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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Gut Level


Slither simultaneously symbolizes everything that’s right and wrong with the current trends in post-modern horror. On the positive side, this minor masterpiece’s deconstruction of the entire ‘80s idea of terror is so flawlessly fashioned and perfectly executed that writer/director James Gunn ought to be celebrated (or in some fright fans minds, shot) for how accurately he skewers the era’s many mediocre monster movies. The film frequently feels like a fanboy’s final exam. In addition, Gunn gives gorehounds a real reason to rejoice. Unlike the current concept of over the top bloodletting that thinks the sequence is more important than the sluice, this inspired auteur gets his groovy grue just right. As he piles on the pus and unleashes the organs, those of us longing for this kind of craven creature feature can’t help but smile from ear to ear.

The setup is deceptively simple. After a meteor crashes outside the small town of Wesley, South Carolina, one of the local bigwigs, a rich jerk named Grant Grant, gets infected by a space spore. Seeking someone to help him hatch his slug like servants, Grant kidnaps a former fling, kills several head of livestock and dozens of neighborhood pets, and sets up his brooder outside the city limits. Before you know it, Wesley is overrun by killer creepy crawlies, all looking for orifices to invade. Worming their way into their victim’s brains, the townsfolk are soon resurrected as living dead members of Grant’s growing invasion force. It will take a nice guy sheriff, a suddenly orphaned teen, and Grant’s wife Starla to hopefully save the day. Unfortunately, killing these ‘critters’ will be a lot harder than everyone thinks.


So where’s the negative, you ask? What could possibly be wrong with a movie so easily praised and smashingly entertaining? Well, for one thing, it was a flop. For reasons only a macabre Mensa scholar could understand, the demographic preferred such alternative terror offerings as Eli Roth’s Hostel (good) and the recent Omen remake (bad…very, very bad) to Gunn’s goofball gross out. Second, and far more troubling, people were actually put off by the notion – created as kind of a critical shortcut for the genre addled element of the press – that this was some kind of mainstream Troma movie. Instead of embracing the name of the world’s leading Indie icon as a badge of dynamite dishonor, audiences actually responded by purposefully avoiding the film. If they didn’t like what Lloyd Kaufman and his ilk were doing before, why would they enjoy a big budget version of the same?


Well, for one thing, Slither is not a Troma film. The connection between the two stops at Gunn’s previous career as a company executive and scriptwriter (he was responsible for the equally engaging and enigmatic Tromeo and Juliet). The fact is, for anyone looking for logical links between past and present efforts, films like Night of the Creeps, Robot Holocaust and Bad Taste provide far more credible creative starting points. Slither is obviously the effort of someone who’s studied horror, looking at everything from the bad, the bumbling, and the brazen as inspiration for his ideas. Many similarly styled flicks with familiar titles like The Deadly Spawn, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Critters use the invasion idea to turn normal society sinisterly askew. What Gunn adds is his own mythology (gotta love the mind-meld moment were a CGI creature goes on an intergalactic killing spree) and a child-like glee when it comes to glop. 


Similar to the sensational Shaun of the Dead, Slither also understands that humor goes a long way toward preparing the foundation for your outrageous frights. A legion of devotees, raised on Freddy’s wounded wise-cracks, the Leprechaun’s lame one-liners, and the inherent hilarity in seeing Jason do away with clueless copulators, don’t really like their terror straight up. They want some moments of merriment, a little boo breather, so to speak, before heading out into flesh-eating zombie territory. With a keen comic sense that shows through in almost everything he does (a perfect example of which is his collaboration with wife Jenna Fisher on her fabulous mock doc Lollilove), Gunn gives Slither the kind of wink and a nod irony that should have made this movie an unqualified youth culture hit. Sadly, the current craze for ‘violence porn’, best exemplified by the Saw series and Roth’s tainted travelogue, apparently provides no room for something both funny and frightening.


And yet, Gunn doesn’t stop there. This is a movie loaded with in-jokes, nods to famous horror heroes, and constant references to films past and present. Almost everyone in the cast is named after a celebrated genre writer, director, producer or actor, and locations like ‘Henelotters’ act as less than subtle cinematic shout outs. Certainly Slither can seem insular at times, trying too be a tad too cute for its own limited means, but that doesn’t begin to destroy the amazing work done here by Gunn and company. From the impressive cast (including former serial killer Henry – a.k.a. Michael Rooker - as Grant) to the refreshing use of physical as well as computer generated effects, the filmmaking is first rate. Yet unlike previous attempts to make a purposefully bad b-movie, Slither is too smart to be so easily dismissed. Instead, it radiates a pure love of horror language, and never stumbles along the way toward its silly scares.


Still, one is shocked by the poor box office performance. That’s not to say that every film like Slither steals away multiple megabucks from their time at the Cineplex (Shaun of the Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing were both less than boffo upon initial release), but when nothing else out there comes close to this movie’s invention and charm, ignoring it seems downright dumb. Here’s predicting that a few years from now, once the latest fear fad fades from view, joining J-Horror and Blair Witch rip-offs on the Island of Misfit Movie Ideas, Gunn will be vindicated and Slither will soar in popularity. The obsessives will discover every obscurity, the devoted will pen numerous weblog entries on the film’s sexual themes and obvious inspirations (everyone from Spielberg to Cronenberg will be cited). But none of this will make-up for the fact that, when they had the chance to champion the first truly great horror film of 2006, they waited instead to celebrate a bunch of spelunking dames and their run-in with some underground albinos.


Slither will survive. But there’s a bigger issue at play. Gunn probably used up all his blockbuster clout delivering his deliciously fun film to the big screen, and it’s probably a safe bet that a major studio won’t be bankrolling his next low-budget laughathon anytime soon. And that’s a shame. For all its tricks and gimmicks, it’s easily recognizable references and excessive use of entrails, Gunn actually makes a great bit of schlock. It reminds us of a time when terror could encompass any and all ideas, when it didn’t have to be micromanaged down to a recognizable trend or taken apart and rearranged to earn an easy PG-13. Now more than ever the suffering category of scares needs jaded jesters like James Gunn. Slither is the perfect cure for such cinematic stagnancy.


 


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Saturday, Oct 28, 2006


Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can’t miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title. Then Dead Heat knocked into theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the 1980s.


And that’s too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it’s just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a “What the heck is this?” moment for a few formerly famous faces.


Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it’s time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer’s bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo’s radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice.


Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created. But Johnson’s novel—and unnerving—special effects work is the film’s most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various “stitched together” configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other “processed” animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It’s because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.


Frankly, it’s surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio’s for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work. It’s mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill).


Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams’s scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black’s script, combined with Mark Goldblatt’s crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.


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Friday, Oct 27, 2006


Three friends—a failed medical student named Bill Johnson, a geeky mathematician named Max Giggs, and a discredited ex-wrestling champion named John West—suddenly learn that zombies are overrunning their small Argentinean suburb. These are not your typical living dead, however. They are smarter, cleverer, and apparently controlled by forces beyond an inherent urge to kill and eat flesh. Hoping to escape, they discover that the FBI has quarantined the city, locking them in with the uncontrollable undead. While battling for their lives and looking for a means out of harm’s way, they run into an injured agent with a secret map. If they can decode the floppy disk and learn the route, they are saved. But it will take more than computing skills to win the day. Our pals are smack dab in the heart of the Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, and in this terrifying domain, it’s kill or be killed.


Here it is, all you home-movie hopefuls—100 percent proof positive that epic entertainment can be crafted out of a camcorder, a cast and crew of friends, and a great deal of cinematic creativity. This bravado brainchild of Argentinean auteurs Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez is like watching Peter Jackson’s private personal video experiments, or Sam Raimi’s first forays into Evil Dead-based fright. Consisting of two installments in a proposed trilogy, Plaga Zombie (“Zombie Plague”) and its sensational sequel, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, these movies represent the height of auspicious outsider moviemaking. Within a total combined running time of nearly three hours, we are introduced to a sensational selection of instantly memorable characters, transported into a completely believable parallel universe where zombies rule the streets, and witness to filmmaking expertise so skillful and wise that you’d never imagine it was the effort of able-bodied amateurs.


In a pair of films loaded with amazing moments, there are several that shine above others. Our fallen hero, wrestler John West, shows off his insane collection of self-promotion memorabilia (including a catchy sing-along theme) that predates the similarly styled Toy Story II sequence. Zombies pretend to be ninjas, rappers, and players in a pretty mean game of Texas Hold-em. Max rips the arm off a corpse and uses it like a martial arts weapon, while Bill employs a long strand of intestines—complete with perfunctory farting noises—to keep his adversaries at bay. There are swipes from Back to the Future, The Matrix, and even the post-9/11 war on terror. And then there are the fight scenes—one remarkably well done, expertly choreographed, and stunningly filmed/edited sequence after another of friend vs. fiend fisticuffs that challenge, and even surpass, the efforts of bigger budgeted films. One of the major problems homemade movies have, especially when it comes to action, is the creation of credible controlled chaos. The usual result of an amateur stunt sequence is underdeveloped, static motion that looks like obese octogenarians swing dancing. But here, a combination of filmmaking joy and dogged determination results in a truly blazon battle royale. You can actually feel your pulse start to race the minute John, Bill, and Max step up to take on another unruly horde of the living dead.


Gore hounds will also get their red stuff rocks off over and over again during this dizzying display of no-budget effects. Heads split, guts spill, limbs crack open and ooze, and buckets of blood battle with barrels of bile for slime supremacy. There are more decapitations, eviscerations, and discombobulations in this film than in a dozen direct-to-video vomitoriums. The closest comparison to the claret carnage and pus pandemonium included here is the similar stage grue grandstanding in Peter Jackson’s non-hobbit epics Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Certainly, some of the effects are substandard and look like they were conceived and created on the spot with poster paint and bird feces, but when inserted into this amalgamation of action, sci-fi, and slapstick, the result is a completely entertaining flesh feast, a film that becomes its own mythos and its own legitimate horror legacy. Like watching how Sam Raimi reinvented the demonic possession film to conform to his own inner aesthetic of excitement and originality, the gang at FASCA Producciones have taken the undead genre and removed all the social commentary and realistic validation. Instead, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone (along with the original film) becomes a new manner of monster movie, a showcase of fright film forged out of fandom, devotion, and a true fascination with the motion picture macabre that came before.


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Thursday, Oct 26, 2006


For the second week in a row, the premium pay channels on your local cable server are offering up nothing worth watching. You’d think that with Halloween just three days away, and industry film vaults bulging with possible tie-in terror titles, we’d be seeing something scarier on the small screen than a bad X-mas comedy and further proof of how far a former funny man has fallen. Where’s the non-stop splatter marathons? The groovy ghoulie epics involving blood and body parts? How about a hint of horror from decades past, a full blown three day long b-movie orgy of giant insects, nuclear mutants, and everyone’s favorite flesh fiends, the incredibly put upon zombie? Nope, apparently that will all be arriving just before Trick or Treat time. In the meanwhile, call up some friends and rent one of the newer cinematic scarefests – sensational new titles like Slither, Silent Hill or Hostel. Only the biggest cinematic sadist would waste a moment of their valuable viewing time on the ordinary offerings this week. For those still interested, here’s what the coaxial calls entertainment for the weekend of 28 October:


HBOJust Friends

Maybe it’s the unconvincing fat suit that actor Ryan Reynolds sports during this dull RomCom’s setup. Maybe it’s the horrid fright wig perm he dons as well. It could be the lackadaisical approach to love that seems to suggest that people only fully self-actualize when they drop the pounds, rake in the dinero and start screwing everything in sight. Whatever the case may be, this minor blip on the Tinsel Town radar actual sold itself as a Gen X holiday romp during last year’s Noel. Credit director and friend of Friend David Schwimmer, Roger Kumble for managing to parlay his perfectly ordinary credits (the first two Cruel Intention films and the sloppy girl groaner The Sweetest Thing) into a continuing career behind the lens. Several significantly more talented men are forced to fight for the chance to make a movie, and yet Kumble can churn out the crap and still get a job. In fact, said reality is probably the only interesting thing about this otherwise dull as a doormat diversion. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 8:00pm EST).


CinemaxThe 40 Year Old Virgin*

This may be going against the commonly held opinion of this so called ‘classic’, but SE&L just didn’t get this unrealistic look at a middle-aged man whose intact virtue supposedly makes him hilarious. All minor laughs aside, the biggest problem with the slightly surreal story is how unrealistic it is. Steve Carell lives like the ultimate dork (call him Pee Wee Herman with better career goals) and has more support than anyone lacking a sex life should. That he manages, through the typical series of setpiece sequences, to discover the reasons behind his rejection and finally find an outlet for his libido makes the story even more shallow. This is basically a one joke film (Carell as horndog without a human hydrant to provide relief) and the infrequent moments of all out comedy (many provided by co-star Seth Rogen) don’t remove the undercurrent of cruelness from the narrative. Basically, Virgin argues that individuality only works when karma carves out a soul mate for you – not necessarily the most apropos foundation for funny. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzFun with Dick and Jane

For anyone wondering why Jim Carrey has fallen out of the public eye recently, a look over his last few films will answer the question easily enough. Beginning with The Majestic, and moving along through Bruce Almighty (good, but gimmicky) the sensational Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the spotty Lemony Snicket, his box office mantle has been pretty paltry as of late. Granted, his turn as God was an unexpected hit, but the rest of his efforts were seen as disappointments. Under this theory, Fun with Dick and Jane, another pointless Hollywood remake, had no chance. It didn’t help matters much that the overall tone of the film was flawed, moving between realism and ridiculousness with plot plodding difficulty, but Carrey ended up having very little to do except turn on the mannered mugging and hope for the best. Seen as one of several reasons why Carrey recently dumped his professional representatives, this film definitely feels lost in a morass of focus group fog. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowCaseBeyond the Sea

With all the chat fest showboating over his ability to mimic famous faces, it seemed inevitable that two time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey would find a biopic that would suit his unusual talent perfectly. Sadly, this look at Bobby Darin’s life and times is not that story. Perhaps it has something to do with the odd way in which director Spacey presents the facts. Instead of a typical tale, he manipulates the material in weird, almost idiotic ways. Heartfelt moments crash into comedy, career highpoints slip effortlessly into dark, dour melodrama. But beyond the stylized presentation, the casting is of equal concern. Mr. American Beauty almost pulls off his part (though he just looks too old to successfully sell himself as Darin), but Kate Bosworth is a cipher as Sandra Dee, and even worse, John Goodman looks literally uncomfortable as Darin’s manager. There are moments of magic peaking out from behind the arcane approach and lackluster performances, but in the end, we only learn one thing: Darin deserves better. (Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 27/28 October, the choices are one horrific hit, and another macabre miss:


Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s timeless zombie film has been called everything from an erudite social commentary to a taut political polemic. What is frequently forgotten is how downright creepy it really is. Tis the perfect season to rediscover its famous fear factors. (1:00am EST)


The Crazies
With his third feature film (after Season of the Witch) Romero returned to familiar ground – too familiar for some fright fans. Similar to 28 Days Later in that these are nutjobs, not the undead, that the military are after, this is one of the master’s lesser efforts. (2:45am EST)


 


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the fourth installment of acceptable selections for this week include:



28 October - The Omen (1976)
Forget the horrendous remake that came out in 2006 and revisit this timeless classic, featuring impressive performances from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
(Encore – 8PM EST)


29 October - So I Married an Axe Murderer
Before Shrek made him more or less untouchable, Mike Meyers actually tried to make funny movies. Here’s one of his more oddball attempts.
(Flix – 6:25PM EST)


30 October - Radio Days
Woody Allen revisits his youth in this wistful, and genuinely comic look at life during wartime, when the wireless was the universal link to everything that was important.
(Movieplex – 6:45PM EST)


31 October -Masque of the Red Death
Roger Corman often gets ridiculed for his lesser monster movies. But there’s nothing but respect for his Poe adaptations, with this visionary example being his best.
(Tuner Classic Movies – 7PM EST)


1 November - National Lampoon’s Vacation
A new month, a new attitude – one perfectly encompassed by this wildly wicked comedy about one man’s attempt at having a real family holiday.
(AMC – 8PM EST)


2 November - The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Many missed this unique take on the inherent connection between father and daughter. While not wholly successful, it deserves a look just the same.
(The Movie Channel – 9:30PM EST)


3 November -Drumline
Far from original, this formulaic take on one youth’s desire to join a nationally recognized show-style band is still an entertaining, even inspiring film.
(TNT – 8PM EST)


 


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Wednesday, Oct 25, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.


Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over. 


Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.


Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.


Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.


But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.


Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.


Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.


Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.

Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.


It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.


With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves


So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.


Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.


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