The Advance Word: After Suspiria, fans claim Deep Red is the best Argento. Maybe to support my unpopular argument that Opera was the 2nd best Argento, I justified not watching the movie that would prove me wrong. Subconsciously, of course. Because that would be super dumb to not watch a good movie to support a misguided theory.
#14. Deep Red (1975)
I’ve grown weary of the argument that Dario Argento is a lesser director because he emphasizes style over substance. The giallo, by nature, requires an emphasis on the visual and an ability to twist standard genre elements into something striking and unique. The genre relies on such a strict set of identifying characteristics that creativity and excellence within these constraints manifests in the form of camera angles, color, light and shadow, and inventive slasher setpieces. No matter the intelligence of the narrative, story takes a backseat to visual panache. If you’re someone who watches a giallo film and laments a lack of a proper narrative in the face of stylistic artistry, maybe the genre just isn’t for you.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I don’t really care for Werewolf movies other than American Werewolf in London. We’ve all got our quirks.
Deep Red excels precisely because Argento forces his inventive camerawork to the foreground. He lingers on interesting gothic architecture, dark city streets, unsettling imagery. During his scenes of murder, rapid editing, point-of-view and tracking shots, and blazing colors (usually hypercolor red) tell stories within stories.
Argento makes us believe we’ve seen horrors that sometimes haven’t even appeared on camera because we anticipate the impact and the aftermath of the blade. As gory as Argento can be, the trauma generally occurs in the mind. Anticipation, tension, the cinematic language of a slasher, the groundwork of which is laid by the score. Tension in a giallo, or more broadly the slasher genre, does not exist without a great score.
Deep Red benefits greatly from its score — a score that might even sound overly familiar because of the ways that Goblin inspired John Carpenter’s iconic score for Halloween. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the value of Goblin in the Argento filmography. The band scored three of Argento’s biggest successes in Deep Red, Suspiria and Phenomena. Take a listen below:
In his early masterworks, Argento combines these artificial elements of cinema — the sights and sounds, the cinematic language of the slasher — into a nightmarish synesthesia. In Deep Red (and some of his other films as well), Argento poses questions concerning perception and reality. Within Deep Red the question must be answered by the main character — what has he witnessed? — but Argento has also directed this question at the audience.
Cinema, as an artificial medium, offers us the ability to explore these questions every time we turn on a film. Argento places the perception vs. reality dynamic front and center. He directs dreamlike films, filled with loose logic and visual and aural connectivity. Red herrings, misdirection come part and parcel with a genre-style whose focus and mystery must remain, by nature, on the identity of the killer.
In Deep Red, David Hemming’s orchestra conductor Marcus Daly tells his musicians to be less perfect, to embrace the chaos of music in order to achieve something more beautiful that the notes on the page. Stunted order vs. the beauty of chaos and uncertainty. Argento addresses his audience here; he’s directing our reading of Deep Red, not as realism, but as a fantastical, almost improvisational artistic creation.
In the above scene, Marcus converses with his stumbledown drunk friend Carlo. Marcus has just witnessed the murder of a woman in an apartment window and he’s trying to piece together the events. Nothing makes sense. The ever-wise Carlo suggests Marcus re-assess the difference between his perception and his reality. All the while, Argento’s camera lingers on the statue — the artwork — between them.
(Artwork, reinforcing “the artificial,” acts a recurring motif in Deep Red. Argento evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The morbid paintings in the victim’s apartment also play an important role in discovering the identity of the killer. But this is far beyond the scope of this conversation. I merely wanted to make mention.)
The scene between Marcus and Carlo punctuates everything that happens in Deep Red. Argento uses mirrors, artwork, aural cues to confound Marcus — and thereby the audience. Argento has told us to question what we’ve seen as well. The preceding murder scene and this conversation lean heavily on the themes Hitchcock perfected in Rear Window — a film that serves as a prototype for the giallo genre.
Say what? Did Hitchcock direct the first commercial giallo? If you disassemble Rear Window and consider the elements — perception vs. reality, the search for a killer’s identity, Hitchcock’s film contains many of the same narrative building blocks. Visually and stylistically, Hitchcock’s operating with a different (bloodless, gore-free) palette, but I’m merely offering fodder for pub conversations.
Having finally watched Deep Red, I’m humbled. I’ll have to retire my old “Opera is the second best Argento” unpopular opinion. It’s unpopular because it’s a load of bollocks. While Deep Red could not unseat my obsession with Suspiria, I have to award the film my highest new-watch recommendation. Argento’s 1975 film proves to be a master class is gothic suspense that transcends the giallo genre. There’s so much more going on in Deep Red than just a slight case of murder. Time to grapple with my own misperceived reality.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: I’m still sifting through the extras on Arrow Films’ now OOP Deep Red 3-disc Limited Edition. I can’t get enough Deep Red. The new 4K restoration looks immaculate, and this set (complete with Goblin soundtrack CD) just became one of the favorites on my shelf.
Nature of Shame: Never seen THE FLY (1986). CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?! Jeff Goldblum. Cronenberg. Oozy goo. THE FLY!
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1980’s
Original and Remake
The Advance Word: OMFG LIKE THE BEST F’ING MOVIE EVER. I’m substituting hyperbole for an honest appraisal of my expectations here. I do so because I scanned the @Letterboxd reviews and that’s pretty much what they said. Allow some wiggle room for paraphrasing.
#13. The Fly (1986)
I feel cheated out of a review because I literally just wrote a review about The Fly. Okay, so that was the 1958 version, but I could copy and paste some of that review into this space and nobody would notice because: #1. You likely didn’t read that review anyway, so it’d be new to you. I’m under no delusions that anyone’s reading all these and #2. Many of the same thoughts apply. Check back in with me when I hit review #20 and I guarantee you’ll just see cribbed bits of all sorts of old thoughts. Maybe just some emoticons and stick figures.
In my writeup for The Fly (1958) I suggested that the film wasn’t so much a horror film as it was a domestic melodrama. A glossy color-saturated Douglas Sirk special, except with a man-fly and a fly-man clouding the homely drama. David Cronenberg, while updating The Fly for 1986 has carried over some melodrama, not so much the DeLuxe Color. He does, however, wrap the melodrama up in a far more unsettling monster movie. Stay tuned for oozy goo, partially-digested bloody stumps, amazing practical creature effects and an even more affecting human narrative.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Fly (1958) lacked a human center. Poor Patricia Owens suffered plenty, but because of the film’s melodramatic artificiality I felt more disconnected from the drama. I observed and studied The Fly (1958) from a greater emotional distance. Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) grabbed me by the shirt collar, shoved my head in the fly excrement and said “sniff it.” It’s gross, but whatever. There’s a ton of gross stuff in The Fly. Super cool, gross stuff…
The core story remains in tact. A scientist with dreams of matter transportation participates in the scientific method and shatters the life of the woman who loves him. The major narrative shift takes place in the nature of the relationship between scientist and woman. In 1958, the couple lived in wedded bliss before the ill-fated experiment. In 1986, David Cronenberg makes his Fly movie about new love. Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle meets Geena Davis’ journalist at an industry party and brings her back to his place to “show off his experiments.” To him, this means sex. To her, this means she’s supposed to write about his experiments. Yadda yadda yadda he turns a baboon inside out and impregnates her with Brundlefly sperm.
But let’s rewind for a minute.
The Fly (1986) changes the nature of the human/fly transformation. Rather than an immediate change into Hedison-Head Fly and Fly-Head Hedison, Seth Brundle gradually turns into one “Brundlefly.” I suggested that the immediate change and desperate search for the Hedison-Head Fly mirrored the diagnosis of a terminal illness and the subsequent struggle for acceptance. Seth’s gradual metamorphosis (the process of metamorphism is also suggested by the cocoon-like pods that Brundle uses for his transference) from confident human, to superfly human to grotesque monster seems more like the emotional rollercoaster of new love. The journey from flirtation to new love to ghastly, horrible fly monster, aka the cessation of love/romance as brought about by the real world drama that tears people apart.
You can lump terminal illness into that morass of metaphor as well, should you so desire. I’m focusing on how/why Cronenberg shifted the dramatic center. Certainly, the 1950’s would have foregrounded the significance of love/marriage versus the casual sex and far more liberal cinematic norms of the 1980’s. But even this isn’t quite enough to write off the subtext Cronenberg aimed to hammer home.
New love comes with certain passions. This allowed the Goldblum/Davis coupling to amplify the heat and all-consuming passions. But what happens when that love goes sour? What happens when the all-consuming passions fade away and you must face the real human? I think Cronenberg created this monster movie as a way to explore obsession. The violent spark of love and sex, and ultimately the monsters beneath.
Like this guy:
The monstrous elements of The Fly (1986) obscure the fact that the film retains the same female-oriented focus. By employing pregnancy and abortion as a dramatic element, Cronenberg also shifts the focus away from the “mad scientist” angle. As Seth becomes consumed by the fly DNA, he remains a tragic figure, just like Hedison in 1958. Hedison, however, retained his humanity despite a fly head an appendage. When Seth gives way to the Brundlefly, there’s very little left of the man or his compassion. The Brundlefly becomes driven by the need to improve his shattered DNA. The horrors become imposed solely on Davis’ journalist. She must fight off his attempts to merge with her DNA. She must come to terms with the unwanted Brundlefly baby inside her. (That maggot birth scene hallucinion!)
That makes Cronenberg’s The Fly… a woman’s film, too? Indeed, sirs and madams. It’s just a woman’s film wrapped inside a killer monster flick. Neumann’s 1958 The Fly snuck a monster film inside overt melodrama. Two sides of the same coin. Both films offer unique cinematic pleasures of discovery and quirks of narrative focus. Unique approaches to the monster movie tropes. Watching the films back to back, revealed many ways in which the films inform interpretations of each other.
Give it a try. Note the specific changes Cronenberg makes. Having The Fly (1986) as a companion piece to The Fly (1958) shifted the way I viewed the original. There’s a thesis to write here. Others have probably done so. I’m not in the thesis writing business; I’m in the 31 Days of Horror writing business. And business is booming.
Even though I have a 5-star graphic (or more accurately a 5-Hz graphic), I don’t give them out. Silly, huh? To me a 5-Hz rating is only earned over time, tested and proven with multiple rewatches. Since this is my first viewing of The Fly (1986) consider this 4 1/2-Hz rating my highest recommendation. The Fly (1986) is Cronenberg’s masterpiece. I agree with all the Internet hyperbole. An accessible monstrosity featuring top-notch creature effects, a perfect amount of oozy-goo and depth of character and real humanity. Also Jeff Goldblum wearing a baboon.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: I wasn’t overly impressed with the transfer on this Blu-ray, but I watched this immediately after being blown away by the quality of The Fly (1958). The blacks lacked depth in certain scenes. That said, the extras on this Fox release more than make up for an average technical presentation.
Nature of Shame: Long overdue rewatch of The Fly (1958), a film I’ve owned on Blu-ray for a couple years.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1950’s Before 1970 Original and Remake
The Advance Word: Well, I’ve seen The Fly before. That’s the advance word. I remembered the “HELP ME!” finale and nothing more.
#12. The Fly (1958)
Fatigue has set in. I’ve watched 17 horror movies. I’ve written 11 reviews. It’s the 19th of October. I need to become a mindless word factory. I need to stop proof-reading. Prepare for half-assed horror movie bl-gging.
I watched The Fly (1958) at a young age. Deep in the throws of my first Vincent Price binge, I remember being annoyed that he played a totally normal dude. More vividly I remember being unnerved by the finale. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything here — but when the fly with the David Hedison head is ensnared in a web and about to get eaten by a spider and it screams “Help me!” that’s the kind of thing that’ll mess a kid up for a few weeks.
It’s not because of the iconic high-pitch “Help me!” scream or the fact the insect had the head of Felix Leiter, but because this conclusion ran horrifically contrary to my expectations. This moment requires a last minute twist, a dab of deux ex machina, an 11th-hour salvation for our main character. Or at least salvation for our main character’s head (more on this in a minute). The boy tells Francois (Vincent Price) he’s just seen the fly with the white head in the garden, about to get eaten. Alas! We expect liberation. We expect Francois, the lone voice of reasonable doubt and scientific reason in this film, to save Hedison-Head Fly. Francois brings the investigator (Herbert Marshall) to see Hedison-Head Fly. Hooray!
THEN HERBERT MARSHALL CRUSHES HEDISON-HEAD FLY WITH A F’ING ROCK.
Exactly, Patricia Owens. I can help but get upset when my worldview becomes fractured.
The jarring conclusion to this film shatters worldviews. These old horror films generally conclude abruptly and without much resolution, but they conclude with the vanquish of evil (if only temporary) and the resurrection of hope. (I’m generalizing a great deal — but you get what you pay for.) All we have here is some solace that our heroine will be exonerated for the murder of her husband and not committed to the loony bin. That’s it. A fatherless child and a widow branded as the woman who killed her husband.
That’s the twist — not a narrative twist — but a thematic twist on convention. The focus of The Fly (1958) turns out to be the female lead, not the mad scientist that turns into the titular fly. Which leads me directly to my next point. The Fly isn’t a horror movie at all… you know, beside the whole man turning into a ghastly fly part… it’s a domestic melodrama about unconditional love and terminal illness, a theme that Cronenberg also embraces in the 1986 remake.
Consider the composition and color of the following two images.
Top: As Helen (Patricia Owens) recalls the time she had a 100% human husband, the DeLuxe Color pops (even though I’ve read that this color process doesn’t generally hold up as well over time). Husband and wife engage is idle sentimental chatter about forever love and embrace frequently. Below: When Fly-Head husband reveals himself (and his ersatz terminal illness), Patricia faints from the shock. Her scientist husband Andre (David Hedison) embraces her despite his deformed visage. Patricia repeatedly returns to face the horror of a Fly-Head husband. Love attempting to overcome all obstacles. Director Kurt Neumann mutes the color palette after the mutation.
While I watched The Fly (1958) I couldn’t help but think back to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Curiously enough — in both form and function. It’s an imperfect comparison but one that lingered throughout my viewing of The Fly. In All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman’s character Cary feels forced away from her lover Ron (Rock Hudson) due to societal norms. The older woman and the younger man. After Ron suffers a life-threatening accident, she returns to him, thus accepting their “imperfect” coupling. Granted, Rock Hudson is 100% beefcake and 0% fly… but nonetheless the age difference and the tragic injury remain obstacles that must be overcome.
Absorb Sirk’s use of color and composition below and then compare 1954’s All That Heaven Allows to the above images from The Fly (1958). It’s certainly not out of the question that Kurt Neumann absorbed and regurgitated (flies do that, you know) some of Sirk’s melodramatic mastery into his own film. Just because Neumann directed 68 B-pictures in his 29 year career, doesn’t mean he didn’t appreciate a masterwork of Technicolor cinema when he saw it.
The narrative construct of The Fly (1958) also supports the “woman’s film” thesis. The film opens with Helen (Patricia Owens) already having killed her husband in a mechanical press. She has not been officially accused of the murder, because skeptics believe her incapable of having done the deed. She displays stoic placidity, claiming above all that she’d done the right thing, that her husband had found a better place as a result of her actions. The film then peels back the layers on the murder over the next 80 minutes.
The scientific process tucked into the middle portion of the film, places Andre as a secondary character — yet we adhere to the cinematically-ingrained notion of the mad scientist as primary. Scientific method catalyzes the film and transforms Andre, but the emotional center remains Patricia. She becomes the character unto which the psychological horrors occur. She tears herself apart attempting to catch the Hedison-Head Fly so her husband can attempt to reassemble his DNA, just as Fly-Head Hedison devotes every waking hour working on that cure. Their efforts and their mania represent a futile search for a cure to his terminal disease.
Despite Patricia’s devotion she can’t bare to see what her husband has become. She stares into the face of a fly, ergo her already dead husband. The ultimate loss of her husband already presumed. The film’s narrative and Patricia’s growing desperation rely on a glimmer of hope for propulsion. Patricia’s greatest and final act of love occurs when she grants her husband’s final wish and destroys him in the press. True love, diagnosis, denial, death, and ultimate acceptance.
My final thought is that I’m tired and I want to go to bed, but I’m here finishing this writeup about how I saw more than a dash of Douglas Sirk in The Fly (1958). It’s a fine film. One that’s oddly paced and incongruous with the horror genre with which it is mostly associated.
One final element to ponder. Since Fly-Head Hedison proved functional as a scientist, that means that Fly-Head retained the intelligence of the man. Yet Hedison-Head Fly screamed “Help me!” thereby suggesting an understanding of human language and therefore also human intelligence. If Fly-Head Hedison and Hedison-Head Fly were of rival intelligence, why didn’t Hedison-Head Fly just land of Fly-Head Hedison’s shoulder and say “You complete me”?
30Hz Movie Rating:
DVD Verdict: Filmed in DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope, The Fly (1958) looks nearly pristine. I noticed no film blemishes. The transfer respects both the grays and blacks of the muted color sequences and the bright, vivid colors noted above. Grain has been maintained. 20th Century Fox generally does a solid job with their catalog titles. I wish they’d do more.
Nature of Shame: Shame comes in all varieties. The Seventh Victim doubles up the shame.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1940’s Before 1970
The Advance Word: Val Lewton knew how to produce a horror movie. The Seventh Victim was one of those horror movies.
#11. The Seventh Victim
Cinema Shame comes in all varieties. We’ve investigated the first two garden varieties with this Shame-a-thon.
I’ve never seen Evil Dead 2-variety SHAME! (Substitute your own unseen classic film.)
Watch-Pile SHAME! (I’ve owned this movie for years and never cracked the seal.)
And now I’d like to introduce another brand of Shame:
Lived on my DVR for eternity SHAME.
I recorded The Seventh Victim on my DVR last October during TCM’s volley of Halloween horror offerings. For more than a year this brooding Lewton-produced film about Greenwich Village satanists has resided on my DVR, unwatched. Oh look it’s airing on TCM again on October 22nd. Set your DVRs!
Sometime during my viewing of The Seventh Victim, I realized I even owned the movie as part of the Val Lewton box set! I didn’t need to DVR it in the first place. DOUBLE SHAME.
I’ve dabbled in Lewton’s productions, but I’ve never made a study of them. I’ve considered starting a focused Filmmaker Shame! series. I believe that some oeuvres are best appreciated en masse. There’s wisdom to be gained through more intense scrutiny of larger bodies of work. For another day, perhaps. I’ve got a CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober Watch-Pile Shame-a-thon to complete.
I have, however, spent due time with the three Lewton/Tourneur films that kickstarted Val Lewton’s production career. Mark Robson helms The Seventh Victim, and while he’s no slouch, the name Robson doesn’t carry the same cachet as Tourneur. Go ahead, just say “Jacques Tourneur.”
Chills right? Even his name oozes atmosphere. Dark alleys. Long shadows. A man hiding in darkened room. Look out he’s got a knife!
Robson would go on to become an accomplished director across many different genres after the conclusion of his lengthy stint with Lewton. He directed Bogart in The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place,The Inn of the Sixth Happinessand Von Ryan’s Express, among many other familiar titles. It turns out that this guy Robson has a pretty deft touch with the atmosphere as well.
Chiaroscured satanists. Spooooooky!
Mary Gibson searches for her lost sister Jacqueline, a troubled girl who got tangled up with those Greenwich satanists and then disappears. The first half concerns Mary’s search as a dowdy, teetotaling, milquetoast Columbo. At first I thought Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen’s script merely gave her nothing to do, but upon reflection I’m quite certain that Kim Hunter (in her first film role) simultaneously overplayed and underplayed her part. It’s not that she’s necessarily out of her element, but as she acts alongside Tom Conway (as the same character he played in The Cat People), you’ll note a disparate version of “acting.”
As the “innocent” Hunter’s Mary becomes cloying and saccharine. She’s at once too calm (should she believe her sister’s really been kidnapped) or far too scattered (should she believe her flighty sister’s gone missing yet again). The narrative drags because Hunter’s character resists moving it forward. She’s constantly running headlong into roadblocks and asking for help from her skeptical male companions.
While the first half left me listless and checking the time stamp, the second half of The Seventh Victim becomes a master class in inner turmoil represented by the interplay between light and shadow. The movie only comes together when Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, of The Leopard Man) finally FINALLY! appears on screen and gives the movie a much needed kick in the ass. Brooks emotes through her eyes and through her total lack of dialogue.
The eyes of Jean Brooks
All you need to know about the final thirty minutes can be found right there in those rigid bangs and soulful, sad eyes. This is the movie I needed from the beginning. Immediately The Seventh Victim shifts from being a slightly creepy noir to a haunting, gothic parable about a lost soul and misplaced faith.
As I consider The Seventh Victim‘s lasting impression, I’m forced to focus on one specific scene. The dialogue haunts me. The frankness with which this movie and this specific scene treats death kicked me in the testicles. It’ll do the same for you, whether or not you have any to kick. The dialogue takes place between Jacqueline and a woman named Mimi, whom she’s just met in the hallway of her apartment building.
Jacqueline: Who are you?
Mimi: I’m Mimi — I’m dying.
M: Yes. It’s been quiet, oh ever so quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps coming all the time — closer and closer. I rest and rest and yet I am dying.
J: And you don’t want to die. I’ve always wanted to die — always.
M: I’m afaid.
[Jacqueline shakes her head.]
M: I’m tired for being afraid — of waiting.
J: Why wait?
M: [determined] I’m not going to wait. I’m going out — laugh, dance — do all the things I used to do.
J: And then?
M: I dont know.
J: [softly] You will die.
I won’t spoil what happens next, but it’s a damn near perfect sequence that concludes each narrative arc. Overall, I’m conflicted. Maybe I just needed a different actress in the role of Mary. It’s hard to overlook those first fifty minutes that barely held my attention.
Final Final Thoughts:
The satanist paranoia acts as the film’s tension, but that tension, as manifested in the characters’ all consuming fear of societal degradation, serves as a red herring. The film’s not about the “evil-doing” of satan worshippers; it’s about the characters’ perspective on death and our pedogogical and religious systems of belief as they pertain to the significance of life and death. Heavy f’ing shit.
30Hz Movie Rating:
DVD Verdict: I love this box set, but I never bothered to watch The Seventh Victim on disc so technically I can’t vouch for the quality of transfer contained within. I do like big box sets with lots of DVDs. Some day when I’m old, crazy and senile I hope to bathe in them. That day might be sooner than anticipated.
Nature of Shame: Despite loving the giallo genre and 1960’s and 70’s Italian cinema and Mario Bava, I’ve not seen huge chunks of the Bava filmography.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1970’s Country of Origin – Italy Master Classers – Bava
The Advance Word: El Cinemonster lists A Bay of Blood among his favorite movies of all time — not just from Mario Bava. Earlier this year I fixed the CinemaShame that was Blood and Black Lace. I aimed to do right by another Bava essential. Also Claudine Auger.
#10. A Bay of Blood
After finishing Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood, I had to pause. I had to pause in order to reflect upon that which I’d just seen. I had many immediate questions. The dense ones came first. Dense ones like 1. Did that just happen? And 2. Did the movie remotely justify that ending? After I skipped back ten minutes and watched the finale again, I could at least move on, satisfied that A Bay of Blood had aimed for a post-scriptural wicked tickler and take a closer look at the film itself.
(For the record: 1. Yes. It happened; and 2. Maybe?)
If you haven’t seen A Bay of Blood, you may be left in the fog regarding this “ending” business. I won’t spoil it. I’ll dance around it, but I promise I won’t spoil it. Detailing the conclusion would, in fact, direct your viewing of the film. I don’t want to do that. I want you to discover it just as I did. For now I’ll steer clear of the specifics. For now I’ll start at the beginning… as you do.
A Bay of Blood begins with the brutal lynching of an invalid woman played by the iconic European actress Isa Miranda. In certain ways this death, though bloodless, becomes the most difficult to watch in the film (and there are many). Bava abstains from dialogue throughout this opening scene. The old woman, alone in her home, senses something amiss. You feel this isolation and fear. She knows she’s going to die. As a seasoned viewer of horror films you know she’s going die. She rolls silently from room to room until a noose drops down and grabs her neck. An unseen killer kicks the wheelchair out from beneath her. She struggles, quakes and eventually goes still. Then Bava’s camera reveals the gloved murderer lingering over her dead body.
This specific moment throws expectation on its head.
This is a giallo. We were not supposed to learn the identity of the murderer. Bava calculates his audience’s imbalance and goes one step further. The instant we begin to question Bava’s intentions, another killer shoves a blade into the first one. The scene lays the foundation for A Bay of Blood — a movie that revels in its gruesome, cinematic murders while latently operating on an entirely different level, just like the second killer in this opening scene.
These two characters tell you all you need to understand A Bay of Blood. We just won’t know it until the credits roll. In the above scene, the squid fisherman Simon (Claudio Camaso) and the entomologist Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste) engage in a debate about how killing factors into human “civilization.” They discuss the monstrous reality of nature. Killing for sport vs. killing for sustenance. We don’t have any grasp on the nature of their relationship. They are at once familiar, but combative. Two different species that co-exist, but can never share a common ideology.
Simon: Man should live and let live, and without any interfering.
Paolo: Even that poor squid was free once, Simon, eh? I study Coleopters because I love them.
Simon: Sure, but the squirming little creatures still end up under your microscope. Yeah, he’s dead alright but at least I eat my squid. But I don’t kill as a hobby like you do.
Paolo: Good Lord, Simon; you make me feel like a murderer.
Simon: I’m not saying that, Mr. Fossati; but if you kill for killing’s sake – you become a monster.
Paolo: But, man isn’t an insect, my dear Simon. We have centuries of civilization behind us, you know.
Simon: No, I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
I transcribed the entire conversation because the specific language, which comes off as stilted, almost tone-deaf at this juncture in the movie, explains Mario Bava’s approach to A Bay of Blood. Bava establishes that the murder of the old woman had been motivated by greed. Her husband had killed her to gain control of her estate and the choice piece of property overlooking a secluded bay.
In case you overlooked the image in my Bay of Blood header above, here it is again because textual relevance.
Then the bodies begin to pile up, quite literally. Teenagers who just happen to be hanging out on the property get offed in unspeakable fashions — per established tropes of horror films — merely for being free from societal burdens and, well, horny.
A Bay of Blood devotes a large middle section to the execution of these innocents, characters that have no ties to the property or the sought-after estate wealth. Their personal freedom itself seems to be their greatest offense. They do not covet wealth; therefore, they threaten the status quo. They are the wild animals, slain by humans for no good reason. They are Paolo’s insects in Simon and Paolo’s aforementioned argument.
The killer spears one one couple during coitus — the spear impaling the bed and both of their naked, writhing bodies, and recalling specifically the way in which Paolo mounts his insects for collection. Even after the spear gores their flesh, they continue to thrust, bringing their sexual act to a climax. (Bringing to mind Shakespeare’s line from Romeo and Juliet “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars.” When Juliet says “die” she really means orgasm. Anyway, not sure if it’s related, but just note the Shakespearean sex/death/orgasm thing and move along.) Bava punctuates their apparent animalism and their untethered freedoms — traits that A Bay of Blood has positioned as anti-human.
As A Bay of Blood dispatches most of the potential killers/victims, the “whodunnit” mystery becomes a secondary concern. Everyone did it. Every single one of these characters (with the exception of the dead teenagers piled up in the spare bedroom) proves to be guilty of greed and/or capable of murder. While it’s horrible that someone’s out there slashing folks up, Bava suggests that the actual act of murder is potentially no worse than the willingness to do so or even the festering greed.
If you recall the opening of the film, the husband hangs the old woman and then in turn is killed himself. Bava bookends the film with another bingo-bango murder-murder. It again feels like Bava has pulled the rug out from beneath us. He’s murdered the murderer(s) via someone unseen and off-screen. Only this time, instead of 5 minutes, we’ve had 100 minutes to digest the film and 100 minutes with these characters. This final act, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it finale, breaks so many narrative rules that the audience must reconcile that the only “rules” are constraints my which we’ve imposed upon these films from our frame-of-viewing-reference. Bava flaunts convention. He reminds you about his thesis statements by underlining his entire film twice and circling the statements he made in the opening scene and the conversation between the entomologist and the squid fisherman.
Humans are f’ing animals. Death is random. Murder is chaos. The End.
Bava drops the microphone and allows the audience to decide whether this scene detracts or punctuates an otherwise gruesome, anarchic slice of giallo genius. I have my opinion. Now I’d like to hear yours.
One final image of Claudine Auger because reasons.
I watched the DVD contained within the Mario Bava Collection Volume II. The DVD looked fine, but I’m game to give this a rewatch on that 2013 Kino Blu-ray when I get the opportunity to upgrade. The Kino Blu-ray, by the way, is superior to the old 2010 Arrow UK edition. Just in case you were in the market.
That love-it or hate-it ending can really warp a final thought, you know? There’s so much to love about A Bay of Blood that if you’re in the “love-it” camp, this could be Bava’s underappreciated masterpiece. If you’re on the side of the the camp that just can’t assimilate the weird with the wicked, you might find yourself confused and a little bewildered. Now having written this moratorium on my own viewing experience, I’m even more conflicted. I’m going to aim somewhere in between and hope for the coming epiphany to inspire my next viewing.
Nature of Shame: Love Re-Animator. Blind-bought Arrow’s limited edition Bride of Re-Animator box as a result.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1980’s
The Advance Word: The continued, hilarious antics of re-animated tissue. Stuart Gordon’s out. Brian Yuzna’s in as director.
#9. The Bride of Re-Animator
Do you remember in Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach when snarky, mechanical Matt McCoy took over the “straight man” role from Steve Guttenberg and we were just supposed to carry on and not care that it wasn’t actually Steve Guttenberg but rather a blonder, but still reasonable facsimile of Steve Guttenberg? I’m hearing a lot of blank stares, but trust me, Matt McCoy’s alright, but he’s just no Steve Guttenberg. (He is however an excellent Lloyd Braun.)
All the regular Police Academy pieces remained. Lassard. Hightower. Tackleberry. Jonesy. Callahan. Hooks. Harris and Proctor… but somehow without that Guttenberg/Mahoney glue that held everything together in perfect harmony through the first four films, Assignment: Miami Beach became a passable, but pale imitation of a Police Academy movie.
That’s paragraph best sums up how I felt about The Bride of Re-Animator, except in this scenario Stuart Gordon is Steve Guttenberg. You’re nodding in agreement, but the nod feels empty. Nonetheless, I’ll continue on as if you’re still paying attention and still agreeing with everything I’m saying.
Bride contains all of the necessary Re-Animator elements. First and foremost, its taste for the deliciously absurd combinations of random body parts. The eyeball hand really seems like it’d make a great pet… not so much the David Gale head with bat wings. Bride again embraced the oozy, gooey, gory squirts, drips and pustules. But the inclusion often felt like fan-service for the sake of the oozy and gooey.
Despite needing waders to navigate the splatter, the original Re-Animator made the gore seem perfectly relevant and story-driven, not just standalone set pieces. Bride seemed to say “Here’s some gore. There’s some goo. Are you not satisfied?”
“No,” we’d say, “because that’s just gross,” noting the hypocrisy of the sentiment, but knowing that we wanted more sincerity.
More Guttenberg and less McCoy. More Stuart Gordon and less Brian Yuzna. Though maybe we’re expecting too much from Brian Yuzna, a filmmaker who’s never exactly proven himself entirely capable behind the camera. Admission: I’ve yet to see Return of the Living Dead III, a film some have cited as an exception.
The next issue is that Yuzna intended Bride of Re-Animator as a direct sequel, yet his characters barely know themselves. I’m not going to get into a point-by-point comparison of how these McCoys are not Guttenbergs but suffice it to say that Bruce Abbott and Jeffrey Combs might as well be completely different characters. So much so, in fact, that I’m forced to wonder whether this was an intentional decision to further emulate the ways that the Universal horror directors flippantly discarded continuity to fashion films from their own molds. As a result, those Universal artists often bettered their respective products.
Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator clearly borrow from the Frankenstein series, but specifically choosing to sidestep character continuity would be a terribly stupid stylistic choice. Especially when that choice turns Bruce Abbott’s Dr. Dan Cain into an extra from Gray’s Anatomy. Combs meanwhile takes his Dr. Herbert West so far down the mad scientist trope that he loses the glimmer of humanity laced within the original Re-Animator. He was always supposed to be borderline psychotic, but here’s he completely lost his f’ing marbles.
The result of all these not-so-subtle shifts is a real McCoy, a real Matt McCoy. A film that looks, acts and talks like the Guttenberg, but can’t duplicate Re-Animator‘s precise balance of gory effects, black humor and inquiries into what makes us human. Had enough of the Police Academy references yet? Of course not. Nobody ever tires of Police Academy references. If you are, you must be a real Proctor.
Arrow’s Blu-ray does every muscle fiber, bone shard and blood squirt justice. The “squishy” sound effects come through clearer than the squeamish might like.
One might say The Bride of Re-Animator lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, but it’s pretty clear that Bride lacked merely the deft stitching of Stuart Gordon to piece together the necessary parts. The Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein source material had already done most of the arterial fitting, but hacking it up with Yuzna just didn’t cut it. I laughed. I cringed. But none of it felt quite right.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: The extras on this exquisite box set coupled with the transfer and multiple cuts of the film make it a worthy addition to a completist’s collection. I just so happen to be a completist that loves Re-Animator.
Nature of Shame: Overpriced B-movie impulse buy cluttering my watch pile.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1970’s Crazy Animal Movie
The Advance Word: Fish that kill. They’re killer fish. And the 6 Million Dollar Man is going to stop them.
Have you ever wanted to watch a movie about “killer fish” that involves the most awkward sequences of staring off camera and almost zero instances of curmudgeonly fish let alone killer fish? Then, boy howdy, do I have the movie for you. I could write a review about this movie, but I think I’ll just let a few images speak for themselves. Lee Majors is no slouch, by the way. He runs around and speaks with great purpose. Either he was drunk or desperately trying to keep this movie on the rails with super powers of seriousness. Antonio Margheriti knows his way around B-movie genre conventions, but the director seems incapable of shepherding his actors in any specific direction. Direction lost in translation, perhaps.
Margaux Hemingway and Lee Majors warming up their awkwardness with a few eye-location exercises.
If I had to crown the ultimate champion of staring awkwardly, I would give that crown to Margaux Hemingway who has as many different awkward glances as the eskimos have words for snow. The only person to compete with Margaux was Karen Black, who vacillated between the “I’ll swallow your soul if you toss me any more side-eye” and the “I have to poop a chimney.” I commend Karen for her precision and intensity, but I’ll take quantity and variety in this contest.
Karen Black prepares to swallow someones soul.
Before I became obsessed with the ways the characters stared off camera (and honestly this activity consumed my attention to the last hour of the film), I noted that this backgammon board resembled piranha teeth. (I’d go back and get decent shots of these things, but goddamn I don’t want to spend any more time on this particular review than I have to.) But I thought that the toothy-looking board seemed like a really cool visual motif. Alas.
The toothy backgammon board represented an early glimmer of hope that I had chosen a competent horror film.
Killerfish spends so much time indulging in some explosion fetish that it forgets to show the titular fish. So when people start getting consumed by these unseen piranhas, the viewer never senses any gravitas to these deaths. The victims are either awful humans, incompetent humans or annoying humans. Roger Corman’s Piranha, while not a great example of building tension, comprehends the thrill of showing actual piranhas. Gnashing teeth, creepy swarming fishy noises. But then again, despite the title, the movie wasn’t even about the fish at all.
The film even acknowledges the lack of horror tropes through some self-reflexive dialogue. One of the more dramatic characters in the film says, while mired in the middle of a rainforest: “We need something dramatic. Maybe a little chiaroscuro.” Agreed on all counts. Acknowledging, however, that your film lacks excitement or craft doesn’t make it okay. Does it? Discuss amongst yourselves.
Killerfish tries to build tension by not showing the budgetary limitations imposed upon their monsters. I say “apparently” because tension of any kind only manifests in minor keys and miniature blink-and-you-miss-em crescendos. We’re left with a movie that doesn’t build tension, a creature movie that doesn’t show its creatures, and a B-movie cast that inadvertently entertains as a result of the actors’ incompatibility and tactless gazing.
Killerfish‘s appeal lies not as a horror film, but as an action-adventure film with piranhas standing between double-crossing thieves and a priceless emerald cache. With a proper frame of reference, maybe Killerfish works as some variety of campy nostalgia. Casting better actors in the primary roles would have gone a long way towards legitimacy. I’m not suggesting the film required “good” actors — just better actors. And more examples of perturbed fish.
Eventually, yes, people get eaten.
Killerfish arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scorpion DVD. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of unearthing these lost B-movie treasures, but I’m also conflicted because people with ample resources spend time and energy restoring and preserving films like this rather than something with, I dunno, a little more teeth. The movie looks great. (Yay!) But also, why? WHY DOES KILLER FISH LOOK LIKE A MILLION BUCKS?
Blu-ray Verdict: Definitely pick this up for your next Awkward Stare Drinking Game. Pace yourself. Godspeed. I’ve got a copy for you, actually.
The Advance Word: Who can keep track anymore? I’ve seen Frankenstein many times. I’ve seen Bride of Frankenstein many times. I don’t remember Son of Frankenstein. Basil Rathbone! Bela Lugosi in a mop!
#7. Son of Frankenstein
I have to write 26 more of these; therefore, I’m going to recycle the opening paragraph from my She-Wolf of London writeup because it works as an intro to this review as well. Submit your gripes to the 30Hz Complaint Department. Your complaint will be logged, filed and ignored in the order in which it was received.
I watch and enjoy Universal horror movies indiscriminately. They’re comfort cinema. Therapy through high-contrast black and white cinematography. German Expressionism for the Moviewatcher’s Soul. My parents introduced these movies to me as a wee lad; The Invisible Man being the one that hooked me. The films aired non-stop on AMC (if I remember correctly) during the week of Halloween, and I’d cram as many as I could onto a stack of VHS tapes. As a result, I could hardly be expected to keep track of what I’d seen.
Beyond Frankeinstein and Bride of Frankenstein how well do you know your Universal Frankensteins? This is the question I asked myself when I needed an entry point into the new Frankenstein Universal Horror Collection Blu-ray. I recall watching House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula not too terribly long ago so I sampled the Blu-ray upgrade for a bit and moved on. Yet Son of Frankenstein felt like hazy memory. Trace notions of preferring it to Frankenstein popped up as I stared at the contents of the set.
If I needed to be bold enough to suggest something as offbeat as SON OF FRANKENSTEIN > FRANKENSTEIN, I needed first-hand, recently-viewed ammunition to defend this claim. Good news, gentle #31DaysOfHorror viewers; Son of Frankenstein confirmed all of my decaying notions of superiority. Plus, I know for a fact that the film never looked this good.
Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry Frankenstein, creator of “the monster.” Wolf moves back to his father’s castle, wife and son in tow, and aims to restore his father’s name. The villagers, however, greet Wolf with some resistance. Off camera, they’re sharpening pitchforks and readying torches with lighter fluid. Fire hazards be damned. Poor Wolf’s only friend is Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh, who never fails to remind his friend about how his father’s monster ripped off his arm.
Wolf investigates the castle grounds, stumbles upon the old laboratory and meets the comatose body of the monster. Here he also becomes acquainted with another friend who’d like him dead. Ygor (Bela Lugosi, having just gone to the barber and asked for “the shaggy John Lennon”) plays coy after throwing some skull-crushing rocks down upon poor Wolf. (Honestly, with friends like these… ) In short order, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein becomes obsessed with reviving the slumbering monster. Finishing his father’s work consumes him. Ygor supports him, propelled by his own agendas. Wife and son remain casually oblivious to Wolf’s decaying mental state.
Son of Frankenstein represents arguably the best of the second wave of Universal horror. For two years, between 1936 and 1938, the studio removed horror from their lineup. Both Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr. (the originators of the horror cycle at Universal) had been forced out of the company after a number of financial duds.
In 1938, a struggling Los Angeles theater showed a Dracula/Frankenstein/King Kong triple feature (per Wikipedia). The box office success of that triple bill reminded Universal that they’d been sitting on a goldmine. Universal immediately put a new Frankenstein sequel into production starring Lugosi and Karloff. James Whale opted out (thinking his success in horror had initiated his career decline), opening the door for veteran director Rowland V. Lee. Another interesting note: Universal planned to shoot Son of Frankenstein in color, but abandoned the notion midstream. Behind the scenes clips of Karloff in green makeup survive, if not the actual color film footage.
Son of Frankenstein marks a drastic leap forward in stateside filmmaking ability to borrow and regurgitate the teachings of the German Expressionists that inspired filmmakers during the first wave of Universal horror. The whole production leans toward artificiality. The more grotesque sets have been designed specifically to cast long, otherworldly shadows. As the final A-production Universal horror film, design and cinematography remain striking, especially for this brand of genre film. Critics cited the film’s lack of actual “terror,” but from our vantage point none of these films really provide many frights. Therefore, I deem these critics irrelevant. (Don’t tell them.) It’s precisely this high-contrast, unnatural setting that draws us into this film as something far more proficient than a simple horror film.
Even more interesting to note is that Son of Frankenstein clearly served as Mel Brooks’ primary inspiration for Young Frankenstein. The haphazard behavior of Rathbone’s Baron Wolf von Frankenstein and his “frenemous” relationship with Ygor speak directly to the character dynamics of Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein and Marty Feldman’s Igor. You’ll note at least a dozen smaller instances of carryover between the films.
After comparing specific scenesfrom both the DVD Legacy Collection and the Blu-ray Legacy Collection, I can confirm, with 100% confidence, the necessity of upgrading Son of Frankenstein. While the 4K scans of both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein exist elsewhere, Son of Frankenstein becomes the real treat for fans of the franchise. Never has the stunning black and white contrast been more pronounced. While the DVD looked good, a side-by-side contrast reveals how profound the difference really is. Look specifically at the scene where Wolf first arrives at the estate.
Call me crazy, but I think Son of Frankenstein rivals Bride of Frankenstein, at least as pure entertainment. While Whale’s Bride clearly remains the superior film, Son of Frankenstein offers a visual feast of chiaroscuro to go along with the thrill of watching three legendary stars — Rathbone, Karloff and Lugosi — do battle in a “silly” little horror flick with Grade A technical achievement.
Blu-ray Verdict: Doesn’t get much better than this for fans of classic Universal horror.