Tag Archives: Giallo

BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode XXII: … Do Argento’s Dream Of Electric Synths?

Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.

In the short term, the YTC podcast can currently be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/

BLOG PIC

The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…

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Let us get this startling revelation out of the way: I think that Dario Argento is overrated.

I have seen half a dozen of his films and I have been equally bored by most of them. These dullards include Deep Red, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Suspiria, and, the sole exception that I enjoyed, Tenebrae. In each case I found the dialogue atrocious, the acting poor, the plotting ludicrous and the production values overblown. To my mind, these titles are just slightly better dressed Troma films.

‘Super Dario Bros.’ never had the same ring to it

Allow me to also state for the record that I do recognise Argento’s skills as a film maker. I do actually respect that he has developed his own style of film making. His signature traits often include an over saturation of primary colours, complex camera movements, first person kills and pulsating soundtracks.

I believe that this focus on the hyper-real is great in principal, but in execution I think that far too often Argento’s aesthetics make his films seem like a badly shot acid trip from an anti-drugs video, rather than an unsettling experience that heightens terror.

The fact that Argento may want to ram his techniques into the audiences mind rather than letting the suspenseful/horrific events speak for themselves is his own choice of expression. Even if I do not like his style, it does not mean that I believe him to be a hack. In fact, I even intend to give his alleged-masterpiece, Suspiria, another chance one of these days. Yet the fact is that for all intents and purposes, I am unimpressed with Argento’s work.

D.O.I.L.L.I.G.A.F?

Now, with that all laid out, for those of you paying attention at the back will have noticed that I wrote that I have seen half a dozen of Argento films. Yet I only listed five. This is because my most recent Argento viewing was only a week ago – and I am not sure if the evening counted as watching a film or experiencing a frontal lobotomy. Why, I was even forced to rewind moments to ensure I was had not fallen asleep and dreamed up plot points.

So unique was this Argento movie that I knew I would have to ponder him and his films as it simply had to be discussed here in Hollyweird. Ladies and gentlemen, this… is… Phenomena.

 

Phenomena opens in Switzerland. A Serial Killer claims a young, female victim. This is from the killers perspective and features a girl being stabbed- anyone familiar with his Giallo movies could rightfully say, ‘so far, so Argento’.

Cut to a few months later and a young American girl called Jennifer, conveniently named as she is played by Jennifer Connelly, is arriving at an all-girls Boarding school in the same area.

Jennifer is a sleepwalker, and on her very first night at the school she ends up wandering the grounds at night. This results in her unfortunate witnessing of a fellow student being murdered by the mysterious Serial Killer.

Trapped in a Labyrinth of her own mind….

Fleeing, Jennifer ends up at a world renowned Forensic Entomologist Dr McGregor’s house. McGregor is confined to a wheelchair and played by a Scottish-accented Donald Pleasance. Luckily for Donald though, despite not being able to walk, what he does have is a helper Chimp.

So to recap the film so far; Somewhere in Switzerland, a sleepwalking American has become a murder witness, and has subsequently befriends a Scottish, paralysed, expert in Insect-based crime in, and fantastically there is a Chimp-assistant.

Now if the opening few scenes of Phenomena sound a little unusual, then just wait for the next bit- McGregor explains to Jennifer that she is having a strange effect on the insects in his Study. Consequently, he informs her that she must share a telepathic bond with insects.

 

“How Pleasance to meet you”

Returning to school, Jennifer deals with bullies via her newly discovered power to control flies. Such a talent could be useful for enjoying picnics, one would imagine. Slightly less enjoyable for Jennifer though, her new room-mate is murdered that same night by the Serial Killer.

Jennifer is now the main suspect within the school on the rather flimsy grounds that she is ‘weird’. The headmistress, Frau Brackner, does what any respected authority figure would do. She agrees to have Jennifer locked away in a Mental Hospital without bothering to inform Jennifer’s parents or the Police.

Seeking to avoid being unfairly locked up, Jennifer escapes back to McGregor’s house. McGreogor suggests Jennifer head off with a special fly that is attracted to carrion. The plan is that if Jennifer can find the bodies of additional victims, she may find also find real perpetrator, clearing herself in the process. As with Frau Brackner, McGregor also does not bother to alert Jennifer’s family or the Police that he is sending out a teenage girl to hunt a killer. Perhaps Europeans really do look down on Americans.

Later that same night, the Chimp gets locked out of McGregor’s house just as the Killer attacks. McGregor is slain in a Stair-lift incident that sadly pales in comparison to the mightier effort in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Enraged at McGregor’s death, the Chimp chases the killer. A high-speed car chase occurs, which yes, including the Chimp, but the Killer escapes.

The next day, Jennifer has hit the road with her new, carrion-sniffing pet. After a slanging match with an OAP on a bus for no particular reason, she ends up checking out a cottage that the fly is attracted towards. Finding a phone, Jennifer calls her father’s lawyer. Not her father mind you, just his lawyer. The lawyer then calls Frau Brackner and informs her of Jennifer’s location.

Brackner tracks Jennifer down and offers to put her up for the evening and before taking her to the airport in the morning. Once Jennifer agrees, Brackner promptly knocks her out and locks her in a broom closet. Jennifer manages to tunnel her way out (seriously) and ends up in Brackner’s underground lair. Here Jennifer finds a chained up Police Officer who had popped up briefly earlier in the film.

The officer’s appearance was so brief in fact that I purposely did not bother to mention him.

Frankly any film with a sleepwalking teen, chimp-car chase and telepathic insects has more than enough going on without ‘Johnny Law’ getting involved, too.

I know how she feels- half-way through my head hurt too.

Brackner appears and throws Jennifer into a slurry pit of corpses to drown a nasty death. Brackner laughs maniacally whilst the Police Officer secretly escapes his chains. He seemingly beats Brackner to death whilst Jennifer escapes the pit and flees.

Escaping the carnage, Jennifer stumbles across Brackner’s son. Brackner’s son is a deformed, flat-faced mutant boy, and it turns out that he is as keen to kill as his mother was.

Thurston Moore: The Early Years

He attacks Jennifer with a pike- the medieval weapon, not the fish- and he ends up chasing her out of the secret lair altogether. They end up tussling on a small power-boat. Now out at sea, Jennifer uses her powers to call a swarm of flies to devour the boy whole. Panic sets in -induced for the boy and an accident leads to him roasting alive as the boat explodes and Jennifer swims ashore.

To be fair to Argento, this is a pretty terrifying image!

Once out of the water, Jennifer is relieved to spot her beloved father’s lawyer- not her beloved father, mind. The lawyer is decapitated by the not-really-dead Frau Brackner, who intends to repeat the process on Jennifer. Just as the heroine is about to be slaughtered though… the amazing, unstoppable chimp re-appears with a razor blade!! He hacks Brackner to death and saves the day in the way that only a homicidal Simian can.

I do not need Miami Vice or the craggy faces of faded Rock Stars to convince me that Cocaine ran rampant in the 1980’s. I have Phenomena for that. The sheer insanity of the film is not my issue why I dislike it though. In fact that lunacy should be what I love about it. Given the general theme of this blog, it should be clear that I can certainly appreciate films with unusual scenarios.

My issue with Phenomena is not with its level of insanity, but rather that even with all this insanity I still found the film very, very dull to sit through.

 

As already explained, I find the handful of Argento film that I have seen to be generally united through bad acting, over-powering colours, and Synth-heavy scores. Consequently is may be easy to assume that the reason I disliked Phenomena would be due to these same elements. However this is not true as Phenomena tactually has more variety to it than the other Argento films that I have seen.

Phenomena notably features rocks songs by Iron Maiden, Motörhead and Bill Wyman. Combining these artists songs with the Synth-Score offers some aural variety to an audience missing from his other outings. So automatically the film is not as a-typical to my ears as Argento’s other films.

Um…?

In regards to bad acting, Phenomena actually features the two respected Thespians; Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance.

Admittedly Connelly is incredibly young here, and her performance is limited to hitting her spots whilst looking pretty. I also suspect that Pleasance was doing the bare minimum with his part. It is undeniable though that Connelly does have an air of innocence that suits her role and is certainly game for a lot of animal and gore-based scenes, whilst Pleasance somehow brings an air of dignity to the role of a crippled-Chimp assisted-Bug- scientist. The acting here is certainly better than the c-grade script deserves.

Finally, the colours in Phenomena are split between tonal blues and greens for Exteriors, and whites and browns for interiors. They are still bold, but compared to the reds of Deep Red or the bright lights of Tenebrae, the palette here is more subdued. So once again I can see that this movie does differ in its own right.

Colour's just a state o'mind, yo
Colour’s just a state o’mind, yo

So even by my own, limited exposure to Argento’s repetitive film work I can still recognise that Phenomena does have its own traits to some extent. Conversely though, this is why the film’s utter dullness is such a shock to me. I cannot blame the things I generally find frustrating in Argento’s other features, and certainly nobody can accuse Phenomena of lacking action.

Instead the problem seems to lie with the sheer sincerity of it all.

At no point does the film suggest there is something jovial or fun about telepathic insects, mutant children or armed and dangerous chimps. Instead everything is presented so straight that Phenomena has a certain pomposity to itself.

I would argue that film this loaded with lunacy needs just the tiniest amount of self-awareness to keep an audience on board with it, or at the very minimum to be gleeful in its many ideas. Instead Argento presents this work in the same tone as his more dramatic Giallo movies and I think Phenomena actually comes off the worse for it.

And it was all Giallo

Incidentally, I am aware that Giallo and Argento’s supernatural films are somewhat silly. Indeed, many people like this camp aspect of silliness played straight. However Phenomena is just too nuts to pull it off. I was left sighing at every line or action rather than simply enjoying the ride.

I do not mean to attack Dario Argento on a personal note. Having filmed a Q & A with Dario Argento earlier this year, I can say that in person he seems both humble and intelligent. I also am not dismissing his whole body of work, as I have seen a relatively small sample amounting to 6/23 films that he has directed. I have enjoyed an Argento film and I am certainly open to trying more of his movies. But at the end of the day, when a horror movie containing Jennifer Connelly and a killer chimp leaves me checking my watch, it’s a disappointment all round.

Phenomena is just more proof to me that Argento’s work is over valued, and that not even an excursion into Hollyweird-territory could prove otherwise.

Next time- well, maybe there will be no next time!!

I’m actually curious to find out if there is anything that anyone wants me to cover. It could be specific films, genres or you can ask for my opinion on something.

Leave some suggestions under today’s entry and we’ll just see what happens next time. No suggestions just means a nice easy week off for me…

Thanks for reading,

MJ

 

BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode VI: Witches Brew

Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.

In the short term, the YTC podcast can currently be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/

BLOG PIC

The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…

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Mr. Bungle. Two words that when I first heard I thought ‘that’s a weird name for a band’. And it was, but then again, they were a weird band. Over 15 years they released only 3 albums. In very broad terms, the first could be summed up as a funk-metal acid trip through teenagers mind that was obsessed with sex, vomit, freaks, clowns and more sex. The second was a strange peon to jazz and thrash in regards to going mad whilst underwater, final album was almost a do-wop attack of noise as it trawled through modern fears. If these quick summaries sound ridiculous/wrong/stupid/accurate/fun/intense then you’d be right- because Mr. Bungle was all of those things.


Shhh… don’t tell my sister that I still have her picture disc!

So what does this have to do with Hollyweird?? Well, the guitarist of Mr. Bungle also formed a band called Secret Chiefs 3, and a project of theirs is what we’ll be looking at today. In fact I’m even listening to it as I type!

 

Old-Skool ‘Chiefs

 


Now, Secret Chiefs 3 is in itself a tough band, if not a tough concept, to cover in just one blog- particularly a film blog Simplifying at best I can, Secret Chiefs 3 are actually seven different bands all based around Trey’s work with other musicians. Each ‘satellite’ band has its own sounds and its own purpose. Whilst Trey Spruance’s creation of all these satellite bands certainly allows him greater creative control since he can swop musicians or concepts at any time, it also serves a greater mystical purpose. I will not even attempt to get into in here- partly because I do not want to write a feature length novel, and partly because honestly I am too ignorant to do it justice. Let’s just say that Trey believes that music has ties to hidden codes within religious texts from ancient cultures and so he is seeking to explore the self via music. So suffice to say for this entire introduction that this is not just a simple band churning out songs to avoid getting day jobs. When they do something, they have a reason- and in 2010 they released an Italian, Supernatural film soundtrack. Kind of.

 

Didn’t see this? Don’t worry, neither did anybody else

70’s Supernatural, Italian cinema is pretty darn niche. Dario Argento, quite possibly the most famous Italian Horror director, made several films in this territory. He was not the only one, Mario Bava is notable to, as is Lucio Fulci. As a concise snapshot, rather than a researched piece, it may be best to describe this sub-genre as featuring excessive gore , dialogue closely resembling foreign porn via dodgy dubbing, pulpy narratives that play fast and loose with logic, lurid colours and masochistic bordering on the chauvinism. The protagonists are often young women and the Supernatural clashing with the faith of a Catholic nation often crept in.

Giallo films have many similar aesthetics, although feature their own tropes too. Giallo often features a killers POV, women being stabbed/strangled and a plucky young protagonist. Although Giallo and Italian-Witchcraft films of the same period do differ, there are many similarities that need establishing now for later on in this piece.

OK, so we’ve established the SC3 are a strange, talented band and that Italian Supernatural films feature violence, sex and the supernatural. But what are Italian Supernatural soundtracks, from the Seventies, and why did SC3 ‘kinda’ do a Supernatural soundtrack?

Well these particular Italian movies tend to synth-heavy scores that lack all subtlety. Often church bells would feature during moments of the reflection of evil, or the stabbing of keyboard keys would screech out during attack scenes. At other times, catchy melodies would be be lain over pulsing rhythms to hint at evils waiting underneath any happy scenario.

So if Trey & Co. fancied making one of these soundtracks they’d just need to wait for a modern day Giallo film to get made and try to get the soundtrack job, right? Well, turns out the answer is no Instead they formed an entire 90 minute film in their minds.

They plotted out the characters, the narrative and the beats. Then they sound tracked it. After that came carefully designed artwork. This is a mix of traditional staples of this cinema- blood, women, witches- combined all the usual coded Secret Chiefs pictograms. The listener is left to listen to the music, study the song names and also decipher the artwork and slowly the film almost unravels in your mind…. Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini

Now THAT’S an album cover

Tracklisting a.k.a. Hints Towards Plot Points:

  • “Faith’s Broken Mirror”
  • “Sophia’s Theme”
  • “What’s Wrong with Cytherea?”
  • “Mourning in Ekstasis”
  • “He Hates Us”
  • “Psychism 1: Cytherea’s Possession”
  • “Love Spell”
  • “Agenda 21”
  • “Subcutaneous Solution”
  • “Abyss of Psychic Enchantments”
  • “Subdermal Sequence (Nano-Correction)”
  • “RFID Slaverider”
  • “Dionysian Dithyramb (Eros-seed of the Egregore)”
  • “Zombievision”
  • “Perfectly Reasonable”
  • “Psychism 2: Fear is the Great Teacher”
  • “Abolish Believers by Abolishing Belief”
  • “Funeral for What Might Have Been (Sophia’s Theme)”
  • “Codex Alimentarius”
  • “Putting Forth the Hand to Take”
  • “Psychism 3: Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind”
  • “Hypnotopia (Obey your Passion)”
  • “Nano-correction/Human Migrations/Faith Realizes”
  • “Chapel by the Sea (a Heart That is Broken and Humbled…)”
  • “The Strength to Sever”
  • “Baby Hedone (Harvest of the Egregore)”
  • “Zombievision 2012”
  • “The Great Die Off (He Mocks Us All)”
  • “Cytherea’s Awakening/Martyrdom at Romiou Point/Return to the Foam”
  • “To Love God is Sweeter than Life (Sophia’s Theme)”

 


I have tried to work out this plot consciously, and in doing so I have an approximate idea of what occurs in the ‘film’. But to explain it would be to defeat the purpose; SC3 want you to listen to it and form your own conclusion. It is akin to the metaphor of turning Lead into Gold, which was actually about attaining a purity of soul. It is not about the actual event, but the process you go to in order to make the event. In cinematic terms, if you remember the denouement of Pi then you get the idea.

All I can share here is that the ‘movie’ loosely involves a girls possession, the implications of self if one is fitted with an ID chip, the trio of witches who frequented Argento and Fulci’s work and the ultimate salvation of the soul. Nice easy going stuff, right?!

The music that creates this aural world is formed through an orchestral score that dips in and out throughout the run time, as it would during a real film. Further elements are violent strings screeching adjacently to flutes and female vocals. Analogue synthesizers, harpsichords and cellos lull over over prog-style rock outs. Psychedelic blasts that put The Mars Volta to shame slam up against calming church organs. Recreations of possessed shrieking voices disturb at the quietest moments. Oh, and there’s even a ‘scratched-vinyl jump’ at one stage, even on the Digital versions- a nice touch!

This is certainly different to my normal blogs, but if the idea of a fake soundtrack to exploitation cinema that requires the listener to decipher the story doesn’t sound downright Hollyweird, then I don”t know what does.

I’m going to leave this entry to the words of Mr. Trey Spruance himself;

How could you not trust this man?!?!

“The first thing to note is that Giallo cinema music has the distinction of having been graced by nearly all the great masters of Italian film music in general: Bruna Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, Ennio Morricone, Goblin, Pierro Piccioni etc. And though this area of music certainly has its appreciators, one still-underplayed element is that when considering the music, Gialloa harmonic language was developed by who, by current musical and aesthetic standards, set the bar. For any of us wannabes to share in the magic of this lost art form, we have to bring a bit more more to the table than some vintage amps, keyboards and vague undeveloped musical ideas based only in hipster aesthetics. Because if you ignore the deeper intricacies of the music theory at work, the orchestration, the arrangement, etc., you’re really only asking to make an ass of yourself (which is likely anyway no matter what you do). …The process should be likened to when someone is learning another language and begins to have dreams in that language…. So to state it plainly, these are original compositions that were dreamt into being in the harmonic language of the Giallo Horror Film Soundtrack. It’s that simple. The point is not to be strictly period-specific, or culturally-specific, but to be caring first and foremost about how to convey things that will affect the psychic state of the listener in the intended way. After all, the point of dreaming in this particular language, with all its sophistication, elegance and beauty, is to go that much more deeply into the territory.”

 

Next blog I’ll be back to normal (whatever that is), and writing about a film that brought back memories of catching late night movies on an old black and white TV in my room. Knowing that I had to go to sleep but maybe I could just stay up to 4am and school would still be fine…..

PS

Just in case I have whetted anybody’s appetite…