The Bird with the Crystal Plumage


Viewed – 20 June 2017  Blu-ray

Cult Italian horror auteur Dario Argento’s 1970 debut, has all the trade marks that have distinguished his career right through to the present.  The black gloved killer, beautiful female victims, superb camera work, an effective, characteristically unnerving musical score, and grand set-piece murders.  Tony Musante plays an American writer travelling in Rome with his girlfriend (the gorgeously photogenic Suzy Kendall, who resembles like a young Suzanne George), when he witnesses an attempted murder on a local female gallery owner by a dark figure dressed in a black raincoat.  He quickly becomes amateur sleuth after the local detective takes away his passport, and soon further murders take place and he grows ever closer to unmasking the assailant.

Although by no means as graphic as the director’s other works, this well told murder mystery harks back to the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock in both the theme and iconic imagery.  Dario Argento has been often labelled the Italian Hitchcock, and with this thriller such a label is hard to deny.  Yet although his work has become more abstract and bizarre over the years, and such creating a style that is distinctly his own, with this effective film, the director made a mark in cinema that introduced the world to a bold and brilliant new visionary.  Engaging performances by its lead actors (especially Musante), several colourful, odd-ball characters and situations that really get your pulse racing create a distinctly classy thriller right up their with the director’s best.  

Bird with the Crytsal Plumage

This newly restored 4k transfer from the always dependable guys at Arrow Video comes in a deluxe box set that boasts a vintage poster, a detailed booklet and the movie itself on both Blu-ray and DVD complete with a plethora of extras.  We get an essential audio commentary by Argento expert Troy Howarth as well as a new interview with the director, featurettes, trailers and newly commissioned artwork with a reversible sleeve.  Add to this 6 art cards.  The movie itself is in great shape with a clean, grainy image that only suffers from somewhat garish colours (which I’ll admit suit the era the movie was made in).  The soundtrack may only be in it’s original mono audio but is still effective, especially with composer Ennio Morricone’s memorable, haunting score.  An impressive treatment for a genuine classic of the Italian giallo genre.

Verdict:

(the movie)  4 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

Phenomena


Viewed – 10 May 2017  Blu-ray

International Version

I went through a phase of collecting the movies of revered Italian horror director Dario Argento in the early-to-mid 2000s, and had nearly every movie he’d made on DVD, whilst always trying to seek out the most complete, uncut versions of his art.  With the advent of Blu-ray I sort of began collecting again, to a less obsessive extent but have been happy to see some of his movies get deluxe releases in recent times.  Therefore we come to one of his more bizarre and most mistreated works.

Jennifer Connelly

Just prior to finding world-wide fame in children’s fantasy ‘Labyrinth’ this stars a young Jennifer Connelly as a student who comes to stay at an elite school for girls in Switzerland and quickly befriends her rebellious roommate.   However at the same time there have been reports of a series of brutal murders involving female students and with the help of a paraplegic insect expert played by genre legend Donald Pleasence and Jennifer’s own ability to communicate with insects, an investigation ensues to unmask a killer.

This blends two of Argento’s favourite styles; dark-fantasy and murder mystery and is very similar in tone to his acclaimed classic ‘Suspiria’, sort of a spiritual successor you might say.  However unlike that movie this lacks the excessive style and garish colour pallet (despite a few visual flourishes here and there).  We also get some woefully amateurish performances, even from Pleasance who sports a dodgy accent throughout (is he attempting Scottish?) and dialogue is delivered for the most part personality-free.  The plot is also a bit messy and not very well written with some faintly ridiculous moments (Jennifer declaring to a bunch of bullying schoolgirls “I love you all” and Pleasence happily sending Jennifer to track down a killer).  However if you can look past such shortcomings you still get an entertaining and suitably-violent ride with several great set-pieces and excellent use of a pulse pounding score by not only Argento regulars ‘Goblin’ but also ‘Iron Maiden’ and ‘Motorhead’.  Far from Argento’s best, but with a b-movie schlocky vibe to it all, there’s still fun to be had and remains streets ahead of the director’s more recent work.  There’s also a chimp brandishing a straight razor – so what’s not to love?

Arrow Video

The Blu-ray, another impressive job from Arrow Video comes with three cuts of the movie, the International Version at 110mins, the slightly longer Italian Version at 116mins and the heavily cut Creepers U.S. release at 83mins.  My preference is the International Version even if it has some long drawn out moments of throwaway dialogue that could easily have been trimmed.  The Italian Version is pretty similar but has inserts of Italian-only scenes complete with subtitles but is great for completionists.  I haven’t watched the Creepers cut but hear it’s not good at all.    The new 4k restoration of the image is very good however.  Clean and mostly pretty detailed.  The soundtrack (in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo) is also very pleasing even if dialogue sounded a bit low (especially noticeable when the music kicks in) and surrounds are given some love with the various music inserts.  Extras are plentiful with a feature length documentary consisting of new interviews with Dario Argento, actors Daria Nicolodi and Fiore Argento (no sign of Connelly sadly) and with production crew and effects artists.  We also get a brilliant commentary on the Italian Version by author Troy Howarth.  Rounding out the release is a detailed 60 page booklet.

Verdict:

(the movie)  3 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

Dressed to Kill


Viewed – 03 March 2017  Blu-ray

Another entry in my growing collection of Brian De Palma movie reviews, this time the director’s much admired thriller from 1980.  This is probably the movie that borrows most from Italian Giallo, a genre of stalk and slash thrillers made famous by directors like Mario Bava and of course, Dario Argento.  It also borrows heavily from Hitchcock (especially Psycho), another of De Palma’s regular influences.

Dressed To Kill

A house wife (Angie Dickinson) trapped in a sexually unfulfilling marriage, finds herself yearning for an affair and confesses as much to her psychiatrist (Michael Caine).  However following a chance encounter at an art gallery that leads to a one night stand, the housewife is brutally murdered.  A hooker (Nancy Allen) turns out to be the only witness.

A very of-it’s-time experience initially, with some explicit nudity and rather awkwardly handled sex making early scenes resemble a porn film.  However once the killer strikes things shift into gear dramatically and De Palma’s cinematic flair spreads it’s wings.  This is another movie that is visually captivating and often ingenious … a stand out art gallery sequence and a tense subway scene both showcasing a director at the top of his game.  Add to this a murder-mystery plot that twists and turns wonderfully and even when you discover who the killer is, re-watching certain scenes reveal clever little details and clues.  The acting is mostly adequate with even Michael Cain proving limited and at times a bit wooden … although Nancy Allen proves much more enjoyable.  However like the Giallo the movie tips it’s hat to; acting and performances aren’t the big draw, more so tension and style and well, the occasional bloody murder.  The movie lacks the body-count of a fully fledged Italian thriller, and retains it’s own quirks, with the inclusion of a geeky science student (Keith Gordon) and a stereotypical Police chief (Dennis Franz).  As a package though this delivers a gripping narrative with some genuinely impressive sequences, worthy of it’s legacy.

Blu-rayThe Blu-ray from Arrow Video boasts a rather soft-focus but otherwise clean image.  Colours are rather muted and overall it’s simply acceptable with no real ‘wow’ factor.  More note-worthy is the sound, with a dramatic, perfectly implemented orchestral score and crisp dialogue, both in stereo and a punchy 5.1 HD Master Audio.  I should add that the movie is uncut for the first time in the UK.  Extras are plentiful with several featurettes, including a detailed making of as well as a photo gallery.  There’s also a detailed booklet included that covers the director’s influences and an analysis of the movie by critic Maitland McDonagh.  Again no commentary from De Palma which would have been great but as it stands this is decent treatment for a somewhat forgotten classic.

Verdict:

(the movie)  4 /5

(the Blu-ray)  3.5 /5

Tenebrae


Viewed – 14 April 2015  Blu-ray

When writer Peter Neal arrives in Rome on a routine promotion trip for his latest novel, he becomes the target of a deranged killer who starts murdering beautiful women in the name of his book Tenebrae.   Soon the lines between reality and fiction blur as Neal and the local detectives set out to catch the culprit and prevent more bloodshed.

tenebrae

Now going into a film by acclaimed, controversial Italian director Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria), I will give a word of warning.  He’s not one for casting great actors in his movies and is much more focused on the technical aspects and the twisting narrative.  This 1982 entry is no exception as actor Anthony Franciosa and much of his supporting cast, including John Saxon and Argento’s then-wife Dario Nicolodi are amateurish at best, delivering lines in a particularly wooden and unconvincing manor.  Thankfully then, Argento distracts us with a series of gloriously staged murder set-pieces, arguably some of the best in his career (the stalk and slash of the lesbians especially) and aided by a hypnotic, creepy score by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin, this remains very much an Argento movie.  The look may be simplistic and the acting poor, but for style and a keep-you-guessing plot that throws in a few surprises, including an unforgettable ending … fans of early eighties slasher movies and of the Italian maestro’s work should definitely check this out.

The Blu-ray is packed with extras in this Arrow Video re-release, boasting two commentaries, several interviews and featurettes, a reversible sleeve with newly commissioned art and an in-depth booklet.  Add to this a decent treatment for the film itself.  The picture whilst nicely detailed, is a tad over-saturated (although the garish reds suit the tone of the story) and the sound although only in 2.0 Stereo, is uncompressed so the score sounds particularly good.  Overall, a decent effort for one of Argento’s most notorious movies.

Verdict:

(the movie) 3.5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  4 /5

Cat O’ Nine Tails


Viewed – 02 March 2012  Television

This is one of the few films made by famed Italian horror director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera) that I had previously never seen.  Forming the unofficial middle of his acclaimed ‘animal trilogy’ that also features The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, I naturally jumped at the chance to watch this 1971 effort when it turned up late night on TV recently.

A blind man (Karl Malden) and his young niece become involved in the mystery surrounding a break in at a reasearch facility and team up with a reporter (James Franciscus) when witnesses to the crime start turning up dead.  For an Argento movie this is firmly in the murder-mystery thriller category rather than the gory horrors he is known for, and is a smart, engrossing watch with plenty of the director’s trade mark imaginative camera work and experimental editing techniques.  The score by seasoned veteran Ennio Morricone is haunting and effective, and for an Argento movie the acting is surprisingly better than expected, even if the odd bizarre character and wooden extra rears its head.  I found the story a little slow and difficult to follow however and the murders lack some of the director’s flair, even if a stand out elevator shaft fall still impressed.

As a fan, I would say this was a weaker entry in the director’s often illustrious cannon, but retains enough of his style and expertise to make it enjoyable none the less.

Verdict: 3 /5