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Throughout much of the world, Italian director Dario Argento is widely acknowledged as one of the modern masters of the horror and thriller genres. However, in America, he has never found a breakthrough hit. As a result, motion picture distributors have taken great liberties with his movies, slicing and dicing them like the razor-wielding villains that frequently inhabit his movies. Distributors cut 28 minutes out of Phenomena and 10 minutes from Tenebre. In addition (and adding to the confusion), distributors have frequently retitled his movies. Much to Argento's disappointment, Phenomena was retitled Creepers for American audiences and Tenebre was retitled Unsane.
A new quartet of DVD and VHS releases from Anchor Bay Entertainment--called "The Dario Argento Collection"--allows us to see four vintage Argento horror thrillers in uncut, remastered, widescreen editions. Both Phenomena (1984) and Tenebre (1982) make their first stateside appearances in uncut, uncensored form. In addition, this series also includes Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986), which Argento produced and co-wrote but did not direct.
Phenomena is reportedly Argento's favorite of all his movies. While I might opt for Suspiria or Deep Red instead, Phenomena is certainly one of Argento's strongest movies. The plot itself is somewhat similar to Suspiria: a girl arrives at a private school at the same time that a mysterious assailant is murdering the students. While she is at the school, strange things happen. In Suspiria, we get a scene where maggots fall from the ceiling. In Phenomena, we get a scene where flies descend upon the school in a huge swarming cloud. But the similarities pretty much end there. While Suspiria introduced us to a demonic force brought into existence by a coven of witches, Phenomena's dangers are of a more worldly origin. The story is structured around a 13-year-old student played by Jennifer Connelly. Insects react to her telepathically. We find this out early when a bumble bee flies in the cab window as she's being driven to the school. Instead of swatting at the bee, she calmly allows it to alight upon her hand, and then she gently strokes its back. She seems quite attuned to nature, but inside she's deeply troubled--as shown by her nightly sleepwalking escapades. During one of her nightly excursions, she meets and befriends a wheelchair-bound scientist played by Donald Pleasence. He has been helping the police investigate the spate of recent murders by examining insect larva on the corpses. The larva may carry evidence about when and where the murders took place.
In one of the movie's great scenes, Connelly takes one of Pleasence's prize specimens, a sarcophagus fly (a species widely reputed for its ability to search out corpses) on a bus ride through the Swiss countryside. When the fly begins to buzz frantically round its small glass cage, Connelly sets it free and follows it to an isolated country house. Scenes like this one are quite rare in the Argento canon. Usually his movies spend all their time and effort on scenes of bloodshed. However, in Phenomena, Argento focuses on scenes that might be more appropriately described as lyrical, with the towering Swiss Alps in the background.
But the movie's delicate mood is frequently crushed by the heavy metal musical score. Some of the songs, particularly those by Claudio Simonetti and Bill Wyman (of Rolling Stones fame) are evocative and mysterious. But others, by bands such as Iron Maiden and Motorhead, carry all the subtlety of a brick to the head. The movie's ending sequence is quite notorious as one of the most audacious gross-out episodes in film history. But the movie works best in its quieter moments, as when Connelly's fellow students taunt her and a huge swarm of flies respond to her distress by covering the school. Instead of unleashing the fury of the insects, Connelly turns and smiles at her tormentors: "I love you. I love you all," she says. It's a great scene.
A separate DVD audio track provides commentary by Argento, musician Claudio Simonetti, and special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti. However, Argento's command of English is weak at best. As he frequently stumbles and gropes for words, the commentary becomes a real test of devotion for Argento fans. Almost mercifully the commentary frequently goes silent for minutes at a time. However, if you stick with the commentary, you'll learn a few things, such as the clouds of flies were created with a simple effect--coffee grounds in a water tank were superimposed on footage of the girls' school.
In many ways, Tenebre is a throwback to Argento's earliest work in the Italian giallo genre, recalling movies such as The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. It features a black-gloved killer who likes to use a straight razor to slice open the throats of his victims. Anthony Franciosa plays a murder mystery novelist who arrives in Rome on a publicity junket. Soon after his plane lands, a sting of murders begins--complete with victims killed like those in Franciosa's book. Is the killer a copycat murderer showing off for Franciosa? Or could the killer be Franciosa himself? Most of Tenebre's notoriety comes from the murder scenes. In one scene, the camera slowly moves around an apartment building while tracking the intended victims. The camera becomes the killer, implicating the audience in the crime and allowing us to vicariously enjoy the bloodshed. Scenes like this one have brought the wrath of critics upon Argento, who have questioned Argento's enthusiastic portrayals of vicious murders (which frequently feature heads crashing through panes of glass in slow motion). However, the sequence is a technical tour de force. In one long, protracted take (approximately 2 ½ minutes), the camera slowly scales the side of the apartment building, occasionally pausing to peek in windows. It darts in a window and then back out and up onto the roof. It swings across the roof tiles and then slides back inside the building. One of the movie's most famous images comes from this scene: as a woman pulls on a new blouse, the killer strikes. With the blouse covering her head, the killer swings the razor and opens a gaping hole in the blouse--so that we can see her terror stricken eyes. And then the razor strikes again. In another truly incredible sequence, a girl is pursued by a Doberman pinscher. She begins by taunting the dog, which barks from the other side of a fence. After she runs down the street, the dog leaps the fence and runs full speed in her direction. She scrambles over a fence and desperately tries to get away, but the dog is like "The Terminator." He doesn't give up. She scales a tall chain link fence. The dog runs to the fence as if sizing up the required effort. In one long shot, the dog circles back a dozen steps and then he explodes toward the fence. Ka-chink! The dog hits the top of the fence and then he's on the other side, pursuing the girl again.
Not much of Tenebre makes much sense. The plot becomes little more than an excuse for Argento to stage the murder sequences. And these are some of the bloodiest murders of Argento's career. In one scene, the killer uses an ax to chop off a woman's forearm and the camera watches as her blood gushes over a wall. (This sequence has long been missing from Italian prints of Tenebre because the actress later married a media magnate and he used his influence to have the sequence removed.)
The commentary on the DVD's alternate audio track is nearly as disappointing as the commentary for Phenomena. Argento and journalist Loris Curci insist that Tenebre is different than Argento's other giallo thrillers because the murders take place in broad daylight. While this may be true for some of the murders, all of the movie's most famous murder sequences take place at night--including the entire ending sequence, which takes place during an evening thunderstorm. Curci asks banal questions such as "Dario, do you think this is a scary movie?" Disappointingly, when Curci mistakenly insists that the first murder takes place 50 minutes into the movie--completely forgetting about an earlier murder--Argento actually agrees with him. Curci continues to feed Argento with obvious questions: "Why are you filming the shoes?" he asks, goading Argento to talk about the killer's psychological background. And Argento responds by reciting the obvious and the superficial.
While Argento is mostly known for his directorial work, he has also served as producer on several movies (with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead being the most famous example). Demons represents another approach to the Dawn of the Dead story. Instead of supplying us with run-of-the-mill slow-moving zombies, Demons gives us dozens of slobbering creatures with razor sharp talons who run and leap after our heroes. Directed by Lamberto Bava, the son of Italian horror master Mario Bava, Demons is one of the most unsettling horror movies ever made. It places us in a mysterious cathedral-like Berlin theater along with dozens of moviegoers, who were lured by free passes. One patron grabs the demonic mask hanging from a display in the lobby and she tries it on. When she removes it, however, the mask scratches her cheek. Once the moviegoers grab their seats and the movie-within-the-movie begins, her cheek starts to bleed. In the restroom, she watches as the little scratch begins to grow. Soon it bubbles and festers and then explodes. Before long, you guessed it, she's a slobbering demon looking to attack some humans. Demons benefits from its incredibly simple story: one by one the moviegoers get scratched and then turn into demonic creatures. Meanwhile, the moviegoers can't get out of the theater: the exits have magically been bricked over. They are trapped with little hope of survival. This scenario isn't particularly sophisticated. But Bava certainly knows how to build suspense. Once the onslaught of horror begins, the movie doesn't let up for a second. This is one of the most relentless horror movies ever made. Whereas Argento's Phenomena could have benefited from a little more subtlety on the musical soundtrack, Demons benefits from its pounding heavy metal score, which features Motley Crue, Scorpions, Billy Idol, and many others. Claudio Simonetti (formerly of the rock group The Goblin, a frequent collaborator on Argento's movies) wrote the score. An alternate DVD audio track features commentary by Lamberto Bava, special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, and journalist Loris Curci.
While Demons was confined to a single movie theater, Demons 2 takes the threat to a high-rise apartment complex. The movie gets off to a fascinating start as it shows us a dead-zone where the demonic creatures from the first movie were supposedly exterminated. This area is now off limits to everyone. However, a group of kids on a thrills expedition scales the walls and goes searching for evidence of the demons. Predictably, they awaken the dormant forces, which by way of television reach out to the audience in an apartment building. Soon the apartment dwellers are trapped within their complex as their neighbors begin succumbing to the vicious talons of the demons. By replacing the first movie's mysterious old theater with a sterile high-rise, Demons 2 loses considerable atmosphere. David Cronenberg mined similar territory in Shivers (aka They Came From Within) by equating the threat with sexual promiscuity and venereal disease. But Bava lacks the insights of Cronenberg. Bava simply tells the same story as Demons--while using a much less evocative setting. The liner notes on the VHS edition's clam-shell case argue that Demons 2 should be viewed as a "lucid dissertation over the effects of teledependency." However, Bava's storytelling only drops fragments of ideas without allowing the hints to take a cohesive form. This is a disappointing movie.
Anchor Bay's "Dario Argento Collection" video series includes Phenomena, Tenebre, Demons, and Demons 2. Suggested retail price: $14.95 for VHS and $24.95 for DVD.