Monday, December 28, 2009

Come On, Dario

Dario Argento's "Giallo" is scheduled to hit American shores soon, whether via limited theatrical release or DVD. It's played some dates in Europe, but the U.S. market is maintaining a stony silence, despite the potential drawing power of Academy Award-winner Adrian Brody in the lead.

Of course, Argento has always had trouble getting U.S. theatrical play. His most famous work, "Suspiria," stands alone as the film with the heaviest theatrical distribution, courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's long-gone International Classics division. I saw it at Chicago's (also now long-gone) State-Lake Theatre in 1976, where I became aware of Dolby stereo for the first time, thanks to Goblin's incredible score. Being an American teenager, I hadn't been exposed to any of his other films ("Bird with the Crystal Plumage," "Cat O' Nine Tails," "Profondo Rosso," "Tenebrae"), although I'm sure one or two must've played some drive-ins at some point. I just that knew my mind was expanded by this crazy, colorful, haunting fairytale, even with most of the extreme gore excised. Still, you got to see a woman falling into a room full of razor wire, maggots raining from the ceiling... And the stentorian Alida Valli snapping, "Dance, girls! Dance!" All the acting was so strange, even from veteran Joan Bennett, and some of the dialogue was bizarre, but it all fit perfectly in the otherworldly framework. And Luciano Tovoli shot it in the old three-strip Technicolor process to get that extreme saturation.

A fond memory: I ran the film program for a couple of semesters in college and played "Suspiria" to a captive audience of students who'd probably never heard of it before. We didn't have a scope lens so I had to run it "squished"—and nobody left!

When the home video revolution arrived, some of those movies saw the light of day on VHS in the States, although in severely truncated and ludicrously retitled versions ("Tenebrae" became "Unsane" and "Phenomena" became "Creepers"), but there was still enough Argento magic in them to make me long for another classic. I was thrilled to discover a copy of "Inferno" at the video store, inviting like-minded friends over to watch the sequel to "Suspiria," only to have the evening fall flat on its face because 20th Century Fox's cuts included all the agonizing, drawn-out death scenes Argento specializes in (and we root for) as well as large chunks of continuity.

DVD changed all that. With the format's emphasis on quality, companies like Anchor Bay made obscure and/or censored European horror films available for the first time they way they were meant to be seen—uncut, restored, remastered and in their correct aspect ratio. I finally was able to see films like "Profondo Rosso," "Phenomena" and "Inferno" as the Maestro intended. And they were all vastly improved. Sadly, seeing them complete for the first time reminded me how self-referential a filmmaker he has become and how slack the scripts are, relying more and more on Argento-esque flourishes instead of solid storytelling. Even in one of his most interesting later works, "Non ho Sonno," he's falling back on old plot devices from his '70s hits. Now, I know we all demand the same things from Argento in every film—elaborate murders and weird characters—but can we please get on with the story? I don't understand how someone who made the superbly plotted "Tenebrae" would look at a lame project like "The Card Player" and say, "That's what the fans want! An Argento police procedural without any gore!"

There have been some bright spots. "Non ho Sonno" has the wonderful Max Von Sydow as a weary detective coming out of retirement to pursue a serial killer who has begun his murderous ways again after a 17-year hiatus, and its playful nursery rhyme motif is reminiscent of "Profondo Rosso." I know a lot of people hated "The Stendhal Syndrome," but it's actually grown on me even though it's almost too complicated. His "Black Cat" segment of "Two Evil Eyes" was very well done, and I even liked his TV movie, "Do You You Like Hitchcock?" with its nods to the master of suspense.

His most recent picture, "Mother of Tears," which was heavily promoted as the highly-anticipated conclusion of the "three mothers" trilogy ("Suspiria" and "Inferno" being the other two parts), played a limited engagement at the Nuart here in Los Angeles. Of course, I rushed to see it, and was disappointed by a real mess that made absolutely no sense, was ridiculously overstyled and played more like a horror remake of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." It desperately screamed, "Look! I'm a Dario Argento film! Aren't I fun?" But—crime of crimes—it was boring! Come on, now. Ludicrous, yes; incomprehensible, fine; but boring? Even the wretched "Phantom of the Opera" deserves to have many adjectives flung at it, but boring isn't one of them.

His Masters of Horror segments are okay, with "Pelts"coming off better than "Jenifer," in my opinion. Word on the street is that "Giallo" is no barn-burner, either, but fansites report that it may be due to Brody's "input" during the filmmaking process. And he's using screenwriters, as he did with "Mother of Tears," instead of writing it himself or with one of his old collaborators, which I don't think is a great idea. Can you imagine John Waters using a screenwriter on one of his films?

I'll see it, of course, but I'm still waiting for the next truly great Argento film. And I'm not talking about the "Suspiria" remake (for which he only receives character credit).

By the way, what's up with the still at the top of this post? Is Brody interviewing a corpse? Is he saying, "Now that you're dead, how do you feel?"

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