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Dario Argento's follow-up to Suspiria disappoints (SPOILERS)
Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento's best film, Suspiria, had been an international hit which even broke the American market. Unfortunately, this degree of success left Argento's next film, Inferno, caught between commercial expectations and artistic ambitions.
And, reportedly, Inferno's story did not come together as easily as it had for Suspiria, because Argento's under-appreciated Suspiria co-writer, Daria Nicolodi, felt exhausted and frustrated from her previous experience. At some point, Argento and Nicolodi outlined a sweeping horror epic which would have been covered across three films: the saga of The Three Mothers. Mater Suspiriorum (mother of sighs), manifested in Germany, had already been confronted and destroyed in Suspiria; Mater Tenebrarum (mother of shadows), manifested in America, would be the force behind the events of Inferno; Mater Lacrimarum (mother of tears), manifested in Italy, would have appeared in a third film which was never made, after Nicolodi refused to collaborate with Argento on any more scripts.
Inferno's New York City setting was possibly a calculated move to appeal to a wider audience, especially since Argento had financial backing from a major American studio for the first time in his career. The fanciful qualities of Suspiria are somewhat lacking in this sequel, due as much to the more mundane setting as to Nicolodi's decreased creative input (she does not have a screen writing credit on Inferno.) Indeed, the unfocused plot owes more than a little to a pair of NYC-set horror novels which had already been made into films by this time: Rosemary's Baby and The Sentinel; the sinister apartment building populated by grotesque characters seems all-too-familiar. The nominal protagonist is the inquisitive brother of a tenant who has died while pursuing her obsession with The Three Mothers. And yet he disappears for long stretches of the film, although this is actually a good thing, because he is played by an unappealing himbo named Leigh McCloskey; this sort of casting feels like a disastrous attempt at second-guessing what American viewers wanted to see.
Inferno's good points lie entirely in Argento's cinematic technique. The bright cartoon colors of Suspiria are set aside in favor of an extensive use of red and blue filters, and the crystalline results are often breath-taking. Many of Argento's individual compositions and set-pieces (with some uncredited special effects by Mario Bava) are quite impressive -- particularly one sequence set during a lunar eclipse, in which a thoroughly unsympathetic man is nearly devoured by rats, only for his presumed rescuer to kill him with a meat cleaver. But the film doesn't hold together; it feels more like the work of a precocious but undisciplined film student, rather than the work of a seasoned veteran, which is what Argento was by this time.
Even the music, usually a vital ingredient in an Argento film, is a letdown. In the place of Italian rock band Goblin, we have pioneering British rocker Keith Emerson; good idea on paper, except that Emerson was past his prime by then, and Inferno was but one in a string of uninspired Emerson film scores. The best Emerson can manage here is a pastiche of Jerry Goldsmith's theme music from The Omen. Selections from the work of 19th Century opera composer Giuseppe Verdi are not enough to compensate.
Worst of all is Inferno's resolution: when Mater Tenebrarum finally reveals herself to the protagonist, she delivers a long and frightening speech which appears to anticipate a fate for the protagonist similar to that of his female counterpart in The Sentinel -- becoming trapped and enslaved by the supernatural forces within the building. But instead, he simply runs away, and escapes with ridiculous ease, Mater Tenebrarum doing nothing to stop him. Was this another instance of second-guessing the preferences of American viewers? Inferno has a surprising amount of admirers who consider it Argento's greatest achievement. I personally believe that it barely edges into the category of "qualified success", a loose collection of brilliant moments which do not add up to a satisfying whole. Fortunately, a return to form was just around the corner in Argento's next film, Tenebrae.
Dario Argento embraces fantasy and creates his first horror masterpiece (SPOILERS)
Once the success of Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) had catapulted Italian filmmaker Dario Argento to the top of his profession, it must have seemed like there were no limits to the possibilities for his follow-up film. And here is where the true authorship of Suspiria becomes a gray area.
Daria Nicolodi, who played the female lead in Deep Red, had begun an affair with Argento, which would result in one child (a daughter, Asia Argento, who would grow up to become a successful actress and filmmaker) and a volatile romance/creative collaboration. According to Nicolodi, it was she who encouraged Argento to break out of the murder mystery mold and move into horror fantasy. Furthermore, she claims that Suspiria's story, of a German dance academy awash in black magic, was inspired by true-life tales told to her by her grandmother. In the end, Nicolodi came away with a screen writing credit, but only after fighting Argento tooth and nail over the credit.
Of what there is no doubt is that the fanciful premise of Suspiria inspired Argento to new peaks of visual creativity. Using a special process to print the film in Golden Age of Hollywood Technicolor, Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli splash their canvas in primary colors of such richness that the viewer can almost taste them. The over-the-top camera movements and editing from Deep Red were taken even further over-the-top in Suspiria, into a dimension of pure cinematic delirium. The gore which had been mostly implied in Deep Red now splashed all over the screen.
Scoring their second Argento film (the first being Deep Red), Italian rock band Goblin provide the icing on the cake, with an eerily childlike refrain segueing seamlessly into brutal percussion, chants, and Claudio Simonetti's sheer keyboard madness.
Even Argento's worst flaws as a filmmaker -- bad acting and lack of plot -- actually work in this fantasy context. Jessica Harper and Stefania Cassini make two-dimensional yet likable heroines, while Alida Valli and Golden Age of Hollywood icon Joan Bennett gleefully chew the scenery as the villainesses. And where Deep Red blurred the lines between reality and nightmare, Suspiria brazenly flies into a world nothing like the one we live in.
Argento has feted the classic Disney cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Suspiria's main forebear, but I think Suspiria could be more accurately described as a psychotic funhouse-mirror reflection of The Wizard of Oz. Argento made a few more good films (and one more great one) after Suspiria, but his unique cinematic vision was never clearer than it was here. Perhaps if Argento had been more willing to give Nicolodi proper credit, then Argento might not have peaked so early?
Profondo rosso (1975)
Dario Argento's stylistic breakthrough, but not quite a masterpiece (SPOILERS)
Italian filmmaker Dario Argento (born 1940) was, for a few years from the mid-70s through the early-80s, the most innovative horror director of his time. Among Argento's countrymen, only Sergio Leone (whose Once Upon a Time In the West was co-written by Argento) managed to straddle the line between auteur-ism and genre film-making in a similar fashion.
Argento's special standing in the Italian film industry came about through a mixture of dues-paying (he spent many years as both a film critic and a screenwriter) and luxury (his father, Salvatore, was a film producer with a lot of power in the industry.) After debuting as a director with the 1970 murder mystery Bird With the Crystal Plummage, Argento spent the first half of the 70s perfecting his skills as a genre director (two more murder mysteries, Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) before turning around and taking a couple years to figure out exactly what sort of films he wanted to make (the results were a forgettable non-genre film, Five Days In Milan, and some TV directing.) Finally, Argento came full circle with Deep Red/Profondo Rosso, another murder mystery, but the first one which showed the stylistic trademarks which would be endlessly imitated but, as yet, never improved. The painterly color palette and hyperactive camera did have their antecedents among Italy's more talented genre journeymen (notably Mario Bava), but Argento pushed them to the next plateau, and added his own innovations: disorienting cuts which anticipated the editing style of music videos, and an overpowering percussion-and-keyboard-driven music score. The latter was provided by Italian rock band Goblin, whose members would collaborate frequently with Argento for years to come.
The story's psycho-sexual overtones (the protagonist spars verbally with a feminist policewoman; a mother-dominated gay man seems the most likely suspect) had already been established in Argento's earlier films (most notably in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, where childhood traumas have left the killer, a woman, unsure of her own gender.) But Argento was now confident enough as a filmmaker to deliver them with a bracing intensity. Italian genre filmmakers from the generation before Argento's had clearly defined attitudes which today seem sexist and homophobic. Argento, coming from a generation that shattered the boundaries of gender and sexuality, took a different viewpoint, that of a world in a state of chaotic change, with humanity struggling in vain to adapt, only to end up driven to acts of gross brutality. Argento and his co-screenwriter, Bernardino Zapponi, underline this skillfully with scenes of everyday mechanical oppression (cars, vending machines, telephones) and everyday human cruelty (a father hits his daughter because she gets a malicious thrill from killing lizards.) For all its impressive qualities, the film does have its flaws. Story structure and acting were never Argento's strong suits. Deep Red's detractors are quick to point out the many plot holes, and the cast works in two modes: wooden or hammy. And the first and last deaths in the film (the killer's first victim going through a window, and the killer herself getting decapitated) both suffer from ropey special effects.
Argento's greatest skills were to create a unique sense of a nightmare come to life, which is why his finest films are those which break away from any sense of existing in the real world and soar into the realms of pure cinematic fantasy. The first example of that would be Argento's next film, Suspiria, but Deep Red, for all its flaws, is where he broke new ground, and it remains essential viewing for the serious horror fan.
Bowery Bugs (1949)
Not just the one Art Davis Bugs Bunny cartoon, it's also Davis's near-masterpiece!
To paraphrase what kev keefe has already observed in his comment, Art Davis's one Bugs Bunny cartoon is funnier than all of Bob McKimson's Bugs cartoons combined. It was one of the worst errors in judgment on the part of the people running Warner Brothers that, when the 50s started and they could no longer afford four animation units, they dissolved Davis's unit instead of McKimson's.
"Bowery Bugs" was one of the last cartoons Davis directed for Warners, and it shows that he was just starting to hit his stride. This cartoon is both hilarious and beautifully crafted. It's a darkly funny re-telling of a New York City urban folk tale about Steve Brody, an Irish roughneck whose run of bad luck led him to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 19th Century. In this version, Bugs Bunny gets involved after Brody threatens him, thinking a rabbit's foot will bring him good luck. Quick-thinking as ever, Bugs talks Brody out of it and sends him on a wild ride of deeper and deeper misfortune, with Bugs using his disguise abilities to pose as everyone from a Middle Eastern fortune-teller to a gambler to a lady to a baker to a gruff Irish cop. The suicidal implications (although in real life, Brody survived his jump) would make a cartoon like this impossible to get made these days, and that's a sad sign of how much this nation has lost its sense of humor.
Mel Blanc is in his usual fine form as Bugs, but a special mention must be made of the uncredited voice performance of Billy Bletcher as Brody. Bletcher is one of the unsung heroes of cartoons from the early-to-mid 20th Century, the voice behind countless ruffians with deep, loud, raspy voices, including Papa Bear from Chuck Jones's Three Bears cartoons from Warners and Peg-Leg Pete a.k.a. Black Pete for Disney cartoons.
The cartoon is filled with wonderful details, from Bugs narrating over imitation woodcuts, to a bouncer who's nickname is Gorilla because he really IS a gorilla, to a little puppy who licks Brody's face out of sympathy, but then acts disgusted. And overlying the cartoon is native New Yorker Davis's sincere but sardonic affection for his gritty hometown.
Davis never again directed a cartoon this good, but if he had been able to continue directing for Warners, I think he would have rivaled Chuck Jones as the studio's best cartoon director of the 50s. As reality turned out, Davis spent the 50s demoted to an animator for Friz Freleng's unit, but at least his final Warners' credit was as a director, for 1961's "Quackodile Tears." That one's nothing special, but it's good by Warners' early 60s standards. In the late 60s, Davis joined De Patie-Freleng as a director and made a couple of the best Pink Panther cartoons, "In the Pink of the Night" and "Pinkcome Tax", but "Bowery Bugs" will always be his finest achievement.
The Ant and the Aardvark (1969)
These cartoons could have been so much better
From 1969 to 1971, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the same studio responsible for the often wonderful Pink Panther and The Inspector cartoons, produced 17 cartoons featuring The Ant and the Aardvark. They always focused on a frustrated aardvark (for those who don't know, aardvarks are a species closely related to anteaters) in his hopeless pursuit of one clever, smart-mouthed ant. The characters were designed in same witty style as the Pink Panther and Inspector characters, and John Byner, who was at the time a very popular TV comedian, did both their voices perfectly. The title sequence was charming, with the letters coming to life and chasing each other, and most of all, the delightfully upbeat music, composed and conducted by Doug Goodwin, was so good that every member of the studio band was listed in the credits.
Unfortunately, the Ant and Aardvark cartoons were just never that funny. Despite having the same writers as the Pink Panther and Inspector, the jokes and slapstick almost always fell flat. Part of the problem was that the basic concept was derived from the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons which producer and studio head Friz Freleng had directed during the 40s and 50s. The Ant and the Aardvark series was never able to transcend its derivative nature, to the point where the final cartoon, "From Bed to Worse," was a scene-by-scene ripoff of one of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons.
This is a real shame, because there was potential here for something much more enduring. The Ant and the Aardvark is one of the few cartoon series that I actually would like to see remade by modern animation talents, in the hopes of unearthing that potential.
The most underrated cartoon of the 80s
Okay, first the little matter that the producers of "Thundercats" ripped off their own show by doing a space opera version called "Silverhawks" - I grew up outside the States, in Ecuador, and "Silverhawks" was actually shown there before "Thundercats!" So I've never had that issue.
And why can't "Silverhawks" simply be judged on its own merits? The science may have been wildly inaccurate, but that's why it's called Science FICTION!! Just shut your mind off and enjoy. I certainly had no problem doing it, with all the brightly colored characters against backgrounds of futuristic buildings and machines and black skies with shimmering stars.
Most of all, "Silverhawks" had GREAT villains. Their leader, Monstar, may have been a Mumm-Ra ripoff, but I think his ritual transformation was way creepier than Mumm-Ra's. Instead of getting all muscular and bursting out of a cloak and bandages, Monstar would burst out of his own SKIN, and come out looking like some kind of cyborg-demon! And Monstar's underlings were a memorable bunch: his ridiculously obedient sidekick, a chimp/snake named Yes-Man; Hardware, the troll with a backpack full of gadgets; Windjammer, with his long blonde hair and gaunt face and weather-control staff; Mumbo-Jumbo, a minotaur on steroids; Buzzsaw, a robot with built-in blades; Molecular, the shape shifter; Pokerface, the lounge lizard/walking slot machine; Time-Stopper, a teenage brat with a clock on his chest which could manipulate time; Melodia, the Queen of Rock with a (literally) killer guitar.
That was something else special about Silverhawks: the villains were so much cooler than the smug, boring heroes. Even though they always lost in the end, it was almost subversive that a cartoon could have young viewers (or, at least this young viewer) rooting for the villains. It was very cathartic, a healthy way of embracing one's dark side without doing other people harm.
Silverhawks was a great show, it deserves much more respect than it gets. I'm hoping this might be remedied during its 20th anniversary in 2006.
A kick-ass cop show...but only in its first season
In 1984, "Hunter" got off to an explosive start, with producer Stephen J. Cannell and creator Frank Lupo taking the Dirty Harry concept way over the top. Fred Dryer starred as Rick Hunter, a Los Angeles cop hated by his superiors both for his shoot-first-ask-questions-later methods and for his family ties to the mob. Stepfanie Kramer played Dee Dee McCall, the only other cop on the force with an equally aggressive approach; she also had a flair for disguise which was often helpful. Together, they took down every form of sleaze under the California sun: psychos, drug-dealers, pimps, corrupt politicians, often in a hailstorm of bullets punctuated by car crashes and explosions; and they made no apologies, because they knew that there was no other way to have justice in a scummy world. With the outstanding production values typical to Cannell shows, and with Dryer and Kramer's considerable chemistry, the results were white-hot.
Unfortunately, after the show was renewed for a second season, Cannell found himself juggling too many shows at once, and brought in his mentor, veteran producer Roy Huggins, to take over the reins. The results were depressing: out went the sleaze, out went Hunter's mob ties, out went the fights with the superiors, out went most of the action. Instead, we got the usual boring upscale L.A. locations, we got slower, "socially relevant" stories, and Hunter and McCall suddenly had vulnerabilities. That last change was especially annoying to me, because the unstoppable dealer (in this case, dealers) of justice is a true icon which Cannell, with his love for classic hard-boiled detective fiction, understood perfectly.
The series went on to run for a total of eight years, but it was never again as good as when it started. For a brief, bright moment, it was the closest thing to TRUE pulp fiction seen in American live action entertainment from the second half of the 20th century.
an overlooked ground-breaker
This series has been somewhat overshadowed by the better-known, but in my opinion inferior, "Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends," which aired simultaneously during the early 80s. "Amazing Friends" was produced for network television, and this show was produced for syndication. That's why this show was free of a lot of the clichés and cuteness of most other early 80s cartoons, including "Amazing Friends." There was something genuinely weird and dark about this show, and it captured the flavor of the classic 1960s/early 1970s comic books which inspired it. Instead of teaming him up with countless other Marvel superheroes, Spidey worked mostly alone here, and the show was all the better for it; the only team-up was with Captain America, and even then it was consistent with the tone of the show, as they fought a truly scary villain, Captain America's main enemy, the Red Skull. It is also a historic show, as this was the first series to emerge from Marvel Productions, which went to make some of the greatest cartoons ever, including "Transformers" and "GI Joe." Even though the writing varied in quality from episode to episode, and even though the animation looks somewhat stiff compared to the Marvel shows that followed, this show still deserves more respect.
bad taste can be so good
The late Italian director Mario Bava (1913-1980) made a handful of genuinely great films, like Black Sunday, Lisa and the Devil, and Blood and Black Lace, along with many that almost transcend kitsch, i.e. Diabolik and Black Sabbath, and some that are simply wonderful kitsch. Of the third category, this may be the best example.
A group of rich, decadent swingers in the most tasteless fashions of the time (the year is 1970) cavort about on an island owned by one of them. One guest is a scientist with a formula that could be worth a fortune. When he refuses to sell the formula, everybody on the island starts dying one by one (a la Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians,) the bodies literally piling up in the meat locker, just one example of the hilariously dark humor Bava brings to this dubious premise.
Bava made no bones about this movie being a paycheck job, or of his shame for it - the script was atrocious, the producer refused to let him have any say in the casting, or let Bava use most of his usual crew, and budget cuts forced the director to have almost every murder take place offscreen. But Bava's films always had a misanthropic wit(except Black Sunday, with its clear-cut good versus evil scenario,) and in the case of "Five Dolls For An August Moon," it almost seems like the director's contempt for the project actually made the end result funnier and more brazen than expected. Bava had a technical facility that most money-burning present day directors would kill for, and a complete lack of pretensions to being anything other than a hard-working director for hire. When the chemistry was just right, it could create a glorious bauble (or, less often, something even better.)
Is it good? Well, as the saying goes, how could something so right be so wrong?
This was a really enjoyable E! True Hollywood Story, all the more remarkable because there were no tales of cast fights or drug use to report, just the actors, writers, and producers making dryly funny commentary about being part of one of the most brilliantly over-the-top prime time hits ever made, arguably the last great prime-time soap opera.
Highlights: Daphne Zuniga saying that saying the ludicrous dialogue was always easier if she pictured her paycheck; Marcia Cross unable to keep a straight face as she tries to describe her crazy character, Kimberly; Lisa Rinna saying the one thing she hated about joining the show was that she was already a fan, so now that she knew all the stories, her Monday nights were ruined.