International Horror Film Review: Nothing Underneath (dir by Carlo Vanzina)


The 1985 Italian film, Nothing Underneath, is a giallo that’s achieved some notoriety based on the fact that it’s not a very easy film to find.

Seriously, I’ve spent years looking for this film.  I had read enough good things about it to make me believe that it was a film that I, as an unapologetic fan of Italian horror, simply had to see.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it’s never gotten a proper DVD or Blu-ray release in the United States.  It’s not so much that the film is controversial or even particularly graphic.  Apparently, the main problem is that the film takes place in the world of high fashion and that means that there are several scenes that take place at fashion shows and most of those scenes feature songs that were very popular in 1985.  Nothing Underneath has never gotten a proper video release because of all the music.  It’s kind of unfortunate, really.  There are so many good movies that are currently in limbo because of disputes over the rights to the music on the film’s soundtrack.

Anyway, the good news is that last night, I was able to find Nothing Underneath on YouTube!  So, I finally got to watch it.

The bad news is that I watched it in Italian with no subtitles.

Now, that’s not quite as big of an issue as you might think.  The thing with Italian horror films is that the story is often less important than how it’s told.  The best Italian horror films are all about style and suspense and less about keeping track of who did what to whom.  That’s certainly appears to be the case with Nothing Underneath.  Film is a visual medium, after all.

The film is about a brother and a sister.  Bob (Tom Schanley) is a park ranger who works at Yellowstone and is very happy with his simple and honest life.  Jessica (Nicole Peering) is a fashion model who currently lives in Milan and who spends all of her days modeling lingerie and fighting off sleazy coke addicts.  Bob and Jessica have such an extremely strong bond that, occasionally, Bob has visions of Jessica’s life in Milan.  Whenever Jessica is in danger, Bob knows it.  When Bob has a vision of someone stalking Jessica while carrying scissors and wearing black gloves, he rushes back to his ranger station and calls Italy to warn her.  Unfortunately, he’s too late.  By the time he convinces the surly desk clerk as Jessica’s apartment building to give Jessica the message, Jessica has disappeared.

Bob flies to Milan, determined to find his sister.  He teams up with Commissioner Danesi (Donald Pleasence) to investigate Jessica’s disappearance.  As soon as I saw Donald Pleasence, I automatically assumed that he would eventually turn out to be involved in Jessica’s disappearance but no.  Pleasence actually plays a good guy in the film, one who appears to harbor no dark secrets.  That was kind of a nice change of pace and, even though he was dubbed into Italian, I could tell that Pleasence gave a likable and sympathetic performance in this film.

It turns out that the black-gloved killer is murdering models all over Milan.  Can Bob discover the killer’s identity?  Will he be able to protect Barbara (Renee Simonsen), the killer’s latest target?  And will he discover all of the sordid details about Jessica’s life in Milan?

Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed Nothing Underneath.  It’s an old school giallo, right down to the whodunit mystery and the point-of-view shots of the black-gloved killer.  Visually, the film is impressive.  The opening sequence neatly contrasted the simplicity of Yellowstone with the decadence of Milan and the scenes of the killer stalking their latest victim were nicely done and very suspenseful.  It was a bit hard to judge the actors (as usual, some of the dubbing was very poorly done) but Donald Pleasence was a delight as always and Tom Schanley come across as being very sincere and likable as the park ranger.

I’m glad to have seen Nothing Underneath.  I hope it gets a decent video release at some point in the future.

Sex And Drugs And BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Allied Artists/Woolner Brothers 1964)


cracked rear viewer


Welcome to the weirdly wonderful world of giallo, pioneered by the late Italian maestroMario Bava . Though Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (released stateside as EVIL EYE) is considered by connoisseurs the first, it was BLOOD AND BLACK LACE that defined the genre, with its comingling of crime drama, murder mystery, and horror elements coalescing into something truly unique. I hadn’t seen this film in decades before a recent rewatch, and was again dazzled by Bava’s technique. The film has proved to be highly influential in the decades-later slasher genre, yet has its roots set firmly in the past.

The opening sequence is a stunner, as we see the beautiful model Isabelle walking through a woodsy pathway on a dark and stormy night, stalked and then brutally murdered by a faceless, trenchcoated killer. From there, we’re introduced to the remaining cast, members of the haute couture fashion…

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Italian Horror Showcase: Torso (dir by Sergio Martino)


Oh my God, this film freaks me out!

Listen, I’ve watched a lot of Italian horror films.  I know how violent they can be.  I know how gory they can be.  I know how sordid they can be.  I know how disturbing they can be.  It’s not like I sat down and watched Torso with virgin eyes.  But with all that in mind, Sergio Martino’s 1973 giallo still totally freaks me out!

Why does it freak me out?

Well, it’s going to be hard to really explain it without spoiling the movie’s biggest twist.  It occurs about halfway through the film and it totally took me by surprise when it happened.  Suddenly, Torso went from being just another film about a seemingly unstoppable murderer to becoming a tension-filled game of cat and mouse.  So, I’m going to discuss the movie but I’m going to give a spoiler alert before I talk about the twist and, if you’ve never seen Torso before, you should stop reading and you should discover what happens for yourself.

Torso takes place in Perugia, Italy.  During the day, it’s a beautiful city that’s surrounded by a beautiful countryside.  The nearby University of Perguia seemse to be exclusively populated by beautiful students, including American exchange student Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her best friend, the wealthy Daniela (Tina Aumont), and beautiful instructors, like the rather opinionated Art History teacher, Franz (John Richardson).

But at night, Perugia changes.  The countryside around the university becomes considerably less beautiful.  A masked killer stalks through the fog-covered woods, carrying with him a knife and an endless supply of red scarves.  He kills anyone that he comes across in the wilderness, including one of Jane and Daniela’s friends!

With everyone panicking about the serial killer in their midst, the ineffectual police investigate the usual sordid collection of suspects but with little success.  Daniela, meanwhile, thinks that she may have seen the killer and, for her own safety, she, Jane, and their friends all go to her family’s villa for the holiday weekend.

And then….

(SPOILER ALERT)

(SPOILER ALERT)

(SPOILER ALERT)

Jane breaks her ankle and is given a sedative by the local doctor.  This knocks Jane out for the night and when she finally wakes up, she discovers that all of her friends have been murdered and the killer is still in the villa!  Fortunately, he doesn’t realize that Jane’s in the villa as well.  Unfortunately, he’s also locked all the doors and the windows, so that he can have the privacy necessary to dispose of the bodies.  For the rest of the film, Jane has to try to get someone to notice that she’s trapped in the villa without drawing the attention of the killer.  Needless to say, this proves even more difficult than it sounds.

Torso is often dismissed as being a lesser giallo, particularly when it’s compared to some of Sergio Martino’s later contributions to the gnre.  While Torso might not feature as complex a plot as some of Martino’s other films (and you’ll probably guess the killer’s identity long before the film reveals it), it does feature a second act that is so nerve-wracking and suspenseful that I barely breathed while watching it.  Visually, Martino does an excellent job of contrasting the beauty of the outside world with the horrors inside the villa and both Suzy Kendall and Tina Aumont give good and sympathetic performances in the lead roles.

Torso totally gave me nightmares but I’d watch it again.

Italian Horror Showcase: Who Saw Her Die (dir by Aldo Lado)


Did you know that today is World James Bond Day?

It certainly is!  Today is the 55th anniversary of Dr. No and therefore, it’s the day when we celebrate all things Bond!

Now, it may seem strange to start a review of a classic giallo like 1972’s Who Saw Her Die? by talking about the James Bond franchise but the two do have something in common.

George Lazenby.

George Lazenby was the Australian model who was selected to replace Sean Connery in the role of 007.  It was Lazenby’s first big break and it also nearly destroyed his career.  Lazenby played the role only once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Though many modern critics have come to recognize that film as one of the best installments in the franchise, contemporary critics were far less impressed.  After the disappointing reception of OHMSS, it was announced that Lazenby would be leaving the role and, in Diamonds Are Forever, Connery returned to the role.

What happened?  Why did George Lazenby exit one of the biggest film franchises in the world?  In my research, I’ve come across several different theories.  Some say that Lazenby voluntarily quit because he either wasn’t happy with the direction of the franchise or he didn’t get want to get typecast.  Others say that Lazenby was fired from the role because he was difficult to work with and was viewed as being a diva.  Others have said that Lazenby was viewed as being too stiff of an actor to continue in the role of James Bond.

Obviously, I can’t say whether Lazaneby was difficult to work with or not.  Nor can I even begin to speculate on what he thought of the franchise’s direction.  But, as far as this idea that Lazenby wasn’t a good actor goes … well, all I can say is have you even seen Who Saw Her Die?

As you can probably tell from the trailer, Who Saw Her Die? might as well take place on a totally different planet from the Bond films.  Who Saw Her Die? is an atmospheric and, at times, nightmarish giallo.  A murderer of children — complete with black gloves and a black veil, because this is a giallo film, after all — is stalking Venice.  When the daughter of architect Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) is murdered, Franco and his ex-wife (Anita Strinberg) search for the murderer and discover a connection to a previous murder that occurred, years before, at a French ski resort.

It’s a dark and disturbing film, perhaps the most emotionally intense giallo film that I’ve ever seen.  A year before Nicolas Roeg did the same thing with Don’t Look Now, director Aldo Lado captures Venice as a city of both great beauty and great decay.  Every scene features the ominous shadow of death hanging over it and, after the murder of Roberta Serpieri (Nicolette Elmi), the viewer is painfully aware that everyone that we see is a potential child murderer.  Is it the artist?  Is it the priest?  Or is it some random passerby?  This film keeps you guessing.

And holding the entire film together is George Lazenby.  At the time, I’m sure that some said it was a step down to go from playing James Bond to appearing in a low-budget Italian thriller but Lazenby gives such an emotional and empathetic performance that it should silence anyone who has ever said that Lazenby was a stiff actor.  It’s not just that Franco wants justice for his daughter.  It’s also that he’s haunted by his own guilt.  Franco abandoned his daughter, leaving her on the streets of Venice, so that he could get laid.  If he had been with there, the killer never would have targeted her.  As played by Lazenby, Franco is motivated not just by rage but also by a need to redeem himself.  He is equally matched by Anita Strindberg, who perfectly captures the raw pain and rage of a mother who has lost her child.  Perhaps the film’s strongest moment features Franco and his ex-wife making love after their daughter’s funeral.  The scenes of their love-making  are intercut with scenes of them crying in bed afterwards, a technique that, a year later, Nicolas Roeg would also use for Don’t Look Now‘s famous sex scene.  Together, Stindberg and Lazenby make Who Saw Her Die? into the rare whodunit where you care as much about the future of the characters as you do the solution to the mystery.

Who Saw Her Die? is an excellent and powerful giallo and proof that George Lazenby was more than just someone who once played James Bond.

George Lazenby (center) in Who Saw Her Die?

Sneak Peek: Suspiria “Improvise Freely”


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As we get closer to the Fall film season, we’re getting more hype on upcoming films that’s not part of the summer or holiday blockbuster hype train. One such film that has been getting some buzz is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria.

Our very own Lisa Marie is very leery of this remake since she holds the original by giallo maestro Dario Argento in such high regard. While I’m always open to any film whether original, sequel or remake, I do hold remakes with a certain degree of cautious optimism. I’m more than willing to give any remake, especially horror remakes, a chance to stand on it’s own merits. For the most part horror remakes tend to be cash grabs and not up to the standard set by the original.

Here’s to hoping that Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria is one that bucks the trend of disappointing horror remakes. A clip released by Amazon Studios does seem to up the intrigue factor for the film. At least, for this film fan.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Spasmo (dir by Umberto Lenzi)


Yesterday, Italian horror fans were saddened to hear of the passing of director Umberto Lenzi.

Over the course of his long career, Lenzi worked in almost every possible genre of Italian film.  He directed spy films.  He directed westerns.  He did a few comedies.  He directed two movies about Robin Hood.  In the wake of the international success of The French Connection, he was one of the leading directors of Italian crime films.  Among fans of Italian horror, he is best known for his cannibal films and his work in the giallo genre.  He even directed the first fast-zombie film, Nightmare City, a film that very well may have served as an inspiration for 28 Days Later.  According the imdb, Lenzi is credited with directing 65 films.  Some of them were good.  Many of them, if we’re to be honest, were rather forgettable.

But none were as strange as 1974’s Spasmo.

Attempting to detail the plot of Spasmo is a challenge.   Even by the twisty standards of the giallo genre, the mystery at the heart of Spasmo is a complicated one. According to Troy Howarth’s So Deadly, So Perverse Volume Two, even Lenzi admitted that Spasmo‘s storyline made no sense.  Add to that, Spasmo features so many twists and turns that it’s difficult to judge just how much of the movie’s plot you can safely describe before you start spoiling the film.

Spasmo tells the story of a man named Christian (Robert Hoffman).  While Christian is out walking on the beach with his girlfriend, they come across a woman lying face down in the surf.  The woman is named Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and, though she declines to explain why she was lying in the middle of the beach, Christian still becomes obsessed with her.  Barbara runs off but then he just happens to run into her at a party that’s being held on a boat.  Christian may be with his girlfriend and Barbara may be with her boyfriend but they end up leaving together.  Barbara says she will make love to Christian but only if he shaves his beard.

Meanwhile, lingerie-clad mannequins are being found on the beach.

Christian ends up getting attacked by a man named Tatum.  Christian shoots Tatum but then the body disappears.  Christian and Barbara hide out at a lighthouse.  There’s another couple at the lighthouse and where they came from is never quite clear.  They say that a dead body has recently been discovered but, when Christian demands to know what they mean, they say that they’re just joking.  Later, Christian thinks that he sees Tatum walking around but, just as suddenly, Tatum’s gone.

Christian is convinced that his brother, Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) can help him.  Barbara says that there is no hope.  We know better than to trust Fritz because he’s played by Ivan Rassimov.  Possessing the best hair in Italian horror, Ivan Rassimov almost always played the heel…

Meanwhile, mannequins continue to be found on the beach.

That may sound like I’ve described a lot of plot but I’ve actually only begun to scratch the surface.  Even by the standards of Italian thrillers, Spasmo is chaotic.  The film may not make any sense but it’s never boring.  Between the mannequins and the murders, it’s pretty much impossible to follow the plot but who cares?  As directed by Lenzi, Spasmo plays out like a dream, full of surreal images and memorably weird performances.  Robert Hoffman and Suzy Kendall are ideally cast while Ivan Rassimov is wonderfully slick and enigmatic as Fritz.  Spasmo is a film that keeps you guessing.  Whether it keeps you guessing because the plot is clever or because the plot itself is deliberately designed (and filmed) to make no sense is something that viewers will have to determine for themselves.  Personally, I think it’s a little of both.

Lenzi may not have cared much for Spasmo but it’s one of his most memorable films.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Happy Birthday Mario Bava!


4 Shots from 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking. Today is the birthday of Mario Bava (1914-1980), Italian maestro of the horror and giallo genres. Here are 4 Shots from some of my favorite Bava films:

                                                      Black Sunday (1960)

                                                          Black Sabbath (1963)

                                                          Danger: Diabolik (1968)

                                                       Lisa and the Devil (1972)

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Giallo in Venice (dir by Mario Landi)


(I know this is a boring poster but it’s literally one of the few Giallo in Venice graphics that I can post without running the risk of getting the site in trouble.)

So, I finally saw the infamous (and, in many countries, banned) 1979 film, Giallo in Venice.

Back when I first decided to learn about the history of Italian horror, Giallo in Venice was a title that I frequently came across in the course of my research.  Everyone — and I do mean everyone — seemed to agree on three points: 1) it was one of the most graphic and mean-spirited Italian thrillers of all time, 2) it had never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the United States and, as such, it was not the easiest film to see, and 3) the film was really, really bad.

Now, I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have had any desire to see Giallo in Venice if not for the fact that I repeatedly read that it would be next to impossible for me to do so.  I hate being told what I can and cannot do.  Don’t get me wrong.  Everything that I read about Giallo in Venice was overwhelmingly negative.  Critics, some of whom I actually respected, were nearly unanimous in their dismissal of the film.  Unlike my hope that I’ll someday see fully restored versions of Greed and London After Midnight, seeing Giallo in Venice was never a number one priority for me.  Instead, it was just something that I kept in the back of my mind.  If I ever had a chance to watch Giallo in Venice, I told myself, I would just so I could say that I had seen it.

Last week,I got that chance.  I discovered that Giallo in Venice had not only been uploaded on YouTube but it was also the uncut version.   (I’m not going to include a link because of the film’s graphic content.  I don’t want to get either this site or the people who uploaded the video in trouble.  If you go to YouTube and search for “Giallo in Venice,” it should be one of the first videos to come up.) The only problem was that, along with being copied from a faded VHS tape, it was the Russian language version.  Basically, whenever any of the film’s characters spoke, you would first hear the line in the original Italian and then a rather angry man would shout the same the line in Russian.  Unfortunately, I know very little Italian and absolutely no Russian.

Needless to say, this led to a rather odd viewing experience.  If Giallo in Venice had been directed by a visual stylist like Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, or even Ruggero Deodato, it might not have been a problem.  Those four directors are all rightly renowned for their ability to create mood and atmosphere.  (And, for that matter, the best giallo films are often more concerned with visuals than dialogue.)  Unfortunately, Giallo in Venice was directed by Mario Landi, an veteran television director whose style can best be described as “turn on the camera at the start of the scene, turn it off at the end.”

(Landi also directed Patrick Still Lives, which is a smidgen more interesting than Giallo in Venice.)

As for the film’s plot — well, it’s hard for me to say for sure.  Not to overemphasize this point but, quite literally, I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND A WORD THAT ANYONE WAS SAYING.

The film opens in Venice, with a man being stabbed to death while a woman drowns in a canal.  Inspector De Paul (Jeff Blynn) is assigned to solve the murders.  He has poofy hair that wouldn’t be out of place in a stage production of Boogie Nights and, for some reason, Inspector De Paul is constantly eating hard-boiled eggs.  In just about every scene in which he appears, he is eating an egg.  Though it was hard to judge his overall performance (though the Russian seemed to enjoy repeating De Paul’s dialogue), Jeff Blynn really got into eating those eggs.  It got rather sickening to watch after a while.  As far as I could tell, De Paul’s investigation amounted to talking to one witness and then talking to the dead woman’s roommate.

The roommate, incidentally, is played by Mariangela Giordano, who also appeared in Patrick Still Lives, Burial Ground, and Michele Soavi’s The Sect.  Any fan of Italian horror will not only recognize Giordano but will also immediately know that her Giallo in Venice character is destined meet an unlucky end.  Patrick Still Lives, Burial Ground, and Giallo in Venice were all produced by Giordano’s then-boyfriend and, in all three films, she played a character who was graphically and gruesomely killed onscreen.  In Patrick Still Lives, she was skewered by a fireplace poker.  In Burial Ground, she made the mistake of trying to breastfeed her zombiefied son.  And in Giallo in Venice, one of her legs is slowly sawed off.  Seriously, if my boyfriend insisted that I suffer a terrible death in every film that he produced, it would probably be an issue.  Just saying.

Anyway, while Inspector De Paul is investigating the murder, this young couple keeps popping up.  They’re young, rich, and fifty shades of fucked up.  Fabio (Gianni Dei) has apparently been rendered impotent by all the cocaine that he’s been snorting and the only way he can get off is by forcing Flavia (Leonara Favi) to play out all of his kinky fantasies.  I found myself wondering why the film kept switching back and forth, between the not-quite-loving couple and the murder investigation.  Was Fabio the murderer?  Then, suddenly, I realized that Fabio and Flavia were the same couple who were murdered at the start of the film.  The Fabio and Flavia scenes were flashbacks.  I’m assuming that my confusion was due to the Russian dialogue but it says something about Landi’s visual style that it was impossible to tell, just from watching, that the Flavia/Fabio scenes were meant to be flashbacks.

(As far as I can — and again, dialogue problems — the flashbacks weren’t triggered by anyone saying, “I remember one time…” or anything like that.  Add to that, most of the flashbacks only featured Fabio and Flavia so, logically, there’s no way anyone could have been telling Inspector De Paul what happened.  Instead, the flashbacks just felt like random scenes that were sprinkled in between the violence and the eating.)

Giallo in Venice is a mix of egg eating, sex, and sadism.  The graphic murders are probably what Giallo in Venice is best known for, though I have to admit that I found the constant egg eating to be almost as disgusting.  As for the film’s gore, it was just as graphic and extreme as I had previously read.  But, with the exception of what happens to poor Mariangela Giordano, the violence has no impact on the viewer.  Since Landi directs with no discernible style, there’s nothing behind the murders beyond the fact that, when you title a movie Giallo in Venice, you’re obligated to include a few deaths.  It’s violence for the sake of violence and therefore, rather boring.  Admittedly, I’m sure it was rather shocking in 1979 but, today, audiences are more used to that sort of thing.  After all, everyone’s seen that tutorial on how to be a zombie for Halloween.

While watching Giallo in Venice, it was hard not to compare it to Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper.  Both films are deeply unpleasant but, due to Fulci’s energetic and, at times, subversive direction, there’s at least always something going on underneath the blood-drenched surface of The New York Ripper.  You can debate whether or not he succeeded but it can’t be denied that Fulci was going for something more than just sadism when he made The New York Ripper.  (If you doubt me, read Stephen Thrower’s analysis in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci.)  Landi’s style, in Giallo in Venice, is so flat that there’s not only nothing going on underneath but the surface itself seems to be pretty barren too.

To give credit where credit is due, I did appreciate just how ugly Landi managed to make Venice look.  I’ve been to Venice and I absolutely love it.  I would never believe that a director could make Venice look like a dump but Mario Landi managed to do it.  I don’t know if that was intentional on his part but it actually worked for the film.  Since all of the characters actually lived in Venice, it made sense that they wouldn’t be standing around and admiring the city’s natural beauty.  Instead, they all live and operate in the parts of Venice that tourists don’t see.

Finally, Landi did manage to get one interesting shot, when the reflection of one of the victims is seen in the killer’s sunglasses.  Unfortunately, Landi was so impressed by that shot that he kept using it over and over again until, eventually, it became far less interesting.

One final note: Giallo in Venice had a very odd score.  It sounded like it was being played by a cocktail lounge jazz quartet.  The music, itself, was actually rather boring but it was so totally out-of-place that it became oddly charming.  I found myself craving a drink with a little umbrella in it.

Anyway, that’s Giallo in Venice.  It’s not good, it’s not memorable, but at least I can now say that I’ve seen it.

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.

deep-red-hatchet

(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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The Films of Dario Argento: Four Flies On Grey Velvet


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After the good but somewhat generic Cat o’Nine Tails, Dario Argento returned to form with his third film, 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

It’s not particularly easy to describe the plot of Four Flies because, much like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the storyline is less important than the way that Argento tells it.  The film tells the story of Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer with an up-and-coming rock band in Rome.  In many ways, Roberto is a typical drummer.  He’s the guy who, even though he’s often obscured in the background, keeps things balanced.  He has a loving wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), a nice house, and worldly, politically woke friends who smoke weed and praise art.  Admittedly, one of those friends does tell a rather gruesome story about witnessing a beheading in Saudi Arabia which leads to Roberto having a reoccurring nightmare but otherwise, Roberto would appear to have a great life.

(Incidentally, Roberto’s nightmares are Argento at his best.)

So, why is this stable and easy-going guy suddenly being followed by a mysterious man in a suit?  And why, when Roberto confronts the man, does he discover that there’s yet another mysterious figure — this one wearing a mask — following him and taking pictures?

That’s the mystery that opens Four Flies on Grey Velvet but it’s not the only mystery to be found in the film.  In fact, this movie finds Argento at both his most macabre and his most playful.  At times, he literally seems to be seeing just how far he can push and how complicated he can make things before totally losing his audience.  The film may start with Roberto being followed and having nightmares but eventually, it comes to involve everything and everyone from Nina’s enigmatic cousin, Dalia (Francine Racette) to a beatnik named God (played by none other than spaghetti western mainstay, Bud Spencer) to a flamboyant private investigator (Jean-Pierre Marielle).  (By today’s standards, the portrayal of the gay detective has a few cringey moments but you have to remember that Four Flies On Grey Velvet was made in 1971.  It was nothing less than revolutionary for an Italian film of that era to portray an openly gay contemporary character in any type of positive light.)  To top it all off, the solution to the film’s main mystery is discovered through optography, the long-since discredited idea that an eye will “save” the last image seen before death.  It’s ludicrous but Argento pulls it off with a cheerfully over-the-top style that perfectly matches the film’s twisted plot.  After the toned down Cat o’Nine Tails, Four Flies was Argento’s way of reminding viewers of who he truly was as a filmmaker.

The film’s brilliant opening sets the tone for the entire film.  Watch it below and thank me later:

It’s rare that anyone every really discusses the acting in an Argento film.  Argento has himself admitted that he doesn’t worry much about actors and many of his films have been released in badly dubbed versions, which often makes it difficult to fairly judge any of the performances.  That said, Roberto Tobias is one of my favorite Argento protagonists and it’s all due to Michael Brandon’s performance.  Brandon makes Roberto into such a nice guy and does such a good job of capturing his descent into paranoia that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his story.  (I would even argue that the long-haired and politically concerned Roberto is almost an autobiographical stand-in for Argento himself.)  Though I can’t really explain why without running the risk of spoiling a major part of the movie, Mimsy Farmer is also excellent.  Reportedly, Argento originally wanted to cast Mia Farrow and you can imagine a post-Rosemary’s Baby pre-Woody Allen Farrow in the role.  But I’m glad that Argento couldn’t get her because Mimsy Farmer gives a close to perfect performance.

Four Flies was the third and final part of Argento’s “animal trailer,” and, at the time, Argento declared that Four Flies would also be his final giallo film.  He followed up Four Flies with The Four Days, a historical comedy that was considered to be such a failure that, after its release, Argento returned to the safety of the giallo genre and gave the world one of his greatest triumphs, Deep Red.  However, if The Four Days had been a success and Four Flies had been Argento’s final giallo film, it would have been a triumphant note to go out on.

Here’s the very misleading trailer that was used for Four Flies On Grey Velvet‘s American release.

And here’s the even more obscure European trailer!