Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Phenomena (1985, Dario Argento)

Jennifer Connelly had a busy year with both Labyrinth and Phenomena, both strange films although only one is a Dario Argento horror film. This is one of the stranger Argento movies, even by his standards, because in this film Connelly’s Jennifer has the ability to communicate with insects. This ability is established early on when a bee lands on her finger and does not sting her, as if it has become her friend. Of course this film also opens with a typically horrific and startling Argento style murder, and in a way this film reminded me of Suspiria since both movies take place at boarding schools for young women. Naturally both involve the supernatural, too, something that Argento also touched upon in Inferno and some of his later movies, too.

Not only do you have horror icon Donald Pleasence playing a professor stuck in a wheelchair but you also have Argento veteran Daria Nicolodi as Jennifer’s chaperon. Plus there is even a ridiculously smart chimp named Inga, who assists Pleasence and proves to be important later on in the film. You have numerous nasty murders, Jennifer summoning up insects after the students foolishly mock her, and a cool traveling sequence where Jennifer puts her bug powers to investigative use. All set to a wicked soundtrack featuring Goblin and songs by Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Bill Wyman and Andi Sexgang. Even though some of the movie doesn’t quite work (a few of the scenes come off as silly, not magical or creepy) this is still a wonderfully eerie and well made film. Oh and I’m naturally biased in favor of movies with a monkey as one of the main characters for some reason. Perhaps they amuse me.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Opera (1987, Dario Argento)

In the grand tradition of murder and mayhem Opera stands out, even if it isn’t Argento’s best film-although I’ll take it over his animal trilogy, Inferno, and Phenomena. The main heroine, Betty (Cristina Marsillach) remains tormented during the entire movie by the famous Argento cliche: the mysterious psycho killer rampaging, horribly murdering people in unique and creative ways. Only in this case poor Betty suffers a fate worse than death: the killer takes needles and tapes them under her eyelids so that she is forced to watch the murders the killer commits. This adds to the main Argento motif of the potential victim being tortured one way or another, hunted and unable to escape.

The soundtrack is also interesting, as since the movie centers on an opera there is mostly opera music, save for jarring heavy metal songs, which are used to great effect, particularly in moments when Betty is trying to save herself from the killer. Despite this being a well crafted, freaky and haunting movie it has some limitations that prevent it from being more than just near great/very good. First, I was able to guess the killer and I have not been able to do that in any of the Argento movies I’ve viewed so far. That sucks the fun out of the movie a little, although maybe its my own fault for being a lucky guesser. Second, the movie loses something in the last act and a bit of the tension falls away. Sometimes Argento’s movies don’t sustain momentum, and in a few cases the last act isn’t as strong as the first act or the middle act.

However the majority of this film is a walking nightmare, a dark journey into madness, one that relies on eerie dreams of the past and centers on a crazed murderer’s obsession with Betty, who was able to seize an opportunity at stardom. In a way this is another film where Argento deals with his career, although the meta aspects are not half as strong as they were in his best film, Tenebre. The kills in this one are also horrifying and nasty, which is another of his trademarks and which is the hallmark of his 70s and 80s films based on what I’ve seen so far, which is almost all of his work before the 1990s. Regardless no one can craft a beautiful and awful death scene like Dario Argento.

Horrorfest 2013 Presents: Tenebrae (1982, Dario Argento)

Opening in front of a crackling fire with a narrative voice over describing an unknown person sitting and reading a novel, Tenebrae  begins in typical Dario Argento mysterious fashion. Clearly we are being shown the murder of his film, and yet the black gloves and shadow cast by the deranged psychopath are the only clues given to us, the viewer. A famous novelist named Peter Neal is the creator of the book read by the killer, and upon arriving in Rome to promote his latest book and also pen another one he is beset by threats from the murder. Early on we get a horrific and shocking kill, where a young woman is slaughtered brutally in her apartment while having pages from Tenebrae shoved into her mouth. Even by Argento standards I found the murder to be rather graphic, and illustrated the film’s bleak tone early on. Sure all of Argento’s films are that way, yet I found Tenebrae to be almost beyond the pale, and even more nasty than his other films that I’ve viewed so far (most of his 70s works and two 80s films-this one and Inferno). That’s something that makes it arguably the best out of the ones I’ve seen, and yes I’m placing this movie above his other classics Deep Red and Suspiria.

Plus the fact that in some ways this is Argento discussing his own work, or at least critiques of it, as filtered through Neal’s works. Just like Argento Neal is responsible for works that feature graphic murder, sex and violence, and in one scene Neal is even attacked by a female journalist for what she argues is his “Hatred of women.” There is also the classic scene of the seemingly tortured killer, portrayed in strange vivid flashbacks that are haunting to watch. Yet at the same time Argento puts on display his technical prowless as well in a fantastic tracking crane shot that covers an apartment building housing two women lovers who end up being attacked later on. With the theme music, as scored by the remaining members of Goblin, no less. It’s an amazing moment that feels as if you are looking over a beautiful woman, peeking into her secrets-or in this case, the windows of two females. Watching them in a voyeuristic manner, which is what the killer is doing anyways.

What especially stood out to me besides the gruesome kills was that unlike some of Argento’s other films there is little humor involved, no silly moments. This was meant to be an unflinching and completely stark portrayal of a person’s murderous rampage, reportedly inspired by the works of Peter Neal. The fact that Argento made this film after receiving threats from an unhinged fan only gives the film an added dose of realism and additional terror. Sporting one of Goblin’s best soundtracks and existing as a pure form of death onscreen, Tenebrae just could be Argento’s masterwork. Love that ending, too-absolutely bone chilling.

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