25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 20 – Welcome Home

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. And here I am late again. If nothing else, it is because the next installment is to come out later this afternoon and will be another video. Until then, I was recalling movies that I think would be a fun little watch as I continue work further on the double feature style film. And the one that particularly popped in my mind is something I find very terrifying to think about putting into words, but here I go…

So, a lot of movies really try too hard to be this way. There is a significant percentage of films in the world that will swear by Odin Allfather that they are so wacky and weird and immune of any form of rational analysis that they dare you to accurately and reasonably critique them and to be honest, only a handful of them are worthy of that swagger and attitude. Bong Joon-ho’s films, Love Exposure, Phantom of the Paradise, maybe the works of Don Coscarelli, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento…

So I decided to take a deep plunge and finally directly address one of those films. Possibly the most outlandish and unchained of all of these films.

House. Which, before I should dig deeper into this flick, I should note that I love unabashedly. It is a gloriously fun movie that I expect one to either leave it shrieking their heads off or laughing themselves silly. Which is kind of fine by the film either way, which you find the more you get into it. Not because it seems to willingly allow itself to mix in its horror and comedy elements, but House seems to be the type of anomaly where each and every bit of it serves as an avant-garde Rorschach blot to the audience and filmmaking playground for director Obayashi Nobuhiko. I’ve witnessed both reaction to the film many times as well as other reactions. There’s just no sensible approach to it, ideally.

So how the fuck did the science of moviemaking bring us to such an astonishing celluloid creature?

Well, through JawsJaws came out in 1975 as a huge international hit and Japan, which had just snugly placed itself in worldwide consideration as a cultural source of cinema, decided they wanted to get in on that blockbuster feel. So, they looked to the best place to grab fresh and upcoming directors for a film – television advertisements. No, seriously, stop laughing, I’m not trying to make this subtly comic. At the time in Japan, television ads were a good source for directos honing their craft and establishing a certain style to themselves. So, Obayashi was the name out of the tv ad wizard hat that Japanese film empire Toho picked to create a film that would be able to rival Jaws as a blockbuster for all the local hooligans and whippersnappers to race into theaters to see.

Ok, I know this is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that a movie like House could possibly be considered even slightly similar to Jaws, but I haven’t even started talking about the premise of the movie. Please hold on a little longer.

Anyway, Obayashi had a habit with his then pre-teen daughter Chigumi and decided “well, why not play that game with her where I ask her to shoot me ideas and I use them in a film script?” Which is what he did. The majority of House is direct from the mind of the 13-year-old girl who was playing an imagination game with her moviemaking dad. So what kind of child’s mind fable did we get out of it?

Well, we got a film that follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac, Melody, and Fantasy to visit her aunt’s home in the distance of Japan. The reason for this trip comes from Gorgeous’ own spite for the woman her father proposed to, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous finds this an outright insult to the memory of her late mother and refuses to spend her summer with Ryoko, so off she goes to meet and stay with her distant aunt (Yoko Minamida). And from there weird stuff starts happening to the girls that gets really threatening really quickly.

Although, to be honest, from the very first seconds of the films, the weird things have already begun. It’s only within the titular house where the characters actively become aware of the absurdity that wraps itself around this film.

A good portion of this surreal essence of the film comes directly from how the entirety of the film declares artificiality. It’s a movie that thrives off showing off the techniques of the camera and playing around with it, similar to how Bram Stoker’s Dracula works except without really letting the techniques dissolve into the storytelling. Indeed instead the techniques accent the elements of the story, the attitude, the tone, but it still stands out in itself like the strings to a puppet being visible – a Man with the Movie Camera with a plot, if I may say so. From the very saturated lens and colors on the picture, switching back and forth however the mood suits, to the beautifully painted backdrops, these are all things we are meant to notice and consider just a part of experiencing the movie.

Admittedly, this approach to material could go either way in the end and nobody could really hate anybody for finding the movie stupid or just plain wrong. It wouldn’t matter.

To me, though, it’s an outstanding triumph that the movie is able to get away with the randomness and the frank display of its content within itself as a film and still not only retain its horror sensibilities, but to also strengthen it. I know a lot of people like to talk about how immensely fun and joyous it is as the creation of a 13-year-old mind (and it is undoubtedly), but I’m also very moved by how stunningly dark it is.

The movie holds onto a number of themes within it that are not exactly connected by themselves and wouldn’t ideally be placed in such a whimsical context, but still carry emotional weight when the stock characters do not – hate, fear, bullying, missing a deceased loved one, the inability to move on with change, responsibility, and so on… In particular, I’m really stunned by how maturely the film at least deals with the devastation of war – since it’s Japan in 1977, the war in question will undoubtedly be World War II, but tragedy does not get old. Before we even meet the aunt, there is some anchor of emotion in the form of the girls telling the story of her lost love during the events of World War II and it’s quite the poignant moment in the middle of a film that doesn’t really bother poignancy too much.

In all honestly, though, the film’s entire sensibility is based solely on its audience’s attitude to it. If there is ever a movie to be considered subjective at any approach, it is simply going to be House. But it does plant its feet firmly on the ground of a horror film – featuring blood sprays and focusing on the massacre of trapped young girls in a dark house for evil intentions – as well as a comedy film – providing visual jokes and physical comedy at any turn.

The result is a fable, a fairy tale mixed with nightmare. Some people will giggle at it, some people will stay awake at night thinking of what the story says, some people will just consider themselves outgrown for the tale and just turn away. But it’s not something that the film can reject, nor does it prefer to.

It’s a complex film, but in the end, its complexities and all its drive comes from the mind of that one young little girl who decided to dream up a haunted house story and its approach by a director whose filmmaking style is based entirely on using the filmmaking practice as his own toy box that brings about one of the most unique experiences ever provided to the world (the US didn’t get a release for the film until 2009, believe it or not) and how well those two approaches from two related people mesh makes the Obayashis the best father-daughter team in cinema. Suck it, Hustons, Argentos, and O’Neals!