The Score: Symphonic Giallo – Marco Werba scores Dario Argento’s new thriller

The composer discussions his musical collaboration with the Italian master of horror.

Dario Argento &
Dario Argento & Marco Werba

Dario Argento has been a legend in Eurohorror cinema since the 1970s, and in many ways his films of that era, which include DEEP RED (1975), SUSPIRIA (1977), TENEBRAE (1982), PHENOMENA (1985) and others, define the giallo form – that uniquely Italian style of horror characterized by stylish camera work, graphic gore, liberal nudity, and particularly stylish musical accompaniment, from rock to orchestral to lounge, often shifting forms in the same film.

The Italian word “giallo” actually means “yellow,” and the terms origin refers back to the series of pulp novels with trademark yellow covers. So it’s rather unique that Argento’s latest film, currently waiting release later this year, is in fact titled GIALLO, referring both to its sub genre and its main villain, who assumes that moniker during his onslaught of gruesome serial murder.

The music for giallo cinema has played a significant role, from the early days when Ennio Morricone contributed some of his most inventive – and difficult – scores for Argento’s early films like BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), and CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971), and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971),  Giallo films tended to have lush scores contrasting beautiful, sonorous melodies, often sung by female sopranos like Edda Dell’Orso, with harshly atonal and very chaotic musical phrasing. The results reflected the film’s sensuality and aesthetic beauty, placing the viewer somewhat at ease until shifting into severe disturbiana during the murder scenes. The approaches were not always the same, and there were some composers who scored against the grotesquerie of the violence by using very beautiful melodies even over the scenes of grue and gore. What is clear is that giallo films maintained very conscious stylistic flavors in their visual and musical directions.

With Argento’s latest film, GIALLO, composer Marco Werba, assumes responsibilities formerly held by Morricone and many other composers. Werba, winner of the prestigious Italian award “Colonna Sonora” in 1989 for his first score, ZOO, is classically trained. He thus brings to GIALLO a somewhat more symphonic sensibility that the largely rock-based composers of many of Argento’s previous films.

“There are two ways of writing the music for a horror film,” said Werba. “One is by following the classical orchestral style of Bernard Herrmann – for example, using only strings (as in PSYCHO) to scare the audience. The other way is following the mood of the modern electronic music, such as that of EXORCIST by Mike Oldfield, which influenced the music of John Carpenter in HALLOWEEN and Goblin for Dario Argento’s PROFONDO ROSSO and SUSPIRIA. Personally, as a composer, my musical sensibility is more in line with the classical orchestral approach when writing music for thrillers and horror films. But this doesn’t mean I don’t like the electronic scores of Carpenter and Goblin!”

Since ZOO, Marco Werba has worked sporadically in film music during the 1990s, concentrating on classical works, including a “Canto al vangelo,” which he had dedicated to the Pope and which was performed in his presence during a Celebration in 1999. During the mid 2000’s Werba segued from holy to horror, demonstrating an affinity that has allied him with the genre ever since. Perhaps his chamber composition to the Pope has given him a unique understanding of the nuances of good and evil as it plays out in the films he enhances musically.

Werba scored Giovanni Pianigiani’s DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA, a 2008 tribute to the giallo films of the 1970s, about a weallthy politician’s philandering wife who is kidnaped and blackmailed by a masked killer. The film evoked flavorings of the giallo genre and gave Werba the chance to express his himself in a particularly dark setting.

“The music for DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA was recorded with electronic orchestral samplings because the budget was very small,” said Werba.

The special effects for that film were done by German filmmaker Timo Rose, who was impressed with Werba’s work and brought him in to score his own film, FEARMAKERS (2008), a horror-comedy about two friends trying to solve a woman’s murder, only to be confronted by a vengeful ghost.

“I didn’t accentuate the humor of the film but emphasized the darker moods because I wanted to build the dramatic tension without the risk of turning it into something ridiculous,” Werba said.

Marco Werba reunited with Rose again earlier this year for the director’s werewolf thriller, BEAST.

“I wrote a symphonic composition for choir and orchestra,” said Werba. “Timo gave me the freedom to compose in the style I thought would fit the mood of his film.”

Rather than synchronizing his music to specific moments in the film, Werba wrote his music “wild” and allowed Rose to place the music into the film as he chose.

“I sent him various versions of the main theme and Alex’s theme (the main character), plus a few suspence compositions, and he then cut and edited the music to fit the images,” said Werba.

He also provided music for Ivan Zuccon’s Lovecraftian horror film, COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2008), a classical-styled atmospheric horror score. All of this experience gave Werba a significant genre pedigree, making him a perfect choice to give genre legend Dario Argento’s latest visual terror tale a powerful and provocative musical underbelly.

Adrian Brody (left) stars in Dario Argentos thriller.
Adrian Brody (left) stars in Dario Argento's thriller.

Produced by Richard Rionda Del Castro and Rafael Primorac of Hannibal Pictures, GIALLO stars Adrien Brody as a police inspector investigating the disappearance of a woman, who he suspects has been kidnapped by a sadistic serial killer known as “Yellow.” Emanuelle Seigner, Elsa Pataky, Robert Miano, and Byron Deidra co-star.

Marco Werba had become acquainted with Del Castro, who had asked to hear some of the composer’s previous horror film music. Werba sent some samples from DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA and COLOUR FROM THE DARK, which impressed the producer. Werba was asked to provide a specific musical demo for GIALLO, which was then going into post-production.

“I wrote ‘Giallo’s theme’ in two versions, one for piano and orchestra and one for violin and orchestra,” said Werba. He recorded the music electronically using high quality orchestral samplings and sent them off to Del Castro. A week later he received a message from the producer saying he’d been chosen to write the music of the film. “He told me that he sent a copy of my music demos to actor Adrien Brody, who liked the version of ‘Giallo’s theme’ for violin and orchestra, and he organized a first meeting with me and Dario Argento.”

Marco Werba met with Dario Argenco several times to discuss the music style that would best fit the needs of the film.

“I thought that the film had equal qualities to the Hitchcock and De Palma masterpieces,” said Werba. “For this reason I suggested to the director that I write a symphonic film score that would increase the quality of the film to a first class level – usually thrillers are considered B movies. I thought that this film, just like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and other accredited films, had higher qualities, due also to the presence of Oscar winning actor, Adrien Brody.”

When Marco Werba saw the final cut of GIALLO, Argento had dubbed it with a few temp-tracks of other composers – mostly electronic pieces in order to give the idea of where he wanted to have music and what kind of mood the music should have.

“I thought that this electronic temporary music was not the right one for this film,” Werba said. “I said to him that his film needed something closer to Herrmann than to Goblin, and he agreed.”

Argento gave Werba the freedom to compose the music that he felt was best, asking only for a specific music theme to be played during the early scenes where a taxi is driving through the city like a shark searching for prey.

“I tried to create a theme that had the same aura as the John Williams, JAWS theme,” said Werba. “I only used it for the main titles and the taxi scenes.”

Marco Werba conducts a recording session for GIALLOMarco Werba’s music is primarily orchestral, with a pleasing symphonic base that grounds the film in a classical elegance and a provocative sense of mystery and suspense. Werba went to Sofia, Bulgaria, to record the music with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. “I just had one day – three sessions of three hours each – to record all the music!” Werba recalled.

Werba then returned to Rome and mixed the music in Dolby Digital 5.1 at the Forum Music Village (the same recording studio where Ennio Morricone records his film scores and where Jerry Goldsmith had recorded his music for LEVIATHAN). Sound engeneer Marco Streccioni recorded and mixed the final film score.

Werba’s score is a departure from the electronic rhythm-based music of some of Argento’s earlier films. But the classical style fit the style of suspense and shock that Argento had displayed in GIALLO.

“I worked very hard to syncronize the music with the film. While the director of the film is Italian, the film itself shows many American influences. This is why I wanted to write an American-style film score in which the movements of the film and the music were perfectly syncronized. Even though one might recognize the influences of Herrmann, Williams, or Elfman, my own music style came out in the more melodic compositions.”

Marco Werba’s GIALLO compositions are richly thematic, although developed so that none of the themes wears out its welcome as the score develops. Besides the specific music requested for the prowling taxi scenes, he composed a “Love Theme” for Emmanuelle Seigner’s character which is used in two scenes, a motif for a scene in which inspector Enzo Avolfi (Brody) has a flashback, and another one for the killer’s childhood memories.

Victims of a serial killer - who goes by the moniker of Giallo (i.e. Yellow).
Victims of a serial killer - who goes by the moniker of "Giallo" (i.e. "Yellow).

“I composed delicate and mysterious music for harp, cello, violin, and chamber orchestra used in one scene in which Enzo and Linda are interacting,” said Werba. “There’s also a long, dramatic sequence in which a woman tortured by the killer walks out of the killer’s house in search of freedom. In this sequence I wrote an epic music motif, starting with strings and harp, going to a large orchestra with the horns playing the main theme.”

For the various scenes involving the killer, Marco Werba chose to use different compositions for each individual scene. “In order to do this I chose to emphasize specific instruments,” he said. “For example in one scene I used a solo flute with a few percussions. In another I used strings with glissandos etc. The final theme is called ‘Giallo’s theme,’ which was used in only two scenes and in the end titles. This is the music that I sent to the producers as a demo, which led to my getting the job!”

In addition to the score’s pervasive orchestral measures, Werba added a few electronic sounds to make it distinctive.

“I created a sound for a few suspense scenes that is something between an electric bass and a heart-beat,” he said. “I also used an electronic vibration mixed with a female voice used in three scenes.” Werba also recorded the sound of a knife to be used as a percussive element in the sore, but Argento decided against using that.

“I had a very good collaboration with Dario,” said Werba. “He is a very intelligent person and he respects the composer. He does not try to impose his ideas. If the solutions that the composer is proposing are good, he will accept them at once. For example, there was a scene in the film in which Linda is taking a shower. Dario wanted to start the music from the begininning of the scene. I suggested to Dario, ‘Let’s start the music only when we see Linda inside the shower and leave a few seconds of silence at the beginning.’ When he saw that my proposal worked with the scene he accepted it.

“To me, silence is very important,” Werba continued. “Directors tend to use too much music. They are scared of using silence. Silence can help to create tension and emphasize the film score. If a director uses too much music, he will diminish its value. With an experienced and talented director such as Dario Argento, it is possibile to discuss the score in order to find the best solutions. I am very proud of the music in a scene in which a butcher is killed. It starts with the strings playing glissandos and then, after two seconds of silence, a very violent music starts with orchestral chords over a melodic line played by violins. Every orchestral hit is syncronized with the strokes that the killer gives to his victim.”

With GIALLO completed, having made its debut at Cannes last week, and its British premeire scheduled for July, Werba is now composing the music for a science fiction action thriller called BRAINCELL, for first-time director Alex Birrell, who had been the cinematographer on DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA. Werba said that the score will be more electronic, “with a John Carpenter and Goblin touch.” A number of other genre films are also in the offering, and it looks like Werba will be a mainstay in science fiction and horror scoring for some time now.

“Music in thrillers and horror films is very important and can help the film involve the audience emotionally,” Werba said. “The tension comes from the silence, the sound effects and the music.”

Werba said that his goal for the next five years is to be able to work on higher budgeted American film productions.

“I am no more interested in collaborating with productions that have difficulties in financing the recording of a symphonic film score,” Werba said. “I would like to record one of my next scores in London with members of the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the world.”

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Do You Like Hitchcock? – Giallo Film Review

With this unambitious but entertaining giallo, Argento proves he can still thrill an audience.

The consensus among fans and critics seems to be that Dario Argento’s glory days are behind him, and after the embarrassment that was PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), one could hardly blame long-time followers for abandoning him completely. Yet the new millennium has seen Argento direct a handful of thrillers that, although lacking the inspired artistry of TENEBRE and SUSPIRIA, at least display some competent craftsmanship. SLEEPLESS and THE CARD PLAYER are good, old-fashioned giallo efforts of the kind Argento used to make so well. Add to this list the 2005 made-for-television film DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?
As the title implies, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? deliberately emulates the American Master of Suspense. Fans will recognize plot elements borrowed from several sources, most notably REAR WINDOW. The story follows a young man who rents lots of Hitchcock videos and also spies on his neighbors, until he sees something he shouldn’t, which leads him to investigate a murder-mystery, putting his own life at risk.
Ironically, the fact that Dario Argento and co-writer Franco Ferrini borrow so much from Hitchcock turns out to be one of the strengths of DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? Argento’s output in the ’90s was characterized by an almost free association approach to screenwriting, with apparently random scenes and ideas intruding at incongruous moment and then disappearing. DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?’s plot may be borrowed, but at least it has a plot that makes sense when held up to minimal scrutiny, and Argento proves himself capable of using it to build suspense in a more conventional manner than usual for him.
The result is competent and entertaining, though not as distinctive as Dario Argento’s best work.  No doubt because of its television origins, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? is both low-budget and low on gore. The scenes are more functional than spectacular, serving to advance the story rather than as memorable set pieces. And even Argento’s hard-core fans may be more impressed than disappointed that the director can make a suspenseful thriller without bursts of graphic violence. In this sense, the tele-film feels a bit like a throwback to Argento’s debut feature, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (and it is also light years ahead of his subsequent, gore-drenched episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR, “Jennifer” and “Pelts).
Bottom line: Though not displaying the flair of Dario Argento’s best work, this competent little giallo shows the director abandoning the excesses that marred his 1990s output.  Though modest in ambition, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK works perfectly well as made-for-televisoin film, proving that Argento can still deliver the goods.

Click here to watch DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? for free.

DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? (Ti Piace Hitchcock?, made-for-television, 2005). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini. Cast: Elio Germano, Chiara Conti, Elisabetta Rocchetti, Cristina Brondo, Ivan Morales, Edoardo Stoppa, Elena Maria Bellini, Horacio Jose Grigatis, Giuseppe Lo Console, Milvia Mangliano, Giampierro Perone.

Two Evil Eyes (1990) – Blu-ray Review

This is strange entry in the careers of George A Romero and Dario Argento, as fans expecting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow were instead given essentially 2 almost completely unrelated hour-long features based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Romero’s episode is about a wealthy patriarch who dies while under hypnosis; his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau giving one of her best performances) hides the body in the cellar until the estate can be settled. You needn’t have read Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to guess what happens next. We actually think this is one of Romero’s better films from this period, without the amateurish acting that occasionally plagues his efforts.
Argento’s effort is based on Poe’s “The Black Cat” and stars Harvey Keitel as Rod Usher , a crime scene photographer who kills his girlfriend’s black cat, photographing it at the point of death. Once she discovers the nightmarish photos in Rod’s just-published book, she confronts him, they struggle, and he kills her – but this is still a Poe story, and walling up a dead body isn’t always the best method of disposal. Unfortunately, this film falls in line with Argento’s other weak efforts from the period, including the Pittsburgh-filmed Trauma from 1993. Even with Argento’s trademark visual flair, the film seems much more slowly paced than Romero’s segment when the opposite ought to be true; even with the limited running time the film drags as we are left too long in the company of Keitel’s Usher character, an utterly unlikeable bastard who illicit zero sympathy. The heavy-handed gore (courtesy of Tom Savini) also seems forced – more like a contractual obligation than artistic method.
Like Blue Underground’s previous HD efforts, this Blu-Ray disc is gorgeous, bringing out excellent color and detail (though still limited by the occasionally rough source material – this wasn’t a lushly budgeted film). The extras replicate BU’s previous edition, including the documentary “Two Masters’ Eyes,” featuring interviews with both filmmakers.
http://astore.amazon.com/cinefantastiqueonline-20/detail/B001NDH4K2

Laserblast: Last House, Bird with Crystal Plumage, Four Flies, Akira

It’s a busy week for DVD and Bluray releases, with titles from such classic and cult genre names as Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Barbara Steele and Tod Slaughter arriving in stores.

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Last House on the Left (MGM/UA DVD)
Wes Craven’s landmark 1972 shocker gets a second DVD go-around with a much more comprehensive set of extras, but the recent UK DVD release easily trumps all previous entries. Few horror pictures have had as checked a history on home video as Last House; two different edits appeared on VHS, courtesy of the beloved Vestron Video, the second of which was billed as ‘complete and uncut’, running roughly 83 minutes. MGM/UA’s first go around with the title on DVD, back in 2002, offered the most complete version yet, along with commentary by Craven and Cunningham, featurettes on the production and Hess’ music, and several minutes of outtakes, some of which feature extra moments of intestine-pulling that was best left on the cutting room floor.
Last year, the UK was finally able to see the film without cuts in a nation-wide release (it had previously held a place of honor at the top of the BBFC’s “video nasties” list) via a massive 3 disc set from Metrodome, featuring an additional commentary track with baddies Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler, a brand new 40-min production documentary produced by Blue Underground (”Celluloid Crime of the Century”), which provides an extensive look into the making of the film; the interesting “Krug Conquers England,” which covers the first uncut theatrical showings in the UK; an excerpt from the short film “Tales that’ll Tear Your Heart Out ,”which reunited Craven and Hess; all of this in addition to the same set of outtakes and general ballyhoo from the previous release. However, the main selling points that might drive interested parties to double-dip are housed on the second disc, which includes a marginally different cut of the film under the title “Krug & Company” (which contains some footage found in no other version and has at least one astounding plot difference regarding the fate of Mari), and some the infamous soft core sexual footage shot during the forced copulation of Mari and Phyllis. Like much of the film’s more extreme footage, it had fallen victim over the years to the vagaries of local “decency laws”, with theater managers excising out any would-be offending material (and saving it for their own personal collection, of course) and few prints making it back to the distributor’s office intact.
MGM/UA’s newest offering is geared to take advantage of Rouge Pictures’ upcoming remake, and cherry picks several features off the Metrodome set, while leaving off the Krug & Company alternate cut and the “Krug Conquers England” featurette to fit onto a single disc (the 3rd disc on the Metrodome set was devoted to a documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). Unfortunately, the new MGM release continues the tradition of no-thought, Photoshop paste ups for the cover art; Last House has some of the most memorable promotional artwork ever made for a horror film (much of which is retained on the Metrodome set), but MGM’s disc makes it look like a DTV Wrong Turn sequel. Read a complete review of the film here.
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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Blue Underground Blu-Ray)
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Dario Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness” – and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”). Read a complete review of the film here.
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Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Mya Communications DVD)
Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Argento followed up with 1971’s Cat ‘o Nine Tails and 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Although Four Flies is a fairly conventional thriller – particularly in light of Argento’s later, edgier work – the beginnings of the visually audacious style that would come to full fruition in Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The director has a ball with camera placement, and even uses an early variation of the bullet-time slow motion sequence, later made famous (and ubiquitous) in the Matrix pictures. Much of Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s reputation stems from its unavailability on home video. US residents have had to live with dodgy bootlegs of questionable quality while pleas for a proper DVD release fell on deaf ears at rights-holding studio Paramount Pictures. We don’t know what strings were pulled, but Somehow Mya Communications has managed to secure domestic DVD rights, and the results are glorious – an uncut print (sourced from an Italian negative) with excellent color and detail that finally allows for a proper evaluation of the show. There are both English and Italian tracks available (both in mono), though as was the case with most of Argento’s films of the period, the vast majority of the actors (including the leads) were clearly speaking English. The package is rounded out with a collection of fascinating vintage trailers, including one without dialog or narration that is decades ahead of its time. Read the complete review here.
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Akira (Bandai Blu-Ray)
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on the director’s own series of comics (or Manga, if you’re nasty), is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019, roughly 3 decades after it was destroyed by a nuclear blast at the beginning of World War III. Newcomers to the film (or to Anime itself) will find that Akira pleasingly breaks from the typical cost-cutting practices, with incredibly detailed animation (even going so far as to sync lip-movements to dialog, a rare practice in Japan at the time). If, like me, you owned Criterion’s towering (and pricey) laserdisc of the film and yearned to see its myriad extras duplicated on Bandai’s new Blu-Ray, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from a collection of trailers there’s little else in the way of extras – a real shame given the rich production history of the film and a real lost opportunity to introduce new viewers (for whom Akira may well be the only Anime title in their collection) to the genre with supplemental materials. But the important thing is the presentation, and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, bringing unprecedented detail to the title (enough even to expose the limits of the source materials, an increasingly common problem). Read a complete review of the disc here.
The rest of the week’s considerable releases include:

  • The Haunting of Molly Hartley. This low budget ghost story generated little positive word of mouth when it received a limited platform release last Halloween.
  • Blu-ray releases of Friday the 13th Part 2 (reviewed here) and Friday the 13th Part 3 (reviewed here).
  • A double-bill DVD of The Whip and the Body/Conspiracy of Torture. The former is a colorful and atmsopheric effort from Mario Bava, who reuses many of his old tricks from Black Sunday in this tale of S&M from beyond the grave; it’s beautiful to watch, but molassas could outrun the pace of the story.
  • Another double bill DVD, this time of two features starring cult horror queen Barbara Steele, The Long Hair of Death/An Angel for Satan. The first is atmospheric and entertaining, providing a good opportunity for Steele to shine, even if the storyline is muddle. The second is a rare title that seldom if ever showed up on U.S. shores before the advent of home video. (Don’t hold me to this, but I think it never received a theatrical release here, and I never saw it showing up on late night television or on Saturday afternoon Creature Features.)
  • And yet a third double bill disc, this one showcasing melodramatic Victorian villain Tod Slaughter in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barbar of Fleet Street/Incredible Crimes at the Dark House. You can read a review of the former here, including a sketch of Slaughter’s career.
  • Tales of the Unexplained is an old British television anthology, featuring horror icon Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN).
  • Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, and also as part of the Futurama Movies Collection.
  • And lastly, Noah Wylie returns as the Librarian in Curse of the Judas Chalice.

Steve Biodrowski contributed to this article.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet – DVD Review

Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Argento must have felt the usual pressure to follow it up with something similar (an issue that his occasional stylistic mentor, Hitchcock himself, had to deal with often). His subsequent two efforts would form a so-called “animal trilogy” – films that all conformed with the basic Giallo construct, but are bound together historically only by having animal names in the titles. 1971’s Cat ‘o Nine Tails featured a larger budget and a pair of big American stars – Carl Malden and James Franciscus – but the resulting picture was distressingly ordinary, with Argento seemingly pandering to the foreign market with more standard thriller fare (a situation not helped by the heavy editing to which the film was subjected in most countries, including the US). 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a definite improvement; unencumbered by slumming American stars, the film is looser and much more entertaining than its predecessor.
Rock drummer Roberto Tobias (a very David Duchovny-looking Michael Brandon) finds himself stalked by a figure dressed entirely in black, until one night when -understandably frustrated and angry – Roberto confronts his newfound shadow in an abandoned theater. The stalker becomes indignant and pulls a knife. In the ensuing struggle, the man falls dead of a stab wound, and Roberto flees the scene. What Roberto didn’t notice was a figure in one of the theater balconies wearing a creepy mask and snapping away with a camera, and in short order Roberto begins receiving a series of very incriminating photos of himself holding the supposed murder weapon. Things take a deadlier turn when the mysterious shutterbug attacks Roberto and begins slicing a bloody path through his friends.
Although Four Flies is still a fairly conventional thriller – particularly in light of Argento’s later, edgier work – the beginnings of the visually audacious style that would come to full fruition in Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The director has a ball with camera placement, and even uses an early variation of the bullet-time slow motion sequence, later made famous (and ubiquitous) in the Matrix pictures. There is also a return to the more European feel of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, taking the thriller mechanics less seriously than the style in which they’re portrayed (and an appearance by Bud Spenser, a frequent co-star with Terence Hill in numerous spaghetti westerns, tells us that Argento wasn’t forgetting about the European market). Applying an overly critical eye might show a director frantically dipping into his bag of tricks to distract the viewer from an overly familiar thriller plot structure, but since more recent efforts like Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player displayed what real directorial indifference looks like, Four Flies plays like the work of a much more assured hand. There are very few serious filmmakers that can make the concept of the human retina retaining the final image seen by the victim and believably incorporate it into the plot.
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Much of Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s reputation stems from its unavailability on home video. US residents have had to live with dodgy bootlegs of questionable quality while pleas for a proper DVD release fell on deaf ears at rights-holding studio Paramount Pictures. We don’t know what strings were pulled, but Somehow Mya Communications has managed to secure domestic DVD rights, and the results are glorious – an uncut print (sourced from an Italian negative) with excellent color and detail that finally allows for a proper evaluation of the show. There are both English and Italian tracks available (both in mono), though as was the case with most of Argento’s films of the period, the vast majority of the actors (including the leads) were clearly speaking English. The package is rounded out with a collection of fascinating vintage trailers, including one without dialog or narration that is decades ahead of its time.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage – Blu-ray Review

Though its antecedents stretch back to the early ’60s output of Mario Bava, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is almost universally acknowledged as ground zero for both the Italian “Giallo” thriller (so named for the yellow coloring used on the wonderfully lurid covers of the Italian crime novels that inspired them) and the stylistically indifferent ‘body count’ horror films that soon followed. Argento’s debut film caused a bit of a sensation when first released in 1970, perfectly capturing a Roman dolce vita for a new, younger generation, infusing it with traditional Hitchcockian thriller trappings, and spiking the mix with moments of strong violence.
Writer Sam (Tony Musante, most recently wasted standing behind and to the right of Robert Duvall for most of We Own the Night’s running time) is an American living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, who also worked for Umberto Lenzi in Spasmo and Sergio Martino in Torso before retiring from the screen in the late ’70s). While walking past an art gallery one night, Sam witnesses a black-clad figure attacking the wife of the gallery owner inside (Eve Renzi). Sam tries to help, but winds up caught between the outer and inner doors of the gallery and can only watch the attack through the glass. The woman survives the attack, but the assailant escapes and after being interviewed by the police, Sam is convinced that he saw something else in the gallery that night – a detail that he can’t quite pin down – and unwisely begins an investigation of his own, putting himself and Julia in the killer’s sights.
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s important that Bird played the arthouse as well as the grindhouse; with its high fashion-inspired photography and memorable Ennio Morricone score, the film broke through to audiences that likely wouldn’t be as open to Jess Franco’s work (and rightly so). Argento’s visuals are clean, sleek, and decidedly modern – an amazing achievement for a first time director – raising the film above the more “puerile” confines of horror cinema and creating a genre all its own: the explicit, adult thriller.
It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a stunning 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness,”) and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”).
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Bird with the Crystal Plumage – A Retrospective Review

EDITOR’S NOTE: As Cole, the reluctant time traveller played by Bruce Willis in TWELVE MONKEYS notes, time changes our perception of movies. When you re-view a film, it seems different, but it is the viewer, not the film, that has actually changed. This observation prompts our posting of this review. Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was reviewed by John R. Duvoli in the very first issue of Cinefantastique magazine (Fall 1970). With the title being released on Blu-ray disc today, we offer this reappraisal by Keith Brown of the excellent Giallo Fever website.

A Spanish poster for the film
A Spanish poster for the film

It’s difficult to know where to start with this film, which has something of the character of an obsession for me and whose influence has reverberated through nearly 40 years of horror and thriller productions, in Italy and internationally.
A remarkably assured début, it has few of the characteristics of calling card or apprentice-work, with an ending that Argento has arguably never quite managed to equal in terms of shock and surprise, if not necessarily absolute, overall impact.
The truly remarkable thing, in fact, may be to learn that at the time of the film Argento regarded himself primarily as a screenwriter, being more interested in showcasing his abilities in that field than as a director, on account of having become frustrated with the way in which his scripts were (mis)handled by others. The film’s critical and commercial success and the rapid calls for more of the same charted an unexpected course for his subsequent career.
Though his films are sometimes accused of being empty formalist exercises in which style supplants substance, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage helps demonstrate that, from the outset, Argento’s cinematic universe is in fact one in which the two are more often than not inextricably intertwined, each informing the other and unimaginable without it.
Sam Dalmas, an American writer currently residing in Rome, is witness to an attempted murder in an open-plan art gallery. Rushing to Monica Ranieri’s assistance, he manages to frighten off her attacker, but is then trapped between the gallery’s inner and outer doors and rendered helpless until the police, in the form of Inspector Morisini and his men, arrive.
Confiscating Dalmas’s passport, Morisini informs Dalmas that he believes the same attacker to have murdered three young women in the past month, and that Dalmas’s eye-witness testimony could prove to be the crucialbreak needed.
The killer obviously seems to think so, too, first trying to scare and then kill Dalmas off. Unexpectedly, however, this only has the effect of compelling the amateur sleuth to delve ever-deeper into the shocking truth of the case, a compulsion that serves to place those around him, most notably girlfriend Giulia, in grave danger.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Mussante) witnesses a crime
Sam Dalmas (Tony Mussante) witnesses a crime.

The key theme in the film is in fact how expectations and preconceptions can lead us astray. This is most obvious in the centrepiece gallery sequence that impels the narrative (what lies behind this nagging doubt that Dalmas has about what he witnessed?) but also runs through the likes of the police procedural scenes, as Morisini endeavours to fix (in both senses of that term) the meanings of various clues to the killer’s identity, and the delicious punchline to the yellow-jacketed assassin’s unsuccessful attempt on Dalmas’s life.
Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this, however, is the singular failure of Dalmas’s obsessive attempts to resolve the enigma by understanding what he actually saw, these proving a red herring for both character and audience alike when considered in the light of the titular McGuffin and the vital aural clue it provides for his friend Carlo.
The irony is compounded by the fact that Dalmas has just spent the last few months working on a book on the preservation of rare birds, like that with the crystal plumage, for Carlo and his associates. Perhaps if he had been more genuinely committed to this project, and not treated it as a work for hire – i.e. the difference between Argento and Dalmas, if not Argento and Musante (the actor’s method approach and need to know what was motivating his character at every stage is famously a source of friction between the two) – he would have been able to solve the case himself?
Hitchcock also, of course, famously experienced difficulties with method trained actors – an incidental detail, perhaps, but another one that helps further establish connections between the “master of suspense” and his Italian counterpart. Equally, however, while there is no doubt that the “Italian Hitchcock” sobriquet that soon became attached to Argento was useful to his career, it can also be seen as a limitation. Read as a Hitchcock imitator, it is naturally the case that Argento’s films could never hope to equal those of the original.
Something is missing, as John R. Duvoli astutely recognises in his review – even if in his criticism of the putative illogicality of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he fails to apply the same standards to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
But read as his own film-maker Argento, borrows not only from Hitchcock but also from Lang, Antonioni, Bava, Freda and others and, more importantly, plays these filmmakers off against one another, establishing his own distinctive identity and aesthetic.
In terms of the giallo specifically – a form that Duvoli does not mention, his reference to the krimi perhaps serving to indicate what was on the cultural radar at the time and, in retrospect, the moment at which the initiative passed from the German to the Italian Euro-thriller – the key to the importance of  The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lies in the way in which it combines the modernist and the populist, moving from A(ntonioni) to B(ava) and back again to tell a story that engages the spectator intellectually and emotionally.
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Giallo Trailer

The Blood-Spattered Scribe points us to the first trailer for GIALLO, the new horror-thriller from director Dario Argento. Judging from the preview, the film pulls off the neat trick of looking like classic Argento while also seeming completely contemporary. Argento’s golden period was all the way back in the ’70s through the early ’80. Since then, his career has been more miss than hit, but this year’s release of MOTHER OF TEARS showed that he still has some of the old creative fires burning within him. The word “giallo” (literally meaing “yellow”) is synonymous in Italy with violent psycho-thrillers, so its use hear as a title sounds somewhat generic. However, advance word indicates that there is a more specific meaning to the title, a reference to the killer’s appearance (the result of a medical condition). Headlined by Oscar-winner Adrienne Brody (Roman Polanski’s THE PIANIST) and Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s THE NINTH GATE), GIALLO may merit a wider release in the U.S. than any Argento film has received in quite some time. (As for the casting of two stars who have appeared in Polanski films, we will simply point out that Argento often uses sly cinematic devices to reference his contemporary filmmakers, adding a sub-textual level to his thrilling thrillers.)

Cybersurfing: Dario dearest

I am two months late on this, but I wanted to make a comment regarding this post. Appropos of GIALLO, the latest production from Dario Argento (MOTHER OF TEARS), the Blood-Spattered Scribe remarks:

In a way, Dario Argento is like an absentee father for horror fans. No matter how many times he forgets our birthday, bounces a child support payment, or not show up to take us to the zoo, we still love him because…he’s Dario! Just watching 5 minutes of Suspiria or Bird with the Crystal Plumage and we forget all about…well, just about every other picture over the last 10 years.

I like the absent-father metaphor, but I have to object to the time frame: Argento’s last ten years have not been his best, but they have been a considerable improvement over his work in the ’90s. After the brilliant period that culminated in 1982’s TENEBRE (his masterpiece), Argento delivered over a decade of disappointments, with only an occasional flash of the old brilliance. He seemed on the verge of becoming, like John Carpenter, a filmmaker churning out the same old thing over and over without any new inspiration.
Then in 1998, Argento descended to the absolute nadir of his career with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA – which was almost enough to make even hardcore fans abandon their idol. In retrospect, PHANTOM seems like a brilliant career move – a film so bad that everything afterward, per force, seemed like a comeback. SLEEPLESS was a return to form – not necessarily vintage Argento but close enough to be respectable, and the fine performance by Max Von Sydow certainly helped. THE CARD PLAYER’s depiction of online poker was seriously flawed (it’s supposed to be about matching wits, but it comes across like random chance), but the film was slick and effective. DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK did not feature the expected bravura visual stylings, but the low-key approach was matched with a reasonably effective thriller scenario that avoided overt brutality in favor of an homage to the American master of suspense. And of course, MOTHER OF TEARS trounced the upstart gore films of the new millennium, putting the young upstart filmmakers in their place.
So yes, Argento is like a absent father whose past neglect we overlook because we remember the good times, but over the course of the past ten years he has at least been trying harder to be attentive. So I think we should forget the past and let bygones be bygones – as long as he doesn’t announce plans to make PHANTOM 2.

Inferno by Keith Emerson – Soundtrack Review

Although often compared unfavorably to Goblin’s music for SUSPIRIA, keyboardist Keith Emerson’s score for the sequel, INFERNO, is every bit as in tune with the film, perfectly matching the mood and action. Unlike Goblin’s heavy rhythms, shrieking vocals, and shrill synthesizers of the previous film, Emerson employs a much more subtle approach, weaving a score out of quiet piano motifs supported by orchestral arrangements, only occasionally reaching into his electronic bag of tricks for a more outre effect. The result comes closer to a conventional piece of film scoring, underlining the on-screen action without drawing as much attention to itself. Read More