Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, July 06, 2008

"WHY DON'T YOU CALL YOUR INSECTS?" Thoughts at a July 5th DVD horror marathon.

Jennifer Connelly is aces in her first starring role, for Dario Argento, in the recently re-released on DVD 1985 horror flick, PHENOMENA. The better title would have been "Lady of the Flies," which is what the sinister school mistress calls young Connelly once her telekenetic bond with insects becomes public knowledge. I just saw this film for the first time, and am I glad I waited. The colors on the new disc are superb. Care and attention has obviously been paid and if you can move into the frame of mind of being at a near-deserted drive in in the middle of nowhere you will dig the spook show surrealism and great wind noises. It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice with Argento's bizaarro-Italiano seasoning: a chimp avenging his slain etymologist master (Donald Pleasance, wondrous); THE SWARM-style bug attacks; CARRIE-esque telekenetic revenge against bratty schoolmates (replete with wind blowing the hair back ala FIRESTARTER); deformed Jason-like freaks, flaming lakes, a razor left in a trash can for the chimp to find); beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps, where it's nice and stark and windy, in what wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."

People have written bad things about Connelly's acting, i.e. her blank expressions when she should be scared. There she goes, walking around in killer's houses with an expression as if she's asleep. Well that's the point, genius! She's a sleepwalker! It's in the plot, somewhere, I think. Anyway, go with it. When in doubt presume everyone in a foreign film has amnesia, you're guaranteed a good time. PHENOMENA works best, as its fans note, as a fairy tale, with Connelly's power to attract bugs perhaps the key to her fearlessness. She's like a superhero, hence the killer's question, "why don't you call your insects?" when she's about to be decapitated.

Next: INSIDE, a 2007 French horror film from "Dimension EXTREME," which is a disturbing concept- a corporate branding that promises unflinching gore and cruelty. What's next? Severed head corporate logos? I for one couldn't be happier, or more worried about the fate of mankind. In that order.

The Netflix liner notes say that, in INSIDE, Beatrice Dalle "relentlessly pursues the pregnant Sarah, determined to perform a grisly brand of C-section." I think the "grisly brand" is key here, as it implies there is a non-grisly brand. The patronizing ROSEMARY'S BABY-style treatment that expectant mother Alysson Paradis receives from her mom, the hospital, and her distracted married-man boss sets the ambiguity and ambivalence meter to high right from the start. There's a refreshing lack of "sanctity of motherhood" posing in this (of course, French) film. Instead it dares to convey--contrary to the Netflix synopsis--how all c-sections are grisly, and that birth is a cruel, violent, grisly business which no amount of drugs, sanitary surfaces, and/or order-barking orderly-running-beside-the-wheeled gurney hospital hooplah can deny. Instead INSIDE gets to the meat of the matter, with rueful dark humor and a fine sense of real-time pacing. And subtitles.

TEETH on the other hand was such a drag I could barely get past the FBI warning. It's supposed to be about, you know, a vagina dentata in action, something we've all thought might make good film fodder, but instead it's much too sage and squeamish, like that abysmal cheat of a film HARD CANDY (my review here), wherein (if you'll recall)--after a tediously lengthy preparation--Ellen Page only pretends to castrate the pedophile she's picked up off the internet, or SEX AND DEATH 101, where the serial "killer" played by Winona Ryder doesn't really kill the swinger slobs she dates, but merely puts them in comas until she finds true love. TEETH stresses how you can sew that junk back on--Bobbit-style... oh thank the Lord! It's okay to disembowel whole sororities full of women, but cut off one penis and the whole world faints in outrage, apparently. Rather than hustle as a steely avenger of rape victims, our toothy protagonist merely stumbles around a typically quirk-laden small town, preaching abstinence. Any genuine penis-crunching comes only after tedious stretches of nervous filler. Jess Weixler tries to protect the schlongs of America--like the nervous Serbian virgin in CAT PEOPLE--and what's the fun in that? And you people call yourselves feminists! Harrumph!

Another thing which trying to watch TEETH after INSIDE and PHENOMENA made me realize is the importance of a good synthesizer soundtrack. Movies really are both picture and sound, and even if you're not paying attention to the plot, every event is explained full bore by the heavy metal and blazing guitar rock pulsing through Argento's canon (the score for TEETH by contrast is all exotic digeridoo cliches). Argento's friend George Romero digs a good synth score too, though, which is why to step in and rescue the evening from my bad taste of TEETH, I chose to dig up... DAY OF THE DEAD.

I hadn't seen this one since 1985, at the multiplex! God Damn. Punk-a-Billy Funkhauser and I drove all the way to some cineplex in goddamned Fort Lee, NJ to see it. I loved it of course, but didn't remember it as a classic; over the years it kind of got shuttled to the curb as too talky... the "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" of the series, if you will. But time has been kind to this film, as have popular tastes regarding cannibalism (now we don't even flinch) and the post-modern theorists like Steven Shaviro point out the neat "masochistic spectator positions" that accompany the zombie subgenre.

Now, there IS a lot of talk in the first half of DAY OF THE DEAD. And the one-note military hardheads seem to spend more time on their hair and cackling than is good for them, but there's no stimping on the gore fx, and the pace is full bore. Down in a n old military base/fall out shelter, a team of scientists deal with the issues of the day while the hopped up military guys protecting them get more and more squirrely. "Frankenstein" is the head scientist who has slowly whittled life down to a medulla oblangata ex machina... the concept of "is you is or is you aint a sentient being" is explored in myriad subtle ways; The people getting pulled apart get to contemplate this as they watch their limbs and entrails get spread out in all directions, like the rolling out of a tent.

One film that looked truly disturbing in the previews on the Anchor Bay PHENOMENA DVD was something called THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) which sports a deceptively sun-dappled shot-on-digital video in real people's suburban houses look, which then gets all the more disturbing as the ingeniously edited trailer slowly moves from STAND BY ME-type nostalgia-ism to sexualized violence as kids start hurting each other and instead of condemning, mom condones, and shows the boys how to do it right (to the girls). I'm so disturbed just by the trailer that I don't think I'll ever watch a trailer again! Men may be brutes, kids may be demonic but God DAmN! cold-hearted moms is the scariest creatures of all.


  1. Anonymous09 July, 2008

    Ah, PHENOMENA. Any movie so full of odd imagery and so incoherent becomes Surrealist by default. And those Argento brunettes - Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA, Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA. Who knew that the ultimate Argento brunette would turn out to be his own daughter, Asia?

  2. I like brunettes too - and didn't find the movie incoherent at all - just full of that disjointed dream logic that makes Argento so perfect for the late night drive in experience... where the narrative shifts on a dime, no one behaves logically and you can't tell if the heroine is asleep or awake... ever


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