Thursday, November 1, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Zombie Creeping Flesh / Virus

This was supposed to be my submission as part of Kevin’s Italian Horror Movie Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. If you read my blog and don’t read his…well, that just doesn’t make any sense, but head on over and read the great submissions by himself and others.

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(I thought that this singular screencap best summed up what was so great about this film -- for more great pictures, see last year’s post).

I don’t like that the last time I posted, now a full one-year ago, it was in essence a self-admitted defeat at the hands of Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso, and a bunch of video editing software.  Hopefully this post will somewhat remedy that. In taking a look at what I’ve contributed to this blog in that one year between posts I came up with the following list:

  1. Nothing
  2. I figured out how to re-encode the video I made about Zombie Creeping Flesh/Virus last year so that the sound was in sync.

That’s about it.  Yeah, I couldn’t even be arsed to do a write-up on this film, even though I have a 3-page long list of notes. Maybe that will be my goal for November 1st, 2013.  Still, I am quite proud of the video, my re-cut version of just the bare essentials of Zombie Creeping Flesh/Virus.  It leaves intact all of the non-sensical moments and hilariously stilted dialogue while removing any of the needless padding or stock footage.  In other words, it makes it watchable.

In other news, I’ve actually been watching movies again lately (even if a lot of them have been nothing more than Rifftrax releases), so perhaps I’ll catch the bug to start writing about them again.  Or not, and if that’s the case, I’ll talk with all of you again in 365 days!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Argh

I had been working on editing a video to post for Kevin’s 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon on the great so-bad-it’s-good Bruno Mattei/Claudio Fragasso film Virus (aka Zombie Creeping Flesh), but even after multiple tries AVIdemux and Youtube aren’t cooperating, creating tons of audio sync issues which are probably due to the source file I chose to use.  So I give up and am just going to hold off on posting the thing until next year’s blogathon (that’s quite a teaser, isn’t it) and do the most practical thing and work on wrapping up the Bresson post I’ve had half-finished for months. 

Yes, from Bruno Mattei to Robert Bresson seems like a logical progression to me…

Until then, a few screencaps indicative of Virus.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Italian Horror Blogathon: Suspiria

This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. It’s a repost from last year’s Top 100 Horror Movies project and is the film I find to be the best example of Italian Horror, ever. I’m back tomorrow with a BRAND NEW review of a film that is as far opposite of Argento’s classic as possible.

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Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time.

So the narrator intones amidst a credit sequence consisting of a cacophony of pounding tympanis, screeching guitar strings, entrancing prog synths, and eerie background vocalizations.  It would have been just as appropriate for Dario Argento to insert a title card which states "Once Upon A Time..." as it soon becomes apparent that Suspiria is Argento's stylized and lurid attempt at crafting a supernatural, gothic fairy tale (Argento has admitted to using the story and film of Snow White as an influence).  Even while mixing a few of his earlier giallo tropes into the mix --  the Grand Guignol setpieces and a mystery that hinges on an unresolved memory come immediately to mind -- he begins moving even further away from the more literal constructs of those earlier films and into the dreamscapes that he would incorporate for his short run of intriguing films.

The opening shot shows Suzy (Jessica Harper, perfect as the naive ingénue thrust into a world where she will soon lose her innocence) leaving the airport, ominous red lighting filling the walls behind her.  It's our first display of the use of unnatural lighting that Argento will use (surely influenced by his mentor, Mario Bava).  The majority of the film involves the screen being bathed in some from of brilliant primary color -- reds and blues dominate, but greens and yellows make their way in as well.  Argento famously chose to use the three-strip Technicolor process that films such as The Wizard of Oz used, making the base colors (red, blue, and green) luridly pop off the screen as if they were painted on the film stock.  Each room and exterior are seemingly capable of being immersed in any shade of color, all changing at a moments notice from one scene to the next.  There's no rhyme or reason as to why these lush colors are imbuing the environment, they just are, a key component to the creation of an eerie and mesmerizing atmosphere. 

Suzy proceeds to leave the airport, a pensive look of unfamiliarity with her surroundings on her face.  Argento immediately takes the viewer out of reality and into the fantastic by juxtaposing shots of Suzy, the natural sounds of the airport filling the soundtrack, with shots from Suzy's POV as she slowly moves closer to the exit, overlaid with Goblin's prog-rock ethereal score.  As Suzy steps outside, a monstrous thunderstorm starts up, the soundtrack hitting us from all channels with rain, thunderclaps, and bass.

The strange aura that permeates the film begins during Suzy's taxi ride to the dance school.  Bright lights ominously and fantastically fill the car, intercut with images of rushing water and passing cars with colored halos.  As they arrive at the school during the storm, Suzy sees another girl leaving, yelling at someone inside.  In a common narrative flourish of Argento's, what she says is unclear to us, but deciphering it will be the key to Suzy unlocking the puzzle at film's end.

We see the girl leaving the school run through the forest, Argento's purposefully anamorphic camera tracking alongside her as if flying by.  The evil mutterings of the soundtrack (which the band titled "Sighs") and the movement of the camera  add up to make it feel as if she is being chased by some unseen force.  The girl eventually arrives at the apartment of a friend, though we get the feeling that the ominous entities she was vexed by have followed her there.  In talking to her friend, she sums up the film perfectly by stating that her experience at the school seemed "so absurd, so fantastic."

The apartment's architecture and interiors showcase Argento's eye for striking compositions (and his brilliant use of Technicolor).  The lipstick red walls consist of diamond and circle patterns interspersed with painted on columns.  The marble floor is red, white, and black checked, forming a circular and triangular geometric pattern.  Two seemingly lone aqua blue doors and a magnificently multi-colored stained glass skylight fill the rest of the entry hall.  The apartment bedroom has painted birds on red walls next to a drawing room of blue walls with art deco doors.  Even at the very end of the opening scene, where a splattering of blood is shown on the white marble tile, Argento's stylized use of such eye-catching colors is spectacular to behold.

Soon the woman is attacked by an unseen force that swoops in from outside.  A pair of eyes is seen when she peers into the inky night and an arm smashes through the window to assault her.  This all culminates with a bravura setpiece where a body smashes through the colored stained-glass ceiling, hung by a rope, and another is impaled by steel girders, face sliced in half from a shard of glass.  It all takes place amidst the aforementioned vivid and symmetrical layout of the apartment complex, accompanied by the brutally discordant soundtrack by Goblin. 

850 words in and I've done nothing more than describe the first fifteen minutes of the film.  Just in this short amount of time Argento manages to create a brilliant introduction to the horror that will follow, encapsulating all of his tricks and techniques in a phantasmagoric melding of lurid colors and bizarre noises.

In gathering screencaps for the film, I found myself with over 100 individual moments that caught my interest.  These screencaps can give insight into the beauty of composition and art design that Argento employs (and I'll be sure to go overboard with them at the end of this post), yet their static nature don't allow for the importance that camera movement plays in creating the spellbinding experience.  Argento uses tracking shots throughout, a key way in relating the supernatural and fantastical events that are taking place (the aforementioned run through the forest, Suzy dizzying entrance to the dance studio and walking up the staircase, the marbles rolling along the floor).  There are other sequences throughout that showcase Argento's mastery of motion and cutting -- the dog attacking its owner in an empty square, maggots raining down from above, a room filled with razor wire, shadows showing from  behind a curtain, Suzy's strange walk down the hallway, and in the finale, where Suzy eventually "follows the breadcrumbs through the rabbit hole" (in keeping with the fairy tale allusions) leading to the final confrontation.

The soundscape is equally vital to creating the mood and atmosphere in the film.  Much credit must go to Goblin's score -- during the most intense scenes they provide an avant garde barrage of pounding keyboards, drums, and strings, overlaid with cacophonous voices.  At quieter times we merely hear whispered voices.  Conceits such as the use of footsteps or loud snoring also come into play as important cues that further the story and add to the overall feel of the film.

I've gone all this way with nary a nod to the story or plot.  That's due to the narrative being light, Argento stressing visual and aural style over a intricate or even fully coherent plot or recognizably realistic characters (a hallmark of all his films to come, really).  It's apt to compare it to fairy tales and nightmares, as that points to the imagery Argento wants the viewer to conger up while the narrative unfolds.

Perhaps not the most horrifying film ever, with Argento often favoring stylistic ingenuity over generating real tension, it still contains some shocking and memorably frightful scenes.  Ultimately, it's an amazing union of vision and sound that leads to a distinctly nightmarish horror classic (and a particular amazing one-two punch from Argento when paired with Deep Red).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Italian Horror Blogathon: Toby Dammit

This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.  It’s a repost from last year’s Top 100 Horror Movies project and definitely a film that doesn’t often get considered when discussing Italian Horror.  I’ll be back on Monday with a brand new review.

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Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit is the final segment of Spirits of The Dead, an anthology film comprised of two underwhelming pieces and this one superior segment. It's a mere 40-minutes long, but in that short time Fellini has crafted a perfect mix of dark comedy that turns into horrifying madness.

Before I get too far, I implore you to spend the short amount of time to watch the film. There isn't an ideal version of the film on DVD as of right now*, as the only way to see Terence Stamp's incredible English language performance was in a terrible looking print with permanent subtitles.  All other released versions included a French-voiceover for Stamp's dialogue. That just shouldn't be, for Stamp's portrayal is pivotal to the appeal of the film (this is one of those rare times where the dubbed version is superior to the original language version). So I put together my own "version" of the film, mixing the English language soundtrack and the best DVD quality rip I could find, coming up with the following:

* Fortunately, I just discovered a Blu-Ray release of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD is going to be released before the end of the year, completely restored and with the preferred language tracks.

Toby Dammit (played by the singular Terence Stamp) is an English actor setting out to Rome to promote a film he is to be a part of.  Immediately upon landing, we see a cast of Fellini-esque characters occupying the airport. Toby is initially bombarded by the staring eyes of these people, before a horde of photographers begins incessantly snapping photos of him. 

Toby next meets those involved with the film he will be part of, an amazingly pretentious "Catholic Western" that is "something between Dreyer and Pasolini with just a hint of John Ford" (God, if only Fellini had gone through with such a fantastic concept).  He is inundated with thoughts and philosophies about the film, all during which it's obvious that Toby has no care about any of this.  Pale faced and gaunt, as if fresh off a night of "whisky, hashish, cocaine, orgy, sex" (please watch that video -- fantastic stuff) Toby cares of only one thing, in fact it's the only reason he came to Rome in the first place -- "The studio promised me a Ferrari.  Latest model.  When do I get it?"

It's at this point that we first see a sinister looking girl with a white ball, an entity that has obviously been following Toby around for quite a while ("I told her to go away but she kept coming back").  Fellini has admitted as much that she was an homage to the ghostly girl from fellow Italian Mario Bava's Kill, Baby Kill.  Fellini introduces her with a fantastic eerie effect, showing her face and then zooming in several inches suddenly via a jump cut.

He is whisked away to a television studio for an interview, all the while more absurd and fantastical faces are popping up at a hurried pace. Throughout the interview, Toby is full of himself, coy with his answers, and has a complete disregard for everyone around him, seeing this as an obvious waste of time.  We find out here that Toby regards the little girl with the ball as the devil ("For me the devil is friendly and joyful.  He's a little girl").

Toby's devil-may-care attitude continues, as he is suddenly at the Italian Oscars, a new group of bizarre people introduced to him one after the other.  Toby accepts an award, gives a speech and then rushes off, wanting to do nothing more than get in his Ferrari and get the hell out of Rome.

Only he can't.

He races throughout the city in an effort to leave it. But he keeps coming across dead-ends -- roadblocks, a flock of sheep, cardboard cutouts of people -- everything telling him he can't escape. Until he sees a road with a ravine in front of it.  On the other side of the ravine is the girl with the ball, her face almost taunting him to try to cross.  Toby picks up enough speed to jump the ravine and in his madness fails to notice the wire just at head height, stretched across the road. Then, pop, off comes his head.

The girl with the ball comes over to collect it and we end our story.

The meaning of the whole thing? Fellini knowingly plays with the original Poe story that this is adapted from ("Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale With A Moral"). As the title makes clear, this was Poe's jab at his detractors who claimed he didn't write with a moral purpose, a satirical spoof against his moralistic detractors.  In a similar vein, Fellini uses the story as a satire on the pretentious, facile, and maddening world of film and the leeches and hangers-on that occupy that aspect of society.  He shows that working in the film industry is a proverbial deal with the devil, the artistic pleasures that come with it balanced by the pointless interviews and vapid award shows that come with it.  In many ways, this theme harkens back to previous Fellini, for as Steve Bissette (in the best review of the film I've yet read) so perfectly puts it, Toby Dammit is "8 1/2 goes to hell." 

But even with this satirical edge occupying so much of the proceedings, Fellini doesn't fail to build toward a horrific finale (and really, this wouldn't be considered a horror film if not for the frenzied ending).  Key to this is the uncanny image of the devil as the little girl with the ball.  Fellini's vision of her is even more malicious than Bava, though, with an alluringly mischievous, threatening look. 

Equally disturbing is the viewer implicitly going on this self-destructive voyage into madness with Toby.  We too can see the girl, yet no one else can.  We too are displaced in this world, with it's hellish tints and surreal award shows, grotesqueries all around, unable to understand anything anyone else is saying (another point towards watching this with Stamp's English only and no subtitles).  It's Stamp's manic performance that gets across this feeling of losing control and just wanting out, while Fellini's fog-lit street scenes, showing us Toby's point-of-view as he drive, along with the sounds of the Ferrari's engine and squealing tires, provides the sense of delirium.

I find that in trying to discover the meaning of the film, there are many possibilities; Did Toby sell his soul to the devil for his 15 minutes of fame?  Has his descent into self-destruction left him no way out but death?  Has his constant tempting of fate finally come back to get him?  Any or all of those are satisfying enough, but as with Poe's story, a moral isn't necessary here, not when our eyes and minds can tell us that Fellini and Stamp have combined to make an eerily beautiful and distinct horror film.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Italian Horror Blogathon: Kill, Baby Kill

This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. It’s a repost from last years Top 100 Horror Movies project, but one that highlights a film that doesn’t get talked about often enough (the same goes for tomorrow’s subject as well). On Monday I’ll be back with a brand new contribution.

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Mario Bava's Kill, Baby Kill (I always lose track of where to put that comma) begins with a nightmarish scene which sets the stage for what is to come.  A woman runs distressingly from an unseen assailant before leaping from a bell tower and impaling herself upon a sharp metal fence below (the likes of which are certain hazards whenever they show up in a horror film).  From that image we immediately see that what caused her to jump was in fact a little girl, whom we are introduced to by a musical cue that is a mix of childish giggling and vibrating strings, both seeming to arise from a music box (this eerily resonant theme by Carlo Rustichelli will come to punctuate these moments of distress and disorientation throughout the film). 

Soon after, we are introduced to, Dr. Paul Eswai (a wooden Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), who is called to the town to investigate this death, the latest among several.  We later find out that the giggling girl is Melissa, the ghostly daughter of the demented Baroness Graps, proprietor of the ominous castle, Villa Graps, which overshadows the city.  The town is in constant fear of Melissa, as her presence tends to drive her victims to their deaths.  Paul, with the help of his tepid love interest, Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc), and the town's raven-haired sorceress, Ruth (Fabienne Dali, an earthier version of Barbara Steele), soon begin to unravel this mystery and find out who is at the root of the deaths.  Conflict arises when the scientific reasoning of Paul meets up with the superstitions of the townspeople.  Ruth, acting as Paul's witch doctor-esque double, eventually forces him to see that there may not be a rational answer to who Melissa is and what is taking place.

Even with a decent mystery at the center of the film, the story is mostly irrelevant.  There are some thematic flourishes that stand out, such as Ruth's progression to becoming the sacrificial heroine of the story and Melissa's unveiling as a sympathetic monster, both providing more characterization than is typical with Bava's female characters.  As Bava guru Tim Lucas points out, Bava flips the standard archetypes, placing the dark haired witch on the side of good and making the blond haired girl the harbinger of evil. 

Particularly interesting is the impact of the character of Melissa, which can likely be seen as a visual influence on Fellini (Toby Dammit), Kubrick (The Shining), and Scorsese (Last Temptation of Christ).  The most hypnotic and eerie aspects of the movie all seem to revolve around her.  Whether it's the first time we see her face and hands pressed against the window, her hand suddenly grabbing for Monica's, the surreal nature of a ball bouncing down a corridor in a manner not beholden to the laws of physics, or the jarring nature of the zoom-in/out while we see her moving back and forth on a swing, her presence is always imbued with a sense of dread.  Part of this is due to her off-putting appearance, with gaunt skin and features that look as if they were frozen in time at the moment she died (part of the jarring nature stems from the person playing the role actually being a young boy with a wig on).

It surely speaks to Bava's inclination toward images that Melissa's story is nearly forgotten by me while her haunting visage remains in my memory.  That's because this is foremost a showcase of Bava's mastery of the visual aspects of the Gothic horror film and it soon becomes obvious that Bava is more interested in creating hallucinatory moments like those I've mentioned than dealing with things like plot and dialogue.

With Kill, Baby Kill, Bava takes the mood and atmospherics of Black Sunday and splashes them with color, providing a series of striking images and set pieces.  My favorite aspect of any Bava movie is his command of his mise-en-scene.  His compositions have a painterly quality to them, not only with the way he places props and people in each shot, but particularly in his use of color.  Like a painter with his palette, Bava uses several hues of oversaturated gel lights to create an uncanny quality to the surroundings.  This technique allow for shades of green in one corner of the set, blue tones covering an actors face, all while shadows permeate the remainder of the screen.  Each scene and setting allows Bava to use a different mix of shadows and colors, all arranged in an otherworldly manner (there's a reason that Tim Lucas entitled his Bava book "All The Colors of the Dark," as it provides the perfect representation of Bava's palette).  Bava also uses many of his trademark camera tricks and effects to build up the expressive atmosphere -- the distorting ripple in the camera lens which hints to the ethereal nature of the events and various pans across the deteriorating landscape showing the ruins of the city.  It's all enough to make you ignore the sometimes comical overuse of the zoom by Bava (surely part of which is due to the necessities brought upon by the low budget and short shooting schedule).

Bava saved his best moments for the final minutes of the film, with two sequences that work showcase the visual power of the film. 

While inside a room at Villa Graps, Paul begins chasing someone, following him through a door.  This door leads Paul right back into the same room he was just in, with the object of his chase somewhat closer.  Paul continuously does this, closing in on the other man until he catches up to him and suddenly realizes that he has been chasing himself in a Mobius strip.  Before he can figure out what is going on, he finds himself abruptly transported to the outside of the house. 

The other scene befalls Monica, who is suddenly being chased by the ghostly Melissa.  As she makes her way down a spiral staircase, Bava begins having his camera circle the staircase in the opposite direction, creating a vertiginous effect.  Then, as if stuck in the same Mobius strip as Paul was in the aforementioned scene, she seems to run around and around the staircase endlessly, before suddenly being ejected from the castle entirely, as Bava's fades from the swirls of the spinning staircase to a pull back from her prone body (and thus getting in two Hitchcock homages in one scene). 

The two scenes comprise a bravura set of shots, which thanks to Bava's editing and camera movement is at once capable of grounding and disorienting the viewer.  Even though you may consciously realize the trick Bava is playing, you are still swept up by the illogical sensation that is afoot.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Italian Horror Blogathon: Blood and Black Lace

This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.  Yes, it’s a repost from last years Top 100 Horror Movies project and in fact, this is the third time a post on this particular Bava film has been on my blog. Overkill? Maybe. On Monday I’ll be back with a brand new contribution.

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Post-Psycho there would be many films that attempted to trade in on the style that Hitchcock revolutionized (as Jamie so wonderfully described here), trying to push things in a new direction.  In Italy, Mario Bava took the visual style he had honed doing Gothic horror and added to it the most notorious aspect of Psycho, the severity of the on-screen murders, the result being Blood and Black Lace.  Bava takes us to the next logical place, formulating the basis for the subgenres of the giallo, the bodycount film, and the slasher (and whatever mish-mash you get from all three).

From the opening credits, Bava showcases the playfulness he will use throughout the film.  Each character is shown standing next to a mannequin, positioned as to be no more relevant than the dummy itself.  It's entirely appropriate, as Bava eschews providing us with character development since these people are merely props used to stage lurid death scenes.  Sordid goings-on take place at and around a haute couture fashion house, but these setting seems to be used simply to provide Bava with the setpieces his eye demands.  The story is a whodunit procedural involving drug use, blackmail, illicit affairs, and murder, all in the Edgar Wallace mold (as is true of many of the giallo that would follow).  But the story is hardly pertinent here and though themes can be gathered (beautiful people committing ugly actions; women being spectacle in the fashion industry as much as they are in Bava's garish murder scenes) I don't find them wholly satisfying.  Throw in the fact that the film doesn't provide any great acting and seems to relish in the killing of female characters and you may as well be describing any number of generic 80's slasher films. 

So why exactly is this film any better, considering all this?

The answer to that question is apparent upon watching and has everything to do with style.  Lush reds, seductive blues, and cool greens seem to drape the entirety of the screen.  As always, Bava uses colored gel lighting to place specific colors right where he wants them to be.  Here, he also makes great use of ambient light, typified in one scene where a flashing neon sign punctuates every moment of a stalk-and-chase throughout an antique shop.  His camera movement and mise-en-scene create an uncanny feeling by masking the shape of surrounding items to make you think you see something amidst the shadows, akin to the chair you see in the middle of the night that you momentarily mistake for a person.  Yet here, sometimes that chair (or in this case, mannequin) IS a person.  Furthermore, he layers these objects in such a fashion that our eyes are constantly moving from the background, to the foreground, and then the midground in an attempt to scan the entire frame for what may be a threat (a technique which John Carpenter would use to great effect later in Halloween).

Bava has a way of glamorizing the deaths, of which there are six, making them violent, but alarmingly beautiful, some may even say erotic (a style that his protégé, Dario Argento would build upon).  Most notable in this respect is the final murder, involving Tao-Li (Claude Dantes).  As she is drowned in a bathtub (see the screencap above), our gaze inexplicably becomes mesmerized with her alluring and haunting face (a face that is akin to that of Barbara Steele, the most iconic of the horror actresses with fetishized facial features).

As influential on the genre as anything that came out post-1960 (I didn't even get into how it formed the signature look of the giallo killer), it's a true feast for the eyes, as the following screencaps attest to.