Collins’ Crypt: Spending All Night With Dario Argento

The New Beverly had a marathon of six Dario Argento classics - did BC make it out alive?

In November of 2015, the New Beverly celebrated Friday the 13th in the best possible way: showing all eight Paramount entries of the same-named series back to back on 35mm, the first time a marathon of the films had been shown without any digital sources. For last May's Friday the 13th, they opted to give the same treatment to Jason's biggest rival: Freddy Krueger, showing the first seven Nightmare on Elm Street entries (as a non-fan of Freddy vs. Jason, I was delighted that they had one less entry for Freddy rather than match the Jason-thon's count by showing their underwhelming team-up). But for this past Friday the 13th (the first one since last May), they didn't go with a Halloween or Hellraiser-thon, eschewing the "franchise" concept in favor of a specific filmmaker. And who better than Dario Argento, whose gialli films of the '70s played a part in making the blueprint for American slasher movies like Friday the 13th?

Apparently it was a wise business choice too - tickets sold out in under 30 seconds, which I believe is a new record. As always, the films' titles would be kept secret from the audience - all we knew was that they would be all Argento (some hoped they'd cheat a bit and show Two Evil Eyes), and all on film. This means we were probably safe from the bulk of his later work as prints are either harder to track down or simply don't exist, so odds are, whatever films programmers Quentin Tarantino and Phil Blankenship chose, they would be the ones we'd want to see. Interestingly, they went in chronological order as well, which had a funny (but ultimately unneeded) perk - if Sleepless or something started up as the 4th movie, anyone who couldn't stand his work over the past 10-15 years would know they could safely beat traffic and sleep in their comfortable bed instead of fighting to stay awake through the likes of The Card Player.

But instead, they kept it pretty compact, showing films exclusively from the first half of his career, with later, polarizing efforts like his Phantom of the Opera (his worst film by a mile, in my opinion) only showing up as posters in the lobby. New Bev regular Rich Lumley apparently has more Dario Argento posters than a dozen of us combined, and let the theater borrow (only part of!) his collection to decorate their lobby, which has several poster slots and a tireless staff who would keep rotating them throughout the night, giving us something new to gawk at every time we went out to the bathroom or buy more concessions. I snapped a few shots (seen below when appropriate) but I couldn't even keep up with how many changeovers there were, and encourage you all to check out Phil's Facebook post to see some others that they had to impress our weary eyeballs.

"To hell with the posters, what movies did they show?" you ask, and obviously I will answer in the following recap. Again, they stuck to the first half of his career, so as any Argento fan can tell you, this means we saw most of the best of his best. Some I had seen before on 35mm, others only on poorly transferred DVDs, but what's great is that even though I am a fan of his, I've only seen his movies two or three times each, some only once. So there was really no way I would go home early or be too disappointed with this or that selection, as there isn't a stinker in the bunch from that era, and even if there was one I didn't love too much, I probably hadn't seen it with a crowd before, so there's always a chance of reappraisal. Did that happen? Let's find out!

Movie #1 - The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)

Things started off somewhat muted, as not many people seemed to know what film it was we were seeing at first. We didn't realize they'd be going chronological until later in the evening when it became obvious, and the print had a different title ("The Phantom of Terror", its US reissue title) that was only on screen for like half a second before the credits began rolling. It gradually dawned on people (usually due to a particular credit), but since this is his oldest film and hasn't been as widely available in the US as his others, I'd be guessing that a lot of folks were seeing it for the first time. For me it was only the second time, and the first was back in 2008, which is to say I couldn't remember much beyond an amazingly odd line during a police lineup scene where a cop yells at a fellow officer for mixing up the transsexuals and perverts. Such colorful, very far from PC dialogue would pepper all the films during the night, so hopefully there weren't any attention-seeking bloggers in the crowd or else there will be a misguided thinkpiece about how we shouldn't like these films today because they have dated attitudes.

Anyway, like I said, I couldn't remember much, including the killer's identity, allowing the twist to work on me all over again. Being his first film, it's certainly not as elaborate (or admittedly as exciting) as his later ones, but it's an essential movie to watch all the same, seeing him lay the groundwork for a formula he would return to time and time again, with each subsequent one getting more complicated and offering more visual flourishes. As with later entries like Deep Red and Tenebrae, we have an American (always a creator of some sort; this one's a writer) who is visiting Europe and gets involved in a murder plot, ultimately taking a more proactive role in solving the case than the police. And they almost always have a half-memory of something that will solve the mystery once they figure it out, replaying the first murder over and over in their head until it unlocks the missing piece. This one's pretty straightforward (and only really has one major murder scene), and apart from an artist who eats cats (!) keeps the goofiness to a minimum. A low-key way to start the evening, but again, a must-see entry in the Argento canon if you haven't already.

Movie #2 - Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

The 2nd part of Argento's so-called "Animal Trilogy" of gialli, and also apparently the filmmaker's personal least favorite of his films (though he claimed that in 2001, so that might have changed). It was certainly the low point of the evening, though the film itself isn't (completely) to blame. The film is admittedly a bit dull, with all the good parts coming in the first half (like a ridiculous train murder with the floppiest dummy corpse in history, and a terrific darkroom murder), but the real problem was the print itself, which was, as they say, "well traveled". In addition to being one of the most faded prints I've ever seen*, it was also scratched up and warped, requiring the projectionist to do the best they could to keep up and maintain focus, but I doubt anyone could fully pull it off since it was in such bad shape. As with Plumage, this one probably hadn't been as widely seen as some of the others, so it's a shame that people were likely seeing it like this for their first time. I know Quentin loves evidence that a print has been around and been loved by other audiences, but like, you don't encourage others to wear your beat up and smelly old sweater because you find it comfortable. In general, I stand by him that film is superior to digital - but ultimately I think it's best to go on a case by case basis, rather than his "all or nothing" way of thinking. I'd rather watch a projected VHS tape than a print that looked like this, so it's a shame to think we could have been watching a pristine DCP (something the theater could have shown had he not thrown his weight around and gotten rid of the digital projector that had been installed back when he wasn't as hands-on with the theater) and first-timers could have been giving the movie a fairer chance

Luckily, the lousiest print was also for the weakest movie that they showed. The blurriness was so bad I actually let myself doze off for a while (and legit "rested my eyes" for a bit too) because it was giving me a headache, though I wanted to be awake for the finale because I couldn't remember who the killer was (again!) but DID remember he explained himself to an obviously not-interested Karl Malden, which delighted me. It's worth a look for his purists, and I enjoy the friendship between Malden's blind crossword puzzle maker and James Franciscus' reporter (the cops barely even appear in this one; it's seemingly solely up to a blind guy and a journalist to solve a string of murders), but it works best on its own when you haven't just watched a better one and aren't biding your time for what will likely be...

Movie #3 - Deep Red (1975)

Skipping past Four Flies on Grey Velvet (part three of the aforementioned "trilogy), we get to what many consider to be his greatest giallo, and some even say it's his best film period. I wouldn't agree on the latter point, but if it's not his best giallo it's at least tied with Opera (at least in my house). It was also the first title of the night I was able to guess from the trailers, which were more limited than usual. Whereas previous all-nighters had trailer reels lasting 4-5 (more?) spots, we only got two a piece before each movie, which wasn't usually enough to make a strong guess - but when Blow-Up appeared I knew it had to be "Profondo Rosso", as it shares star David Hemmings with Antonioni's masterpiece. After two other gialli and the growing suspicion that we'd be seeing the movies in order of release, I admit I was hoping they'd skip past this too and move right into Suspiria, but (non-shocking reveal coming!) by this point I started dozing off here and there, as I'd seen this one a couple times (once in this very theater) and unlike the previous two, remembered who the killer was.

And for the first time I actually saw the killer in the mirror in the opening murder sequence! The first time around I obviously wouldn't know to look (way to the left of the frame), and when I last saw the film there I forgot to look, but this time I had my eye trained to the left and caught her standing there, a creepy "blink and you'll miss it" dead giveaway of sorts that I wish more whodunit films would have for the sharp-eyed (or repeat viewers). It's also always fun to see certain scenes with a crowd, especially the arm wrestling bit which got, I think, the biggest in-film cheer of the night, as the males and females alike reveled in Hemmings being beaten - twice! - by the great Daria Nicolodi, in the first of what would be her three appearances that evening. Argento didn't reuse a lot of actors in his films, so beyond seeing him get more elaborate with his plots and camerawork as the night went on, we also got to see her age ten years - it was perhaps the only reason to be disappointed Mother of Tears wasn't included in the lineup (that said, if they wanted to do the Animal Trilogy and then the Three Mothers series, it would be very cool on a thematic level, at least).

Movie #4 - Suspiria (1977)

At around 2 am (sorry, I didn't keep track of the time for this one like I usually do), we got our first break from his traditional giallo with Suspiria, a film that serves up the elaborate death scenes (and Goblin score!) but with supernatural elements, the first of his films to do so. The print was in good shape, albeit with a few trims (the scene where the blind pianist was fired was removed, making his later death even more out of nowhere than it normally is), but even if it was cut down to 45 minutes or something it'd be hard to diminish the film's impact - it's considered a classic for a reason. I think this was the third time I've watched it since they've announced a remake (originally by David Gordon Green, who has since departed), and each time I spend at least a few minutes wondering why they would bother. Not only is the film not dated in the slightest, but it's really not a story-driven film, so I fear a remake (especially one from a filmmaker not known for horror, in this case Luca Guadagnino) won't be as memorable as nightmare fuel either. So what will the point be?

Luckily, we will of course always have the original, a film so rich with atmosphere and with almost no slow spots (it starts off intense and doesn't let up for a full reel) that I can never get tired of seeing it either at home or the big screen. As our buddy Sam Zimmerman correctly pointed out, the film practically hypnotizes you while you're watching, making each viewing almost seem like the first at certain points (I never even noticed that the character of Olga never gets a proper sendoff), and I always notice different things and find new takeaways. For example, it never really occurred to me until now that the movie is so damn crazy, Udo Kier (UDO KIER!) manages to come off as the most normal guy in it. A new 4k transfer is coming (no word on a US release, though I can't imagine we won't get a chance to see it) and I'll gladly watch it again when it does, however it's delivered. Though I'd prefer a theatrical showing; it's less funny than Argento's other films (at least, the ones we watched that evening), but it's every bit as great to see with a crowd, as you can almost feel everyone relax after that first reel, and squirm during the deaths (razor wire one in particular). Far and away the best of the Three Mothers films, so since it was the only one they showed it was an excellent choice.

Movie #5 - Tenebrae (1982)

Skipping past Inferno (which I enjoy but I know I'd be asleep for most/all of it, now that it was past 4 am and my sips of coffee were making my heart race but not really keeping my eyes open - I snoozed thru Suspiria's finale), we got to see a very nice print of what was Argento's last great traditional giallo film, and one of the most fun to watch with a crowd. John Saxon's hat, the hero's horndog nature (gotta love how he beds Nicolodi but makes her sleep alone on the couch after), and of course the death scenes got the crowd going as if there was no such thing as sleep deprivation, and the fun twist (where one killer is removed but another takes his place) is another thing that, like Deep Red's early "reveal", I wish I saw attempted more often. Our hero CAN'T be the killer because he was still on a plane when the first murder occurred, and yet, he still is! It's a wacky plot point, but Argento pulls it off, even if his formula (visiting Americans, memories that are fragmented and thus missing an important clue, suspicious but very laid-back cops) could have used a few tweaks at this point. Again, watching them back to back certainly is a fun way to see how he refined his approach over 10-12 years, but it also got a bit repetitive, especially when you add in the lack of proper sleep - it's hard to tell some of these apart as is, let alone when your brain is fried.

At some point during the movie I realized I own three copies of it: one on DVD as part of Anchor Bay's collection of Argento films (Phenomena, Trauma, Card Player, and Do You Like Hitchcock are the others, the very definition of a mixed bag), one on limited edition Blu-ray, and then again as the regular edition of the Blu-ray (which removes some of the extras from the limited edition) - but have only seen it once at home - on a DVD I rented before I owned the aforementioned collection. You know you have a buying problem when you have three copies of a movie you seemingly never watch unless it's at the New Beverly. But there's no better way to watch, and I stayed awake longer than I figured I would considering how late it was and that it was the one I had the strongest memories of (again, I don't re-watch any of his movies all that often; this one just stuck in my brain better than most). I made it until just before Saxon was offed and woke up for the last couple minutes - so yes, I missed the blood-drenched wall during Jane's death, dammit. The print was great, too, for the record.

Side note - I'm currently playing Final Fantasy XV and "Tenebrae" is one of the locations, which has amused me every time it's been mentioned in the game and in my half-asleep stupor I started thinking of a giallo-inspired RPG. Someone get on that.

Movie #6 - Phenomena (1985)

OK, technically this was "Creepers", the US cut of the film. Normally I would cry foul at this sort of thing, but it was 6 am - if the cut version meant I was getting home into a real bed 20 minutes earlier, so be it. Besides, when this marathon was announced, I said I'd be happy to see Phenomena and/or Opera, as they are my two personal favorites of his films but I've never seen either on the big screen, so ending it on one of them, even if slightly truncated (nothing essential, for what it's worth), was a great way to end the night. If you've seen the movie, you know it has one of his craziest endings (shock scare beheadings! A monkey killing the villain!), giving everyone the jolt they probably needed for their drive home.

Of course, if they wanted one last cup of coffee for the ride (the theater offered free refills all night) they'd have a pretty sweet prize to drink it from: those who stayed for the entire duration (about half, maybe a little less) got a Suspiria-themed mug:

Funnily enough, I broke my Halloween mug a few weeks ago, so this is a solid replacement - Suspiria's score is an acknowledged influence on Halloween's, after all.

Overall, I think it was a terrific lineup, and I appreciated the lack of "extras" to keep things moving - no raffles, no long trailer reels, no shorts, etc. I like those things just fine, don't get me wrong - but I can't help but think that the "go go go" pace helped my "Cinesomnia". Similarly, I also liked that the slower films were at the top, before I got too tired, so the many big crowd moments (and improved visuals) also helped me stay awake more than I usually do for these things. Ideally I'd stay awake the entire time like my friend Jared (that's his hand/mug/pic, by the way - and he must be thanked for securing my ticket, as I had my own in my cart but it sold out by the time I got to the checkout page), but that's just not something I can seemingly actually do. I realized a few years ago that in addition to using TV to fall asleep throughout my formative years, creating an association (and drinking coffee from age 11, which probably gave me an immunity to caffeine), when I am enjoying a movie I get comfortable - and when I'm comfortable I fall asleep. I'm more likely to stay awake through one I don't enjoy, in fact. If they ever do a lineup of films I hate, I bet I'd stay awake the entire time if I went. Worth proving right? How about it, Phil and the other New Bev programmers - next Halloween, an all night marathon of Rob Zombie's Halloween, Iced, Freddy vs. Jason, Argento's Phantom of the Opera, Dark Ride, and Murder Set Pieces

*For those who don't attend repertory screenings on the regular, faded prints basically become a purplish-pink. Due to the way film used to be printed, any color film print made prior to 1982/1983 (when the process changed) is susceptible to fading, though the amount varies depending on other factors (how the film was stored, how often it's been run, etc.). Some just look like the red balance on your TV has been turned up a bit too high, others - like Nine Tails - look like you're watching it through a thick layer of Pepto-Bismol.

 

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