Blu-ray: Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

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Videophiled: ‘The Fifth Estate’ and ‘Argento’s Dracula’

FifthEstate
The Fifth Estate (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD) – Benedict Cumberbatch makes such a fascinating Julian Assange that it only focuses attention the problems with Bill Condon’s portrait of Assange, WikiLeaks and the Bradley Manning revelations.

Ostensibly about how Assange and WikiLeaks rocked the word with a whistleblowing leak on a scale unseen since The Pentagon Papers, the film is more fascinated with the contradictions within the character of Assange, whose achievements were almost eclipsed by accusations of sexual misconduct and his flight from extradition, than on the reverberations of the web publication of classified documents.

I guess it’s no surprise that, like so much of the reporting on the issue, the real story—of government lies, of the vulnerability of secret information, of what the leaked intelligence does to our trust in our own government—is sidelined by the human sideshow.

As sideshows go, Cumberbatch is riveting as the thin white duke of digital activism, a churlish Sherlock under a white bleach job and pasty pallor who wants to be thought of as the mysterious mastermind in the shadows while playing the flamboyant showman for an audience of hackers. Is he an idealist who dedicates his entire life to fighting power or a pathological liar with an ego-driven personality, a holier-than-thou arrogance and a need for attention that trumps social activism? To put it in computer-age terms, it’s a film in a binary universe, all about singular contradiction as defining characteristics rather than a spectrum of detail. And when it comes to the WikiLeaks web network, Condon’s visual metaphors present the digital world with analogue sensibility. Or maybe an MTV video from a decade ago.

Daniel Brühl is the junior partner he adopts to help out what was essentially a one-man crusade hidden behind a digital network that suggested a small army of conspirators and ends up challenging and alienating Assange. Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci stand in for the American intelligence community in a subplot that pretends to illustrate how the information dump put the life of an ally in peril, a storyline more calculated than convincing. What should be the 21st century All the President’s Men forgoes the complexity of the issues to hammer on the big contrasts and makes Assange’s petty personality eccentricities more of a focus than his actual accomplishments.

Blu-ray and DVD with three featurettes plus trailers and TV spots. The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming.

Argento'sDracula
Argento’s Dracula (IFC Midnight, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is how it reads on the disc case. On the screen it’s Dario Argento’s Dracula and on the IMDb it’s Dracula 3D. Any way you list it, this Dracula feels like the last gasp of a once creatively mad cinematic chemist, stirring combustible colors and unstable reactions into strange concoctions of murder and madness. There is a vibrancy to some of the art direction and set design in this busy but oddly inert take on the Bram Stoker novel, which adds a bunch of mayhem but else to justify yet another take on the same story, but over the last couple of decades Argento seems to have lost all sense of directing actors. The performances are all over the place here, some of them stilted and stuffy as if in a Victorian stage piece (Unax Ugalde’s Jonathan Harker looks like a dazed clown trying to remember marks), others sloppily hamming it up (Darios’s daughter Asia is one of the guilty parties on that score). Only Rutger Hauer brings a sense of history to his character when he appears around the 2/3s mark as a melancholy Van Helsing, as if his calling carries a high price in terms of loss and sacrifice.

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Profundo Argento: “The Cat O’Nine Tales” and “Deep Red”

The Cat O’Nine Tales (Blue Underground)
Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)

Two early Dario Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.

David Hemmings stares down his nightmares in "Deep Red"

The Cat O’Nine Tales (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tales continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.

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Inferno on TCM

Argento color in Blu-ray glory

Abandon logic, all ye who enter Dario Argento’s Inferno (1982). The second film of his “Three Mothers” trilogy (the first was Suspiria, the biggest American success of the Italian director’s career) opens with a deluge of exposition on the perhaps-not-so-mythical Three Mothers, which Rose (Irene Miracle), an American girl in a very stylized version of New York, reads from an ancient text. As she turns detective, suspecting that one of the evil figures lives in her very own apartment house (an elegant old building with impossibly lavish spaces), a mysterious, black-gloved figure (unseen but for those hands, which prove to be wizened like a fairy-tale witch beneath the black cloth) goes about collecting copies of the ancient book and killing everyone connected with them. Jump to Rome, where her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student, receives a letter where she shares her suspicions and discoveries. Before he can finish reading it, a gray-eyed beauty with a white cat distracts his attention and a freak windstorm blows the letter into the hands of another student (and a entirely new subplot), and he flies back to New York to find that she has disappeared, spurring him to embark on his own investigation.

This is a mystery with the logic of a dream. Vague clues (“The key is under the souls of your feet”) send characters in impulsive journeys through mysterious, maze-like passages. A trip down into the building basement sends Rose on a midnight swim through an underwater ballroom, where a gruesome corpse floats through nearly crystal-clear water. A chance reading of her letter sends one girl searching for the rare tome in a library and into what appears to be an alchemist’s laboratory hidden in building’s basement labyrinth. A bent old bookseller with a distaste for cats (which prowl and growl all through the film) is attacked by rats in a Central Park that looks more like a haunted fairy tale forest. A seemingly innocent bystander is suddenly inspired to turn homicidal maniac. It’s a world touched by malevolent magic, which transforms everyday locations into hostile environments of spikes, splinters, knife edges and broken glass, all conjured to pierce flesh, draw blood and take lives.

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New Reviews: ‘Mother of Tears’ and ‘Brick Lane’

Mother of Tears (dir: Dario Argento)

Dario Argento’s “The Three Mothers” trilogy is, decades after releasing the wildly incomprehensible and luridly fascinating second film Inferno, finally completed, not with a bang but a whimper, or rather, in a metaphor more befitting the title, a glycerin tear. Mother of Tears is contrived, confused, clumsy, and quite simply dreadful. It opens on sloppiest archeologists in Italy opening an unearthed urn containing ancient talismans and describing the contents with such numbingly obviousness that you wonder if your experiencing a cheap version of descriptive video for the blind (“It’s some kind of ancient language,” he opines. Really? On an ancient artifact? What, he was expecting Esperanto?). The whole mess is sent to a museum, where an equally dubious expert manhandles the box open and inadvertently brings the talismans to life as giant golems that proceed to motheroftearssacrifice.jpgeviscerate the head archeologist and strangle her with her own intestines. Their lord and (naked) mistress pulls on an unholy T-shirt with glitter runes and proceeds to cast evil across Rome (which is actually Turin, an unconvincing stand-in made worse by poor locations and indifferent photography).

Even Dario’s daughter Asia, as a wide-eyed archeology student who watches witches from all over the world (dressed like refugees from an eighties New Wave video) swarm the streets like a gang of harpy thugs, can’t get through her lines with a modicum of conviction (Udo Kier doesn’t even bother, he just goes nuts). Written from a compendium of B movie dialogue clichés and directed as if he’d never worked with actors before, Argento’s film is a cheap production with little visual creativity and dull cinematography. He falls back on familiar shocks and images rather than delving into the abstract beauty of his glory days of horror. Once a director of high style, with cameras that danced and floated through scenes of dynamic choreography and searing colors and stunning visions, the master of abstract ballets of blood and beauty has become a tired old man.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.

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