Starring Tony Musante, Eva Renzi, Suzy Kendall, Mario Adorf
Directed by Dario Argento
Distributed by Arrow Video
The name Dario Argento not only brings the term giallo to mind immediately, but also inspires thoughts of black-gloved killers in well-suited jackets, thick atmosphere, red herrings, and brutal, sadistic violence. And music; glorious soundtracks often supplied by Goblin (or some variation thereof) or the maestro, Ennio Morricone, two of the biggest names in the game. His filmography is still wildly celebrated by horror fans and many critics – clearly, as this yet-another-re-release proves – but his pictures have also been criticized as preferring style to substance. And that is a valid complaint; however, his films didn’t start out that way. In fact, his debut feature as a director (he had been working as a writer for many years prior), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), might be his most accessible and straightforward film. Using the story of an American visiting Europe – as he so often does – Argento tells a compelling, woven tale, filled with many of his trademarks, wrapped up beautifully with a clever twist. There is very little fat. Aside from the lack of supernatural elements and a flashier color palette, this is classic Argento all the way, right from the beginning.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American living in Rome, trying to get past a bout of writer’s block. He is considering leaving Italy and heading back to the U.S. but his plans change when during a walk home at night he witnesses an attack inside an art gallery. Sam is helpless as he becomes trapped between the doors of the glass entrance, unable to do anything but yell at passersby and watch as a villain clad in dark clothing tries to stab a woman. The killer succeeds and Sam can only watch the woman writhe until police arrive. Once they do, their prime suspect becomes the man who saw it all go down: Sam. The girl, Monica (Eva Renzi), luckily survives with superficial wounds to her abdomen.
The police have few clues to go on and their list of suspects totals over 150,000 people. Sam can’t shake what he saw that night, though, and so he takes it upon himself to investigate the attack; however, his unwanted involvement comes at a cost, and soon the killer is targeting Sam, too. This does not slow the mayhem down, either, and new victims are chosen frequently, each dying horrific deaths at the black-gloved hands of this unknown maniac. Eventually a minor break is given when the killer makes a call to taunt police and a strange, distinct “clicking” sound is heard in the background. But who knows what it is? Sam makes the decision to leave Rome after police finally clear his name, but the pull of solving this mystery gnaws at him and he soon gives in, spending the last few hours before his flight tracking down one final suspect who may have the answers he seeks.
Argento already had a hand in making a classic when he co-wrote the screenplay to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), an epic revenge tale that feels as grand as the West in which is takes place. It also happens to be in my top-three of all-time. When the time came for Argento to make his own picture, the results should not have surprised anyone. Bird is a seminal work in the giallo genre, this despite the fact Mario Bava, a legend in his own right, is the true progenitor of the giallo. But Bava had his own style and filmmaking method that was specific to his oeuvre, whereas the template Argento created inspired dozens of films that often liberally cribbed from his works. His name is synonymous with the movement.
Bird succeeds by allowing this grand enigma to be revealed organically, with less plot contrivances than most in this genre. This isn’t a film bogged down by its own sub-plotting and subterfuge but, rather, the classic murder mystery is an opportunity for Argento to open his new bag of cinema tricks and show audiences what he’s capable of behind the camera. The city streets are dripping with a baroque, Gothic atmosphere, offering up a sinister appearance even without the aid of a knife-wielding maniac. The murders are graphic and provoke a visceral response. People are not simply stabbed and killed; these deaths are often drawn out as the killer takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting and violating victims as life slowly drains away.
Visual impressions are one thing, but another staple of Argento’s filmography has always been his composer. His debut secured Italy’s greatest ever with Ennio Morricone, an unequaled legend who has scored over 400 pictures – and counting! I won’t claim this is some of Morricone’s best work because he has delivered stronger themes and choicer cues in other pictures but Morricone delivering a so-so score still trumps the best work of nearly all his contemporaries. Wordless choirs and lush, flowing instrumentation, beautiful melodies… all of The Maestro’s trappings are here for your audible pleasure.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels a bit like Argento playing it safe, slowly wading into directorial waters and testing his footing before making a much bigger splash with films like Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977). Still, a close-to-the-vest approach works wonderfully in his favor because this is not only an impressive piece of cinema for a first-time director, but it also functions as the ideal entry point for fans looking to experience his work. Blue Underground previously issued the film on Blu-ray but it went out of print, fetching a king’s ransom on the secondary market. Another release by VCI was of poor quality. Arrow Video’s limited edition package is another stunning release, featuring not only a new 4K restoration but also a trove of bonus features and goodies, all housed within a striking package.
Let’s talk about the 2.35:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image. Lovingly restored, the original film negative has been given the deluxe 4K scan treatment and the results should make fans exceedingly happy. In a word: gorgeous. The picture is pristine, with virtually no evidence of dirt or debris to be seen. Colors are rendered with precision and a bold palette that wrings more vibrancy out of the image than ever before. Film grain appears smooth and cinematic, never clumping or appearing noisy even during the nighttime sequences. Black levels retain a richness and depth, with no wavering toward hazy or gray. Contrast is much more eye pleasing than on prior releases, likely coming closer to the theatrical exhibition than anything before. Only the most nitpicking naysayers will find something to complain about; every other fan will see this as the revelation it is.
The mono audio is available in either English or Italian, with a DTS-HD Master Audio track that more than ably carries every word of dialogue, screeching sound effect, and delicate note of Morricone’s score with ease. I did not detect any hisses or pops, nor any issues with sound emitting high in the mix. This is a clear track, produced with great fidelity. Subtitles are available in English.
Author Troy Howarth, of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo” fame, provides a scholarly audio commentary track.
“The Power of Perception” is a visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that discusses Argento’s use of obfuscation and misdirection to keep viewers as in the dark as his leads.
“Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis” finds critic Kat Ellinger offering up her own analysis on this feature.
“Crystal Nightmare” is a new interview with Dario Argento, who seems happy to talk about the genesis of this project and the production, along with some recollections of his career as a whole.
“An Argento Icon” is a new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco. It is a bit dry but also a little fun, so there’s that.
“Eva’s Talking” is a 2005 interview with actress Eva Renzi.
Three trailers are included: Italian, International, and a 2017 Texas Frightmare trailer.
Additionally, this sexy set comes with the Blu-ray case housed within a sleek chipboard slipbox, with a two-sided foldout poster, lobby card reproductions, and a thick booklet full of writings, pictures, etc. found alongside it.
- Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the camera negative in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
- Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc)
- English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
- New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films
- The Power of Perception, a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study
- New analysis of the film by critic Kat Ellinger
- New interview with writer/director Dario Argento
- New interview with actor Gildo Di Marco (Garullo the pimp)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- 6 Lobby Card reproductions
- Limited edition 60-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie, and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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