The Films of Dario Argento: Deep Red


I’ve been using this year’s horrorthon as an excuse to watch and review all (well, almost all) of Dario Argento’s films!  Today, I take a look at one of Argento’s best — 1975’s Deep Red!

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After the successful release of Four Flies on Grey Velvet in 1971, Dario Argento announced his retirement from the giallo genre.  His next film was 1973’s The Five Days of Milan, a historical comedy-drama with a political subtext.  The Five Days of Milan was a huge box office flop in Italy and, to the best of my knowledge, it was never even released in the United States.  To date, it is Argento’s most obscure film and one that is almost impossible to see.  In fact, it’s so obscure that, in two of my previous posts, I accidentally called the film The Four Days of Milan and apparently, no one noticed.

Forgotten Argento

Forgotten Argento

After the failure of Five Days, Argento returned to the giallo genre.  And while he was undoubtedly stunned by the failure of his previous film, Argento ended up directing one of the greatest Italian films of all time.  If The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet were both great giallo films, Deep Red is a great film period.  It is Argento at his over the top best.

Now, before I go any further, I should point out that there are many different versions of Deep Red floating around.  For instance, it was released in the United States under the title The Hatchet Murders and with 26 minutes of footage cut from the film.  For this review, I watched the original 126-minute Italian version.  I’ve always preferred the original to the shorter version that was released in America.  Oddly enough, Argento has said that he prefers the shorter version.

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Deep Red opens with a blast of music that both announces Argento’s return to the giallo genre and also provides some hints to his future as a filmmaker.  Whereas his previous films had all featured an excellent but rather serious score by Ennio Morricone, Deep Red was the first Argento film to be scored by Goblin.  There’s a gothic, almost operatic playfulness to Goblin’s work on the film.  (If the Phantom of the Opera had ended up working in Hollywood and writing film scores, the end result would have sounded a lot like Goblin.)  Goblin’s deafening score works as the perfect sonic companion to Argento’s constantly roving camera and vibrantly colorful images.  (The blood spilled in Deep Red is the reddest blood imaginable.)

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Deep Red‘s protagonist is Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) and, like so many Argento protagonists, he’s both an artist and a man without a definite home.  At one point, he explains that he was born in England, grew up in America, and now lives in Italy.  He’s a jazz pianist but he supports himself by giving music lessons.  In a scene excised from the American cut, Marcus tells his students that, while classical music should be respected and appreciated, it’s also necessary to be willing to embrace art that some critics would dismiss as being “trashy.”  Marcus, of course, is talking about jazz but he could just as easily be Dario Argento, defending his decision to return to the giallo genre.

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While Marcus plays piano and tries to help his alcoholic friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a German psychic named Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) is giving a lecture when she suddenly announces that someone in the audience is a murderer.  Later, Helga is brutally murdered by a gloved, hatchet-wielding attacker.

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(Helga’s murder scene is always difficult for me to watch, even if Argento doesn’t — as Kim Newman pointed out in a review written for Monthly Film Bulletin — linger over the carnage in the way that certain other horror directors would have.  I have to admit that I also always find it interesting that Helga is played by the same actress who, that same year, would play the evil Lady On The Train in Aldo Lado’s The Night Train Murders.  Playing one of the Lady’s victims was Irene Miracle, who later co-starred in Argento’s Inferno.)

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The only witness to Helga’s murder?  Marcus Daly, of course.  He’s standing out in the street, having just talked to Carlos, when he looks up and sees Helga being murdered in her apartment.  Marcus runs up to the apartment to help, arriving just too late.  And yet, Marcus is convinced that he saw something in the apartment that he can’t quite remember.  Deep Red is yet another Argento film that deals with not only the power of memory but the difficulties of perception.  Marcus knows that he saw something but what?

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Well, I’m not going to spoil it for you!  In this case, the mystery and its solution makes a bit more sense than the mysteries in Argento’s first three films.  Argento isn’t forced to resort to debunked science, like he did in both Cat o’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.  One reason why Deep Red is so compulsively watchable is because, for perhaps the first time, Argento plays fair with the mystery.  After you watch the film the first time, go back and rewatch and you’ll discover that all the clues were there.  You just had to know where to look.

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That said, the way that Argento tells the story is still far more important than the story itself.  Argento’s first three films may have been stylish but Deep Red finds Argento fully unleashed.   The camera never stops moving, the visuals are never less than stunning with the screen often bathed in red, and Goblin’s propulsive score ties it all together.  This is one of those films from which you can’t look away.  It captures you from first scene and continues to hold you through the gory conclusion.  Deep Red is an undeniably fun thrill ride and, even today, you can easily see why Argento frequently refers to it as being his personal favorite of his many films.  In fact, Argento even owns a store in Rome that is called Profondo Rosso.

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But you know why I really love Deep Red?

It’s all because of the relationship between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi.  Daria Nicolodi plays Gianna Brezzi, a reporter who helps Marcus with his investigation.  After three films that featured women as either victims or killers, Gianna is the first truly strong and independent woman to show up in an Argento film.  I know that some people have criticized the scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi, feeling that they drag down the pace of the movie.  I could not disagree more.  Both Hemmings and Nicolodi give wonderful performances and their likable chemistry feels very real.

Gianna and Marcus arm westle. (Gianna wins. Twice.)

Gianna and Marcus arm westle. (Gianna wins. Twice.)

To me, that’s what sets Deep Red apart.  You care about Marcus and you care about Gianna.  Yes, the mystery is intriguing and the murder set pieces are brilliantly choreographed, and Deep Red is definitely Argento at his best.  But for me, the heart and soul of the film will always belong to the characters of Marcus and Gianna and the performers who brought them to life.

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Deep Red was the start of Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s long and often contentious relationship.  (Dario and Daria’s daughter, Asia Argento, was born around the same time that Deep Red was released and has directed two films, Scarlet Diva and Misunderstood, that deal with her often chaotic childhood.)  This relationship would play out over the course of six films and, as much as I love those six films, it’s always a little sad to consider that, when watched in order, the provide a portrait of a doomed and dying romance, one that did not particularly end well.  (It is possibly not a coincidence that, with the exception of Deep Red and Tenebrae, Daria Nicolodi suffered some type of terrible death in every film she made with Argento.)

But, regardless of what may or may not have been going on behind the scenes, Deep Red remains a triumph for both its director and its stars.

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You Say You Want A Revolution: Power Play (1978, directed by Martyn Burke)


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When I was 16, I would spend every weekend down at a small, used video store that was a few blocks away from my house.  One afternoon, I was looking for a video to rent when I came across a battered VHS box.  On the front of the box, Peter O’Toole smoked a cigar and sat on top of a tank.  The back cover described the film as being about revolution and promised exciting action.  A critic was quoted as saying that the movie was “an intelligent political thriller!”  Because I was obsessed with politics, that caught my attention.  I rented the movie, took it home, and watched it twice.

The name of the movie was Power Play.

In an unnamed Eastern European country, a corrupt and despotic dictator rules with an iron hand.  Dissidents are regularly arrested and executed.  Corrupt government officials live in luxury while the rest of the country is trapped in poverty.  After a friend’s daughter is tortured and murdered by the secret police, Colonel Narriman (David Hemmings) teams up with Dr. Rosseau (Barry Morse) to plot a coup.  In order to the overthrow the government, the conspirators have to hide their plans from Blair (Donald Pleasence), the sadistic head of the secret police, and convince Colonel Zeller (Peter O’Toole) to join them and bring his tanks over to their side.

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Power Play may be forgotten today but it made a big impression on me when I first watched it.  Power Play not only showed what it was like to live in a totalitarian society but also attempted to realistically portray what it would take to overthrow a dictatorship.  Power Play spends as much time on the plotting of the revolution as it does on the revolution itself, with special attention given to Rousseau’s attempts to secure international support for the coup.  David Hemmings is great in the main role and Donald Pleasence is Himmleresque as Blair.  Even Peter O’Toole’s infamous 1970s hamminess seems appropriate for the character of Col. Zeller.  Power Play is a must see for aspiring revolutionaries every where.

Incidentally, Power Play opens with one of the conspirators being interviewed by Dick Cavett, meaning that Power Play can be added to Annie Hall and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors on the list of films in which Dick Cavett has played himself.

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Shattered Politics #71: Gangs of New York (dir by Martin Scorsese)


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Despite the fact that it was nominated for best picture and marked the start of his fantastically successful collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York does not have the best reputation.  It always seems to be regarded as one of Scorsese’s lesser films and, often times, both The Aviator and The Departed are described as representing a comeback of sorts from Gangs.

To a certain extent, I have to agree.  Gangs of New York is a lesser Scorsese movie but then again, a lesser Scorsese film is still a hundred times better than the greatest films from Brett Ratner or Michael Bay.

The flaws of Gangs of New York are many.  The film, which tells the epic story of how an Irish gang led by Leonard DiCaprio battled a nativist gang led by Daniel Day-Lewis in Civil War-era New York City, runs for nearly 3 hours and yet it somehow still feels rushed and incomplete.  Cameron Diaz is far too contemporary of an actress to be truly believable as a 19th century pickpocket.  For that matter, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the worst performances of his career, coming across as being one-note and shrill.  If you only knew DiCaprio from his work in Gangs of New York, you would have a hard time believing that he was capable of doing the type of work that he did in Inception or The Wolf of Wall Street.

And yet, Gangs of New York is one of those flawed films that I can’t help but enjoy.

First off, on a purely personal level, how can I not love a film about how terribly the Irish were treated in the 19th Century?  Seriously, the Irish were regarded as if they were somehow subhuman.  They were attacked for being Catholic.  They were viewed as being criminals.  An entire freaking political party — the American party — was formed specifically to keep the Irish out.  But you know what?  We Irish kept coming, we kept fighting for our rights, and now everyone wishes they could be one of us!

Secondly, and this should not a shock when you consider that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, the film looks absolutely gorgeous!  Despite the fact that it’s takes place in a 19th century slum and most of the characters are poor, Gangs of New York is a visual feast.  I loved the ornate sets and all the colorful clothes.  I loved the attention to detail that was put into everything.

(My favorite visual from the film: Daniel Day-Lewis and his entourage walking down a street while fireworks explode directly over Day-Lewis’s shoulder.)

Third, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.  One reason why DiCaprio’s performance is so noticeably bad is because he’s acting opposite Day-Lewis.  Sporting a handle-bar mustache and speaking in an almost satirically exaggerated New York accent, Day-Lewis turns Bill into one cinema’s greatest villains.

Add to that, the great Italian actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice show up for a few minutes, playing Simon Legree in a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!  Scorsese should make more films with Radice.

But, perhaps the main reason why I enjoy Gangs of New York is because, as I’ve mentioned so many times in the past, I really am a big history nerd.  And Gangs of New York deals with a period in American history that really doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.  While we all know that the Civil War started when the South seceded from the union, what is often forgotten is that the North was not united in their support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union.  In fact, the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, was such a strong supporter of the Confederacy that he, at one point, suggested that New York City should secede from the union as well.  And when Lincoln instituted the draft, NYC — and several other cities in the north — exploded into riots.

Of course, Gangs of New York is not a 100% historically accurate.  For one thing, it compresses the time frame of the draft riots and — as films often do — it downplays the culture of Northern racism and instead portrays racists like Bill Cutting as being the exception to the rule.  But, even with that in mind, Gangs of New York still serves as a good starting point for those who want to learn more about American history than what they’ve been told in school.

My favorite parts of Gangs of New York dealt not with how the gangs fought each other but instead how the gangs were used as political foot soldiers.  One of the major supporting characters in Gangs of New York is William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a real-life politician who was at the center of one of America’s first major political scandals.  When we first meet Tweed, he is using Bill Cutting’s gang to fix elections.  However, as the film progresses, Tweed comes to realize that the political future of New York rests with the Irish.  So, Tweed starts using the Irish gang to fix elections.  For those of us who are into political history, the Boss Tweed scenes are a lot of fun.

Gangs of New York has its flaws.  It’s the type of project that, if it were made today, it would probably be a series on HBO and it would win all sorts of awards.  (Actually, it did kinda.  It was called Boardwalk Empire.)  It’s not perfect, but I like it.

Film Review: Camelot (dir by Joshua Logan)


Back when I was 18 years old, I auditioned for a community theater production of Camelot.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been intrigued with the spectacle and romance of the Arthurian legends and I just knew that I would make the perfect Guinevere.  And so, for two nights, I auditioned.  I performed “Baby One More Time” as my audition song, I showed off my dance moves, and I did countless cold readings with countless potential Arthurs and Lancelots.  At the end of the two days, the director told me that he would be in touch and I left with stars in my mismatched eyes, convinced that I had won the role of Guinevere.

Two days later, I got a call not from the director but from the assistant director.  She informed me that while my dancing was impressive, I wasn’t right for the role of Guinevere because:

1) I was too young.

2) I couldn’t sing.

3) My voice carried too much of a rural twang for me to be a believable Queen of England.

However, she did tell me that I had been selected to be a part of the “chorus.”  Well, I may have only been 18 but I still had my pride so I told her that, if I couldn’t I play Guinevere, I had no interest in being in their little production of Camelot.  I was later told that this caused a lot of people to assume that I was a diva but no matter, I stand by my decision.

When I later saw the theater’s production of Camelot, I felt thoroughly vindicated.  It wasn’t just the fact that the actress they cast as Guinevere had no stage presence, no boobs, and a horsey face.  It’s the fact that Camelot itself isn’t a very good show.  As good as the songs are, Camelot is something of a talky mess and Pellinore is one of the most annoying characters ever.

It was only after I saw that mediocre production that I discovered that there was a film version of Camelot. Released in 1967, the Warner Bros. production was one of the many big budget musicals released in the late 60s.  It has a terrible reputation (and was a box office bomb) but I recently decided to watch it for two reasons.

First off, Camelot was nominated for five Academy Awards (though not best picture) and won three (Best Art-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Music — Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment).  That means that Camelot won two more Oscars than The Graduate and one more than Bonnie and Clyde.

Secondly, this film version of Camelot features Franco Nero (who, in 1967, was literally the most handsome man in the world) in the role of Lancelot.

And so, I recently set aside 3 hours and I watched the film version of Camelot.

Camelot tells a familiar story.  Arthur (played here by Richard Harris) becomes king of England and he marries Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave).  At the magnificent castle of Camelot, the most noble knights of England gather at a round table and Arthur preaches equality and chivalry.  Eventually, the righteous French knight Lancelot (Franco Nero) travels to Camelot and becomes Arthur’s  greatest knight.  However, Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love and, as a result of the schemes of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred (David Hemmings), Lancelot and Arthur are soon at war with each other.

Despite my dislike of the stage production, I actually started watching the film version with high hopes.  I have a soft place in my heart for the overproduced musical spectacles of the late 60s and I figured that what was slow on stage might be more tolerable when seen on film.  Unfortunately, I was incorrect.  Camelot is a painfully old-fashioned film and, clocking in at 179 minutes, it’s also one of the most boring movies ever made.  Richard Harris was reportedly miserable while making the film and it shows in his performance.  You get the feeling that King Arthur would rather be anywhere other than Camelot.

The only time that the film comes alive is when Franco Nero is allowed to command the screen.  While the very Italian Nero is somewhat miscast as the very French Lancelot, that doesn’t change the fact that Nero plays the role with a passion that’s missing from the rest of the film.  Franco Nero’s blue eyes did more to make me believe in Camelot than any of the songs sung by Richard Harris.  One need only watch the scenes that Franco shares with Vanessa Redgrave to understand why they’ve been a couple for over 40 years.

Ultimately, Camelot is interesting mostly as an example of how the old Hollywood studio establishment attempted to deal with competition from television and European films.  Instead of attempting to adapt to the new culture of the 60s, the old studio bosses just continued to make the same movies they had always made, with the exception being that they now spent even more money than before to do so.  While it’s easy to mock them, you have to wonder if the Camelot of 1967 is all that different from the John Carter of today.

Lisa Marie Does Murder By Decree (Dir. by Bob Clark)


A week ago, I had a very odd dream, one that was more disturbing than frightening.  I saw myself walking down a fog-covered street in London.  Simply by the way I was dressed and the distant sounds of horses crossing cobblestone streets, I knew that this was towards the end of the 19th century.  I walked down the street, aware that there were people near me who I could hear but couldn’t see because of the thick fog.  Finally, I reached a shabby-looking boarding house.  As I watched myself starting to open the front door, I realized that, in my dream, I was Mary Kelley, the final victim of Jack the Ripper.  And, by stepping into that boarding house, I was heading towards my own death.  That’s when I woke up.

Over on my twitter profile, I describe myself as being a “sweet little thing with morbid thoughts.”  I guess my fascination with the mystery of Jack the Ripper is an example of those morbid thoughts.  Out of all of the Ripper’s victims, Mary Kelley has always been the one that I’ve felt “closest” to.  She was murdered on November 9th, 1888.  I was born on November 9th, 1985.  Like me, she was a fallen Irish Catholic.  Like me, she had red hair.  While the other Ripper victims were all in their 40s, Kelley was only 25 years old and, for the longest time, I believed I was destined to die between my 25th and 26th birthdays.  (I’m 25 years old so hopefully, that was just my imagination working overtime.)  I think what truly made Kelly’s murder stand out in my mind is that she was killed in her own room, probably attacked while she was either asleep or passed out.  Being attacked while asleep has always been one of my phobias, one of the reasons why I’m often happier with insomnia than sleep.

Still, until my dream, I had given much thought to Jack the Ripper or any of his victims for quite some time.  After the dream, I ordered a copy of The Jack The Ripper Encyclopedia from Amazon and then I rewatched my personal favorite of all the Jack the Ripper films, Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree.

Released in 1979, Murder by Decree mixes the facts of the Ripper case and the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with the same Royal Conspiracy theory that lies at the heart of the better known film From Hell.  Unlike From Hell, Murder By Decree is an almost bloodless film.  Instead of emphasizing the savagery of the Ripper murders, Clark chose to focus on creating an oppresively grim and paranoid atmosphere.  Whether it’s the ominous image of the Ripper’s carriage slowly moving through the London fog or Holmes’ visit to a nightmarish insane asylum, Clark’s London is a grim and forbidding dreamscape that almost seems to have sprung from some lost example of German expressionism.

Into this dark and oppressive atmosphere, Murder By Decree drops the familiar and comforting characters of Holmes and Watson (played, respectively, by Christopher Plummer and James Mason).   I have to admit that I’ve never actually been able to bring myself to read any of the Holmes stories (though I’ve tried) but the characters are both so iconic that I feel as if I had.  Both Holmes and Jack the Ripper are characters that everyone feels they knew about even if they’re not sure when they first heard of them.   Though this might sound rather gimmicky to have these two characters meet, a good deal of the film’s strength comes  from the contrast between the nostalgic innocence of Holmes and Watson and the harsh reality of Jack the Ripper’s London.  By the end of the film, when Holmes’ voice cracks as he describes the conspiracy behind the Ripper movies, he’s gone from being an icon to being a stand-in for everyone who has ever been disillusioned by what they previously believed in.

Plummer makes for a surprisingly physical Holmes but he does a good job with the role, bringing a surprising vulnerability to the detective.  James Mason, meanwhile, makes for a perfect sidekick and he and Plummer both have the type of chemistry that Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law could only dream about.  The rest of the cast is made up of familiar English and Canadian character actors and they all give memorable performances.  Donald Sutherland is excellent as a haunted psychic but my favorite supporting performance probably comes from David Hemmings who plays a shadowy police inspector.  This is because every time I see Hemmings on-screen, I’m reminded of Dario Argento’s Deep Red 

If I do have any issues with this film, it’s that it promotes the long discredited Royal/Masonic Conspiracy as a solution.  (This theory will be familiar to anyone who has seen or read From Hell.)  However, of all the various solutions that have been offered up in an attempt to explain and understand Jack the Ripper, the whole political conspiracy angle is undoubtedly the most cinematic and Clark makes good use of it here.  This is a film in which a growing sense of paranoia and unease seems to pervasively fill every scene just as surely as the London fog.  The viewer, in the end, is thankful to actually have the familiar characters of Holmes and Watson to identify with because otherwise, the worldview of Murder By Decree is almost unbearably dark.

By the way, the role of Mary Kelley in this film is played by a fellow redhead, the Canadian actress Susan Clark who tended to show up in a lot of low-budget, Canadian movies in the 70s.  Though she doesn’t have many scenes, she is sympathetic presence and Plummer’s reaction to his inability to save her from Jack the Ripper is a scene that has haunted me since the first time I watched this movie and every time since.

6 Trailers For The End of 2010


I’ve been under the weather since the day after Christmas (and you probably don’t want the details though they can be found on twitter because my twitter account is my place to be all TMI) so I fear that I’ve been running behind when it comes to posting on this site.  Not only have I not written my review of True Grit and Rabbit Hole, but I haven’t written anything about that video of the beaver opening up the box of tampons yet. 

So, wyle ah work on gittin mah purty lil self all caught up here (and attempt to phonetically recreate my natural country girl accent), here’s the final 2010 edition of Lisa Marie’s Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers

1) Made in Sweden

I love how all the imported, soft-core films of the early 70s were always advertised as being sensitive, coming-of-age stories.  Christina Lindberg later starred as the iconic One-Eye in Thriller, A Cruel Picture (a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye.)

2) Blindman

Yes, the trailer’s in German and no, I don’t speak German.  I speak French which I guess means I’d have to surrender if this trailer ever tried to enter me.  BUT ANYWAY, this is actually an Italian film.  Tony Anthony plays a blind gunslinger who is hired by a bunch of mail order brides to free them from a sadistic bandit played by Ringo Starr.  Yes, that Ringo Starr.

3) Tattoo

If, like my friend Elly, you live in Australia, you can watch this movie on DVD.  Unfortunately, outside of “region 4,” this movie is unavailable.  I’ve never seen it though I read about it in Bruce Dern’s quite frankly weird autobiography.  (I say weird with affection because, seriously — how can you not love Bruce Dern?)  Anyway, Dern says that in the sex scenes in this movie, he and Adams were actually doing it.  Apparently, the film itself is a take-off on The Collector — Dern kidnaps Adams, covers her body in tattoos, and then has sex with her.  It actually sounds like kind of a disgusting movie, to be honest and the prospect I might see it is making me reconsider my plans to eventually relocate to Australia (sorry, Elly).  

As for the trailer,  I just think it’s really nicely atmospheric, especially in the slow-motion sequence at the beginning.

4) Hell Night

This is the old school slasher film that I always wish I had been around to be cast in.  Why?  Because of all the costumes, of course!  If you’re going to be a victim in one of these movies, you might as well get to play dress up beforehand.

5) Invasion of the Bee Girls

There are two trailers for this movie.  This is the mainstream version and it is a heavily cut — and I mean HEAVILY CUT — version of the one that played in the grindhouses.  You can find the uncut version on Stephen Romano’s Shock Festival.  Anyway, this is one of those wonderfully satirical 70s films that was marketed as a standard grindhouse film.  William Smith plays an FBI agent who is sent to Peckham, California to discover why the town’s men are being fucked to death.  Actually, just looking at the men of Peckham, California — they should probably be happy with what they can get.

6) Deep Red

What better way to end 2010 than with the one and only Dario Argento?  This is the trailer for his first worldwide hit, the classic giallo Deep Red.  This is also the film where he first met and romanced Daria Nicolodi.  Plus, this movie probably features the best performance ever from the late and underrated David Hemmings (who would end his career playing a small role in Gangs of New York, a film which also features Giovanni Lombardo Radice.)

As a sidenote, I’ve really enjoyed sharing these trailers through 2010 and I look forward to sharing more in 2011.  Je te donne tout mon amour, mon lecteur.