Trade paper Hollywood Reporter has posted a review of GIALLO, which recently screened at a festival in Edinburg. Their assessment is that the film, directed by Dario Argento and starring Adrien Brody, is a “clunky by-the-numbers Euro-thriller” that “wastes the talents of its star and veteran director.”
This unlikely-on-paper, underwhelming-in-execution collaboration between Oscar winner Brody and legendary horror-suspense director Dario Argento doesn’t rank anywhere near the finest work by either man. And though “Giallo,” like Argento’s 2007 “Mother of Tears,” has been picked up for North American distribution by the Weinstein Co., it will be lucky to obtain even the most fleeting of big-screen releases before heading to ancillary afterlife.
“Mother of Tears” had a kind of gruesome, berserk brio that if nothing else commanded attention. But in “Giallo,” flashes of inspiration are few and far between. It’s no surprise that this is the first time in his long career that Argento has served as director-for-hire on a screenplay devised by others. The director reportedly has distanced himself from the project and was conspicuous by his absence at Edinburgh.
In combination with Seigner’s involvement, the film thus emerges as something akin to Argento’s version of Polanski’s Bitter Moon, as something to be both taken seriously at times and as a self-parody at others in its commentary on past glories.
How less sympathetic audiences will get the joke is another matter entirely…
The fan of ’70s & ’80s Italian horror-thrillers scripted an homage, little knowing that the reigning king of the form would choose to direct.
Giallo (plural – gialli) is Italian for ‘yellow’ and the term comes from the lividly coloured covers of pulpy crime thriller paperbacks popular in Italy throughout the fifties and sixties. Giallo films were famed for their highly stylish and breathtaking combination of sex and violence and were rife in cinemas throughout Italy during the seventies and eighties. An exclusively Italian phenomenon, their legacy and immense influence can still be seen in the horror genre today, particularly in the latest slasher revival.
Mario Bava directed what is widely regarded as the very first giallo film: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). This film would boast characteristics that would become commonplace in the subgenre: long periods of exposition, artfully shot scenes punctuated by extreme and sudden violence, flashbacks seemingly spliced into the narrative at random, Freudian undertones, a killer with psycho-sexual hang-ups and usually clad in dark raincoat, fedora and black leather gloves, an abundance of red-herrings and the misinterpretation of a vital clue by the typical ‘outsider’ protagonist.
The giallo really came to prominence with the release of Dario Argento’s debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. Argento took the blueprint laid down by Bava and added his own unique vision and idiosyncrasies to the mix in order to create a startlingly beautiful, hypnotically violent and heady cinematic cocktail. A slew of imitations ensued and soon Italian cinemas were overflowing with darkly sexy and deliriously violent films sporting all manner of bizarre and cryptic titles such as Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and The House with the Laughing Windows (1976). Argento himself would set the prescience for these lurid thrillers and continued to trail-blaze and trend-set with elaborately stylised giallo films such as Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and what many consider to be the definite giallo movie: Deep Red (1975). The genre became even more popular in Italian culture when Argento’s series Door into Darkness (1973) was broadcast on prime time television. As with most cycles in genre cinema however, the giallo would inevitably run out of steam and give way to the next craze.
The currently popular ‘torture porn’ and splashy sadism evident in the likes of Hostel (2005) and Hostel II (2007), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Captivity (2007) and the Saw series (2004-2008) has bled into a resurgence of ‘grind-house’ styled films and remakes of old seventies gore-fest exploitation flicks such as The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Last House on the Left (2009) and Friday the 13th (2009). Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) also went some way to spark an interest and re-appreciation of niche exploitation films from yesteryear. Countless remakes of Asian horror films such as The Uninvited (2009) and One Missed Call (2008) have also been extremely popular of late, though these Westernised re-imaginings are becoming increasingly tired and less effective.
This is precisely what inspired screenwriters Sean Keller and Jim Agnew as they set about writing what has become Dario Argento’s new film, GIALLO. Tired of seeing the same old stuff, they believed they knew exactly how to inject some much needed style and substance back into the jugular of the horror genre. And who better to reignite interest and perhaps introduce a whole new generation of film goers to the subgenre he helped create and has become synonymous with, than the Maestro himself – Dario Argento.
The forthcoming GIALLO follows the sordid tale of a woman who hires an eccentric detective to track down her sister who has been kidnapped by a serial killer calling himself Yellow. The film stars Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner and promises much of the typical stylistic flourishes and opulent grandeur Argento is famed for. As well as gallons of the red stuff. And I don’t mean Merlot…
When I caught up with writer Sean Keller recently, he explained what the genesis for GIALLO was. ‘Jim and I were trying to come up with the next good idea’, Keller reveals. ‘We were tired of little girls with wet hair and ghost stories. We both loved the gialli of the sixties and seventies and thought that a super-stylistic homage to the work of Argento, Bava and (Sergio) Martino etc, would be a refreshing change to the horror scene. We wrote a script that was a kitchen-sink giallo. It had everything: opera, cats, black-gloved killers, flashbacks, red herrings, jazz, beautiful women dying horribly… And we called it ‘Yellow’.
It was only when they began peddling the script around Hollywood that they were reminded of just how exclusively ‘Italian’ the giallo film was. ‘
No one in Hollywood understood it’, Keller muses. ‘They had no concept of what we were trying to do until Jim gave the script to a European producer he knew and things took off. We got the script to Dario and he agreed to direct it right away.’
Already a great admirer of Argento’s blood-soaked and elegantly perverse oeuvre, Sean Keller explains why the director’s nightmarish visions have captivated him in the past.
‘Argento’s films balance the grisly and the beautiful in a way that knocks you off centre. The violence is always repellent and attractive at the same time, which causes a level of discomfort that heightens the horror. Tenebrae (1982) is my favourite because it is so completely other-worldly. Every scene is over-lit; there is no place to hide in this film. And the dog that climbs fences freaks me out!’
Keller explains that he was equally as enthralled as he was stunned when Argento became involved with the project; and working with one of his favourite filmmakers proved a fruitful and rewarding experience. ‘It was a dream come true!’ exclaims the upcoming writer.
‘Dario’s films formed my love for horror as a kid, and to have a man I respect and admire actually say that I have talent is tremendously rewarding. We wrote the film as an homage to Dario. We never dreamed he would read it, let alone like it enough to direct it. There are clear differences between this film and his past work, but I can’t say what without spoiling the fun. We collaborated very closely. Dario had lots of ideas and we shaped the script to suit his take on the material.’
As the writer of several other genre films such as Gryphon (2007) and Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (2006), it would seem Keller is attracted to dark and subversive subject matter. Explaining what draws him to horror, Keller states:
‘No matter how you live your life, be it ascetic or indulgent, it ends the same. Life itself is a death sentence which has always fascinated me. When I started writing screenplays, I had sort of forgotten what a big horror fan I was when I was younger – I thought I had outgrown the subject matter. But when trying to find my voice as a writer I starting thinking about the human condition and death always kept popping up in my head. It is a universal theme. The more I wrote about it, the more I remembered my joy and horror watching the late-night ‘creature-feature’ in my bedroom as a child. Now I can’t get enough of it. Horror and science fiction allow us to tackle complex philosophical ideas in a way that is palatable and appealing to a mass audience.’
As a writer, Sean Keller has been influenced by an array of dark luminaries of disturbing fiction.
‘Poe made me love reading’, Keller reminisces, while shedding a little light on what literature has inspired him. ‘I started reading Poe when I was eleven years old and it instilled my love of language and of course, my obsession with the macabre. There is no other literary figure that even comes close in my eyes. I also adore Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Eddie Bunker, Jim Thompson, and a young writer named Michael Louis Calvillo has really impressed me with his first two novels, I Will Rise and As Fate Would Have It – he has the goods and is an exciting new voice in horror literature.’
As a writer, there are certain subjects and concerns that Keller is compelled to return to again and again. Addressing fundamental issues and primal fears in a provocative and stimulating manner is something the horror genre has allowed writers and filmmakers to do since cinema began. As he explains:
‘The subject of our screenplays is never really quite as important to me as the subtext. I love being able to present a specific and subversive point-of-view wrapped in the candy-coating of horror. Horror is the sugar that helps our medicine go down. Giallo brings up questions about masculinity and misogyny with a very pointed opinion. We’ve tackled religion and faith, karma, self-determination, existential angst, the high price of revenge, delusions of entitlement and the illusion of justice. These are the things that matter to us as writers and filmmakers. The fact that we weave these themes into a genre often maligned as idiotic or childish makes the process doubly pleasing.’
Before he was involved in screenwriting, Sean Keller began his eclectic career as a singer-songwriter.
‘I actually had a song-writing/publishing deal when I was a teen’, the writer reveals. ‘I was sure I would be the next big rock star… That didn’t happen. So, after a few years of bartending, a friend asked me to act in her student film. I loved it and started pursuing acting. I landed the role of Roger in the first National Tour of Rent and later played Buddy Holly in several productions (including the National Tour) of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.’
That was soon to change though as Keller reveals. ‘Acting gigs were few and far between and I was starting a family, so I wanted to find a job that I could do from home. I started writing screenplays and, after many poorly written early tries, it simply felt right.’
‘The writing process for me is still a mystery, and I want to keep it that way,’ Keller claims. ‘My writing partner Jim Agnew is the genius who usually comes up with just the right concept at just the right time and we simply dive in. We like to find our situation and a couple of twists and then create characters that we really like and simply let the characters react to the situations we thrust them into. We never outline and we try not to over think anything. That’s reserved for the rewrite process. During our first draft we want to write as fast as possible and remain completely open to organic changes and happy accidents. It’s about establishing tone quickly and succinctly conveying emotion in a visceral manner.’
GIALLO was co-written by Sean Keller’s regular writing partner Jim Agnew. When I asked Keller about the elusive Mr Agnew, he replied ‘Jim likes to remain mysterious. I can tell you that he likes very sweet coffee and he bathes in the blood of the innocents.’
A kindred spirit, then.
Not content to limit himself to writing for the screen, Sean Keller occupies his time pursuing other creative outlets and ways to explore and hone his craft. ‘I write as much as I can in as many varied formats as possible’, he explains. ‘I am trying to publish a volume of creepy kids’ poems called Underneath the Bed, and I’m writing comic book scripts too. I have also published a couple of short stories and I’m writing songs for an upcoming album. While I write I like to listen to ambient music like John Carpenter’s film scores. Radiohead’s Kid A is always in heavy rotation, as well as Explosions in the Sky’s The World is Not a Cold, Dead Place.’
Keller, strangely enough, is also an ordained Minister with the Universal Life Church, and as such has performed no less than five weddings and a funeral. Eat your heart out, Hugh Grant.
On the challenges and subsequent rewards of writing for the screen, Keller explains that determination and hard graft is essential, as well as self belief and motivation.
‘Most things we write never find an audience. Every time we write, we risk making asses of ourselves, which is true of any artist. You have to be willing to be ridiculed in order to create anything of value. When it misses it is painful, but when it hits – the feeling is wonderful.’
Up next for Keller is his Cronenberg-esque body horror, Teratoma – set to be produced by the filmmakers who brought us Feast (2005). Keller and Agnew have also collaborated with John Carpenter on a couple of projects recently, and the writer reveals that the pair has also completed a new screenplay that they have high hopes for.
‘We have a visceral, tough-guy crime drama about to start pre-production called The Tokarev. This may be the best thing we’ve yet written, but I can’t say who is directing… The ink hasn’t dried on the deal.’
GIALLO is to be released later this year and will be sure to provide audiences who are less familiar with the titular subgenre, or indeed the work of Dario Argento, with a few pleasant surprises. The idiosyncratic traits of the giallo film are all present and correct here, as the blood-dark tale of murder and revenge entwines rhapsodic violence with twisted beauty, art house flair with grind-house shocks.
The composer discussions his musical collaboration with the Italian master of horror.
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.
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’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.
“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.”
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.
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.
This oddball artifact from the ’80s is so bizarre it almost demands to be seen, whether it is any good or not: it’s a Spanish production that combines elements of American slasher films and the Italian giallo genre while offering more than enough sleazy graphic violence to qualify as one of the world’s all-time outrageous works of Euro-trash cinema. As a mystery-thriller, the scenario is ridiculous to the point of being amateurish, but the sick premise (a psycho-killer creating a replacement corpse in the image of his mother, assembled from the severed body parts of young female victims like the pieces of a puzzle) offers its own kind of demented fascination: you know you shouldn’t be watching this crap, but you just can’t look away. Fortunately, the gore is so far over-the-top (and in many cases so unconvincing) that PIECES achieves a sort of campy critical mass that makes it entertaining almost in spite of itself.
Set in Boston, the story begins with a young boy being chastised by his mother for assembling a puzzle picturing a naked woman; he responds by chainsawing mom into pieces, then gets away with murder by blaming an unknown assailant. Decades later, for reasons never quite explained,* a masked psycho-killer begins carving up young women on a college campus, using the pieces to recreate the image of his mother. The police arrest a suspect but the murders continue; assigning an undercover female officer also proves useless. But a young male student, initially a suspect, helps identify the killer just in time to prevent his next murder…
One unfortunately weak element of giallo cinema is the lackadaisical approach to the police procedural elements; PIECES takes this to new levels of idiocy previously unseen outside of an outright comedy; in fact, things get so bad you may find yourself suspecting that you really are watching a deliberate comedy. Here are just some of the “highlights”:
Although students are being slaughtered on campus with alarming regularity, the police want to keep things quiet, in order to avoid panic. The result is that no one knows there is a killer on the loose, so women keep walking alone after dark, making themselves easy targets.
After the chainsaw-wielding gardener (Paul Smith) is apprehended almost literally red-handed, Detective Bracken (Christopher George) laments that he has no leads. as if having a suspect in custody counts for nothing. This is before the killer strikes again, at a time when Bracken has no reason to think he has arrested the wrong man.
For no reason more than some vague kind of gut instinct, Detective Bracken exonerates another potential suspect, a male student named Kendall (Ian Sera), and invites him to help out with the investigation. (The script offers no good rational for this. Presumably, two years after DRESSED TO KILL, it was considered a good idea to have geeky young nerd heroes who solve the crime faster than the police.)
It is a good thing Kendall is available to help because the Boston police department is so short of manpower that only three officers have been assigned to the case, including a female desk jockey given her first undercover assignment named Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George). Considering the low priority assigned to this case, one wonders what other, even more heinous crimes are getting all the attention in Boston.
Although Riggs’ assignment is putting her life at risk (she is being used as bait to lure the killer), Detective Bracken immediately blows her cover by revealing her identity to Kendall – who by all rights should be a suspect.
Even if Bracken had not blown Riggs’ cover, it is doubtful she could have fooled anyone; she is ostensibly hired as a tennis coach, but the one match we see proves she is too amateurish on the court to teach anything to anybody.
While walking the campus at night, Riggs (who apparently received little training at the police academy) is surprised by a kung-fu assailant who passes out after disarming her. He turns out not to be the killer or even an accomplice but a martial arts instructor who had some “bad chop suey.”
After seeing the bloody corpse of one victim, Riggs – supposedly professional policewoman – reacts like any typical hysterical female character, shouting “Bastard!” at the top of her lungs three times. (The over-acting seems part and parcel of PIECES’ giallo heritage – those Europeans sure love melodrama.)
When the killer’s identify is finally revealed, Bracken takes Kendall along to help make the arrest. By this point the amateur’s involvement in the case is so great that you almost expect Bracken to give him a gun and deputize him on the spot.
Eventually, Bracken’s incompetence becomes so prounced that it almost works as a red herring: he seems to be deliberately sabotaging the investigation, possibly setting up Kendall to take the fall, so you start to suspect Bracken is the killer.
As if this were not enough, wait until you see the sublimely non-sensical ending, in which the assembled corpse’s hand grabs the young hero’s crotch as if emasculating him. There is also plenty of ridiculous dialogue, often delivered in hysterically bad dubbing. Christopher George (who provides his own voice in the English version) does his gruff macho thing well enough, and Purdum manages to be professional, but the supporting cast is hardly worthy of a high school stage play (check out the police officers’ reaction to findinda head in a closet – funny stuff). Even the usuallly reliable Paul Smith does little better than squinting in a way that screams, “You’re supposed to suspect me, but I’m too suspicious to really be the killer.”
Added all up, PIECES is one unintentionally hilarious movie, but it does deliver the horror; every time you think it’s going to drown in a sea of laughter, another murder takes place: heads roll, limbers are severed, and in at least one case we get a lovely lingering shot of a chainsaw carving its way through a woman’s torso. Most of the action is too silly to be taken seriously (even squeamish viewers – if they appreciate camp – can probably stomach some of the stomach-churning scenes, but every once in a while the violence hits its mark: the flash of chainsaw slicing of an arm in an elevator is shocking, and the briefly glimpsed aftermath of one victim, cut off at the waist and left in a bloody toilet stall, is effectively sickening. Gore-hounds, rejoice!
There are even a few moments whose effectiveness is not based entirely on gore (e.g., a slow-motion attack on a water-bed, while bloody, is also weirdly surreal). Also, the script follows its demented premise with a certain twisted logic, aided by editing that draws the parallel between assembling the nude puzzle and assembling the composite corpse. The film almost seems to be making some kind of statement about male sexist attitudes (e.g., depersonalizing women into nothing but an assemblage of body parts), but ultimately it is exploiting the concept rather than examining it.
Fortunately, PIECES is one of those films in which the myriad flaws become part of the entertainment value: the ludicrous plot and melodramatic acting take the edge off the misogynistic Euro-sleaze violence, and the film can be a reel hoot when viewed by an appreciate group of camp-film enthusiasts (knocking back a few rounds during the film can only increase the boisterous joy of the viewing experience). In short, PIECES is nowhere near being good, but it sure is fun.
Grindhouse has released PIECES as a two-disc deluxe edition DVD. As with their recent deluxe edition of THE BEYOND, this one comes in a clear plastic clam-shell case, so that the back of the wrap-around cover is visible through the clear plastic when the case is open, revealing a frame grab of one of the film’s most notoriously gory moments. There is a nice insert that folds out to reveal a copy of the American poster art (“You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”); it also features the original Spanish poster art, a list of chapter stops illustrated with an image of the assembled corpse, and two pages of notes from Chas. Balun. Balun’s hyperbolic raving, which approximates the enthusiasm of a revivalist preacher, captures the tone of the film; however, although he acknowledges its flaws, he soft-pedals the essential fact that PIECES is fun because it is so bad.
The DVD menus cleverly use computer graphics of a slashing chainsaw for the transitions, along with such colorful imagery as a severed hand spurting blood, while short loops of the film’s bloody action play in the background. DISC ONE offers a solid transfer of the uncut film, a trailer, some interesting audio options, optional English subtitles, and a couple Easter eggs.
There are three different soundtracks available.
You can view the film in English with library music (supplied by “CAM”) that echoes motifs from the Italian rock group Goblin’s score for DAWN OF THE DEAD (yet another link between PIECES and the Italian giallo tradition, as Goblin was best known for scoring Dario Argento films like DEEP RED).
You can watch the film with its original mono Spanish soundtrack, which features original music by Librado Pastor. This acoustic score has a certain haunting quality suggestive of the “horror of personality” genre; it’s not bad but it somewhat takes the edge off the sleazy Euro-trash feel, which is part of the film’s appeal. (The English subtitled translations of the Spanish dialogue offer several distinctions from the English dub. For example, the Spanish version tells us that the murderous little boy’s father “died in Europe” in World War II; the English dub says that dad is “away in Europe, with the air force.”)
The most unusual audio option is a 5.1 surround sound mix recording live at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood on August 24, 2002, which allows you to experience the thrill of seeing the film with a crowd full of ecstatic horror hounds. As funny as this sounds, the idea soon wears thin, as the mumbling and rustling obscures the movie’s real soundtrack, which sounds tiny – like what you used to hear out of a cheap speaker at a drive-in. On the plus side, the enthusiastic audience responses go a long way toward redeeming some of the more ridiculous moments – especially the incongruous intrusion of the martial arts instructor, whose brief walk-on prompts rounds of applause from viewers impressed with the idiocy of the scene.
There is an option that allows you to watch the Spanish version of the opening prologue, with the original title (Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche) and credits, which are interspersed throughout the sequence instead of stockpiled into one group just before the action shifts to modern day. After the prologue, the DVD shifts seamlessly to showing the rest of the Spanish-language version of the film.
There are two Easter eggs on the disc:
With “Play Movie” highlighted on the main menu, click the Up button and a chainsaw icon will appear. Clicking it takes you to a video, shot before a screening at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, of Eli Roth telling the audience not to talk back to the film because (he believes) they cannot possibly top the brilliance of the absurdity on screen. After Roth finishes citing some of running down some of his favorite illogical moments from PIECES and noting how it influenced his work, actor Clu Gulager (FEAST) shows up for a moment to express his admiration for the film’s unflinching gore.
On the menu for the Vine Theatre Experience, clicking the dot of the letter “i” in “Vine” reveals a chainsaw icon that starts a trailer loaded with graphic gore from the film. This is totally different from the official trailer, from the 1983 theatrical release, available elsewhere on the disc. That trailer consists mostly of ominous narration warning about all the horrible things that cannot be shown, illustrated with only a few seconds of footage from the film.
DISC TWO contains the bonus features (video interviews, photos galleries, cast and crew bios), plus a dozen or so trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing DVDs (e.g. CAT IN THE BRAIN, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, CANNIBAL FEROX).
The two video interviews are with director Juan Piquer and with actor Paul Smith. Both are wide-ranging, covering their entire careers, but with a fair amount of time spent on PIECES.
The Piquer interview (shot with the director sitting in a theatre with a skeleton a couple rows behind him) drags a bit as her recalls his early years, growing up, watching movies, and dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. Interest picks up when discussion turns to PIECES: Piquer recalls that he thought the premise was so crazy, it would be a challenge to make it even moderately believable.
The Paul Smith interview is the highlight of the bonus features. Smith is a lively and lovable talker, whose bright eyes and cheerful demeanor belie his threatening on-screen presence. He talks at length about his career, from MIDNIGHT EXPRESS to POPEYE to DUNE (and more), filling the conversation with plenty of amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The four galleries consist of Production Stills (behind the scenes), Pieces Publicity (theatrical posters from around the world), Video Releases (home video artwork), and Juan Piquer’s slide show. The later is actually a video interview, with Piquer commenting on some of the artwork for the film. The production stills contain some images of the graphic mayhem, including disturbing shots of a dead pig trussed up athletic shorts (matching those worn by the female victim on screen) for a shot of the chainsaw slicing into flesh.
The Cast & Crew entries are more interesting than most seen on DVDs. Besides biographies and filmographies, several of the titles contain links to access trailers or, in some cases, further interview snippets from Piquer and Smith, talking about specific films. This is one case where you will want to go through each entry carefully, so as not to overlook any of the goodies.
PIECES hardly seems like the kind of film worthy of a “deluxe edition,” but the Grindhouse double-disc DVD is surprisingly entertaining, even for someone not particularly enamored of splatter films. It presents the movie in all its gory glory, along with some good bonus features, particularly the Paul Smith interview, which is worth watching whether or not you are a fan of the actor’s work. PIECES (a.k.a. Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche[“The Night Has a Thousand Screams”], 1982). Directed by Juan Piquer Simon. Written by Dick Randall and “John Shadow” (Joe D’Amato). Cast: Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Frank Bana, Edmund Purdom, Ian Sera, Paul Smith, Jack Taylor, Gerard Tichy, May Heatherly, Hilda Fuchs, Isabel Luque. FOOTNOTE:
The closest we get to an explanation is a scene of the first victim riding her skateboard into a collision with a mirror – which apparently reminds the killer of the mirror his mother smashed while scolding him.
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.
LastHouse 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.
TheBird 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.
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.
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.
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.
Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumagein 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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.)