Monday, March 28, 2011


SUSSSSSSSSPIRIA! On a great big screen!

Last night, after a week of Argento film's, I got to see his spellbinding masterpiece Suspiria on a cinema-screen in the National Media Museum as part of the Bradford International Film Festival. I'd obviously wound myself into a bit of a frenzied excitement about it through the week and it certainly did not disappoint.

Every time I hear someone say they choose to watch films at home rather than at the cinema, mostly due to all the other film-goers, I think to myself "You've just been going to the wrong films with the wrong people!". Last night's audience had almost all seen the film before and sat in captivated silence, tittering nervously at the occasional gentle comic moments and - even before fun - audibly anticipating oncoming moments of horror. If a bad crowd can ruin a film, a great crowd can make one. Not that Suspiria needed any help in that respect...

My first and only minor gripe is that it was very sadly the cut version. This was an original cinematic print taken from the Media Museum's extensive archive and so was a print of the X-rated version that the BBFC approved in 1977, after demanding 1m13 of cuts (Cut info at Melon Farmers). Now, to those not familiar with horror film, particularly of BBFC-butchered horror film of a couple of decades ago, 1m13 might not sound very much. It also might not sound so important if I tell you that the full extent of the cuts involved removing a series of close-ups of stabbing, someone struggling through barbed wire and a dog biting a man's throat. Cuts, however, do make a difference to the rhythm and pacing of a film. Suspira is a film that, like so many Argento, thrives on the atmospheric build-up, to the point that the death scenes actually become a kind of release. For a couple of them to be dramatically shortened here was a shame.

Still, whilst that was the downside to it being an original theatrical print, there were certainly upsides. The first (and some would reject this) was that the image did have a wonderfully scratchy look. Anyone who's seen a film in cinemas that was filmed entirely in HD-digital knows how clinical and sterile it can look (I'm looking at you Public Enemy!) and, whilst I'm not suggesting scratchy is the way forward, there was certainly something enjoyable about watching a 70s film I thought I'd never see in a cinema, complete with all the visual wear and tear that a 30 year old 35mm reel has experienced (even if carefully looked after by the Museum)

The second benefit was the sound. The sound! Anyone who's seen Suspiria, an Argento film or evne read any of my blog from this week will know that sound makes up an enormous part of Argento's films. Suspiria is (arguably) the very best of these, scored again by the ever wonderful Goblin, and positively throbs, jangles and crashes at you. Original print, combined with cinema sound system made it an utterly fantastic experience that I'm sure I'll never be able to repeat (especially as most commercial releases saw the soundtrack savagely remixed).

The film itself is a whirling, semi-nonsensical, breathtaking journey of colour and sound, moving from the giallo murder-mystery into something a whole lot more supernatural, with savagely brilliant results. I really don't want to say too much more about the actual film, save to say that it is pretty much the best example of all the techniques I've been seeing this week in all his other films. It's not perfect (the scene-with-the-bat is awful) but it's brilliant, beautiful and should be seen by everyone.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Argento Week's FINALE!

Of course, all that Dario Argento film watching wasn't just for fun, it was all to build up to the fantastically exciting screening of Suspiria tonight in the Bradford International Film Festival. It's hardly going to be worth me reviewing it - I love the film so much already a review will probably be just a string of superlatives and smiley faces - but I'm hoping that, given the big screen treatment, I'll find even more to love about it!

Cat O' Nine Tails

So here we are! Last night's film, which was number 7 and brought my week of Argento films (before Suspiria tonight) to a close, was Cat O' Nine Tails, another one that I hadn't seen before. I was, I must say, pleasantly surprised. It falls, again, into the giallo camp more than the horror side - although they all show elements of both - and, being another very early film I must admit I didn't expect as much fun as I got.

Several online reviews - especially those from Argento fans - are really quite negative about this film, describing it as a fairly ham-fisted follow up to Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but I couldn't agree less. The story telling here was tight and interesting, the dialogue was er... no more clunky than we might expect and the characters and motivations were interesting.

Having watched it the day after watching Profondo Rosso, it was all too easy to see this as a blueprint for the later, more superior murder thriller; many of the aspects that were to become Argento staples are still in nascent form here. The camera is subjective and active but... not as intelligently so as in later films (some of the camera angles here seem less surprisingly wonderful and more just 'different'), the music is absolutely instrumental (no pun intended...) in the creation of a dens atmosphere but never quite matches the iconic heights of later films - it definitely isn't particularly memorable - the plot is full of red-herrings and hidden clues but the denouement is nowhere near as satisfying as later Argento, particularly Profondo Rosso.

It would be certainly true to call this one of the least "Argento-esque" Argento film but that's not necessarily a bad point. I'd suggest that the film stands up pretty well on its own merits and, if the ending is perhaps a little rushed, is definitely an enjoyable watch. It's a film that's perhaps best recommended to those who aren't as keen on the more flamboyantly visuals of the later films, or to those keen to see where those visuals came from. It's certainly not perfect but it's far from the weak slasher I had been lead to expect.

Profondo Rosso [aka Deep Red]

Well, after the (comparatively) low point of
Four Flies..., the week got right back on track with the superb Argento masterpiece that is Profondo Rosso. This is a film very much in the Bird with the Crystal Plumage vein; it's giallo murder mystery through and through. On top of that, it's done extremely well.

Here, more than anywhere, I'll have to tread very carefully in not giving away spoilers. Deep Red, you see, has a more carefully constructed plot than most Argento films and, as well as not knowing to the very end who's responsible, we actually care! It's a film that is more perfectly balanced than his other movies. Phenomena, for all that it was a great watch, has a very long period of almost-nothing-happening through the middle (although the awesomeness of the end makes this easy to forgive!), but Profondo Rosso is a much more polished piece. Information is given away little by little, red herrings and genuine clues are tumbled together into a mix that is never less than enthralling (Enthralling seems a little too fancy a word, but I'm aware that I've called nearly every Argento film this week 'compelling'...). And never fear, the end certainly lives up to the standard set by the rest of the film!

On top of a much more involving plot, the film retains all the other Argento staples, all feeding into the near perfect mix. The Goblin theme tune is piercing synth-perfection, creeping gently into a previously silent scene as the camera bobs and weaves. Like all the best Argento moments, the atmosphere here is tense and threatening. You only need to hear the bass-line fading in as the camera slides slowly across the scene and your heartbeat rises.

This is, as I have said repeatedly already this week, an experience more than a narrative (even if the narrative is stronger here!). Argento films play to the senses, appeal to the nerves, excite your pulse and quicken your breath. To an extent, these work best if you can disengage your brain slightly: we tend to watch films with a keen critical eye, removing ourselves emotionally in order to pass sterile judgements on acting quality, narrative etc. Forget that. Don't analyse an Argento film, watch an Argento film. The hardest part of writing about these films is remembering the finer details of the films; I know I had a thoroughly enjoyable two hours, that I was shocked at times, tense at times, laughing at times (Gianna's knackered car provides welcome comic release).

Profondo Rosso is an excellent film, a fantastic journey and a great starting place for anyone who hasn't seen an Argento film. It's perhaps not my favourite - I lean toward the psychological horror rather than the murder mystery - but it's a great film to watch.

Excellent theme tune:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

[AKA 4 mosche di velluto grigio]

This is certainly going to be the slimmest write-up of any of this week's Argento films. I'd seen Four Flies... before but I could remember almost nothing about it, something which is very rarely a good sign!

To be fair to Argento, before I'm critical, this was only his third film as director. Following in much the same vein as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this is a film that is far more closely linked with more traditional crime and mystery films than with the tense horror he went on to make. Four Flies... shows many early versions of what would become Argento tropes; it treads a line somewhere between murder mystery and actual horror but is always slightly unsure of where it really lies.

Several of the elements that came to be used so potently in future films - suggestions of the occult, witchcraft and magic - are present but in much more basic forms, forms which occasionally work but often don't. By way of example, (and although I would never invest too much hope in an Argento plot), the use in Four Flies of a radical new science technique that captures exactly what the eye saw before death is not supernatural, it's just silly. This is the kind of thing that undermines a film, especially a film of the kind Argento produces; suspension of disbelief can be carried a long way (especially when we're enjoying ourselves!) but when something strikes the viewer as being silly, all tension is lost.

This is, much like the other criticism/faint praise this week, not to suggest that Four Flies is a bad film. It's not. It's enjoyable, it has a couple of good murders in it. It leaves you guessing for much of its duration. It is not, however, a great film. It is, to my mind, a far cry from the 'classic' Argento and, although we might excuse it for being a formative exercise in style, it doesn't stand on its own legs as a powerful or memorable film. One to watch in a spare moment but, if you've never seen an Argento film, not a great place to start.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Another new (to me) Argento film, another next-day post. The problem this time, though, is that I still don't know what to think. Phenomena has me confused; it could either be my least favourite Argento film yet or it could even be - whisper it- my favourite. I certainly will need to see it again beofre I'm sure.

It has all the faults you could accuse an Argento film of, and it has them by the bucketfull. The story is pretty much nonsensical. The dialogue is clumsy. The acting is as wooden as it gets. If I wanted (and several IMDB reviewers have wanted to) I could make this sound like a truly awful film. It's about a half-mad girl who communicates with insects, for heaven's sake!

So... it's a bad film right?


Phenomena is, as with so many of these films, not really meant to be a narrative to follow, a dramatic performance to astound or a literary tour-de-force. It's an experience. It's a film you have to sit and give your full attention to. So surrender your art-critic pretensions and just immerse yourself in it. There's a lot to like!

She does, after all, communciate with insects! This, predictably, does not mean talking to ladybirds but rather invokes biblical-plagues of flying terrors, ready to sting, nibble and smother anything in their way.

It also has Donald Pleasence (always a good thing) and a monkey.



If I seem to be struggling to find useful things to say about this film it's really only because it has such an absolutely brilliant, arresting, throat-grabbing, mind-boggling wonder of an ending. The film was good, sure, but the last quarter of an hour or so utterly trumped it. It's not frightening as such (there's certainly no scene to equal the dog-chases-girl in Tenebrae) but it is tense, it is shocking and it is delivered with enthusiasm and panache!

It would be such a shame to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, so I'll carefully guard my tonguer (er... keys?) and leave you with a very unsatisfactorary conclusion. Phenomena is quite possibly utter rubbish with a chilling ending. Or it is quite possibly a stunning film that needs to be experienced. I'm just not sure.

Either way, I certainly need and want to watch it again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tenebrae (pt II)

It it, I'd say, quite fitting that Tenebrae, as the first Argento film of the week that I hadn't previously seen, is the first that I write about with a little more space to reflect on it. And yet... still, I just don't quite know what to make of it. Was it absolutely stunning? Was it run-of-the-mill? Was it powerful and tense? Or was it just a bit silly?

As I was watching the film - up to about 2/3 of the way through, at least - I was none too taken in by it. It seemed pretty much your typical slasher. As per usual, it was shot beautifully, as per usual the deaths were gleefully brutal but... there really didn't seem an awful lot that marked it out from the crowded field. It has people being killed. It has ransom-note style anonymous letters. The lead character just happened to be in Italy at the time (this seems to be quite an Argento trope...). Mysterious phone-calls! Someone wearing a mask! The basic plot elements are all just a little too... average.

But this is Argento! So perhaps it was unreasonable of me to be concentrating too hard on the plot, after all. Again, however, I found myself feeling disappointed. Although there were a handful of interesting camera angles I felt like something was missing; why wasn't the camera taking such an excitingly active role as in some of the others? In this, I must now admit, I was just plain wrong. The camera work in Tenebrae is fabulous. It does half of the same things as in his other films but - crucially - you hardly notice it at all. This is surely the best cinematography of all, camera work that grabs you, changes the way you relate to the story and yet remains unobtrusive.

I'm still not sure, though. My appreciation of the film languished at a low-point throughout much of the film, rose unexpectedly to a fever-pitch of wow-that-was-awesome at the end but, with a day's reflection, has returned to something middling really. It's not that it's not an awful lot of fun, it's simply that it doesn't cry out in quite the same way as something to be remembered. It doesn't feel as gloriously unique as some of the others.

I should add, however, that whilst that assessment might be true of the film as a whole, there certainly were a few memorable moments. The extended scene in which a girl is chased by a dog (I really don't want to give too much away) was Argento at his sublime best. No dialogue, just a building tension (carried wonderfully by Goblin's score) that makes the scene almost painful to watch but impossible to turn away from. When Tenebrae gets it right, it gets it very right!

Tenebrae (AKA Tenebre)

Tonight's film was Tenebrae, the first one that was new to me. Sadly, I'm way too tired to write about it now, so it can wait until the morning.

For now, fans of Justice's 'Phantom Parts I & II' should probably check out the Tenebrae theme tune, contributed by repeated-Argento-collaborators, Goblin.



Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bird with the Crystal Plumage

From one to the next!

Tonight's film was Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle Piume de Cristallo) which was another that I'd seen before but, once again, was none the worse for it.

My entry for this one will be much shorter. Mostly because I'm much more tired today, but partly also because the film is, in my eyes at least, somewhat less remarkable. It makes a fairly neat comparison against Opera though, mostly because nearly every flaw I found in Opera is corrected here.

Yesterday I pointed out that Opera's music left something to be desired; here, a certain Mr Ennio Morricone steps in to create a score that bursts with energy when it needs to, broods menacingly at times and jangles its merry way through the film. Similarly, the actual plot - another weak spot in Opera - is phenomenally tight here. Mystery and suspense lurk at every set-piece and in ever shadow. I challenge any viewer not to spend the entire film guessing at who's responsible for the series of grisly deaths handed out to the poor victims.

Yet, for all this, it simply doesn't have the sheer atmosphere that makes Opera so thrilling. The camera, although rarely short of wonderful, doesn't drag us, biting at our nails, into the story in the same way as yesterday's film and this is telling of the film as a whole. It's fascinating, it's captivating, it's beautiful but yet it never quite achieves the intensity of Opera.

If I'm damning it with faint praise, I must apologise. Bird with the Crystal Plumage is by no means a bad, or even mediocre film. It's a great film. It tells a compelling story and it tells it very well indeed. But this is perhaps all it does; it is a brilliant story, but never quite manages to be a brilliant cinematic experience.

Note: It only occurred to me to check the date of this film as an afterthought. This is Argento's first film as director, some 17 years before he directed Opera and perhaps this explains the points I highlight. This is a much more 'traditional' film than Opera, a film that obeys more of the normal 'rules'. In some respects, it's the better for it, but in terms of a cinematic experience it merely hints at what he was to achieve later.

Monday, March 21, 2011


So, part one of Chopping Mall's Dario Argento Week is his 1987 masterpiece Opera.

This is pitched, as a few of his films are, somewhere between straight up giallo whodunit and a tense psychological horror. With gruesome death scenes. So, you could say, it manages to do a bit of everything that's awesome about Italian cinema. Except Westerns. There are certainly no cowboys...

The basic premise sees Betty called in at the last minute to perform in the opera of MacBeth. The famous curse of the Scottish play has struck down the intended Lady MacBeth, leaving the role wide open for the young and inexperienced Betty. She steps up to the mark - and gets rave reviews - but from this moment on things really start to go wrong: lights crash to the floor on the opening night, staff members are found dead and then Betty encounters a mysterious masked man...

This guy, it turns out, has quite a sadistic edge to him and happily tied her up, tapes needles to the bottom of her eyes - so she can't close her eyes in horror, of course - and then precedes to stab her lover in front of her. Through the throat.

I shan't elaborate too much on the rest of the plot, as that would spoil the surprise, although perhaps that wouldn't matter too much. To my mind, the weakest element of Opera is that I really don't care that much who's responsible for the murders and - I suspect - Argento doesn't either. The combination of surprisingly few clues or half-remembered vital details (especially in comparison to some of his other films...) and the sheer indulgence of the murders (lookout for the one with the keyhole...) suggest that this is a film that's concerned less with who's doing the crime than er... simply enjoying watching the crime.

Its real strong point however is the astonishingly brilliant camera work. I suspect I'm going to have to spend most of this week hunting out alternative superlatives for the cinematography in Argento's films, but for now I must say that the visual element of Opera is simply stunning. It's hard to do it justice in screenshots, simply because this is less about camera angles than about camera movement; Argento's camera leads us through the film, ducking behind curtains, drawing back ominously, following the heels of characters as they walk. This is the real magic of the film; we never simply watch the action but rather are immersed in it. Argento throws the viewer into the scene, compelling us to watch the grisly details as surely as if it were our eyes that were forced open by needles.

Opera is certainly not everyone's film, it's certainly not simply a murder mystery and it's certainly not the best constructed story you'll watch/read/encounter. What it is, however, is utterly compelling viewing, visually astonishing and an awful lot of fun.

The only remaining points to note are the brilliance of the crows - surely the most threatening birds in cinema after those of The Birds - and, less brilliantly, the appalling choices made in the soundtrack. With brilliant excerpts of opera music, it seems such a shame to throw in the odd chunk of metal-ish guitar rock, which in most cases simply kills the atmosphere. It's a far cry, say, from the dipping-with-tension(-and-blood) soundtrack to Suspiria....

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dario Argento week!

CC licenced photo by Brian Eeles via Wikimedia

This Sunday, the National Media Museum, as part of the Bradford International Film Festival's Widescreen Weekend - a festival strand devoted to screening classic examples of gorgeously presented films - are showing Suspiria by Italian director Dario Argento.

Now I love the Dario Argento films I've seen. More than that, I consider Suspiria one of my favourite films ever. Although the story might not be anything too remarkable, the visual style and the brooding music add up to create one of the most beautiful, tense and atmospheric pieces of film I've ever seen. And I never thought I'd get to see it on a big screen!

Needless to say, I am slightly very excited!

So, between now and Sunday, what better way to anticipate the event than by watching seven other of Argento's films? And writing about them here, of course.

Over the next seven days, I shall watch (in an as yet undecided order)
Profondo Rosso, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Opera, 4 mosche di velluto grigio, Tenebrae, Cat O' Nine Tails and Phenomena.

Buy Tickets to Supiria
Check out the Bradford International Film Festival