Friday, 21 September 2012

Suspiria (1977)

As we head towards October, the season of the witch, it seems right that we celebrate some midnight horror films. And what better place to start than Suspiria, Dario Argento's art-house horror masterpiece from 1977. I remember seeing this at the Scala in King's Cross on the back of a late night double bill with Driller Killer. This was when you could smoke in cinemas, bring in cans of red stripe and get the nightbus home. Naturally it was full of blokes.

The movie is a prime example of a Giallo, the lurid Italian horror genre of the 60s and 70s of which Argento was a prime mover and shaker. Indeed Suspiria's intense colours and hyper sense of reality make it one of the best looking horror films ever made. Argento brings a classic style and depth of vision to the simple but effective storyline. What the movie has in style, it matches in suspense, compounding terror and hysteria. Suspiria bites hard with plenty of look away moments. It's not for the faint hearted.

The story is set in a Munich ballet school for girls. Suzy (a skull-like Jessica Harper) arrives one night off the plane in a nightmarish storm and heads for the Freiburg dance school where she has a placement. There she takes classes under the imposing Miss Tanner (Italian 1940s starlet Valli) while the faculty is run by the civil but curt Madame Blanc. And when expelled student Pat gets (very) brutally murdered by a mysterious black gloved hand, things take a turn for the strange and grotesque. Sure enough it's not long before Suzy discovers some pretty freaky things going on at Freiburg...

It's fair to say Argento eschews a believable narrative in favour of dragging out as much tension and chills as possible from the plot. We are deep in supernatural territory here and anything goes especially the surreal. Everything is aimed towards unsettling the viewer and if you love being scared then that's what you tune in for.

Italian prog rock band Goblin provide one of THE great horror soundtracks, an eerie lullaby that really hangs around after the final reel. Suspiria was one of the last films to use Technicolour, and primary colours are intensified beyond belief throughout the film. The dark blue silks of the walls inside the academy look plush and opulent whilst the blood red hallways outside the girls dorms are foreboding. The film is shot using anamorphic lenses which stretch the action across the screen and this heightens the senses further. Argento does not stint on the scares or macabre either. Maggots fall through the ceiling on the unsuspecting girls and beware the snarling crazed dog of the blind piano player. At one point Suzy and room-mate Sara go for a late night swim in the large ornate swimming pool in the academy basement. It's a superb example of mounting suspense and exploitation of the girls' vulnerability.

Argento's roving camera is always up for a strange angle in the name of art, tracking, panning, zooming constantly. Sometimes we see the action as a reflection from the other side of a mirror say, or a window. Mirrors and windows are continuing motifs throughout the film, whether broken or intact. The art direction as a whole in Suspiria is on point. Argento fills his scenes with art deco Italian furniture and wallpapers. In fact the whole films looks like that other great Italian art deco film, Bertolucci's The Conformist.

You can see echoes of Suspiria's style in Tony Scott's (RIP) 80s vampire flick The Hunger. The film also heavily influenced music videos trends from the early 80s, especially in those made by Julien Temple for The Rolling Stones and Depeche Mode. And Darren Aronofsky owes a huge debt to Suspiria to great effect in his own giallo of 2010, Black Swan. 35 years after it was made Suspiria still has the power to shock and scare the wits out of anyone who watches it. For fans of the genre, you can't ask for more than that.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Been a long time since we rock and roll, so let's get back in the saddle with some classic mid-70s Sam Peckinpah. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is definitely one of Peckinpah's most personal films, although the sentimentality is a bitter one and it never gets in the way of a cracking tale with deeply Gothic undertones. The story starts as young pregnant Mexican girl Teresa is brought before her father and local Mr Big, El Jefe. The patriarch commands his henchmen to break her arm before she reveals the name of the father - Alfredo Garcia. El Jefe orders for the head of Garcia to be brought to him, and hires a ruthless team of bounty hunters/killers to find him, decapitate him, and bring back the proof.

Cut to Mexico City and said hitmen pick up gigolo Garcia's trail through Bennie, a one time soldier and now a down on his luck piano player, holed up in a shady bar of tourists, ex pats and gringos. Bennie takes the job of finding his old pal "Al" Garcia (who he discovers is already dead and buried) on the promise of a ten grand payoff, and what follows is a dark and twisted road movie through the Mexican countryside as Bennie and prostitute girlfriend Elita (also Garcia's ex lover) go in search of Garcia's grave, the bounty and the head.

Warren Oates gives one of his most iconic performances as Bennie. On the surface Bennie is a money grabbing loser who constantly wears the same crumpled suit, clip tie and shades and is ready to play any tune requested, even murder. However Oates instills an air of resolve and integrity in Bennie. He is genuinely disgusted at his adversaries' violent attitude towards women. In fact he is the only male character in the film that treats women with any kind of respect and tenderness. Against all the odds, all he really wants is a better life for himself and Elita, hence his pursuit of the money. "Nobody loses forever" he spits as he starts his journey.

The film is really Bennie's story and Oates relishes playing the lead after a lifetime of memorable cameos and bit parts. Sure Bennie is a tad unhygienic (washing crabs from his nether regions with tequila anyone?). But his all or nothing death-wish in search of the prize gives the plot it's main drive and as such, Oates gives Bennie enough balls and gusto to keep the viewer interested through the two hour running time.

Also worth mentioning are the two nameless hitmen who head the search for Garcia. Clad in business suits and callously efficient, the pair are played by tough guy actor Robert Webber and the slightly effeminate Gig Young. Young nonchalantly tells Benny his name is Fred C. Dobbs - a reference to John Huston's classic gold digging tale The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of Peckinpah's main go-to points for Bring Me the Head. Kris Kristofferson also pops up on the road through Mexico as a rape-happy biker. And although not on screen for long, Emilio Fernandez brings an ominous presence to the film as Mexican gang-lord and top villain El Jefe. Fernandez had played a similar role as Mapache in Peckinpah's game-changing western The Wild Bunch a few years previous and brings menace and barbarism to proceedings here.

The film is Sam Peckinpah's baby though. After having his previous effort Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid slashed to smithereens by the studio, he took full control of Bring Me the Head, shooting on a small budget with locations and actors he knew and trusted to seal the deal. Peckinpah's eye for detail and colour is never better. The photography is both clear and vivid as we swap the seedy hotel rooms of Mexico City, piped with muzak and lit with neon strips and lava lamps, for the dusty backroads and hues of pastoral Mexico.
Deep down Bring Me the Head is another of Peckinpah's many westerns. When the movie starts, it seems that we are in familiar territory, the turn of the 19th/20th century perhaps and the end of the old west? However the convoy of 1970s American cars that leave El Jefe's hideout in search of Garcia is disorientating and, as a noisy jet lands in Mexico city, we realise that this is the modern world. The traditional western themes are all there - betrayal, honour, greed and revenge. It's just that the action is played out with automatic pistols and machine guns instead of Colts and Winchesters.
The biggest signifier that we are in cowboy territory though is in Peckinpah's use of Mexico. Mexico was always Peckinpah's spiritual home, so many of his characters have sought refuge or ended their days there. Billy the Kid holes up in his hacienda south of the border waiting for Pat Garrett to turn up for the last gunfight. Pike, Dutch and the rest of The Wild Bunch reach their end game at Mapache's palace in a hail of bullets, blood squibs and balletic slow motion photography. Even Doc McCoy ends up in Mexico in Peckinpah's "straight" action flick The Getaway. So, in it's own way, Bring Me the Head is Peckinpah's ode to the country and the myth that he helped create, that of Mexico as a land of wild and terrible freedom. And in Bennie we have Peckinpah's closest alter ego, an artist with a gun, at the end of his tether looking for a pot of blood-soaked gold...
"How you guys like baseball?"