Archive for Dario Argento

The Oblong Box Set

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN,  and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

Blind Tuesday: Seeing-Eye Cat

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2012 by dcairns

Somebody is killing fashion models in Amsterdam — ever wondered why models are paid so highly? Because they’re always getting murdered.

Rejected from Forgotten Gialli, CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT winds up in Blind Tuesday (our occasional feature on blind-person-in-jeopardy thrillers), just because it’s made me rather cross. At the core of the film is a rather darling conceit, a killer using a black cat as assassin, its claws coated with deadly curare. The delightful absurdity of this idea — ever tried getting a cat to do anything? what happens when kitty washes her paws? and also, just WHY? — is rather stifled by the wrapping around of the entire plot and all the set-pieces from 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET.

Stealing is inevitable, and largely to be encouraged, in the arts, but there are times when it is to be condemned. The shot-for-shot lifting of the love scene from DON’T LOOK NOW in ABOUT LAST NIGHT… is one of them (why remind the audience, so forcibly, that Demi Moore is not Julie Christie and Rob Lowe is not Donald Sutherland [or vice versa] or that Edward Zwick does not even share a species with Nic Roeg?). This is another.

The rule is that stealing is good when it makes things better, but that holds it to a high standard — the artwork must be better than it would have been without the theft, but also better than it would have been with something original of an adequate standard. Ideally, the theft should be the kind whereby, if the viewer recognizes the source, pleasure is increased (“How clever!”) rather than spoiled (“What a blatant swipe!”)…

In the case of CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT, it’s to be condemned because it’s lazy and unimaginative, and because it doesn’t help the film, it actually constrains it. The effect is to break the thing in two, so that Anthony Steffen (rather good and sepulchral as the sightless hero) and his investigations seem to occupy a whole other movie from the bout of silly killings.

The big adaptation is to make the hero not a playwright who uses a tape recorder to practice his dialogue, but a film composer (who can’t see the film — how does THAT work?). This allows for a giallo-within-the-giallo, which is par for the course in this compulsively self-reflective genre. Graphic close-ups of breast-slicing in this embedded movie are far more horrible than anything in the main body of the narrative, until the ending, when director Sergio Pastore goes all vicious again, and we can guess that the killer is a woman. You see, whenever the killer does something truly nasty and misogynistic, you can be fairly sure he’ll turn out to be a woman (dishonorable exception: IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE, where he’s gay) . It’s a kind of alibi instinct, to deflect the filmmaker’s own guilt.*

This is, on the whole, the kind of giallo that makes me not like the genre. It’s a field which triumphs when it unlocks its imagination, and there’s something deeply tedious about all these black-gloved killers. I think that’s the true explanation for the decline of Dario Argento: he’s become bored by his own tropes, and God forbid that he should ever examine them critically for signs and meaning. Mario Bava, God love him, wasn’t inclined to introspection either, but he felt compelled to explore every genre on offer, even those like the sexy-type-film which he instinctively disliked. It’s because he didn’t view himself as an artist that he experimented so much, making him kind of (but only kind of) the Keaton to Argento’s Chaplin.

Hey, another strange thing. The woman with the killer cat operates out of a pet shop called, according to its sign, UNDULATER. Why would a pet shop be called UNDULATER? And if you ran a pet shop called UNDULATER, wouldn’t that cause a fair bit of confusion (especially in Amsterdam)?**

*The other bit of giallo cowardice: if the killer is a priest, he will soon be unmasked or unfrocked as a bogus priest. Most of these movies are deeply conservative at heart.

**Stop press: W Krikken suggests,via Twitter, that the setting is Copenhagen. I think that is correct. Still, makes the possibilities for misconstruing UNDULATOR even richer, if anything.

In other news: Limerwreckage — Carradine rhymes again!

The Bughouse

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , on March 27, 2012 by dcairns

Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA — “What’ll we call this film? —  it seems like a random conglomeration of stuff… I know — PHENOMENA!”

Watched this because of Paul Duane’s warm praise for the Donald Pleasence character, John MacGregor — a paralysed Scottish entomologist living in Switzerland with a pet chimp. One wants to say that this is exactly the kind of character one WOULD meet in a Dario Argento film, but in fact it’s the kind of character one doesn’t meet often enough in any film. Pleasence is a joy, and his unnecessary accent, a piece of pure virtuoso ham, is extreme but quite convincing. And quite different from the one he does in KIDNAPPED. I wonder if he based it on this guy –

But not quite. I always felt that the accent of the kiddie-fiddler Pleasence plays in Chabrol’s BLOOD RELATIVES was a Roman Polanski impersonation (Pleasence had worked with Polanski some years before), so it’s possible that this is another backhanded homage… to somebody.

Asides from this endearing character (and Inga, his chimp housemaid), we have discombobulating mishmash of elements culled from other movies — the creepy school from SUSPIRIA (complete with similar out-of-the-blue narration, disorientating and fun — you automatically look at the person next to you to check they’re hearing it too) the unseen serial killer, from every other Argento film (and you get the feeling Argento himself is getting tired of this shit), the teenage girl with psychic powers from CARRIE, only here she has the power to command bugs JUST BECAUSE, and the mother and son psycho team from FRIDAY THE 13TH. Throw in Poe’s razor-wielding ape for good measure –

Of all the murders in Argento’s films, only this one features a convincing emotional response of bereavement by anybody. And the person mourning is a chmpanzee. Meet Inga, the only convincing female character in an Argento movie.

Great, wildly inappropriate at all times and therefore GOOD score by Goblin, augmented — or should I say “befouled” — by some even more inappropriate (and not in a good way) heavy metal tracks. I want to say they come out of left field, but the whole movie comes out of left field. They come out of the bleachers.

Oh, and there’s Armani costumes. Just what this film needed.

For a former critic, Argento is about the least analytical director in the world, it seems to me. With an obsessive focus on violence to women, his films never deliver anything like a credible thought on the causes of such obsessions: you won’t learn anything about misogyny or sadism from Argento, except that they can take lurid forms. Obviously, the accusation that he isn’t much interested in his actors and writes impossible dialogue is true, but it’s also true that the women’s dialogue is worse than the men’s — and it tends to be the women who act in ways that are utterly absurd — perhaps because women are so incomprehensible to the director in reality? (Check the bickering schoolgirls in this film for an example.)

The shaggy D.A. defines his films as “non-Cartesian” and that seems to be enough for him. In this case, “non-Cartesian” is really a synonym for “nonsensical.” Well, to be fair, most of PHENOMENA makes its own demented kind of sense, it’s just that the disparate elements have no reason to cohabit in the same picture. The chimp with a straight razor, out of Poe, is pretty welcome though — by that time in the movie, we know the whole thing’s insane and we’re watching mainly to see just how berserk it can get.

Jennifer Connolly’s face, already sizable, becomes huge underwater.

“He stays in his room with his crazy thoughts,” says Daria Nicolodi, making me wonder: If he comes out of his room, do his crazy thoughts stay in his room?

I’d also be interested to know how readers interpret the film’s backstory — the killer’s origin. I have a feeling it’s pretty sick.

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