Friday, 26 March 2010

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl

Dirs. Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu

When Keiko (Eri Otoguro) plummets to her death after arguing with vampiric love-rival Monami (Yukie Kawamura), her father turns all ‘Dr Frankenstein’ and resurrects her as part of a fiendish experiment. Bolting together a new body for her, he enables his daughter to return from the dead as Frankenstein Girl. The stage is now set for the most ludicrous and elaborate showdown since Godzilla bitch-slapped Megalon.

Part soap-opera, part monster movie mash-up, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is highly imaginative, utterly bonkers and boasts the most wicked sense of humour since The Evil Dead. Amongst various scenes of blood-splattered mayhem, contemporary Japanese pop-culture is mined for twisted laughs by the director who brought us Tokyo Gore Police. Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is as over-the-top, uber-kitsch and gorily twisted as you'd expect from a film with this title. Perhaps most surprising of all, is the fact that it ain't half bad!

Head over to Eye for Film to read my full review.

The Horseman

Dir. Steven Kastrissios

Grieving father Christian (Peter Marshall) tracks down the men responsible for his daughter’s death and discovers more about his daughter than a father should ever know. Along the way he picks up teenage hitchhiker Alice (Caroline Marohasy) who is completely unaware of the brutal and bloody revenge he is extracting. Or is she?

The latest in a line of powerful and extreme Australian genre pictures such as Storm Warning, Long Weekend, Wolf Creek and Lake Mungo, The Horseman exudes a stark realism in its depiction of a grieving father turned brutal vigilante. What adds to the effectiveness of the film is that director Steven Kastrissios maintains effective restraint throughout proceedings as he ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels, before letting rip in a barbaric, bloody and highly intense climax.

Head over to Eye for Film to read my full review.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Book update/Ask Argento

My book Dario Argento (Kamera Books) hits shelves throughout the UK today! Unfortunately it isn't available in the States just yet - though it will be heading there in May. You can of course purchase it online - look, I've made it real easy -, or - it's even on ebay!


Thanks to the positively delectable Francesca Brazzorotto, I've been lucky enough to be granted a quick interview with Mr Argento himself on 9th April!! If anyone has any questions they'd like me to put to The Maestro, feel free to leave them here and if I have time (I have one or two of my own!) I will be glad to. Thanks again Francesca!

Now. Where's my damn Skype manual?!?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Arrow Video goes Argento crazy

Fans of Dario Argento (and indeed Italian horror in general) will be pleased to hear that Arrow Video are releasing several Argento titles to DVD this month - with a multitude of special features and brand-spanking new art work! Read on...



Considered the last of the great horror masterpieces from director Dario Argento’s greatest and most critically acclaimed period of filmmaking to date, Terror At The Opera comes to DVD in March as a special edition featuring two edits of the film and three separate audio dubs, including the infamous English language ‘Cannes Film Festival dub’ and the ‘studio approved dub’ that replaced it.

An homage to ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ (which Argento would remake a decade later) by way of Alfred Hitchcock, Terror At The Opera stars Ian Charleson (Gandhi; Chariots Of Fire) in his final feature appearance and Daria Nicolodi (Mother Of Tears; Scarlet Diva; Phenomena; Tenebre; Inferno) in the disturbing tale of a sadistic hooded killer who torments and abuses a diva with whom he has become obsessed.

Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach stars as Betty, a young and inexperienced opera singer who gets at a chance at her big break starring in a production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ when the lead is forced to pull out following a road accident. Despite her belief that the production is cursed, Betty accepts the role and receives universal acclaim for her performance. Unfortunately, her star turn also attracts the attention of a mysterious psychopathic ‘fan’ who repeatedly kidnaps her, ties her up and, by taping needles to her eyelids so she is unable to blink, forces her to witness him violently murdering her friends, colleagues and acquaintances. But who is the masked killer and why is he targeting her?

Boasting stunning cinematography by Oscar winning cameraman Ronnie Taylor (Gandhi) and some of the most bravura and memorable set pieces of any of Argento’s films – notably the descent of a conspiracy of ravens in the Parma Opera House career and a truly breathtaking murder sequence – the film also features musical contributions from Claudio Simonetti, Brian Eno and Bill Wyman.

Terror At The Opera (cert. 18) will be released on DVD (15.99) by Arrow Video on 22nd March 2010.

Special Features include: double sided sleeve featuring new artwork; exclusive collector’s booklet; poster; feature presentation (102 minutes) with English 5.1 and Italian 5.1 audio options; US edit of feature (91 minutes) with original ‘Cannes dub’ (English 2.0); US edit of feature (91 minutes) with approved, re-dubbed English 2.0 audio; Dario Argento filmography and biography; photo gallery; Opera by Demonia music video; Dario Argento trailer gallery; Top 6 gore scenes; US trailer; International trailer.

The Stendhal Syndrome


Considered by many to be a remarkable return to vintage form for the Italian master of suspense and terror, Dario Argento (Tenebrae; Suspiria; Terror At The Opera), The Stendhal Syndrome stars the director's real life daughter, Asia Argento (xXx; The Red Siren) as Anna Manni. A young detective in Rome's anti-rape unit. Anna suffers from Stendhal Syndrome, a mental condition that causes her to retreat into horrifying hallucinations when confronted with works of art.

On the trail of a serial rapist and killer, she is given the suspect's whereabouts by way of a tip-off. But, unknown to Anna, the killer has discovered the secret of her illness and uses it against her, eventually kidnapping her and forcing her to become an unwilling witness to his crimes. Of course, this being a Dario Argento film, nothing is quite as it seems and the plot takes a terrifying twist when Anna discovers the true face of madness.

An atmospheric and chilling study of the effects of insanity and violence, The Stendhal Syndrome is full of the dazzling cinematic style and technical wizardry audiences have come to expect from Argento. Co-written by the director's frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini (Phenomena; Trauma; Opera), the film also features a haunting score by award-winning composer Ennio Morricone (The Untouchables; The Mission).

The Stendhal Syndrome (cert. 18) will be released on DVD (15.99) by Arrow Video on 22nd March 2010.

Special Features include: double sided sleeve featuring new artwork; exclusive collector’s booklet; poster; Dario Argento trailer gallery; theatrical trailer; English 5.1 and Italian 5.1 audio options.

The Card Player


Starring Liam Cunningham (Dog Soldiers), Stefania Rocca (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Claudio Santamari (The Son's Room) and the director's daughter, Fiore Argento (Demons; Phenomena), and featuring an innovative score by regular Argento collaborator, former Goblin keyboard player Claudio Simonetti (Sleepless), The Card Player sees Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (Suspiria; Tenebrae) moving into classic detective thriller territory in what is generally considered to be his most commercially accessible work to date.

A serial killer is on the loose in Rome, kidnapping women and using them as the stake in a series of deadly games of poker played with the police over the internet. If the police win, the victim is set free; if they lose, the victim dies and the police are rewarded with a gruesome video of the murder being committed. When a British tourist becomes involved, disgraced Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) is sent to Rome to investigate. There, he teams up with Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca), the no-nonsense Italian detective heading up the investigation. Once they set about tracking down the killer, they are forced to play the game themselves, but the stakes are raised even higher when a police chief's daughter (Fiore Argento) is abducted and it becomes apparent the ‘Card Player’ knows more about Anna than she would like.

Full of all the trademark elements that have earned Argento such a huge and loyal fanbase among horror aficionados, The Card Player is an innovative, modern day thriller highlighted by a dazzling set-piece set around a breathtaking ‘cat and mouse’ chase between Anna and the film's eponymous killer.

The Card Player (cert. 15) will be released on DVD (15.99) by Arrow Video on 22nd March 2010.

Special Features include: double sided sleeve featuring new artwork; exclusive collector’s booklet; poster; ‘The Making of The Card Player’ featurette; ‘The Card Player’ promo; trailer; Dario Argento trailer gallery; English 5.1 and 2.0 audio options.

Fans of Italian horror may also be interested in this forthcoming release…

City of the Living Dead


One of the most revered zombie films of all time amongst horror fans, Lucio Fulci’s classic City Of The Living Dead gets the full Arrow Video treatment on DVD and Blu-ray in May 2010, presenting the film fully restored and uncut and complete with a host of unique and exclusive extras and featurettes specially commissioned for this must-have release.

Among the many extras are a newly recorded audio commentary with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, an introduction to the film by star Carlo De Mejo, ‘Carlo Of The Living Dead’, a 17-minute featurette in which De Mejo reflects upon his time working with the Italian master of splatter, Lucio Fulci, plus ‘Penning Some Paura’ in which the film’s screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti shares his recollections of writing an Italian horror classic.

The 50-minute ‘The Many Lives And Deaths Of Giovanni Lombaro Radice’ presents an extensive biography of the legendary screen victim, who guides viewers through the making of his most famous gut-crunching classics including ‘House On The Edge Of The Park’, ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’, ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and, of course, ‘City of the Living Dead’.
In addition to providing an alternative audio commentary to the main feature, legendary horror actress Catriona MacCall recalls playing the role of Mary in the film in ‘Dame Of The Dead’ and reflects upon the film 30 years on. Catriona also appears alongside Giovanni Lombardo Radice in a 20-minute retrospective Q&A session exclusively filmed live at the Glasgow Film Theatre following a recent special screening of the film.
Filmed in the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome, ‘Profondo Luigi: A Colleague’s Memories Of Lucio Fulci’ focuses on director Luigi Cozzi (Contamination; Starcrash; The Killer Must Kill Again) who talks about his own memories of Lucio Fulci and the Italian boom in zombie horror, while in ‘Fulci’s Daughter: Memories of the Italian Gore Maestro’, Antonella Fulci, the daughter of the legendary filmmaker, reflects upon ‘City Of The Living Dead’, the experience of visiting her father’s sets and about his enduring legacy.

Both the DVD and the Blu-ray releases of ‘City Of The Living Dead’ also come with four sleeve artwork options, double-sided poster, six postcards and a newly commissioned booklet, ‘Fulci Of The Living Dead’, written by Calum Waddell and featuring exclusive new interviews with Sergio Stivaletti (Wax Mask), Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Fulci and Ian McCulloch (Zombie Flesh Eaters) among others, providing an in depth career retrospective on the Grand Old Man of Italian Gore.

Directed by Lucio Fulci (The House By The Cemetery; The Beyond; Zombie Flesh Eaters) and starring Christopher George (Mortuary; The Exterminator; Grizzly), Catriona MacColl (The House By The Cemetery; The Beyond), Carlo De Mejo (The House By The Cemetery; Alien Contamination), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse; Demons 3 and 4) and Michele Soavi (Demons; Phenomena; Tenebrae), City Of The Living Dead begins with the suicide of a priest in a church cemetery in the small town of Dunwich, New England. A sacrilegious act, the priest’s death mysteriously results in the opening of the gates of hell and, as fate would have it, it falls upon a reporter, a young psychic, a psychiatrist and his patient to team up and find a way to close the portal before All Saints Day, when the dead will rise and feed upon the living.

A hugely influential and much-admired work of horror cinema by one of the genre’s undisputed masters, City Of The Living Dead, taken purely as a stand-alone film, is a must-see horror classic. Now, this definitive special release from Arrow Video is, without doubt, a must-have for every horror fan.

City Of The Living Dead (cert. 18) will be released a two-disc DVD (£17.99) and single-disc Blu-ray (£22.99) by Arrow Video on 24th May 2010.

Special Features include: newly recorded audio commentary by actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice; audio commentary by actress Catriona MacColl and author Jay Slater; introduction to the film by star Carlo De Mejo; ‘Carlo Of The Living Dead featurette; ‘The Many Lives And Deaths Of Giovanni Lombardo Radice’ featurette; ‘Dame Of The Dead’ featurette; ‘Fulci’s Daughter: Memories Of The Italian Gore Maestro’ featurette; ‘Penning Some Paura’ featurette; ‘Profondo Luigi: A Colleague’s Memories Of Lucio Fulci’ featurette; Catriona MacCall and Giovanni Lombardo Radice Q&A session at the Glasgow Film Theatre; ‘Fulci In The House – The Italian Master Of Splatter’ featurette.

UK exclusive features directed by Calum Waddell and edited and produced by Naomi Holwill with associate producer Nick Frame.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Interview with Amer directors Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet

Upcoming Belgian neo-giallo Amer ('Bitter') has been causing quite a stir on the festival circuit of late. Filmmakers Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet have concocted a heady and mesmerizing brew that harks back to the dazzling and uber-stylised Italian gialli of the Seventies. Forzani and Cattet have set about recreating all the familiar motifs, visual codes, stylistic traits and clichés from the blood drenched and lurid archives of the giallo film. Classic gialli such as Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and All the Colours of the Dark are paid tribute to in a virtually dialogue free story revolving around the concepts of obsession, sexual desire, psychological trauma and murder. All this unfolds in a visual feast backed by recycled Italian soundtracks to create a stunning and haunting mood-piece that will sear itself onto your retina and into your nightmares long after its provocative array of images have finished strutting across the screen. The filmmakers describe the film as:

‘Three key moments, all of them sensual, define Ana's life. Her carnal search sways between reality and coloured fantasies ... becoming more and more oppressive. A black laced hand prevents her from screaming. The wind lifts her dress and caresses her thighs. A razor blade brushes her skin: where will this chaotic and carnivorous journey leave her?’

I thought it high time I caught up with the delectable duo behind Amer to talk about their darkly seductive and bloody opus, the influence of Dario Argento and why the iconography of vintage gialli lends itself so well to conveying a tale of violent sexual awakening… I even donned black leather gloves for the occasion.

Can you tell me how the idea for Amer came to fruition?

Bruno Forzani: Hélène had read a book called 'Le bal' by Irène Nemirovsky. At one moment in this a mother slaps her child, a little girl. This idea was mixed with a scene from a Pinku Eiga by Masaru Konuma - though I don’t recall the title - where a woman walks between Yakuzas. The result was the idea of the film: the story of a girl at three moments of her life where she discovers 'Body' and 'Desire'.

What was the writing process of the film for you? Did the script change at all as you filmed it?

Bruno: Hélène had the main idea, the concept. I developed it, then she read the draft and reworked it, and I reworked it again, etc. It took us a year and a half! After that the script didn’t change at all, the film turned out exactly the way we wrote it, except for the opening titles because we didn't have enough money.

You’ve both worked together before on a couple of short films. How did your collaborative partnership come about?

Bruno: In fact, one month after we became lovers, we started to make short films together! If we hadn’t been in love, it would have never been possible to work together; it’s a matter of confidence. We had two different backgrounds and giallo was the cinema which permitted us to do movies together because it unifies two kind of cinema: entertainment and experimental. So you can find a real search in the cinematographic language!

Gialli haven’t really been in vogue for some time – and were usually only exclusive to Italian cinema. Why chose now to make Amer with its specific influences? What inspired you to revisit the themes and styles of the Italian gialli?

Bruno: For me, gialli from the 70’s are very nostalgic. I grew up at the French/Italian border in South of France and the settings of my childhood are the same as the ones in many giallo films. When I was a little boy, the French Riviera was full of Mrs. Wardhs! So when I watch these films now there is the same atmosphere in the Super 8mm films shot by my parents!
Hélène Cattet: To tell Ana’s story, her discovery and quest of sexuality, we chose the iconography and cinematographic language of the giallo because it’s the best genre to talk about body, desire, sexual tension, etc.

Italian gialli have frequently been criticised and accused of being misogynistic. Hélène, as a woman, do you feel gialli are misogynistic? How did you feel when writing and directing this material?

Hélène: Some of them are misogynistic, but in general it’s true that only men have directed gialli. I thought it was time to have a female point of view on it! In gialli, I like the feminine characters such as Miss Wardh or Florinda Bolkan in Lizard in a Woman's Skin, who have a tortured intimate-erotic universe and we have reused that kind of character. But this time imagined by a woman!

Gialli were exclusive to Italy in their heyday. As Belgians, did you find it difficult to find support for this project? Were producers and studios aware of what you were attempting to create and refer to?

Bruno: It was very hard to find financial support in Belgium because there is not really a ‘genre’ culture. But in the same way, there is a Surrealistic culture in Belgium and you can feel it in our film too. And as you will see, Amer is not a ‘classical’ giallo at all! There is a kind of free spirit in Belgium and people always say that each Belgian film is a “prototype”… and Amer is a prototype.
Hélène: About our producers, they had experienced the giallo culture. The French producer, François Cognard, was journalist for a cult French magazine of the 80’s called STARFIX, and in a certain way he made us discover that giallo culture for ourselves when we were teenagers.

Why was it important for you to use excerpts from original scores from older movies by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai for Amer? Had you ever considered an original soundtrack for the film?

Bruno: There are original scores from Cipriani, Nicolai, Celentano and Morricone… The ones we have chosen will be familiar to hardcore fans but not a wider audience. We never considered an original soundtrack because we wrote the script listening to the tracks which are in the film: they influenced the writing and we couldn’t separate them from the sequences then. And we didn’t want a reinterpretation of them because they are simply so nice.

This was your feature directorial debut. How was the experience for you? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

Bruno: Before shooting we were terrified because we were imagining all the problems we could have on the set. And when the first day came, it was so good. But very tiring! The challenge was to film 900 shots in 39 days and to make a visually striking movie with a very low budget.

How do you think modern audiences will react to Amer and its giallo influences? What can Amer offer audiences that other contemporary horror cinema cannot? What do you think is it about this subgenre that remains so provocative?

Hélène: We think there was a very provocative spirit in the original gialli that has disappeared with the slasher. We have tried to keep that “sick spirit”. Though there is a free spirit too: those original directors were not afraid to develop incredible experimental sequences inside their exploitation movies.
Bruno: In Amer, we have focused on that creative aspect. I think a part of the audience will enjoy it because it’s a different proposition and another part will reject it because we don’t have a classical way of telling a story.
Hélène: About the influences, I think that giallo lovers could have a good time with the film because we invite them to play with their culture. The ones who don’t know will focus more on the subject and maybe Amer could be a doorway for them to discover this amazing genre!

Was it difficult to create the story with little to no dialogue? How did your actors react to this? How difficult was it for them and did they understand what you were trying to achieve?

Bruno: There’s very minimal dialogue in the film, like in all our short films. It is difficult but it pushes you to develop the audio and visual language to its maximum and it’s this cinematographic language that drives the story. It’s difficult for the actors because in this case, they have to be present in all the parts of their body. And the technical aspect of this kind of movie is very heavy too. The actors have to play in very uncomfortable contexts. It’s not the camera which is following them but the opposite. The atmosphere on the set was really comfortable though, we were working amongst friends so they trusted us.

Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema?

Bruno: I am a horror fan. In contemporary horror, I love Christopher Smith’s films and I think he’s one of the genre’s best directors. I’ve enjoyed Nacho Cerda’s The Abandoned too and the third part of Zampaglione’s Shadow where you can feel the Italian horror spirit coming back to life.

This might sound like a silly question but I shall ask it anyway! Who or what has inspired and influenced you both as filmmakers?

Hélène: Giallo and Italian exploitation movies of the 60-70’s, and their soundtracks! We also love Japanese exploitation movies of the same period. Concerning our way of writing from the sub-conscious and the association of ideas, Dario Argento’s Inferno was a huge influence. In attempting to write something that lends itself to different levels of reading, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. The way in which we attempt to work with details, Dario Argento and Shinya Tsukamoto.

Amer has been creating quite a stir on the festival circuit and has been garnering great reviews. Did you ever believe that audiences and critics would ‘get’ what you were trying to do?

Bruno: Honestly? No. Because during 3 and a half years it has been an intense fight to make this movie and you meet a lot of people who are very pessimistic when you try to make something a bit different. So the first time the film was shown in Sweden, we thought we will be lapidated by the audience. Turns out in fact they loved the film - the critics too! So we were surprised and very happy. And now, even some of the people who didn't trust us in the beginning, who were cynical and pessimistic, they changed their mind.

What is it about the dark subject matter contained in your films that compels you to explore it? Are there certain themes and ideas you like to explore as filmmakers?

: We love the Eros & Thanatos mix. It’s something that we’re very sensitive and receptive to in a fictional universe. It can be a nice metaphorical way to talk about love and an effective way to talk about our impulsions through extreme tensions.

Had you planned to use a giallo blueprint to tell your story with all along? Or was there just something about this subgenre and its various archetypes that lent itself to telling the story effectively?

Bruno: No, we have never planned to use a giallo blueprint because the main subject of the film is not a detective story. Your second proposition is the right one!

From what I’ve seen of the film so far, Amer has a very distinct and atmospheric look. How did you go about achieving this look and maintaining it throughout the film? Did you consciously set out to homage the gialli of Italian 70s/80s cinema?

Hélène: We love the way gialli were directed. It’s that kind of framing, editing, directing, lighting that gave us the faith in filmmaking. So, yes, it’s totally conscious because we are in love with that genre that we have explored throughout the past 10 years with our short films. We can’t separate our directing from the love of the giallo, we are totally intoxicated by it.
Bruno: When we wrote or directed a sequence we weren’t thinking about a specific sequence from an older giallo film. However, when we finished Amer, we watched some old gialli and we saw that we were subconsciously inspired by ‘this film’ for one sequence or ‘that film’ for another shot. It was very funny!

What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?

Bruno: We want to make a giallo set in Brussels, the male version of Amer.
Hélène: But this time we want to explore the detective aspects of gialli!

Death has a taste and it is Amer...

Visit the official website here.
Check out the startling trailer here.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin

Dir. Lucio Fulci

Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) has been having bizarre and erotic dreams about her alluring neighbour Julia, in which they passionately make love and then Carol violently stabs her to death. Julia is then actually found stabbed to death. Did Carol kill her and then block out the memory? Or is she having psychic visions of someone else’s crime? She tries to solve the mystery whilst evading attempts on her own life by a sinister stalker, seemingly intent on keeping her in the dark…

After Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage proved extremely popular with its heady amalgamation of grindhouse exploitation and art-house chic, European cinemas were soon saturated with provocatively titled gialli featuring animal imagery in the titles. One of the more provocative and visually arresting of these films was director Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The opening barrage of eerily sensual imagery produces a heady, hypnotic atmosphere rife with sexual deviancy and decadence. Fulci showcases his obvious talent for creating astounding imagery and arresting shots in these sequences – the various dream scenes really tap into something highly unnerving and the hallucinatory and trippy visuals that the film opens with perfectly capture the tone and mood. As well as being rather exploitative! Carol runs through a crowded corridor full of naked copulating couples before falling through darkness and making love to Julia on a plush bed that seems to float in the midst of the darkness. The savage attack on Julia is shocking and brutally blunt, and as we start to merge back with reality, the scene is lit with an increasingly bright white light that is eventually revealed to be the flash on the coroner’s camera as detectives gather at the murder scene.

Fulci does what he can to keep viewers guessing about the killer’s identity and Carol’s sanity, and the narrative becomes increasingly twisted and convoluted. We are introduced to all manner of strange and eccentric characters – the detective on the case, Carol’s promiscuous husband (Jean Sorel – Short Night of Glass Dolls), her spunky step-daughter and a couple of LSD dropping hippies who may or may not hold the key to solving the crime. However, because there is no one character that remains the focal point, and none of them are particularly sympathetic anyway, it is hard to care about them. The film is strangely detached. Even our heroine Carol is an unreliable narrator as her innocence is called into question a number of times. This is really a film about atmosphere and intrigue, and Fulci succeeds admirably in creating a creepy and sexually charged malaise that swirls throughout proceedings.

Aside from the opening dream scene, the film’s other standout moment occurs towards the end when Fulci obviously remembers he needs to give his film a thrilling conclusion after seemingly endless scenes of exposition, familial melodramatics and ‘whacked out’ hippies acting strangely. Carol is told by a mysterious caller that if she wants answers, she must meet them at an old church. This is where the film’s already distinct lack of logic takes a further plunge into implausibility, creating a nightmarish and surprisingly taut chase scene. During this sequence, Carol is pursued through the impossibly labyrinthine building by someone in a motorcycle helmet and we follow her down into murky catacombs, through windowless and echoic chambers full of rabid bats, a lab full of still-alive vivisected dogs - complete with pulsating insides-on-the-outside - and a breathtaking chase along the rooftop. The tension produced in this scene is never replicated anywhere else in the film.

Apparently Fulci landed himself in hot water with animal rights authorities by including the deliberately shocking scene with vivisected dogs. The authorities were so convinced by the special effects they thought the animals were real. Typical of the winding and twisted narratives of gialli, it is just another one of those moments specifically designed to provoke a visceral reaction from the audience – its inclusion bears no relevance to anything else in the film. Elsewhere the gore Fulci would later become famed for is notably restrained, aside from another chilling dream scene in which Carol’s family are all depicted sitting in a row in an attic, holding their own guts and starring white-eyed into space.

This film boasts a shimmering and hallucinogenic score by Ennio Morricone that perfectly enhances the sexually charged proceedings. Equal parts ominous and seductively chic; this is one of Morricone’s most underrated and dazzling scores.

An interesting and visually stunning addition to the Italian gialli of the Seventies. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin proved that when Fulci was on fine form, he could really deliver twisted and delirious movies – this is one of his best works.

Short Night of Glass Dolls

Dir. Aldo Lado

Whilst lying on an autopsy table, motionless but conscious and in some sort of cataleptic state, American journalist Gregory (Jean Sorel) recalls how he was desperately searching for his missing girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach) in Prague, when he fell foul of a mysterious order of social elites who thrive on the ‘life essence’ of the younger generation. As he relays his story, he attempts to solve his own ‘murder’ before it is too late and the surgeons begin performing their autopsy on his still warm body.

Whilst not a typical giallo boasting black-gloved and psychologically traumatised killers, like The House of Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls transcends conventional giallo fare and establishes itself as a thoughtful, provocative, atmospheric and highly effective thriller with distinct espionage elements and a serious allegorical message. The film begins with the discovery of the protagonist’s body in a park in Prague, recalling other films such as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard in which the central character narrates the tale from beyond the grave. It turns out that he's actually not dead though. This provides the film with its first of many startling and idiosyncratic revelations. A fragmented exploration of Gregory’s last days then begins. Events are told in flashbacks as Gregory lies motionless on the autopsy table or on a slab in the morgue, his recounting of events taking us closer and closer to how he ended up where he is as his voice-over becomes increasingly frantic. Each flashback segment takes us deeper into the mystery and is signalled by a series of rapidly edited shots of images that will feature in the flashback. The effect is both alarming and teasing.

Lado’s camera often appears weightless, floating and gliding after the various characters as they sink deeper and deeper into a dark and sordid world of political espionage, secret societies and perverted acts of decadence. Lado has a knack for creating breathlessly beautiful images and the film is laced with interesting and captivating shots. One such moment occurs when Gregory has been chased into a dark room by mysterious pursuers. Standing in the darkness he can just about make out something white floating in front of his face. As one of the pursuers suddenly bursts into the room throwing light into it, he sees that the floating white form was a vase of lilies in the middle of the room under a vast crystal chandelier. Just as the door opens, Gregory jumps back into the shadows to hide.

Another standout set piece occurs towards the end of the film when Gregory returns to his apartment and hallucinates that Mira’s body is in his fridge. The style in which this scene is shot adds to its alarming and nightmarish atmosphere. The music throbs, the lighting becomes quite hellish and camera tilts and prowls the apartment as Gregory succumbs to hopelessness and panic. Other images and moments appear to have a certain degree of dramatic emphasis attached to them, as though they were signifying something. Even the repeated shots of a crystal chandelier eerily clinking as a breeze blows through it, seems to possess a degree of menace and weighty meaning.

Like all good gialli, this film is awash in shoals of red herrings. Gregory’s colleagues arouse our suspicion from time to time. Jacques Versain (Mario Adorf – the eccentric cat-eating artist in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is a burly, Oirish/Scottish/badly dubbed reporter who believes Gregory's bizarre theories. Jessica (Ingrid Thulin), Gregory’s former lover and wearer of various psychedelic head scarves, insists Mira simply ran out on Gregory, and reminds him that he did the same thing to her in the recent past. Something tells me she might be jealous of Mira.

The film also serves as a sly allegory addressing the destructive nature of totalitarian governments, like the one in power in Czechoslovakia at the time. The weird socially elitist members of the cult represent overpowering authoritarian systems in which the higher classes literally suck the life out of younger generations, those less well off and anyone else who opposes them. The older generation is depicted as inherently sinister in this film. The disdain and suspicion of the elderly middle class is exhibited clearly in the scene in which Gregory sneaks into the goldsmiths building and into a room full of elderly people in evening dress listening to a classical concert. They sit motionless and look uncannily like the undead ghouls in Carnival of Souls. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut would echo events in Short Night in its portrayal of a man wandering through a foreign and threatening city whilst uncovering the existence of a mysterious social elite who revel in orgiastic gatherings and indulge in the odd spot of human sacrifice. Indeed both films unwind as languidly and cautiously as each other, spinning tension and intrigue like silken thread as they go.

Apparently Lada wanted to title the film Malastrana, which is the name of the district in Prague where the goldsmiths are based. His producers insisted on Short Night of the Butterflies, a reference to the butterfly theme that runs throughout the film. However it soon transpired that another film at the time boasted a title referring to butterflies (The Bloodstained Butterfly), so the film was renamed Short Night of Glass Dolls. The butterfly theme ties in with Mira and the film’s overall allegory of socially superior classes vampirically draining the life from others. Her beauty was the reason she disappeared. She was young too, and metaphorically speaking, had her ‘wings clipped’ too soon. Interestingly, and strangely appropriate, the collection of butterflies she gives in a frame as a gift to Gregory were a specific species that can’t fly.

Short Night of Glass Dolls also features a darkly atmospheric, hallucinatory and airily jangling score courtesy of Ennio Morricone.

A breathtakingly haunting, compelling and at times downright Hitchcockian thriller that takes its time building to an unforgettably grim and shocking conclusion.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The House with Laughing Windows

Dir. Pupi Avati

Struggling artist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is commissioned to restore a fresco in a church in a small rural town. The fresco depicts the brutally violent death of St. Sebastian. Stefano soon learns that the painter was a madman who, with the aid of his deranged and incestuous sisters, viciously tortured people to death as inspiration for his horrific paintings. A series of increasingly bizarre events, including a couple of grisly murders, convince Stefano that someone is trying to stop him from uncovering the town's depraved past. Can he and his lover Francesca (Francesca Marciano) uncover the secrets of the house with laughing windows before it is too late!?

Stefano’s friend is also staying in town to recover from a nervous breakdown and study the local thermal springs. He warns Stefano not to talk about the fresco with anyone. Hushed warnings and dark insinuations such as these slowly conjure a heavy atmosphere pregnant with dreadful anxiety. Eventually his friend falls to his death after telling Stefano that he has discovered something ‘horrible.’

The House with the Laughing Windows starts as it means to go on – a deathly serious meditation on suffering, art and the power the past has over the present. A series of highly troubling images play out in burnished sepia tones beneath the credits. Anguished cries of pain erupt from a man hanging by his arms as knives are plunged into his naked flesh. As all this occurs a guttural voiceover intones ‘colours, my colours, they run from my veins, colours, sweet colours.’ The voice is later revealed to be that of Buono Legnani, the artist who tortured and killed his sitters in order to capture their death throes in his rhapsodic depictions of death and martyrdom. The notion of a ‘painter of the Agonies’ highlights the connection between art and death that is rife throughout Italian horror cinema and takes it to its logical conclusion – a painter who captures the essence of a person as they die, sometimes at his own hands. As Stefano explores the story of this artist and his sisters, things become more twisted and deranged and the mounting sense of doom suffocates all sense of hope – right up until the genuinely shocking climax.

‘Violence is Italian art.’ Lucio Fulci

‘Works of art have power over us. Great works of art have great power.’ The Stendhal Syndrome

Images are important in this film. Indeed, the way Avati frames his actors in certain shots creates a series of startling and beautiful images that add to the atmosphere of uneasiness – his masterful use of widescreen ensures the feeling that someone or something could jump into the frame at any time. An abundance of startling shots, particularly the one of Stefano as he is framed in his doorway unpacking his bags, somehow announces his vulnerability. Filmed from outside his bedroom door, the camera gently pulls back into the darkness of the house, framing the man and isolating him as though he were in a painting.

Set in the early fifties, the film can also be seen as a pointed allegory addressing Italy's post-war struggles. The townsfolk want to promote the town and increase trade and economy and the infamy of the artist who painted the fresco is one way of doing so. The town is, rather ominously, also famed for its ‘silence’. The town’s streets are deathly still and quiet – not that Avati ever goes out of his way to emphasise this – he does it masterfully enough so that it gradually becomes obvious just how empty and quiet things are. The impact is all the more resonant because of this subtlety.
The scenes when Stefano is alone in the church and his house at night are understated and unnerving, the camera watching him as it floats behind him in the darkness. And if his landlady is bedridden, who is it walking around at night? Even in the daylight hours there is a stillness that pervades and casts a foreboding presence over everything.

Because of the eerie stillness and quietness of the film, a couple of well timed and genuinely startling jump moments prove highly effective and practically echo throughout the rest of the silence of events. There is a lyrical, sun-kissed quality to some exterior daytime scenes – the picturesque landscapes and idyllic countryside that belie the unspeakable acts of violence and inhumanity that occur behind closed doors in the community. Events play out in sparsely furnished rooms that are given as much space on screen as the actors, as though they too have a part to play. The bloody actions these rooms have bore witness to and the ever darkening secrets they hide behind their walls and doors manifest themselves in the atmosphere that lurks in abundance within them. The faded grandeur and rustic excess of the vast and sparsely inhabited buildings also adds to the mounting sense of isolation.

There is a touch of Bava to several scenes, especially the scene in which Stefano becomes increasingly unnerved walking through the empty, eerily glowing and fog-hung streets at night, when he thinks he hears footsteps and breathing behind him. The seemingly spectral winds that blow through the soundtrack of this film recall Tourneur’s chilly use of sound in I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Avati’s film certainly treads the same line of quiet menace and poetic dread.

The lingering feeling that something isn’t quite right only increases as the story proceeds. When Stefano walks into a room it is easy to get the impression that someone has just left it – the mounting paranoia ensures that even when Stefano is alone, the way in which he is filmed indicates otherwise. The characters often talk about silence – particularly the silence that hangs heavy over the town. Silence is deafening and pervasive in this film. What is also noticeable is the film’s lack of music. The stark score consists of well timed one chord piano notes and a hypnotic Philip Glass-esque organ composition courtesy of Amedeo Tommasi.

‘Only a great artist can provide such a true portrait of death.’

The House with Laughing Windows is a truly unsettling and stiflingly atmospheric film that slow-burns its way to an unbelievably gruesome denouement. It provides a refreshing change of pace and tone from its gialli peers and stands out as a chilling and nightmarish tale that is in a class all of its own.

It’s always the quiet ones…

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Interview with Maitland McDonagh

More good news for Argento fans this month - not only does March see the publication of my own book on Argento’s film work, but also - and far more excitingly - the publication of a new edition of Maitland McDonagh's seminal Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento.

McDonagh's cerebral book is regarded as the cornerstone of all Argento studies, and with the latest edition the writer brings everything bang up to date as she takes a look at Argento’s recent output from The Stendhal Syndrome onwards. Ms McDonagh was kind enough to have a quick chat with me about the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, why she admires Argento’s work so much and why she believes he has made such an impact in the horror genre...

Why do you admire the films of Dario Argento so much? What is it about his work that speaks to you most?

It was the combination of incredible images and seductive sound that first drew me to Argento’s movies. They were so lush and seductive and allusive that most American horror movies of the 1970s paled by comparison.
Once I discovered Argento I began searching out other European thrillers and horror movies, and discovered that they came from a completely different cultural notion of horror: They may have been sensationalistic and shocking, but they were aesthetically rooted in hundreds of years of literature and sculpture and painting… They blew my mind and sent me scurrying to explore the sources.

What made you decide to base your thesis on Argento – and then expand it into a book?

When I started thinking seriously about my masters’ thesis, I knew two things: That I wanted to write about a horror film or filmmaker and that I didn’t want to be backed into a narrowly defined corner where I’d have to dissect some scrap of minutia missed by earlier generations of writers who took the genre seriously enough to devote serious thought to its history, influences and structure.

A friend suggested Argento and it was a “voila” moment: Although there were lots of interviews, reviews and articles about the filmmaker and his films in genre publications, no one had written a serious, rigorously analytical academic study of his work as a whole. And Argento’s movies leant themselves to such scrutiny: They were smart, allusive and informed by centuries of literature, painting, sculpture and movies.

My thesis became a book because an English archivist named Anthony Blampied began writing to me after a chapter was published in an academic journal called Film/Psychology Review. At first he just sent me Argento-related clippings from European magazines, but after about a year he called me and said it had always been his dream to start an independent press and would love to make Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds its first title.

I think I said something like, “Sure… why don’t you give me a call when you get that pulled together.” And much to my surprise, he did. Thank you Anthony! He went on to publish a number of fine books under the Sun Tavern Fields imprint, including David McGillivray’s Doing Rude Things: A History of the British Sex Film and David Greenberger’s Tell Me If I've Stopped: Voices from the "Duplex Planet".

Why choose now to publish an updated edition?

The first version of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds – my Columbia University MFA thesis -- was written in 1985; the first edition of the book published in 1990 and the second came out in 1995, when Argento was 55. No longer a bright young thing, but far from packing in; Argento has since then directed seven features – The Stendhal Syndrome, The Phantom of the Opera, Sleepless, The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock?; made for Italian TV, Mother of Tears and Giallo – as well as two episodes of the made-for-cable Masters of Horror series, Jenifer and Pelts. That’s a lot of catching up. This new edition also gave me the opportunity to correct errors – some large and some small – that had made it through the first two editions.

As a graduate student you co-founded and edited Columbia Film Review. How did you go about this?

My friend Robert Lang, who had also come to Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts by way of Hunter College (CUNY), and I were shocked that there was no equivalent of Columbia Journalism Review in the film department. So we wrote a proposal to start one and it was accepted; it was even approved as a work-study project, which was no small thing for students paying our own way through graduate school.

When did you decide that you wanted to work in film theory/criticism? Has it been a difficult path for you?

From the time I was a young teenager I loved movies, especially horror movies, and I was fascinated both by the practical history of horror filmmaking and by various theoretical approaches to the cinefantastique. Once I graduated from high school, I always had full time or close-to full time jobs, so I felt entitled to pursue whatever course of study I chose. I began publishing when I was an undergraduate; when I finished graduate school and was only working a 40+ hour a week public relations job and writing movie reviews and articles on the side, I felt as though I was on vacation.

Was it hard? I guess, but I was young. Now, after spending 13 years as’s senior movies editor and chief reviewer, I find myself in an environment in which print outlets are dying daily and online outlets don’t see the value in paying an experienced, educated critic when they can syndicate reviews – their thinking is that users don’t care and apparently they’re right. That’s hard.

When you sit down to watch a film, can you choose to ‘just watch’ it, or are you constantly ‘reading’, analysing and dissecting?

I never just watch, but I don’t see that as a bad thing; to me, part of the pleasure of watching a movie or reading a book is engaging with it.

How do you usually approach a film in order to write about it?

I just watch and respond; at this point I’ve been seeing movies, reading books, looking at paintings and pieces of sculpture, attending dance pieces, exploring city streets and who knows what else for more than four decades, and I have the kind of mind that thrills to connections. I get a rush like an electric shock when I see what two apparently disparate things have in common.

Its been 25 years since you started the initial research that would become your Columbia University master's thesis – do you think film studies and academic approaches to film criticism have changed much over the years – particularly in relation to horror cinema?

I think academic film writing has fallen down a rabbit hole of self-referential irrelevance.

There’s been some debate recently about the ‘art’ of film criticism. In the days before the internet, film viewers may have relied on a small number of 'established' critics’ opinions when deciding what to watch. Now anyone can share their opinions on the latest films through blogging, twitter, Facebook etc. Do you think the 'art' of film criticism – in the traditional sense - is dying out?

I hope traditional film criticism isn’t dying, but right now it’s seriously undervalued. The fact that movies are a popular medium has led to the fallacious notion that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight. But if I want to start exploring, let’s say, East German Westerns, I want to read reviews and essays by writers who can put the novels of Karl May and the movies they inspired into a social, political and historical context - I want to learn from someone who knows more than I do.

Was it difficult going back to Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds – did you have to re-watch earlier Argento films and re-visit the last edition to pick up your train of thought – so to speak?

It wasn’t hard at all. Argento’s best films are as audacious and astonishing as they were thirty plus years ago. Watching Anchor Bay’s stunning DVD of Suspiria triggered a positively Proustian flashback to seeing it at the once-grand Victoria Theatre on 46th Street and Broadway.

How did you prepare yourself to tackle Argento’s recent material for the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds?

I didn’t. I just took the DVDs off the shelf and watched them. I hadn’t seen most of them since their first theatrical or video/DVD releases, so while they weren’t new to me, they also weren’t stale. And because some time had passed, I was able to see all of them with fresh eyes.

What do you think of Argento’s recent work – the films you’ve covered in the new edition such as Mother of Tears, The Card Player etc?

Sadly, I feel that my thesis coincided with the last hurrah of Argento’s great and innovative work, with the exception of the often underrated The Stendhal Syndrome.
I must confess that I didn’t much care for Stendhal when I first saw it - though I was stunned by Asia Argento’s performance from the start - but I’ve come to appreciate the sly, subtle exploration/subversion of Hitchcockian tropes that underlie its superficial coarseness and brutality.

What is your take on the allegations of misogyny so often directed at him?

I’m over it. Many genre conventions are rooted in an atavistic fear of women, but that doesn’t make individual filmmakers misogynists.

Why do you think Argento still has such a devoted following – even though many critics and fans have not shown much appreciation for his recent output?

Because Argento’s best movies are extraordinary. Orson Welles never made another movie as breathtaking as Citizen Kane, but you know what? One Citizen Kane buys you a lifetime pass to fuss and dither and self-sabotage and not live up to your potential, because you’ve made a movie that will be knocking people’s socks off long after you’ve crumbled to dust.
And Argento made more than one: For my money, Deep Red, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Opera are all breathtaking.

How do you see Argento fitting in with contemporary thriller/horror filmmakers? Is he still ‘relevant’?

Argento is absolutely relevant: I see his influence, and the influence of his influences, everywhere.

What is it about horror cinema that appeals to you so much?

For me, horror movies are like dreams, and dreams tap into a deep, primal part of the mind.

Of all your own writings throughout the years, which has proved most compelling to research?

I couldn’t say – it’s been my experience that, as soon as I start to really dig into something, it always turns out to be fascinating.

What is next for you – any other forthcoming projects you’re working on?

Right now I’m focused on promoting the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds. After that, I have two projects I want to pursue, and neither involves horror… More on them as they develop!

The new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento is out now!

For more information on the latest edition, go here.

Feel free to visit Maitland's website Flick Chick and indeed, why not drop by and say 'hi' on Facebook.

Blood and Black Lace

Dir. Mario Bava

Sei donne per l'assassino
Fashion House of Death

A beautiful young model is murdered by a mysterious masked figure in a raging storm outside the tres chic fashion house where she worked. When her boyfriend is suspected of the killing, her diary - which contains incriminating evidence linking her to the killer - mysteriously vanishes. The masked killer begins violently murderlising all the models at the house in an attempt to find the diary and keep their identity a secret. Surely someone will be able to stop them before its too late and the fashion house of models becomes a terror house of blood!!

Blood and Black Lace
really cemented the conventions of the giallo with its overwhelmingly stylish and chic design and it’s opulent depictions of various beauties falling victim to a black gloved, sharp-implement wielding sadistic lunatic. Essentially just a really stylish ‘body count’ movie, Blood and Black Lace really marks the first time that Bava would take this approach to his storytelling, paying little attention to plot or characterisation. Unlike his prior venture into the embryonic giallo genre, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the emphasis in Blood and Black Lace is not placed on the mystery and the process of solving it - like almost every ensuing giallo movie, more significance was placed on the murders themselves as the increasingly convoluted and lightweight narratives took a back seat. Bava would take this approach to its logical and minimalist conclusion with films such as Bay of Blood - a film designed solely around it’s baroque death scenes.

With Blood and Black Lace Bava has created an insanely lush and gorgeous looking film - every frame is draped in style and elegance. Even the name evokes sensual and daring imagery. The lighting scheme would become quite typical for Bava - certainly not naturalistic but undeniably atmospheric, and he has created a rich and stunning looking world in which dark fantasies and bloody murders are carried out with theatrical aplomb. Of course it is all shot in glorious close up and seemingly lit by something altogether infernal, seething and raging just off screen, in reds, blues and throbbing greens. Elsewhere the film is impossibly glamorous, seductively lit and resplendent in its grandiose set design.

As with later thrillers such as 5 Dolls for an August Moon and the aforementioned Bay of Blood, Bava has orchestrated, a stylish, elegantly lensed and deliriously kitsch murder mystery film - with the emphasis placed firmly on the murders, and not so much the mystery. The director composes his shots much like an artist would create pictures on a canvas and he seats, stands and perfectly poses his actors within the frame of each shot as though they were models in a life drawing class, resplendent and chic. And really rather wooden! Bava even goes as far as highlighting the fact that the characters and plot and have been pushed to the background in favour of shocks and chills, in the beautifully kitsch and strangely moving opening credits.

The lead actors are all filmed standing beside dress-makers dummies and spooky wicker mannequins lit in a livid red light - they are themselves merely ‘dummies’ that Bava moves around his exquisitely shot film - they are only there to be killed in glorious and colourful close-up. The ‘actor as prop’ ethos would also be picked up later by Dario Argento, as his films also increasingly lost interest in plotting and characterisation. His actors were there simply to act as objects around which he could move his camera in ever imaginative ways. Again, as in 5 Dolls for an August Moon, Bay of Blood and The Girl Who Knew Too Much - Bava exhibits a pitch black sense of humour that perfectly matches the dastardly deeds of corruption within the story.

The ‘whodunnit’ aspects of the story consist mainly of every character looking shifty and having some sort of motive at least once throughout the film. Knowing looks and sly glances are exchanged and people do things that initially seem suspicious but are then revealed to be completely innocent a few scenes later. The mystery is retained until about three quarters of the way through the running time before Bava just simply reveals who the culprit is and what their motives are. Voila! He is still able to ratchet up the tension though by throwing another twist into the mix and he also has some fun and produces a couple of well timed jump moments, with the film’s elaborate mise en scene as there is usually something bizarre, such as a mannequin, in the forefront of various shots that prove quite striking and startling when revealed.

The killer in Blood and Black Lace, while exhibiting what would become the required uniform for all future giallo killers: black leather gloves, fedora and rather fetching jacket (well they are bumping people off in fashion house!), also boasts an alarmingly blank white face-mask. Unusually though, this killer is spurned to bloody action by greed and lust, not by some dark and deranged Freudian past trauma.

One particularly striking and ominous moment comes when one of the models walks through a dark antique shop in the middle of the night, a blue-green light from a neon street sign outside slowly pulses on and off, like some sort of ethereally silent siren. The attack on her is particularly vicious and Bava even references one of his own most iconic cinematic moments with the use of a bizarre medieval type glove with spikes on the inside of it. The sight of this spiked thing advancing towards the all too fragile visage of the imperiled beauty echoes Barbara Steele’s fate in the opening scenes of Black Sunday.

With Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava further fleshed out the infant giallo flick and with it he laid down the gauntlet to filmmakers such as Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci and Aldo Lado. The gauntlet would of course be picked up, doused in blood, effortlessly sexualised fervor and stunningly elaborate violence and bandied about for some time to come…

Grazie Signore Bava!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Dir. Mario Bava

Nora Davis (Letícia Román), a young American woman visiting her ailing aunt in Rome, witnesses the vicious murder of a woman in a deserted piazza after dark. She cannot convince anyone that what she saw was not a dream. She eventually discovers a box of newspaper clippings about a series of gruesome killings in the local area dubbed the ‘Alphabet Murders’. Fearing she is next on the killer's list, she decides to try and track down the malicious culprit with the help of the dashing Dr. Bassi (John Saxon). Can they find the killer before they too become victims?

Mario Bava was a director who not only wielded a great mastery over gothic horror traditions in films such as Black Sunday, Kill Baby Kill and Black Sabbath, he also cut a formidable swathe through the contemporary thriller genre too. With films such as Bay of Blood, Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much - a work generally considered to be the first ever giallo film - Bava placed his edgy stories firmly in the ‘now’ (the ‘now’ being the swinging Sixties and impossibly groovy Seventies).

Taking the popular at the time ‘holiday adventure’ movie formula, in which a film’s protagonists would get up to all sorts of misadventures and hilarious romps whilst abroad in Rome, the director turned it on its head. The resultant conception was an unnerving story that would thrust its perky American ‘outsider’ heroine into a dark, tumultuous and labyrinthine twilight world of murder, mystery and sexual intrigue. The murder mystery aspects of the tale were lifted wholesale from pulp crime novels extremely popular in Italy at the time. Dubbed ‘giallo’ (Italian for ‘yellow’) because of the tell-tale yellow covers, these crime mystery books were by writers such as Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler and they were marketed as gialli when they were published in Italy.

With The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bava subsequently created the blueprint for all giallo movies to follow. Many of the basic giallo elements appear here in prototypical form. Nora, an American in Italy, is the typical ‘outsider’ who finds herself in the midst of a murder mystery investigation. This now common notion of the displaced protagonist is one of the most recognisable conventions of the genre, in both its literary and cinematic incarnations. Even though The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered to be the first giallo, another of this genre’s most recognisable traits (that of the killer’s fetishistic wardrobe of black leather gloves, fedora and raincoat) does not appear - though Bava was responsible for creating the memorable look in his next giallo, Blood and Black Lace. Whilst the typical giallo killer garb is absent, the convoluted motive for the killings is very much present and correct. When all is unveiled at the climax, the antagonist's perverted sense of logic is revealed to be rooted in a past trauma that has resurfaced and manifested itself in the murders. References to Hitchcock - another major influence on the giallo film - also abound throughout the film; even the title is a sly reference to The Master.

This being a Bava film, one can expect all the usual visual flourishes and gorgeously framed scenes of tension and intrigue. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is peppered with striking shots and memorably lensed moments such as when Nora awakens in hospital to find a group of white robed nuns crowding around her bed and then dispersing - shot from above the image resembles the opening of a giant flower. When Nora follows a series of clues, she stumbles into an empty apartment and follows the music from a record player down a corridor eerily lit by the swinging bulbs hanging from the high ceiling. It is interesting to see how Bava creates such intense atmospheres and striking shots in black and white (much as he did in Black Sunday) given that he is famed for his use of vivid colours and garish set designs as backdrops for his perverse narratives. The house by the piazza where Nora is staying is comfortable and chic - plush even. Though at night, when the sun goes down and Bava drenches his set in moody shadows and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, the space becomes sinister and threatening. The camera stalks through the shadows and menaces Nora as much as her stalker does with threatening phone calls.

The film also exhibits an irresistibly dark humorous streak most obvious in the fun constantly poked at Nora for being an avid reader of crime thriller books. Her ‘mental well-being’ is called into question at several points throughout the film because she loves Agatha Christie et al. A running gag involving marijuana cigarettes crops up time and again and provides the film with a comedic and light-hearted end note. Bava pokes fun of as well as utilises various thriller conventions. Allusions to Ariadne and the minotaur’s labyrinth are brought to a fitting peak when Nora creates a complex web of string throughout her apartment in order to catch the murderer she is convinced is trying to break in, only to have Dr. Bassi accidentally wander into the house to check on her and get caught up in her ‘web’. This also provides the film with one of its most interesting and commanding visual motifs.

The two leads exude a compelling repertoire and sizzling chemistry. As Nora, Letícia Román is fresh, funny and sexy - she exhibits an equal amount of feistiness and vulnerability to ensure the audience maintains a watchful eye over her fate. As the charming and suave doctor, John Saxon delivers a fine performance and brings a welcome light heartedness to what would otherwise be a stiff and nondescript male lead. Through these two characters, Bava shows us around the sights of Rome with all the enthusiasm of someone truly in love with their city. However, in the night-time scenes he deftly weaves an atmosphere of dread and menace and the once welcoming and sun dappled plazas and piazzas take on a more sinister edge. Danger lurks around every corner of this shimmering mystery movie.

With The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bava effortlessly creates an intriguing mystery and plants it firmly within an atmosphere pregnant with foreboding and strange allure. Unlike the plethora of gialli to follow this movie (including Bava’s own next venture into the genre), the emphasis here is placed firmly on the mystery and the process of solving it. Proceeding titles would focus more on the murders themselves as the narrative and murder investigations took a back seat.

The next significant giallo to terrorise and titillate audiences was an altogether more concentrated and colourful affair: Blood and Black Lace. This film would really cement the conventions of the sub-genre with its overwhelmingly stylish and chic design and the gaggle of beauties within the thin story falling victim to a black gloved lunatic - each act of sadistic violence filmed in glorious, close-up technicolour…