Monday, November 22, 2010

L'Aldilà (1981)

"It's the most fascinating game: life, death," says Lucio Fulci. "What is more intriguing than death defied? The dead stay dead in police films and TV shows, but the dead returning from the grave are a beautiful mystery all religions have somehow contemplated. I'm not talking about the slaves of Haiti or some magical tradition, I'm taking about God and religion.
"You have examples of living dead in the Bible or the Koran; stories about spirits returning to their own world, as if refusing whatever future lies beyond death." (Shock Masters of the Cinema, ed. Loris Curci, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p. 68.)Lucio Fulci's 1981 film, (...E Tu Vivrai nel Terrore!) L'Aldilà is about a hotel in Louisiana under which is one of the seven doorways to hell. Liza (Catriona MacColl) has inherited the hotel from her wealthy and estranged uncle and she is determined to fix the old hotel up and make it a commercial success. The doorway to hell, unfortunately, is going to be a hindrance.

The beauty and creativity of L'Aldilà are hidden behind its commercial veneer which often comes dangerously close to obscuring it. Its flaws are legion. As with his previous Zombi 2 (1979), for example, L'Aldilà suffers from an extremely inefficient use of exposition. L'Aldilà begins with a beautifully-shot, monochromatic flashback sequence (photography by Sergio Salvati), set sixty years prior to its present day. During this sequence, an artist living in the hotel is lynched by the locals for being a warlock. He begs for mercy as he warns also of the hotel housing a doorway to hell. His corpse is sealed in the basement. During this opening flashback sequence, a woman is also glimpsed in one of the hotel rooms reading from the Book of Eibon (readers of fantastic fiction should be aware of this allusion), and the book describes the doorway to hell. This woman character later reappears in the present day setting, having not aged at all and now completely blind. Her reappearance is one Fulci's most audacious and powerful compositions: set on one of the long bridges going over Lake Pontchartrain, the young woman stands with her dog, blocking Liza's vehicle from proceeding. [Incidental note: I've just recently driven on the new expressway, erected after Hurricane Katrina, connecting Slidell, La. to New Orleans. I must have driven across this same stretch where this sequence was shot hundreds of times since my youth. Why this shot is so disorienting is during the myriad times traveling it, it has never been empty of cars. The bridge is vast and expansive and is often a bustling thoroughfare. Free from cars, the bridge appears desolate and ominous. The composition of the young blind woman and her animal make them appear as gatekeepers at a crossing. Bridge imagery is very powerful in Fulci's work.] However, the young woman's reappearance is seriously undercut, because of Fulci's poor treatment of her character during the flashback sequence: her face is often obscured behind a book or she is arbitrarily framed in a shot. The only real link to identifying her character are her eyes: from the hazy, monochromatic shot of actress Cinzia Monreale's beautiful eyes to her new ones, totally opaque. As a character's reappearance, the sequence is haunting; but to an initial viewer, it is difficult to see her character as actually reappearing.
David Warbeck plays Dr. John McKay and his character suffers from an annoying flaw typical to horror cinema. As a physician, his character must be exclusively logical and rational in his thinking. Typically, at some point in the film, the character in the horror movie who keeps insisting that there is a rational explanation for escalating horrific events, eventually accepts the source of the horror (as in L'Aldilà , yes, there is a gateway to hell and yes, it is blown wide open.) Warbeck's character goes way beyond the threshold of acceptance: almost until the end of the film, he still is incredulous, despite everyone, including the viewer, seeing otherwise. Not to forget to mention the pacing in L'Aldilà : Warbeck's character has plenty of time to investigate the odd goings on, because the overwhelming majority of the film is one long build-up to its ending, punctuated at times by a seriously over-the-top gore scene. As a piece of traditional horror cinema, L'Aldilà is clearly daft and clumsy and fails at several levels (exposition, characterization, and pacing.)
But I rarely see films this way. Here is Fulci's description of L'Aldilà :
"What I wanted to get across with that film was the idea that all of life is often really a terrible nightmare and that our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time. In the end, the two protagonists' eyes turn completely white and they find themselves in a desert where there's no light, no shade, no nothing. I believe, despite my being Catholic, that they reached what many people believe to be the Afterworld.
"I'd like to emphasize that I wanted to make a completely Artaudian film out of an almost inexistent script by Sacchetti and working with me was the same crew that had done Zombi 2 and which did my other five so-called 'historicized' films: Salvati as director of photography, Franco Bruni as cameraman and Lentini as architect. An extraordinary crew! Also, we got on marvelously with Fabrizio De Angelis, a producer from the Fulvia film Company, who concerned himself solely with how to sell the film in the best possible way. He never came bothering us and left us free to do what we wanted; that's why I was able to make this Artaudian film, harking back also to an old western of mine: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu: tempo di massacro, a western that went beyond time and space." (from Spaghetti Nightmares, ed. by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p. 60.)

Perhaps not lost in L'Aldilà is Fulci’s sensitivity to detail with his creativity. The film truly begins with a painting. The artist, holed up in the hotel until the lynch mob descends upon him, is putting the finishing touches on his canvas. It is only during the final sequence of the film that the viewer recognizes the landscape in the painting. Also, it only becomes clear during the final sequence of the film what happens to the characters when they witness this landscape. The artist in the initial sequence, however, seems untouched by what he is recreating with his painting (this is an amazingly provocative yet obscure concept towards artists). There is a scene when the young blind woman, who reveals herself to Liza as Emily and is portrayed by Cinzia Monreale, senses the painting near her. She cannot see it but is aware of what it depicts; and when she touches it, her hands begin to bleed. A warning? A brilliantly creepy scene follows later when Emily is confronted by visitors out of the doorway to hell. A hellish stigmata? A symbol for those who have been touched by the doorway (Liza’s hands begin to bleed also later in the film.)? The painting is a mystical and cryptic motif, not easily digestible. Rarely is supernatural and fantastic cinema so subtle and sensitive in this respect.
Less subtle yet equally sensitive is the focus that Fulci puts upon his characters’ eyes. Everyone is familiar with the saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” and this sentiment resonates throughout L'Aldilà . In fact, Fulci prefers close-ups on his characters’ eyes more than on their faces. What is focal is absolutely not what these characters are seeing--there is a wonderfully-rendered manipulative sequence in a cemetery with a child. When she opens her eyes at the end of the sequence, Fulci’s intentions are revealed.
Fabio Frizzi delivers another amazing score for a Fulci film. As it plays over the credit sequence, it creates such emotion and is more affecting than any gore or scare scene. Cinzia Monreale easily gives the most emotional performance and her character is the most intriguing and attractive. (In fact, Catriona MacColl as Liza is the main character of Dardano Sacchetti’s traditionally-scripted narrative. I prefer to see Monreale’s Emily as the main character of Fulci’s “Artaudian film.”) Interestingly, the violent, gore scenes really show Fulci’s sadistic side: the lynching during the beginning is extremely brutal, punctuated by zoom shots on the wounds. Not to forget to mention that Warbeck’s character hits a crack shot with his pistol to the head of a child--easily the most repellent and violent scene in L'Aldilà ’s final act.

By the way, there are zombies in L'Aldilà . I first saw this film well over twenty years ago on a dupe of a Japanese VHS. I purchased a DVD from EC Entertainment (from where these screenshots are from) over a decade ago. Much better DVD versions have followed in the ensuing years with more supplements and better audio and video. I decided to give the old disc an spin and expected to revisit an old gore classic. L'Aldilà is still that, but over the years, I’ve never appreciated Fulci’s artistry, his contradictions, and his depth and sensitivity. Seeing L'Aldilà today is a totally different experience.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Shock Labyrinth (2009)

Takashi Shimizu is talented. His best known film in the West is the traditional-styled and American remake, The Grudge (2004), of his own equally traditional Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) (with the latter a remake of his superior, non-linear video project, Ju-on (2000)). Like fellow countryman and filmmaker, Shinya Tsukamoto, Shimizu has a fertile imagination and grasps fringe and weird concepts in ordinary contexts. Shimizu's best work expands on these ideas: Ju-on (2000) (victims of extreme violence remain among the living as vengeful spirits, committing acts of extreme violence against the living, solely because they resent those around them); Marebito (2004) (a freelance cameraman spends his days walking and filming while what he sees with both his eyes and camera begin to change); and Rinne (2005) (a film crew attempts to re-enact events and make a film about a mass murder at the very location where the murders occurred). One of his most recent films, The Shock Labyrinth (2009), continues his trend. Imagine a spiral staircase. It is a powerful symbol for both time and space. Imagine the bottom of the stairs as the origin of a specific time and imagine its top as the ending with its climbing stairs as time’s progression. The concept as a whole can be seen by viewing the stairs from the side; however, by looking down upon the stairs from above, one only sees its top circle. How many actual steps there are remain hidden. Finally, imagine the spiral staircase collapsing upon itself: several circles of stairs lay in close proximity, almost jumbled. This collapsed spiral staircase, now as a symbol for both time and space, to put it in an understated manner, causes time and space to become jumbled. This is the shock labyrinth, serving as Shimizu’s narrative technique for his film (also a powerful visual motif within). Ken (Yûya Yagira ), now in his early twenties, returns to his childhood village. He reunites with his friends Motoki (Ryo Katsuji) and Rin (Ai Maeda). It begins raining. An unexpected visitor arrives, another childhood friend, Yuki (Misako Renbutsu). Ken’s exit from the village was known: his mother died which prompted his father to move the child away; and his return was expected by Motoki and Rin. No one knows where Yuki has been for several years or why she decided to return on that particular evening. Specific imagery within the film holds the key to its understanding--at first, disorienting and ridiculous: a child's backpack. This particular backpack is a stuffed bunny wherein its belly a child's keepsakes are found. Two straps connect the bunny's shoulders to its hind legs, and a child can wear it on his/her back. An endearing image, perhaps, but seeing the backpack absent from a child is just ridiculous: this item belongs in the world of adolescence, and it holds no particular significance to any adult. However, imagine a different association with the item: what if the stuffed-bunny backpack was associated with a specific person linked to a moment in childhood? When Ken, Motoki, Rin, and Yuki reunite this image has a specific association, tied to an incident that occurred during their childhood. This incident is returning to them in a powerful recall during the present night. Seeing events through these characters' eyes is deftly crafted by Shimizu. On this level, The Shock Labyrinth is a narrative and visual mystery.The Shock Labyrinth is a haunted house in an amusement park where the main characters visited as children. Now as young adults, they revisit the place. The Shock Labyrinth where the events and players of the past literally meet the players of the present to create an ending for each. The Shock Labyrinth was filmed and presented in 3-D (which adds an incidental (?) layer of meaning to the film). Unfortunately, I suffer often from baggy eyes and never had the inclination to view the film in that format (coupled with having little interest in the format). However, it is available in a two-disc set from Taiwan. It is English-subtitled and contains both a disc for the 3-D version (with glasses) and the non-3-D version. The set is encoded Region 3 and can be purchased here. Like most of Shimizu's best work, The Shock Labyrinth leans more towards the arthouse than the multiplex and merits more than one viewing. Also like most of Shimizu's best work, The Shock Labyrinth stands as a fantastic alternative to traditional contemporary cinema. The less said about the film the better--most definitely suited for those seeking the offbeat and unique.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sole Halloween Post

With Halloween 2010 shortly approaching, here are some thoughts towards scary experiences to be had outside of cinema. These would-be scary experiences are, however, undeniably, cinematic. With the right technological tools, atmospheric and visceral horror awaits in the virtual realm--that’s games. I’m from seemingly the first generation of children to have access to home gaming systems, was a wee lad during the mall/arcade fad, and have continued to play video games throughout my whole life. Here are my thoughts on some of the best games for the Halloween season.

Dead Rising

While Capcom developed the influential Resident Evil series back in the 90s, the game that coined the phrase “survival horror” and introduced zombies as menacing enemies, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Capcom revisited the walking dead with startling results. Resident Evil was unfamiliar to zombie lore, at least in Romero-esque terms--it was about an elite group of soldiers who encounter a zombie outbreak in a large manor on the outskirts of a small city. Zombies shuffled sparsely throughout the mansion as there were other horrors awaiting. The real experience was yet to come.

Frank West is a freelance photojournalist who gets a scoop that something big is going on in Williamette, Colorado. He asks his helicopter pilot to drop him on the roof of the local shopping mall and to come and pick him up in three days. Not long after his arrival, the makeshift barricades quickly crumble and the zombies flood in--thousands of them. Frank has to get his story, help rescue the survivors, and most of all, survive 72 hours until his pick-up comes.

I think Capcom was going for a really fun experience with this game. Virtually everything within the mall is a weapon. I picked up a bowling ball and good-ol’ Frank reared his arm back and threw a strike, knocking over about eight to ten zombies. In the myriad clothing stores, Frank can try on and change outfits, some really outlandish. Running around and playing with the various stuff and exploring stores is a lot of fun.

I don’t think Capcom realized how truly bleak this game is. Although there are plot missions which drive the main narrative of the game, the majority of Frank’s time is spent rescuing survivors. And it’s a bitch. In one specific encounter, Frank meets a woman crying alone in a jewelry store (of course, hundreds of hungry zombies parade outside, chomping at the bits). The story she tells Frank is more than a little unsettling. As Frank escorts his survivors to safety, watch closely as one zombie attacks a survivor, seemingly eight more come to munch. If Frank doesn’t move quickly, then the gamer is treated to a truly stomach-turning, survivor death scene. There are also about ten to twelve psychopaths who Frank can encounter most of whom are holding survivors as hostages.

Frank’s seventy-two hours is a truly intense experience. Not a whole lot of time to goof off. Certainly, Dead Rising is the closest experience to a George Romero film.

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Ethan Thomas is an FBI agent on the trail of a unique serial killer--one who targets other serial killers. During the game’s initial investigation, something goes wrong and Thomas gets set up. He has to flee from the FBI and uncover the identity of Serial Killer X to clear his name. Condemned: Criminal Origins is definitely not Silence of the Lambs.

Thomas visits some of the darkest and scariest places ever during his investigation. Walk around a corner and some drug-addicted thug waits to rack a steel pipe around his head. Although Thomas has the rare access to firearms, the majority of combat in Condemned is very intense melee combat. Every fight (and there are a lot of them) feels like a fight for life.

The atmosphere of Condemned is beyond equal. Thomas visits a school which is eerily reminiscent of the one David Hemmings visited in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. During a visit to a dilapidated fashion store, take a peek at a few of the mannequins--they also look eerily similar to a doll scene in Profondo Rosso. I can safely say that none of these places, if they truly existed in the real world, would ever be visited. Hellish is an apt description.

The Silent Hill Series

The original Silent Hill game appeared shortly after the original Resident Evil and surpassed it in terms of pure horror. The series revolves around the titular town and the bizarre curse which surrounds it. In terms of fear created, a true sense of isolation, and a tension-filled atmosphere, few games have topped the Silent Hill series.

The original Silent Hill game involved a simple premise but an effective one--a father wakes from a car crash on the outskirts of Silent Hill. His young daughter who was accompanying him is nowhere to be found. All alone, he must enter the fog-ridden town and find her. The streets are totally devoid of any human presence.

While the series of games has wavered in quality, the atmosphere, music, and sense of isolation has remained constantly effective. Silent Hill is melancholy and sad while at the same time being fiercely frightening and extremely intriguing. Definitely the most dream-like horror series ever.

I tried to whip this post up this afternoon to really update my blog. I wanted to take a break from writing, because as I sit writing this, I’ve seen nothing in terms of cinema (my primary blog topic) worth writing about. The passion that I once had for cinema has diminished in the last few months. I’m certain, however, that I’m a film or two away from finding the one that will re-ignite my passion--something really cool. I’m still kicking and will get back around to more consistent posting. Finally, there are plenty of other cool games worth mentioning. These are just a few that came to mind. Happy Halloween to all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Shivers (1975)

This post is part of the Cronenberg Blogathon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at his blog, Cinema Viewfinder. Click the link and check out his work and, of course, the other submissions.

Shivers did start with a dream I had about a spider that emerged from a woman's mouth at night while she slept. The dream was very casual. It wasn't a horrific dream at all. It was just "Oh yeah, the spider that lives in her mouth." It seemed that the creature just lived there, inside her. It would come out at night, go round the house and go back into her mouth. Back into her body. During the day she knew nothing about it. Afterwards, on reflection, I thought, "My God, that image is really giving a physical presence to the idea that things go on within us which are strange and disturbing." Also, it seemed the spider in some way gave her life when she was awake. Embodying that in an insect or creature was really the unique thing about the dream. That was really the crystal at the centre of what became Shivers. (43) Shivers, written and directed by David Cronenberg, is set almost wholly in Starliner Towers, only twelve minutes away from Montreal, on Starliner Island in isolation. A slide-show sales pitch plays behind the credits, detailing the amenities which the apartment complex has to offer. It is a small world unto itself. Janine (Sue Petrie), a Starliner resident, is experiencing marital problems with husband Nicolas (Alan Migicovsky) who has grown extremely distant and cold towards her. Meanwhile on a upper floor, an older man assaults a very young woman in an apartment. The older gentleman is fixated upon her stomach. He opens it and burns the young woman's insides with acid. The police arrive to investigate the death. Doctor Roger St. Luc, Starliner Towers' resident physician, discovered the young woman's corpse. Dr. St. Luc was summoned to the apartment by his old teacher at medical school, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein). Hobbes is the older gentleman who attacked the young woman. He has killed himself, as well. "Roger," says Lynn Lowry's character, who plays Roger's nurse and lover, "I had a very disturbing dream last night. In the dream, I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble, you see, because he's old...and tiny. And he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic. Everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. Even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. And even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him. And we make love beautifully." Shivers is Cronenberg's debut feature-length film as a professional filmmaker. Despite the film being thirty-five years old, it undoubtedly is still very much shocking and provocative. From the idyllic modern setting of Starliner Towers, its residents present the diversity of civilized folks of both genders in a wide range of ages, living in harmony, together. The original title of the film was "Orgy of the Blood Parasites" (35)--a wholly apt yet deceptive description. In the brief set-up which I detailed for the film above, all psychological and physical problems, abnormalities, manifestations, etc., all result from the presence of a parasite. As the parasite infects one resident that resident infects two who infect two more and etc. Their actions become violent, perverse (-ted), and sexual. David Cronenberg offers his insights:

The standard way of looking at Shivers is as a tragedy, but there's a paradox in it that also extends to the way society looks at me. Here's a man who walks around and is sweet: he likes people, he's warm, friendly, articulate and he makes these horrible, diseased, grotesque, disgusting movies. Now, what's real? Those things are both real for the person standing outside. For me, those two parts of myself are inextricably bound together. The reason I'm secure is because I'm crazy. The reason I'm stable is because I'm nuts. It's palpable to me. ¶ The older you get, the more children you have, the more accepted you become in your society and the more a part of the establishment you become, the more tenuous the grip on your 'insideness' is. Your awareness of yourself is driven deeper because the layers or veneer of civilization become thicker and thicker, but inside you know. I'm just much more in disguise. There's a strength to be taken from that. There's also a certain sadness at the same time. (50-51) Roger's old teacher (and perhaps mentor) Dr. Hobbes has a wonderfully allusive name which hides much of the film's philosophical background. Cronenberg, a serious court jester of cinema, is not content with just exploring philosophical ideas but contrasting them: those with a cursory knowledge of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche will see quite a bit of his philosophy, as well. The film is by far not totally cerebral: it's quite organic. Cronenberg presents philosophical ideas and questions or rejects them. The genesis for the creation of the parasites is a wonderful perverse joke which reflects this. I don't know where these extreme images come from. It seems very straightforward and natural and obvious to me as it happens. Often they come from the philosophical imperative of a narrative and therefore lead me to certain things that are demanded by the film. I don't impose them. The film or the script itself demands a certain image, a certain moment in the film, dramatically. And it emerges. It's like the philosophy of Emergent Evolution, which says that certain unpredictable peaks emerge from the natural flow of things and carry you forward to another stage. I guess each film has its own version of Emergent Evolution. It's just like plugging into a wall socket. You look around for the plug point and, when you find it, the electricity is there--assuming that the powerhouse is still working. That's as close to describing the process as I can get. (41) Shivers is driven by raw energy from an extremely fertile and creative mind; and the film runs with subversive, perverse, and wicked themes and imagery. (Imagery at times is evocative of Pasolini's Salo, made and released around the same time.) Subtle sexual imagery like Lowry getting rebuffed by a preoccupied Roger only to disrobe in front of him while he handles an important phone call to the taboo--Roger opens the door to witness an older man who introduces a young woman as his daughter who then embrace. In another brilliant brief sequence, Roger encounters a man and a nude woman tussling in the hallway. He points his revolver at the couple but he cannot discern whether one or both is infected; whether they will lose interest in each other and attack him; or whether they're having kinky fun. Roger's reaction is ambiguous but interesting. It's an at-times rough-looking film but also has some very creative compositions. Indisputably, Shivers is one of the best horror film debuts, ever. All parenthetical numbers that follow facts or quotes represent page numbers from Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley, Faber and Faber, London, 1992.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Marebito (2004)

Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) records everything. He doesn't have a steady income and makes his living as a freelance cameraman. He shoots footage and presumably sells it. One day with his video camera, Masuoka is in the subway and captures a man about to commit suicide while the police attempt to talk him out of it. After reviewing his footage at his work desk, Masuoka is convinced that the man killed himself because he was terrified, and what terrified the man was down in the subway in its tunnels and catacombs. Armed with his video camera, Masuoka heads deep down under Tokyo to discover what terrified the man in Marebito (A Stranger from Afar) (2004).
The director, Takashi Shimizu, is talented. Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) upon its first viewing, the narrative of Marebito is compelling (screenplay by Chiaki Konaka from his novel), and it is easy to surrender to the story and watch it unfold. During a second viewing, it is easier to become detached and watch how the film is constructed. Masuoka doesn't just capture footage with his video camera but he reviews it at the end of the day. At his work deck with multiple monitors and equipment, Masuoka is able to slow, freeze, and replay the events. If Masuoka walked the streets of Tokyo every day and captured the events with only his eyes, then all his critical review would have to come from memory. With his video footage, Masuoka can apply a much more critical eye. During the suicide subway footage, Masuoka is able to capture one frame of a split second, a quick glance by the man down the hallway of the subway. Viewing this one frame during this split second, Masuoka becomes obsessed with what terrified the man and he wants to replicate the experience. Marebito is about the perception and construction of reality. What the eye sees, what the mind perceives and what video captures creates the film.Most of the scenes away from directly advancing the narrative seem innocuous. In one telling sequence, Masuoka is walking the streets and holding his camera near his waist. The footage that he is capturing is fuzzier than the primary film footage which Shimizu is using as stock for Marebito. In Shimizu's footage, the faces of street people are blurred, but there is no blurring in Masuoka's footage. A man in a suit walks past Masuoka, and as he turns into a tunnel, Masuoka is confronted by the passing man. Were you recording? he asks. Masuoka lies and says no. The man presses him again and demands the tape in Masuoka's camera. Did you do something bad? asks Masuoka. The man doesn't answer that question, and Shimizu offers no evidence whatsoever for the viewer to speculate upon the question. The blurring/no-blurring footage from Masuoka/Shimizu juxtaposed with Masuoka's encounter with the man (Masuoka gets beaten for his cassette) leads to no discernable, rational answer. Maybe, however, that some people just do not like being captured on camera.One of the oddest quirks that Masuoka has is filming his apartment while he is gone. During the course of Marebito, he finds a dweller in the underground and houses her there. Footage is shown of Masuoka purchasing a surveillance camera, designed, as the salesperson describes, to monitor your pets, like a cat, when the homeowner is absent. Masuoka is able to monitor his houseguest from his cellular phone via remote from the camera. However, Shimizu shows his viewer the point of view from the remote camera in Masuoka's apartment before he discovers the dweller in the underground. Why would Masuoka want to film his apartment then, seemingly unoccupied? Perhaps the answer is in the question, as "seemingly unoccupied" is the phrase which hides Masuoka's fear. At the end of a day at his work desk, Masuoka reviews his house footage from the remote camera. He watches his house guest move around and notices in the footage that she is alerted by something/one. The footage blacks out and for twelve seconds, Masuoka has no idea what happened. His house guest is traumatized, and presumably, what caused her distress occurred during the twelve-second blackout. Masuoka is distressed, but the flaw in his plan to capture the world around him is revealed (or the world that he wants to capture/perceive): he cannot completely create his own reality, regardless of his methods.
Marebito has more layers. Quite a few jokes are made at the media's expense, and Masuoka also has a mental condition, which may or may not be clouding his perception of reality. In any case, Shimizu's sensitive portrait certainly deserves sensitive viewing. Few films like Marebito are so meta yet so organic that for this reason alone, Marebito is worth viewing. With films like the original V-cinema Ju-on, Reincarnation, and this one show that Shimizu's cinema is often top-shelf and extremely provocative.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Washing Machine (1993)

"The film was developed from a theatrical piece and was shot in Budapest. I wasn't very happy with The Washing Machine," says its director, Ruggero Deodato, "because I was never convinced that the casting was correct, and the film was made too quickly." (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.29.) Deodato continues, "I can only say that I am not at all pleased with the final result because it's a very intimate movie and should have had well-known actors, which it does not. So, after the first few minutes it collapses.
"I am very sorry to have to say this because the setting is extraordinarily good and finding the body inside the washing machine at the beginning of the movie is an unusual and interesting start; but for the moment I prefer to put it to one side and regard it as an experiment. When I look at it again later more carefully, I might like it better." (from Spaghetti Nightmares by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Phantasma Books, Florida, 1996, p. 44)While Deodato's first statements regarding his Vortice Mortale (The Washing Machine) (1993) seem straightforward and clear, his second statement, "it's a very intimate movie and should have had well-known actors," is cryptic. By "intimate," one can assume that Deodato means that The Washing Machine is a film with few actors who are burdened with carrying the film's plot. This is true: The Washing Machine really has only four principal actors: Philippe Caroit, who plays Inspector Alexander Stacev; and his character becomes entangled with three sisters, Maria (Ilaria Borrelli), Vida (Kahia Figura) and Ludmilla (Barbara Ricci) in a murder case. By qualifying "actors" with "well-known," perhaps Deodato is also insinuating that better actors were needed to carry the film.
Intuitively, since Deodato says "after the first few minutes it collapses," what he is really saying (and his first statements corroborate this) is that The Washing Machine needed the Hollywood A-level treatment for B-movie fare, as the film is firmly rooted in the erotic thriller genre. Like Basic Instinct released the year before, The Washing Machine boasts an extremely talented director with a flare for the wicked and the perverse and a fairly convoluted and interesting script (here by Luigi Spagnol). However, The Washing Machine lacks the star power and budget of Verhoeven's blockbuster, so it remains in the B-movie arena, much like the films which inspired Basic Instinct, starring the likes of Tanya Roberts, Shannon Tweed, and Andrew Stevens, for example. The Washing Machine received no theatrical release in Italy. (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.104.)Just speculation on my part. The Washing Machine is carried by the eroticism of its three actresses, and the kinky fun that their director has with their characters. In the film’s best visual sequence, Alexander has gone to a museum to see Maria. Maria, in addition to her giving music lessons, spends her free time with the blind. On this particular day, the museum is closed to the public, so Maria and the group of blind patrons are allowed to touch and feel the sculptures while Maria gives commentary. Enter Alexander, who by this time in the story is well-seduced by the three sisters, especially Maria. She walks over to Alexander, feigning blindness. She disrobes and allows Alexander to feel her, much like the blind patrons are doing to the sculptures. The fear of getting caught heightens their excitement, as one of Maria’s wards comes dangerously close to discovering the two. Deodato reserves his relish for his actresses--a tight close-up of a handcuff hitting a railing or a high heeled shoe propping up or a skirt sliding up or a dress falling down. Claudio Simonetti’s score (one of his better later pieces) feels oddly out of place accompanying sex instead of violence; yet this is where the excitement is within The Washing Machine. Luigi Spagnol’s script is familiar. Alexander is the cop who in the course of an investigation becomes seduced with his suspect(s). During the course of the investigation, twist and turns ensue, and his obsession towards his suspects leads him astray (as the director attempts to lead his viewer astray from obvious clues in the mystery). A lot of the relevant sequences to the mystery are through hearsay: Alexander questions one of the sisters, and she tells her version. Deodato renders each story visually, so each sister’s credibility is always an issue. Personally, I could care less how the story ended, as most plots usually end with the most ludicrous result imaginable. How The Washing Machine actually ends remains hidden for the curious viewer. The Washing Machine loosely portrays the three sisters like traditional witches; so when Alexander, against better judgment, continues deeper into his obsession, the metaphor, he is under their “spell” is oddly appropriate. Other visual motifs like Maria’s black cat and the titular washing machine substituting for a cauldron are also present. It’s a very creative touch and strongly felt throughout the whole film. Deodato is a brilliant visual stylist with a unique eye; and he really captures the beauty and atmosphere of the Budapest setting. It’s a lot more fun watching the three sisters have their way with Alexander than watching him stumble through an investigation. Obscure.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Warriors

The Warriors by Sol Yurick (1965)

Sol Yurick writes in his 2003 introduction to his 1965 novel, The Warriors:
"Gangs (of the time I was writing about) were quite different than the gangs of today. For one thing, automobiles were not available to them. For another, there were very few guns around. The gangs were neighborhood-bound and quite ignorant of the city outside their territories; indeed, they were frightened of strange turf. Whatever contacts, alliances, conflicts, and permissions to travel through alien lands belonging to other gangs took place were conducted through their leaders. They practiced diplomacy from gang to gang, albeit in crude language, but formally, just like the diplomacy conducted by nations. It's fascinating to see these social forms spring up among the 'ignorant' 'lower' social strata; no readers of Kissinger they...and yet the had the same sophisticated understanding. ¶ Economically the gangs of those times were totally marginal. They had just about no entree into organized crime. The very need to form gangs was a product of their irrelevance." (xxvi-xxvii).

1. "They parleyed back and forth a little about the safe passage. The little leader said he didn't know if he could let the Family through. After all, the matter should be discussed in council. They talked a little about one another's reps, what brother gangs they ran with, what interborough affiliations they had, who they knew. But though the Dominators and the Blazers had never heard about one another, they took care to admit one another's big reps. They pulled out clippings: Hector's from the Daily News; the little leader's from La Prensa, in which their gang's raids and bops were written up. They bragged how many men they could field. Hector said that they had a Youth Board Worker. The little Borinqueno had to admit that they didn't have a worker yet, but they were busting out hard and should be assigned one any day now. Hector hastened to say that the Youth Board was overworked, short-handed and it was short-sighted on the Board's part, not so much an insult." (83-84)

2. "The Junior was having difficulty with the center of the map. He had it figured out that they were on the wrong line; they had to change somewhere, or they would never get to where they wanted--where? All the train lines met in the center of the city, and got tangled up there, and then emerged again, and everything ended up where it should end, but The Junior was having trouble following it; he moved his forefingers slowly along the lines trying to bring them together, but train jolts kept knocking his fingers loose. He tried to rush it so he wouldn't look duncy in the eyes of his Family." (73)

3. "They passed an apartment building. A lot of broken furniture was lying around in the street. It worried the family. Might mean an assembly and ammunition dump: tables with legs fixed to come off easily, couch springs for wire whips, guns stashed away in the fluffy arms of busted-down easy chairs, ash-can covers for shields and ash cans full of broken Coke bottles to fling, rocks, used light bulbs, pipe ends, loosened spikes in the iron fence, old-fashioned spear-headed cast-iron floor lamps, stacked bricks, and oiled excelsior bunches to fire and fling from the rooftops. All the enemy had to do was to boil out of the doorways, race up from behind the stoops and the whole arsenal--nothing the cops could call weapons--was ready for them. The Family would have to run a gauntlet under the fort. But the houses were very old here, and there was a reason for throwing out furniture, and a street this wide was never a good place to ambush anyone. It couldn't be blocked off from the ends; it couldn't really be controlled from the roofs and, for that matter, the cops could easily come down on everyone with their superior tank force, cordon off the whole battlefield and take both sides in." (92)

Quote #1 reads like a sociological case study and is a very good fictional depiction of Yurick's research on gangs. There's also Yurick's joke on social workers from the gang's perspective: it was a strong symbol of badassery to have a your very own social worker assigned to your gang. The Warriors, at least up until page ninety-nine, reads in this manner: it feels like a detached, sociology text written by an observer. There is a real attempt to reach an understanding into the inner consciousness of gang members. Adult perspectives, from a Youth Board Worker, a cop, and bus driver, who have encounters with the young gangs occur early in the text; and what the adults have to say to the reader almost represent societal views towards gangs perhaps at the time. The Youth Board Worker, adopting the lingo and mannerisms of the gang that he is attempting to help, sees wayward children who need nurturing and encouragement and, above all, patience: helping just one gang member become a productive citizen is positive. The cop and the bus driver see potential criminals and troublemakers. A very somber tone dominates this portion of The Warriors; and Yurick's jokes are subtle and sparse in the text. Quotes #2 and #3 are fun to play off each other: quote #2 emphasizes that this gang is still made up of children: reading a map of a world that you've never seen before might be helpful with adult consultation (the description of the adults on the train really should be encountered first by the reader. Adults do not fare well in Yurick's depiction in The Warriors.) Quote #3 is brilliant military strategy from instant observation on the spot: these kids definitely know how to fight. However, post page-ninety-nine (ish), The Warriors slips and loops out. Here are two passages from Yurick describing writing his first book Fertig and writing The Warriors while attempting to publish Fertig. The second quote is informative upon The Warriors:

"Whereas it had taken more than a year to write Fertig, it took me three weeks of intense work, after research to write [The Warriors]. I could not have done it the way I did without having gone through the growth process in the writing of Fertig." (xxi)
"I ended with a completely un-Camus-like book [Fertig], being led into astonishing directions and discovering that the world, the real world, was more absurd, crazier, more ding-an-sichtlich than any fiction writer, no matter how ingenious and imaginative, could conceive. And, at the same time, without being quite conscious of it, I was also discovering that the social 'sciences' were in themselves partially forms of fiction." (xix)

Any sophistication (or better, read civilization) dies out in The Warriors at around a hundred pages. The irrational becomes polarized and the violence is unrelenting; and Yurick's prose matches the substance of the text. What follows is my favorite passage from The Warriors:
"Wounded Hinton, bruised Hinton, tired and drifting Hinton, Hinton the outcast, set himself against the town and its sheriff. He fought for his Family; he fought for his pin; he fought for himself. While the sheriff was sounding him and boasting and making his rep big--hadn't he put down a thousand pitiful outlaws--Hinton drew the guns and cocked them. And when the word came, he fired just a fraction of a second ahead of the sheriff. This time the voice cried out in pain and told him, all right, he had won it this time. But there were two more chances and it was best out of three. ¶ The figure stood there. Did it lean a little to the side? Did blood ooze from a hole in the shoulder, staining the front of that fancy western shirt? Did a look of pain make that impassive face a little whiter? Did it twitch? Hinton's guns were cocked and he was waiting before the word came to drawcockandfire. He won a second time because the gun leaped in his hand and it spurted fire first; hot lead sprung across the gap, and crumpled the man who had shot him down and moved him on and wouldn't let him live. Was there a new hole ripped into that flesh? The yelp of pain was joyful to Hinton and he grinned. The little kid pulled at his coat, asking him for a dime again, and he put the smoking gun down, dug, gave the kid a dime, and got ready for the third shot. He won that one too; he got the sucker right in the eyeball. ¶ Hinton, very tired, straightened slowly in spite of his wounds, sucked in air, and felt new now--a man. He had faced up to and beaten the sheriff. He could have won another round, but he had the sense to put the guns away now, even though he was entitled to a free fight. He turned and walked away, began to strut through the arcade, and out; it was time to go and see if the Family had made it back." (164-165)

This passage needs no commentary from me. Initially, I was going to write this post mixing Yurick's novel and Walter Hill's film (not really comparing the two but being oh-so clever and playing the two off each other. I realized this was an extremely shitty thing to do: Yurick is an obscure writer, and he notes in his 2003 introduction that many would have never read The Warriors had the film never reached "cult" status. I am a reader in that class. After reading his introduction, like many good author introductions, it says as much about Yurick in its telling as it does in its text. I feel a real kinship to him). The 2003 edition of The Warriors, published by Grove Press [New York, from where all the above page citations come] is essential reading. Yurick's introduction details his literary genesis for The Warriors to its publishing to his reactions and encounters with Walter Hill's film adaptation. He also shares about his life and his philosophical development. Fairly radical in its structure and very daring in its substance, The Warriors is a hidden gem.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Minaccia d'amore (1988)

Within Minaccia d'amore (1988), Jenny (Charlotte Lewis) is in the subway, hunting for her friend, Mole (Mattia Sbragia), who has volunteered to uncover the mysterious source for the dysfunctional telephone in Jenny's apartment. Jenny cannot pinpoint his exact location (somewhere in the tunnels at an electrical substation), so she runs the myriad hallways, hoping to stumble upon him. A wide-eyed and maniacal-looking gentleman is following Jenny, and he comes upon a trash bin. He knocks it over and as the trash spills out, he pulls an empty syringe from the debris. Jenny cannot find her friend and fears that he is in danger. In a panic she encounters the gentleman who has been following her who now holds the syringe to her face, before attacking her. Minaccia d'amore (1988), also known as Dial: Help, directed by Ruggero Deodato, is about an evil and sinister presence torturing poor Jenny through the telephone. Or as Deodato describes the film, "It was given a theatrical release in Italy and it was bought by Berlusconi for Mediaset. It's a delicious film. It's a fantasy film and this is the reason that I like it. The story concerns a telephone which falls in love with a girl who is trying to make a call to her friend, and which kills all the people who hang around the girl. This is the type of fantasy film which I like. Zombie films don' t interest me, a telephone which falls in love, yes. Hard horror is not my genre, I far prefer fantasy." (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.28.) Deodato continues, "It was not exactly my idea. It was a very old script that no one wanted to do because it was too difficult. Normally you have a monster, a zombie or killer doing the evil in a movie. Here you have a...telephone. For me a film is interesting when it is difficult to make. To be honest, I really like the finished film. With a bigger budget I think it could have been a fantastic film." (from European Trash Cinema, Vol. 2, No. 7, edited by Craig Ledbetter, Springwood, TX, 1993, p. 17) The "very old script" for Minaccia d'amore (1988) "that no one wanted" was originally penned by Franco Ferrini. Ferrini describes its genesis: "The film [Turno di notte] is the story of a single man who, alone at night, hears a cry on the radio, marking the beginning of a real nightmare for him and Barbara De Rossi. ¶ In fact, from this film onwards, I started using the media as the diabolical element in my stories: in Turno di notte it was the radio, in Minaccia d'amore it was the telephone, in Demoni the cinema and in Demoni 2...l'incubo ritorna the television. I would like to carry on the series..." Ferrini states that he sent the script for Minaccia d'amore to Dario Argento in 1983, who "showed a certain interest" but "decided to let it go." Despite Argento rejecting Ferrini's script for Minaccia, the two began a creative relationship which would spawn Argento's film Phenomena. (from Spaghetti Nightmares by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Phantasma Books, Florida, 1996, p. 49) Whether its a story of a telephone falling in love with a girl or about a diabolical medium of modern technology, however creative these themes may be, Minaccia d'amore is above all a Ruggero Deodato film: beautifully-composed, well-paced, compelling, nasty, and perverse (-ted). Jenny's encounter with the maniac in the subway is just wrong. Despite the attempt by Deodato to overshadow his sinister implications by having his maniac attempt to violently rape Jenny in the subway, who is then saved by a machine (in a bravado move which would make all the machines in Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive squeal in jealousy), the imagery of an empty syringe as a weapon is offensive. An empty syringe is a pitiful weapon; and a sharpened wooden pencil would be far more effective in inflicting damage. If one thinks of the era during which Minaccia was made, then the potency of the damage that the empty syringe could inflict is far more frightening. A truly nasty undertone and almost signature Deodato touch. Jenny is a gorgeous model initially depicted as self-absorbed: she does not have time to speak to her shy, awkward, and sensitive neighbor, Riccardo (Marcello Modugno), as she is obsessed with an expected phone call from a lover (who has spurned Jenny and allows the telephone/love motif to begin). Jenny's admirers fall over her footsteps. For example, Mole. When Jenny begins to show serious distress at a party, regarding the mysterious and frightening happenings around the telephone, Mole does not suggest to Jenny to call the telephone company: he is on the job personally, tapping into switchboards at her apartment building, installing a new telephone in her apartment, and parading around the vast underground networks to uncover the source of the telephone evil. Mole might be adept at fixing telephone technology, but his initiative goes far beyond the call (rimshot) of duty. Poor Riccardo almost dies the first evening that Jenny seeks his help, but the opportunity to have Jenny desire him for any reason is quite all right. Deodato is attracted to Jenny's powerful beauty and sexuality as well. In an audacious sequence, Lewis's Jenny, now under the influence of the energy-derived evil, is forced to dress in her garters and corset; and with some striking compositions, she models for the viewer (as her character is all alone in the setting). Jenny gets into the bathtub, now a dangerous place with the source of water and impending doom of the energy evil, and she writhes in the bathtub in a continued benefit for the viewer. Jenny's character is a sexual object and Deodato never hides this sentiment. Yet, it is difficult to view Minaccia and not feel for Lewis's Jenny during the absurd, violent, and strange sequences that ensue. It is also difficult to not become involved in the story. Perhaps the story is so absurd and fantastic, each subsequent sequence is unexpected and unusual; or Minaccia is so attractively lurid and seductive. Claudio Simonetti provided the score for Minaccia d'amore, and it's not nearly as effective as the score that he composed for Deodato's The Washing Machine (1993), but it works well within the film. The look of the film is superficial and glossy, which is very appropriate, and the cinematography by the excellent Renato Tafuri is superior. Deodato's cinema never suffers from the lack of an extremely interesting montage of images. Minaccia d'amore is, like other Deodato cinema, a conundrum. William Berger who plays a small part in Minaccia, echoes this sentiment: "Deodato is quite a crazy guy, but strangely I work best with the really crazy ones. Deodato changes within seconds from the sweetest person to a complete madman." (from European Trash Cinema, No. 13, ed. by Craig Ledbetter, Springwood, TX, exact year unknown (1995 or 1996 presumably), p. 11.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Joë Caligula (1966)

A young man (Gérard Blain), while his sister (Jeanne Valérie) does not watch from behind a fire, beats upon another member of the underworld. With a cinematic "message" killing, the beaten member is set afire in front of an appropriate locale, and Blain and his crew shoot up the establishment. The death of the man is relayed by telephone to the boss as he is awakened in bed with his lady. In the frame, the boss occupies a judicious space in the right corner--enough to show his talking head and the telephone--while his lady slowly dresses in her undergarments and outfit (dominating really the entire frame). A quick scene of comforting then leads to a funeral procession in which Blain makes an appearance--with machine-gun fire, he shoots at several of the cars in the procession and speeds off. No return fire. Beautiful pastoral scenery follows as the mourners exit their bullet-ridden vehicles to quietly bury their member in the cemetery. Now at the club, Blain is having a drink; and a striptease begins. Neither the director, José Bénazéraf, nor his actresses are shy--powerful female sexuality, lovingly captured, ensues. "Absolutely. Absolutely." Bénazéraf answers in response to the question, "Do you think the banning of Joë Caligula was the revenge of the authorities for your earlier defiance?" Bénazéraf continues, "It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, 1995, p. 217.) "It's a very sad story. I made the film with Gérard Blain, who was quite a star of the nouvelle vague. It was a story of incest--but intellectual incest--between a man and his sister. I made it in a kind of--in France we say 'extase'--because I believed totally in that movie. I took it very seriously. I invested a lot of money. I shot in in black and white. It was Bonnie and Clyde--the same kind of mood, the same kind of tenderness and the same kind of violence. It was Bonnie and Clyde--but two years earlier. I showed it to the censors and they said over 18 only. So I said, OK, over 18 only. I had national release and on Wednesday, the day before release, we had 30 or 40 copies across France and they said, 'No. Completely banned.' And I was left with 30 prints of the film and all the costs to pay. And I couldn't export the film or exploit it. And it's so sad because perhaps it's the best movie I ever made. The only really good one. They said I was making an apology for violence. You know--the old routine. Gratuitous violence." (Immoral Tales, pp. 216-17.)
Joë Caligula shifts in its imagery from often sexual or violent to a scene of still life whether it's characters in repose or a setting of street life or the occasional scene in the country. However, there is no overt tonal shift in the imagery. When Gérard Blain puts on his sunglasses, a quirky and raucous tune begins, like an audio cue to accompany the sunglasses--here comes cool gangster here comes me pulling my gun...check this out, it's me committing a crime. There's an energy to Blain's rampages and violence but it fades as the film continues. Most enthusiasm is shown by Bénazéraf when he captures his actresses' imagery. Overall their imagery overwhelms the violent scenes as there is more poeticism watching Jeanne Valérie take a solitary stroll at night on the streets of Paris or watching Blain and crew hanging out at the cafe with their female company.Blain's Joë Caligula is a rebellious character in a overt nod against the old guard. Ironically, his character and his narrative arc can only channel a modicum of Bénazéraf's cinematic rebellion and willfulness. In the majority of Bénazéraf's cinema that I have seen, there is an overwhelming sense of a filmmaker filming what he wants to. And obviously was pissing a few people off. There is a scene near the end of the film with Blain all alone sitting at a table, a wide shot emphasizing his solitude. Perhaps, this is the most affecting scene within Joë Caligula.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Phenomena (1985)

Yes, there's a lot going on in Phenomena. It remains my favourite film because of that. I discovered people who walked in their sleep have an affinity with insects. Schizophrenics too...and mediums. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I put insects in the script after discussing them with Roman entomologists. Franco Ferrini and I spoke for weeks with them. We also spoke with police about how important insects were in their investigations. Maggots usually provide the date of death during an autopsy. Sergio Stivaletti wanted to include some stop-motion fly special effects but I refused as I wanted the insect footage to be completely realistic. It was horrendously complicated to film but I'm glad we did it that way. Phenomena was also about the loss of innocence too. I was attracted by innocence when I came to write it. I became a vegetarian and stayed in a Zurich clinic which prompted the lifestyle. It was like being in school all over again escaping through windows for midnight feasts--and I came back to Rome feeling like a child. The school in Phenomena is a clear mother-figure for that reason; don't do this, do that etc...Chimpanzees are childlike too. Does that explain the ending for you? I chose Jennifer Connelly to play the lead role after Sergio Leone showed me Once Upon a Time in America. I thought she looked fabulous in it and wanted her from the start.
All my films have given me lots of experience and I don't think I have a particular favourite. For a short time after making Phenomena I thought it came as close to the real me as any of my movies did. Now I look at it and I'm not so sure. That's one of the reasons why I considered going back to its themes and reinventing them again for a possible sequel after Nonhosonno. There is a lot going on in Phenomena. Ever since I was a child I've had a strange attraction to insects. I've always had a hard-to-define feeling when I'm around them. I used to impale flies on pins or else use a piece of thread to tie their legs together and watch them struggle. It was when I discovered through an American newspaper story that sleepwalkers, schizophrenics and mediums have an affinity with insects that prompted the story. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I spent a whole year and a half immersed in insect studies and talking to noted entomologists before tackling the script. One of the many curious things I discovered was that the female fly is capable of laying as many as 5000 eggs in its brief lifespan. Thank God for us that their lifespan is only 20 days otherwise the whole globe would be covered with them. I also learnt how important insects were to police investigations. Maggots usually provide the time of death during an autopsy.
[The above quotes by Dario Argento are from Mondo Argento and Profondo Argento, respectively. The first, p.71, Mondo Argento by Alan Jones, Ed. Paul J. Brown, Midnight Media Publishing, England, 1996; and the second, p 127, Profondo Argento by Alan Jones, FAB Press, England, 2004. While perusing my collection of fanzines, magazines, and film books and the like, of which I have quite a bit, I pulled every instance of mention within each of an interview with Argento. To my surprise, Phenomena (1985) receives little mention, not only from questions to Argento from interviewers but in his responses to general questions. This fact by itself is of little value as it only shows how limited my collection is in regards to Phenomena. I chose the two quotes for I find the two highly informative, not only in their substance but also in their delivery. If nothing else, the two quotes are eerily similar but have notable differences, and I think that it's fun to play the two off of each other.] Dario Argento's Phenomena is an odd film and not easily digestible. On the one hand, it's neither a character-driven nor a plot-driven film, although it has elements of both. By far not a traditional film in the classic style of its predecessors in the horror genre nor is it more ethereal or symbolic in the "arthouse" style of previous cinema, especially from Europe (although, again, it has elements of both). An initial viewing by anyone would find Phenomena disorienting as the film defies many traditional modes of viewing. I am reminded of a conversation that I had years ago with a friend regarding David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), and we were speaking about the abrupt shift in the film towards its protagonist. I was asking my friend if the events subsequent to the character shift were a rendition of events from the mind of the original protagonist. He responded, "Perhaps they are events coming from the mind of David Lynch." I first saw Phenomena over twenty years ago under the title Creepers on its American VHS release (heavily-edited) then to search out an Nth generation VHS copy of a Japanese VHS then to see it again on laserdisc in a beautiful print from The Roan Group then to purchase the first DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment to a recent viewing on DVD again from Anchor Bay Entertainment as a re-release (this time in anamorphic widescreen). After this recent viewing, I recalled again my friend's words from that Lost Highway conversation, and my intuitive feeling is that Phenomena is a rendition of events from the mind of Dario Argento.In a particular sequence, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is locked in room in a mansion. The door leading to an exit has a transom above it. Outside the door is a telephone that she wants to reach to dial for help. She pulls a chair against the door in order to reach and unlock the transom above. The telephone is on a table right outside the door and is connected to its socket by a long cord. Jennifer cannot reach the phone with her arms. From the bathroom in her locked room, she exits with a large metal pole which appears to have a white grip, is extendable, and has a white hook at its end. I've attempted to rationalize this object as a shower-curtain rod or a hanging-curtain rod, but its appearance leads me to the conclusion that it is an extendable rod with a grip and a hook designed to manipulate objects from a distance. After a bout with attempting to hook the phone cord and pull the phone into her chamber, while bloodcurdling screams are heard elsewhere in the mansion, the phone slips and falls into a large hole in the floor. Jennifer drops the rod and reveals that she is able to escape the chamber by climbing through the transom. The hooked rod is the very definition of a deus ex machina; and her use of the rod was not only counterproductive but unnecessary as she reveals she could crawl out of her space quite easily and use the phone. The phone had to enter the hole as Jennifer had to enter the hole to encounter what was waiting for her there. This sequence of events appears to follow from Jennifer's deductive reasoning as to how to escape; and the presence of the rod fractures the narrative technique (although it could appear in a dream). Beyond this conclusion what remains is that this contrived and discursive sequence of events must come from somewhere else. During the first hour of the film (and over half of its duration), the majority of the dialogue within Phenomena is exposition. Even if Franco Ferrini and Dario Argento's script were one-hundred-percent literate and compelling, an hour's worth of expository dialogue would become tiring to most viewers. Even more fascinating is discerning what does the dialogue explain. Much of the it is redundant. In the opening sequence of the film, a young tourist (Fiore Argento) is left behind by her bus. With strong wide compositions, the mountains of the Switzerland locale are focal. She shivers and shakes on the road from the fierce wind. In a medium shot of Fiore, the camera even appears to shake from the violent wind. Cut to the credits with a powerful visual sequence of an upwards tracking shot of the wind blowing fiercely through the trees. Above the forest is revealed an isolated villa where the young tourist seeks solace. More than one subsequent character will tell Jennifer about these "fierce winds" in the region which has been dubbed, because of them, the "Swiss Transylvania." While these dialogue sequences explaining the origin of the region are fun in a Gothic, Poe-esque sense, the wind motif is rendered far more powerfully visually in the film's opening sequence. Further, in Jennifer's opening sequence, she has a dialogue with Daria Nicolodi's character, much of it expository. When she arrives at her destination, the one-time appearance of a detached voice-over narration occurs. This narration serves only to reiterate what the viewer has learned from the previous dialogue scene. The majority of the dialogue during the first hour fails to explain the plot while its minority only slightly enriches its characters.Beyond the one-time narration appearance, Phenomena has other odd creative inclusions. The soundtrack has original music from both Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti, for example, side by side with heavy metal songs from Iron Maiden and Motorhead. While Iron Maiden's song during its first appearance seems to match the energy of the film's events (the killer stalking a young victim), when Motorhead's song appears in the film, it is an odd juxtaposition (it plays over a sequence depicting a character being rolled out on a gurney, having been attacked by the killer). Jennifer has communicative ability with insects, and once, Argento shows his viewer the P.O.V. of an insect watching Jennifer walk away, hand-in-hand with a chimpanzee. Much of the energy in Phenomena is derived from its rebellious spirit. Seeing the film through Jennifer's eyes, it is easy to feel it. During her first evening at her school, she has an eventful bout of sleepwalking. The following morning the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) forces her to see the doctor, and their treatment is extreme: since no one in the school has ever left the grounds by sleepwalking, Jennifer must be seriously ill. In fact, she might just be crazy. Instead of talking to the young teenager, the adults would rather strap her down and plug her into a machine. During her first class, Jennifer causes an impromptu coup by feeding answers to her new friend Sophie, turning the students against their teacher. When Jennifer finds the headmistress and other students going through her personal letters in her room, she has had enough. It leads to a forceful confrontation between her and all of the others in beautifully odd sequence. Through Jennifer's eyes this rebellious spirit is certainly linked to a juvenile nature. It doesn't reach the heights of a lofty ideal of anti-authoritarianism, but it also does not seem the idea that Argento was trying to convey.I greatly admire Phenomena, and if it still is Argento's most personal film, then I believe, today, I understand why. Perhaps it is just my bias, as I feel a strong kinship with outsiders. Certainly, there are few films like Phenomena--it's truly a puzzle with some very creative and audacious visual sequences. At times, it appears truly nightmarish and dream-like. The mélange of artists who comprise the soundtrack greatly contribute to its atmosphere. An overall unique experience.