Thursday, November 22, 2007

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear

Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento.
The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.
Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy. Antonioni and Fellini are nowhere evoked for me; Dario is everywhere.
Look at this house we saw in Ravenna:
It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used. And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.
I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and suddenly I can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly. Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)
The films are highly formulaic, often revolving around a black-gloved killer who murders obsessively and sadistically out of some Freudian compulsion lodged in childhood memory, and a hero who sees more than they can remember, or is haunted by the possibility that they have all they need to solve the mystery, but cannot quite arrange the pieces in the correct order. The unfolding mystery is punctuated by murder scenes which are staged and presented almost as mini-movies in their own right, frequently outrageously inventive and horrific, and accompanied by pounding music. The finales often pile twist upon twist, revealing that the murderer is in fact not the murderer after all, or is long dead and his role has been taken on midway through the film by another character entirely, or that the hero and killer are one.
Though the plots are often incredibly intricate, the essence of the films is in their distinctive visual and aural style, and the seemingly compulsive, uncontrolled nature of their violence.
Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two would certainly be among my favourites, as - in plot terms, at least, and notwithstanding its flashy look and sound - would Tenebrae, one of his cleverest yarns.
But best of all is Profondo Rosso, perhaps the only Argento that still seems to me an almost complete masterpiece. The plot is superb, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.
There's something to be said for most of his subsequent films, but they tend to be things of parts, in which remarkable scenes or images frequently give way to the risible or banal.
But Suspiria achieves an atmsophere of nightmare (and nightmare-logic), or of modern Grimm's fairy tale, unparalleled in the supernatural horror film, thanks in part to the incredibly rich colour-saturated images, achieved by using outdated Technicolor film stock. It also features by far his most effective collaboration with the Italian rock band Goblin, and deserves praise for its casting of Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as evil witches.
In recent years he has found his muse most often in his daughter Asia, with whom he has collaborated four times between 1993's Trauma and this year's La Terza Madre. Herself a director and an often striking presence in the films of others (La Reine Margot, Marie Antoinnette), Asia is the most distinctive feature of his later work, most of which is uneven and some of which is poor indeed.
Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her. It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.
Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The White Gorilla growls again

When a film falls out of copyright it costs next to nothing to issue on DVD. This is why there are certain films that turn up over and over again, endlessly repackaged and reissued by different budget-price distributors. The accident of their public domain status in no way determines their quality; His Girl Friday, The Outlaw, Of Human Bondage and many more figure among the most ubiquitous titles.
But the majority are of titles that slipped through the net because nobody cared, which means obscure works from independent companies or distributors, second feature crime films from the likes of Chesterfield and Grand National, obscure black interest titles from the thirties and legions of cheapie horror mysteries. Many of these prints derive from the early days of television, when film companies, jealous of the medium, retained their important titles for theatrical reissue and sold off the second features and bottom-of-the-bill fillers. (Notice how often the prints on these DVDs have superimposed credits saying things like 'Movies For TV presents...')
Sold to a captive home audience happy to watch anything and long since deemed inadequate even for that, they are the staples of the new breed of multi-film box sets (50 great thrillers on 12 discs for only £18.99!) and three-on-a-disc combos.
The picture and sound quality is often poorish to dreadful, mastered as they usually are from prints many generations removed from their source, and the target audience, I suppose, are suckers, for rare indeed is a film too poor to be played up as an all-time classic on the hastily-designed and often deliberately misleading packaging.
So '50 Drive-In Classics' includes the tv movie Snowbeast, '50 Tales of Terror' includes three Tod Slaughter movies, and 'Dark Crimes' includes Things Happen at Night, a broad British comedy-drama from 1948 about poltergeists. The blurbs and imagery are always designed to disguise rather than advertise the fact that a large proportion of the films featured will be low-quality dupes of bad-quality prints of incredibly obscure thirties rarities of purely archival value to very specialised collectors.
But when you read the online reviews, they usually don't say "I got suckered", nor do they lapse into the 'Golden Turkey Awards' type of lazy mockery. Instead they seem to speak knowledgeably and respectfully to a community of like-minds who, while under no illusion as to the objective value of these films in themselves, love the thrill of discovering new old movies.
Of course, this is a passion we have acquired by sheer circumstance. These just happened to be the public domain films available; they certainly weren't released to meet a need. But just as certainly, they seem now to have created one. I'm not alone.
I think the people who make these things should try, just once, aiming it directly at us, rather than the casual browser who just might be conned into thinking that Laurel and Hardy's Atoll K is an all-time masterpiece of comedy. If it doesn't work, fine; go back to pretending that nobody could possibly feel short-changed by a three-disc box-set called 'Masters of Horror' featuring an alcohol-raddled Lon Chaney Jr in The Indestructible Man, one of those films Karloff made back to back in Mexico just before he died and Ghosts On The Loose, an East Side Kids comedy with Bela Lugosi as a Nazi spy.
("Wow! Three of the greatest horror stars of all time at their terrifying best! Plus they're classics! Great! I'll be really scared and perhaps even learn something about film history. How much? Only £5.99! I'm getting that!")
But seeing as I'm not conned or disappointed by delightful releases like these, how about targeting me directly next time? Instead of pretending that Rogue's Tavern is a classic horror film, just tell it like it is: it's a fun old dark house cheapie and it stars Wallace Ford, silent star on the skids Clara Kimball Young and Barbara Pepper, gold-digging Sally from Our Daily Bread. That's enough to rope me in. Anyone else like Wallace Ford? What an amazing life-story this man had before he even made a movie! Then the typical film career: near-star of the early thirties, MGM contract, in Freaks and superb as Walter Huston's weak-willed brother in The Beast of the City, a couple of mummy movies at Universal then alternating leads at Monogram (The Ape Man) with bits for the majors (Spellbound, Dead Reckoning) and finishing up in tv. Releases like Rogue's Tavern help keep alive names like his, names that should be kept alive, careers that deserve to be remembered. I'm sure there are fans out there who are dedicated to this kind of exhumation.
If you are a cheapie DVD distributor, why not test the water of this thesis with, say, an Irene Ware box set? You loved her in The Raven! Now see Irene Ware in four of her most obscure films! Includes King Kelly of the USA (aka Irish and Proud Of It), the Monogram comedy musical spectacular!
You've got my sale.
ff.......... Irene Ware: Never won any prizes, never had any complaints.
There is danger as well as a quick buck in trying to slip one past us - the market becomes saturated and the poor quality of many prints deters serious collectors. There are only so many suckers in the world and only so many times you can play them. It's not so different from the ethics of the pirate dealer, and we all know how resourceful and downright droll they can be. (A friend of mine was sold a DVD of what claimed to be the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong before it had even reached cinemas: it turned out to be King Kong Lives, the virtually unseen sequel to the de Laurentiis remake. The Fay Wray Kong would have been garden-variety deceit - and may have given my friend a better dose of the movies. But the choice of King Kong Lives is a deftly witty reminder of where the power resides in such transactions - one worth the money, in fact.
And anyone remember that old Kenny Everett sketch, from the days when the world was as intoxicated with the lure and aroma of video tapes as he was, which saw him in brown mac and flat cap selling a cassette in a brown paper bag to Billy Connolly on the promise of girls dressed as nuns, geezers in boots and black leather, and goats? A hundred pounds changes hands, and Connolly has himself an expensive copy of The Sound of Music.)
A little imagination is all that is needed to keep us all happy.
Release the public domain movies, but just spend a little on good packaging, informative notes, the best print you can find (or at least, not simply the first), perhaps an extra or two. Consumer loyalty will surely follow, and the takings will pay for something a little harder to find.
The result could be a label we look out for, as happened with Redemption in the last days of tape: they started with the usual suspects - Nosferatu, Caligari, The Vampire Bat - but made the sleeves collectable and distinctive, and before we knew it they had created a new audience for European exploitation, tracked down a world of rareties, and single-handedly invented Jess Franco the Auteur where Franco the Hack once stood.
Specialism will always find adherents. Of course it is important above all to attend to the classics, those that earn our attention merely through excellence. But there is so much waiting for us in the dross, in the vast store of simple, production-line fodder that cannot fail to yield insights six decades on. Here among the simple story lines and simpler technique are vivid examples of the purely popular, lost icons of a vanished civilisation. The masterpieces tend to span the years, but the ephemera act like a sponge that soaks up the transitory fads and styles, and instantly recreate the vanished age in which they were first received.
A good example, from dozens of alternatives: The White Gorilla (1945). Thanks to the internet pioneers that preceded me, I now know, and am able to pass on to you, far more about this film than I could have gleaned from any reference books, and certainly more than the packaging volunteers. It was in the 'Tales of Terror' box set but a tale of terror it is not nor ever was: it's a hybrid of new sound scenes, silent action sequences from a 1927 serial and library footage of wild animals.
It stars Ray 'Crash' Corrigan, owner of the 'Corriganville' movie ranch, as both the hero and the white gorilla. As well as a frequent cowboy hero (he was one of the Three Mesquiteers), he does ape-suit work in loads of films, including Tarzan & His Mate (1934), the 3 Stooges short Three Missing Links (1938), Karloff quickie The Ape (1940), Captive Wild Woman (1943), The Monster & The Ape (1945) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Important in itself? Of course not. But it is of tremendous value as an example of a once staple film genre: the expeditionary film. The Tarzan series remains the most famous off-shoot of this lost semi-genre, in which gun-happy heroes go blazing into nature reserves and either bring 'em back alive or leave 'em where they drop. There were serious documentaries, fake documentaries, fictional narrative dramas and all manner of inter-generic cross-breeds. (King Kong was just one of many horror films that took the template of the expeditionary film and turned it into a horror thriller. Carl Denham is based on these expeditionary film-makers and as such would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, for whom much of the film's effect would have resided in the way in which elements of the fantastic are slowly introduced into a typical expeditionary narrative. Now that the conventions of the genre are no longer familiar it plays all of a piece, and the rug-pulling effect is lost.) One of the most famous of these films, the documentary Africa Speaks! (1930) was still current enough in 1949 to have its title parodied in Abbott & Costello's spoof of the genre Africa Screams! (featuring two of the screen's real-life Carl Denhams, Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty, as themselves).
Already, then, The White Gorilla can be seen to be of socio-historical value. As to aesthetic value, that's in the eye of the beholder, but it's hard not to warm to a film in which - while insistent music whips up excitement and Corrigan's voice-over intones "I hoped without hope that the brutes would kill each other as they fought" - a man in an obvious black gorilla costume and a man in an obvious white gorilla costume wallop each other with sticks.
The lost art of exploitation advertising (1): If your film's a dud, go for broke and call it "The Greatest Wild Animal Picture Ever Made!" It's either that or "SEE! Ray Corrigan in a zip-up ape suit! " Needless to say, the babe in the blue mini-dress is conspicuous by her absence in the film itself - and don't hold your breath for that slavering lion, either.
Suddenly you realise you have resumed dialogue with a totally vanished species of mainstream popular culture. For that is what it must have been - any film with proper credits had a proper audience, once. Out there, somewhere, were people who left their homes to go and see it. Some may be living somewhere still. And it is pleasant to feel not just as one with them but somehow honouring them by tracking down these films and watching them with delight and respect.
There's another one called Devil Monster (1946), another 'Tale of Terror', and another hybrid expeditionary yarn, cobbled together this time from footage shot ten years earlier as The Sea Fiend. This fiendish monster is in fact a manta ray, and its belated appearance combines both unpleasant documentary images of real sea life learning the true meaning of human decency and hilarious special effects in which an actor, clearly kicking about on the floor, is spectrally superimposed over footage of the ray. The rest of the film sees our heroes travelling about strange lands, talking to the elders of obscure native tribes (grainy black and white documentary footage when they don't say anything, white actors in a studio if they have dialogue).
The lost art of exploitation advertising (2): Devil Monster claims "an all-star cast" but suspiciously declines to name any of them, and promotes itself with the tag-line "DARING ADVENTURE MAN'S LOVE FOR A WOMAN" which wouldn't mean anything even if it meant anything.
The gloss of documentary realism also allows real bare breasts on the tribeswomen, and this yielded the film's most delightful and unexpected bridge to the past. At these moments, the surprisingly good condition print of the film suddenly explodes into fragments; jumps, scratches, a flash of an image here, two thirds of a sentence on the soundtrack narration there. These abundant cuts are clearly evidence of removed nudity but not I think, in their crudeness and disruptive effect, of censorship. Only one person had means, motive and opportunity to make these excisions yet make them so badly - step forward, Mr Cinema Projectionist.
These DVDs are duped from long-circulated exhibition prints that must have been passed round the exploitation cinemas for years. After all, films about manta rays don't get misleadingly titled Devil Monster for nothing: such expert showmanship speaks of a colourful lifetime in the grind houses. The snips were made by the projectionists, taking minute quantities of the sexiest shots, presumably for their own private collections. (Did they project them as slides? Or did they splice them all together to create a succession of flash-frame images, no single one discernable long enough for individual delectation but all combining to produce a subliminally meaningful mosaic of sensationalism and prurience - and thus invent television?) Whatever, here again a little fragment of American cinema history comes vividly back to life. Another reason to take these ludicrous old relics seriously, and to be ashamed for ever thinking them ludicrous old relics.
Clearly, both The White Gorilla and Devil Monster owe their presence in a box-set called 'Tales of Terror', indeed they probably owe their exhumation in the first place, to the fact that they sound sufficiently like horror films from their titles to be sneaked into a 50 film horror set. But there is no need to resort to such deception (however in-keeping it may be with the original exploitation ethic.) Package them as 'lost rarities of the expeditionary film' and we'll still buy them, plus you'll feel better about yourself by actually serving a collectors' community rather than trying to hoodwink them.
These films, seemingly so fresh now for being so long out of circulation, are like delicious desserts that complement and complete the meal for which the true classics of their time serve as main course. To the historian of cinema they are of clear and certain value, to the fan of old movies they offer, if not quite revelations, then at least pure pleasure and a valuable sense of fleshing out the backgrounds and details of canvases dominated by the big studio heavyweights. And the raw material never runs out. There is ton upon ton of this stuff hiding in vaults, waiting for its day to come again. Keep going, chaps - and how about that Irene Ware box set?