Archive for November, 2012

Human Beasts (1980)

Posted in anthropophagy, John Polidori, Paul Naschy, Spanish Horror Films, The Vampyre with tags , , , , on November 30, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Bruno is a soldier of fortune who is enlisted by a young Japanese woman named Mieko to help her and her brother Taro in a diamond heist. During the lengthy training and planning stages, Mieko and Bruno have an affair through which she becomes pregnant. Even though he professes to love her, on the day of the actual heist Bruno betrays them all and takes the diamonds. Taro and Mieko vow vengeance and attempt to hunt him down and retrieve the diamonds. During the course of their hunt, Bruno kills all of his former colleagues save for Mieko although she does wound him badly and he passes out in the woods.

Spanish lobby-card showing Alicia and Monica fighting over their guest.

In the following scene, Bruno awakes to find himself in bed, his wounds dressed and bandaged and he is surrounded by the smiling faces of his new hosts, Don Simon and his two lovely daughters, Alicia and Monica. Continually refusing any explanation of his past, they nurse him back to health and watch over him until he is fit to leave of his own accord. When he is well enough to start interacting with the family, he falls in love with Alicia and she tries to convince him to stay. He is reluctant; because he knows Mieko might still be looking for him and doesn’t want to bring any bad juju upon the family for harboring him.
He is right too as Mieko tries several times to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding the family and their rumored guest. She hires a local man who has dealings with the family to find out who is staying at the house and he in turn hires to petty criminals to go snoop around the house and see if they can’t divine who is there. Everyone who goes there, however, doesn’t return. Eventually, a frustrated Mieko goes herself and is taken down by a mysterious stranger who seems to prowl the grounds at night.

Spanish lobby-card showing a set hand pulling away another victim. Note how his forearms are a different color from the rest of his shirt sleeves. In the film the murderer is never shown in his entirety.

Finally, when Bruno is well enough to leave, he makes plans with Alicia to return soon once he settles his business with Mieko, but Don Simon and his clan have other plans for their guest…

The poster which initially confused me because of its were-pig imagery.

I enjoyed “El Carnaval de lasBestias” a/k/a “Human Beasts (1980) a lot more than I thought I would. Because of some promotional poster art I’d seen, I thought it was going to be an exploitative take on the Island of Dr Moreau, with a mad doctor creating human/animal hybrids, but it has nothing to do with that at all. However, I do not wish to give away the twist, so I’ll stop here with the plot.
As usual in a film by Paul Naschy (billed in the case as Jacinto Molina Alvarez—his real name), there are lots of naked women, some BDSM and some old school gore, but nothing too explicit. There is some dialog which might put off some people with its racist or chauvinistic overtones, but a lot of it is just cultural idioms, like the term “negra” used as an endearment for a black woman by her suitor (my grandfather used to call my grandmother “la negrita” because she was dark skinned and she didn’t used to think anything of it) and some of it is just plain 70’s ignorance and insensitivity, like when Alicia tells Bruno about a visit from Mieko whom she describes as (roughly translated here from the original Spanish, as the English subtitle is a little off) “…Chinese, or Japanese, the Orientals to me seem to all have the same face”.
There is a scene near the end where the family throws a costume/dinner party which has overtones of Poe’s madhouse farce “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”and the whole affair has echoes of Grand Guignol throughout and in the end is very satisfying even from a karmic standpoint if one is willing to make the leap.

Spanish lobbycard depicting costume/dinner party scene.

The DVD by BCI also has a short film based on John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” as well as a gallery of posters, lobby-cards and stills from the feature film.

BCI DVD of “Human Beasts”.

Dario Argento’s “Inferno”

Posted in Dario Argento, Inferno, Suspiria, Suspiria de Profundis, Thomas de Quincey with tags , , , , on November 20, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Italian poster for “Inferno” (1980).

“Inferno” (1980) is the sequel to “Suspiria” (1977) and the first of the Three Mothers Trilogy to actually delve into the concept of Our Ladies of Sorrow, which originated from the work “Suspiria de Profundis” (1845) by Thomas De Quincey.

Title page from the 1874 edition of Thomas De Quincey’s “Suspiria de Profundis”.

According to the lore of the series, there are three “Mothers”: Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Tears, Mother of Sighs, and Mother of Darkness) whose raison d’être is to benight the world through their respective powers of doom and death. These mothers approached an architect named Varelli who constructed homes for them to use as their bases of activity. For the Mater Suspiriorum he built the Tanz Akademie in Freiburg; for the Mater Tenebrarum he built the apartment building in New York, and for the Mater Lachrymarum he built a mansion in Rome, after which he disappeared and was assumed to have died.

Rose reads Varelli’s “Three Mothers”.

The story opens with a young woman, Rose Elliot, who lives alone in a sparsely tenanted apartment building in New York City. A frequent patron of the “Kazanian” bookstore next door she purchases a book there called “The Three Mothers”, by Varelli, which tells the tale of his acquaintance with the three witches and his agreement to make the three homes for them. It also leaves some cryptic clues about the buildings and their inhabitants. Intrigued, she returns to the shop after hours and tries to get the shopkeeper, Kazanian, to tell her what he knows about the book, but he is dismissive and leaves her with a weird comment before showing her out of the door “There are mysterious parts in that book but the only true mystery is that our lives are governed by dead people—good night.”

Kazanian and Rose.

Still not satisfied, she remembers a passage in the book which reads “The second key is hidden in the cellar”. This takes her on a trip into the cellar of the basement where she finds the key as well as a sunken room. Accidentally dropping the key into the water, she dives after it and sees a portrait with the title “Mater Tenebrarum”. Upon retrieving the key she is confronted with a nasty surprise floating amidst the submerged furniture and bric-a-brac. From the buzz I have seen on the Internet concerning this sequence, it seems to be legendary and much is made of how long actress Irene Miracle stayed under water (according to the interview with Argento on the “Inferno” DVD, Irene told him she had done some synchronized swimming as a young girl) as well as the skill employed in the scene’s filming.

German lobbycard depicting the underwater scene with actress Irene Miracle as Rose Elliot.

Spooked by her discovery, she bails out of the water and returns to her apartment and commences to write a letter to her brother Mark, telling him of her discoveries. This sets off the chain of events that leads to the violent demise of most of the characters in this secondary installment of Dario Argento’s “Mother Trilogy”. The rest of the film follows Mark as he tries to retrace his sister’s steps and ends up discovering the secret of the Mater Tenebrarum.

Sara and Mark follow along to the “Va pensiero” chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco”.

Although there is some attempt to bring some color to the scenes via colored filters, there are none of the lushly painted architecture of “Suspiria”; none of the velvety walls or baroque murals. All in all, it’s visually lackluster in comparison to its predecessor. Also, the soundtrack by ELP keyboardist Keith Emerson is just distracting and too damn busy most of the time. Unlike the unsettling Goblin atmospherics of Suspiria, Mister Emerson seems to be trying to place a dissonant piano concerto indiscriminately throughout the film.

Keith Emerson’s original soundtrack to “Inferno”.

There are scenes which don’t pan out, or seem superfluous, like the use of the gorgeous young woman who stares down Mark as he is trying to read his sister’s letter in his music class. Although many other online reviewers assume she is  an avatar of the Mater Tenebrarum, this isn’t even hinted at, nor does she appear anywhere else in the film.

Actress Ania Pieroni as the mysterious woman who stares down Mark as he tries to read his sister’s letter. Is she an avatar of the Mother of Darkness?

The deaths also seem contrived in a way that is hokey and not as creative as their counterparts in Suspiria, especially the deaths of Mike’s lady-friend Sara who does some snooping around of her own and, after a narrow escape from harm at a local library, barely lives long enough to rue her inquisitiveness. She and her neighbor, who agrees to sit with her for a spell so she won’t be alone, are both murdered by a mysterious attacker who puts a knife through the neighbor’s neck and stabs her to death.

Italian lobbycard showing Sara’s good intentioned neighbor, Carlo, with a knife in his neck.

The scene depicting the revelation of her corpse is so ridiculously overdone one cannot help but laugh upon seeing it. Others also die unnecessary and elaborate deaths which don’t seem to enhance the narrative at all.

Dario’s then wife Daria Nicolodi (mother of Argento’s infamous daughter Asia) also makes an appearance as the sickly countess Elise Stallone Von Adler, who befriends Mark when he responds (too late) to his sister’s request for his aid in solving the mystery she has uncovered. She is lovely, but doesn’t last long once things start rolling.

The Countess (Nicolodi) goes snooping.

The most interesting part of the story was the reveal of the true identities of Varelli and the Mater Tenebrarum, and the final scene where she turns into the personification of Death (a trick which Mario Bava apparently helped orchestrate) is truly impressive.

German lobbycard depicting the finale where Mater Tenebrarum reveals herself in the personification of Death.

All in all, Inferno is not a bad movie, per se, but definitely disappointing as a follow up to his masterpiece “Suspiria”.

Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”

Posted in Dario Argento, Giallo, Goblin band, Italian Horror Films, Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Suspiria 1977 with tags , , , , , , , on November 8, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Tribute poster by Horror-themed artist Joel Robinson featuring all of the major characters from “Suspiria”.

I have been aware of the reputation of this masterpiece of Horror cinema for at least 20-25 years, but have put off watching it because I didn’t think that I could stomach the violence. I have seen bits and pieces of it over the intervening years, but have never taken the time required to sit down with a good copy to see and judge its merits for myself—until now.

A friend of mine recently acquired several Argento titles on DVD and we have been watching them on his flat-screen TV and enjoying their weird stylistic idiosyncrasies and creative gruesomeness.  To date, I have seen “Cat o’ Nine Tails” and now “Suspiria”. “Cat o’ Nine Tails” was fun and interesting and helped introduce me to the Giallo film genre, but did nothing to prepare me for the sublime phantasmagoria of gruesomeness that is “Suspiria”.

One of the last movies to be filmed using the Technicolor process, it is a fairytale presented in a succession of nightmarish tableaus which leap off the screen in shocking primary colors. Like a nightmare, the plot is vague and full of iconic symbols and twists and turns which don’t always resolve themselves, but when all is said and done one is left with an overall impression of Argento having tapped into the sub-conscious wherein dwell the archetypal characters of the evil witch and the wicked stepmother, figures popularized by the likes of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm in their fairytales of yore.

Spanish lobbycard featuring Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) with Sara (rt, Stefania Casini) just barely in the periphery.

In this case, the stepmother is more of a surrogate mother: the matronly Madame Blanc (former Dark Shadows materfamilias, the glamorous Joan Bennett), the Vice Directress of the Tanz Akademie, where our young heroine Suzy has traveled to study dance, but other things are afoot at the academy and two students are brutally murdered on the night of Suzy’s arrival and the staff seem strangely reticent to talk about it.

Italian lobbycard featuring the aftermath of the introductory murders of the fleeing student and her friend.

While most of her fellow students prefer to keep their mouths shut about the weird events happening at, or around the vicinity of the school, Suzy is not afraid to speak up and question the administration over their inaction in handling the situation, other than just leaving everything to the police and going on with business as usual. This puts the spotlight on her as odd events begin to happen to her seemingly conspiring to keep her sick, delirious, and where the staff can keep tabs on her.

German lobbycard showing Suzy surrounded by the school staff as she is attended to by the local doctor after her fainting spell in dance class.

After swooning and collapsing on the dance floor during her first lesson, she is taken to a room in the dormitory, which she had initially decided against doing (much to the chagrin of Madame Blanc) where she is fed a special diet and made to drink a full chalice of red wine so thick it almost looks like blood before retiring for bed. In her moments of lucidity, she begins to believe that she is being drugged to keep her from snooping around at night, and so she starts flushing her meals down the toilet. Armed with information and observations collected by her dorm neighbor Sara, who eventually “disappears” in a disturbing scene involving a room full of baling wire, Suzy begins to aggressively investigate the weird goings on at the school and the rumors surrounding the teachers extracurricular activities, especially the school founder and directress, Helena Marcos.

Promo pic featuring Sara falling into a storage room filled with razor sharp baling wire.

The remainder of the film is basically a series of elaborately staged murders by a mystery killer who is never quite seen outright, although once in a while a pair of bare, hairy arms is visible committing the respective crimes. In the first death scene a pair of eyes is also seen outside of a window, but the rest of the face is obscured by a dark shadow, the shape of which insinuates an executioner hood.

The murders are all elaborate and artfully staged with the camera lingering over each garishly lurid detail. As ghastly as some of the scenes are, one cannot help but admire the beauty in their execution (pun intended). Some seem gratuitous, like the murder of the school pianist, and some don’t make sense, like the death of the young woman at the beginning of the film who allows her friend to stay with her when she tries to flee the school after divining their dark secrets: how did she end up dead in the lobby when she was banging on hallway doors as her companion was being strung up from the skylight? Was it witchcraft? I believe that is the reason why the murderer is never shown, because it is an evil emissary of the Black Queen, but that is only my humble opinion and there is nothing in the film which blatantly depicts this. Even so, how else would a killer be able to hover outside of a bedroom window several stories high without being suspended from a rope and thus plain to the eye when the victim peered into the darkness which lay on the other side of the glass? But I digress…

The fey Pat enlists the aid of a lamp to see if she can spot the source of the disturbance outside of the window.

The sets are also fascinating to look at although in any other forum they would probably be considered ostentatious with art-deco buildings painted in bright primary hues sporting colorful multi-paneled stained glass skylights and windows and every room painted a different color.  In one bedroom a section of M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water 1” (1938) is reproduced throughout the midsection of the wall. In fact, there is even a street sign for “Escher Strasse” in one of the scenes, which could be a fortuitous coincidence or a subliminal tribute to the artist. In another scene, several of Aubrey Beardsley’s 1893 illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” adorn partition screens in a room which contains a mural full of Beardsley-esque curlicues and adornments. In the dormitory hall, which is painted a deep red color, art nouveau window treatments top every bedroom doorway, and baroque murals appear in various lounges. It is almost too much for the eye to take in and this creates a sense of unease and artificiality which lends to the dreamy quality of the pace.

Art Deco lobby of the building where the first murders take place.

Miss Tanner receiving Suzy into the Tanz Akademie; notice the blue velvet walls.

Girl’s Dormitory hallway with red walls and Art Nouveau window treatments in the doorways.

Now, even with my limited experience in the Giallo genre, I did see some similarities to Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), which, historically speaking is the first really significant Giallo picture. Argento conspicuously does not mention it once in the interview on the DVD bonus disc from Blue Underground, and instead sites Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” as the major influence on the look and color scheme of “Suspiria”. That may be, but I think he is perhaps at the very least subconsciously in debt to Mr. Bava as well. Not only are they both landmark pictures in the genre which make heavy use of color filters et al, but they both take place in places where there are plenty of gorgeous young ladies to kill; the former takes place in a modeling agency while the latter unfolds at a dance school. It is also interesting to note that Argento enlisted the help of both Mario Bava and his son Lamberto for the Suspiria sequel, “Inferno” (1980).

A scene from Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” (1964). Notice the red mannequin to the left with the black wig. Possibly an omen of things to come, she figures prominently in the background of several scenes in the movie.

Speaking of young women, Argento supposedly wanted to have his stars all cast between the ages of 8-10 years old, but the producers wouldn’t have it, so he got the youngest adults he could hire between the ages of 16-20 and had them act very childlike gossiping and fighting like children as in the scene which introduces Suzy to her new classmates. Olga, a lovely brunette with fulsome lips and long black hair, sidles alongside Suzy and Sara who seem to be getting cozy together, and she says “Suzy…Sara…I once read that names which begin with the letter ‘S’ are the names of snakes! Ssssss!” This prompts Sara to stick out her tongue as they go back and forth hissing and mugging at one another with Suzy stuck between them looking bemused and bewildered.

Left to right: Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) in the infamous “Snakes!” scene.

Another trick to make the girls seem younger was the tactic of putting door handles at face level so the girls would have to reach up to open the doors, thus giving the illusion that they were smaller.

Suzy enters the room of the Black Queen.

When petite and doe-eyed Suzy goes to confront whatever evil lies beyond the secret door, she seems so tiny and frail, but she is also spunky and determined and rises to the challenge when she finally meets the school directress, Helena Marcos, the wicked witch of our tale.

Rare frame featuring Suzy stabbing the witch, which is not actually shown in the final cut of the film.

Lastly, I almost forgot to mention the harrowing soundtrack by Italian prog-rockers Goblin, which relentlessly rattles and sweeps throughout the film. Their inspired use of bouzouki, celesta and percussion with interspersed vocal whispers provide an unsettling aural landscape that compliments the jarring nature of the visuals and helps maintain the tension which permeates the atmosphere for the film’s duration.

French pressing of the original soundtrack by Goblin.

In fine, although its merits lie more in the visual aspect of the film and less on the plot, I do believe that “Suspiria” deserves its place among the great masterpieces of Italian Horror cinema.