'Dr. Strange' Movie "Sooner"?

STRANGE TALES_110In a brief video interview at NY Comic Con this weekend, Marvel’s Kevin Feige said we may see a DOCTOR STRANGE movie “sooner rather than later”.
Not committing to any time frame, he said he would “love to see” a ‘Doc Strange’ movie “be part of phase two”—presumably meaning the films planned for post-AVENGERS filming ,such as IRON MAN 3, and other Disney-produced and distributed fims.
At the present, Paramount Pictures reamains  involved in the Marvel Studios’ productions, if only on the back end.  
A script by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer has been completed (based on the character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), though it’s unknown if this version is going foward.
No director or lead actor are attached as yet, although Patrick Dempsey (GREY’S ANATOMY) has expressed interest in playing the role.
(Via IGN)

Ultra Maniac, Fantasy Anime Online

UltraManiacViz Media tells us that ULTRA MANIAC debuts today on iTunes, Hulu, and VIZAnime.com
ULTRA MANIAC is based on the shojo manga of the same name also published by VIZ Media.

The popular Ayu meets transfer student Nina, who’s got a bit of an odd personality. They become fast friends though, and Ayu soon discovers Nina’s secret – she’s a witch that came from the Kingdom of Magic to study abroad!

Episodes of the first part of season one (13 episodes total) will be available Download-To-Own from iTunes for $1.99 each and Download-To-Rent for $0.99 each; season one part two will be available beginning December 6th.
As a enticement, VIZ is making  Episode 1 is available to download for FREE until November 23rd!
VIZAnime.com and Hulu will both be streaming episodes 1-5 for free, and 2 new episodes will launch each Monday.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Spoilerific Review

harry_potter_and_the_half_blood_prince_potter-_poster2WARNING: If you hate spoilers, do not read this review. If you want to see the new HARRY POTTER film without knowing what happens, do not read this review. If you do not want the entire plot, from beginning to end, totally revealed before you even buy your ticket, do not read this review. In fact, don’t even glance at this review or ask your friend to read it for you and tell you about it. Much as we hate to risk ruining your enjoyment of the fantasy film blockbuster, due to the intricate – indeed, one might say, labyrinthine – plotting (or is that plodding?) of  its scenario, there is no way to discuss HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE without delving into a detailed discussion of the various plot developments, twists, and revelations. We will address these points beneath a microscope, examining them with minute attention and teasing out all their subtle implications. So, having been fully warned, you may now proceed – but only at your own risk.
Here, then, is our full-blown, no-holds-barred, spoilerific examination of every significant plot point made in the new POTTER film:
Voldemort hid a piece of his soul in a locket, and Severus Snape kills Dumbledore.
That’s it, ladies and gentlemen – this marks the end of our full-blown, no-holds-barred, spoilerific examination of every significant plot point in the new POTTER film. Thank you and good night!
What…? You’re still here? Why, what’s wrong? Oh, you have questions. You, in the back – yes, you with your hand up – what did you want to ask? … Okay, I’ll repeat the question for those who couldn’t hear it:

Is that all?

Yes, believe it or not, that is all there is to HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. I suppose one might include the revelation of the Half-Blood Prince’s identity, but it has so little significance to the outcome of events that it feels more like an after-throught than a plot point.
Anybody else? Yes, you in the front…. Again, I’ll repeat the question for the benefit of the rest of the audience.

How did they stretch that out to over two-and-a-half hours?

Good question. Unfortunately, the only precise and accurate answer requires a grasp of higher mathematics involving the space-time continuum, illuminating an as-yet controversial theory positing that infinitesimally small bits of information can, under the right circumstances, expand to occupy infinitely large swaths of time, at a ratio approximately equal to Einstein’s famous E=MC2.
Any more questions? You, on the side, in the shadows. What was HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE about, you say?
Well, it was about two-and-a-half hours too long. Sorry about using that old joke, I couldn’t resist.
Seriously, folks, the new HARRY PLODDER picks up where the old one left off. Which is to say that, although the Voldemort has definitely hit the fan – extending its reach even to the Muggles world – everyone pretty much goes about their business as usual. Sure, Harry may worry a bit, but his friends are more concerned with sorting out their romantic entanglements.
Even the faculty at Hogwarts seems barely engaged by the looming storm on the horizon. You’d think Dumbledore would be battening down the hatches and raising an army; instead, he takes Harry Potter on an extended field trip to track down that missing piece of Voldemort’s soul.
Why Harry instead of a crack team of ninja-assassin magicians trained for the challenge of facing whatever evil may be encountered? Well, you see it’s because Harry Potter is special. We know this because people have told him he is special and he is now telling everyone else that he is the chosen one. We never see any evidence of this; it is simply assumed, because he is the title character and all.
Anyway, Harry Potter is not really special enough to accomplish anything important in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, but he does give his friend some badly needed confidence by fooling him into thinking he’s taken a “lucky” potion. Ironically, it is these little character bits that are the main joy of the film. As the cast has grown older, they have matured into their roles. The tug of their heartstrings as they try to sort out their changing feelings toward each other, which include confusing stirrings of romance, are nicely rendered, in a way that would do justice to any mainstream drama.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to fill a feature-length fantasy film, which turns out to be surprisingly short on the most essential ingredient: a Sense of Wonder. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, like its filmic predecessors, is all about playing it safe – and more important, playing to the base. Take the novels, put on scream with as much craftsmanship as money can buy, and leave the artistry to low-budget independent films. From a box office standpoint, one can hardly argue with Warner Brothers’ strategy, but it is leaving us with some big, bloated, pretty, but very empty confectionary.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
With Hogwarts at her mercy, Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) confnes herself to inflicting minor fire damage.

Forget about art. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE can’t even deliver an engaging story with some exciting narrative momentum. It’s not about satisfying the audience; it’s about stringing them along, giving them just enough to keep them coming back for the next film. If anything were to actually happen, that might upset the applecart. (As one of my astute movie-going companions said after the screening, “It was okay, but it didn’t go anywhere!”) Thus we have a third act in which a group of villains breach the security of Hogwarts and, after Dumbledore’s death, instead of launching into a full-blown climactic battle, they break some stained glass, burn down an out building, and then leave, so that our heroes can regroup for the next movie. It’s amazing that a film that so carelessly disregards the dictates of good storytelling can be so successful; I guess one must never under-estimate the significance of a pre-sold audience.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009). Directed by David yates. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J. K. Rowling. Cast: Daniel Radcliff, Michael Gambon, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Helana Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Dave Legeno, Elarica Gallagher.

The Illusionist (2006) – Retrospective Borderland Review

Director Neil Burger effectively evokes a sense of mystery and magic, but the plot grinds too methodically to match the dazzle of the title character’s on-stage illusions.

At the turn of the 20th century, movies and magic were one and the same, thanks to early pioneers like magician-turned-filmmaker George Milies. Cinema was a modern magic lantern show, an almost mystical experience that conjured the illusion of form and movement where no substance existed. Not only could movies convey an absent reality, but – as Milies discovered – they could also create their own reality through camera tricks that changed a bus into a hearse, expanded a man’s head a dozen times its normal size, or (in the case of the 1902 short film) depicted A TRIP TO THE MOON.
Movies about magic are another matter – as Milies also discovered, when he tried simply filmming one of his magic performances. Placing the medium of camera-projector-screen in between the audience and the action destroyed the immediacy of the performance; the amazement that an illusion had been performed right before your very eyes was lost. Ironically, movies – which seemed magical in and of themselves – could take the esoteric and render it prosaic.

THE ILLUSIONIST’s writer-director Neil Burger seems aware of both the potentials and pitfalls of merging movies with magic. He works extraordinarily hard to presents his film’s illusions in a manner appropriate to the story’s period setting (a period that suggests Milies, even if the film never explicity evokes him). At one point, Burger even has his characters display a flickering few seconds of silent footage as an example of how a ghostly on-stage illusion may have been accomplished. The effect underlines – rather than undermines – the magic, impressing us with the skill and ingenuity used to dazzle audiences in the days before computer-generated movies. (Thankfully, the use of CGI is mostly proscribed here, although there is an unfortunate lapse or two.)
The result is a film that effectively seeks to evoke a sense of mystery, luring us into the illusion and challenging us to accept it – or deny it if we can. It is a good gambit, and it might have worked wonderfully as a half-hour television show; however, it stretches a little thin at feature length, as the mechanics of the plot grind too methodically to match the dazzle of the title character’s on-stage illusions.
Ed Norton stars as Eisenheim, a magician whose childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel) is apparently murdered by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim accuses the Prince, but the semi-corrupt police, in the form of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giametti) do not have the clout to arrest royalty, so Eisenheim stages a series of shows in which he seems to recall the dead woman’s spirit to the land of the living, where she makes veiled pronouncements that the suspicious populace interpret as accusations against Leopold, creating a political controversy. But is Eisenheim truly capable of raising the dead, or is it merely an illusion to attack the man he blames…?
THE ILLUSIONIST plays like a mystery-thriller in historical garb. The production design and cinematography capture the period wonderfully, but the intriguing premise is wrapped in a scenario that is neither very mysterious nor tremendously thrilling. The result is interesting enough to hold your attention without reaching the critical mass that pays off in a way to make you feel your interest has been completely rewarded.
[MINOR SPOILER] Perhaps the major problem is that the plotting is too contrived in its attempts to keep the auidence guessing while springing surprises on them. Even so, you need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the solution to this puzzle. Unlike a good magician, the filmmaker’s slight-of-hand is a bit to blatant with the details of the murder (we see Sewell storming after Biel, but we do not see him kill her, leaving skeptical viewers to wonder why something so important took place off screen – draw the obvious conclusion, and the mystery is solved).[END SPOILER]
Fortunately, the cast supply their own sort of magic, which almost sustains THE ILLUSIONIST, even if the story does not. Sewell is his usual professional self, turning in a subtle performance that makes Leopold interesting even as we grow to dislike and despise him. The big surprises are Biel and Giametti. Although a great actor, Giametti seemed too modern to work in a period setting; nevertheless, he pulls it off wonderfully (his expression at the end, as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place via a montage of flashbacks, helps sell what is otherwise a routine twist). Even more amazing is Biel, whose previous work (in junk like BLADE: TRINITY) gave us no reason to expect anything at all; she makes a thoroughly appealing and convincing love interest, when one would have expected her to come across like a girl playing dress up in old-fashioned clothing.
Norton gives another variation on his standard characterization: the tough guy who knows the score and is not too humble to let you know he knows it. It works in this context, because Eisenheim is playing a dangerous game, trying to bring down a prince in a time and a place where law and order exist only to serve the powerful. However, his all too apparent strength of will also weakens the suspense. There is no crack in Eisenheim’s armor, no Achilles Heel that makes us think he may overplay his hand and lose, making the conclusion of THE ILLUSIONIST a forgone one.
THE ILLUSIONIST is filled with mystery and magic. What it lacks is solid drama. The early childhood scenes, establishing the relationship that will re-ignite as romance in adulthood, are long-winded and treacly, and the first act takes its time setting up the situation before moving to the murdery-mystery plot. (Perhaps sensing this, the film begins in media res, to catpure our attention, before backtracking to the exposition.)
When Eisenheim finally sets his skills on bringing down the Prince, the story realizes more of its potential. But for all its magic, THE ILLUSIONIST is missing one big spark: the love story at its heart is undermined by the early disapperance of Biel’s Sophie, the character reduced to little more than a plot device (in the same way that Dirty Harry or Axel Foley needed to lose a friend/partner in order to motivate them to track down the crooks). You simply cannot create a tragic romance along the lines of ROMEO AND JULIET, if Juliet is is not around after the first act.
THE ILLUSIONIST (2006). Directed by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Neil Burger, based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Milhauser. Cast: Edwward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski

Suspiria (1977) – A Nostalgia Review

SUSPIRIA was one of those films I missed the first time around. When it hit U.S. screens in 1977, I found the advertising campaign decidedly uninteresting; for some reason, it suggested a schlocky gore movie to me. Not that I was opposed to explicit horror: I had been sneaking into R-rated movies like THE EXORCIST since 1973, but I had to feel there was something more than just mindless mayhem to get me into the theatre. The largely negative review in Cinefantastique magazine, which called the film “hackneyed in concept, but experimental in form,” was not enough to change my mind, but it did inspire me to check out SUSPIRIA when it played on cable television. That was the beginning of my life-long love affair with the work of Dario Argento, which continues to this day, thanks to the art house release of THE THREE MOTHERS this weekend.

In retrospect, I was of the perfect age and temperment to enjoy Argento’s garish, overblown, and thoroughly ear-splitting horror film. A film student, I loved cinema in general, but I especially loved films that utilized the form to its fullest extent. In Argento, I saw a sort of Italian equivalent of Brian DePalma, a filmmaker eager to employ every device at his command in order to achieve an effect on the audience. Argento did not utilize any of DePalma’s split-screen tricks, but there were similar lengthy tracking shots meant to pull you psychologically into the world of the movie; there was an over-powering rock-n-roll soundtrack (by Goblin), just as there had been in DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1975); and of course, PHANTOM’s young ingenue, Jessica Harper, played the lead in SUSPIRIA.
I had little patience with people of more conventional taste, who preferred subtlety and complained that excessive technique was distracting, distancing one from the drama, reminding the viewer that he was watching a movie. For me, this was the whole point. I knew I was watching a movie, and no amount of “subtlety” (for me, a synonym for a prosaic, unimaginative style) was going to convince me otherwise. I reveled in SUSPIRIA’s artificiality, in the outrageous art direction and unbelievable lighting schemes.
Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) take a taxi to the dance academy - an example of the film's artificial lighting schemes.From the very first reel, the taxi ride from the airport, I knew I was seeing something special, when the passing streetlights were conveyed not with alternating light and darkness but colors shifting from red to green. It was a bold gambit: immediately challenging the viewer with the obvious artificiality, announcing that what they were seeing made no pretense to verisimilitude. No, I was seeing a film in which the director had pulled out all the stops (post-SPINAL TAP, we would say he turned the amplifier up to 11), flooding the screen with sound and color – a rich, overwhelming experience that explored some of the farthest reaches of what cinema could achieve when unleashed from conventional boundaries.
One scene that particularly won me over involved the death of a blind pianist, walking home one night with his seeing-eye dog. The dog senses something, and the man cries out, “Who’s there?” For several minutes, nothing really happens. Argento builds the scene by editing back and forth between the man, his dog, and the stark facades of the buildings surrounding them, while the screeching soundtrack attempts to pulverize the audience’s nerves. The idea of extending a moment through editing was intriguing – creating a sense of anticipation not through action but through the juxtaposition of images suggesting something about to happen.
I was also amused by the way the scene quotes from the English horror film NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (known as BURN, WITCH, BURN in the U.S.). Near the end of that wonderfully suggestive film (also about witches operating in secret in an academic setting), a man outside a university sees the oversized statute of an eagle, atop the building, come to life and take flight, attacking him. In SUSPIRIA, Argento deliberately tilts up one building, revealing the statue of a gryphon. After cutting in for a closer shot, he cuts to a reverse angle, and the camera swoops down – accompanied by the fluttering of wings – upon the blind man.


The effect suggests that the statue has come to life, but subsequent long shots reveal it is still atop the building where it was first seen. Then what was that fluttering sound? What point of view was being shown as the camera swooped down? Was it some kind of invisible demonic force, somethign that resided within the statue? While I was still working out the answer to that question, the blind man’s dog turned on him and tore out his throat! I had to give Argento credit for taking me totally by surprise. The visual reference to one of my favorite films had me expecting danger from above. Little did I expect that death would come from below, not from an enemy but from man’s best friend. What an excellent piece of misdirection!
This scene was also at least partly responsible for Argento’s reputation as a filmmaker who did a poor job of handling basic story points. What did the scene contribute to the plot? In fact, why did the man die at all? Later in the film, we learn that witchcraft is afoot, and we are told that witches can use their power to destroy those who offend them, for whatever reason.  The death was obviously a set piece, thrown in for its own sake, and I simply assumed the blind man had somehow or other offended the coven living in the dance academy. Only years later would I learn the specific reason.
I was not completely blown away by my first viewing of SUSPIRIA. I was – and still am – dedicated to the position that you have not really seen a movie until you have seen it in a theatre. The television experience simply could not overwhelm me in the way that the film intended to, but enough of the impact survived to make me want to see SUSPIRIA on the big screen at the earliest opportunity. Back in the days before home video had decimated the repertory theatre business, this was not an impossible dream. Not too many months passed before the film showed up at the old Cameo Theatre, a dilapidated flea pit on Broadway in Los Angeles.
The Cameo was one of many old theatres in the downtown area, but it lacked the faded elegance of the Orpheum, the Los Angeles Theatre, or the Million Dollar Theatre (the later is the one seen across the street when Sebastian meets Pris in BLADE RUNNER). These other three theatres were relic from an earlier era – movie palaces that had once offered a fashionable, luxurious cinema-going experience – before shifting demographics and changing economics turned them into de facto museums. The Cameo, I suspect, was always a dump: there were no magnificent balconies, no elaborate decor, no carved pillars, no painted murals. It was really barely one step away from being a large auditorium.
Typically, the Cameo played quadruple bills of second run movies, at discount prices. I don’t think the marquee listed the titles (you had to walk up to the box office window to see them), and there was definitely no list of screening times. I suspect that most of walk-in customers simply bought a ticket and took their chances, walking into the middle of whatever film happened to be playing.
Of course, I had called ahead to get the correct starting time. I was too cheap to pay for parking in those days, so I parked literally miles away (there were no nearby streets without parking meters) and hoofed my way over, along with a fellow film student. After buying our tickets, we entered the dark realm of the inner theatre, which gave a pretty decent impression of what the outer circles of hell must resemble: there was a foul stench, incessant rustling, dark shapes silhouetted against dim lights, and the constant murmur of lost souls. From previous experience at the Cameo, I knew that this last sound was the multi-lingual audience translating the English dialogue into their native tongues for the benefit of their non-English-speaking companions.
Then the trailers and previews finished, and SUSPIRIA began.
As fun as the film had been on television, the expanded visual and audio achieved a much more awesome impact on the big screen. Although the projection and sound quality were far from the best, the audience was completely into the movie. The artsy effects and complete lack of realism did nothing to dampen their appreciation of the horror on screen. The sound may not have been six-channel Dolby stereo, but it was louder and more pulse-bounding than it could have been from my television speaker, and it figuratively rocked the house.
The show-stopping set-piece from the film's first reel: the victim is about to plunge through the breaking glassThe famous first murder was stunning. It must be a trick of memory or perception, but the shot of the unfortunate victim, crouched and wounded as a hand shoots into frame with a knife, gave me a sense of vertigo, as it it were off-balance, tilted. The scene goes on much longer than necessary to make its point, with a female victim pushed face first through a piece of glass, then repeatedly stabbed to death (including a glimpse of her beating heart), and finally hanged, her body dropping through a horizontal stained glass window that showers debris on her roommate, impaling and killing her as well. The sequence elicited an awestruck whisper from my friend, who, knowing I had seen the film before, turned to ask, in all seriousness, “Is this the best horror film ever made?”
I gave a vague answer, to the effect that it contained several great set pieces. From my television viewing, I recalled that the pace was uneven, with long slow passages separating the key horror sequences. This became even more apparent on second viewing. Numerous tracking shots down long corridors (with little or no payoff) combine with dialogue of Suzy (Harper) and her friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) whispering about what may be lurking within the dance academy where the film is set, to create some uninspired longeurs. Clever camerawork adds some visual interest to these sequences, suggesting an omnipresent evil, a sort of magical alternative world of witchcraft at work even when nothing is overtly horrific happening.
In the end, however, it is not enough to sustain SUSPIRIA through its many slow scenes. The result is a film of highs and lows, worth seeing for its bravura style but falling short of the critical mass that would achieve masterpiece status. As the lights came up and we headed back to my car, my friend expressed some muted praise for the film as a whole but he was slightly disappointed since the opening reel had led him to believe he had discovered “the mother lode” of horror movies. Alas, that turned out to be not quite the case.

THE COMPLETE CUT

Since then, I have seen SUSPIRIA several more times: on home video and at least twice in theatres, including a 1990s American Cinematheque screening – part of an Argento retrospective, with Argento, actress Jessica Harper, and actor Udo Kier on hand to answer questions afterward (Argento graciously praised Harper’s contribution to the film, declaring that her smile before the final fade out “saved the movie”).* I had heard that a longer version existed, and if I eventually saw it on an imported Japanese laserdisc – once the best way to find complete versions of truncated movies. Unfortuantely, the image was pan-and-scan, if I recall; nevertheless, it was a godsend to see the film in complete form.
In the uncut version, the opening murder is even more brutal, including several more stab wounds and a clearer view of the victim’s still beating heart. The death by dog lingers even longer on the aftermath, watching as the canine rips long strands of raw flesh with its teeth. But most important, we finally learn why the blind man drew the ire of the witches in the first place.
There is a scene in which he arrives to work at the academy, leaving his dog outside. Moments later, a furious Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) burst into the dance instruction room, announcing that the dog has bitten someone, who had to be taken to the hospital. She fires the pianist, who is outraged at the accusation against his dog. Leaving, he announces that, although blind, he is not deaf, implying that he knows some dark secret about the academy. From this, we can conclude that the coven took action both to silence the man and to punish the dog that had attacked one of their own.
The stark white-on-black lettering of the original - a contrast to the garing The other significant difference between the complete version and the U.S. cut is that the U.S. distributor (20th Century Fox, working through a subsidiary label) changed the opening title card. Instead of stark white letters on black background, the theatrical prints in America featured the word “Suspiria” spelled with pinkish “breathing” letters that looked a bit like mutant lungs. Although absurd (movie audiences typically laughed out loud at the sight of them), at the time I thought they had a certain charm. Now I’m glad to see the film, including titles, as Argento intended.

REAPPRAISAL

The restoration of SUSPIRIA to its uncut form heightened the already over-the-top impact and clarified a major plot point, yet over the years the film has somewhat dimmed for me. I still enjoy the aural-visual assault, but I find myself more quickly losing patience with the slower passages.
Also, after seeing the work of Mario Bava (Argento’s forefather in the field of Italian horror), SUSPIRIA no longer seems quite as innovative as it once did. In films like THE WHIP AND THE BODY and KILL, BABY, KILL, Bava had already explored the possibilities of artificial lighting schemes, using wild color palettes to create atmosphere and suggest the characters’ psychological states, regardless of the apparent light sources on screen. It would be fair to see that Argento took this approach at least two steps further with SUSPIRIA (and with its follow-up INFERNO).
Unfortunately, Argento borrowed something else from Bava: a predilection for spooky vignettes that lead nowhere. Bava’s WHIP AND THE BODY, in particular, feels like a half-hour story padded out with endless scenes of characters walking down dark corridors; the beauty of these scenes cannot conceal their dramatic paucity (which might be forgivable) but also their lack of a horrific payoff. Seldom do characters discover anything frightening at the end of those long corridors; the point of the scenes seems to be the journey, not the destination. In a similar manner, SUSPIRIA features numerous shots lingering over the dance academy’s architecture in an effort to create atmosphere and suggest that the house is a repository of evil.
There is also a Bavaesque moment when, after Suzy and Sarah listen to the footsteps of the academy’s staff descending into some unknown part of the building, the camera takes us on a brief trip through the corridors. It is a nice little moody sequence, but the payoff is almost literally nothing: the camera dollies into a darkened, empty room; then cuts to a zoom in on the moon, as a seque to the next scene (the death of the blind pianist). In retrospect, it becomes clear that the camera was following the path that the staff took to their lair; one might even conclude that the death in the following scene is actually a result of rites and incantations that the staff are performing in their lair. Nevertheless, we are still left with a pretty piece of film-making that lacks visceral impact and also fails to elicit a shudder of anticipation. Argento no doubt wants to tease us with the mystery of what is lurking behind the scenes, but as an evocation of Freud’s “Primal Scene,” this sequence falls far short of similar scenes in Roger Corman’s Poe films (an apparent influence on Argento), which frequently featured characters confronting locked doors that hid terrible secrets.
Sara (Stefania Casini) hides from a killer - one of many scenes in which the suspense of slowly paced action is enhanced by Goblin's music.One element that helps push SUSPIRIA past its slow points is the soundtrack by Goblin (inexplicably renamed “The Goblins” in the film credits). This four-piece rock group (keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums) provided both entrancing musical motifs and almost avant garde aural assault. Most of the score is built around a repeating 14-note theme, played in 6/8 time, that suggests a demented fairy tale, effectively conveying the magical quality of the film. Many of the uneventful scenes are scored with whispering voices (titled “Sighs” on the soundtrack album); in a stero mix, the effect powerfully suggests unseen evil forces at work. The murder scenes are enhanced with jangly acoustic guitars; shrill, overlapping vocals; and pounding timpani drums. At times the music is discordant, almost atonal; it may not be a pleasant listening experience, but it adds the perfect punch to Argento’s visual excess – far more effectively than a conventional orchestral score could hope to do.
Though not known for providing in-depth characters, Argento cast his film well; his performers are, fortunately, interesting to watch, even if their roles are underwritten. Harper is the perfect picture of innocence; given little or no personality to work with, the actress uses her personal appeal to hold attention, so that we identify with her as we identify with the undefined heroes of fairy tales. Joan Bennett (known to fans of DARK SHADOWS) probably was not proud of appearing in a violent horror film (her last big screen appearance to boot), but she brings all her professionalism to the role of the academy’s head mistress, Madam Blanc. And Alida Valli (a popular character actress at the time) is perfect as Bennett’s right-hand woman; her stiff body language and sharp manner of speech (regardless of the dubbing) carve an entertaining characterization out of almost literally nothing.
The simplicity of characterization reflects the film’s fairy tale trappings. SUSPIRIA was conceived as a sort of violent, adult version of a story by the Brothers Grimm. Inspired by tales that co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi’s grandmother had told her (of attending a school where the faculty practised magic at night), the screenplay was originally intended to feature young girls, until the producer objected that audiences would not tolerate seeing children put in mortal jeopardy. Argento had the last laugh: although the characters are played by women in their 20s, the dialogue retains its juvenile tone, and the academy’s doorknobs are set at eye-level, so that the dance students have to reach up for them as a child would for an ordinary door.

SEEN TODAY

SUSPIRIA remains Argento’s biggest international hit, a cult favorite that many fans consider to be his best work. Having seen all of Argento’s other horror films, I would have to disagree. SUSPIRIA is a remarkable exercise in style, but Argento’s most well-realized film, as a whole, is TENEBRE, followed closely by DEEP RED. Working in the giallo format, Argento seems more adept at sustaining a film from beginning to end; his murder-mystery plots may not stand up to logical scrutiny, but they do tie the set pieces together more firmly and keep the pace moving along at an exciting clip. The virtuoso stylization seems to be more under control, crafting both suspense and shocks, without weighting the expository scenes down.
SUSPIRIA’s cult reputation has generated a backlash over the years. Many viewers are put off by the artificiality of style. Some see the simple plot and characterization not not as dramatic devices in the service of creating a cinematic fairy tale but as simple artistic failings. Even Argento fans argue about the strengths and weaknesses. There is a consensus that the film starts strong and fades, never matching its outstanding opening; some even complain that the ending is a major disappointment.
Here, I have to offer a defense. Although I have always been as knocked out as anyone else by the famous first murder (especially the more explicit, uncut version), I find the ending equally satisfying, if not nearly as terrifying. The film finally kicks into gear; the plot, having lain dormant most of the running time, actually comes to life. Most of the movie suffers from a passive protagonist, who does little but take note of the strange events surrounding her; only at the end does Suzy take action.
In some ways, Suzy is a typical Argento character, an innocent artist whose benign view of the world is shattered by a glimpse of the dark side. An American, she has come to Germany to perfect her craft: like Argento’s other artists, she is trying to create beauty, which derives from fashioning order of of chaos, from imposing man-made discipline upon nature, creating artificial structures that delight the mind with their symmetry; however, her education ends up moving in the opposite direction, revealing forces of darkness and chaos that lurk beneath the surface of our perceived reality.
Unfortunately, what separates Suzy from previous Argento protagonists is that she is not galvanized into action at the beginning of the film. Films like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (which is referenced at the end of SUSPIRIA) began with a murder, witnessed by a character who spent the rest of the plot trying to unravel the mystery; the only event Suzy witnesses is a hysterical student mumbling a few barely audible words before stumbling off into a thunderstorm. Suzy reports this to the headmistress but takes no other action. Although Alida Valli’s authoritative Miss Tanner compliments Suzy on her strong will, the young dancer spends much of the film in a lethargy that we eventually learn was induced by drugs inserted into her food.
In Madam Blanc's office, Suzy finally gets a clueIn the third act, Suzy finally wakes up. After learning that the hysterical student – who was later murdered – was convinced that the faculty were witches, Suzy throws out her drugged food. (Apparently peeved, the forces of darkness send a black bat to nip at her hair, but she easily smashes it to death with a stool.) Now able to stay awake and count the footsteps as the faculty descend to their lair, Suzy traces them to Madame Blanc’s office, where in an archetypal Argento moment, the young student suddenly realizes the significance of what she saw and heard earlier; the fragments of memory unite, and she recalls that the murdered student was saying that turning a blue iris will reveal a hidden passage.
Following the directions, Suzy, in a sense, goes down the rabbit hole, discovering the source of evil at play throughout the film. She sees Madame Blanc leading the rest of the faculty in a ceremony that suggests a blasphemous inversion of a church service, and finds herself confronting Helana Markos – a witch who survived a fire that supposedly killed her years ago. Speaking in a raspy (and frankly overdone) voice that suggests a cartoon version of THE EXORCIST, her face covered in ghastly burn marks, Helena is the “Black Queen,” who sits at the head of the coven operating in the academy.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (from Dario Argento's directing debut) makes a cameo appearance as Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) enters the lair of Helan Markos.This confrontation between ancient evil and youthful innocence is a splendid climax. The imbalance in powers between the two characters suggests a hopeless mis-match: not only can Helena render herself invisible; she can also summon the living dead (Sara, drooling blood, pins and needles poking out of her flesh and eyes). All Suzy has going for her is desperation and a make-shift weapon, the sharply pointed “feather” from the statue of a bird. (The statue suspiciously resembles the titular “Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” which figured prominently in solving the mystery of Argento’s directorial debut. The statue appears at approximately the same point, structurally, as the living bird did in the previous film.)
The coven of witches is destroyedFortunately, it is enough. Guided by good fortune – or just plain luck – plus a glimpse of the witch’s outline, Suzy is able to drive her point home, precipitating the destruction of the coven and the academy in a spectacular display of exploding objects, overturned furniture, ripping wall paper, and – at last – a cleansing fire, leaving no doubt that the vile contagion infecting the academy has been thoroughly eradicated. Suzy’s smile of relief, as she wanders from the immolating structure, is shared by the audience. As in a fairy tale like “The Three Little Pigs,” we identify with and exalt for the survival of our hero. The other characters are not believable people whose deaths we mourn; they are shadows, fragments, bits and pieces of our psyche personified on screen and wiped away so that our better self can emerge, unhampered, in the form of the character who will defeat the evil.
With its bloody violence, SUSPIRIA may not fully suppor this reading. In fact, the very nature of film, with actors playing characters, tends to subvert the nature of fairy tales, which exist more fully in the realm of the imagination, making it easier to interpret, for example, the first two little pigs as not separate entities but las ess mature versions of the third pig – that is, as stages of psychological development that will lead to the maturity necessary to survive. (See Bruno Bettelheim’s The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.)
SUSPIRIA may not resonate with the full force of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, but as an exercise in excessive style it is one of the most amazing experiences ever recorded on celluloid. A strange combination of the art house and the slaughterhouse, it may be too violent for the typical cineaste and too contrived for the typical gore-hound. Yet somehow Argento impressively straddles both worlds, offering a unique vision of magic and the supernatural that deserves its place in horror movie history.

TRIVIA

INFERNO, the 1980 sequel to SUSPIRIA, makes it clear that the trilogy (which was finally completed with MOTHER OF TEARS) is inspired by “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” an essay in Thomas De Quincey’s non-fiction book, Suspiria de Profundis, which is a sequel to his earlier Confession of an English Opium-Eater. In “Levana,” De Quincey recounts an opium-induced vision of three supernatural figures (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum), who oversea the tears of sadness, the sighs of resignation, and the darkness of despair that afflict mankind. Helena Markos, the witch ensconced in the German dance academy, is actually Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), although she is never so designated in SUSPIRIA itself (where we are told she was called “The Black Queen”). In fact, about the only obvious reference in SUSPIRIA to De Quincey’s essay is the title.

DVD DETAILS

3-disc limited edition DVDSUSPIRIA is currently available as a 2-Disc Special Edition DVD (see below), but the preferred version is Anchor Bay’s limited edition 3-Disc box set from 2001. Now out of print (some copies are still available from specialty dealers), this set contains the uncut 98-minute version of the film on Disc 1, plus theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots, a gallery of posters and stills, a music video (of former Golbin-member Claudio Simonetti’s new band, Daemonia, performing a beefed-up version of the “Suspiria” main title), and talent bios. The soundtrack features three language options: English, Italian, and French. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, so English viewers are stuck with the English soundtrack (not a bad choice, considering that is the language of the lead actress, but it would be nice to hear the Italian dialogue for a change and know what was being said). The American trailer features a campy nursery rhyme, a phony skull, and the “breathing” letters seen in the U.S. version of the film. The Italian trailer is virtually abstract: a series of still images giving no hint of the plot, while credits emphasize Argento’s name, as if his reputation alone is enough to sell the film.
Disc 2 contanis a 52-minute Suspiria 25th Anniversary documentary, featuring interviews with Argento, co-writer Daria Nicolodi, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, members of Goblin (Augostino Morangalo, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli, Claudio Simonetti), Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, and Udo Kier. This gives some pretty good insight into the inspiration for and making of the film. Hardcore fans may wish for even more in-depth detail, but what is here is well put together and even interesting enough to appeal to non-fans. Kier (who has only one brief scene in the film, as a skeptical psychiatrist) signs off by expressing a wish that he and Argento work together again – which came true six years later with MOTHER OF TEARS.
The final disc is a soundtrack CD containing three bonus tracks not found on the original vinyl release from 1977. The bonus tracks are somewhat misleadingly titled “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells),” “Suspiria (Narrator),” and “Suspiria (Intro),” implying that they are all remixes or outtakes of the main title theme. This turns out not to be the case:

  • “Suspiria (Narrator)” contains no narration; it is actually an alternate take of the track titled “Markos,” which features heavy pounding on the drums and some ripping baselines playing over a sequenced synthesizer riff.
  • “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells)” is the track that actually features narration. Keyboardist Claudio Simonetti chants non-grammatical nonsense about witches, while celesta and bells perform a subtle version of the main theme.
  • “Suspiria (Intro)” is not an intro but a new recording of main title music. Although there is no separate credit on the CD, which is attributed solely to Goblin, this version is clearly the one performed by Daemonia, as seen in the music video on Disc.

The DVD set also contains a miniature cardboard poster listing the Chapter Selections on the back, a set of nine stills printed on 7×5 matte paper; and a colorful 28-page booklet. Packed with images (including a reproduction of the original U.S. theatrical poster), the latter features an introduction by Scott Michael Bosco, an appreciation of Argento’s work by Travis Crawford, and a lengthy interview with Jessica Harper (who turned down a small role in ANNIE HALL to play the lead in SUSPIRIA).

 Sara (Stefania Casini) comes back from the dead - as a zombie controlled by Helana Markos (a.k.a. Mater Susperiorum).

SUSPIRIA (1977). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javiocoli, Eva Axen, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Jacopo Mariani, Udo Keir.
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*The American Cinematheque screening of SUSPIRIA offered evidence that the film has a cult reputation that extends beyond that of Argento’s other work. The weekend retrospective of Argento’s work was well attended, but the SUSPIRIA screening sold out so fast that an unscheduled midnight screening was added on the day of the event, and that sold out, too. The only other sell out was for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET – a film difficult if not impossible to see in the U.S., not available on VHS or laserdisc at that time. (PULP FICTION fans take note: Quentin Tarantino showed up too late to purchase a ticket.)

Practical Magic (1998) – Review

practical_magic.gifThe best you can say for this film is that everyone meant well; unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with…well, you know the rest.
Basically, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman play the latest generation in a family of witches, who have been cursed by an ancestor whose love was betrayed. Now, if either one of them falls truly in love, the object of their affection will meet a horrible fate.
That’s the premise anyway, and it sounds interesting enough, but the actually story has precious little to do with it. Instead, most of the movie is devoted to Kidman’s tarty Gillian, who gets involved with a really dangerous dude (Goran Visnjic), who causes all kinds of trouble – even after he is dead. There is an early section of the film dealing with the husband of Sally (Bullock), who gets run over by a truck. Why did she get married in spite of the curse? Because her aunts (Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing) put a spell on her. Why did the aunts put a spell on her, knowing the terrible consequences?  Because they did not expect her to fall truly in love. Huh, what? They hoped she would marry someone she did not love?
The whole films operates on this haphazard level. Whatever works for a big scene is used, whether or not it fits into the film as a whole. The result is a handful of great entertainment bits that add up to one big episodic mess, with major characters disappearing for long stretches to make room for other business to intrude.


To wrap things up, director Griffin Dunne (who really should know better, having produced some cool movies) stages a goofy exorcism with lots of computer-generated effects, but the film is too silly to support the scene as anything other than a lark – it’s a light-show, completely lacking in suspense or horror, despite all the sound and fury.
Then, for a happy finale, the witches, dress in cliche garb and fly off their roof to amuse their neighbors on Halloween. It is hard to say which is more ridiculous: the very existence of the scene or the fact that, having decided to include it, Dunne handled it in such a perfunctory manner.
For those of you wondering how the curse is finally lifted so that Bullock and Aidan Quinn can live happily ever after: it simply happens automatically, in order to provide am upbeat ending, courtesy of a voice over by Sally, admitting that she does not know how or why it happened. If nothing else, the screenwriters deserve recognition for the nerve it took to employ what must be the most outrageously lazy writer’s device in the history of cinema.
PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998). Directed by Griffin Dunne. Screenplay by Robin Swicord and Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks, from the novel by Alice Hoffman. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Goran Visnjic, Aidan Quinn, Evan Rachel Wood.