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Ugly, gory, disturbing... and morbidly fascinating
This film really messed with my head as a child. I watched it on video when I was about 8 years old, felt very queasy and disturbed within the first 10 minutes and had nightmares for weeks afterwards. Large portions of the film's imagery remained with me during my childhood. I've seen Xtro two or three times since then and I'm happy to say I still find it a creepy, unnerving experience.
The director Harry Bromley Davenport has openly admitted that he made Xtro for shock value, that he set out to make a sickeningly ugly, nasty, hardcore piece of sci-fi horror, and he certainly succeeded. The notorious scene that nearly got Xtro on the video nasty blacklist in the early 80s occurs about 10 minutes in: the Xtro alien, an ugly quadruped who looks like a cross between a lizard and a grasshopper, rapes and impregnates a woman who quickly gives birth to a fully-grown man, who then proceeds to chew through his own umbilical cord! Another H.R. Geiger-style nightmare image is when the family au pair (future James Bond girl Maryam D'Abo) is turned into an alien breeding chamber, incubated in this cocoon wrapped in spiderwebs and churning out these alien eggs into a bathtub of green slime. You get the idea
For some reason I found the horror in Xtro all the more effective for being counterpointed against this grim, kitchen-sink London council estate setting and tinny 80s synthesizer score. It isn't for everyone, but there's no denying that a lot of bizarre imagination and creativity went into this film, and that the film has a potent shock value. It's possible that fans of David Cronenberg's early so-called "biological horrors" Shivers, Rabid, The Brood might be more appreciative of Xtro than most others.
Il gatto a nove code (1971)
Not my favourite Argento but still worthwhile
Dario Argento has gone on record as saying that The Cat o' Nine Tails is his least favourite of all his own work. I was a bit surprised to hear that, although I must agree it's a flawed film. It's worth noting that, while it's generally regarded as something of a minor early work among his filmography, in his native Italy it remains his most popular video rental.
The Cat o' Nine Tails is a murder mystery thriller that strays far closer to classic Hitchcock and Agatha Christie than to Argento's own later works which focused heavily on extreme violence and/or the supernatural. While the "Ten Little Indians"-style whodunit plot has some clever, interesting twists and turns to keep you guessing, I did feel that Argento got rather bogged down in the mechanics of his plot at times. Also, at 112 minutes it's one of the only Argento films that slightly outstays its welcome.
Karl Malden is excellent as Arno, the blind crossword puzzle designer. I enjoyed his charming interaction with both his little niece Lori and sleazy investigative journalist James Franco. There's one strikingly tense set piece where Franco is trapped in a dark crypt. The film also has an amiably jaunty comic tone in places. Perhaps my favourite feature of the whole movie was the excellent musical score of Ennio Morricone. A jazzy prog-rock soundtrack that mixes bass, percussion and trumpets, it's probably the coolest, grooviest music in any Argento film before he began collaborating with soundtrack maestros Goblin.
All in all, The Cat o' Nine Tails is for me not quite as lively, memorable or inspired as Argento's strongest work, but it's still an entertaining and clever thriller that's well worth a look.
A bizarre horror masterpiece
Phenomena has long been one of my favourite Dario Argento films. It definitely seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, even more so than most Argentos, and I think it's his most unjustly underrated piece of work to date.
A 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly shines in the lead role, playing a sleepwalker who has a bizarre telepathic bond with insects and uses them to help her solve a string of gory murders at a girls boarding school in the Swiss Alps. She is one of my favourite Argento heroines, a tough, brainy and eccentric little girl somewhere between Nancy Drew and Snow White. She deserves special credit for taking on some truly gruesome scenes, like when she falls into a pit of maggots, slime and rotting corpses. As for the rest of the cast, Donald Pleasance is good as the wheelchair-bound Scottish entomologist and Daria Nicolodi has fun with a small but juicy role.
Argento really let his imagination run wild making this one. Phenomena is a surreal, magical and surprisingly beautiful film, as much a dark fairytale fantasy as it is a horror film. It's visually stunning and I loved the incongruity of having all this gory mayhem happen against the picturesque backdrop of the Swiss Alps. Claudio Simonetti's electronic score is perfect, particularly the haunting main theme with its 80s synths and choral soprano vocals.
With its girls boarding school setting and unseen killer on the loose, Phenomena can be taken as a companion piece to Argento's earlier classic Suspiria (1977). But the introduction of slimy maggots, a razor-wielding pet chimp and six million buzzing insects set it apart. It all descends into glorious chaos for the Grand Guignol climax, which is perhaps the most thrilling house-of-horrors funhouse ride Argento has yet given us.
A remarkable film.
Heart of Midnight (1988)
Dark, disturbing and atmospheric, with a great performance by Leigh
Heart of Midnight is a very strange movie, and I mean that in a good way. Broadly speaking I guess it falls within the horror genre, but it draws upon elements from many different subgenres and works on many levels. You can take it as a haunted-house movie, a ghost story, a psychological thriller and a character study rolled into one.
Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a superb performance as Carol Rivers, a fragile and sensitive young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown. When her estranged uncle dies of AIDS, she mysteriously inherits his deserted nightclub and, upon moving in, discovers its seedy past as a "massage parlour". From here on in, the story gets darker and more twisted, but suffice it to say that it contains many of the ingredients of full-bore horror: moaning voices in the night, taps dripping blood, secret passageways, beheaded rats, apples that ooze maggots and so on. For much of the film, we're kept in the dark as to whether Carol is privy to hallucinations and sinking into another nervous breakdown, or whether there is actually a dark force living in the empty nightclub with her.
Heart of Midnight is not a perfect film. There are some plot loopholes and the usual budget limitations of a B movie, including a pesky boom mic that dips into the frame a few times. But it makes up for its flaws with a strong visual style and a convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife. Along the way there are several recognizable nods to films like Peeping Tom, Suspiria, The Shining and two Roman Polanski classics - Repulsion and The Tenant.
Jennifer Jason Leigh really gives it her all in the lead role as Carol. She is an exceptionally talented and striking actress, and Heart of Midnight provides the then 25-year-old with a strong early showcase for her talent. Her portrayal of the frail but determined Carol is passionate, believable and always sympathetic. She's a horror-movie heroine of unusual strength and intelligence, which means we really root for her during this often harrowing nightmare. Peter Coyote, Frank Stallone and Brenda Vaccaro all lend decent support, but it's Leigh who makes this dark journey worth taking.
Il rosso segno della follia (1970)
Very strange film...
I say strange because I'm not quite sure what exactly "Hatchet for the Honeymoon" was supposed to be (but enjoyed it nonetheless). It features many of the traditional giallo elements - a black-clad killer, lots of beautiful young women who may as well have "Murder Victim" tattooed on their foreheads, incompetent detectives, childhood psychological trauma, spooky childhood toys... Yet it also diverges from the giallo blueprint in some ways by incorporating an odd, Twilight Zone-style supernatural element into the plot, and also a wry commentary on bourgeois married life. There are clear elements of both Psycho and Peeping Tom in the story, and it also predates both the 1980 slasher film He Knows You're Alone, and the Bret Easton Ellis book (and later film) American Psycho.
As usual with Mario Bava, the cinematography, production design and lighting are all beautiful to look at, and there are two great suspense set-pieces: the scene where the killer waltzes with his next victim to the eerie tune of a music box in a shadowy, elegant store-room full of creepy plastic mannequins in wedding dresses; and the scene where he talks to the suspicious cop while his dead wife's arm is hanging from the staircase and dripping blood onto the carpet.
It's also a surprisingly funny film in many ways. Special mention must go to Laura Betti's hilarious performance as Mildred, the evil wife from hell.
All in all, "Hatchet for the Honeymoon" is an intriguing and often underrated addition to Mario Bava's formidable canon. Stylish, entertaining and darkly funny.