In Terror At The Opera, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) wins a coveted singing role, but the young diva soon becomes tortured witness to activity of that vicious killer who forces her to watch as helpless new victims die in agony. Some of the violence occurs off-screen, but our heroine’s terrified expression as unwilling observer sells a frightful impact, so we (probably) all prefer not having to look at every single gruesome thing that she sees, anyway. Despite creative misunderstandings of identity and some cunning narrative misdirects, Opera really stands or falls on its ingenious/ fascinating murder set-pieces, and Argento surpasses fans’ expectations with several brilliant and memorable kill-shots that are always worth seeing again.
A shocker of challenging delirium, The Stendhal Syndrome pits detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) against serial rapist Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), who kidnaps her for particularly sadistic emotional/ physical mistreatment. In Videodrome, Brian Oblivion opined “the television screen is the retina of mind’s the eye,” and Max Renn soon discovered how powerfully disturbing ‘pirate-TV’ signals could be. Classic paintings have a similar psycho-sensual overload effect, granting interactive hallucinations for Anna, after memory loss following her art-gallery ‘episode’ and subsequent blackout. Troubled by her fantasy world of ‘psychic’ delusions, Anna cuts her long hair into a short bob, and adopts a masculine appearance (more gender uncertainty/ imagery follows, later) after that first nasty ordeal, and she bluntly rejects (“I’m not your woman”) her somewhat charmless boyfriend, before - at a therapist’s suggestion, taking a break from work to revisit her hometown. Even while on-going police investigation starts closing in upon the killer’s lair, anxious Anna winds up back in Alfredo’s clutches, again.
For The Stendhal Syndrome, the director elicits a stunning performance from his daughter, but it must be said that this is a rather curious and outrageous partnership of Italian auteur and genre-favourite actress who are so closely related, adding a scandalous frisson to an already suspect plot. Digital visuals open a doorway to exploit mental confusions, and explore haunting obsession. There have often been artistic threads and themes in Argento’s movies but, here, the paintings become vital parts of the narrative affect, defining mood swings and expressing tensions in a strikingly imaginative manner. Categorically, a tour de force by anyone’s standards of horror/ terror cinema, The Stendhal Syndrome is quite unforgettable and yet it still rewards repeat viewings.
The Card Player’s crime-thriller formula repeat of a lady cop hunting a serial killer, with Stefania Rocca playing Anna Mari (the close similarity of heroines’ names here suggests that ‘female detective’ is a 21st century stereotype now), for cyber-slasher dud plotline that artlessly jumbles CSI forensics with offbeat characters. When a British girl is killed, Anna teams up with wretched Irish detective Brennan (Liam Cunningham), and they find teenage luck-magnet and poker genius Remo, ‘conscripted’ for life-or-death online gaming in a desperate bid to beat the kidnapper’s murder stakes. After Remo saves police chief’s daughter, the killer’s hand is forced. The showdown deal against Anna aims for bemusing farce, with both killer and heroine cuffed to railway tracks as poker game on laptop ensues. Apart from grisly ‘appeal’ of its snuff-video contrivance, some quite unsettlingly realistic mortuary examinations, and a great performance from Ms Rocca, The Card Player counts - unfortunately - as one of Argento’s weaker offerings. Win some, lose some...
Now seeming like a time-warp trailer for genre TV series Masters Of Horror, re-released double-bill movie TWO EVIL EYES was made in 1989, and it features stories adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by George Romero, The Facts In The Case Of Mr Valdemar is slow–burning intriguer about a treacherous/ adulterous wife, Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), scheming against her wealthy/ dying husband to break terms of his will and steal his fortune. Jessica’s lover Dr Hoffman (Ramy Zada, After Midnight) uses hypnosis to manage deathbed pain, but the embezzlers’ plot goes wrong when the old man dies, most inconveniently, in a trance, and his frozen body soon becomes a conduit for malicious ‘others’ to crossover from beyond death.
Argento’s dazzling remix of themes from Poe in The Black Cat is far more extravagant in scope and demented in style than its companion piece. Harvey Keitel, perfectly cast here as the pretentiously arty photographer Rod Usher, excels in a role balancing pure spite with gallows humour. Taking as its cause or purpose the ‘creation’ of horrific imagery, this psychodrama of alcoholic delirium, murderous rages, and some well-timed black comedy, boasts lurid visions of pagan sacrifice with a poetic-justice finale, as homicidal brute Usher gets his comeuppance in satisfactorily grim fashion. While Romero’s work concentrates on strong characterisation and narrative beats, that build up towards a supernatural conclusion, Argento conjures up a complex of nightmarish visuals with, as usual for his knowingly illogical oeuvre, no regard for conventional drama, common sense, or even the pseudoscientific rationality which often drives Romero’s films.