I've always loved a good mystery. Last year I became a diehard fan of Italian gialli. They usually involve an unknown assailant, dressed in black, who is killing his/her victims in uniquely gruesome manners while accompanied by a great soundtrack. Dario Argento revolutionized the giallo with his highly successful directorial debut, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage." What followed was the Italian giallo craze where every popular film director such as Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Emilio P. Miraglia imitated Argento's work. Many of them went so far as to give their gialli animal titles such as "A Lizard in a Woman's Skin" and "The Bloodstained Butterfly."
In the mid to late seventies, Argento directed supernatural horror such as his masterpiece, "Suspiria." eventually, Argento returned to his giallo roots. (Praise the Lord!) What follows is a compilation of his more recent gialli. I will review them in the order of which they were released.
Tenebre (1982) *****
This is the first time I've seen "Tenebre" and my main reason for buying the collection. And I wasn't disappointed. "Tenebre" is pure, 100% Italian giallo. It is the best giallo in this collection. "Tenebre" reminded me a lot of Argento`s earlier gialli, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" and "Deep Red," in that someone witnesses a murder and they are mistaken as to what they actually saw. There is also a tremendous amount of stabbing and hacking done with knife and ax, respectively. Furthermore, someone's traumatic past comes back to haunt them and motivate them to murder again and again. There are plenty of suspects and red herrings. Never a dull moment.
In "Tenebre," the body count is gloriously high and mostly beautiful women are the victims. Some of the scenes appeared to be taken directly from Mario Bava's slasher fest, "Bay of Blood." Indeed, Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava, was an assistant director on "Tenebre."
"Tenebre" boasts a great musical soundtrack provided by Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante and a great cast that includes one of my favorite actors, John Saxon; he has been in numerous box office horror hits including the original "Black Christmas," "A Nightmare on Elm Street, Parts I and III" and "Cannibal Apocalypse."
"Tenebre's" plot is a reflection of Dario Argento's career; his life was once threatened by a fan when he was in Las Angeles. In "Tenebre," a best-selling author of mystery Peter Neal (played by Anthony Franciosa of "Death Wish 2") is harangued by reporters accusing his work of being sexist and exploitative of women. Argento was criticized in the same manner. Also, the author is sent threatening letters each time a serial killer murders a woman. Daria Nicolodi who has been in numerous Argento films plays Anne, Neal's secretary. John Saxon is Bullmer, Neal's agent.
If you are a fan of Dario Argento, you must add "Tenebre" to your collection. It is one of the best gialli ever made.
"Phenomena" (1984) *****
This was the first Dario Argento movie I ever saw. I enjoyed it tremendously though I saw the heavily edited American version, "Creepers." Indeed, this movie was very creepy. Insects give me the creeps. I never could get this movie, or the name of the director, out of my mind.
I rented it on a weekend in the mid eighties, along with the high body count shocker, "Sleepaway Camp," and took it over to my cousin's house to watch. It's a wonder I didn't have nightmares watching these two creep fests back to back.
"Phenomena" stars a very young, very beautiful, and very talented Jennifer Connelly; since then she has starred in a host of hits that includes "Waking the Dead, "House of Sand and Fog," "Inventing the Abbots," and the horror hit, "Dark Water." Donald Pleasance of "Halloween" fame and Daria Nicolodi ("Deep Red" and "Inferno") also star. Nicolodi was Dario Argento's long time girlfriend and mother of their daughter, Asia. If you haven't noticed, Argento likes to keep his relatives employed in his movies. His other daughter, Fiore, also has a minor, but very important, role in "Phenomena" as Vera Brandt; she is the Danish tourist who is the first in the movie to be depicted as a victim of the serial killer.
"Phenomena" is a favorite of mine. It combines elements of "Carrie," "Deep Red," and "Suspiria." Jennifer Connelly is Jennifer Corvino who has a supernatural gift. She is able to communicate with insects and they sometimes come to her aid, especially when she is being tormented by her classmates. When she sleepwalks, Jennifer also shares a psychic bond with someone (or something) who is murdering her classmates. And someone wearing black gloves is committing more murders in order to protect this creature. This film has a lot of action and suspense. And the body count is high! Also, the soundtrack is awesome. It has numerous songs from several heavy metal bands. The fact that it was shot on location in the beautiful Swiss Alps doesn't hurt either. It is a must see for all fans of Italian gialli and supernatural horror.
Trauma (1993) ***
"Trauma" bares many similarities to Argento's masterpiece "Deep Red," one of the most superior Italian gialli ever made. The most gruesome scene in "Deep Red" is the slow decapitation death of the serial killer when a chain is slowly pulled through their neck. This scene is repeated many times in "Trauma" when the black-gloved killer, known in the newspapers as "The Headhunter," leisurely decapitates their victims with mechanically operated piano wire. The viewer learns that the killer suffered an act of "trauma" that propelled them to seek vengeance in this gruesome manner.
Asia Argento is a bulimic who must hunt for the person responsible for beheading her two parents. Laurie Piper (who played Carrie White's mother in "Carrie") is excellent as Asia's bizarre mom who is performing a séance on the night she loses her head. Christopher Rydell is the young man who risks everything in order to help Asia track down the serial killer before they can kill their last victims. Fiore Argento has an un-credited cameo appearance as a receptionist at a psychiatric hospital.
"Trauma" takes a serious departure from reality when a decapitated head utters the name of a doctor before "dying" and another head screams as it falls down an elevator shaft. This last scene was almost comical in its implausibility. However, this modern giallo does offer some mystery and suspense even if the murders are repetitious. A nice rock n' roll score would've helped. Perhaps a score from "Talking Heads?"
Card Player (2004) ****
With "The Card Player," the Italian giallo enters the computer age. Argento said poker is an excellent metaphor for life; he spent a great deal of time researching card games and computer technology. He gives us a black-gloved maniac who likes to mutilate and kill his victims while the police watch helplessly via the internet web cam.
Excellent performances are given by Stefannia Rocca and Liam Cunningham. The beautiful Rocca is the no nonsense, professional Italian police investigator who falls in love with Cunningham even though she claims that she ". . . Never mixes business with pleasure." Cunningham is a rogue Bristish police investigator who has an Irish brogue and drinks too much. If you're a fan of werewolf movies, you've seen him in the excellent "Dog Soldiers." Fiore Argento also costars as the police commissioner's daughter who is kidnapped by the Card Player.
"The Card Player" is very suspenseful, especially in the scenes where the serial killer is playing live on-line poker with the police. I feel just as helpless and stressed as the lead characters. Sometimes, I wanted to scream to release the tension. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin has scored many of Argento's gialli. In "The Card Player" he provides a pounding techno score that is superior to that of Argento's masterpiece "Deep Red." It made me want to hit the dance floor and get down like I haven't done in years.
Unfortunately, because I have seen so many Italian gialli, I was able to correctly identify the killer very soon and ascertain their motive. However, this did not prevent me from enjoying the movie.
Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) ***
Argento grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe stories and watching Alfred Hitchcock movies. He is often referred to as the "Italian Hitchcock." It only seems appropriate that he would make a movie in homage to his idol. Half the fun of watching "Do You Like Hitchcock?" is finding the scenes that are reminiscent to such movies as "Strangers on a Train," "Dial M for Murder," and "Psycho." In the film, the walls of a video store are plastered with Hitchcock movie posters.
Perhaps Argento, as a young man, saw himself as Giulio, a nerdy film student with an overactive imagination. Giulio also has a penchant for spying on his neighbors; he is often caught in the act and chased away while being verbally threatened with death. One evening, a neighbor lady is murdered and he suspects that her daughter conspired with another girl to have her killed.
"Do You Like Hitchcock?" is a direct to video release. It was originally filmed to air on Italian television as a seven-part series made in homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Lacking big name stars, it has a subdued, made for television feel. The body count is low and the gore and sex are kept to a minimum. The only graphic murder scene is when the neighbor has her head bludgeoned with a candlestick holder. This movie lacks real suspense. The "twist ending" was disappointing.
Of the five movies in the collection, "Do You Like Hitchcock?" is the weakest. It should have been titled "Do You Like Peeping Toms?" Too much emphasis was placed on the lead character's habitual voyeurism. Despite all that happens to him, he never learns his lesson.
Overall, the Dario Box Set is a wonderful collection of Argento's latest works from Anchor Bay. Having preordered it from FYE during a special sale, I paid less for it than some single out of print DVDs. It was worth the money for "Tenebre" and "Phenomena," which I didn't own and had never seen in their original uncut releases. The other three features were considered bonus discs. Unfortunately, the five discs do not have individual slim jewel cases like the Mario Bava collections. Instead, they are placed practically one on top of the other inside a metal box as though they were discs in a box collection belonging to a television series for a single season. There are no inserts. However, each disc is loaded with numerous extras. I wouldn't throw away or sell any individual releases that you may have in your collection. If you are like me and lack "Tenebre" or "Phenomena," or you are a new fan of Dario Argento, I strongly recommend this collection.