Tuesday, May 29, 2018

ITALIAN EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION VOL. 3:
"HEIRS DI MARIO" (Argento, Lamberto, Soavi)


In the last explosive! edition of Italian Exploitation, I watched a Whole Lotta Bava (Mario, that is) and had myself a whale of a time. In May, I decided to check out three of his genre progeny, the literal and metaphorical heirs to the giallo throne who carried on the maestro's tradition into the late '70s, '80s and early '90s. Dario Argento. Lamberto Bava. Michele Soavi.

These chaps frequently worked together, swapping roles as producer, director or actor, to create some of the best Italian crossover horror of their day. They all have style to burn, and much of the modern horror "renaissance" looks comparatively tame next to many of their sumptuous, mood-drenched frames. Without these guys, would we have gotten a TV show so audaciously baroque and deliciously deranged as the giallo-inspired Hannibal (a show which I finally just finished streaming, btw)?

Here are 15 selections I sampled from the trio I affectionately dub "Heirs Di Mario"...


#22 - THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
Dario Argento

Argento's directorial debut and the first in his aptly titled "Animal Trilogy." It only takes a few minutes and one gloriously tense trapped-behind-glass art gallery murder before you know you're in the hands of a naturally talented visual stylist with enough pizzazz to goose the already humming giallo genre into high gear. Although Plumage may have artfully rendered birds foremost on its brain, my favorite scene had more to do with the feline foes, a darkly funny sidebar where writer Tony Musante visits Fernando Di Leo favorite Mario Adorf, here playing a surly, reclusive painter who keeps cages full of cats which he uses to make a tasty poor man's stew.

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#23 - FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971)
Dario Argento

The final film in the Argento "Animal Trilogy" (flies count as animals, yes?). I liked this one a tad more than Plumage and Cat O' Nine Tails, probably because I dig insects and would rather follow a '70s rock drummer through a convoluted murder plot than a dour writer or plucky reporter. Also, it features the most flamboyantly gay, flamboyantly failing detective in all of crime film history (a fantastic Jean-Pierre Marielle). For some reason, this guy loves to brag about his miserable track record in solving murders...that is, when he's not eyeing the seams of rocker Roberto's tight-cut bell bottoms.

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#24 - SUSPIRIA (1977)
Dario Argento

Confession: What many consider to be Argento's masterwork I've always considered to be merely a'ight. Yes, the Freiberg dance academy interior design and color palette are phenomenal. And, yep, that Goblin score is one for the ages. Don't get it twisted...I dig the maggot and razor wire scenes! But it's the goofy Three Mothers/witches plot nonsense that saps a lot of the fun for me. It's all portent, little action. I saw Suspiria many, many years ago (probably on VHS), so I gave it a second try on the big screen a few weeks back at an Uncut 4K Restoration screening, hoping to discover something I missed. No dice. The visuals/soundtrack (both pumped to the max in the theatre) still dazzle, but all the witchy suggestion still leaves me dry. That said, I greatly look forward to the Luca Guadagnino remake coming this fall. From what I hear, it may be one of those rare instances where the second iteration is better.

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#25 - INFERNO (1980)
Dario Argento

The second installment in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy features a lot of the same ancient manuscript/evil witch hullabaloo as Suspiria, but, for some reason, it went down easier for me. Could it be because much of the photogenic nonsense was set in NYC instead of Germany? Could it be that the penetrating gaze of the mysterious Italian woman (Ania Pieroni) holding a fluffy white cat in a lecture hall hypnotized me? Could it be the hilarious horde of cats attacking Daria Nicolodi? It probably has something to do with all of the above. Also, corridors...I remember lots and lots of shots traveling through darkened corridors, which (thanks to David Lynch) gets me every time. Bonus: Inferno features not only hordes of cats but loads and loads of NYC sewer rats, as in this triumphant scene where a cat strangler gets his muddy comeuppance and is eaten alive by hungry Central Park vermin.

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#26 - PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) (1985)
Dario Argento

Young Jennifer Connelly psychically solving murders with the help of insects and chimpanzees. Am I the exact target audience for this wonderfully weird, woefully underrated movie? Absolutely! It doesn't hurt when you add Donald Pleasance in a wheelchair and a soundtrack featuring Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Goblin and Brian De Palma house band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. This was my second visit to the Swiss Wagner Academy for Girls, and, for my money, it's still waaay more of a blast than that infamous dance academy in Germany. Though I knew it was coming from a mile away, I couldn't help but cheer out loud a second time when Tanga (furry guy, above) showed up with his simian switchblade to save the day.

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#27 - OPERA (1987)
Dario Argento

You gotta love Dario, if for no other reason than the guy really strives to keep as many out-of-work animal actors as possible gainfully employed. Opera is no exception, and this time Argento not only nabs SAG cards for thousands of struggling ravens but gives them front row seats to Verdi's Macbeth. It's a genuine altruist's move but also a nifty justification for countless swooping, swirling and spiraling bird POV shots. It's like he purposefully set out to make a film that would make Alfred Hitchcock green with envy in his grave and Steadicam devotee De Palma seethe with jealousy from his Wise Guys cutting room. But that's not all! This movable feast for the senses also features eyelid spikes as stay-awake devices, bullets that travel through peepholes before exploding into brains (poor Daria Nicolodi) and sadistic opera directors who claim to masturbate before important scenes in order to shoot them more honestly (a thinly veiled Dario confession, no doubt). I haven't even gotten to the soundtrack...Eno, Wyman, Simonetti, Steel Grave. Yes, Steel Grave! Surely, you've heard of Steel Grave! If Phenomena is my favorite Argento, then Opera is certainly a very close second. Ravens, chimpanzees...it's really a Sophie's Choice type deal.

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#28 - TRAUMA (1993)
Dario Argento

The '90s: this is where the Dario locomotive veers and begins to careen wildly off the tracks. It's when he starts casting daughter Asia (a fine enough actress...except in her father's films) in nearly every leading role and aping his past successes to the point of painful parody. I can't really tell you what happened in Trauma narratively, other than to say I must have been traumatized by its tiresome plot machinations to the point of blissful amnesia. I decided to get off the Argento train here, in fear of tainting the good times (Phenomena, Opera, etc.). I still hold out hope that he has one good flick left in him. Has anybody heard what's up with his Iggy Pop/Sandman flick?

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#29 - MACABRE (1980)
Lamberto Bava

After being pleasantly surprised by father Mario's final film Shock, one on which son Lamberto reportedly did some uncredited directorial heavy lifting, I decided to give the official Son of Bava his five-movie due. So glad I did! I didn't have high expectations going into Macabre, it being Lamberto's first film in addition to one I knew little about. Some secrets are better unspoken, and this one, for me, was one of those rare films that comes out of nowhere and takes you completely by surprise. Where the second it ends you know you've just seen some sort of twisted classic and want to throw open the window and shout it from the rooftops (or tweet it, if you prefer shouting into a basement full of poop). For this reason, I will keep my comments about Macabre brief and spoiler-free other than to say: "Drop whatever you're doing, whatever you're eating, stick it in the fridge next to thing that may or may not look like a severed human head, then see this movie immediatamente."

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#30 - DEMONS 2 (1986)
Lamberto Bava

At the beginning of the year, I caught a 35mm Alamo retro screening of Lamberto's trapped-in-the-cinema crowd-pleaser Demons, the first and best in his kinda-sort-but-not-really-a-franchise of wholly trashy, wholly enjoyable demon/zombie movies. So I decided to give its only official sequel (also produced by Argento) a go. Demons 2 sticks pretty closely to the first Demoni playbook, and, since that playbook was such an enjoyable one, this is not a bad thing. Instead of patrons trapped in a movie theater watching a horror film come to life, they are now various residents of an apartment high-rise watching TV hobglobins materialize through the boob tube. Where the first movie featured a bitchin' metal soundtrack (Accept, Motley Crue, Saxon, et al.), this one gets all goth on your ass (The Smiths, Dead Can Dance, The Cult, Peter Murphy). Somewhere in these pleasantly photocopied proceedings, a young Asia Argento gets shoehorned into the mix. Regrettably, she does not turn into a ghoul, though there is a Demon Boy in this one who definitely earns the MVD (Most Valuable Demoni).

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#31 - DELIRIUM (1987)
Lamberto Bava

Lamberto takes a break from demons and invokes his papa with a stylish, sexy and at-times surreal neo-giallo that serves as a callback to the fashion world setting of Blood and Black Lace. Instead of a fancy dressmaker's atelier, Delirium relocates the action to a borderline pornographic fashion magazine called the Pussycat where beautiful and *insanely* easy on the eyes ex-model Serena Grandi runs the sleazy show. Before you can say "boo" (or "boobs," if you're the crass sort), a killer's POV is stalking her and other magazine models, frequently replacing their heads with eyeballs or bumble bee antenna. It's off-putting and generally effective and...never mind, just watch this compilation of Serena in leather outfits, and you'll see what I mean.

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#32 - UNTIL DEATH (1987)
Lamberto Bava

Lamberto's interesting, if not entirely enthralling, spiritual sequel to The Postman Always Ring Twice made for Italian TV. The story begins where the original Postman ends, in that the scheming wife-drifter couple have already gotten away with her boorish husband's murder and are now in the post-burial "Now what?" argumentative stage. Enter a second handsome drifter, and before you know it the whole scheming cycle is repeating. Leading lady Gioia Scola is quite good, and Younger Bava does a perfectly acceptable job keeping the suspense plot stoked. But I have to wonder what the original director, Lucio Fulci, would have done with the same material in a big screen format. I guess we'll never know. As consolation, maybe give this other modern-day Postman Always Rings spin a read instead.

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#33 - DEMONS 5: THE DEVIL'S VEIL (1989)
Lamberto Bava

Son of Bava returns to the unofficial Demons well, this time with middling made-for-TV results. Now the demonic goings-on take place at a ski resort instead of a movie theater or apartment high-rise. There's a colorized homage to Elder Bava's Black Sunday witch impalement scene to remind you "Hey, my dad was pretty great, wasn't he?" and a male virgin deflowering sequence that morphs into an old wrinkled witch make-out session. Not bad, but this is where I got off the Lamberto B train. All aboard the Soavi Express!

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#34 - THE CHURCH (1989)
Michele Soavi

Director Michele Soavi may be known for being an actor in '70s & '80s Italian horror flicks by the maestros (Fulci, Argento, Bava) as a much as being a lenser, but the dude is a full-blown auteur in his own right. He obviously picked up a thing or two Second AD'ing for Dario and others, a revelation I first had watching his delightful 1987 film Stage Fright a few years ago. The Church is even better, a free-form visual excess assault set loose from the stalk-and-slash trappings of his first film's theatre-bound whodunnit plot. I can't speak much to the plot here, except to say it has something to do with a huge gothic cathedral built atop a mass grave of medieval devil worshippers or some such meshugas. Style is the real story in La Chiesa, and Soavi has it in spades. Imagine that old '90s Enigma song "Sadeness" with the monks chanting in Latin but legitimately haunting instead of the goofy softcore Skinamax sex anthem it later became. There's also a tween-aged Asia Argento running in and out of church pews and underground subways smashing into people's faces. And Minotaur sex. How can we forget the Minotaur sex?

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#35 - THE SECT (1991)
Michele Soavi

The Church is cited by some as the second official/unofficial Demons sequel though, apart from an ancient mask here and there, I struggle to see much connection, certainly no stylistic linkage. Soavi's next effort, The Sect, often gets mentioned as the official/unofficial Demons 4, and it seems like an even further stretch. There are murderous hippies, Satanic cults, beetles crawling up noses, hooks attached to faces, and even a hell baby spawned in the end but, from what I recall in the lush maelstrom of style that washed over me, not a legit demon or demonic mask in sight. But I was under the Soavi spell so, you know, don't quote me on that.

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#36 - CEMETERY MAN (1994)
Michele Soavi

AKA Dellamorte Dellamore. I'd seen bits and pieces of this Rupert Everett horror-comedy over the years but never enough to count as a full watch. Everett plays an impotent cemetery caretaker tasked not only with burying the dead but re-burying the "Returners" once they inevitably spring back to life. At one of many funerals, he falls for a gorgeous, manipulative widow played by Anna Falchi (pictured astride the Rupe above) and quickly gets to work solving that whole impotency dilemma. Soavi veers into Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi territory with this one, and it does at times feel more like a modern graphic novel adaptation than his other stuff. I wasn't surprised to learn that the writer whose book this was based on is more known for his Italian Dylan Dog comics. That said, it's still a bunch o' fun, and none other than Mr. Martin Scorsese called it one of the best Italian films of the '90s. So, hey, if you won't take it from a veritable plate of egg noodles and ketchup like me, then take it from an old paisan like Marty.

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