Saturday, October 31, 2009

The horror movie: new golden age or fangs for the memory?

Thanks to my good friend Paul Rowe for the following article.

Okay. For those of you who aren’t horror fans, get that index finger going and scroll down to the next article. Because none of the following will be of interest to you. At all. But I would like those of you who are - those of you who can name the film that started it all and how old you were when you first watched it and what pattern was printed on your pyjamas – to ask yourself the following question: what is it I love about horror movies? For those with a real love of horror will undoubtedly begin your lists with words like, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘tension’. Yes; good effects help, as does a solid script and decent cast, but it’s the feeling that makes it really happen. Visuals are important of course, primarily the sets; foreboding castles perched on an outcropping in the Carpathians, twisted trees that appear to float above ground level because of an eddying ground-mist. Shock tactics if well deployed can be successful, but easily over-used. Every time the audience is made to jump – prompting laughter – the tension is broken, so this tactic can only be utilised a couple of times if the overall atmosphere is to be maintained throughout the film.

I’m not preaching and this isn’t a thesis – you all know this.

So; if we all know it, why doesn’t Hollywood? Why, at a time when even the most low-budget shoot has production values that the movie-brats of the seventies could have only dreamed of, does every director shoot horror movies as fucking action comedies!?!?

Sorry. Forgive me. But really. Stephen Sommers is the devil. ‘The Mummy’ as Indiana Jones? Karloff would have been getting his bandages all twisted spinning in his sarcophagus. And the concept of Michael Bay having his own production stable churning out remakes of many of the most famous chillers of the last twenty or thirty years would be hilarious if it weren’t so depressing. The naivety being demonstrated is unfathomable. What made ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and ‘Halloween’ so memorable was the lack of gloss, the immediacy, the feeling that they were shot at the scene on the hand-held camera of a passer by. Watching these films, you can’t really imagine a film crew and lighting rigs and actors working from scripts (the fact that so many of the actors were poor doesn’t matter). Michael Bay does big, stupid, syrupy action films, and then for some bizarre reason obtains the rights to a handful of low-budget independent horror classics and produces them as big, stupid, syrupy action films.

Has the youth of today really got such a short attention span that they need a stabbing, a naked pair of breasts or an explosion every five minutes to keep them interested? Maybe so, maybe they have. Maybe it’s us – the old horror traditionalists – who are naïve. Maybe it’s all business and to hell with creating great films that can be enjoyed for generations.

I had my hopes briefly raised when I learned that the upcoming remake of ‘The Wolf Man’ was to be set in Victorian England (predating the contemporary set 1941 version) and would remain faithful to much of George Waggner’s original. Benicio Del Toro as Larry Talbot? I licked my lips. I’ve since learned the director is Joe Johnston. Joe-‘Jurassic Park 3’-‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’-Johnston. ‘The Wolf Man’ as family-friendly actioner anyone? Er … no; no thanks. Even with Andrew Kevin Walker, who came over all gothic for ‘Se7en’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’, having contributed the screenplay, things don’t bode well.

Let’s look at the facts: Best ‘Dracula’ adaptation? F. W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) or Todd Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931). Best ‘Frankenstein’? James Whale’s 1931 version. Karl Freund gave us the definitive ‘Mummy’ in 1932 and the aforementioned 1941 ‘Wolf Man’ remains arguably the best werewolf movie (with a respectful nod to John Landis’s ‘An American Werewolf in London’). See the pattern? Steady pacing, classic themes, iconic monsters and all simply dripping in atmosphere. Watch ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ again. Scary? No, not today it’s not. But wonderfully effective, despite the man-in-costume-that’s-so-tight-he-can’t-bend-his-arms-or-legs-creature, with a lovely sense of claustrophobia and many memorable scenes (you’ll wonder how many times a young Steven Spielberg watched the film for inspiration whilst on the set of ‘Jaws’).

So again; is there no one out there with the courage to make an old-fashioned character driven, straight-faced horror movie? William Friedkin didn’t deem it necessary to throw in a few jokes or a scene or two of slapstick in ‘The Exorcist’, did he? Kubrick managed to successfully adapt ‘The Shining’ without changing the cast into a group of teenagers who’d broken into The Overlook Hotel to smoke dope and boing each other.

So, come on then; ten great, non-comic horror films aimed at adults since ‘The Shining’? Bet you can’t do it. I can’t. ‘The Evil Dead’? Undeniably great, but tongue-in cheek. ‘Near Dark’? More cool than scary. ‘28 Days / Weeks Later’? Convincing end of the world feel these two, you’re glad to put the lights on after they’ve finished and look outside to make sure everything’s still normal. What about the 1982 version of ‘The Thing’, which was a brilliant exercise in paranoia and suspense directed by John Carpenter who - like Landis - seemingly decided that directing half a dozen cracking movies was enough and that all of his future output would be consistently shite. We’ve relied on the Far East for serious chills over the past decade with ‘The Ring’, ‘The Grudge’, ‘The Eye’ etc, but even these titles are quickly becoming generic and tired. Europe? Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’ can not only claim best horror film of last year, but must feature in the top three or four of any genre.

A few gems aside though, it’s been slim pickings out there.

Right; what about those faithful literary horror adaptations of the nineties? Both Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ and Branagh’s ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (Jesus, what’s with the name checking?) were worthy but dull romantic costume dramas, not horror films.

So please. Somebody. Please. Somebody please make a great horror film.

Joe Johnston?

Maybe. You never know.

But don’t bet on it.

by Paul Rowe

Friday, October 30, 2009


The school is isolated. It is surrounded by woodland. Paths wind secretly through the trees. The lake is good for swimming but the rowing boat sits low in the water, hull leaking. The wall that encloses everything is huge and overgrown with vines. It is forbidden to go beyond the wall. You risk punishment.

Iris (Zoe Auclair) arrives in a coffin and the other girls open it up and help her to climb out. The coffin is small. Iris is six. The girls show her where to wash and sleep. They give her ribbons for her hair. The ribbons are red because Iris is the youngest. Bianca (Berangere Haubruge) wears violet ribbons because she is the eldest.

Iris becomes immediately attached to Bianca and wishes they could stay together forever. But Bianca goes somewhere at night. She leaves the dormitory at nine o'clock when the other girls go to sleep. They wake at seven, have breakfast at eight and start work at nine. Work consists of Miss Eva (Marion Cotillard) putting them through their paces at the barre.

The only other adults are Miss Edith (Helene de Fougerolles), who walks with a stick, and the elderly domestics. "They are here to serve us. If they don't, they are punished." Some of the girls speculate that Miss Edith's injured leg was a punishment from when she was a girl and tried to escape: the Head broke her leg. The Head visits occasionally and a girl is Chosen. The Chosen girl is lucky because she gets to leave. Laura (Olga Peytavi-Muller) wants to escape. Alice (Lea Bridarolli) wants to be Chosen. Iris frets that Bianca might leave soon. The woods burgeon with life: caterpillars, snails, snakes. Rain lashes the lake.

The school is often quiet, the girls playing outside, in the woods, when they are not being taught. The corridors are often empty, milky light filtering in through high windows. There are other corridors, underground ones. Some of the girls are ushered down these corridors, into a theatre where they dance for an audience who are never seen. The school gives up some of its secrets only to reveal further enigma.

'Innocence' is dreamlike, haunting, disturbing in ways that you can't quite pin down. It is metaphorical. It keeps the secrets of its self-contained world just out of reach. It does not offer resolution, only a sense of the cyclical: of things developing, emerging from the chrysalis, and the eternal and mysterious process beginning again.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Lafcadio Hearn was a Greek-Irish American journalist who, in 1890, travelled to Japan as a correspondent. A country and a culture still veiled in mystery, its traditions more or less unknown to westerners, Japan became Hearn's home for the remaining fourteen years of his life. He married a Japanese woman, took citizenship and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo. He published over a dozen books on various aspects of Japan, although his literary fame prinicipally rests on his collections of folk tales and ghost stories.

Masaki Kobayashi was an acclaimed Japanese director who, as a pacifist, endured being drafted into the Imperial Army during World War II. His second film, 'The Thick-Walled Room', dealt with war crimes. The experience of his military service also informed his nine hour trilogy 'The Human Condition'. Another key theme in his filmography is Japan's feudal history: samurai are protagonists in 'Harakiri' and 'Samurai Rebellion' (the latter starring Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune). His best known work - certainly his most widely distributed in the west - is 'Kwaidan'. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965', 'Kwaidan' is a portmanteau film crafted from four of Hearn's ghost stories.

Thematically linking to his other work, a masterless samurai is the protagonist of the first story, 'The Black Hair'. This gentleman, frustrated and embarrassed by the poverty he has fallen into following his master's demise, regretfully divorces his devoted wife and sets out to find a new employer. No sooner does he get work than he finds himself in the socially advantageous position of entering into marriage with the boss's daughter. His guilt at his thankless treatment of the woman who truly loved him is exacerbated by the realisation that his new wife is a spoiled little madame who doesn't. He resolves, once his contract has ended, to return to his home town and make amends. Many years lapse, though, before he is free of his obligations. Nonetheless, he undertakes the journey back. Not only is his first wife waiting for him, but she doesn't seem to have aged a day ...

In 'The Woman of the Snow', two woodcutters - an older man and his 18-year-old apprentice - are caught in a snowstorm and seek shelter in a boatman's hut. (The boatman's on the other side of the river, cut off by the storm. Just in case you were wondering.) The lad awakes to see a deathly pale woman with long black hair (yup, we're in Japanese ghost story territory all right) sucking the life out of the old man. Re-reading that last sentence, I feel I should add: through his mouth. While he's asleep. In a totally non-sexual way. The lad's scared witless (and probably something else that sounds similar), but the snow woman finds his youthful looks appealing and lets him live. But she cautions him never to speak a word of what has happened, otherwise she will take his life. Years later, married with a family, the young man is given cause to think back to that fateful night ...

The longest segment, 'Hoichi the Earless', concerns a blind musician who lives at a temple. A simple man who performs basic tasks for the monks, his talent as a balladeer earns him some degree of renown. So when a samurai arrives at the temple one night and demands that Hoichi accompany him and perform for his master, no is not an answer. It is specifically required of him that he perform an epic cycle of songs which recount a terrible sea battle between warring clans and its equally devastating aftermath. Quizzed later by the monks as to where he went, Hoichi cagily replies that he had some business to attend to. The samurai collects him again the next night. And the next. Fearful for his safety, the monks have him followed. What they discover drives them to desparate measures, with unexpected consequences ...

The final (and shortest) tale is 'In a Cup of Tea', an unfinished story which suggests its author might have got a little too close to the subject matter ...

Apologies for the profusion of ellipses, but this really is 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind of stuff. All of the stories dwell on the set-up with the slavish attention to detail of a campfire storyteller making sure all the narrative ducks are in a row ready for a meant-to-be-surprising payoff which you can actually see coming like an aircraft carrier on a duckpond. All the stories play out as even the most fairweather of second-guessers would expect, even if the mechanics of their plotting pull off the occasional subversive coup. The resulting deflation of narrative tension, coupled with a three-hour running time appropriate to the film's stately pace, might not bode well, but the saving grace of 'Kwaidan' is its awe-inspiring visual beauty.

Did I say saving grace? Let me rephrase that: the raison freakin' d'etre of 'Kwaidan' is its awe-inspiring visual beauty. Filmed - with very few exceptions (an exterior where the samurai of 'The Black Hair' demonstrates his horsemanship; a rocky coastline against which Hoichi first performs his haunting ballad) - on sets so expansive they were built in an aircraft hangar, Kobayashi's tableaux are staged against a series of darkly imaginative, beautifully rendered and sometimes fleetingly creepy painted backgrounds. His compositions are elegantly constructed. The overall effect is one of artifice. 'Kwaidan' has as much to do with theatre as it does with cinema.

This would normally send me running from a film, pleading for sanctuary in something, anything, that has a car chase or a shoot-out. I've always been beholden to the doctrine that cinema = moving image. For me, movies that are little more than filmed plays are anathema. And yet 'Kwaidan' makes poetry of what in most directors' hands would be inertia. It's an overused bit of encomium (and one I've stooped to out of laziness before), but where 'Kwaidan' is concerned it attains truism: you could snip out any frame of the film at random, print it as a still image, frame it and hang it on your wall as a piece of art. It's been hard as hell trying to settle on just a handful of stills to illustrate this piece.

Which is why I'm blogging about 'Kwaidan' all over again tomorrow - only minus 1,000 words of my waffle and with a shedload more images ...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Once Upon a Time in America

When Joe at This Distracted Globe put the call out for contributors to his Class of 1984 blog-a-thon, I'd just picked up the 2-disc edition of 'Once Upon a Time in America' for a song. It had been a while - quite a while - since I'd seen it. I'd pretty much forgotten most of the narrative beyond the scenes in the anti-heroes' childhood. I figured Joe's blog-a-thon was the perfect opportunity to re-approach Sergio Leone's swansong. I had plenty of time to watch the film, marshall my thoughts and prepare an article.

Life, predictably, got in the way. Life, work, illness, the Third Annual Dirk-Fest, my wife's birthday and the Italian horror movie blog-a-thon over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, to be exact. So now I find myself hammering out a few paragraphs at the eleventh hour, Ennio Morricone's melancholic score still in my ears and that last shot - that freeze-frame of Noodles (Robert de Niro) reclining in the opium den, a soporific smile on his face - still fixed in my mind. And I'm thinking that the film is less a gangster epic than a ghost story. I'm wondering if the trio of heavies who, in the bluntly brutal opening scenes, slap around Noodles's girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) then severely beat his friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) before tracking him down to the opium den actually pull the hit on him and the next three and a quarter hours present a conflation of the old saw about one's life passing before one's eyes and a vision of the future had he lived. A future which is corrupt and rotten and inescapably defined by every violent act of the past.

I'm also wondering - when 1984 saw the release of so many mainstream crowd-pleasers - why I decided to pick a four-hour epic of such formalism, such measured pace and so steeped in loss and regret that it's less an organic development of the grungily operatic spaghetti westerns that made Leone's name than the closest cinema has given us to a gangster movie as if made by Ingmar Bergman.

I had forgotten just how melancholy 'Once Upon a Time in America' is. That the scenes set in the late 1910s, which document the youthful Noodles and his friends' collective loss of innocence, are the cheeriest in the movie kind of says it all. We see Noodles (Scott Tiler), Max (Rusty Jacobs), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), Patsy (Brian Bloom) and Dominic (Noah Moazezi) commit arson, robbery and blackmail, throw in their lot with an older group of bootleggers, take a beating from a rival gang leader, and - sealing their fates into adulthood - one of their number being murdered and another going to jail after a revenge killing ... and Leone imbues every bit of it with nostalgia. Kids still half a decade off shaving roll drunks, backtalk cops and pursue sexual favours from a neighbourhood girl for the price of a cream cake ... and there's a palpable sense of yearning that this brief tenement-set idyll is so soon to end. Noodles gets it bad for Fat Moe (Mike Monetti)'s svelte sister Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) and when he muses, with all the braggadoccio of a lad who'd never dare tell his mates that he hasn't got laid yet, "She wants something from me and one of these days I'm going to give it to her", it's almost comical.

There's nothing funny, though, about Noodles' attempt to romance the adult Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). When he doesn't get what he wants, he takes it by force. By now it's the early 1930s and Max (James Woods) fancies himself as the gang's de facto leader. Max's compulsion to leave the small time prompts an uneasy partnership with Mob guy Frankie Minoldi (Joe Pesci) and his low-class associate Joe (Burt Young), who tips them to a diamond heist. Frankie gives them additional orders and the job takes a darker turn. Prohibition is coming to an end and when Noodles jokes that "we're out of work", Max doesn't see the funny side. Max gets increasingly involved with the Mob's political machinations, providing protection for union boss Jimmy O'Donnell (Treat Williams). He also plots a suicidal heist on the federal reserve. Then Max's girlfriend Carol (Tuesday Weld) implores Noodles to an urgent course of action rather than see Max gunned down.

Noodles' decision effectively explodes the narrative, and even Noodles himself isn't fully cognizant of the repercussions. Not until the film's third timeline - 1968 - where the past comes back to haunt Noodles in a way he could never have anticipated, and I find myself back at the 'Once Upon a Time in America' as ghost story reading. For all the iconography - the hats and suits and cars and tommy guns and molls in flapper dresses - the film is decidedly atypical of the genre. The final hour plays out absent of anything approaching an action scene. The curiously muted finale - replete with enough pregnant pauses and unspoken implications to fill a dozen Harold Pinter productions - builds to an image of two old guys (one wearing a tux, one a fedora) and a garbage truck, its pulping mechanism churning away, that just plain fucking disturbs me.

But we're talking of a film where the most poetic scene has a boy standing on a toilet to peek through a removed brick into an adjoining room at a girl practicing her ballet recital; where the chronology of a petty theft and its aftermath is timed on the very pocket watch that was stolen; where the saddest, truest, most insightful moment is of a boy sitting on a stairwell unable to resist eating the cream cake he's spent his only money on, even though he knows what he can barter it for and how badly he wants it.

'Once Upon a Time in America' is a gangster film in imagery only; it's really about the loss of innocence, very early on in the game, and how the best we can hope for thereafter is narcotic oblivion or a quick death.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Jess (Melissa George), a downtrodden waitress and single parent struggling to cope with the demands of an autistic son, accepts an invitation from Greg (Michael Dorman) to spent a day sailing with him and his friends. Greg is a laid-back rich guy who's a regular at Jess's diner and feels sorry for her lot in life. His equally rich but not so laid-back friends - college buddy Downey (Henry Nixon) and his parvenu wife Sally (Rachael Carpani) - aren't quite as keen on Jess, particularly Sally who's on a mission to set Greg up with her BFF Heather (Emma Lung). That Heather is more interested in reformed bad boy Victor (Liam Hemsworth), whom Greg has given a job and a second chance, doesn't go down too well with Sally. The tension is at a slow simmer. Then the wind dies, a freak electrical storm comes out of nowhere, the radio is awash with static, a strange distress signal interrupts Greg's transmission to the coastguard and things take a serious turn.

Salvation seems to appear in the shape of a hulking old 1930s liner called the Aeolus. Once on board, however, their earlier tribulations are put in the shade by the appearance of a masked figure with a shotgun intent on hunting them down. This within the first third of 'Triangle' and all traces of narrative simplicity promptly walk the plank at this point and the real fucked-up stuff gets underway.

At first glance, it seems as if writer and director Christopher Smith has the dice loaded against him from the outset: a title reminiscent of the ill-fated 1980s BBC drama series, a concept that you can imagine the Tim Robbins character in 'The Player' lapping up ("it's 'Dead Calm' meets 'Groundhog Day'!") and a deserted ocean liner setting last employed on piece of shit remake 'Ghost Ship'. Moreover, the presence of a psycho killer in a pair of overalls with a burlap sack over their head - imagine the creepy kid from 'The Orphanage' all grown up and basing his fashion choices on Michael Myers - stalking scared people down under-lit corridors presents a checklist of horror tropes familiar enough to make even the most fairweather genre fan shake their head and murmur, "Yeah, seen this before."

So it comes as a delight to report that 'Triangle' is an unqualified success. Comparisons to the movies mentioned in the last paragraph are obvious but superficial. The film 'Triangle' put me in mind of most is Christopher Nolan's modern classic 'The Prestige'. Remember those creepily effective shots of a patch of woodland, the ground littered with dozens of identical bowler hats, the context not revealed until late in the narrative? Smith conjures some similar shots but with enough of the plot revealed to freight his imagery with the full weight of implication: a proliferation of lockets containing photographs of Jess's son; a beach littered with dead seagulls; crumpled pieces of paper, each bearing the same stark message; a bulwark against which is stacked ... ah, but that'd be giving too much away.

Parenthetically, on the subject of giving too much away, don't worry if you think the trailer contains a spoiler. Sitting in the cinema, twenty minutes into the film, I was quietly congratulating myself for figuring it all out and shaking my head that the publicity department tipped me the wink in the startling but ill-chosen image of the camera panning around a gun-toting Jess to reveal that she's pointing the firearm at herself. Yup, I thought to myself, no surprises here. Five minutes later, Smith delivered the big reveal. Five minutes after that he steered the film into 'Twilight Zone' territory. And for the next hour, even though the set-up and the structure of the "loop" Jess and her friends find themselves in was made abundantly clear, the fun is in seeing where Smith goes with it, how cleverly the blanks from the initial sequence of events are filled in, and how the effects of Jess's increasingly desperate attempts to break the loop play out.

The script is one of Smith's two greatest assets. Tricksy, complex, astoundingly well thought-out, Smith worked on the script for two years - and it was time well spent. By my count, events on the liner play out across three versions, while the fragmented opening sequence at Jess's house and the marina (which contain "blind spots" not explained till the final minutes of the film) have two, possibly three, variants. I'd need to see 'Triangle' again; they may be even further levels of implications and alternatives. Damn, I'm already looking forward to the DVD coming out! Sorry: I digress. My point is, many movies which deal in specific, somewhat supernatural, concepts (the two-minutes-into-the-future premonitions of piece of shit Nicolas Cage starrer 'Next' comes to mind) use these concepts as a gimmick instead of a narrative structure and then cheerfully break all of their own rules once it's become evident the scripter has written their way into a corner (the finale of piece of shit Nicolas Cage starrer 'Next' comes to mind). Christopher Smith doesn't cheat. He sets up a carefully established structure, with its own carefully defined internal logic, and not only does he play absolutely fair, he keeps things continually intriguing and often genuinely surprising. He also pulls off the incredibly difficult trick of tying up all the loose ends by the time the ouroborus arrives back at its starting point and giving us a perspective that allows for a second go-around (in every sense of the phrase) with a new and more emotionally-charged dynamic to the events.

His other asset is Melissa George. Already something of a horror stalwart with the 'Amityville Horror' remake, 'Paradise Lost' and '30 Days of Night', she's a natural for 'Triangle'. She's also about as far removed from the stereotypical scream queen as you can get. The description "tough but vulnerable" is a cliche; actually, George's characterisation is realistic: Jess never behaves in a "movie" way. She's tough when she needs to be, when the physical and psychological expediencies of what she goes through leave her with no choice but to take drastic action. But there's always that scared, confused, desperate and yet - tapping some inner reserve of strength - resolute human being just below the surface. Melissa George has always struck me as the kind of actress who simply gets on with delivering very capable, unpretentious, unshowy performances (it is perhaps this unshowiness that makes her something of an underrated talent) and here she does some of her best work.

The rest of the cast are given less demanding roles, but acquit themselves well. Carpani succeeds in making Sally ultimately sympathetic when the character could easily have remained a one-note rich bitch. Robert Humphreys's cinematography achieves a washed-out look, often deliberately overlit in the exterior sequences, contributing greatly to the slight surreal, disconnected, almost woozy atmosphere. Christian Henson's mostly unobstrusive score also helps in this regard. All told, Christopher Smith - who made a solidly crafted debut with 'Creep', hit all the right notes in his comedy horror follow-up 'Severance' and significantly raises the bar with 'Triangle' - gives every indication of knowing exactly what he wants as a director, in terms of structure, performance, visual style, atmosphere and pacing. For my money, 'Triangle' is a cult classic in waiting.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Case of the Bloody Iris

Making it a hat trick for the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies Italian horror movie blog-a-thon ...

Fired up after reviewing 'Don't Torture a Duckling' and 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' for the blog-a-thon, I spent a fruitless hour in the garage yesterday digging through still unpacked boxes (the house move was nearly two years ago!) in search of some old videos on the Redemption label. I knew there were a few Mario Bavas kicking around, as well as Antonio Bido's 'The Cat's Victims' and 'Blood Stained Shadow' and Massimo Dallamano's 'What Have You Done to Solange?'

Could I find them? Could I hell.

The only title that came to light, and perhaps the least of all the gialli in my collection, was 'The Case of the Bloody Iris'. So on it went. My estimation of it didn't improve all that much, but it's worth writing about for a couple of reasons: (a) it presents a decent checklist of giallo tropes, and (b) it stars the deliriously attractive Edwige Fenech.

So what makes it an archetypal giallo? Everything but the title, really. If director Giuliano Carnimeo had only put a number, a colour or an animal in the title - something like 'Six Bloodstains on a Yellow Canary' - it could have been a textbook example of the genre. As it is, Argento's 'Four Flies on Grey Velvet' retains its crown as the ultimate giallo title. I actually prefer the original Italian language title, 'Perche quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer' (literally: 'What Are These Strange Drops of Blood on the Body of Jennifer'). It's so unwieldly and bludgeoningly literal that it's almost genius.

Setting aside the title, what 'The Case of the Bloody Iris' offers the (un)discerning viewer is:

1. The glamour model milieu of 'Blood and Black Lace' and 'Strip Nude for Your Killer' ... and the liberal helping of nudity that said milieu implies.

2. A rain-coated, leather-gloved killer (okay, tan leather gloves instead of the regulation issue black but I'll let that one slide) who also wears a stocking-cum-face-mask type affair that makes it look like Rorshach from 'Watchmen' has made a stop-off in 1970s Italy for the express purpose of menacing our Edwige.

3. A pass-the-parcel selection of potential suspects including a disfigured recluse, a psychotic ex-husband, a dodgy nightclub owner, a predatory lesbian and a too-smooth-by-half property baron.

4. Two stupendously useless coppers: a casually racist, casually homophobic licenced thug ("You know the reputation we have for police brutality?" he asks a suspect before punching him in the face; "It's a good reputation to have"), and his comic relief sidekick who indulges in a little stakeout voyeurism and completely misses a murder committed slap bang in front of him because he's too busy tucking into a sandwich.

5. A series of fetishistically depicted murders including stabbing, drowning and scalding to death.

6. A beleaguered victim-in-waiting, failed by the police, who resorts to amateur sleuthing in an attempt to unmask the killer.

7. Vertiginous camera angles including the obligatory staircase shot. (I don't know what it was with giallo directors and staircases, but they're as omnipresent in these kind of films as bottles of J&B.)

8. Speaking of which, I can't actually swear to the stuff putting in an appearance in 'The Case of the Bloody Iris'; whenever Edwige Fenech was on screen, I wasn't exactly scrutinising the background.

9. A psychedelic tinge to the camerawork, set design and randomly incorporated flashback sequences.

10. A denouement in which the killer's motivation is as arbitrary as their identity.

11. Edwige Fenech looking gorgeous. I may have mentioned this already.

'The Case of the Bloody Iris' opens with a woman (possibly a hooker) making a call from a phone box. She's summoned to a swanky apartment block. Taking the elevator to one of the uppermost floors, she's stabbed with a scalpel and left for dead. Mizar (Carla Brait) - an Amazonian type who makes a living from a sub-dom style nightclub act - discovers the body. Not unsurprisingly, she's the next to die. It's into her now vacant apartment that our heroine Jennifer (Fenech) moves, along with her flibbertigibbet room-mate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini).

Jennifer is trying to make a new life for herself having run away from her husband (Ben Carra), a member of a cult whose initiation ritual seems to consist of all and sundry getting it on with Jennifer. The trauma of his intermittent reappearances, where he variously tries to drug her and rape her, is exacerbated by the tendency of Jennifer's neighbours to either turn up dead or give off the kind of menacing vibes that lead her to suspect the killer is just a few doors away.

'The Case of the Bloody Iris' holds no surprises, but provides an entertaining 90 minutes. Carnimeo - better known as a director of spaghetti westerns - stages the set-pieces proficiently. The murder which our sandwich scarfing policeman fails to notice is particularly memorable, Carmineo interweaving POV shots and effectively exploiting the bustle of a busy street, most passers-by not even realising what's happened even as the victim stumbles forward, clutching their stomach, blood gouting from between their fingers. Elsewhere, a scrapyard and a boiler room provide appropriately shadowy backdrops for scenes of suspense.

The performances are generally utilitarian and not helped, at least in the Vipco DVD I watched, by some shoddy dubbing. Paola Quattrini in particular is overdubbed by someone who sounds like they'd ingested a large amount of helium prior to the recording session. The cinematography is decent, but never shoots for the baroque brilliance of Bava or Argento. The murders are bloody and often brutal, but more shocking is the script's unreconstructed racial and sexist epithets.

'The Case of the Bloody Iris' is, at best, a good giallo starter kit, offering viewers new to the genre a comprehensive grounding in what to expect, as well as introducing them to the charms of Ms Fenech; the pleasure will be in discovering just how many better gialli there are - and how many of them feature the lady herself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin

Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies Italian horror movie blog-a-thon.

Made a year before 'Don't Torture a Duckling', Lucio Fulci's 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' demonstrates the same straight-to-business facility for striking, provocative imagery in its opening sequence:

Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is traversing the length of a railway carriage, desperately trying to open one compartment door after another; all are locked. The corridor goes from empty but for Carol to jammed with people. Suddenly these others are naked and writhing against each other sexually. Carol tries to force her way through the crush of bodies. Then the carriage is replaced by a long white corridor, like a hospital corridor, still packed with naked bodies. Then Carol is falling. Falling into a dark room with a bed at its centre. A bed draped with garish red silk sheets. A statuesque blonde appears. Inconsistent editing has her sprawled on the bed half naked, then kneeling as if in supplication to Carol, then Carol's on the bed and the blonde is approaching her with an almost predatory look in her eye, her diaphanous robe falling open to reveal her breasts. Then she's easing Carol's fur coat off. Quelle surprise: more nudity! It all gets very sapphic at this point, before a rapid series of edits reveal the whole thing as a dream sequence, Carol awaking in a state of part arousal, part agitation.

A session with her analyst identifies the blonde as Carol's neighbour, Julia (Anita Strindberg), a free spirit known for her rowdy parties and promiscuous behaviour. Later, when Carol reports a dream wherein she kills Julia (Fulci direction heavily sexualises the violence), the shrink congratulates her on a highly liberating expression of her subconscious. But before a successful conclusion to the therapy can be celebrated, the police are on the scene and interested in what Carol might know about Julia's murder. Which - wouldn'tcha know it? - was perpetrated exactly as in Carol's dream.

Carol's family - her politically connected QC father (Leo Genn), adulterous husband Frank (Jean Sorel) and stepdaughter Joan (Ely Galleani) - rally around her (in as much as walking on eggshells, avoiding the issue and evincing a slightly embarrassed denial at her deteriorating mental state can be deemed rallying around) - while Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) determines to get at the truth no matter that it brings him into conflict with his boss, a career cop hesitant at antagonising someone as well connected as Carol's father, or puts him at odds with his colleagues. There's a 'Sweeney'-like scene where Corvin deals with a subordinate who's fucked up. "You," he tells the underling with contemptuous relish, "will enjoy working in archives."

'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' conflates two highly familiar concepts: the person who foretells a murder but is powerless to prevent it and the innocent accused, to whom all evidence points, who must fight to clear their name. Bizarre symbols and fragments of images which may or may not contain the key to solving the mystery are also present; very much a staple of the giallo. The genre's earliest and most defining proponents - Mario Bava's 'The Girl Who Knew Too Much', Dario Argento's 'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' - are shot through with an indebtedness to Hitchcock, and there's definitely something Hitchcockian about the innocent accused aspect of 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin'. But it's hard to imagine even such an accomplished rug-puller as Hitch coming up with as trippy and twisted a mind-fuck as this.

Everything about the film disorientates: whip pans, jump cuts, sudden flashes of light, abrupt juxtapositions (sometimes in split screen), off-kilter compositions; restless, roving, weirdly subjective camerawork; arrhythmic editing. The assault on the viewer's senses carries through to the aural: storms and traffic noise blast out far louder than the dialogue; Corvin's tuneless whistling sussurates through entire scenes; Ennio Morricone's score is just plain schizophrenic. Everything disorientates, even the geography: 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' takes place in a version of London where the map has been folded and compressed and the Underground has presumably been replaced with wormholes, where the Old Bailey is right across the street from the Royal Albert Hall.

Images from Carol's dream spill over into her life. A letter opener disappears from her room and turns up at the murder scene. A blackmail plot has something to do with it. A couple of drug addicts turn up at periodic intervals, graduating from lurking mysteriously in the background to actively terrorising Carol. The narrative unfolds with the fragmentary, vividly illogical delirium of a dream, particularly in a sequence where the by now nervously afflicted Carol, "resting" at a convalescents' home, is menaced by a cloaked figure. Fleeing to the upper storeys, the building seems to take on unrealistically expansive dimensions as Carol hurtles along a maze of featureless corridors which seem to carry over from her original dream. Doors leading off them are locked. Finally - in a room that resembles a morgue - she is assailed by an hallucination of three vivisected dogs, connected and kept alive by a series of tubes pumping blood into their exposed hearts.

It's a nightmarish image, a slap in the face that stays with you on a squirmly subconscious level even though you wish you could get it out of your mind. It makes the crucifix masturbation scene in 'The Exorcist' look like 'Jackanory' and makes you wonder why Fulci continues to be remembered/reviled for the splinter-into-the-eyeball bit in 'Zombie Flesh Eaters'. You wanna see the most disturbing, fucked up shit that ol' Lucio was capable of putting on screen? Right here, buddy. (It also landed Fulci in court in Italy, where he was obliged to present the special effects model as proof that he didn't actually butcher a trio of dogs in order to get the shot.)

Fulci's genius in 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' - and I'm struggling while writing to decide whether this or 'Don't Torture a Duckling' marks his high point as a film-maker - is to plunge the viewer, from the outset, into the perceptional disconnections of a mind psychologically deconstructing. A chase through a bizarre compendium of locations ends with the beleagured Carol attacked by bats. Until the police intervene and her attacker is identified, there's no telling how much of what we've just seen is in her mind. Fulci establishes a mood of uncertainty from the outset and maintains it till the very last scene when all the pieces are put in place with an understatement atypical in gialli. Too, he breaks the mold by eschewing the bumbling inefficiency and comic relief that usually characterises the procedure aspects of gialli. Here, Baker portrays Corvin as an introspective and bloody-minded copper who actually conducts forensic and evidence-based detective and moreover, in the closing scene, solves the case.

Baker's performance is good, Sorel's and Genn's by the numbers; Galleani sashays short-skirtedly through a nothing role, while Strindberg is given little to do but radiate dangerous allure (such was her lot, generally speaking, in gialli). It's Bolkan to whom the acting honours are due. Carol is multi-layered, emotionally exhausting role and Bolkan gives it all she's got - a full-throttle, all or nothing performance which should have netted her a mantlepiece full of awards. But 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' is a giallo and the kind of critics who think they know more than people who generally love film have it that gialli are pulp movies and devoid of artistic legitimacy.

Which is why I'm a movie lover and not a critic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's an early bath for you, Andrei ...

I enjoyed writing yesterday's 'Don't Torture a Duckling' piece; and I've been enjoying reading the other contributions to the Italian horror movie blog-a-thon. And to be honest with you, I don't much fancy seguing into the next two titles in the Tarkovsky retrospective.

So I'm showing Tarkovsky the red card. I'll conclude the retrospective with a mammoth week-long sequence of posts next month. But for now until the end of October (with a quick diversion on the 26th to honour my commitment to This Distracted Globe's Class of 1984 blog-a-thon), it's horror movies all the way, including at least two more gialli. Starting with another dark little number from Lucio Fulci tomorrow ...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Don't Torture a Duckling

Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies Italian horror movie blog-a-thon.

'Don't Torture a Duckling' opens with a striking shot of a multi-lane highway curving through hilly terrain, huge concrete stanchions rising from the valley floor. On a ridge overlooking the highway, Magiara (Florinda Balkan) - considered a witch by the good people of nearby township Accendura - scratches at the topsoil with gnarled hands, digging deeper, shifting lumps of dark earth. A child's skeleton is revealed. Modernity and ancient superstition; wide open vistas and hidden secrets. Lucio Fulci's classic 1972 giallo - arguably his most interesting work as a director - starts as it means to go on.

And the longer it goes on - Fulci plays much of the slender 102 minute running time slow burn - the darker it gets.

The next scene has three boys excitedly note the arrival, in a beat up old car, of two ladies of questionable virtue who promptly take a pair of rock ugly locals into a ramshackle lean-to for a bit of the old in-out in-out. Village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri) attempts a spot of voyeurism but is informed by one of the less-than-happy hookers that if he wants to watch he has to pay. Evidently Giuseppe's a bit strapped for cash so he goes scuttling round the other side to see if he can get another glimpse. It's here that the three boys disturb him, mocking him for a peeping tom. Which is rather hypocritical given their motives.

One of the boys, Michele, is next seen assisting his mother, maid to poor little rich girl Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) who is drying out from a drug problem at her millionaire father's ostentacious house on the outskirts of town. All '60s architecture and trendily sterile decor, it's a marked comparison to the clustered dwellings, narrow streets and poverty-striken lives that make up Accendura. The way Patrizia lives her life is in similarly pronounced contrast. When Michele is sent by his mother to take a drink up to Patrizia, he finds her naked on a tanning bed. Rather than throw on a robe or shoo him out, she delightedly teases the boy before perfunctorily dismissing him.

So far so exploitative (there is no further nudity in the film, though Bouchet's costumes emphasise how much of a tease her character is). But it's not just thrown in for the sake of it. Firstly, it mirrors the earlier scene (Michele and his cronies as voyeurs). Secondly, coupled with subsequent scenes where Patrizia interacts - sometimes provocatively, sometimes domineeringly - with local children, it marks her out as a suspect when the three boys, in very short order, turn up dead.

It's only the presence of a more distrusted, more reviled suspect - witch/madwoman/social pariah Magiara - that presumably keeps the townsfolk's vigilante attentions from Patrizia.

Fulci does a number of intriguing things with what could otherwise have been a fairly formulaic procedural in which suspicion shifts from one character to another like a game of pass-the-parcel. To begin with, he keeps the film free of a protagonist for almost the first hour. Patrizia is introduced very early on but is swiftly backgrounded, cropping up to make the occasional dubious night-time drive or find herself blithely floating around very close to the scene of the latest atrocity. Inscrutable journalist Martinelli (Tomas Milian) cables a few reports from the scene, rubs up the Police Commissioner (Virgilo Gazzalo) the wrong way and similarly isn't given much to do till way after the halfway mark. The Commissioner himself - a typical giallo authority figure: big on voicing self-evident gouts of exposition but fuck all use at actually solving the crime - gets a fair bit of screen time, as do the interchangeable local police under his command, but he's definitely not the hero type. Or even the anti-hero type. 'Don't Torture a Duckling' - its title a compromise from 'Don't Torture Donald Duck' (for some strange reason, the Disney corporation took offence), after the distinctive child's toy that provides a big final-reel clue - isn't big on heroes.

By dint of these depersonalisations, the town of Accendura emerges as the main character. And a pretty seedy character it is, cloaked hypocritically by its lip service to the Catholic church. Progressive priest Don Alberto (Marc Porel) reaches out to the Accendura's children, communicating via soccer instead of sermons, but the adults mumble their way through his services (and, in some of the most affecting scenes, funerals), bristling with barely concealed animosity towards Magiara and her sometime lover, hermit/mystic Francesco (Georges Wilson). The old ways - orthodox religion and witchcraft - infect the townspeople, bringing parochialism, mistrust and hatred of outsiders to the fore.

It's not till the last third - possibly as late as the last quarter - that Fulci settles on Patrizia and Martinelli as the main characters. By this time, Magiara's confession of black magic has been rubbished by the authorities who, in an edgy scene where the understanding remains unspoken, turn her loose to the less-than-tender mercies of the mob. The officer who gives the evidence which puts her elsewhere at the time of the first murder, is rebuked by his superior ("a little truth goes a long way in this town") in a shockingly brazen display of buck-passing.

Keeping that opening shot of the highway in the background except for one crucial scene (no spoilers, but you'll wince at the ignorance of the motorists) - and with a helicopter buzzing over an area of woodland patrolled by search parties the only other intrusion of the contemporary - Fulci taps into the wilderness, the rugged unforgiving mountainscape and the inextricable bonds of superstition and insularity that cultivate the dark hearts of Accendura's denizens. Sergio d'Offizi's masterful widescreen cinematography fully exploits the uneven steps and narrow streets of the town, as well as the crumbling cemetery and vertiginous hill paths outside of it; Riz Ortolani's score segues from lilting to perky to downright fucking scary, a crashing motif at the most brutal moments reminiscent of Goblin's work for Argento; and Fulci tops his previous giallo outing, the disorientingly brilliant 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin', keeping the tension at a steady simmer before ramping up the heat and steering the denouement into the finally revealed villain's heart of darkness.