Saturday, October 17, 2009

Acid and Giallo: Drive-In Dream Logic, Italian-style!


By the 1970s, the drive-in had become synonymous with two things: teenage sex in cars and Italian horror movies. Lord knows how many young women lost their virginity while Dario Argento movie Goblin-soundtrack cues echoed tinnily from the ominous prison gray speakerbox hanging on their half-opened car window. As some nubile victim got brutally murdered in splashy colors, American girls in backseats became women. And now, their children can enjoy the same film baptism on DVD.

It's endlessly amusing to hear mainstream film critics complain about what we Italian film fans call "dream logic" and what they call "incomprehensibility." They don't understand dream logic, or won't, because, most likely, they're outside major cities for whom the "Tower of Babel" effect is unknown, so they don't appreciate the need for non-lingual story-telling devices, and/or they didn't see the film first at a drive-in while on acid or erection-enhancing stimulants purchased under the counter at a local pharmacy... If they only saw THE BEYOND or SUSPIRIA sober, they never really saw it at all... or saw too much of it, which might be worse. Cinema is not always meant to be studied under a magnifying glass for waterproof storytelling cohesion; sometimes a movie needs to just be there, doing its own thing, providing you the scant light to pick the seeds out and find the sticky side. An Italian horror movie wants to provide a nice canopy of gore and rock music for you to hide out under and to freak you out regardless of whether or not you can deal with dubbing or if you missed the first 40 minutes and aren't even sure which of the three movies on the marquee you're currently even seeing. If you decide to look up and pay attention, WHAM! it's instantly ready to pounce on your nerves and never let up. In case you came in halfway through, as one did at drive-ins or 24-hour continuous grindhouse theaters like the Roxy, the credits of these films often repeated the title of the film, i.e. "You have been watching SUSPIRIA." Their goal: be shocking enough to make sure your mom doesn't insist you take your little brother along; have senses-sharpening moments memorable enough to describe to your friends; and get your date to grab your arm in fearful exaltation. As Time Out Film Guide puts it, SUSPIRIA is what kids imagine scary movies to be when they're too young to see them.

From that standpoint, the strung together gross-outs of Lucio Fulci in films like ZOMBIE or THE BEYOND make total sense. There's an unspoken assumption in most drive-in fodder that viewers are going to miss at least 40% of what's onscreen (these films were made before VCRs and "pause" buttons); they're going to be off at the snack bar; looking for an elusive condom in the glove compartment; or hanging with friends by the swing set under the screen, doing whippets and ripping one-hits and eating popcorn and drinking. Super loud rock scores function to drown out conversations from other cars, to reach you through steamy, cracked window panes and hormonal surges, cars coming in and out of parking spots next to you, or honking to each other, perverts creeping up to your windows and trying to peep through the passenger window and so much more. Lastly, the films need to work even for the kids watching the screen through binoculars from their bedroom windows uphill from the highway (as I used to).

That's all fine with Fulci and Argento. Their goal is to deliver a spookshow the way 2001 was a "Space Odyssey," or FANTASIA an animation extravaganza. No linear plot is needed when the theater space has become a show unto itself. Like dreams the films make no logical coherent sense but tap into unconscious drives so murky they can't be experienced another way. The connection I made earlier between the blood of the hymen in the car seat and the blood onscreen is not made lightly... there's a direct connection. Sex is terrifying, brutal and strange, a reminder of our own icky connection to biology, like having your computer invaded by some virus that takes it over--lust driving us into unconsciousness, the ultra-violence onscreen heightens our senses in the same way. Haven't we all killed and been killed, if not in past lives then in our inherited DNA, the genes of the marauders and usurpers, the conquerors and the conquered.

At the drive-in, the mere fact that a film could be scary at all was testament to its over-the-top power. The harder it tried to be logical the more boring and forgettable it became. You don't criticize your own nightmares for being nonsensical, especially if they're scary enough to wake you up, in a sweat, screaming, so don't do the same for these films, just let the room be dark, the drugs prescribed by a reliable physician and the volume loud enough to wake the dead. Hear them now rising from their graves at the sound of a newly opened womb? Like it or not, you remember that journey... you made it a thousand times and just forgot, like a dream. It makes no sense, but you know it's truer.


Cinebollically, Dario: FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET
"Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons--usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition."

"Why Don't You Call Your Insects?" PHENOMENA!
"It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice for a tasty b-movie stew: chimps avenging their slain masters (with a razor found in the park trash can), 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, beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps in what wheelchair bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."

Get in my Arachnid Black Belly: BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA:
"It would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here: all crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car."

An Argento Family Reunion: MOTHER OF TEARS
"Having Asia Argento in the film is a major key to unraveling the mystery of how to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. She's a mess in this movie, looking weary and bemusedly resigned, like the cool older sister you drag through the haunted house you've made in the basement rec room, — the sort with candles and blindfolds, where you make them stick their hands in cold spaghetti and tell them it's brains. We did that a lot in the 1970s, and Argento's family probably did too."


  1. Having just seen The House by the Cemetery, I know what you mean. It may be that American audiences expect to be able to know the whole story of whatever's on screen, while audiences in other countries take it for granted that some things might be beyond our ken. The American (or might it be Anglo-American) attitude may be left over from the period when every supernatural menace was explained to be a fraud, so that while the supernatural is accepted now, it still needs to be explained in a way that Europeans don't need. Europeans could clarify that point better than I can -- if they feel a need to.

  2. I just re-watched Suspiria lately and it freaked me out. Esp. the Goblin score which was hard to get out of my head while I was trying to sleep. I haven't seen some of these other ones.

  3. You nailed the appeal of Italian horror! I particularly like that you pointed how most people are gonna miss like 40% of the movie anyway. They're great background movies for parties. A rock club I went to in the early '90s used to put Fulci movies on the big-screen TV; I must've seen that chick puke her guts out 100 times!

  4. I just watched Zombie yesterday. I love that it was also called Zombie 2, trying to soak up some of that Dawn of the Dead success. So awesome. Seriously, there is nothing more awesome than that shark v. zombie scene. Nothing.


  6. Zombie Vs. Shark, my gringo friend. Indeed... Zombie Vs. Shark. I didn't get to see Zombi this Halloween, but did dig into House by the Cemetary, which was pretty outtasite. Truly nightmarish (the way no one fights back, the uselessness of parents, etc.) and nonsensical, with beautiful Sven Nyquist-esque color photog.


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