Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception until your screens glows infinite

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Creature Double Feature Night 3: THE NIGHTMARE, INFERNO


Here's a weird, unusual and very creepy double feature that explores dream logic and the very real terrors of sleep paralysis. Some people have it so bad they're as afraid to go to sleep as the kids on Elm Street. I remember a nightmarish man about 10 feet tall as a kid, just once, and it scared me for weeks, I would hold my eyelids open terrified to go to sleep. Now I know our old Lansdale PA house was haunted. All the signs are there. Here's the proof, a documentary by the maker of Room 237 and a perhaps justifiably under-praised Suspiria sequel from Dario Argento that takes the same colors and creepy nightmare logic and opens it up inside a vast strange apartment building in NYC. Both are on Prime; on their own they're just weird. Take them together and it's like banesteria caapi and an Mimosa hostilis... take 'em together and you get alchemical transubstantiation, and maybe some life-altering shadow person terrors.

4THE NIGHTMARE
(2015) Dir. Rodney Ascher 
*** 1/2/ Amazon Image - A

The director of the strangely super creepy Shining theorist documentary Room 237 tackles another weird subject: sleep paralysis by, once again, interviewing a series of slightly un-normal people in depth about what can either be termed their deep transpersonal insight or near-psychosis, in this case with creepy re-enactments of their sleep paralysis experiences. Each recounted dream/waking nightmare is vividly is recreated for an approach that transcends mere 'documentary' to become something truly new, twisted, and deeply illuminating. Creepy highlights include the human figures composed of TV static and the awake encounter during a hike between a man's weird hippie girlfriend and blue light being. Somehow the girl herself is almost as surreal and otherworldly as the blue glowing spirit. In another uncanny moment we see the bedrooms of the sleepers all connected by a common interdimensional soundstage where the beings move between rooms, conjuring Monsters Inc. and Dr. Who's "The Girl in the Fireplace" episode, and too many other things not to cause a jolt or realization. Have we seen this room before ourselves.... in dreams? Jonathan Snipes, who crafted the moody analog synth score for Room 237 (a propulsive, chilling soundtrack I still listen to) does the eerie score of slow traveling synth drones and creepily accelerating 'asleep on the highway' rhythms, with his creepy percolating klave during the scary recollection of "The Hat Man" being a special highlight of uncanny disquiet.

In short, though technically a documentary, Asher's film makes a fine addition to any streaming horror marathon or, in this case, dream logic double feature.


(For more on sleep paralysis on Acidemic's sister site Divinorum Psychonauticus, see: Demon Sheets: Sleep Paralysis Theories)

See also Ascher's Shudder documentary short Primal Screen covering one man's recollection of being terrified as a kid watching a commercial for that Anthony Hopkins as a tortured ventriloquist movie Magic. Rodney, if that's going to be a series, I'm happy to share my own reminiscence of a similar 'TV commercial' alchemical horror paralysis via a long ad for what was then called: Silent Night / Deadly Night.


3. INFERNO
(1980) Dir Dario Argento
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

The follow-up to Suspiria maybe had expectations too high, OR it was just a case of the music not being as wild and eerie as Goblin's certifiably insane score in the original, which proved a key factor in making the wild visuals and sudden jarring horrific violence all the more raw and unsettlingly poetic. Between that film and Carpenter's score for Halloween the following year there was no doubt that a musical score could make or break a horror movie, usher it into the cannon or escort it out. But Goblin "couldn't do it" they say. What, they were busy? How hard can it be to rattle some sheet metal and howl? Ennio Morricone, who had done Argento's first three films, could have knocked a killer score out in an afternoon and it would leagues better than old Keith Emerson's clunky 'Thelonious Monk -cum-Englebert Humperdink grand piano, and super high operatic prog rock Verdi (Meco's disco version of Star Wars and Walter Murphy's A Fifth of Beethoven were chart toppers at the time) and latin dirge chant funk. Running riot over the visuals, these missed-mile atrocities have the opposite effect of what Goblin provided. His yen for metal and prog rock would lead, alas, to many such 'suddenly we're watching MTV Europe' moments in his later films. Truly, pumping its soundtrack full of prog rock and hair metal tracks is a sure way to make your film truly dated in years to come.
 
Still, there are all sorts of termite details reflecting arcane tarot meaning (all four elements - it starts with water, ends with fire), lots bibliophilia ("our lives are governed by the words of dead people" intones the Sataninc looking archaic bookstore owner) and pretty lighting (especially on Prime's solid HD transfer, which looks better than my Blu-ray). So hey, it's just like any dream in that the parts are more than the sum, and that's why it's a perfect movie for Halloween or when you're expecting to be distracted throughout. It may be disjointed, and some scenes may drag (as in the nighttime rat attack in Central Park) but other parts are wild - including a strong opening with an underwater flooded ballroom in a cellar; a surreal visit to an old Roman library and its deep dark basement spine re-binding room, and various extended scenes of hanging around scared in red/blue apartment rooms listening through vents in the walls, exploring strange corners of the bizarre apartment building where rain gets in in the roof and basement, and no one seems to be around, aside from killers and victims. Apparently there were all sorts of problems with the production end, leading to many things not getting shot, or bad second guessing, etc, but what we have is still worth seeing- and rewards multiple viewings --if it's not exactly better each time, it's certainly no worse. (see also: Deep Red, Phenomena, Opera and Trauma - also on Prime)

For an optional third feature, consider: 

(1982) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***/ Amazon Image - B

Fans of Fulci often disparage Baby for the same reasons I dig it: the discordant dream logic. If you let go of 'sense' and admire the framing, the mood, and the raucously ironic Fabio Frizzi synths, and the strange way music and sound effects merge into such a way we can't quite tell which, the way it plays on the rhythm of other movies as if a jazz counterpoint (in this case, the other movies would be both the original Exorcist and the sequel) as well as the narrative tricks of our own nightmares, well, maybe that's enough. Franco and Rollin make films that flow like idylls dipped in the brush of nightmare, but Fulci does the reverse, he's the quicksand that lets you appreciate the beauty of the flowers even as a shambling corpse filled with maggots pulls your eyes out of their sockets. That's why firm supporters of his House by the Cemetery (see 'Nightmare Logic') should seek out Manhattan Baby, for the cast is largely the same and--hey--it's even less coherent, by which I mean good.

The plot involves a mysterious amulet given by a mysterious old lady somewhere in the Valley of the Kings, to a little girl who's visiting Egypt with her parents. Dad (Christopher Connelly) is an Egyptologist investigating a strange tomb; mom writes or photographs for Time or Life (at least there are exteriors shot at the building). At night, back in NYC, the jewel opens up a stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and the little girl and her brother's bedroom in (this leads to lots of sand on their bedroom). The dad meanwhile was temporarily blinded back in Egypt by the gem's twin embedded in a wall in a secret part of a tomb. It shoots him with blue lasers when he looked at it too long in a mysterious cave/tomb wall carving. As his eyesight slowly returns, a psychic tosses the family a note from a window that lets them know they're not out of the woods: the amulet is a gateway to evil that gets off on possessing children and trapping their souls within its sinister facets. Anyone who gets in its way, including a taxidermist, a louche family friend, and the psychic herself--all wind up either attacked by stuffed birds, real cats, or dropped through an interdimensional doorway that dumps them in Egypt and leaves lots of sand on the carpet after it closes again.

The parents' initial skepticism soon gives way to concern and once the amulet is found - well, it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real, what's a dream (the kids call their ancient Egypt astral traveling 'voyaging') and what's supposed to be happening in real time; if there's a difference between being actually in modern Egypt, floating around ancient Egypt, visiting either one inside the jewel, or a collective dream, don't expect to find it out - just savor the eerie sense of meta timelessness Fulci culls from his mix of location shooting, strange interiors and his groovy style. If you can do that, and if it doesn't bother you that when the wife sees the sand on the floor of the bedroom we can't tell if she's in Egypt looking down from a mountain or New York looking down at the carpet, then this is your movie. And if you like catching odd little details, like when the dad catches a scorpion to give to his daughter as a souvenir (says his guide: "be sure to tell her it's a symbol of death!") then this is your movie, too. As long as you're open to surreal 'you are there/not there' duality, and as long as you stop trying to understand and just think, hey - the taxidermist psychic is named Adrian Mercata, a reference to Rosemary's Baby's Adrian Marcata), then suddenly the weird title makes sense at last. And you find, strangely enough, you love Manhattan Baby.

And the next time you're stricken by sleep paralysis, don't fight it, just say 'please, give me Goblin or Fabio Frizzi and not Keith Emerson for the soundtrack! And keep an eye out for the bewitching anima figure played by Ania Pieroni in Inferno. Sure she's terrifying, but she's you.

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