Category Archives: Horror

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.

Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.

He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.

Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.

That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.

Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.

More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.

When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.

He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.

The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE HORRORATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDYLOVESHERCLASSICFILMS.


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Let Her Out (2016, Cody Calahan)

If cheap, misogynist Canadian horror gore twaddle is a genre, Let Her Out must be one its finest examples. At least in the modern era. In some ways, the worst thing about the film is director Calahan. With a single exception, his direction’s not bad. His composition is strong, his sense of space is solid (important as multiple filming locations create single ones in the film); sure, he can’t direct his cast but screenwriter Adam Seybold’s script ranges from appalling to abhorrent.

When Seybold’s just writing dialogue, it’s appalling. When he’s trying to get inside the female mind or dealing with lead Alanna LeVierge’s multiple sexual predators stalking her, it’s abhorrent. He does have a good partner in Calahan (they concocted the Dark Half-ripoff, but with misogyny, together) as Calahan loves his male gaze. The third act has triples down on it as costar Nina Kiri inexplicably races to LaVierge’s aid–riding a bicycle, breathless, her pointlessly exposed cleavage covered in sweat. Soon both Kiri and LaVierge will be covered in oily blood, so the sweat isn’t as bad as it can get.

The film opens with Brooke Henderson as a sex worker in a motel room. Calahan nearly objectively summarizes her night working–oddly, her nudity is (at least at first) less revolting than what he does with LaVierge later (mostly because she apparently said no to nudity, so he has to make it up other ways). Then some demonic guy shows up and rapes her. Fast forward a bit until she’s pregnant and then she stabs herself in the belly in an attempt to kill the baby.

At that point, it’s clear Calahan and Seybold aren’t going to make a good movie at all and probably a rather bad one. But, since I got Let Her Out as a screener, I felt it was my duty to suffer through.

Honestly, I just wanted to crap on it. Because it’s a terrible film and ought to be crapped on. And I wanted to know more about it so I could crap on more of it. Like when Seybold’s script starts throwing the word “whore” around a lot. See, LaVierge hasn’t given in to her first sexual predator stalker guy (Michael Lipka) because she just can’t “do” sex. It’s unclear at first; well, it’s not unclear. She sees herself in the mirror and feels shame and personal revulsion. It’s just not clear those feelings are because of her mother until later. Because it turns out the unborn twin inside her brain who eventually starts growing out of her has a full memory of before she was absorbed into LaVierge’s head in the womb and knows Henderson was a prostitute.

The end credits call the three guys who visit upon Henderson in the prologue her “suitors,” which seems gross, but entirely appropriate for the film.

Things get worse for LaVierge when Kiri’s boyfriend, Adam Christie, starts putting the moves on her. Christie’s a long-haired, bearded alpha male theatre director who sexually exploits Kiri while demeaning her (and making her the star in his play, which is about twin sisters–another thing undeveloped because the budget is low). He might give the film’s worst performance. Though–spoilers–when he tries raping LaVierge, the evil twin comes out and decapitates him. So, good for the “evil” twin.

Christie’s also there for the worst directed sequence, when everyone is at the party having a crazy fun theatre crowd time and staring directly into the camera. Thank goodness editor Duncan Christie (not sure if they’re related) cuts through the shots fast. Christie, the editor, is bad, which is actually rather nice. Because since Calahan’s composition is good and Jeff Maher’s cinematography is solid, Let Her Out would be technically competent overall if it weren’t for Christie, the editor, doing a lousy job editing.

He does cut together one effective sequence where LaVierge keeps flashing forward because she loses control to the evil (internal) twin. It’s not a well-written sequence–she’s talking to, arguing with, attempting to murder Kiri during it–but it’s effective. The one time Christie, the editor, manages to cut things well.

Really bad score from Steph Copeland.

Kate Fenton plays LaVierge’s doctor; the one who treats her for an emergency room visit, then when she has a brain tumor, but also for like a mental health checkup? Must be that single payer Canadian healthcare. There’s only one doctor in the whole, otherwise empty hospital.

Fenton is kind of not bad. Her lines are bad, but she doesn’t embarrass herself. The rest of the cast embarrasses themselves. Kiri least, then LaVierge. Christie, the actor, is actually somewhat better than Lipka, who’s inept as a hipster painter with his Neo-Nazi haircut forcing LaVierge to deliver his packages (she’s a bike messenger–Calahan loves her tight biking outfit, no surprise) so he can get her in his loft and, maybe, into bed.

Let Her Out is a gross movie.

Oh, crap. I forgot. The special effects are outstanding. The gore is expert.

It’s just expert gore, competent direction, competent photography wasted on a turd. No matter how oily sexy you think you can make the blood, it’s still just a bloody turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ0

CREDITS

Directed by Cody Calahan; screenplay by Adam Seybold, based on a story by Calahan and Seybold; director of photography, Jeff Maher; edited by Duncan Christie; music by Steph Copeland; production designer, Steve Dubois; produced by Chad Archibald, Christopher Giroux, and Calahan; released by Breakthrough Entertainment.

Starring Alanna LeVierge (Helen), Nina Kiri (Molly), Adam Christie (Ed), Michael Lipka (Roman), Brooke Henderson (Helen’s Mother), and Kate Fenton (Dr. Headly).


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The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

The Omen is a terrible bit of cinema. It’s a long bit, almost two hours, filled with Jerry Goldsmith’s–shockingly Oscar-winning–chant filled “scare” score. It doesn’t scare. It annoys, which just makes everything go on longer. Director Donner certainly doesn’t help with it. He drags things out too. Like anyone needs more scenes of Gregory Peck failing to feign emotion.

When the movie starts, Peck is the U.S. ambassador to Italy. It’s important because Peck has to be both rich and powerful. He seems to be an ineffective ambassador, who’s just there because his college roommate is now President of the United States. Probably Yale. Plantation Owner’s Tech and all.

Anyway. Peck’s married to Lee Remick, who’s just given birth. Only the baby dies and they call to tell Peck before they tell Remick. Because, even though Peck’s incapable of emoting, failed man emoting is more important in The Omen than any womanly emotion. The film shafts Remick on her part, which is something of a blessing because it means she gets to do fewer terrible scenes. Only a mysterious priest offers Peck a new baby, which Peck accepts, deciding to never tell Remick because ladies are fragile.

Five years later, The Omen occurs. An incredibly public suicide is the single event in the film qualifying as an omen. It’s a very loud omen. A mysterious nanny joins the Peck-Remick household, played by Billie Whitelaw. Maybe when it becomes obvious David Seltzer’s script is going to be really stupid and when no one is going to care–not Donner, not Peck–is when Whitelaw just appears to care for the child without being hired. When confronted, she has the flimiest story–oh, right, the action has moved to England now. Peck got a promotion because his friend is president.

Until Whitelaw shows up, it seems like there might be some chance the film’s going to work out. Sure, Peck and Remick entirely ignore their son–now played by Harvey Stephens, who maybe has four lines and two of them are just “Daddy”–but they’re still beautiful and still getting it on in the middle of the day. Although Peck does look a little like he should be playing grandpa; he’s twenty years older than Remick.

Then there’s a priest (Patrick Troughton) who shows up to tell Peck his son’s actually the antichrist. And photographer David Warner who knows something weird is going on. The film sort of mocks Troughton and idealizes Warner; neither deserve the treatment. Warner’s better at the start than the finish. Peck’s kind of better at the finish, the material’s just far worse.

After Goldsmith’s silly score, Gilbert Taylor’s photography is the biggest technical problem. The action leaves England for Peck and Warner to travel Europe looking for answers and mixes a lot of soundstages and locations. Taylor can’t match them at all. The first action set piece–the wind attacking Troughton–is all right. It’s too long, it’s got lousy music, but it’s ambitious. The rest are either on soundstage made up to be exteriors or just plain interiors. Taylor and Donner butcher the last set piece, when Peck has to try to beat up Whitelaw. Donner’s real bad at the scene. Not even editor Stuart Baird, who does the only consistently solid work in the film, can save it.

The biggest offender isn’t Peck, isn’t even Goldsmith. It’s writer Seltzer. The Omen has a crappy script. It has crappy dialogue, crappy characters, crappy everything.

The film gets unbearable before the halfway point and then it’s just all downhill until the end. It’s like the movie is punishing you for watching it. How ominous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by David Seltzer; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Harvey Bernhard; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Martin Benson (Father Spiletto), and Harvey Stephens (Damien).


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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is either terrifying or horrifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s visual terror or horror, sometimes it’s audial, sometimes it’s just implied. Director Hooper has three different styles–daytime, nighttime, indoor–and each goes from terror to horror multiple times. The film takes place over less than twenty-four hours, with Hooper and the film taking breaks–sometimes long–to move ahead in the present action. There’s an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break.

The breaks are never scenes. There is no comic relief. Even when there’s a relative pause in the intensity, Hooper keeps it buzzing. There’s a constant reminder. It’s not about being concerned or cautious or scared. It’s about being terrified. Hooper, photography Daniel Pearl, co-composer Wayne Bell–in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing, Hooper also co-composes the score–they make the idyllic terrifying. In the opening crawl (narrated by John Larroquette), the film says it’s going to make idyllic terrifying. And it does.

The film, the opening crawl informs the viewer, is about five “youths,” specifically Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain (at least, according to the crawl). And Burns does have a central role in the film’s goings-on, whereas Partain just has a big part. He’s left out of the action; Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel bully Partain to a degree. He’s in a wheelchair–he’s traumatized in the first five or six minutes in an attack from a knife-wielding hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)–yet he’s still a complete jerk. Sure, Burns isn’t an awesome sister to him and her boyfriend, Allen Danziger, is a dick, but Partain’s a jerk.

It’s not about him whining or being unpleasant in general, it’s about how those traits affect his actions, which do not endear him to anyone. And most of Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not involve chainsaws or massacres. Most of it is, in terms of runtime, not intensity of moments–most of it is the five youths.

They’re apparently college students or at least around that age. William Vail and Teri McMinn, who are the nicest, complete the five. The girls are blonde and into astrology. The guys are sort of early seventies dimwit Texas hippie posers. Vail and McMinn are a couple, with Vail the traditional male lead type. He’s sweet, a little dumb, but sensitive.

And, for a while, Hooper and Henkel tease him having the bigger part. Then they give it to Partain; taking the film away from someone likable and sympathetic, putting it on someone unlikable and difficult to sympathize with, even though not sympathizing with him creates guilt. But no resentment. Because Texas Chain Saw isn’t about resentment or sympathy or likability.

It’s about horror and terror.

Hooper shoots the daytime scenes as tranquil, relatively rich in color (there’s this lovely sunflower patch some characters walk through). He does tracking long shots, often with a slight dolly in or out at the end. The narrative distance is the thing. The opening crawl told us to pay attention to the youths–who are in this part of rural Texas seeing if Burns and Partain’s grandfather’s grave has been robbed–and Hooper directs exactly how we can pay that attention. The sound editing is big in Texas Chain Saw, and not just when it becomes a combination of clanging music, screaming, and a chainsaw–which is when the film is being terrifying, while foreshadowing being horrifying. The sound editing is also how Hooper is able to keep the audience with the characters. We can always hear them, we just can’t really see them. Instead, we mostly get to see Partain. Whining. Being weird. Being unpleasant.

The nighttime shots are completely different. Cinematographer Pearl gives the film this rich blackness, which Hooper sporadically, unevenly fills. There’s a chase sequence through bramble; it creates a maze for the pursued, one the audience can’t see around either. And the pursuer–Gunnar Hansen in a mask of flesh and waving a chainsaw–is always just behind. The chainsaw, which Hooper refuses to fetishize, always seems just in range of its target. Later, during the morning sequence, Hooper shows he can do terrifying chase scenes in daytime too. He and Pearl’s subtle use of depth throughout the film is magnificent.

After the nighttime shot comes the interior scenes. Even though there have been some interior scenes on the same location, Hooper handles it differently. Tight shots. Fast cuts. From the victim’s perspective to outside the victim, toggling rapidly; sometimes the rapid cuts lead to the change in perspective. Editors Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll do great work throughout, but the last thirty minutes are unbelievable. The film’s already shockingly intense, but then Hooper and his editors have to kick it up a notch. Turns out there are even more surprises in the story than expected. Though expectation is hard. Hooper keeps the viewer’s attention on each moment as it occurs. No distractions.

Except Partain. Isn’t he annoying? Don’t you hate him? Wow. You hate a kid in a wheelchair. You’re awful. Isn’t he annoying though?

The last third is terrifying and horrifying in a way the first two-thirds aren’t. Turns out there’s a comfort in the unknown, all Hooper and Henkel have for reveals are worst case scenarios. The last third explores that unknown. Intensity to the point of nausea. Then more. Then more. Then more. It never ends.

I suppose Partain’s great. His obnoxious is perfect. Burns’s good. Vail and McMinn are fine. Danziger’s an unlikable prick, which, again, seems to be the point. Hansen doesn’t get any lines, but the physical performance is outstanding. Especially since Hooper takes the time to show the inhuman villains emotional moments, but not their intended victims. Neal’s good. Jim Siedow is a gas station owner who the Mystery Machine–oh, yeah, the youths are in a van–comes across. He’s great.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifies. It’s what Hooper’s going for–terrifying the viewer. The way he does it is to create this masterpiece of mood, timing, photography, performance, everything. Every shot appears precise (which is astounding given the film’s micro budget), every cut is right on; his control of the mood is absolute.

Maybe someday I’ll even be able to watch it in one sitting.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper, based on a story by Henkel; director of photography, Daniel Pearl; edited by J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson; music by Wayne Bell and Hooper; released by Bryanston Distributing.

Starring Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul A. Partain (Franklin), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), John Dugan (Grandfather), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface).


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