Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

A neo-psychedelic story of grief and a giallo-influenced journey into the weird

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

The Editor

If you don’t know your giallo from a hole in the ground, this is probably not the place to start.

Canada. Directed by Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy, 2014. Starring Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Paz de la Huerta, Samantha Hill. 95 minutes. 6/10

Ah, giallo! Who among us does not revere that elegant Italian art form, that rapturous combination of lush cinematography, lurid sex, black-gloved hands holding straight-razors, and poor English-language dubbing? The giallo revival, which has given us films such as Amer and Sonno Profondo and influenced the likes of Berberian Sound Studio, has progressed to the point where parody is now possible. Enter Astron-6, the Canadian wiseasses responsible for Manborg and Father’s Day.

Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks) was once the world’s greatest film editor, but a gruesome accident with a splicer cost him several fingers, his reputation, and his sanity. Having recovered from a nervous breakdown, he’s now a shadow of his former self, reduced to working on sleazy grindhouse pictures. When the actors on his latest project turn up murdered, police detective Peter Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy) fingers him as the number one suspect. Can Ciso prove his innocence and expose the real killer? Or is Detective Porfiry right after all?

Brooks and Kennedy, who also co-wrote (with actor Conor Sweeney) and co-directed The Editor, have crafted a film largely immune to criticism. They have re-created a particular style of film from a bygone era, the kind they really don’t make anymore. (All the neo-gialli I’ve seen are largely artsy stylistic exercises–they may look like the real deal but they certainly don’t feel it.) The flaws–poor acting, incoherent narrative–are deliberate; if The Editor can be described as “bad” then it is certainly by design. And how do you review something intended to be bad?

Despite my bluster and bombast three paragraphs ago, I have always been a bit iffy on giallo. I’m not opposed to it but neither am I an enthusiast. They sound awesome when I hear about them but then I actually see one and can’t help but be let down. I’m not really the movie’s target audience.

That’s not to say that it didn’t elicit a few laughs–for example, whenever the dialog is particularly awkward (“I am in our home!” Ciso calls to his wife when he gets home from work), or on those occasions when someone spots a “cigarette burn” on the film. Udo Kier, Tristan Risk, and Laurence R. Harvey do what they do best in their minor roles, and while Paz de la Huerta’s acting hasn’t improved since…ever…here it’s actually an asset, not a liability.

Ultimately, then, The Editor is one of those films you either get or you don’t. If you prefer to spend your evenings curled up watching a Bava or an Argento, make a beeline for this one (assuming you haven’t already). On the other hand, if you don’t know your giallo from a hole in the ground, this is probably not the place to start.

THE EDITOR poster

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

Belgium’s foremost purveyors of black leather, razor blades and low moans are back with this nightmarish acid trip of a film.

AKA L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps. Belgium. Directed by Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet, 2013. Starring Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedener, Joe Koener. 104 minutes.

Leather gloves, straight-razors, primary color filters, funk-influenced Euro-prog, and lots of naked women. This can mean only one thing: the genre’s foremost pasticheurs of giallo, the Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, are back!

Well…let’s back up a bit. I kind of lied when I said “this can mean only one thing.” Giallo throwback felt fresh in 2009, when the pair burst on the scene with their feature début Amer. But over the past few years, neo-giallo has become a bit of a thing thanks to the likes of Berberian Sound Studio and Sonno Profondo. Now that Cattet and Forzani are no longer the only game in town, the novelty has worn off.

Still, that doesn’t make Strange Color a bad film, and unlike Amer it actually features a plot. It revolves around a telecom executive (Klaus Tange) who returns from a business trip to find his wife entirely missing from an apartment chain-locked from the inside. Tange’s investigation probes into the secret history of the apartment house, allowing for any number of diversions from his bizarre neighbors. The story is very thin at times and is difficult to follow at its best, but at least it’s there.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Strange Color is a case of style over substance, though. For Cattet and Forzani, style is substance, and their goal here, as always, is to combine their themes (the connection between the erotic and the violent) with the giallo audio-visual conventions to create a specific effect in the viewer. With its nightmarish imagery–a man tearing his way out of his own double’s body (using a straight-razor, natch), a hole in the ceiling that drips blood, stab wounds that look like vaginas and vice-versa–the film feels like a stomach-churningly vivid bad trip.

The downside of all this is that it’s not particularly accessible, even to casual fans of vintage giallo: it deconstructs the conventions so thoroughly that it’s almost impenetrable. Even devotées might find themselves frustrated at how ready and willing the filmmakers are to repeat their visual leitmotifs over the course of the film. And that’s quite apart from the fact that the pair are beginning to seem a bit like a one-trick pony: there’s very little here that they haven’t done before, not just in Amer, but in their short films such as “O is for Orgasm,” their segment of The ABCs of Death. Even the “series of photographs” conceit (think La Jetée) was the centerpiece of their 2002 short The Yellow Room.

Yet even if it does turn out that Cattet and Forzani only have a one-octave keyboard, I won’t deny that they play it exceptionally well, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears makes a fine addition to their body of work. A treat for the neo-giallo’s base of superfans.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

Deep Sleep

A stylish and intriguing neo-giallo

Argentina/Italy, 2013. AKA Sonno Profondo. Directed by Luciano Onetti. Starring Luciano Onetti, Daiana García, Silvia Duhade. 67 minutes.

Does your life suffer from a recent lack of sleazy erotica, black-gloved killers holding straight-razors, and stage blood the color of Heinz ketchup? If so, maybe you’ve missed out on the recent resurgence of interest in giallo, the classic Italian subgenre of lurid mystery-thriller. The trend of making new works in the giallo style has resulted in several intriguing films of late, including Luciano Onetti’s Sonno Profondo. (The phrase is Italian for “deep sleep,” which is an alternate English title for the film, but not one I’ve seen in wide use.)

The film tells the story of a mysterious killer (played by Onetti, who also co-wrote, directed, shot and edited) who breaks into an apartment and stabs the resident, an erotic model, to death–and then finds the tables turned when a witness to the murder threatens retaliation. To say much more about the plot is doubly dangerous, not just because of the threat of spoilers, but one runs the risk of putting too much emphasis on the plot.

For Sonno Profondo is above all an exercise in style. Onetti presents the film in a heavily processed faux-grindhouse style, complete with fake film grain and scratches and a washed-out Technicolor palette. He devotes himself to replicating the giallo style to the point of parody. There’s barely any dialog, and most of the shots are extreme close-ups. We never even get an unobstructed view of the killer’s face, or the victim’s. Underlining all this is soundtrack of funk-inflected psych-rock instrumentals that recalls, and occasionally outdoes, the legendary Italian group Goblin.

The downside of this is that Sonno Profondo will gain little traction outside circles of giallo devotees. Wide audiences and even casual horror fans may find themselves alienated by he deliberately slow pace, lack of anything resembling character development (plus, it’s hard to fully engage with a protagonist when all you see of him is his hand), exaggerated “acting” and a score that can dismissively but not entirely inaccurately written off as “’70s porn music.” Nor is it likely to win the subgenre any converts–the uninitiated will find more effective gateways in period classics by Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

That aside, Sonno Profondo sets out to do a specific thing and it does a good job of it. Appealing beyond a small cult of genre fans was never part of the deal. If you’re a member of that cult, here’s a movie to cherish.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

Retro Review: Tenebrae

Argento tinkers with the giallo formula a bit, resulting in an enjoyable, effective and essentially Argento mystery-thriller.

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster