Archive for the ‘John Carpenter’ Category

I haven’t been updating Demon’s Resume remotely enough, but a good part of that reason is because I’ve been way more active over at Daily Grindhouse.  All of the writers there are great and I encourage you to bookmark the site.  I’m very happy to be a part of that.  For the people who follow me through this site and might like more frequent updates on what I’m up to elsewhere, I’ll do a better job of keeping you posted by providing the links.

Here’s my examination of John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.  I’m pretty proud of it.  I’m a lifelong admirer of Carpenter’s work and in this piece I spent some time discussing it in minimum and also connecting it to the rest of his filmography.

Below is a poster gallery, via Google search and copyright the respective owners.

And as always, my consciousness streams on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

 

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

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Now THIS is how you do homage. When I talked about 1986’s LINK, I mentioned how Australian director Richard Franklin was a devoted acolyte of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. You wouldn’t know it from watching LINK, but you’d absolutely know it from watching 1981’s ROAD GAMES.

ROAD GAMES, sometimes known under the more claustrophobic title ROADGAMES, stars Stacy Keach as Pat Quid, an American trucker making his way through the dry plains of Southern Australia in order to deliver a freezer full of frozen meat. His only companion is a dingo, which Quid has named Boswell, who rides shotgun. (Attention, English majors…) This is the first clue that Quid is an unconventional guy. It’s not exactly legal in this time and place to be riding with a dingo, no matter how docile and domesticated Boswell seems to be. Also, Quid is a bigtime chatterbox. He barrages poor Boswell with constant conversation, which for us viewers is a pleasure, since these monologues are delivered in the plummy stentorian register of Stacy Keach. Keach has come up with names for all the fellow travellers who he spots recurring along the highways, including Benny Balls, Fred Frugal, Captain Careful, Sneezy Rider, and, most ominously, Smith Or Jones.

Smith Or Jones is the driver of the dingy olive-green van that Quid spots driving suspiciously at the same time he’s hearing radio reports of a deranged killer at large. It’s a long time before Quid himself gets a look at Smith Or Jones, but right from the outset we the audience know that Quid’s not crazy, due to the eerie early scene where a young woman is strangled in a motel room with a mean-looking length of wire. For better or worse, and probably the latter, we know, we’re going to see that guy again. It’s when Quid picks up a young hitch-hiker (Jamie Lee Curtis, just a year fresh off THE FOG and three off HALLOWEEN) who he nicknames “Hitch” that the trail really starts getting warm.

Quid calls this young lady “Hitch” A) because it’s what he calls hitch-hikers and he likes nicknames for everyone, but to the film fanatics in the audience it’s a clear nod from Franklin and his writer, Everett De Roche, to the master filmmaker who made a movie much like this one in spirit. (And it’s no accident that Quid’s first name, “Pat,” was the also name of Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter. Nice little gender-reversal on the shout-out, there.) If you’ve seen 1954’s REAR WINDOW, there can be no doubt which Hitchcock movie Franklin and De Roche have taken as inspiration. REAR WINDOW is also a film about a hero stuck in an enclosed space, who catches wind of a crime and is deemed crazy by the authorities, leaving him to take matters into his own hands. Both movies make effective use of diagetic music, which means that you sometimes see the source of the music on screen — Stacy Keach plays the harmonica throughout ROAD GAMES, and at times his playing blends in with the score (which is a very good one, by Brian May of THE ROAD WARRIOR fame). Both movies have fun with nicknaming. And both movies are very romantic, despite all the bleakness and the overcast of murder. ROAD GAMES is romantic not just in the nicely-played relationship between Quid and Hitch, but also in the romance of the open road, of that dream some of us have of gassing up a truck and driving down highway as far as the eye can see — it’s a bonus if you’ve got a dog and a pretty girl riding shotgun.

I suppose it’s a minor stretch to classify ROAD GAMES as a horror film — it’s more of a suspense thriller than anything else, although Smith Or Jones is a truly spooky presence in his few fleeting appearances throughout the film. I feel justified grouping ROAD GAMES into horror because of its prime status in the genre of “Oz-ploitation” and because of its interesting proximity to HALLOWEEN. Richard Franklin was reportedly friendly with John Carpenter (I’m still looking for more information on this but it seems they studied at USC at the same time), and Franklin cast Jamie Lee Curtis in ROAD GAMES after meeting her on the set of THE FOG. And of course, the same year Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in ROAD GAMES she would soon appear in HALLOWEEN 2.

Much is said about John Carpenter’s affinity for the work of Howard Hawks, but less is said about how much Carpenter’s sensibilities also reflect a love for Hitchcock. (One clue is how HALLOWEEN‘s Dr. Loomis is named after a character in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.) While Carpenter was subtly — and stylistically — paying homage to Hitchcock in HALLOWEEN, Richard Franklin would go on to do so directly with the sequel to PSYCHO, 1983’s PSYCHO 2, which I’ve not seen personally but if you’re interested to read more on it, you should read this review by the great Vern.

All of which is to say that if you loved John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, and who doesn’t?, you will most definitely love Richard Franklin’s ROAD GAMES.

Ride with me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Don’t let the title above get me wrong: The A.V. Club’s recently-completed list of the 50 Best Films Of The ’90s is as close to a definitive consensus as anyone could ever hope for.  It’s a terrific list.  Barring the inclusion of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (I understand why they felt they needed to include it, but it’s a bad movie), there isn’t anything I could even begin to object to — in fact, most of their choices would have been mine.  But since the 1990s are the decade in which I [sort of] came of age, I thought up 50 more that could have been included.  In my opinion.  There.  Disclaimed.

Here are some of my favorite 1990s movies, any of which I could make a strong case for as the decade’s best, grouped by year NOT by numerical rank:

Incredible imagery from a true master of cinema.

Even the people who already love this movie probably don’t even fathom the full extent of its excellence.  Read my dissertation at Daily Grindhouse!

All three leads are brilliant in this con-man crime film written by Donald Westlake and directed by the hugely-underrated-even-by-film-geeks-who-should-know-better Stephen Frears.

Look at the upper left side of that poster.  There’s no better vote of confidence on the planet.

This is one of the best of the decade based on the music alone.

Known to true Bill Murray fans as the most underrated Bill Murray movie, this one was actually co-directed by our hero, and it’s an expert farce and one of the better New York movies ever.  Read more from me on this one here!

A radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and a homeless man (Robin Williams) cross paths in another underrated New York movie, this one from the genius visual wizard Terry Gilliam.

This choice comes down to whichever definition of “best” you’re personally using at the time in regards to movies.  Are there more culturally resonant and artistically sophisticated movies than this one?  Sure.  Am I more likely to put one of those on at the end of a long day over this one?  Nope.

What does “best” mean?  Maybe I equivocate too much.  I’m an action guy, and this fits the term “best” under any definition.  John Woo is an artisan of cinematic mayhem and this is arguably the pinnacle of his career.

Because nobody else ever before or since made a movie like this one.  More from me here.

One of the few movies that genuinely emotionally moves me every time I see it.  A high point for Jeff Bridges, who has had a ton of high points.  Rosie Perez is wonderful also.

It’s not exactly that Robert De Niro and Bill Murray trade personas here.  This movie isn’t a stunt.  It’s something way more sensitive and thoughtful than that.  But De Niro does play the meek, mild-mannered police photographer and Murray the unpredicably-violent gangster who dreams of being a stand-up.  And it was written by the great Richard Price and directed by the man who made HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

Enthusiasm for this movie seems to have dimmed, as has much appreciation for director Jonathan Demme (people are a little too much “What have you done for me lately?”, but this movie represents a key moment in the cultural mainstreaming of things that needed to be made mainstream at the time.  Honestly it’s been a while so I don’t know how much it all holds up, but to my memory, it was a thoughtful, character-based film about the big issues.  Terrific soundtrack also.

Well I said a bunch here and here.  This movie is a switchblade-arsenal of terrific actors, showcased with bombastic direction from Tony Scott working in concert with the unconquerably individualistic Quentin Tarantino script.  It’s kind of a nexus of everything that became important and trendy in 1990s crime and action films.

This wouldn’t make a personal top 50 or 100 or maybe not even a top 200, but it’s impeccable Disney entertaining for the widest possible audience and believe me, it still works as hugely as it did nearly twenty years ago.  (You’re old.)

C0-written by David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN), which makes it important right there.  But again, Terry Gilliam, this time challenging Bruce Willis into another great performance (Bruce always seems to do best with the most individualistic filmmakers).  Madeline Stowe is great.  And character-actor Brad Pitt beats leading-man Brad Pitt six out of seven days a week.

Super-serious great movies are easy.  Great comedies are hard.  This is one of the funniest of the decade.

Yeah, I get it.  Some of you think it’s too much.  I think it’s opera.  I think Michael Mann is criminally underappreciated by the listmakers and the award-givers.  I think it’s one of the few movies more than two hours that I can watch over and over without getting bored.  This movie got in my soul the first time I saw it, and it’s still there.

This came toward the end of John Carpenter’s remarkable run of horror and action classics, but it still has moments of colossal inspiration, and a truly memorable lead performance by the great Sam Neill.

I’ll admit it’s probably a stretch to call this one of the best movies of the 1990s, but it’s one of my favorite filmmakers, Sam Raimi, taking on one of my favorite genres, the “spaghetti” Western, and supercharging it with his anarchic cartoony innovations.  There’s more energy in this movie than in most of the Best Picture winners of the decade.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen this one more times than I’ve seen RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS combined.

Some people maintain that this remains Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie.  Some days I can see what they mean.  It’s certainly his tightest, most controlled, most focus, most conventional.  And it’s the Rosetta Stone where many of his later musical cues, character names, themes, and company players were first established.  For me, it’s a treat to see Robert Elswit’s camera roam around Nevada — Elswit is the (until-recently) unsung hero of Anderson’s oevre (until recently.  I also like this movie because it makes me feel like an asshole.  It was released when Anderson was 26.  You should have seen what I was doing at 26.  Feeling like an asshole is good, though — it motivates me.

This is a black, black comedy.  You gotta give these guys credit — they did not take the easy road after DUMB & DUMBER kick-started their careers.  Even THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY goes to some daring places (it’s a romantic comedy about stalking, after all), but it’s nowhere near as nasty as this one.  And once again, Bill Murray, comedy’s supreme ninja master, comes in for a few scenes and completely destroys throughout every single moment he appears.

Chris Rock’s favorite Tim Burton movie.  I don’t have a favorite Tim Burton movie — impossible for me to choose — but this one is up there.  It’s pure anarchy on film.  Somebody gave the creepy kid down the street complete access to fireworks and all the best toys — expensive sets, costumes, huge movie stars — and he went to work blowing them all up with demented glee.  (Demented Glee is my favorite Fox TV show, by the way.)  It was a stroke of inspiration to reframe the alien invasion movie as a 1970s-style disaster movie, and to make the whole thing a comedy.  This weirded out a country more interested in the more straightforward INDEPENDENCE DAY, but I’m with the weird kid.

Because as much credit as Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker get for their brilliance, it still isn’t enough.

A case could be made for THE TRUMAN SHOW as the best Jim Carrey movie of the 1990s (maybe ever, barring ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), but I’m a fan of the big weird risk and the sudden detour and the critical and popular underdog.  THE CABLE GUY is even weirder than you may remember, and in retrospect it paved the way for enduring cult comedies to follow like ZOOLANDER and ANCHORMAN.

Best-of lists always go heavy on lauding the director and the actors, but how about the screenwriters?  You know, the guys and gals without whom the entire movie would not exist in the first place?  Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski are the kings of the gonzo biopics of the 1990s, with ED WOOD, MAN ON THE MOON, and this, the story of Hustler founder Larry Flynt.  Woody Harrelson is incredible in the role, and the whole thing, under the stewardship of the mighty Milos Forman, is a raunchy, raucous, searing, and sad affair.

Leon Gast’s film is one of THE essential sports documentaries ever made.  It’s the story of Muhammad Ali’s match against George Foreman for the title of heavyweight champion of the world.  The ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ took place in Africa in 1974, and the movie is supercharged with electric history.

In my local paper at the time, the shoddy film critic referred to this movie with a cheap shot: “Lifeless, Ordinary.”  It’s anything but.  It’s everything but.  The follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING from the team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew McDonald is a deranged, delirious trip through America.  It’s colorful and kinetic and enthusiastically acted and it sounds like a million bucks.  (Why not?)  It’s boistrous and unruly and maybe a little too self-indulgent, but it’s my kind of self-indulgent — the boldly original kind — so the complainers can go screw.  Expanded thoughts on this movie here.

In 1997, Kevin Smith was still a filmmaker who led with his heart and inspired an entire generation of creatively-inclined young’uns to write with honesty and candor.  Smith’s first four movies were sloppily-made but felt incredibly personal, and CHASING AMY was maybe the rawest of them all.  I’m not sure I could revisit it now any more than I’d like to look at a high school yearbook, but I’m grateful for that long-ago validation the success of CHASING AMY gave me and a ton of more-famous, more influential up-and-comers. As for Smith, he made an encouraging return to form with the flawed but fiery RED STATE. Unfortunately, he seems to be more interested in everything BUT filmmaking nowadays. Too bad.

There’s over-the-top pulp, and then there’s JOHN WOO over-the-top pulp.  This is the most gloriously operatic and unrestrained of any of John Woo’s Hollywood movies, and both of its stars seem to have been stuck in that mode ever since.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK, so convinced was I about how great it is. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a brilliant one-liner comedy concept – contract killer accepts invitation to high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a brilliant fit of a leading man in John Cusack. Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the underrated MIAMI BLUES and the even more underrated HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.  Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who is lovable mostly because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.
The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic. The soundtrack is stacked with killer songs from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The supporting cast is deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank. Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, who begs him to stop coming back. Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized. MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (Minnie Driver). Jeremy Piven’s original hairline in an extended cameo. And many more.
In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is less successful in its action-movie moments as it is anytime it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep dark and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely.  And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site ‘DEMON’S RESUME’ comes from… now you know!

Most people would argue that PULP FICTION is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece.  A lesser number would argue for this one.  I tend to favor JACKIE BROWN, largely because I love Pam Grier and Robert Forster so much and this movie is a highlight for both of them.  It’s interesting that almost everybody favors either PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN — these are the only Tarantino-directed films where his recognizable and dominant authorial voice has ever been ameliorated by second writers.  PULP FICTION drew on material by Tarantino’s one-time collaborator Roger Avary, while JACKIE BROWN is of course based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad or necessary or even interesting — it just is what it is.  But until DJANGO UNCHAINED, I never loved a Tarantino movie as much as I loved JACKIE BROWN.  JACKIE BROWN started from a great place (the book RUM PUNCH) and is stocked entirely with maybe the greatest Tarantino cast ever, with one of the greatest Tarantino soundtracks.  It’s pretty glorious.

Here’s what I wrote about this movie for a list of Underrated Horror films:

As far as strict classifications go, LOST HIGHWAY is more of an elliptical art film (which goes heavy on the L.A. noir elements) than a horror movie.  Try telling me that in 1997, when friends and I saw it twice in theaters just because it was so goddamned freaky, or when I creeped myself out listening to the soundtrack while driving down a dark highway.  When my friends and I were younger we reveled in absurdities – the less sense something made, the more invigorating it seemed to be.  Then you become a film major and you start looking to ascribe meaning to everything. I don’t know that you can make sense out of a movie like LOST HIGHWAY.  It seems to be the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who is arrested for killing his wife (Patricia Arquette) and then has a psychotic break, wherein he imagines himself as a younger man (Baltazar Getty) being mentored by a violent gangster (Robert Loggia), only to fall in love with the gangster’s girl (Patricia Arquette).  In both storylines the protagonist is haunted by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake in ghostly pale makeup) who seems to know everything and be everywhere.

But is that what happens?  Beats me.  Every time you think you’ve teased out a cohesive narrative, you remember one out-of-place element and the theory unravels.  Best to stop thinking so hard and just experience LOST HIGHWAY as David Lynch’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles, presaging the equally creepy MULHOLLAND DRIVE  in 2001.  What adds to the hellish landscape of LOST HIGHWAY is its proximity to disturbing real-life elements, such as the cameo from a once-vibrant and now clearly-ill Richard Pryor, to the presence of Michael Massee, a terrific character actor unfortunately best known for being on the set of THE CROW when Brandon Lee was killed, to most upsetting of all, the recurring specter of Robert Blake,the one-time child actor who ended up on trial for allegedly killing his wife.  Which, you’ll notice, puts us right back inside the plot of LOST HIGHWAY.  We can’t escape.

Been a Howard Stern fan for a long time, regardless of what anybody has to say against me for it.  This movie is pretty unassailably good, regardless of your feelings on a lifelong flashpoint of controversy like Howard.  It’s a super-smart, efficient, fast-moving, and very funny flick, a sterling example of the biopic format.  Really, it’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT with a happier ending.

Yeah, I can’t look at that poster without laughing.  First of all, even the title is funny, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, which, as the story of a small-town theater company eagerly anticipating the visit of a big-city critic, is obviously a play on Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.  Then you have Christopher Guest’s bowl-cut, Kriss-Kross ensemble, and beatific smile.  His character’s name is Corky St. Clair.  I’m now making tons of typos because I’m laughing while I pound this out.  The sincerity and the naïveté of the cast of this movie, played by a roster of comedic ringers including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the great Fred Willard, is simply astounding.  It’s probably not accurate to say you watch this movie and laugh with these characters — you’re most definitely laughing at them, but somehow loving them sincerely at the same time.  Pillory me for a non-consensus opinion, but I like this movie way better than THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Sam Raimi made his name on a trio of uniquely comic horror films and a superhero movie that felt like a Universal horror film, but in the 1990s, he branched out and made a Western, a baseball picture, and a Southern Gothic drama, and this, a grim suspense thriller about two small-town brothers who find a downed plane in a remote snowbank.  The plane has a dead body inside, and also a huge sum of money.  A SIMPLE PLAN was based on an excellent novel by Scott Smith and if anything, Raimi’s horror expertise adds to the creeping dread of what could be very dry and formulaic in another director’s hands.  All of the performances are uncommonly good and unexpectedly moving and/or upsetting.  Raimi’s cross-genre experiments in the 1990s turned out to be a proving ground for his mega-budget blockbuster career, and I do love his SPIDER-MAN movies, but if we’re going to be getting stuff like that OZ movie from here on out, I’ll be over here praying that Raimi goes back to these smaller-budgeted treasures instead.

The first BABE is pure sweetness and you should definitely see it too, but this is the one directed by George Miller, of MAD MAX fame.  It’s wilder, sadder, scarier, and even more bizarre.  It’s great.  George Miller doesn’t work nearly enough.

Normally I hate long, indulgent movies; however, this one I adore. With good reason. It’s like a symphony.

This is Tim Burton’s tribute to the old Hammer horror pictures.  Some people think it isn’t serious enough, seeing the great potential lost when frights are swapped out for comedy’s sake.  Honestly I agree, but not to the point where I can’t enjoy the movie Burton did make.  After all, it could be way worse.  The greatest cinematic treatment of Washington Irving’s eternal tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman continues to be the 1949 Disney cartoon version.  But this one has its fair share of great moments.

Michael Mann again.  This is his most high-minded movie, and there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.  It’s about network TV, journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  So much of that comes from the dynamic, unusual directing choices of Mann, working with his DP from HEAT, Dante Spinotti.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is somewhat hypnotic.  Of course the script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccable, and then you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino in maybe his last truly excellent role, and Russell Crowe, who was so ridiculously incredible in his transformative role that the Oscars realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected it the next year.

Still the best Superman movie since Richard Donner was making ’em.

Look, I’ve had it up to here with M. Night Shyamalan too, but no one, not even Shyamalan himself, can strike this one from the win column.  It’s a very solid script accompanied by thoughftul direction, with an unusually soft-spoken and gentle performance from Bruce.

This movie came on like a revelation from director David O. Russell, who had made two small movies at that point and no one could have expected him to make an action-comedy/war movie with an eclectic ensemble cast (including director Spike Jonze!) with raucous energy and actual formal innovations (with bleached-out cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel).  It’s like KELLY’S HEROES but with more of a social conscience.  This is one of the reasons people think of 1999 as a banner year for American film.

A bizarre and beautiful chimera that is a perfectly-modulated melding of the sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch and The RZA.  Contains what is probably the last of the great wackadoo Henry Silva performances.

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Am I missing any?  Is it possible?  Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Drokk is not the soundtrack to the new DREDD movie.  Well, it could’ve been.

As you can surmise from the subtitle, Music Inspired By Mega-City One, this collection of music is very much Dredd-affiliated.  Geoff Barrow, instrumentalist for the English trip-hop band Portishead, collaborated with composer Ben Salisbury on this collection of orchestral music that at one point was intended to be the score for the new DREDD movie.  For whatever reasons, that didn’t pan out, and the score to DREDD was provided by Paul Leonard-Morgan.  The actual DREDD score is still very good, the general difference being that it’s heavier on the tangible instruments, such as guitar and drums.

Barrow and Salisbury primarily used 1975-model Oberheim 2 Voice Synthesizers for their compositions, the result of which being that Drokk has less in common with the bombastic Zimmer-influenced action soundtracks of today, and falls more in line with the more measured, eerier likes of Fabio Frizzi and Goblin, and also with the pseudo-futuristic shimmer of Vangelis (BLADE RUNNER).  Oh, and John Carpenter.  Very much John Carpenter.  Listen to Track #4, “301-305” — sound familiar?  It will if you’ve seen ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.

Drokk is the most fun kind of homage.  It’s all the action movies and sci-fi movies you grew up on, but the only place it’s happening is inside your head when you listen to it.  Maybe it’s ultimately not a huge tragedy that it was separated from DREDD — I like the idea of this rogue soundcloud travelling adrift from the context within which it may or may not have originally been created.  It doesn’t have to accompany a story made up by someone else — you can have it soundtrack the story you imagine yourself.

If you’re into that kind of thing, that is.  (I am!)

You can listen to the entire thing here, but it’s well worth a buy:  http://drokk.bandcamp.com/

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Me more here always:  @jonnyabomb

Short and blunt:

My DREDD review. On Daily Grindhouse.

Get there.  ‘Like’ it.

Thank you for your cooperation.

@jonnyabomb

Judge Dredd by John McCrea

Judge Dredd by Steve Dillon

Judge Dredd by Brian Bolland

Another by Brian Bolland

Judge Dredd by Carlos Ezquerra

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And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

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And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb