brought Asia Argento into the world. Their relationship was starting to fall apart by the time of this film though I gather). The movie has some serious production values going for it as well, with kudos especially due to Romano Albani, who was cinematographer (this is a must buy on Blu-Ray if you love the movie by the way) and Sergio Stivaletti and Luigi Cozzi, who produced the special makeup effects and optical effects respectively. 

And the soundtrack is one of my favourites, featuring contributions from the likes of Goblin, Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor, Simon Boswell, Iron Maiden and Motorhead... and as alluded to earlier, whether the inclusion of the last two was a good idea or not is very much up for debate. For more on the music, see this post on my favourite Italian horror soundtracks (this is well out of date but Phenomena would definitely still be on this list if I re-wrote it now). 

I've kept y'all a long time already and we're nearly done now but before I let you go, here's a few tidbits of background and trivia...

The story, according to Argento, was inspired by his interest in forensics, which lead him to discover that insects have been used in murder investigations. As a side note, I should also say that the director has cited this as his personal favourite of his movies, something I'm obviously very happy to hear. 

I mentioned earlier that Jennifer Connelly doesn't talk about this film (at least as far as I'm aware anyway) and there could well be a good reason for that. She was supposedly reluctant to work with the chimpanzee (whose real name is Tanga) as it was and perhaps one could suggest the young lady was somewhat psychic herself as the monkey bit part of her finger off during the final scene! So you can understand why she might not have the fondest memories of the film. But to be fair to Tanga, I can't imagine the shoot was tremendously fun for her either and perhaps she'd just had enough that day. And while we're on the subject, I'd have to say she gives one of the most memorable monkey performances I've seen on film.

Finally, there was meant to be a sequel in the works, scheduled to go into production in 2001 but sadly this never came to fruition due to contractual reasons. I'd love to have seen that (or be able to read the script if there's one about) but in a way I'm sort of glad it didn't happen. I like Argento's latter day works more than most seem to but I'll be the first to concede that it probably wouldn't have been in the same league as the first film... for one thing, the money just wasn't about in Italian horror to make that kind of movie by 2001.

Needless to say though, I'm just thrilled that a film like Phenomena exists at all, with or without a sequel. I mean really, I have to pinch myself sometimes while watching just to remind myself it's actually real and I'm not dreaming. Containing many of the tropes and all of the audacious, inventive style Argento is known and loved for, I stand by my statement of saying this should sit proudly on the same pedestal occupied by the likes of Deep Red and Suspiria

I feel like I'm at the risk of overlooking or forgetting something, which I'm loath to do seeing how much I love this film, but I know I've taken up enough of your valuable time already. If you haven't seen it, give it a shot, and if you have, watch it again. I've seen it once this week already but given what today marks, I'll be watching it again tonight. 

And if you happen to ever meet any monkeys or insect friendly schoolgirls on your travels, for the love of God don't piss them off! The VHS cover below (for the UK release of the heavily cut U.S. version titled Creepers, which I've never seen... the completist in me says I probably will one day) should show you why.

Friday, January 9, 2015

New Year New Year, New York New York - New Year's Eve Double Feature: Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman, 1989) & Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)


Instead of going out and running the gauntlet of drunken masses this New Year's Eve, I elected to stay at home this year... again. But it was with good reason I think as I spent the last hour of the night (and the wee ones of the following morning) engrossed in the double feature I'll be talking about today. Both movies are firm favourites but one in particular was one of the formative genre films while I was growing up and is largely responsible (for better or worse) for the film nut I am today. And which movie is that you ask? It's my favourite to watch on New Year's Eve and the last film I saw during 2014... Ghostbusters II...

While I'll be the first to concede it isn't quite on the level of its predecessor, I've always had a huge amount of love for this sequel, it being the first film I ever saw in a theatre, back when I was 5 years old. I remember having an absolute blast with it, even if it did give me a recurring nightmare concerning the Vigo painting. And the bit where he shoots streams of psychic energy (or whatever it is) into Peter MacNicol's eyes made me jump out of my frickin' skin!

All nostalgia aside, I think there's a case to be made for this being underrated, even 25 years after its release. Admittedly it pretty much follows the exact same plot points as the first film but nonetheless I find it to be as entertaining and engaging as the original. In fact, I'm hard pressed to say which one I prefer personally... but as I've implied earlier, I am hugely biased by my own history with these two.

If I try and be "objective" about it (which is ultimately impossible) I'll concede there are a couple of things in Ghostbusters II which seem a tad ill-advised, which isn't something I would say about number one... but even these minor missteps are nothing that derail the proverbial train for me. Having said that though, when one has known a film for some 25 years, you'll probably forgive quite a bit I imagine... these things seeming to work like most long term relationships.

So, is a synopsis necessary here? On the off chance there's anyone out there who hasn't seen this, here's a quick run down: 5 years after the events of Ghostbusters, the guys are out of business, having been sent the bill for the collateral damage incurred during that film's finale. Peter is hosting a psychic themed TV show, Egon has gone back to school and Ray and Winston are earning extra cash (with the former also operating an occult book store) doing Ghostbusters themed parties for "ungrateful little yuppie larva". And Dana Barrett has had a child, left the orchestra (and Peter) and is now working as an art restorer.

The film opens with Dana's son Oscar having a dramatic near miss with New York traffic after his carriage is apparently possessed and takes off on a mission of intended infanticide. It isn't long before she enlists the help of Egon and Ray. She asks them to keep Peter out of it but of course that doesn't last long. After investigating under the city street where the incident took place and accidentally causing a black out, the guys are arrested and tried by a judge (Harris Yulin) who would like to have them "burnt at the stake". I should add that during Ray's mini adventure underground he recovered some "psychomagnotheric" slime... or "mood slime" if you prefer. And said slime is included as an exhibit at the trial where, animated by the religious zeal of the judge, it unleashes the spectral Scoleri Brothers, who were sent to the electric chair by him. Seeing no other way out, he reverses his verdict and asks the guys to don their proton packs and capture the ghosts.

With this successfully achieved, the boys are back in business. Meanwhile, at the Manhattan Museum of Art, where Dana works (while also attempting to avoid the lunchtime invitations of the over eager head of restoration, Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol)), there's a rather sinister painting that has its eye on her. It's of Vigo the Carpathian (played by Wilhelm von Homburg, and voiced by Max Von Sydow... and I'm kicking myself I never realised about the latter until just this week), a 16th century tyrant, torturer, magician and "genocidal madman", who promises to return from the grave after (as Ray informs us) being "poisoned, stabbed, shot, hung, stretched, disemboweled, drawn and quartered". Continuing, he says "There was a prophecy. Just before his head died, his last words were 'Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I'll be back.'"

To return, Vigo (with the assistance of Janosz, who is now apparently under his control) plans on possessing the body of poor little Oscar. Needless to say though, the Ghostbusters aren't about to let that happen. There's lots more we could get into with the story but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't seen it so we'll leave it there.

Admittedly there's a few things holding this back from feeling like a classic a la its predecessor (it being a sequel and therefore derivative may play a part I suspect) but I don't think it's the step down some seem to imply it is either. But again, I am biased by my nostalgia. That aside, I do genuinely think the movie gets most of "it" right. There's a good balance of humour and horror (the latter personified by excellent villain Vigo and the also creepy Janosz), it has some serious production value (kudos to ILM who did the effects and cinematographer Michael Chapman, who also worked with Scorcese... oh and by the way, the new 4K Blu-Ray of this is a must buy for anyone who likes the film... it was revelatory I thought and one of the best transfers I've seen in the format), a rousing finale and, like the first film, a decent score and soundtrack. And on that subject, a little more about the music...

The formative effect this film had on me extends to the soundtrack, it being the first CD I can remember actually sitting down and listening to... another reason I have boatloads of nostalgia for this sequel. And I actually still have said CD! Which is amazing as there are ones I've had less than half that time and lost the discs for. Your mileage may vary with this sort of thing but (and this won't surprise you I'm sure) I pretty much love the whole soundtrack... and especially the two Bobby Brown joints, "On Our Own" and "We're Back" (well, technically there's three if you include "Supernatural" by New Edition). Other honourable mentions go to Run–D.M.C for their excellent, funky cover of "Ghostbusters", Oingo Boingo, Glenn Frey and Howard Huntsberry who contributes another cover, his one being of "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" by Jackie Wilson (whose original features in the dancing toaster scene)

Props are also due to Randy Edelman, who steps into the rather sizeable shoes worn by Elmer Bernstein in the first film. While perhaps not being as memorable as his predecessor's score, Edelman contributes one that is as consistently charming and effective. 

I could go on and on about this movie but I know y'all have lives to live and all so I'll wrap it up. I don't think anyone needs me to reiterate the fact that I love Ghostbusters II as I'm sure I've made that fairly obvious by now. And as I also said earlier, this is a great film to finish off the year with, especially with the finale taking place in the final hours of New Year's Eve.

Oh, and as I don't think I said so earlier... Happy New Year folks!

But wait a minute, don't go yet. We've still got the first film of 2015 I watched to look at... Gremlins 2: The New Batch...

Before we begin, it's worth pointing out there's a nice bit of visual continuity between the end of Ghostbusters II and the beginning of this film... both involving helicopter shots that veer close to the Twin Towers. I hadn't anticipated this, it being a few years since I'd last seen Gremlins 2 but it was an encouraging sign that putting these two together was a good idea and it also made one flow seamlessly into the next...

As I've said several times before, I'd always preferred Gremlins 2 to the original in the past but if asked right now I'd call it a tie. As to which would come out on top during a given moment, it would probably depend what mood I'm in, them seeming somewhat different tonally. And this is very much by design apparently, with this follow up being intended as something of a satire/send-up of the first film (and sequels generally).... e.g. the merchandising it inspired is alluded to and "the rules" are somewhat picked apart and criticised by characters in the film.

Moving away from the small town at Christmas setting of the original, Gremlins 2 takes place mostly in the monolithic, ultra modern Clamp Enterprises skyscraper... a place which seems like one giant Randall Peltzer (that's Billy's dad, from the first film for anyone wondering) invention.... meaning everything is prone to malfunctioning. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), the hero of the original (well, technically that was Gizmo but Billy played his part too) has moved to New York with fiancee Kate (Phoebe Cates) to work here. Sadly, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke, who had a very interesting and varied career) has died leading to his shop being demolished by Clamp Enterprises and Gizmo being shanghaied by scientists (Don and Dan Stanton, who were also in Terminator 2, funnily enough) and taken to the sinister research laboratory of Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee!), which happens to reside within the Clamp building itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn't too long before Billy learns of his old pal's presence in his place of work and being the good friend he is, he rescues Gizmo from Catheter's clutches. 

Of course it could never just be that simple though eh? Gizmo is stashed in Billy's filing cabinet while he runs off on a lunch date with his opportunistic boss (the wonderfully named Marla Bloodstone, played by Haviland Morris), who is very interested in him now that building owner Daniel Clamp (John Glover) has his eye on Billy after being impressed by his concept art. He asks Kate to pick Gizmo up before going on said luncheon (she sees him walking off with Marla too. Smooth Billy...) but that's where it all goes wrong. Not content to remain cooped up aside Billy's office supplies, Gizmo goes for a wander and then ends up getting soaked by some errant water from a tap being fixed by one of Clamp's employees. Needless to say, Gremlins spawn aplenty... and hilarity ensues...

There's lots more going on but we'll halt the synopsis there. This pretty much follows the same trajectory as the first film but, as I suggested earlier, it feels radically different, due to its tonal differences and change of setting. Also as we alluded to earlier, it's much more self aware.... at one point going so far as to completely rip through the fourth wall and disrupt the movie itself (due to those pesky Gremlins of course). Thankfully though, Hulk Hogan of all people comes to our rescue and gets the film restarted.

Following the success of the original Gremlins, Joe Dante was asked by Warner Brothers to make a sequel pretty much immediately. Seeing it as nothing but a cash in the director declined. Work continued nonetheless, with various ideas and other directors tried out. And needless to say, they eventually came back to Dante, managing to get him on board with the rare offer of complete creative control... and a much bigger budget. Dante described the results as "one of the more unconventional studio pictures, ever." While I'm not sure how much I agree with that statement I will say it is one of the more inspired sequels I've seen, thanks to its knowing self-referentially and numerous pop culture references. And as Dante signposts to us from the off, by way of the Chuck Jones directed Looney Tunes bookend segments, this is meant to be more of a live action cartoon than its predecessor was.

I'm nearly done rambling y'all but just a couple more caveats to mention. Rick Baker, does characteristically fine work with the creature effects, taking over from Chris Walas, who had gone on to pursue a career directing. The former was hesitant at first, feeling there wouldn't be enough latitude creatively to make it interesting but was persuaded eventually by the suggestion he could make the mogwai/Gremlins more diverse looking. And Jerry Goldsmith returns to provide the music (and for a cheeky cameo), with support from the likes of Faith No More(!) and Slayer(!). Their contributions are all too brief but very welcome.

There are also a couple more overlaps with Ghostbusters II I nearly forgot to mention, in the form of a dancing scene (this time Gizmo as opposed to a mood slime powered toaster) and both films have bespectacled red-headed ladies in them. And finally, Gremlins 2 has not one but two connections to Sixteen Candles, featuring both Haviland Morris (who plays one of said redheads) and Gedde Watanabe.

So overall, this was a highly enjoyable way to see in the new year (been and done all the being out at midnight for it folks and it's lost its novelty now). If you've never seen one of these sequels, or, God forbid, neither of them, but liked or loved the first films, I'd say what the heck are you waiting for? Seriously, you better sort it out before Rambo Gizmo comes to your house and blasts a blazing arrow into your butt... or Vigo comes to possess your body. 

The mean looking fucker above (and the one below) haunted my dreams for a while after seeing Ghostbusters II back in '89, so trust me when I say you don't want him on your back! Or Gizmo either! There are few things more formidable than a pissed off mogwai with mad MacGyver-esque weapon making skills. So beware!

And again, Happy New Year y'all!