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Ruminations on Dario Argento, Part II: Suspiria, del Toro, and Opera at the Lightbox

on July 6, 2011 | 3 Comments

After the screenings of Toby Dammit and Suspiria, my friend’s wife had spotted what seemed like a tween boy with his mumsy exiting Cinema 2, and while she didn’t look upset, she seemed perhaps a tad concerned that her son’s taste in movies was getting a bit risqué.

However, she did stay to the end of the evening’s screenings and Q&A – a real trooper, and proof she’s supportive of her son’s interest in things big, loud, and bloody. I’d say mom probably whispered the following to her son: ‘I’m doing this because I love you, so don’t you dare disappoint me. If you plan on killing people on the big screen, do it well.’

'To make real cinema, you need to have a bag of hairy potatoes.'

I hope, at the very least, she enjoyed the discussion between Guillermo del Toro and Noah Cowan, because that 50 + minute bonus was almost as good as seeing a vintage Argento film on the big screen. The discussion was articulate, energetic, and showed off del Toro’s own breadth of film knowledge, and his perceptiveness of Fellini and Argento’s directorial styles. (I’ve uploaded an audio excerpt from del Toro’s introduction, plus a sample from their discussion on YouTube. A few bits from the audience Q&A will follow afterwards, which can be tracked via YouTube, or Twitter.)

No one seemed disappointed by the lack of an uncut stereo print, and TIFF Bell Lightbox’s programmers deserve credit for actually getting their hands on 35mm prints whose screenings are particularly rare in any major North American city.

The same goes for Opera (1987), which screened at 11pm as part of the Best of Midnight Madness series.

Her mouth was just too big.

The TBL’s 35mm print was clean copy of the U.S. edit (1.85:1) released by Orion. Like most fans, I’ve only seen the film (uncut) on DVD, so when the first image was the Orion Pictures logo, I thought ‘Uh-oh…’ but it turned out the Orion / U.S. edit (titled Terror at the Opera) was uncut in the gore department, but different in length due to some scene trimming.

The tongue piercing, throat cutting, eye pecking, eyeball munching and assorted stabbing were intact, but missing was that awful pre-end credit coda where Betty (Cristina Marsillach) narrates some nonsense about the beauty of nature, culminating in her nudging a lizard to “go free!” before she hugs the wild Swiss mountain grass.

Opera’s first third is actually quite solid, and even the increasing silliness that steeps into the last third is tolerable because the film remains the last time the director worked with a meaty feature film budget, and where he showed a strong visual flair. It’s a facile observation, but the proof lies in the intricate Steadicam shots and bravura kill sequences. The camera flows through rooms and down staircases, and Daria Nicolodi eyeball trauma is outrageous and cinematically spectacular – one can see a direct riffing in Jim Gillespie’s opening for Eye See You /aka D-Tox (2002), where a cop suffers eye trauma through the door’s peephole prior to being ker-crumpled by a serial killer.

The lady in back who wears perfume no longer worries about the rapist who attacked her because of the shiny broken picture frame possibly broken by a hippo.

Story-wise, the film starts to lose its gravitas after Stefano, Betty’s lover, is hacked up, because not unlike Francesco Barilli’s Perfume of a Lady in Black [mobile review], the heroine maintains a weird disconnect with reality: both women witness / experience violent acts, yet moments later they engage in banal discussions, as though the assaultive experiences were merely moments of irritable bowel syndrome. For mystery purists, this giallo convention is probably infuriating, but for giallo fans, it’s one of many absurdities which make the genre so bloody endearing.

As del Toro outlined in his discussion, gialli come with overlong titles (‘The Man with the Large Angry Goat With Sharp Hooves,’ ‘The Woman Who Killed Her Child but Flew Like a Fly,’ ‘Who Saw Sweet Sally Molested by a Serious Killer with Mis-matched Shoes?’) and their rules tend to run opposite of conventional whodunnits or thrillers. They don’t have to make sense, characters don’t behave realistically, and a film’s contents (visual, aural, thematic) are often determined by the sick fantasies of their directors – the stylish yet academic (Mario Bava), the eccentric & instinctive (Dario Argento), or the outright hack (Armando Crispino).

Jennifer is telling the monkey & her bees mutant boy and his mom must die very, very soon.

Opera is also a sign that without a strong story, Argento will craft a kind of greatest hits pastiche. Throughout Opera, there are obvious ties to Phenomena (1985), such as the (bad) thrash music blaring over murder sequences (plus one post-trauma montage that has the music playing in sync with Marsillach’s jiggling mammaries during a street walk), the obsession with animals (the title sequence with a cawing raven is hysterically funny), and nature problem-solving on behalf of stymied humans (the ravens identify the killer in a giant swarming sequence in the opera house, with various raven POV shots).

Asia realizes psychotropic berries must never be eaten with oatmeal.

In his later film, Trauma (1992), Argento would go even madder with his camera, at one point flipping to a POV of an insect as it flutters around a character. While animal POVs seem out of place when compared to his earlier work, that’s just the way his the director’s brain works.

'I wish to be at one with the rodent.'

The late Toronto film writer Angela Baldassarre was friends with Argento, and once told of an amusing moment where she had to stop the car because Dario saw a squirrel running through a park. As she sat in the car and observed from a distance, Argento – one of Italy’s greatest cinema stylists – was chasing the rodent across the grass like a child. She didn’t say whether he was holding up his hands to frame the creature, but presumably he had to investigate and experience the sense of being a nervous furball scurrying through an urban park, perhaps for a future and yet unrealized film project.

Opera’s bouncy Dolby Surround mix sounded fine in the TBL’s cinema – the bass was warm, and the mix’s dynamics were pleasingly aggressive – and most in the audience seemed to know what they were seeing. Two people walked out after the first murder, but the rest stayed, keeping the house maybe ¼ full. The turnout could’ve been bigger had the screening been broadly publicized – just yesterday I again heard from a genre fan who had no idea Suspiria and Opera were screening at the TBL – but there were enough of us entertained by the film’s peaks, valleys, and moments of spastic illogic (like the little girl who regularly crawls through the ducts of Betty’s apartment building, and happens to pass by in time and save her from the killer).

My source at the TBL says there will be another wave of Midnight Madness films in the fall, and perhaps it’ll include another Argento or two, but those wanting another big screen fix (or unhappy they missed this rare two-film treat) can catch a 35mm screening of Deep Red Saturday July 23rd, 7:30pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema. The cinema’s website says it’s a 126 mins. version, so fingers cross it’s the uncut version, with a Big Loud Stereo mix. Those free to hang around afterwards can also catch Demons at 9:30pm.

That is all.

Tags: Angela Baldasarre, Armando Crispino, Dario Argento, Deep Red, Demons, Francesco Barilli, Frederico Fellini, goblin, mario bava, Opera (1987), Phenomena (1985), tiff bell lightbox, Toronto Underground Cinema

Responses to Ruminations on Dario Argento, Part II: Suspiria, del Toro, and Opera at the Lightbox

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  3. James Bialkowski says:

    As you mentioned the Underground is screening DEEP RED & DEMONS

    DEMONS is a fantastic Uncut Print but DEEP RED is the theatrical US version.

    It’s the only cut of DEEP ever struck on 35mm in North America. Regardless it’s still a treat to see on the big screen

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