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Friday, October 31, 2008
Argento Week: Bird with the Crystal Plumage
I've mentioned how Argento like to exploit the voyeuristic aspects of horror films, and a key example of that is in the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In this early scene from the film, Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, an American writer living in Rome and forced to write books about the care of exotic birds in order to make a living. While walking home after picking up his final pay-check, the pay-check which will allow him and his girl-friend to move back to America, he walks past an art gallery and sees an altercation inside:
Moving closer, Sam can see a woman struggling with a man in a dark coat, a knife close to the woman's face:
Momentarily distracted when a car nearly runs him over, Sam looks up to see the woman has been stabbed, and the man in the dark coat is leaving the art gallery through a back door:
Sam rushes into the building to help the woman, only to discover that the interior doors to the building are locked from the inside. He is unable to reach the injured woman and aid her:
Unseen by Sam, the man in the dark coat presses a button from inside the building, sealing the exterior doors as well. Sam is now trapped between two sets of doors, unable to go for help, unable to reach the woman, able to do nothing, in fact, but watch the woman slowly bleed. It's a harrowing sequence, conjuring up strong claustrophobic imagery appropriate to a horror film, as the woman tries to escape the building, only to see Sam and turn to him, apparently unaware that he is as trapped as she is:
A man comes by the gallery, and Sam mimes for him to go get help. The man mimes back that he is unable to hear Sam and leaves, giving Sam no indication whether or not he has understood Sam's plea for help and seemingly unaware of the injured woman:
Again, Sam is unable to take any actions, other than watch the woman slowly bleed. He paces the small corridor, alternating between watching the woman and looking for possible help:
Finally, the police arrive, and Sam is finally able to indicate the injured woman to someone. He, however, remains trapped in between the gallery and the street. Again, there is nothing he can do but watch:
It's quite a neat trick Argento pulls here. He takes the criticism of horror films as sadistic, voyeuristic entertainments, and puts his hero into the same position as the audience. The audience, in a horror film, is invited to see something that should not be seen, and as a consequence is unable to look away. Sam is put into the same position. He has seen something he should not have seen, and now he is quite literally trapped, unable to do anything except watch, even as another person's life is on the line.
It's also worth noting, that as the police arrive, Sam moves from viewer to viewed. Now he is an object of scrutiny for the police, now they must watch him, and the camera shift away from Sam, placing him in an actual spot-light within the gallery, only emphasizes this. Since Sam is the figure the film has invited the audience to identify with, both by making him the protagonist and by placing him into the same voyeur role as the audience, this shift to being the object of study himself also turns around on the audience. Sam is looking back at the audience in these final frames as much as he is looking at the police.
And now, in no particular order, four of the best scenes from Dario Argento movies.
Trauma Doctor Lloyd, playd by Brad Dourif, is decapitated by the Headhunter via elevator, and the camera follows the still-screaming head's descent down the shaft.
Phenomena Jennifer Corvino, played by Jennifer Connelly, psychically commands insects to devour the murderous dwarf who has been terrorizing the Swiss countryside, only to encounter the true villain and be saved by a chimpanzee with a straight razor.
Deep Red Pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) witnesses the murder of his neighbor, and in a brilliant move, Argento actually reaveals the killer's identity at the start of the film, in his greatest "hero misunderstands the vital clue" scene yet.
Opera Betty, a young opera diva played by Christina Marsillach, is forced to watch her stalker murder her friends and lovers, in a film in which Argento directly critiques the voyeuristic and sadistic elements of horror films.
So, Mother of Tears. I almost hate to review it, because here I am, setting up this week about how great Argento films are, and his most recent release is absolutely terrible. A lot of the blame can be chalked up to "sequel-itis." You see, in Suspiria, Argento set up this back-story about the Three Mothers: Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) and Mater Lachrimarum (the Mother of Tears). The Three Mothers are extremely powerful witches who essentially created black magic because they got bored one day. In Suspiria, American dance student Suzy Banyon destroys Mater Suspiriorum pretty much by accident. In Inferno American music student Mark Elliot, while investigating his sister's mysterious disappearance, accidentally destroys Mater Tenebrarum. In Mother of Tears, however, American art restorer Sarah Mandy (which is hard to tell, because Asia Argento is utterly incapable of maintaining an American accent) accidentally releases Mater Lachrimarum from imprisonment, beginning a series of calamitous events that nearly destroys the world and results in the deaths of...well, pretty much every single character in the film save two.
Really, Dario? A demon in the camera? You're going to start the film with a "gotcha" scare?
The primary problem with the film is one of tone: there isn't one. Well, no, that's not entirely fair. There is no suspense to the film. There's none of the surreal dream logic that characterized Suspiria. Instead we get a disjointed series of events, punctuated by extreme gore. Yes, extreme gore, even by the standards of an Argento film, a director who has never been particularly squeamish about showing brutal and inventive methods of murder. It's almost as if Argento looked at the contemporary marketplace for horror films and decided to make something that would sell, not something that would actually cap off the story begun in Suspiria. Mother of Tears has more of Saw or Hostel to it than films like Tenebrae or Deep Red.
Never get blood on the mystic artifacts, kids.
Plot-wise, the film runs along rather confused lines. A mysterious casket is unearthed at a monastery. The casket, decorated with mystical sigils, is sent to an archaeological museum to be researched. While there, the casket is opened by two assistants, one of them Sarah, and the other disemboweled in short order by three demons while Sarah is chased through the museum by a monkey. She escapes only when a mysterious voice opens locked doors, allowing her to escape. The police, understandably, are skeptical of her story. Meanwhile, the contents of the casket are claimed by a witch-cult worshipping Mater Lachrimarum, and a wave of violence and murder begins to sweep through Rome. Sarah's boss/lover Michael tries to discover the history of the casket, finding that it contains the emblems of Mater Lachrimarum's power. Underage prostitutes begin following Michael as he comes closer to finding out who took the casket and he soon finds that his son has been kidnapped by witches. It's at this point that Sarah starts to come off as a bit of a dolt, as she refuses to see any connections between the casket, the waves of violence, and the murder of her co-worker.
The forces of Evil, or Lufthansa flight attendants?
More witches begin arriving in Rome as the cult's power grows and Sarah starts researching the appearances of trinities in occult history. Michael disappears while attempting to find an exorcist, prompting Sarah to search for him, cleverly outwitting the emo-est witches in the world in a train-station, escaping only by finding an inventive use for a sliding door and her previously unknown ability to turn invisible. Yes, really. And that's the point where any pretense of logic flees the film in search of greener pastures. Sarah tracks down an exorcist, only to get him killed. She gets help from a lesbian good witch, only to get her killed. She finds Michael, who's now a zombie. She finds an alchemist who knows the history of the Three Mothers and how to destroy them, only to get him killed. And all along, the ghost of her mother, a good witch who imprisoned Mater Suspiriorum, thus weakening her enough for a dancer to kill, gives her pretty much useless advice consistently too late to be of much use.
Witchcraft training looks remarkably like weird lesbian foreplay.
After a fairly interminable period of wandering around, Sarah and the one competent cop in Rome discover the hiding place of Mater Lachrimarum and her coven. Argento pulls out all the stops, here. He wants to create a Boschian nightmare of debauchery and depravity and evil, but the end result is...silly. Like an episode of Red Shoe Diaries crossed with Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose. And at the end of all things, the Mother of Tears is defeated...because she kept all her power in an object that burns easily. Of course, our heroine has to endure at least one more disgusting, humiliating scene before she's allowed to escape and enjoy her near-coincidental and almost completely accidental triumph. It's almost as if the witch-cult gave Sarah the power to defeat them, as frankly just about anyone could have given the nature of their destruction.
Yes, Asia, this is the crap in your dad's head.
Really, it's a downright tragedy that this is how Argento has chosen to end the storyline begun in Suspiria. In hindsight, neither follow-up was really necessary or contributed to the effectiveness of the original (nor, do I suspect, will the long-discussed remake of Suspiria that threatens to be made every few years).
Not even lots of shots of Italian men in suits can save this film.
Tomorrow: Suspiria gets the treatment it's always deserved!
I've been watching horror films as long as I can remember. The first film I can recall seeing in a theater was Jaws. Even if I have to say it myself, I consider myself a very finicky connoisseur of the genre. I won't go near zombie or vampire films, and I've been known to rage at the screen when a film blithely ignores it's own internal logic, on the grounds that "it's horror" is no excuse for sloppy storytelling and continuity errors. And, given all that, Dario Argento is the only horror film maker whose films I make a point of seeing. In my personal film collection, Argento is represented more than any other director by a factor of at least times three.
When you break down his films into their component parts, his appeal to me feels obvious. Argento likes to experiment with interesting perspective shots and camera tricks. His use of color to build mood and emotion is practically unique within the horror genre. The play he engages in with the visual nature of horror is so strong it becomes a recurring theme throughout the films. Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Opera both exploit the voyeuristic aspects of horror and horror as an audience spectacle. The long tracking shot within the ballet theater in Sleepless is probably one of the most inventive examples of building an inevitable sense of dread I've seen in film. Oh, just look (but not at work):
The visual inventiveness you see in Argento's films is something you just don't see in other films. The only films that are even remotely comparable are those that fall into the "torture porn" genre, and the intent in those films is more similar to the old Herschell Gordon Lewis school of film-making, where the intent is merely to find new and elaborate ways to gross out the audience. Argento's films are more complicated; there is as much an implication of the audience's culpability into the brutality, an accusation that the audience is as much participant as viewer that challenges the passive nature of film-going. Again, the emphasis on the voyeuristic nature of horror films is a strong component of this. It's at the strongest in a film like Opera, but more recent efforts, such as Do You Like Hitchcock? return to the theme and make them central to the story
If there's a slight weakness in Argento's formula it's in the fact that there is, in fact, a formula. Whether a straight-thriller or a more supernaturally-orientated outing, there are a few key factors that repeat themselves over and over again in Argento's work:
A black-gloved killer.
A motivation rooted in a real or imagined wrong-doing in the past.
A clue contained in a work of art.
The hero misinterprets an important clue.
An obviously innocent red herring character.
A character figures out the killer's identity but dies before the hero can be told.
(This last list item reaches it's zenith in Inferno, in which every character dies shortly after meeting the hero, who finally confronts the Ultimate Evil of the film without knowing who she is, why she's important, or knowing what the hell is going on at all.)
And while Argento does love his formula, it works surprisingly well. It gives a tested and effective spine on which to hang his set-pieces and characters and shots, which is why you watch his film. You know you're only ever going to see the killer's hands until the last fifteen minutes of the film, and you know that the killer is insane because of something that happened years before the film starts, and you know you're going to be tricked into misunderstanding something important along with the hero, but it doesn't matter, because you're going to be seeing some inventive and original camera work and scene stagings with distinctive characters.
(Another complaint it might be fair to make, and this extends to big swathes of the horror genre as a whole, is that there is frequently a chauvinistic, if not outright misogynist, subtext to many of Argento's films. There's no point in denying that it's there, in some films, such as Stendhal Syndrome there's almost no film without that subtext. The only mitigating factor that can be offered is that, compared to most of his contemporaries in the Euro-horror scene, Argento is an enlightened feminist. Don't watch any Lucio Fulci or Lamberto Bava films if you're uncomfortable with cinematic depictions of violence against women because they're women.)
So, with all that in mind, which Argento films should you be watching if you're curious about his works? Well:
To Watch Bird with the Crystal Plumage: His earliest thriller work, and very conventional by the standards of the genre, but it sets the tone and formula for so much of his later work and it really is a clever and devious little mystery. Cat O' Nine Tails: The killer's motivation is perhaps amongst the silliest you will find in cinema, but it continues the tone set by the previous film. Deep Red: One of the significant films in the giallo genre and Euro-horror in general, with some very inventive set-pieces and characterizations, with another clever and devious mystery at it's heart. Suspiria: The master-work. The film that defines and justifies Argento's place in film history. A phantasmagorical supernatural thriller filled with twisted dream logic. Yes, we will be revisiting this. Tenebre: A return to the pure thriller roots, with one of the best and most unexpected twists in horror history. Phenomena: A bit too caught up in the midst of 80s horror trends, and the thriller and supernatural elements never quite mesh, but still worth watching. Opera: Probably does more to critique the horror genre while playing by the rules of genre of any film, save possibly the original Scream. Trauma: Argento's "American" film, and it shows. Lacks the punch of his earlier works and feels like an after-school special at times. Scott Pilgrim fans will like it, though, for the creepy pederastic aspects of the story. Sleepless: After a decade of sub-par work, Argento's return to pure giallo territory and tropes. It's a kitchen-sink approach to the thriller, but it uses Argento's formula to great effect. Do You Like Hitchcock?: Remarkably low-key compared to most of his other film's, but a nice tribute to Argento's primary influence.
To Avoid (Yeah, Argento does misfire, and spectacularly, from time to time.) Inferno: The first sequel to Suspiria, and the first clue that maybe Suspiria should have been left to stand alone. Stendahl's Syndrome: A bloated, confused, border-line misogynist exercise in making the audience feel as dirty and sick as possible. Phantom of the Opera: There really is no excuse for this film. The Card Player: It's got a very clever trick in the central mystery, but the characters never gell, none of it ever quite makes sense and it just sort of chugs along to an inevitable conclusion. Masters of Horror: Pelts and Jennifer: Final proof that Argento just should not try to work with American production companies. Both are utterly unwatchable dreck. Mother of Tears: Oh dear. We'll be revisiting this as well.
Next Time: We watch Mother of Tears, the finale to the Three Mothers trilogy, and test our dedication to this whole "Argento Week" in the process.