My Colors Are Hot Like Fresh Blood: An Appreciation of “The House with the Laughing Windows”

Ciao, bambini! I know I’ve been writing more about newer movies recently with my Hulu Horror Double Feature series, so I figured it was about time to return to the decade that spawned most of my favorite films, the funky fly 70s, and also delve a bit deeper into that rich vein of goodness that is the Italian giallo genre.

I’ve written about Italian movies before (Suspiria, The Psychic, House of Clocks), and I even wrote a short overview of the history of the giallo film, in which I happened to mention the movie I want to talk about today, which is right here with English subtitles, if you want to watch along:

1976’s The House with the Laughing Windows (aka La casa dalle finestre che ridono), aside from its completely rad title, is considered a classic of the genre, even though many of the more lurid, baroque elements present in the better-known giallo films of Dario Argento and others are notably absent. Directed by Pupi Avati, the movie actually bears some resemblance to Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, as well as the restrained but unsettling vibe of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In other words, it’s actually more of a low-key mystery than a straight horror film, and as such it might be a tad too ponderous for some, but it does feature a subtle sense of dread as a constant undercurrent, and the final few minutes are fantastic.

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In brief, art expert Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is summoned to a small village in rural Italy to restore a fresco of St. Sebastian on a wall of the town church. The rather macabre painting was done by a local artist named Legnani (Tonino Corazzari), who committed suicide two decades before and is known around town as the “painter of agony,” because he preferred to depict his subjects in terrible pain or in the final moments before their death. Stefano tries to get to work on the restoration, but to a man, every townsperson seems secretive and vaguely hostile, and someone keeps calling Stefano at his hotel, warning him against altering the fresco. The only friendly faces are Stefano’s longtime friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who mysteriously dies before he can tell Stefano what he knows about the painting, and a new schoolteacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), who arrived on the same ferry as Stefano did. Stefano and Francesca quickly become entangled, and their budding relationship constitutes a significant facet of the plot as it moves toward the discovery of the town’s secrets.

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Despite its rather subdued narrative, The House with the Laughing Windows does boast many of the hallmarks of a stereotypical giallo: The protagonist is thrust into a mystery he becomes obsessed with solving, there are numerous red herrings which are never explained, there is a somewhat dreamlike logic at work surrounding certain plot points, and the heart of the mystery deals with madness and sexual deviance (though any actual sex in the movie is generally implied rather than shown). Additionally, the house with the laughing windows itself serves as something of a metaphor for the plot, signifying as it does a decay of happiness, a loss of innocence, a hole of insanity that sucks in everyone in the vicinity. More historically-astute reviewers than I have also noticed the film’s inferred references to shame about Italy’s fascism during the war; this isn’t really relevant to the conventions of the giallo, but I thought I’d mention it here, as the subtext does elevate the film above lesser examples of the genre.

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Where the movie differs from better-known giallo films is in the absence of the trademark black-gloved killer, the unerotic nature of the murders (there is one rape preceding a murder, but it is not really shown, and the other murders are simply workmanlike and not fetishized), and the dearth of any particularly Grand Guignol moments like you’d see in many other typical gialli.

That said, the ending is fairly shocking and grotesque, especially since the rest of the movie is so slow-moving and understated. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the final reveal of one of the troublemakers, and in light of the mystery’s resolution I’m not entirely certain why the townspeople behaved the way they did toward Stefano, but these are minor quibbles that contributed to the Polanski-esque feeling of paranoia that pervaded the whole enterprise, so I’m willing to forgive the inconsistencies. It really is a masterpiece of the genre, helped along immensely by its eerie, sepia-toned vistas and its steady ramping up of tension. A must-see for fans of gialli and atmospheric European horror.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Butterfly Room and The House of Good and Evil

Welcome back to the Hulu Horror Double Feature series, and hey, I’m actually getting to do another one of these way before I thought I’d be able to, so go me! If you want to read the first installment and get your bearings, it’s right here, don’t fret.

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First up, The Butterfly Room from 2014. I actually picked this one at random because the cover and blurb looked promising, but only after I started watching it did I realize that it starred Barbara Steele! BARBARA STEELE! Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Barbara Steele? Because I fucking love Barbara Steele. And besides that, this movie is a veritable overflowing cauldron of well-known horror-type ladies, seeing as how it also features Heather Langenkamp (from A Nightmare on Elm Street, obviously), Erica Leerhsen (Blair Witch 2, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake), and Camille Keaton (I Spit On Your Grave, What Have You Done To Solange). There is also a cameo from PJ Soles (Halloween), and who is that turning up in a brief walk-on as a cab driver? Why, it’s Joe Dante! Even if the movie wasn’t any good, you could still turn it into a pretty rad spot-the-horror-legend drinking game, if you were so inclined.

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So, IS the movie any good? That depends. It’s a weird one, that’s for sure, and mamma mia, is it Italian. This is actually not surprising, since it was directed by Jonathan Zarantonello from his own novel, Alice dalle 4 alle 5 (Alice from 4 to 5). If you approach The Butterfly Room with this in mind, and get into a sort of early-Dario-Argento-slash-Mommie-Dearest kinda headspace, then I think you’ll probably love it. It’s gorgeously shot, Barbara Steele is CREEPY AS HELL as the butterfly-collectin’ Ann, and there are some pretty fucked-up family dynamics going on all around. On the downside, the acting is a bit stilted and over-the-top, so much so that it seems like a deliberate directorial choice (again: Italian). And while the plot is mysterious enough to keep you watching, it’s pretty easy to guess where we’re going to end up. The timeline jumps back and forth a lot, which sometimes makes it hard to follow, but I don’t think the non-linear narrative was really necessary to what the movie was trying to say. I also wish they had gone with a different soundtrack, maybe classical, since the vaguely heavy-metalish score is pretty jarring and doesn’t seem to match up with the film’s aesthetic. All that said, though, I enjoyed the hell out of Barbara Steele evilling all over the screen like the witch in Snow White, and I kinda loved the “like mother, like daughter” theme that pervaded the entire enterprise. I would recommend the film to fans of Barbara Steele (BARBARA STEELE!!!) and anyone who’s into the early films of Argento and Bava, or giallos in general (although this isn’t a giallo, I hasten to add).


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Next on Hulu’s movie-pickin’ agenda was House of Good and Evil (2013). This was another film on the slow-burn psychological horror tip, and as such I found myself digging it a great deal. It’s marginally a haunted house story, but it’s ambiguous enough to keep you guessing right up until the end. Briefly, it deals with a married couple who are trying to start over out in the sticks after abusive hubby Chris beats his wife Maggie into an eighth-month miscarriage. He seems contrite, and she’s willing to give him another chance, though obviously tempers are short between them. They buy a duplex with no phone service and no electricity, thinking that being forced to live with just one another will solve their problems, but it isn’t long before shit starts to go south, both in their marriage and with the house they’ve purchased.

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As with the previously-discussed Soulmate, this one might be a drag for fans of more action-packed horror, but I thought its restraint and subtlety gave it great, creepy power. The manifestations of the “haunting” were so simple and understated — the frequent ringing of an old-fashioned telephone, the mysterious nature of the mostly-unseen elderly neighbors — that I was compelled to pay close attention as the eerieness ramped up. The fact that there was palpable tension between the husband and wife at the center of the story just added to the atmosphere, and I liked that the movie played with elements of paranoia (as it seems like people are conspiring against main character Maggie), á la Rosemary’s Baby. Plus the way the Andersons next door were folded into the tale reminded me pleasingly of the Allardyces in Burnt Offerings. It had touches of The Amityville Horror too, now that I think of it. I would definitely recommend this to fans of any of the three films I just mentioned, as well as to anyone who would enjoy a low-key haunted house movie with a psychological bent. Keep in mind, though, that it does have a sort of “twist” ending, and though I thought it worked, I can see how some viewers might be pissed off by it, so your mileage may vary.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Goddess Revisits Season Two of “Masters of Horror”

Just as a quick reminder, I’ve put up a Patreon campaign to raise some much-needed funds for my writing endeavors, so take a look if you missed my previous post, and give something if you can, would you? Thank you.

Now, since I went into the specifics of “Masters of Horror” in my previous post about season one, I’m just going to jump right in and begin discussing season two, the rewatch of which I just completed. The quality of the second season of Mick Garris’s generally excellent series was a lot more consistent than the first, in the sense that there were no particularly terrible episodes, but there weren’t really any jaw-dropping, “Imprint”-quality ones either, though many of them were quite good, and all were at least decently watchable.

The season two revisit has been a little more fun for me and has provided a slightly different perspective on the show, since the God of Hellfire became interested in this fucked-up series I was obsessively watching and decided he wanted to watch some of it too. So I’ll be providing a little of his insight on the episodes, when he provided it. And now, onward.

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THE DAMN GOOD

There were two episodes that, for me, stood out as being the best examples of what season two had to offer. The first was “Family,” directed by John Landis and featuring the lovable George Wendt (of “Cheers” fame) playing brilliantly against type as a suburban serial killer and corpse collector. I’m not entirely sure if the concept for this story was at least partly inspired by Miriam Allen deFord’s 1961 short story “A Death in the Family,” which it strongly reminded me of and which was made into an episode of “Night Gallery” back in 1971. John Landis’s “Family” ends up going off in a different direction entirely, though, and has a great twist ending. George Wendt imbues his schlubby, lonely bachelor psychopath with such pathos that it’s hard not to feel bad for him, even while he’s killing little girls and old ladies to deflesh and add to his happy skeletal family. Twisted, tragicomic, and great.

Norm realizes the folly of storing the hydrochloric acid on the shelf right next to the lavender bath oil.

Norm realizes the folly of storing the hydrochloric acid on the shelf right next to the lavender bath oil.

The second standout of season two, the Rob Schmidt-directed “Right To Die,” recalled the furor over the Terri Schiavo case and starred the terrific Martin Donovan, who I’ve been a fan of since his numerous appearances in Hal Hartley’s films in the eighties and nineties. Donovan plays a dentist who has been cheating on his wife with his buxom assistant; shortly after the wife finds out, she and her wayward husband are involved in a terrible car accident in which all of the wife’s skin is burned off. Initially engaging in a legal battle with his mother-in-law for the right to turn off his wife’s life support, Dr. Adulterer soon changes his tune when it comes to light that his wife is now able to open up an enormous can of supernatural scorned-woman whoop-ass whenever she flatlines. Since I’m always down to see a cheater (and worse, as it turns out) get his just desserts, this episode was a satisfying, gory, and somewhat surprising ride.

In an attempt to be edgy, Smokey Bones new barbecue menu took things just a bit too far.

In an attempt to be edgy, Smokey Bones new barbecue menu took things just a bit too far.

THE PRETTY DAMN GOOD

Several of the other episodes, while not quite to the caliber of the aforementioned, were still reliably entertaining. “Sounds Like,” directed by Brad Anderson from a short story by Mike O’Driscoll, was in the words of the GoH “like a really, really good ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” and recounted the sad tale of a suburban middle-manager type guy who loses his son to a rare heart condition and subsequently develops hypersensitive hearing that eventually drives him insane. Very low-key in the gross-out department, but a nice slow burn of suspense and escalating tension.

“Pro-Life,” John Carpenter’s taut tale of a determined, fifteen-year-old pregnant girl and a demonic battle in a besieged abortion clinic, was also pretty fantastic, with Ron Perlman giving a chilling performance as the girl’s fundie nutbag father. Intense, violent, and genuinely frightening, even if the whole “devil-baby” angle is a touch cheesy.

Dario Argento’s “Pelts” was the Italian maestro’s second contribution to the series, adapted from a short story by F. Paul Wilson. The somewhat ridiculous premise sees a fur trader (played by Meat Loaf!) getting his hands on some beautiful raccoon pelts that magically make everyone who works with them do unbelievably gory things to themselves that mirror what was done to the dead animals. Squicky, over the top (it IS Argento, after all), and lots of fun.

He would do anything for love, including giving you the shirt off his back, or the skin off his torso, or something.

He would do anything for love, including giving you the shirt off his back, or the skin off his torso, or something.

The Joe Dante-directed “Screwfly Solution,” while not nearly as stupidly overblown as his first-season “Homecoming,” still tackled hot-button sociopolitical issues (feminism and male aggression, in this case), but in a far less obnoxious way than his first foray in the series. I thought it was still a bit too glib and a tad on the overly obvious side for my taste, but overall I quite enjoyed it, and the GoH chose it as his favorite episode of season two, so in deference to him I decided to place it in the “pretty damn good” category. The GoH is a big fan of apocalyptic-type scenarios in horror that are just barely plausible, so this tale of an unknown biological agent that ramps up male hostility to the point where the men are killing off all the women on earth, was right up his alley and scared him more than any of the other episodes. Also, SPOILER ALERT, it was aliens all along, and aliens are pretty much the GoH’s favorite thing in the whole wide galaxy, you guys; you don’t even know. I forgot to add that this episode featured both Jason “90210” Priestley AND Elliott “M.A.S.H.” Gould as high-echelon environmental scientists, which is probably something you can’t say about any other movie in history. So there’s that.

Also decent was “We All Scream for Ice Cream,” directed by Tom Holland from a short story by John Farris (with a teleplay by the great David J. Schow). Bearing shades of Stephen King’s It, this straightforward tale of supernatural revenge sees a mentally-slow but well-liked (and clown-clad) ice cream man “accidentally” killed by some miscreant children. Years later, a sinister ice cream van prowls the small town’s streets at night, seeking to revisit the sins of the fathers upon the sons, as it were. Well-executed and fairly creepy.

Rounding out the “pretty damn good” category, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” featured Jeffrey Combs as a tormented Edgar Allan Poe living out (or is he?) a couple of his more famous short stories. I thought the ending was something of a cop-out, but I’ll forgive it (this time) because the performances and gore were solid (BAD KITTY!) and the episode as a whole was pretty great, with some brilliant comic touches. Likewise with “The Washingtonians,” directed by Peter Medak from a short story by Bentley Little. The premise was so utterly bizarre, and the execution so overdone and absurd, that it circled all the way around to being awesome again. Intensely gory, and one of the funniest—and easily the wackiest—episodes of the series.

American History Blechs.

American History Blechs.

Also quite good was the final episode, Norio Tsuruta’s “Dream Cruise.” Glacially paced, and pretty standard J-horror all around (complete with long-haired female wraith), but with a story that held a few surprises, lovely cinematography, and a nice creep factor. A worthy end to the series.

THE JUST OKAY AND THE DISAPPOINTING

A few of the episodes, while not bad per se, were just not as good as I was expecting, given the talent involved. As much as I adore the stories of Ambrose Bierce, for example, the Tobe Hooper-directed adaptation of “The Damned Thing” (with a teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, no less) was not particularly engaging or memorable, making me question the decision to make it the inaugural episode of the second season.

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You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting!

Also a disappointment, and for similar reasons, was “Valerie on the Stairs,” directed by series creator Mick Garris from a terrific short story by Clive Barker. I’m a huge fan of Barker’s stories and novels, but his fantastical creations are somewhat hit or miss when adapted to screen, and this one seemed more miss than hit. Tony “Candy Man” Todd played a fetching demon, and Christopher Lloyd was his pleasingly manic self, but the episode seemed flimsy, slightly repetitive, and a tad silly, with an anticlimactic ending let down by cheesy special effects.

The Mick Garris-directed “The V Word” (and I hate to say it, but Garris was kind of 0 for 3 on his own episodes of the series he created, in my opinion) was not a total waste of time, but not an experience I’d care to revisit, either. The V could have stood for literally anything else—vagina, perhaps, or velveteen, or vivisection, or even Vivian Vance, for fuck’s sake—and I would have enjoyed it more, but since the V stood for “vampire” (oh…those), I was less than enthused, especially when whiny teenage boys were added into the mix. Watchable, but overall, meh.

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Soooooooooooo high.

And thus completes my revisited rundown of “Masters of Horror!” Agree? Disagree? Care to start a virtual fistfight over which were the best episodes? Let me know. Until then, as ever, Goddess out.

The Goddess Revisits Season One of “Masters of Horror”

We’re now in 2015, believe it or not, and jokes about when we can expect to be receiving our hoverboards aside, hopefully it will be a better one than the last. I realize I’ve been neglecting this blog a little, but as with most of you, I was busy over the holidays with just general holiday stuff as well as some of the more personal issues I briefly mentioned in a previous post, and I just never got around to updating this thing as often as I should have. But I’m resolving to do better, and to that end, I’ve decided to do something slightly different with my Favorite Horror Scenes series by discussing the 2005 television show created by Mick Garris, “Masters of Horror” (all episodes of which are available on Hulu for free, if you somehow missed them). This year marks the tenth anniversary of the show’s debut, so it seemed an opportune time for another run-through.

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I distinctly remember there being a lot of buzz about this series in the horror community when it was first announced. I mean, these were going to be hour-long, uncensored, hardcore horror films based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale! Directed by legends like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento! AND IT WAS ALL GONNA BE ON TV, YOU GUYS. Pay TV, sure, but TV nonetheless. There had really never been anything quite like it on television before, and I for one eagerly settled in to watch the moment it was available online.

At the time I enjoyed most of them quite a bit, though I found that ten years later very few of them had made a lasting impression. I had forgotten even some of the better episodes, so it was instructive to watch them all again, and gratifying that many of them were far better than I had remembered.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

THE GOOD:

Case in point: Episode eight, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns.” I hadn’t remembered anything about this episode at all, but on the rewatch it instantly moved into my top three of season one. A great deal of my enthusiasm may be due to the presence of Norman Reedus, who of course in subsequent years went on to megastardom for his role on “The Walking Dead,” but everything in this episode hit the right notes for me this time around. Udo Kier was his wonderful scene-chewing self as a reclusive squintillionaire who hires a man to procure the single remaining print of a mysterious film called La Fin Absolue du Monde, the first and only screening of which ended in madness and murder. There is genuine suspense, an eerie, menacing tone permeating the whole enterprise, and gore galore, including a memorable moment in which Udo Kier’s character threads his own intestines through the projector after his long-awaited viewing of the cursed film. Top notch.

Also very good and worth a mention: The Stuart Gordon-directed “Dreams in the Witch-House,” which very effectively captured the spooky, otherworldly feel of the Lovecraft tale it was based upon. There was also John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” which I remembered disliking the first time around but appreciated much more this time. It’s far more black comedy than straight horror, with a rather absurdist premise based on a Native American legend, but there was plenty of blood, and Brian Benben’s snark-spitting protagonist was hilarious. Lastly, and surprisingly, was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” which starred Steven Weber (who also wrote the teleplay, based on a Bruce Jones story). I’ve always been a big Argento fan, but I think we can all agree that his more recent output has been somewhat less than stellar. This episode, though, is quite decent, even though it honestly could have been directed by anyone. It dragged a bit in parts, but the story—about a man being slowly bewitched by a deformed succubus—was suitably disquieting, and the gore was nicely excessive.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

THE BAD:

Episodes I could have done without included, sadly, Mick Garris’s contribution to his own groundbreaking series. “Chocolate” had a flimsy story, lame execution, and just an overall feel of why-bother-ness. Boo. The only other episode I found unforgivable was Joe Dante’s “Homecoming.” Zombies as political satire can be done well, but this came across as so heavy-handed as to be utterly ridiculous, even though I happen to agree with the film’s political stance. Added to that is the fact that the subject matter, current at the time, now comes across as terribly dated and not very relatable. Thea Gill’s ballbusting Ann-Coulter-alike was amusing (and her fate at the end satisfying), but otherwise, damn, tone it down some. You can actually make a point without smashing us upside the head with a wrecking ball, y’know.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

THE OKAY:

I enjoyed most of the others, though they didn’t stand out as much as they probably could have. The David J. Schow-written, Larry Cohen-directed “Pick Me Up” was pretty good, with a decent premise (competing serial killers), some genuinely tense scenes, and the always-welcome presence of Fairuza Balk. “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, was also very watchable and included a fantastic turn by Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm. Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” was creepy-crawly fun, with a pleasingly awkward performance by Angela Bettis as a lovelorn lesbian entomologist. The Clive Barker adaptation “Haeckel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton, was good, but could have been better given the source material. Same with “Dance of the Dead,” which, given the status of all those involved—story by Richard Matheson, teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, direction by Tobe Hooper, the appearance of Robert Englund as a depraved club owner— should have been incredible, but instead was just serviceable and somewhat disjointed. “The Fair-Haired Child,” finally, was entertaining but ultimately not all that memorable.

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

THE AMAZING:

You didn’t actually think I was going to leave this one off, did you? Slated to air as the last episode of season one, Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was already notorious well before its air date, because Showtime (who carried the series) refused to broadcast it, due to its highly disturbing subject matter and intensely graphic violence. It was released to DVD in the latter part of 2006, and is now available on Hulu as part of the regular series. It’s easy to see why Showtime balked (even though they should have known what to expect from Miike, frankly), but it’s also sort of a shame, because this is the best episode of the series by a mile.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she'd ever had.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she’d ever had.

Pretty much the entirety of the story takes place inside a Japanese brothel, where an American journalist (played by Billy Drago) has traveled in search of the great love of his life, a prostitute named Komomo who he had promised to rescue and take back to America. Instead, he finds another prostitute with a disfigured face who tells him the increasingly convoluted tale of what happened to the doomed Komomo. The flashback scenes of Komomo’s torture (for supposedly stealing the madam’s jade ring) are horrific, and even a seasoned horror hound like myself could barely get through them, wincing and turning my head away more than once (and yes, you may call me a weenie all you like, but aaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhh). Additionally, the deformed girl’s recounting of her own wretched childhood, particularly the scenes of her mother dumping aborted fetuses out of a bucket into a stream, were intensely uncomfortable for me, since I had been through my own abortion only a few weeks prior and was still feeling a little strange about it. At the end of the episode, I felt as though I had been run over by a bus, in a good way, if that makes any sense. The best horror should, after all, shake you out of your complacency, and touch you in places where you’d rather not be touched. “Imprint” succeeded on that score in motherfucking spades. A genius piece of filmmaking, but one I probably won’t watch again for another ten years or so, if ever.

Hopefully you enjoyed this rundown! I’m on the third episode of my season two revisit, so keep watching this space for another fun summary to come. Until then, happy 2015, and Goddess out.

 

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Nothin’ Says Lovin’ Like Somethin’ from the Coven

Witches are badass, let’s just agree on that right out of the gate. Especially the old, scary, haggy ones that mix potions by moonlight and smooch the devil’s butt and turn people into toads and shit. They are the ultimate expression of unlimited female power, a fantasy representation of the point at which a woman no longer gives a fuck, refuses to put up with anyone’s crap, and decides to just plague her enemies with suppurating boils. Despite witches’ obvious excellence, however, I feel as though they’re a sort of under-utilized baddie in recent horror movies. I briefly survey the horror landscape and see it littered with countless shambling zombies, vampires both sparkly and otherwise, and big bad werewolves, but witches…not so much, especially if you’re discounting “sexy” witches and Wiccans, which I am because they aren’t scary. I was actually so distraught by the lack of old-school witchy shenanigans in recent horror that I decided to make a small, insignificant contribution toward their little image problem by writing a novel called Red Menace (out October 1st) that features some of that wicked witchcraft that I love so much and never see enough of. There are withered old crones! Spells! Glamours! Also, some serial murder, if you’re into that! Okay, plug over, let’s get on with today’s scene!

Just kidding, one more little plug. Buy my book! Or, y’know, I’ll curse your livestock and make you have three-headed babies.

Just kidding, one more little plug. Buy my book! Or, y’know, I’ll curse your livestock and make you have three-headed babies.

Let’s talk about Dario “Italian Hitchcock” Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films, and let’s not talk about his more recent output because it just makes me sad (do not think of The Card Player, repeat, DO NOT THINK OF THE CARD PLAYER). Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I opened with witches, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.

This one. This gorgeous bastard right here.

This one. This gorgeous bastard right here.

Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.

First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. I mean, just check out some of these stills:

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Fig. 3 (Suspiria)

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We get it, movie. You’re pretty.

We get it, movie. You’re pretty.

I mean, that is so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous. Fun personal fact: in the house I used to live in, I took great care in decorating the whole space in a Suspiria theme. Every room was painted a different, dark, saturated color, and all the doors were painted black with red art-nouveau-style insets, just like in the movie. It looked wicked cool, and even though I had to leave the house behind, I still have fond memories of my one and only attempt at free-reign interior design.

Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah, played by Stefania Casini) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.

But true to the spirit of this blog series, I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.

It’s raining maggots, hallelujah.

It’s raining maggots, hallelujah.

While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.

Let's just see what develops. (I know, boooooo.)

Let’s just see what develops. (I know, boooooo.)

There is some banter and chicanery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she lies back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder (and I have to say that I absolutely love Goblin’s score for this film, which actually doesn’t seem as though it would work, but does, beautifully). We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.

Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.

At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.

Once again, Goddess out.

A Brief History of the Giallo Film

Born of the pulp crime novels of the 1930s, the giallo came into its own on screen, culminating in classic films from legendary Italian directors. The original article I wrote can be found here.

Blood and Black Lace 5

 

An American writer is walking the streets of Rome one night when he passes an art gallery with enormous glass doors. Peering inside, he is shocked to see a woman struggling with a black-clad figure holding a knife. The writer rushes to help, but when he passes through the first door of the gallery, it closes and locks behind him, while the second glass door before him will not open at all. Trapped in the space between the glass panels, he can only watch in helpless horror as the black-gloved killer plunges the knife into the woman’s body.

This opening scene is taken from an early example of the giallo film genre, Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), which was loosely based on Frederic Brown’s 1950 pulp novel The Screaming Mimi. Giallo as a film style began roughly around 1963; though aspects of the stories and themes emerged from pulp novels, filmmakers were quick to add their own ingredients to the mix.

The Origins of the Giallo

Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which was the predominant color on the covers of the pulp crime novels published by Mondadori, starting in 1929. Following their success, other publishing houses began getting into the act, starting their own lines of cheap mystery novels with yellow covers. These were so popular during the 1930s that the word ‘giallo’ became synonymous with crime and mystery fiction.

The First Giallo Films

It soon became apparent that the medium of film could be used to add interesting elements to the straightforward crime stories from the novels. Taking several pages from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook and spicing things up with elements of eroticism, horror, and madness, legendary director Mario Bava made what is generally considered the first giallo film, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The plot revolves around a murder witness who is tormented by an important detail that she can’t quite remember. The following year, Bava followed with the now-classic giallo, Blood and Black Lace (known in Italy as Sei Donne Per L’Assassino, or Six Women for an Assassin), which featured a masked and gloved killer stalking the catty and underdressed models at an upscale fashion house. By this point, the particular tropes of the giallo were becoming de rigueur, and the early 1970s saw a flood of films that displayed variations on the theme.

Conventions of the Giallo Film

Films designated as giallo are usually murder mysteries, but they have many features that distinguish them from straightforward crime stories or police procedurals (which are known in Italy by a different name, Poliziotteschi). First of all, the murders that occur in gialli are often grotesque and horrific, and are filmed in artful, operatic, or even disturbingly erotic ways, with much spilling of blood. The killer in the 1972 film What Have You Done to Solange?, for example, dispatches his usually nude victims by plunging knives into their vaginas.

In addition, the structure of the films is often baroque, and sometimes contains dreamlike imagery. The killer almost always wears black leather gloves and usually a black trenchcoat or raincoat. The weapon of choice is nearly always a shiny and suitably phallic knife. A giallo’s plot often deals with an unlucky person who witnesses a crime and then spends the remainder of the film struggling to remember some aspect of the scene that they have forgotten or cannot make sense of. The psychological motivations of the killer nearly always have to do with madness or revenge triggered by childhood traumas, lending gialli a hint of gothic horror in juxtaposition to the more modern slasher-type violence that is usually featured. Finally, the films generally have a Grand Guignol feel, and tend to have bombastic or unusual film scores containing free jazz or prog-rock, for example.

Examples of the Giallo Genre

Genre pioneer Mario Bava, in addition to his first two gialli, made two other films in this line, 1970’s Five Dolls for an August Moon and the 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve. Dario Argento has returned to giallo perhaps more than any other director, turning out films like The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, 1975), Tenebrae (1982), and Giallo (2010).

Lucio Fulci, a cult figure in America for his grisly zombie films, made movies in nearly every imaginable genre, and giallo was no exception; his psychedelic Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was released in 1971, and was followed by 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the understated mystery The Psychic (aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, 1977), and 1982’s New York Ripper. Other directors who tried their hand include Umberto Lenzi (Knife of Ice, 1972; Eyeball, 1974), Michele Soavi (Deliria, 1987), and Pupi Avati (The House With Laughing Windows, 1976).

Sources:

Palmerini, Luca M. & Gaetano Mistretta (1996). Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists. Fantasma Books. ISBN: 0963498274.

McDonagh, Maitland (1991). Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Sun Tavern Fields. ISBN: 095170124x