Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Great Unwatched: Bava, Argento, Cronenberg

There are two goals to my Great Unwatched project. The first is to see some films that I might not otherwise give the time of day to. The second is to finally experience movies I should've watched a long, long time ago. This weekend, I focused especially on the latter goal, filling in gaps in the filmographies of three of my favorite horror directors: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg. I even made a special effort to watch some of their non-horror offerings mixed in with the usual fright flicks.

Film 1: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961, Mario Bava)
Bava's second (credited) turn as director is a fascinating tale of swords 'n' sandals with a bit of Christopher Lee thrown into the mix. Hercules (Reg Park) journeys to Hades to retrieve a mystical stone that will save the life of his lady love, Princess Deianira. What our musclebound hero doesn't know is that his girlfriend's wicked uncle (Lee) is machinating to use Deianira's blood in a ritual to make him immortal. Hercules in the Haunted World was Bava's first opportunity to show what he could do with color and he really wows. The scenes of hell in particular show his visual mastery. Reportedly Bava used a few movable walls and a handful of columns to form every interior set in this film, resorting to visual trickery when he needed it to look like he had more. He creates an expressionistic peplum film, which works best when taken as a visual feast hung on a loose plot.

Film 2: Erik the Conqueror (1961, Mario Bava) 
An unofficial remake of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958), Erik the Conqueror (also known as The Invaders) tells the tale of two Viking brothers, separated as children when their village on the coast of England is pillaged by the vicious Sir Rutford (Andrea Checci). Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is raised by his Nordic brethren. Erik (George Ardisson) is adopted by the Queen Alice of Scotland (or Britain, depending on whether you're watching the movie dubbed or subtitled) and grows up to become the Duke of Helford.

What struck me about Erik the Conqueror was the care taken that neither Viking or English were portrayed as villainous or unsympathetic. Both sides are caught in the cycle of violence known as history, occasionally manipulated by Sir Rutford to achieve his own ends. Certainly the Vikings are portrayed as more brutish and violently-inclined, but they're also largely honorable, honest people. The English are more cultured, but they are given to subterfuge and, in the case of Sir Rutford, outright treachery. 

The best sequences, visually, take place in the Viking's headquarters, a large cave where Bava's colored gels run wild. The centerpiece of the set is the giant gnarled tree from Hercules in the Haunted World, which looks magnificent in this new context.

Overall, however, the film isn't that interesting, unless you're really into vikings.

Film 3: Fast Company (1979, David Cronenberg)
It's certainly possible to read a lot of Cronenberg's prevalent themes into Fast Company, most notably the intersection of man and technology and the betrayals of corporate America. However, I think it misses the point to a certain extent. This is Cronenberg working in established drive-in fodder territory for the first and only time in his career. He sticks pretty cleanly to the rules by providing a story with clear heroes and villains, plus the requisite amounts of sex and action. William Smith plays Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson, a race car driver in his twilight, doing the drag race circuit under the sponsorship of FastCo Oil. When FastCo betrays him (through their corporate liaison Phil Adamson, played by John Saxon), he strikes out on his own. Adamson uses every trick in his book to make sure Lonnie's cars never reach the finish line. Fast Company is slow-moving (ironically) and takes forever to get around to its central conflict. Cronenberg really only breaks out of the mold during a surprisingly brutal climax that kills off two characters and seriously injures a third.

Film 4: Inferno (1980, Dario Argento)
I still don't know what I feel about this one. Certainly it's the most beautiful Argento film I've ever seen. However, the plot is a huge wad of happenstance, with very little rhyme or reason. In some places it seems to want to emulate the structure of its predecessor, Suspiria, but it lacks a character like Susie Banyon for us to relate to. I'll admit that I was already starting to get a little burned out at this point in my marathon, so I might not have given Inferno the due it deserves. Next time I watch, I'll do it properly -- well-rested, with all the lights out, and the soundtrack up loud. Until then, I can't really give a strong opinion one way or the other.

As a bonus to my general theme, however, Mario Bava did some uncredited effects work for the New York segments of the film.

Film 5: Rabid (1977, David Cronenberg)
Rabid is much more in line with Cronenberg's general oeuvre. Marilyn Chambers emerges from experimental surgery with a retractable phallus in her armpit and a craving for blood. Those who she feeds from become blood-crazed zombies. Cronenberg expands on the themes he first posited in Shivers, with disease as a catalyst for societal breakdown. Moving outside the confines of a single apartment building into the city of Montreal, Cronenberg is able to analyze government and public responses to an outbreak of irrationality. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Chambers is just trying to survive, oblivious to the effect her feeding has on her victims (and her victims' victims). Unfortunately, Cronenberg never manages to blend the external outbreak narrative with the internal vampire one, so the film gets narratively and thematically confused at times. Cronenberg would do better in later films by keeping his focus on a single character navigating through the chaos, as in Videodrome.

Film 6: Phenomena (1985, Dario Argento)
Not a lot to say about this one, except that it was the last film of the night and it didn't do much to grab hold of my already shaky attention. As a sidenote, at some point I may write an article tracking Argento's treatment of Daria Nicolodi's characters throughout their collaborations, as it does seem he gets more brutal with her after they broke off their romantic relationship.

My original plan, incidentally, had been to watch Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but my bootleg (purchased before Mya Communication announced their official DVD) was nearly unwatchable. Very disappointing.

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