Inferno (1980) – Rock N Rolla

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Inferno feels like a mashed-up jukebox with lots of gore and blood spilling out from the four corners of the screen than a plot driven about witchcraft. You have a DJ here mixing the songs and giving us what we expect from Dario Argento without caring much about how we get there. Yet, what Argento promises, he delivers: rollicking background scores drumming up the intensity and scenes flowered with artistic brilliance. Not to ignore the gory sights of human destruction at the hands of supernatural forces.

Inferno feels more b-grade than its predecessor and is more in line with Mario Bava’s films than Suspiria (1977). No wonder as Bava worked as Argento’s advisor in Inferno overseeing the visual effects. His son, Lamberto Bava, is the assistant director. Inferno is the second installment of Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. It’s more explicit in explaining the nuances of the three death-personified women than Suspiria was, and treads a path more honest to the gaillo genre than its predecessor.

That doesn’t mean it’s equally compelling or artistic. It takes the theme forward through Mater Tenebrarum—the most dangerous of the three witches—from Mater Suspiriorum in Suspiria. Comparisons are bound with the former as Inferno is a thematic sequel to Suspiria and that may have been the undoing of this otherwise grisly movie.

Mater Tenebrarum is the Mother of Darkness. In Suspiria, we saw the eldest witch, Mater Suspiriorum, popular as Helena Markos. She was the Mother of Sighs. In the much-delayed third part, we round off the trilogy with Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears – the most beautiful and powerful of the three witches. She makes an appearance in Inferno as the cat-eyed, hypnotic music student (Ania Pieroni), but not much is shown after her brief appearance and the blood that she deliciously spills.

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Inferno opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), a poet living in an apartment in New York. Her next-door neighbor owns an antique store where she buys classic books. One of the books she acquires is the Three Mothers – a loose biographical musing of Arnold Varelli. Varelli, we learn, was an architect and built three mansions for the Three Mothers – one in Freiburg, another one in Rome, and the last one in New York. Those three mansions are the dwelling places of the witches and the land in and around the area are cursed forever because of their sheer presence.

Rose becomes engrossed in the book and suspects that she might be living in one of those Varelli marvels. She writes to her brother in Rome about it. And, there begins a fatal turn of destiny, as those who have read the book remain in danger of dying. Apparently, there are only five copies of the books. Three of them are destroyed by the end of the movie – leaving only two.

In Suspiria, the male characters were all underscores in Suzy Bannion’s investigation of the occult. That’s not the case in Inferno. Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) has a pivotal part in unraveling the mystery of the horrific second witch even if he does it by chance and fate – more than will and appropriate planning. That is the problem with Inferno.

There’s no concrete point-of-view to follow. We travel from New York to Rome and understand the events through the eyes of Mark’s fellow music student, Sara (Eleonara Giorgi) as she happens to read Mark’s letter from his sister, Rose, which ticks her curiosity on the matter. She proceeds to a traditional library and gets her copy of the Three Mothers. This leads to the episode of witch haunting, or Sara’s passage into nightmare. The place of library is suggested to be the home of the third and most deadly mother.

The perspectives keep altering between Rose and Sara, and we see a rehash of one of the famous plot points from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961).

Even in Suspiria, you could say that all the pieces slot in right together, but – unlike in Inferno – Suspiria was a high-octane horror, with a captivating mystery angle and a plot furthered by Suzy’s inquisitiveness. In Inferno, the inquisitiveness is lacking, or feels rather deceptive, and the resolution that Varelli hints at in the book stumbles upon the characters without a pretense of struggle.

For much of the movie, things happen randomly. And, a lot happens – for sheer pleasure than narrative compulsion. Dario Argento’s screenplay, consequently, lacks crispness in punctuating key points of the movie. The blood and gore are the only highlights of the movie, with the story serving merely as a bonus.

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This doesn’t make Inferno boring to watch. It makes it less exciting than the first part. The sequel mayn’t have been necessary. I don’t think many would have minded, yet it suffices to say that we’d have missed the brilliant visuals and cinematography (Romano Albani) of the film. The underwater scene with Rose in the underground cellar is astonishing and beautiful to watch – heightening the senses, beautifying the movie. To think, Irene Miracle did it all naturally is a humbling aspect and a testament to Argento’s mastery as an artist.

The artist that he is, nonetheless, the music (Keith Emerson) isn’t as gravitating as the Goblins’ master class in Suspiria. It’s too loud at times, mistimed at others – and doesn’t have the same chill or hypnotism.

Inferno is poor man’s Suspiria. If you enjoyed Suspiria, you won’t dislike it. If you go in with the expectations of another Suspira, you’ll be disappointed. The key, therefore, lies in forgetting Suspiria and enjoying for what it is – Dario Argento’s visual magic and the folklore of Italian gaillo.

Indeed, it’s all going to burn down just like before. In Suspiria, the movie was phoenix ashes. In Inferno, it’s just ashes. Once it burns down, you forget about it.

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) – Proving the Absurd

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Scott Derrickson) opened to a negative response in 2005. Quite contrary, what impressed me was the baffling concept of demons and Satan reaching the court of law to prove or rather disprove whether Emily was indeed possessed, or her state was a case of neuropsychological disorder. It does sound strange that a fact-based institution would accept a case on spirits and ether.

It happens, and apparently, it is based on true events about a parish priest exorcising a possessed teenager when medical science was proving to be of no help. The case is of Anneliese Michel of course, a young German girl exorcised in 1976 leading to her alleged death. The date 1976 becomes important because we’re looking back at medical science 40 years ago. Surely, not as sophisticated.

The irony in this courtroom drama lies in our two lawyers, an agnostic as the defendant and a man of faith in the opposition – proving how demons don’t exist and what Emily experienced was, “merely,” psychosomatic.

The two attorneys go back and forth with Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) trying to prove the silliness of the case and Erin Brunner (Laura Linney) trying to prove how supernatural forces did have a say in Emily’s death (played by Jennifer Carpenter). Flashback sequences show the horrors Emily passed through – her physical state eerily resembling the crushing state of Regan from The Exorcist (1973). William Freidkin’s Exorcist is an explicit tale on possession where the exorcism itself is the highlight of the movie. Emily’s story focuses on the rationalizing of exorcism and the existence of demons—in the house of logic no less.

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The accused, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) isn’t concerned with his impending fate. All he wants to do is tell Emily’s story and reveal how forces beyond our understanding exist in a realm that separates this world from the ethereal world. The courtroom drama scenes, hence, are tight and tense. They’re convincing.  The two attorneys know their trade and go back and forth to prove what they stand for as professionals. Thomas doesn’t let his faith interfere, nor does Brunner let her agnostic beliefs interfere.

The flashback scenes, although not abundant, is spooky. You wonder if these demons actually existed, we’d be in a chaotic world with such vengeful beings in control. Yet, if we take a rational standpoint and accept it all as neuropsychological hallucinations, we’d be better relieved for there are ways to control and subside these symptoms.

As a viewer, I wouldn’t be able to say which party is closer to the truth. The flashback scenes make me tilt towards the father, but how logical is the pseudoscience of possession? Occurrences that are difficult to explain seem to find solace in outright dismissals. When such a claim is disputed in court, sometimes you have to wonder – how the court could meddle with an inconceivable truth.

Despite a hot-potato issue, The Exorcism of Emily Rose makes sense and is well written, well shot, and honestly portrayed. Bravura performances from the starcast only help in convincing us that even though the tale mayn’t be true, it’s not untrue either. There is a grey area somewhere – some things aren’t tangible, but just because they aren’t, that doesn’t mean they really aren’t.

As Father Moore says, it’s not about what is true or untrue. Whether the dead really die away or Anti-Christ forces lurk in the corridor. His only mission is to tell her (Emily’s) story and through her – to warn humans that Anti-Christ forces exist, whilst also comforting people with the presence of Virgin Mary and her divinity.

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose convinces because of that. The courtroom drama and procedural only give it a legitimate claim and testimonies by experts on the area pose a hypothetical scenario of the existence of a spiritual world.

The movie has its shares of thrills and scares – moments of madness and fright. It makes you think from the perspective of Emily’s family. And, asks you a question: what do you do when science fails? Do we go for suggestive therapy, as the exorcism is most likely to be? Or, do we accept defeat and let somebody close to us die away without a proper trial?

It’s an individualistic question – one that may confront us. Not in the same manner of course. However, there are many facets in our lives where we may have to abandon rational explanation and go for a route that is irrational, unseen – enamoured with consolation nonetheless.

The movie plays along these lines: trying to prove the unknowable by using logic. And, maybe in doing so, we’re giving ourselves too much credit by assuming there is a logical answer to every question.

On balance, Emily Rose is a person who degenerated into a vile object. The sequences that show her as an object are disturbing, yet compelling to watch. The courtroom exchanges between the characters are relishing, witty, and tense. Amid all of this, there is a feeling of legitimacy in the case and the unfolding doesn’t feel out of place in the court of justice.

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Ethical dilemma and morality also stand in defence. The long-debated philosophy of ethics finds ample references and lives as a character on its own. There are discussions about legality and ethics. In any profession, ethics is subjective, law imperative. Emily Rose chose an ethical path sacrificing her for the greater good, and you’d feel – ultimately, ethics does prevail over forced reinforcement of law because one is an exterior precondition, the other is an inherent choice.

You need to approach The Exorcism of Emily Rose with an open mind. If you do so, you’ll enjoy this debate on life and death, especially in a tangible stage designed for arguments. Only this time, matter seems to submerge with spirit – giving us one fine movie that engages us and makes us feel for Emily Rose.

Repulsion (1965) – Evil Behind Closed Doors

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“I must get this crack mended.”

When we call Roman Polanski one of the best living filmmakers, we might be wrong because he has a case in being the greatest living filmmaker today. He is after all the man behind many great movies and such a plethora only warrants him a place at the apex of legendary 21st century filmmakers.

Repulsion is a story of a beautiful schizophrenic, Carole Ledoux – about how she faces her schizoid self when her sister, Helen and Helen’s fiancé, Michael go vacationing in Italy. The beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who went on to act in Luis Buñuel ’s all-time classic Belle de Jour (1967) two years later, stars as Carole supported by the elegant Yvonne Furneaux as Helen and iconic British actor, Ian Hendry as Helen’s blunt boyfriend.

Repulsion is Polanski’s first English film and his second feature following the Polish film, Knife in the Water that came out in 1962. Part of the Apartment Trilogy that started with Repulsion, reached heights with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and concluded with The Tenant (1976), the trio has the same fantastic horror-esque scenario—creating a claustrophobic environment that mirrors the latent and deranged mindsets of the main characters.

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When we first meet Carole in a beauty clinic where she works, we observe a beautiful woman lost between the actualities of the world and the illusion created by the fabricated makeup. The mask conceals the true self beneath the vivre of external glow. Only though, time is a constant factor and when the time comes, no makeup can hide the cracks in you, within you, part of you.

When Carole walks back home from work, the melancholy in her face is apparent. Even when a young romantic follows her (John Fraser as Colin), pursues her, she doesn’t reciprocate as this Dame de L’Appartement is focused on the whirlwind within her mind. She’s a child who’s never grown up. The repeated motif of her family picture only fortifies this. Carole is isolated as we decipher from her family picture and she has never grown up to become a woman from the girl she was when the picture was taken, around the time, when trauma seems to have touched her for the first time.

The trepidation of the apartment she lives in, with her sexually hyperactive sister and a predator-type fiancé, only reminds her of the abuse she incurred as a child. This makes her contempt men—yet, most importantly, the pursuit of men whom she believes are only after her for her physical glory, not to soothe her emotional, vulnerable self that may be beyond the point of return.

Paradoxical layers shape schizophrenics as enigmatic and alluring beings, and Catherine Deneuve epitomizes this visceral charm with forlorn expressions. Her gaudy blonde hair, unprimed, forms a strong motif of hiding the cerebral cracks within her head. Under this bucolic spread of bright yellow, we find a dark mind—subjected to torture by her past experiences, and in the loneliness of the apartment, her demons come to the fore, wreaking havoc, ultimately destroying her innocence.

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In one of the eeriest scenes of the movie, Polanski creates subtle chaos by showing cracks rampaging through the apartment. Together with Carole’s hallucinations—of being raped by Michael, somebody who reminds her of her abusive father—the movie tickles the subconscious fears of Carole that come to life when she’s alone, slowly decaying like a dead rabbit that attracts flies. So does Carole, but she gravitates normal people towards her, yet she has no comprehension of what is normal and what is abnormal. The line vanished long ago, and as with creepy demons, it’s only surfacing now that she’s coming face-to-face with her repressed sexuality, loathing of men, and loneliness that seems to be her only nature.

The apartment, in this part-surreal, part fantastical, and part noir, merely represents the state of Carole, a beautician who lives in a damp, rusty, and depleted flat. As Carole starts disintegrating into an almost nihilistic trance, she fantasizes her flat degenerating into a habitat for the wild.

As a complement, Polanski oversees use of drastic cinematic techniques to make sure that viewers feel the wrath within Carole. Told from a first-person narrative, the use of extreme close-ups of Carole’s eyes in the beginning to the wide mid shots following Carole down the streets to her apartment and within her apartment sets captures Carole’s polarizing mind—a ruptured state within and the feeling of seclusion despite being amidst buzzing London.

Yet, Carole is on the verge of breakdown and that is only the beginning of the nightmare she has been repressing until now. With the emergence of Colin, the clammy apartment’s isolation, and the ticking of the clock—Carole descends into a path of psychosis where all she wants is to be alone. The last thing she needs. She’s already lonely and when her fantasy, bottled-up sexual desires, disdain for sexuality, and a feeling of subjugation creeps in, Carole is like a frog swimming in lukewarm water, about to reach boiling point. When her mind turns up the heat, she enters a killing spree. She’d consider it self-defense. Others would suppose—acts of lunacy.

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Repulsion is uncomfortable and follows Carole in her descend to insanity. Polanski sets the mood for the audiences to be wrapped in horror, and in doing so; he presents a fundamental study of womanhood. Using tight angles to create a suffocating atmosphere, we get into the mind of Carole and that is a creepy experience in itself.

Violent, perverse, and primeval, Repulsion is one of the finest psychological thrillers. It’s almost nauseating at times. That’s not due to what we see on the screen, but how Polanski makes us feel using skintight photography, gripping storytelling, and by creating a dystopian environment. Enhancing all of this is the uncanny performance of Catherine Deneuve as Carole. Through her, we study human behavior under oppression, thereby analyzing the objectification of women and turning home into wilderness—as that seems to be pivotal in the movie.

Roman Polanski’s first English film is arguably his most comprehensive. It shows us why Polanski might be one filmmaker who can get right under your skin and dish out a psychological beating that is sure to leave you with a hangover long after it’s over. Repulsion is a classic.

Oculus (2013) – Peeping into Antiquity

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Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell in a supernatural, psychological horror story that’s as much psychological as it’s supernatural. The movie covers two stages – when they’re 23 and 21, the present (2013), and when they’re 12 and 10, the past (2002).

As we’d realize later, a 10-year Tim is taken under custody for patricide. Just before that, however, he and Kaylie promise to destroy the artifact that they believe is the precursor to all these occurrences. When Tim returns home after 11 years, Kaylie and Tim give it one last try – to destroy the antic mirror that their father bought in an auction. The mirror, for them, is the cause behind countless homicides. Their family only plays a small part in the mayhem initiated by the possessed mirror. Their pact? To finish it off.

In Latin, oculus means eyes. In the movie, the people lured into demonic acts by the timeworn mirror find their eyes transformed into mirrors. It could symbolize that the mirror forces these people to divert their reflections and only realize the vision of the mirror itself, or quite simply – we could infer that our eyes mirror what we see, subjective reality, and we act based on those subjective instincts, for good or bad.

Mike Flanagan sits on the director’s chair again after Absentia (2011), yet, he’s mostly known for directing the well-received student movie, Ghosts of Hamilton Street (2003). In Oculus, Flanagan opts for a non-linear approach. Intercutting between two different time spans within the same house, we see a repeat of the tragedy that panned out 11 years ago in Kaylie and Tim’s quest to destroy the mirror and salvage the souls entrapped in it. As the movie progresses, the adults take precedence to the children forming a compelling revelation of ghostly destruction.

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Although the movie isn’t long, it does take a while to build the anticipation. The initial 45 minutes revolve around Kaylie reminding Tim of their childhood. These adults relive what happened 11 years ago and prepare themselves for what could happen today, 11 years later. Yet, tackling the mirror is tricky. The mirror has a shady, dangerous history and it works categorically by distorting their perception, destroying their rationality, and injecting an overriding sense of hopelessness in them.

Flanagan doesn’t go the traditional route with scares as much as he goes for atmospheric creepiness. With the mirror slowly possessing Marie and Alan, parents of Kaylie and Tim, (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), it coaxes them into becoming one with it – overruling them with a Them vs. the World mentality. Pointing to decay as its theme, the mirror first clasps its victims by decoying their inner desires, if it’s by seducing them, torturing them, or poisoning their minds, and after it gets hold of them – it unleashes the monster it has created to ensue destruction.

The story of Oculus isn’t as interesting as much as the presentation of a relatively overdone concept: possession. Fans of horrors may like it, or shun it, but it’s still interesting and didn’t turn me off. The movie is more discreet than outright scary. The scares are well timed and it tries to blend a movie like The Shining (1980), for example, and an outright slasher like Nightmare at Elm’s Street (1984) maintaining a dwindling mood throughout.

The pseudo-investigation that Kaylie and Tim carry out of the mystery is the best part of the movie. It keeps you guessing and doesn’t distract you. As Kaylie and Tim continue to dig deep, within themselves and of the peculiar manifestations, revisiting their escapades as children, the movie treads deeper into dread, which is quite interesting to watch.

For a standard medium-budget horror movie, Flanagan does a good job of trying to walk on a thin rope of tradition and not falling prey to its oddities. The elements are present, of course, with the script timed well into convention, and the plot points being similar to horrors of the past, yet the treatment makes the difference.

Oculus has decent performances by the cast. Karen Gillan is adept as Kaylie and her authority remains on show throughout the movie. She’s pretty to boot if off, and through her we actually get a character that is able to command and lure whenever she deems fit. The rest have done okay, even though they’re not as commanding as Karen is.

Oculus also looks good visually. It’s something you’d expect from traditional horror movies set inside modern Victorian-styled houses. The way makers play with hallucination, illusion, and reality is also worth noting, even though the ending is predictable and is subject to the conventional trap of horrors. It does leave the space open for sequels, but with that intention to boot, it’s quite difficult to appreciate the movie. Flanagan seems to have one eye on the future. That makes sense economically, but it gave the movie a defunct ending. Audiences would feel underwhelmed by the anti-climax and that drags the movie down. It did for me.

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Oculus had a high ceiling. It doesn’t quite get close to touching it, but it’s a decent watch. I doubt non-horror fans would appreciate it, or even majority of horror fanatics—a shame because the movie had so much potential.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – In Bedlam

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The trampled Lovecraft and his insane stories…

John Carpenter pays homage to HP Lovecraft and his extraterrestrial sagas with In the Mouth of Madness. The name itself is inspired from Lovecraft’s own, At the Mountain of Madness. It takes extra liberty from Lovecraft’s most popular story, The Call of Cthulhu and other similar stories. Consequently, In the Mouth of Madness contains elements typified by Lovecraft—insanity, unknowable powers, inconceivable horror, extraterrestrial powers enslaving humans, and of course—the dampening, sickening degeneration of people thanks to the unknown.

When filmmakers pay tribute to their favorite authors, especially in horrors, they walk on a thin rope. Roger Corman, with his favorite actor Vincent Price, did a fine job of respecting Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories and poems in the 60s. They’re generally popular as B-grade classics. Vincent Price (one of my personal favorites) always made these movies appear larger with his inimitable persona and a piercing voice. Roger Corman is a handy director too—not avant-garde, but he’s okay.

In cases when other filmmakers have adapted horror classics, there have been instances of inventiveness. The Innocents (Henry James, adapted by Clayton), The Haunting (Shirley Jackson, adapted by Wise), Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, adapted by Polanski), The Exorcist (William Blatty, adapted by Friedkin), The Shining (Stephen King, adapted by Kubrick), and of course Misery (Stephen King, adapted by Reiner) are some of the most brilliant examples of a movie propelling the book into folklore.

In the case of Madness, Carpenter, whilst being a phenomenal presenter of violence and destruction, just doesn’t seem to bring his A-game. You can’t doubt Carpenter for the brilliant visuals here, but the story itself is loopy, pretentious, and Lovecraft’s obscurity is misguided, even though authentic. Take even The Fly (both versions – Newmann and Cronenburg); both movies use the story by George Langelaan to present a discreet view of powers in imprudent hands. The unknowable matches well with the unknown, and such a combo terrorizes viewers. In terrorizing them, the makers are honest.

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The honesty is lacking from John Carpenter in the third installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy. The first two are The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). There’s a major point when the entire movie could have been thrown to water, if only the powers to-be acted in best interests of the society. If Sutter Cane’s (Jürgen Prochnow) book was notorious in driving his readers insane, why doesn’t anybody just ban the book, or abolish it? If that works against freedom of expression, well, we don’t have the right to drive people crazy thanks to freedom of expression.

Sure, if all of what John Trent (Sam Neill) experienced was sheer hallucination, which it was—the movie fails again in its ploy to pretend as a hopeful psychological thriller along the lines of The Innocents (1961, a bona-fide classic). With such an intriguing plot—books of a bestselling horror writer driving his readers crazy—Carpenter fails to hit the mark, big time. Poor writing and ineffective treatment would be the reasons. It could have been a masterpiece as a psychological thriller, or a surreal drama, yet the monstrous horror on screen allows few chills, but ultimately fails to invoke any sense of connection with the characters or the story.

Viewers will realize that sanity is fragile, and at any given moment, we could lose it. Sure, that’s a nice start, but what next? Carpenter sends us to the allegorical town of Hobb’s End just to manifest his brilliance as a master scarecrow—scaring us with disgusting beings (Lovecraftian elements) and presenting a redundant drama on the possibility of people ardently believing in the myths present in horror books.

Horror writers do have a knack of deluding themselves with what they write. Stephen Kind openly admitted how he had nearly lost himself while writing The Shining. Here, the writer Sutter Cane seems to lose his own grip of reality, but how is that supposed to make sense when the character he bases the book on, John Trent, himself is lost in a hallucinatory whirlpool?

We get it – they’re all insane and end up believing in what they read and write. Cane is taken over by the monsters he creates and Trent by the monsters he reads in those books. But it’s not just stimulating, let alone enjoying or thought provoking. When you look at Carpenter’s previous classics, especially Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), it’s amazing how he loses the plot here.

What makes this even worse is how Carpenter toys with themes of duality and phenomenology in his chaotic world. Trent experiences the world, as it is, through Cane’s books and by the end, he starts seeing the world that way. If there’s a positive in the underbelly of Madness, Carpenter highlights the line between reading a book (or, watching a movie) and being obsessed with it. And that’s the sad part because the premise is so damn good, the movie could have been foundational.

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In the Mouth for Madness can be scary at times. Carpenter masterfully creates an uneasy atmosphere and his control over the visual elements is excellent. Yet, that’s where it ends. With a weak script (written by Michael De Luca) and formulaic execution, Madness is just madness from Carpenter. It’s one of those movies that you either love or hate. I didn’t like it, but I know a handful that would, so all is not lost.

Madness is twisted and sickening and that’s about it to say. Maybe it doesn’t help that I don’t find the works of Lovecraft intriguing either, but hey – at least you could try.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – When the Phantom Meets Dorian Gray in a Faustian Affair

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The ever notorious Brian De Palma builds his gothic drama on the foundation of three classic novels—Gaston Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the German legend, Faust, popularized by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. As it goes, De Palma does the seemingly impossible by creating a perfect transmutation of three novels featuring the devil, the man who sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian trade-off, and the unlikely musical genius, the Phantom.

Despite borrowing the premises from these classics, De Palma manages to present a shrilling satire on the booming entertainment industry of the 70s—revealing the private lives and behaviors of music artists and recording studio executives. The overarching dominance of corporates over art serves as the central theme. That’s only the beginning though as Phantom of the Paradise treads over mayhem and chaos—disorganization and catastrophe.

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In this devilish drama, De Palma uses his archetypical violence in telling a story of a naïve music composer, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), who is robbed and destroyed by the executive of Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams)—only to come back as the devil’s double. Jessica Harper stars as Phoenix, the unrequited lover of the Phantom, but De Palma doesn’t spare her either. Her life spirals down to chaos as her fame increases, as people go crazy over her sultry voice and girl-next-door avatar. Leave it to the Phantom to save her though. He secretly writes songs for her. She gives them life and that’s all the Phantom wants. Nevertheless, we have a villain in the perplexing Swan—who does things his way or the highway, and when the Devil himself faces off against the Devil’s Double, we’re in De Palma territory.

Phantom of the Paradise is content-driven and includes themes from the trio of novels, yet also manages to give a commentary on fandom, the entertainment business, monopoly of recording studios, degeneration of artists, frantic stampedes, and the manufacturing of music stars to meet the needs and demands of these studios. Musicians-cum-artists may create magic, but the magic is all in the hands of these moguls who retain it and reuse it as they deem fit, as it fits their agenda.

For a movie that says so much, Phantom of the Paradise is a breezy ride, which is nothing short of sensational considering the gravity of the themes De Palma explores and the novels he bases this fantastic story on. Paradise contains all of De Palma’s idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker. There’s love, sex, violence, treachery, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption—making this film a thesis on De Palma and his thrilling style.

Then, there’s overindulgence (Swan) and there’s under-indulgence (The Phantom). On one side, we have the power of control. On the other side, we have the virtue of a genius. In the middle is the struggling singer, Phoenix, in oblivion to all of this—trying to create a path to musical glory. Along the way, she loses track, but her omnipresent guardian angel is always there for her, looking out for her—trying to rescue her from the dirty business and attempting to introduce her to the sound of music.

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De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996) might be more popular than Paradise, but with no qualms, one can safely assert that Phantom of the Paradise is his seminal classic. It’s brutal, gory, and tragic, with some unforgettable scenes shown with a bittersweet touch. It tells a fascinating story of polarities, yet it’s very entertaining. In questioning the underbelly of the music business of the 70s, De Palma not only informs, he entertains. He makes this a joyous watch defying stereotypes. Considering that Paradise is a musical tragedy, the mere fact that it’s warm despite being cold, it’s fun whilst being sad makes this an exemplary piece of art.

What makes Paradise worth it is the fairytale-like presentation. De Palma executes this grave movie with light undertones and sets a fanatical mood. Whatever you see is light-hearted. The gory scenes are shot comically. They’re powerful, but filtered. The villain is what you’d expect from a Disney cartoon—smooth, yet with his own quirks. The Phantom, the unlikely hero, is like Popeye who’s a go-lucky guy that reaches another plane when he smells the air of music, when anybody questions is ingenuity, when people try to plagiarize his compositions, or when they set their evil eyes on his ladylove. His life and his music are only for the Phantom, and more importantly, Phoenix.

None of the actors in this movie really outgrew Paradise. William Finley stars with bravura and naivety as the unlikely Phantom. Jessica Harper steals the show. Three years later, she’d star in Dario Argento’s tour de force, Suspiria—one of the finest horrors ever made, but it’s sad to see that she never reached her true potential as an actor. Paul Williams, a real life musician, probably climbed his highest peak with Paradise. He’s brilliant as the suave, cunning, and quirky Swan—a role, it appears, designed for him.

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Complimented by terrific performances, a brilliant script, and De Palma’s unwavering artistry, Phantom of the Paradise is total non-stop action. Taking you to De Palma’s frenzied world, it clutches onto you and doesn’t let go. A fine addition to New Hollywood of the 70s, Paradise is a mixture of love and hatred forming an untouchable pact that carries the film’s legacy until today. The scar-faced Phantom in a match against the Devil, dressed to kill, all equipped to blow you out – a feat, mission impossible to topple.

Housebound (2014) – The Phantom of the House

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An eccentric teenager, a divorced Mom living with her boyfriend, a ghost breathing under them, and a madcap of events turning the tides—home detention, after all, blows.

In Housebound, viewers are attuned to a truculent teenager, Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), after the court sentences her to 8 months of home detention for an attempted bank robbery. Kylie has to return to the place where she grew up and live with her affectionate mother (Rima Te Wiata)—Kylie not quite reciprocating. When she realizes that the house is haunted, through her mother, she thinks her mom’s gone crazy, but soon begins to realize that a ghost in indeed in the premises.

Viewers tend to shun horror-comedies for its whimsical plot and poor execution. Some have excelled, Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or the original Fright Night (1985), whilst some have taken forms of amusing satires like the Scream series, or even a Cabin in the Woods (2012). Housebound falls in those categories where the director gets the mixture of horror and comedy right and viewers get to watch a cross-blended genre film that’s entertaining as well as freaky.

Gerard Johnstone cited quite a few yesteryear horror classics as his inspiration for Housebound. Movies like Ghostbusters (1984), The Changeling (1980), and The Legend of Hell House (1973) to be precise. Yet, Housebound most famously resembles Gaston Leroux’s classic novel The Phantom of the Opera originally published in 1909/10. Minus the love saga, the suspense of Housebound is quite similar to the mystery in the novel, only this time—a private home is the stage for infamy and terror.

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When Kylie discovers about the murder of a teenage girl decades ago, she’s convinced of something sinister doing the rounds. This also compels her to believe her mom’s version of the story, the living dead lurking in the corners of the house. Simmered with collisions with the House Ghost, Kylie begins to unravel the mystery behind this house and of the ghost that lives with them. What she discovers is hilariously spooky, and the consequent events chuck this movie as a witty, deceptive, and charming horror comedy from the land of the Kiwis.

The quirky characters add an extra dimension that makes Housebound a joyous little tale that could occur anywhere in the world. Not only is it relatable; how often have we seen the eccentric teenage daughter who thinks she’s the bomb, or the mother helplessly loving her rude and profane daughter, and amidst all of this—a third party enjoying the moolah, only for manifestations to bring them together to fight against the common enemy? Add a pinch of action, a dash of suspense, and pour the rubles of hilarity over them; you have a clever entertainer, a droll story, and a beautiful execution of an artifact that’s warm and cold, distant, yet near.

Morgana O’Reilly stuns you with her performance as the electric teenager. The story successfully layers her transformation from an outright pain to a considerate learner, who grows more composed, more deliberate, and more realistic as these circumstances pledge to goad her down. In all of this chaos, her presence of mind stands out—all the time—through which she realizes the importance of being rational, whilst understanding the depth of relationships, the value of acceptance. Looking at it that way, behind the horror and the comic relief, there are themes of overcoming odds and coming of age in Housebound. For Kylie, for her mother, and for her half-father, and last but definitely not the least, for the House Ghost.

Housebound is multi-layered in its themes. You have coming of age on one hand, acceptance on the other, fate at one side, revenge on the other, bonding on one step, and moving forward on the next. Gerard Johnstone embraces these elements crisply and what he does best is entertain viewers while doing so, which is what Housebound is for all the drama and chaos. It’s enjoying and a breezy watch of less than 2 hours. Time just slips by and for the flaws present in the movie, there are quite a few, the balance of horror and comedy, of people and events makes you ignore them and enjoy the movie for what it is.

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Surrounded by idiosyncratic performances and cushioned by an ironic atmosphere, Housebound might be a small-scale movie in comparison; however, the story, performances, and the technical aspects would delude you from the assumption. That in itself is a major honor. Housebound is humorous, spooky, peculiar, and one gem of a horror movie that has its dosages of gore and fright, but is ultimately a movie about warmth, love, and togetherness.

Fright Night (1985) – A Parody of Dracula

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“Welcome to Fright Night, for real.”

Instead of Jonathan Harker procuring a new home for the blood sucking and lip smacking Count Dracula, his highness Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) acquires a new house himself for his retreats in Tom Holland’s horror comedy. When high school hipster and ardent gothic horror fan Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) discovers that his new neighbor is in fact a vampire, he has nowhere to run. Nobody believes him and this Lord Vampire is after him because he is the boy who knows too much.

The characters of Fright Night are all based on Bram Stoker’s magnum opus, Dracula. The boy trapped in this muddle is the Jonathan Harker of Fright Night. His girlfriend, the innocent, Amy (Amanda Bearse) is none other than the pious Mina Harker enchanted by the eyes of Dracula. Their common friend, Evil Ed (Stephan Geoffreys), the subservient of Mr. Vampire, reflects the madness of the insane scientist, Renfield. And, the biggest marvel, vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) takes up the avatar of the legendary Dr. Abraham van Helsing – adding his own touch of cowardice over the chivalry of Dr. van Helsing, his phoniness over the ingenuity of the legendary philosopher.

Like Dracula, Fright Night squeezes the supernatural, with pinches of melodrama, romance, and adventure. It’s smart, witty, fun, fast-paced, and entertaining. You wouldn’t know when it started and when it ends. One wild marathon from start until the end, Fright Night is perhaps just be an episode in the life of fictional vampire hunter turned into real life vampire predator, Peter Vincent. And for all those factors, it works.

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Using traditional vampire elements created by Bram Stoker, we see plenty of garlics, crucifixes, wooden skates, holy water, mud, and coffins. Holland also enthralls viewers to special appearances by Vampire, the Bat and Vampire, the Wolf, with the inciting role of Lucy (in the novel) adorned by two hookers that Charley notices arriving at this Count’s hermitage. In the subsequent days, both go missing creating frenzy in the small town, but Charley knows why they’re missing and takes it as his responsibility to save the town from this undead monster. But how does he do it? With the help of his friends and a flop television personality of course, but there’s a problem – nobody believes him.

Fright Night plays on the myths and symbols of vampirism. It’s not merely a satire, it’s a parody of Dracula and it’s damn entertaining. Chris Sarandon takes the role of the vampire and he’s a natural. Suave, vicious, charming, and neat – Sarandon treats this role like his own and makes a perfect vampire. A Dracula fan would perhaps be mildly disappointed with the lack of chivalry of this beast, but in the flow of events, it turns out well. Vampires, after all, aren’t chivalrous creatures, are they?

In some ways, Fright Night resembles Coppola’s Dracula (1992), with the ethereal romance between Jerry and Amy. Only here, it’s rushed and underdeveloped, whereas in Coppola’s masterpiece, the love story takes the center stage. It would appear that Mr. Coppola was more inspired by the undeveloped romantic saga between two time-separated lovers here than from the actual book by Bram Stoker, where such suggestions only bode down to racy imagination.

Not since Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) has there been a horror comedy so enchanting and entertaining as Fright Night. Unlike other serious movies on vampires though, Fright Night relieves the viewers instead of alarming them; it amuses them instead of scaring them away.

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A memorable parody of Dracula, the novel, Fright Night is an easy watch and a perfect movie on a slow day. It’s unexpectedly good and wildly engaging. Craig Gillespie remade the movie in 2011 with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin (playing Jerry and Charley), but the original remains a must-see, especially for fans of vampires. It’s also a nice addition to the folklore of vampirism.

Watch this clever comedy for the thrills and the mayhem; it’ll relieve you of your duties, with a smile that is.

Suspiria (1977) – Welcome to Freiburg

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Suspiria is unique in many ways. The enchanting visuals embedded with the tenacity of Dario Argento marks the beginning of the Three Mother Series, a supernatural horror trilogy, through which he explores the age-old myth of witchcraft. This combination results in a stellar drama that surpasses standard norms of horrors, transcends the genre, and questions the scantiness underneath the skin. At its heart though, Suspiria is about people. How events manipulate people and if they have the belly to overcome the odds.

As a movie, Suspiria isn’t about a great story told. It revisits the legend of witches in a loose, consequential style where the story isn’t the king, nor the concept. Yet, the unusual merger of a peculiar story and Argento’s vision is the masterstroke that lobs Suspiria into the upper echelon of classics and places it as one of the best horrors ever made.

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at Freiburg for the first time, it’s pouring. When she leaves, it’s raging in fire. This symmetry completes the movie and tells you all of what she does, and goes through in this mysterious dance academy. Coming all the way from America to study ballet dancing at the Tam Ballet Academy—little does Suzy expect the bleakness awaiting her within the confines of the grand haunted mansion, with a rich heritage of its own; rich, yet, dampening and dreadful.

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Speaking about the plot too much would spoil the suspense since it’s so delicately poised. For the viewer of 2014, the story of Suspiria mayn’t seem as new as it would have for viewers back in 1977. But, that’s the catch. Despite having a simple plot, straightforward and hardly complex, Suspiria is intriguing for all the reasons people watch films. It grips the fancy of the viewer and the most compelling part of this horror movie is the passage from the beginning until the climax.

Unconventional for horrors, the climax of Suspiria is hardly out-of-this-world-type surprising, but it’s satisfying. You couldn’t call Suspiria an investigation of the occult. Everything drifts and the characters just go with the flow doing what they have to do. Just as the occult is the daughter of supernatural, our destiny is the same, perhaps the son of the supernatural. When the two collide, the supernatural takes care of everything. That seems like an appropriate way of framing Suspiria’s outlook.

Filmed with neon lights of red, blue, and green throughout, Suspiria feels surreal at times. The use of shadows and lights is enchanting and is a nice compliment to the artistry of the ballets. At times though, the alluring visual overrides the plot, but it still works because it adds to the aesthetic charms of the movie. Also capturing the splendor of Germany, the cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) makes this horror much more alienating, thereby, adding a tinge of coldness and making it an exhilarating watch. Not only is it beautiful, but the team ensures that the locales feel detached and even intimidating. When the ambience is so corrupt, the actions in the middle could only borrow from the same corruptness, which is what Dario Argento achieves through Suspiria.

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Adding to this depravity with panache is the music (Italian-band Goblin). The chilling background score blends hard drumming with ailing whines provoking you to a state of alarm. Many times the rhythmic music associated with death—la la la la la la la whum!—alone creeps into you and alerts you of the looming disaster. Other times, the banging of drums and the drastic switch of the tone, from stillness to hyperactive mayhem, configures Suspiria as a menacing little movie that articulates the chilling vagueness of the unknown. It wouldn’t be so chilling without the haunting tone, the manipulative lights, and the gothic captures.

Suspiria ranges from sordid and downright uncomfortable to gripping, terrifying, and ultimately enjoyable, which bodes well to the masterful direction of Dario Argento and seamless performances by the cast. Suspiria is also uncannily arty for a horror movie. Based on essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, especially, the essay—Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow—the movie balances all the elements crisply to give us a deadly movie that not only goads us into buying the shrilling occurrences, but also ultimately manages to accomplish that by entertaining and keeping us at the edge of our seats.

Many similar movies have come out over the years, but Suspiria remains superior and is a landmark in the genre. You may be spiked out due to the blood, which can be uncomfortable to watch and looks unnatural at times, but you’ll love the ambience. That’s probably what separates this movie from the rest: the atmosphere.

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An all-time classic, this one certainly isn’t for the numb. If the death scenes aren’t gory enough to make you shudder, the dramatic sequences are haunting on its own for the sheer uncertainty surrounding this palace that has much more to express than it reveals. The aesthetics of Argento is at full show for viewers to enjoy and appreciate. Callousness comes together with sensibility, a rare marriage, but one for the ages.

Los Ojos de Julia (2010) – Light and Shadow

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Twin sisters Julia and Sara (both played by the magnificent Belén Rueda) suffer from the same degenerative eye condition that leads them to blindness. When Julia finds Sara hanging in the basement, she suspects that her sister couldn’t have actually committed suicide. One thing leads to the other and Julia is all of a sudden in deep water. She’s stuck between her deteriorating vision and the apparent murderer walking loose like a shadow, a true psycho.

Directed by Guillem Morales, Julia’s Eyes is intense, sublime, and aesthetically very pleasing, but it could have been so much more. It could almost be the perfect homage to the graphic Giallo genre. The climax of course mirrors the classic neck slash scenes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento movies, but the mystery in the film is an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The air has same tension as Psycho, and no, there’s no multiple personality disorder here.

Midway through the movie, Julia’s Eyes feels like a riveting mystery—brilliant screenplay, pacing, and terrific performances all heading to a transcendental climax. The scene where Julia goes blind is part of one memorable sequence bringing together the music, shot, atmosphere, and Julia’s own expressions in summing up this incredible piece of storytelling. But from thereon, the story dips and treads on the usual path of psychotic thrillers. It loses its mystical element and becomes rather predictable, a bit too theatrical at times.

Initially set as a firm, intelligent mystery, the story turns into a watered down survival journey of a woman who was full of conviction at first, but is later devoid of rationality. Although one could suspect that the tragedies in her life play an equal part in breaking her; still, many of the decisions she makes doesn’t quite fit with the woman who’s shown to be Julia at first. That notwithstanding, Julia’s Eyes is almost a classic if you shut it right at the point Julia loses her eyesight. Howsoever the movie may have turned out, and it’s still fine, Rueda deserves all the praises for her emotive, dejected, and tragic showing as both Julia and Sara.

Julia’s Eyes has a great start, a not so great ending. The eventual twist is hardly exciting and leaves you expecting more, yet the initial hour is some of the finest exhibition in  horror/mystery filmmaking. In its visual form though, Los Ojos de Julia is sheer beauty. The second half lets it down.