Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Dario Argento's Animal Trilogy (1970-72)


Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento solidified his reputation as a master of the horror genre with movies such as Deep Red and Suspiria, creating a string of classics that would last until 1987. A screenwriter for a few years (even co-writing Once Upon a Time in the West!) before trying his hand at direction with a trio of films, linked by their titles...

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Sam Dalmas is an American expat living in Italy. After a couple of unproductive years not writing nearly as much as he'd hoped, he's going back to America to get back into the swing of things. One night however he witnesses an attempted murder, and becomes embroiled in a larger case. The police have been after a vicious serial killer, and pressure Sam into staying and helping out. He does so reluctantly, but as it goes on, he can't help but get the feeling he's missed a vitally important detail, that could crack the case wide open...


Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a decent giallo, telling a tense Hitchockian tale. While some in the industry took umbrage with Dario getting such an easy start thanks to his producer daddy (like Lucio Fulci, who took the long way without such a luxury), there's no denying that this is a strong debut.

The movie gets off to a great start, with the attempted murder being a great visual and atmospheric setpiece. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, and establishes the plot in an effective way. Likewise, the climax is great stuff! The mystery gets a good explanation, and there's a suspense-filled final encounter.


Where the movie falls down however is literally everything in between. It is a decent movie, but frustrating, because throughout the whole thing there is nothing that allows us to solve the mystery! Giallos could often be more about the journey than destination, but here it feels especially bad. There are almost no suspects, and zero clues.


None of Sam's discoveries ever seem to amount to anything, not even the visit to the artist. Sam getting the idea to visit him was a big deal. Only 8 hours to go before they leave, yet he's going to risk visiting him. It should be worth it, and lead to a big "A-ha!" moment! Instead it's nothing. He leaves none the wiser, and the visit only offered a bit of mild comedy.

Where the plot takes a total backseat is during an extended chase sequence, but that was a tense and fairly exciting scene, even if it was a bit confusing. It felt like a gangster from another movie suddenly burst in to attack the lead. Us being able to see his face clear as day is what could really confuse you. I'm so used to giallos hiding everything.

The title is a great one, though ultimately has very little to do with the plot. I feel there could've been more effort to tie it together.


Sam is a basic enough protagonist, but is fine, and always likeable. The same goes for his girlfriend, who manages to keep herself fairly safe when the killer attacks. Carlo is an ok friend (and tolerates his mates being perverts well, probably thinking "Get a room, you two!"), but doesn't appear enough, and his end just feels random, not adding anything. And the police are a good presence. Conniving to an extent, but only to help catch a madman and keep the city safe.


The killer isn't seen a lot, but makes a good impression, and looks visually distinctive n their dark coat and wide brimmed hat. When they are uncovered, we see their sadism on full display

The victims are one of the more boring parts of the movie. I get that they are just random women, and targeted only because the killer did so on a whim, but it still fills a bit uninteresting when we know so little about the victims. Most of them don't even say a word.

The rest of the cast are ok. The convict is decent even if he does talk in a bizarre way, and the informant he supplies is amusing. I wish he'd appeared more. The artist is an eccentric weirdo. Fun in some ways, unpleasant in others.


The actors all do decently. Suzy Kendall was my favourite, while Tony Musante is good, if mediocre in places. Eva Renzi is great in her role, though k Barring one scene, her dialogue entirely consists of "Ahhhh!", and "Hahahaha!"

The violence is fairly medium here. Just a little blood, and basic murders for the most part. There are some gnarly moments here and there, 


Argento's direction is neat, taking full advantage of the art world, with an ornate gallery that makes for great suspense scenes, when both well-lit, and shrouded in darkness (and a great transition that shows how much the dark can hide). There are insane sculptures (talk about an accident waiting to happen!), and spooky paintings. The stalking and murder scenes are also directed fantastically, with some creepy moments. My favourite was the home invasion.

Ennio Morricone does the score here, and it's ethereal and spooky, with lots of 'La la la's', feeling only a few steps away from Freddy Krueger territory.


The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has its issue, but is a neat debut with some great moments, and was one of the films that really set the Giallo genre in motion...

We needed more info about the actors. I would never have guessed who the killer was
We get the beginning and the ending with the killer, but nothing in between. Not a single clue which could have helped me with the discovery
The beginning and ending of the movie were great, but everything else was just decent. No info on anything, and the victims were just random girls with no dialogue
Definitely true! The scenes were quick I understand that. The director didn't want the viewers to discover the killer, but give us some clues, something



The Cat o' Nine Tails

Franco is a middle-aged blind man, living with his young niece Lori. One night he hears something odd, and when he discovers a connection to a murder at a scientific institute, he teams up with journalist Carlo to try and uncover the truth and catch a killer...


The Cat o' Nine Tails is actually one of the more recent Argento films I've seen. I saw both the other 'Animal' films when I was a teen, but this one always eluded me. I never saw any clips from it or even knew what the greater plot was about, who the killer was, or what the death scenes were like. Now that I've finally seen it, I'm pleasantly surprised. It's not a hidden masterpiece or anything, but it's a good time.

A weak spot many point out is the unnecessary runtime of nearly two hours. I agree, though the movie's never tedious. I don't think any scene in particular is useless, but a few just go on for a little too long. With a bit of editing this could've been trimmed to about 90 minutes (and actually was for its well-received U.S. release), and then we'd get the first real plot development less than an hour in. The genetics plot is interesting, though sorely unexplored.


It's at the hour mark when Carlo finally questions all the scientists at the clinic. Some are helpful, if a little brusque, while one amusingly insists that the police and journos are just looking for connections where none exist, and it's just a series of accidents. Dude, three of your coworkers have been butchered in the last few days!

While low-key compared to later giallos, this still has hallmarks of the genre, such as an everpresent killer. When Carlo's photographer pal discovered a clue in the negatives, I said to myself "This is exactly when the killer would sneak up behind and kill him!". But I knew that wouldn't happen, since this is just a random photographer they only just called right now, so how would the killer know who or where he even is? But sure enough, one ajar door and one strangulation later, he is dispatched.


Another example of this comes later, when a lady involved with the institute has discovered an important clue, and calls Franco. She says she she knows the killer's name, but, oh hey, what's that noise, I'll call you back later. *sigh* In that regard, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is a better and more timely movie that Cat o' Nine Tails, since it actually poked fun at that cliche almost 10 years before this.

Franco Arno (Cookie to his niece) is a nice lead, with his disability making for an interesting character, and one who's adapted very well, and has no need to be pitied. I adored his sweet niece Lori, and wished she appeared more. Although I am glad she was sent out of harm's way, instead of being invited to stay or even tag along when this investigation has such a high mortality rate.


The only problem is that many scenes that should be from his point of view are entirely absent. He disappears completely from the midsection, and when he's attacked outside the crypt, we focus exclusively on a stressed Carlo lighting up a ciggie, sitting down, and going "Ah, shit", for about 3 minutes. Then Franco opens the crypt door, the struggle taking place offscreen. I guess it's to avoid showing us too much of the killer, but still! Give us a little, Dario!

Carlo's a good co-lead, and has his moments. One of the funnier scenes of the movie comes during a 'riveting' conversation he and a lady are having, and this smooth player makes the comment "Do you know how many people together right now are making love at this very second?". He then follows it up with "I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but that was an invitation.".


The killer's identity is fairly well hidden, but only because we don't get to know anyone well enough to form much of an opinion. All we know is that the most obvious culprits probably won't be guilty (and they drop like flies as the movie goes on). When we do hear the motive, it's basic, and a little silly.

I actually suspected the policeman Morsella would be the killer because of how unlikely a suspect he would be, and I've read others say the same. Hoping that maybe he snapped after one too many people didn't wanna hear about his wife's ravioli. They'd deserve it too! I was listening to his cooking tips before he got rudely cut off!


The climax has some pretty good action, and both heroes get some punches in, so to speak. The ending is disappointingly abrupt though. Nothing beyond the killer's death is seen. No final wrap-up with the police, no moment shared with Franco and his niece, nor do we see Carlo's romantic subplot resolve. It's all a bit limp, really.

The title is justified with a comment regarding the number of leads, and it's a little tenuous, but nothing worth complaining over. And thankfully it doesn't mean there are nine suspects!

The death scenes in Cat o' Nine Tails are fairly tame. In lieu of gore, there's a strong use of saliva, which is decently effective, if gross.


The direction here is stylish. The film has several moments where we see the killer's point-of-view, as well as their eyes close up. There are also strangely edited moments. Sometimes it effectively shows Franco's sensing of things, other times they're just scene transitions. The locations are particularly interesting. We get plenty of neat Italian pads of the 1970s, but also a few bits of inspired architecture, which really opens up the environment.

The music by Ennio Morricone is quite good in places, with a tender score that reminded me a little of The Beyond's softer tracks. What didn't impress me though was the screechiness in a lot of scenes. It's like a free jazz musician tried making ambient music.


Overall, Cat o' Nine Tails won't blow anyone's world, but it's just simply good. Not great, neither bad or mediocre, just simply good. And that level of simplicity (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) is something I wish Dario had adhered to more in his later career...


Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Roberto is a musician who's discovered he's being followed. He tracks down the man, in an encounter resulting in his death. Roberto has barely come to grips with it when he realises someone has seen him. He is soon contacted by a sinister figure, who seems to be blackmailing him at first, but wants no money. They only want to drive Roberto mad, and will kill anyone in their way to do it...


While Cat o' Nine Tails was overlong, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is outright boring in places. That film was simply guilty of extending good scenes too long, while here there are many scenes that don't really add anything, and could've been cut easily.

The central conceit is a good one, but only when the movie chooses to focus on it. Instead it gets distracted by many other little things, to the point where Roberto and the Killer don't actually have an encounter for a full 80 minutes! All he gets are a couple of menacing photos and then spends most of the film un-harassed. It hardly sells the required urgency.


Roberto is a fairly good lead, and you sympathise with his situation. On the flipside, he's a philanderous fellow! I figured it'd be Dalia acting as the seducer, but no, Roberto comes onto her faster than lightning! You're married, dickhead! Luckily for him it turns out his wife is unfaithful in another way, though he doesn't know that yet!

Nina is nice enough in some scenes, a bit cold and almost bitchy in others, and gets the most to do in the climax.

Despite her sleeping with a married man (her cousin's hubby no less!), I liked Dalia. She was one of the nicest characters. I was bit bummed out at her death. Although I was mainly annoyed by her constant inability to get in touch with Roberto at the right time.


The PI Roberto hires is an amusing guy, never having solved a case, but hopeful this time will be the first. He's openly gay, and the movie never shames him or pokes fun at this. The whole Animal trilogy has gay characters, which is an interesting thing to link them together. Most interesting is his death, where he takes it like a champ, since he finally cracked a case.

There's a collection of comic characters through, to varying degrees of success. Some are amusing enough, like the Bible quoting bodyguard, while others are less than funny. And lastly, there's God, aka Godfrey. Roberto's grumpy but helpful friend. I liked his friendship with the lead, and while there's an enormous gap between his first and second scenes, he plays a good role in the climax.


The mystery is a fairly weak one. As hard a time as Roberto has trying to figure out the murderer's identity, everyone else has it easy. Just about the entire cast figure it out, even the PI who's never solved a case.

The biggest problem is that there are no suspects! Roberto's friends and bandmates don't appear enough for any of them to be guilty, and the only other candidates are communicating with the killer the whole time (from a blackmailer, a cohort, etc). At the end of the day, there really is only one character it could be.

The flashbacks we see periodically are decent, but give away too much as they go  I also didn't get why this mysterious patriarch had to be a stepfather instead of just a regular one. It felt like an arbitrary decision.

One scene in particular feels like a cheat, because heroes will discover something we're not privvy too! If a supporting character discovers something, that's alright, because we're not following their point of view. But when Roberto's PI has the whole case explained to him clear as day, yet we don't know because the scene cut in late, it feels underhanded. And you'd better believe there's an "It's probably nothing, I'll tell you later" involved.


Where Four Flies on Grey Velvet often draws the most criticism is in the ending reveal. It's not the killer's identity I take issue with, but their motivations. They're unclear and muddled, and for the longest time, poor quality prints meant making out her dialogue was a chore in itself. Blah blah, something something, daddy issues, etc.

The ending is the film's most memorable sequence, with a car crash that manages to impress, and look oddly beautiful, the glass shimmering in slow motion like water, as the killer has a tranquil moment. The movie does wrap up abruptly, but I didn't mind that as much here, since there really isn't much left to resolve. Roberto's saved by Godfrey and they share a moment of relief, and that's all that's really needed.


The title seems mystifying at first, but draws you in. It takes near the end of the movie for it to be explained, and it's a neat element, even if it is pseudoscience. Although when I first saw the film at 13, I thought Roberto caught a brief flash of the 'four flies' swinging when the killer attacked him, and I kinda prefer that idea. That way the title would be justified early, and we'd have the whole movie to mull over this important clue, not 10 minutes.

The score (Ennio Morricone again) is decent, though not very memorable, and is silent too much of the time. The rock tunes we hear intermittently are pretty decent, and give the movie a nice feel. There's a strange but kinda fun choral leitmotif during God(frey)'s introduction. And the music that plays in the end is really serene.


The acting is decent. Michael Brandon is an alright lead, with an interesting resemblance to Argento at the time. Mimsy Farmer is ok for the most part, and I liked her manic turn at the end, though she shouts enough to burst your eardrums! Bud Spencer is a great presence, and I wish he'd appeared more! Funnily enough this was the first film I ever saw him in, and I didn't even realise it for years. One oddity is his dub actor seems to be voicing two characters! He was a busy bee here.

The direction here is neat, with a few intriguingly done shots, from the mosquito at the beginning, to the whole scene at the end. The film has a lot of visual flair and experimentation too. The killer's childlike mask is effectively creepy (though underused as the movie goes on), and the opening credits have a weird touch to them. Four Flies also contains a slow motion 'bullet time' sequence, predating things like The Matrix by decades!


Also of note is a recurring dream Roberto has, of an Arabian execution. As the movie goes on he feels it must be a premonition, and he may end up being right in a way. It's a neatly shot scene, and while the decapitation itself is hilarious, the scene has an ominous feel, even with the bright sunlight.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet has its ups and downs. It's not bad, and is recognisably an Argento film. It contains quite a few memorable moments, and while it may not be a classic, it's still worth watching for fans...


The Animal Trilogy is an interesting beginning for a filmmaker who would go on to become famous in the horror genre. While these movies may not be classics, in varying degrees, they still have moments of greatness, and laid a solid groundwork for what was to come...

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Death in Brunswick (1990)


Carl Fitzgerald is poor and unemployed, and worst of all his overbearing mother is coming to stay. He soon gets a new job as a cook at a grotty nightclub, working with Turkish assistant Mustafa, and attracting the attention of pretty waitress Sophie. Things seem to be going well, until taking a sudden downturn. After the club's violent bouncer bashes Mustafa and says Carl dobbed him in, the Turk becomes violent, and is accidentally killed in the scuffle. A panicking Carl must now get rid of the body, and somehow hope to survive everything else about to come his way...


Death in Brunswick is a great example of homegrown Aussie cinema. I first saw the movie on tv, halfway though, yet I managed to get the gist, and really enjoy myself. It left a great impression with me, and it's always ranked as one of my favourite local films.


The various posters or DVD covers have taglines of varying degrees of quality, with my favourite being-"His wife left him, his mother moved in, he killed his assistant, and now he's in love". That's a perfect summation of the movie for me! This is a black comedy, although only in certain sections. The movie as a whole does have a rough-around-the-edges feel, but the first act focuses more on romance, and things go surprisingly well!

Death in Brunswick is set in the titular Melbourne suburb, portrayed in a grungy and run-down way, but also with character. The film shows the multicultural side to Australia, with a big focus on the Greek and Turkish communities. We see the good, the bad, and the typical. Regular joes, gangsters, and controlling parents.


The comedy here is golden stuff, like when Carl and Soph's planned necking date at the pictures turns out to be less than successful when the audience is made up entirely of jeering kids. The most well-remembered part is the graveyard sequence, which has a few memorable moments and lines. My favourite scene is Carl's confrontation at the end with his mother. To this date, I have never heard a funnier line involving tea!


The plot is really good, and always grabs your attention. What I admire most about the movie is how everything comes together in the end, and connects in a really good way. No detail is forgotten, and the pieces fit perfectly, culminating in a great climax, with some perfect poetic justice. The only thing I felt unnecessary was the plot point regarding Carl's previous marriage. It didn't seem to serve any purpose, and was rarely mentioned, yet comes up in the end like it's supposed to be important, then is ignored again.


The last act is really something special. For such a street-level black comedy, Death in Brunswick becomes surprisingly spiritual, with an ending that's both sweet and hilarious. It's certainly far more lighthearted than anything that's come before, but in a way that feels earned and without compromising the overall tone. And I can't say how refreshing it is to see a dark comedy that's not 'too cool' to have a happy ending.


Carl is a likeable and sympathetic character. He's very believable, and you can understand how he is the way he is, while also hoping he gains the courage (and backbone) to really make a change. The bulk of the film has him doing just that, which is a relief to see. The rest is him spiralling into damage control, hoping he can get everything fixed before it's too late.

Sophie is a sweet love interest, and shares chemistry with Carl. It's nice seeing how successful their romance is. She really doesn't mind his awkwardness, and helps him come out of his shell. Carl's mother on the other hand is a real battle-axe. Coming to stay uninvited, judging him for his career, his lack of love life or money, his cleanliness, and just about everything else under the sun. Always in a politely worded yet patronising way. She ends up with an amusingly fitting karmic punishment.

Carl's long-suffering mate Dave helps him out whenever he's in trouble, always putting him in the doghouse with the missus. He's a good bloke, even if his ideas of making space leave something to be desired! And lastly, the villains are a low-down bunch of assholes, from the overly macho club owner, to the violent bodyguard Laurie, who really does test fate a bit too much, leading to a hilarious final scene.


The performances are all good. Sam Neill is a great lead, and manages to get across both the age and youth of his character. Zoe Carides is sweet, with a bit of feistiness. John Clarke is a great supporting presence, and is the second Kiwi to have a big role in this Aussie film! Yvonne Lawley is perfect as Carl's domineering mother, mean without coming across as a caricature. Nicholas Papademetriou and Brois Brkic are good in different ways as the villains. Nick Lathouris is scruffy and likeable as the ill-fated Mustafa, and Doris Younane is a fun presence as Sophie's friend (like Effie if she was normal).

The music here is really nice, predominately made up of ethnic music. It has a very Mediterranean sound to it, with Greek and Arab inspired tunes. I especially dug the one that plays over the end credits.


Death in Brunswick is a minor classic, and deserves to be seen more outside of the country. It's slightly macabre, witty, funny, and also surprisingly goodhearted...

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Mirno Leto (1961)


While Christmas has already come and gone for most of the world, the same cannot be said for many of the Slavic states, where Santa visits late. Who knows why. Maybe he just needs the break. Bringing presents to the whole world is a big task after all. To commemorate Yugoslavia's Christmas, January 7th, I'll take a look at a recently remastered Macedonian gem...


Zare and Mira are a happy couple living a cramped life in Skopje, until Zare's job gains him a summer house in Ohrid for 3 months, as he clears and prepares a museum. They receive an unwanted guest when family friend Dara invites herself after a breakup. One becomes two when Zare's older colleague decides to show up. Then Mira's brother comes onto the scene, with a few friends. And all of a sudden the peaceful summer getaway becomes just as crowded as it was back home!...


Mirno Leto (A Quiet Summer) comes from Yugoslavia in the early 60s, but its message and content is universal-Don't people just get in the bloody way? It a gentle, lighthearted comedy, that breezes right by and never fails to entertain. The story perfectly portrays the frustration one would feel in a situation like this, showing how things go out of your hands, and grow and grow, until it becomes unbearable.

Watching any foreign movie without subtitles isn't exactly recommended (thankfully I had some for this) but some things are universal, from older professors crushing on young ladies, to mature guys fishing, youngsters partying, etc


The characters here are numerous, but entertaining. Zare and Mira are good leads. They start out as a great couple, sharing nice chemistry, and charming moments together. As the film goes on there is more tension between them, but it never gets to be too much, and naturally everything is resolved in a happy ending.


Dara is an amusing friend, boy-crazy, oblivious, and in the way. The professor is a softly spoken guy, without a bad or impatient bone in his body, and the heart of a romantic. Darko and his mates are a fun bunch! Rowdy and loud, but also goodhearted. They serve a good purpose, and their overall presence gave me a Beach Party vibe.


Something admirable about Mirno Leto is how perfectly it captures the reality of an unwanted guest. Not all are necessarily assholes. They might be your best friend, a dear colleague, family members, etc. Good people, who you ordinarily like, but when they're in your way during alone time, it gets on your nerves. The movie captures their negatives along with their positives really well. Dara for example is a footloose girl who can't take a hint, but she's sincere, and her romance with the professor is genuine. And Darko is a young partygoer, but has a good relationship with his prospective fiancee Vera, and encounters opposition well.


The film does have its fair share of outright villains though. Vera's father is antagonistic in opposing the young lovers' marriage. Then there's the vulgar Kotsev family, who are all terrors in different ways. The patriarch is a bit of a sleazebag, presumptuous and fresh. His wife is a venomous old bat, weedling her way into a stranger's home for nothing, then insulting her hosts for living in a museum. And the kids meanwhile are destructive little scamps, although in uninentional and occasionally well-meaning ways. The son was the most likeable, and has a funny interaction with Mira at the end.


With a movie as packed as this, it's a relief that every character serves a purpose. This doesn't mean it's not confusing though! I did remember all the characters, but I often got Vera and Frog mixed up with Mira and Dara, thanks to their hair colours and styles. Also there are so many characters that not everyone gets the most to do. It's never bad, but I wish there was more of Frog and her crush/working relationship with Zare.

Macedonia isn't often high on tourist lists, and even when they do go to the Balkans, it's usually to the beaches of Croatia. Fair enough, but Macedonia has plenty of lovely spots to visit too, as can be seen here. Mirno Leto showcases the summer appeal of places like Skopje and Ohrid nicely.


I also enjoyed the culture a lot too. The 1960s seemed more sophisticated in so many ways. It was also fun seeing all the old products, as well as the phones, cars, flats, etc.

The direction in Mirno Leto is very good. There's a scene near the end that impressively shows the disorientation the leads are feeling. One shot I especially admired was when Zare storms back into the house and up the stairs, and the camera pulls back to reveal Darko and Vera talking.


The actors here all give good performances, from romantic, to funny, to overbearing, exasperated, and more. Ljupka Dzundeva and Slobodan 'Cica' Perović are great leads, with the latter nailing his part, resembles a sad dog in many scenes.

The music is very nice, and has a great summery Mediterranean feel. It reminded me of Evil Under the Sun, from 20 years later. I could easily imagine Poirot swanning around an island resort to this music, solving murders and bathing in the sun.


Mirno Leto is a neat little movie, and shows that Macedonian cinema has been producing good movies for a fair while! I am very grateful for the people whose hard work went to in remastering this and others, and their part in restoring the cinematic legacy of the Balkans...