Monday 23 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #23: Orrore Popolare, Part 2

Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (1975)
The House with Laughing Windows
(La casa dalle finestre che ridono) (1976)

It's rare, I suppose, that I do writing with consultation, but these giallo pieces I'm doing probably wouldn't be possible without the help of Warwick University academic and expert on Italian pop culture Dr. Fabio Camiletti, and Autunnonero Festival founder Andrea Scibilia, both of whom are chaps who know their merde, so to speak. Fabio and Andrea have been very kindly talking through the movies I've been watching, and giving me welcome pointers on what to see next. This is a shout out and a heartfelt vote of thanks to both.

Again, these films are in some sense murder mysteries and as such they are in the vanishingly small category of films (possibly, in my opinion, the only one, to be honest) where spoiler warnings do actually count for something. One of the main delights of these movies is hermeneutic, in working out what is going on as you go, and if that matters to you, the following will completely ruin these films for you.

With that in mind, let's take a stab (or multiple! repeated! bloody! stabs) at two of the very best examples of the giallo genre.

I'm not really intending to do a full overview of giallo here. Even with help, I'm not equipped to do that, really, and besides, you could write a whole big huge book about it. So instead I'm picking a few that are universally considered to be good and some I feel are indicative of the whole giallo/folk horror/urban wyrd intersection that fits our definition of Orrore Popolare.

In looking at giallo movies, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (which I covered last time) was a useful movie to approach, not because it's necessary an important giallo, because it isn't, really, but because it's pretty much bang in the centre of what a giallo is. It covers all the tropes. It's pretty much the most giallo giallo that ever gialloed a giallo. Except it isn't, because that's actually Deep Red.

Deep Red is the second most popular and famous film made by Dario Argento, and is widely regarded as his best film that isn't Suspiria, which isn't even to say that Suspiria is even necessarily Argento's best film, just that if you're not immediately the sort of person who cares deeply about forty year old stabby films, Suspiria is the only one you might even have heard of, let alone seen.
And Deep Red nails the tropes. All of them. A killer in a sexy patent trenchcoat (seriously, it's a fabulous trenchcoat. I want that trenchcoat) and black gloves. Murders committed from the viewpoint of the killer. Creatively horrible and painful murders. A convoluted explanation. A motive that comes from skeletons in the cupboard (or anyway literal corpses, as was the case with The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, and is also the case with The House with Laughing Windows, but bear with me). Now Argento, while not the first director to make a giallo, pretty much invented the tropes back in 1970, with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and followed that up with another couple of stylish, brutal shockers that led the wave of early seventies giallo slashers. Here now, in a field stuffed with competitors and imitators, it's almost as if Dario Argento made a statement to the effect of: this, this is how you do it.

With its soundtrack by Goblin (here credited as "The Goblins") and its bright colours, there's something to be said for a basic assessment of Deep Red being "a lot like Suspiria, only still with an actual plot".

Deep Red is creepy, gory, sadistic as all get out, and also at times very funny. It admits the supernatural, but only as something that is just another part of its world.

Red curtains open on a psychic demonstration given by Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril). There is no question of skepticism here: her powers are real, but their realness is her undoing, for the demonstration goes wrong when she recognises that there is a crazed killer in her audience. Any notion you might have had that Helga might be the protagonist of this movie is dispelled, when, on leaving, she utters the fateful words, "I know who this person is."

(Note: Never do that. Never. If you're ever in the situation of being in an Italian horror film, don't ever say you know who the killer is. You will have minutes left to live. Promise me, for the love of all that is sacred. Don't.)
Helga's ensuing murder is gut-wrenching, almost comically horrible (and real talk, we've got Argento's apparent enjoyment of people stabbed up by broken glass here) and the terror of her impending death agonies is made worse still by the fact that she knows the killer is coming. She knows what the killer is thinking.

Helga's demise is witnessed from the street below by her neighbour, pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), who rushes up to her apartment just a moment too late and then spends the rest of the film haunted by the horror he's witnessed and by something he saw for a split second from the corner of his eye that won't stop bothering him. He starts investigating Helga's death, and the deaths that follow, aided by reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who has a sharp sense of humour and an on-point eyeliner game, and Helga's friend, the parapsychologist Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri).
Argento abandons the supernatural with the telepath's death, but nonetheless imbues each murder with something of the uncanny. A child's song, playing on tape. Toys. The creepiest evil automaton you have ever seen in your life. A repeated close up of an eye, thick with eyeliner. And sadistic, excessive violence. People don't just kill you in Argento movies, they kill the fuck out of you and then they kill you some more. They want to kill you, but the killing is almost secondary to the infliction of pain.

In Deep Red, evil is uncanny. Murder is uncanny. It doesn't need the supernatural to be uncanny. It doesn't matter if it's procedurally soluble.

I mentioned yesterday how The Red Queen Kills Seven Times tricked you visually, how it presented what people thought they saw. Argento takes a risky path and does the opposite here: you get a split-second where you see the literal solution to the mystery, and it's as if Argento is playing one of those memory games you get at school: you get a brief look at an image, and it's like you're being asked “What's wrong with this picture?” This is a tactic Argento has used before: in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, he does the same (and in fact, we're shown the same brief scene repeatedly, as the protagonist turns it over and over in his mind, wracking his brains as to what he's missing). In the 21st century, this isn't a thing you could do: a simple application of the pause button ruins the entire film for you here. But the subliminal zap of these images make the otherwise absurd solutions entirely satisfying. We knew all along who the killer was. We just didn't know we knew.

In a lot of ways, Deep Red is a refinement, not just of the giallo genre but of Dario Argento's take on it. So there are parts – plot elements and stylistic things – that hail back to his earlier films: the sexy shiny trench coat and the way the killer prepares, in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage; the use of weird pseudoscience as fact and the horrible fate of a central character at the end in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), for example. If you've seen the earlier films, you get the sense that Argento was fixing them a bit, if that makes sense.
If evil is uncanny, in this movie it also rises from the everyday. The uncanny and the prosaic exist side by side in Orrore Popolare, just as they do in folk horror and its urban cousin. And what is more prosaic than humour? Deep Red is funny. David Hemmings plays Marcus Daly as a bit of a stuffed shirt. He's smart and charming, but also sort of clumsy and about as competent a detective as a high-level piano teacher might be. For much of the film, his relationship with Gianna has a lot of the signifiers of screwball comedy (there's a great piece of physical comedy to do with her clapped out car, which, bizarrely, got a direct homage in a 2002 Pixar short featuring the characters from Monsters Inc.), and it's all pretty delightful. Marcus's alcoholic friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) is initially just as funny as a lot of alcoholics are and just as tragic and depressing when you see more of him as any real alcoholic you know. And Carlo's mum (Clara Calamai) is eccentric and amusingly irritating, and the scenes where she punctures Daly's fragile dignity over and over by consistently failing to get straight what it is he does are more funny than you'd think.
Mike's New Car (2002)
A lot of horror films use comedy: they're the two genres that have most in common, after all. But what's particularly great about Deep Red is that the comedy doesn't just accompany the violence and horror or supply a change of tone. It all remains consistent in mood. It's all delirious. In fact, comic relief characters become viable suspects and when we meet with the inevitable reveal, we find that not only is the killer one of the characters signified as comic relief, but that the thing that makes the killer so horrific is exactly what makes the person so comical. Comedy becomes murder. Murder is uncanny, demonic even. The juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny is palpable. Everything is fear.

Where could you take Orrore Popolare after this?
Pupi Avati's film of the following year, The House with Laughing Windows, isn't as necessarily well known as anything Argento ever made, but every one of the aficionados I spoke to while working on these essays rates it as – like Deep Red – not only one of the finest examples of the giallo genre, but in fact one of the best Italian horror films ever made.

Art restorer Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) arrives in a remote, poverty-stricken village in the north of Italy, where he is tasked with restoring a church fresco of Saint Sebastian painted by a now-highly regarded painter Legnani (played in flashback by Tonino Corazzari). It's an odd mural: Sebastian, fastened to a post as in his traditional representations, is here, oddly and somewhat disturbingly (given the gory vignette we see over the opening credits) pierced not by arrows, but knives.

Stefano's friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who got him this gig, suggests to Stefano that Legnani's emotive and affecting representations of people in their death agonies might have come less from a sensitive understanding of the human condition, and more from direct first-hand observation. However, he does this once more by making that classic giallo mistake of saying "I can't tell you the terrible secret over the phone, come meet me in town," and so winds up chucked off a third floor balcony just as Stefano arrives at the hotel.
But Antonio's is the only murder we see for some time. Stefano continues to work on the fresco. He embarks on a sexual relationship with the cougarish local schoolteacher (Vanna Busoni) and then, when she apparently gets fired and leaves without a word, her younger replacement Francesca (Francesca Marciano), who doesn't really understand Stefano's growing obsession with the secret that killed Antonio.

In his work, Stefano uncovers images of two more figures who may be portraits of Legnani's sisters. What does the tape recording of Legnani's voice mean? What part did Legnani's sisters take in his activities? Where are they now? Who keeps destroying the evidence Stefano finds? Why is no one willing to talk about Legnani other than the town drunk, Coppola (Gianni Cavina)? And what is buried in the barren garden of the House with the Laughing Windows?

The House of Laughing Windows gives us a slow burn. We see the rising unease of Stefano, a succession of clues and their inexplicable effacement. The bodies only start to pile up in the last fifteen minutes (and once again, a gratuitous rape is shoehorned in), but there is death. The stakes rise rapidly, and so does the fear.
We meet with what we think is a final reveal, with a scene of brutal horror, and a thing in a cupboard that nothing in the film has quite prepared us for.

A second reveal comes soon after, when Stefano, mortally wounded, tries to get help: everyone hides in their houses. No one helps. Everyone knows. When this film was recommended to me, one comparison made was with The Wicker Man. And I spent most of my time watching it not quite getting why you'd make that comparison, but then we find that everyone knows, and suddenly it makes sense.

But what's different about this, and perhaps how this doesn't quite map with The Wicker Man, is that this isn't so much the classic conspiracy to murder as a conspiracy of fear and silence, something more real. No one in this village likes it. But they know, and I suppose that means they know about the third reveal, the one source of help he does find, which hides the final revelation, the one that brings destruction.
Once again, as in Don't Torture a Duckling, something is rotten in the Catholic Church. Here it's all tied up with ideas of gender and sexuality; we see early in the film a flashback referencing the fluid way that Legnani constructed his gender which foreshadows that final reveal, a final reveal that would otherwise be completely bonkers, but which has just enough foreshadowing to cross over from batshit to brilliant.

It's a brilliantly constructed film, a meditation in the end on how we allow things to happen, how there are things we just don't talk about.

I haven't seen enough giallo movies to make the assessment myself, but I've been told by people whose expertise I trust that Deep Red and The House with Laughing Windows are about as good as giallo movies ever got. Both deal with Orrore Popolare as the horror of folk, the horror of the uncanny and the prosaic, side by side, regardless of urban or rural trappings. Both of them refuse to pit the ordinary against the horrific: in both cases they make the horrific the natural result of the ordinary, its corollary. And that's why they are so terrifying, and so very good.

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