Pearl meets Italian Horror

6 Jun

One of Simone’s first movies was The Strangers. For Pearl—what’s wrong with me?—it was Inferno, by Dario Argento, a ghastly blast of cheesy Italian horror.

Argento is probably the best of the 1970s Italian horror directors, faint praise from me, although he has legions of fans. (Fulci is the other Italian horror director worth watching.) Argento makes two types of films: the Giallo, an Italian take on the police procedural, usually involving serial killers, and supernatural horror. His emphasis is on mutilation and dismemberment, and as technology has increased his films have become bloodier. (In his dotage, he’s upped the gore ante to obscene levels.) He’s a cult figure, popular with the cool kids, although why is as difficult to understand as most of his movies.

One of many nonsensical murders in Inferno. Note the weird hands.

Inferno is the middle film in a loose trilogy. Suspiria is the first, Mother of Tears the third. Each film follows a lonely young woman moving into a strange, possibly haunted, place, and each film has a different villainous witch trying to live forever (or come back from the dead) through ritualistic human sacrifice. Each film has scarred henchmen, weird creatures, decomposing corpses, decapitations, moody (overly) theatrical lighting, terrible voice over-dubbing (a problem that plagues most of Italian cinema, even Fellini), and plenty of carnage. His movies have no real narrative coherence. The scenes don’t often connect to each other, and might even be out of sequence. Fans call his style loose or even experimental; I think it’s cheap and underplanned. Inferno has characters wandering around and it isn’t always clear where they are or what they are doing. One prolonged scene near the beginning has a young woman drop into a sinkhole in the basement of a building and swim around. She eventually runs into a dislodged corpse. Inferno does has one thing going for it, a wacky unpredictability.

An underwater kingdom . . . in the basement of a high rise in New York.

Suspiria is the most loved of the bunch, the basis for much of his reputation. It’s worth watching, I suppose, but it’s nothing to write home about. It has a touch of fun about it, but just a touch.

Mother of Tears, however, is execrable, a vile, disgusting, repugnant exercise in entrails, sodomy and viscera. It’s one of the most hideous movies I’ve ever seen, which for anyone who knows my background says a lot. (It beats out Salo and Caligula, and stands tied with I Spit on Your Grave.) There’s no titillation or suspense, just a bloody escalator descending through a cacophony of horrors. There’s insertions and defenestration and chopped up organs and little wiggly dwarves that break people into bloody pieces. I would unwatch it, if I could.

The poster is scarier than the movie.

People will tell you that Argento is a great director, that his movies belong in the pantheon of horror,  but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. His movies are overacted. The scenes are stagey, and the tension is flattened by weak mood music. Opera is an exception, a very disturbing little movie about a woman who keeps getting put into a torturous position by a madman—nails are put on her eyelids so if she closes them to avoid the horrors performed for her sake, she’ll blind herself.

Argento (and Pulci) live in the bloody place. Their movies are, on the whole, unsophisticated and humorless. Which makes their enduring popularity so strange. Much of the Italian horror stands far below the mediocre horror movies by American hacks. The music is bad, the acting is bad, the lighting and technique often bad, too. It’s informed by a repulsion of the human body, but no real political or philosophical undercurrent. John Carpenter and David Cronenberg make horror movies out of their personal beliefs, anxieties, philosophies. Their films, even the weaker ones, don’t age.

Why I keep giving Argento a look, when there are movies by directors I love that I haven’t seen, is a mystery to me. Maybe there’s something to him after all.

As for Pearl, she slept through Inferno, tucked into my chest. I should have spent more time looking at her cute little face instead of the mediocre violence on the screen.

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