Trio of Dario Argento DVDs

Thursday, 25 March 2010 11:57

Arrow Video has released three more horror classics by the Italian genre master, Dario Argento, and we had two sets to give away as competition prizes! These three movies span almost two decades and represent a perfect introduction to Argento’s back catalogue.

On offer in this package of Region 2 releases were 1987’s “Terror at the Opera”, 1996’s “The Stendahl Syndrome”, and 2004’s “The Card Player”, which in turn deal with an understudy opera singer looking to benefit from a tragic accident, a detective who finds herself being sucked into paintings that in turn help her to crack a case, and a serial killer stalking his victims via the internet – bringing an added twist to online gambling!

The Card Player on DVDThe Card Player” (2004)

“The Card Player” focuses on society’s fascination with and addiction to online socialising and game playing. A serial killer kidnaps women and then challenges the police to a “best of five” video poker game over the Internet to decide each victim’s fate. If they lose a round, the killer chops off one of the victim’s limbs. If they lose three rounds, the lady dies.

Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca – “The Talented Mr Ripley) heads up the investigation, aided by John Brennan (Liam Cunningham – “Dog Soldiers”, 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” remake) – a British Interpol agent with a drinking problem.

This is a slickly-made and nail-biting thriller. There is relatively little gore and the result is all the better for it. The web-cam atrocities are barely glimpsed; instead we get headshots of terrified, gagged women trying to plead with their tormentor or wriggle free. When a turn is lost, the killer’s hand hovers into view clutching a knife and then disappears off-screen, largely leaving the nervous viewer to imagine what terrible deeds are being performed, accompanied by agonising screams.

It is a bizarre and highly unsettling experience when juxtaposed with the jolly electronic poker music and garish graphics.

The two leads do a solid job, fleshing out their believable characters and avoiding making them too stereotypical or flashy. They are two ordinary detectives struggling desperately to track down a savvy killer before he claims more victims and the press reports embarrass their department further. Some of the voice acting for smaller roles is a bit jarring; it is obvious that English does not come naturally to a few actors as it briefly sounds like they are taking part in a prank rather than a game with deadly stakes.

As the plot unfolds and the police close in on the murderer, the action broadens and accelerates; generic scenes such as spooky house invasions and foot chases down dark alleyways are expertly directed and feel fresh. Ultimately this sums up “The Card Player”, as it does not bring anything radically new to the table and yet the movie still manages to captivate and thrill. Recommended.

 

The Stendahl Syndrome DVD“The Stendahl Syndrome” (1996)

Unlike “The Card Player”, “Stendahl” is far from conventional. Anna Manni (played by Argento’s daughter, Asia) is an anti-rape squad detective who suffers from the very strange condition the film is named after. Whenever she views a painting, Anna gets more vividly sucked into the artwork than a normal person, and imagines she has become part of the depicted scene.

In her mind she can see and hear the people and landscapes, smell the flowers and feel the cool breeze. Bizarrely, instead of avoiding art galleries and museums, Anna appears to be drawn to them, and her affliction becomes intertwined with her hunt for a very sick serial rapist and murder. The more Anna gets to know about the killer, the more her unhinged experiences become influenced by his actions, and he becomes equally obsessive over her.

“Stendahl” is a difficult film to pin down. Its plot weaves all over the place. Anna’s visions confound the viewer as well as herself, leading to occasional irritation as to what is imagined and what is actually occurring. The imagery is graphic both in the sense of the hallucinations being highly creative and cleverly executed, and in the sense that the acts of rape and murder are brutal, gory and disturbing. Ennio Morricone’s musical score is for the most part highly simplistic but his minimalist refrains carry the viewer through the madness, re-enforcing the sense of unreality pervading the movie.

Asia Argento is perfect for the lead, sometimes tripping through the movie in a state of semi-consciousness, other times taking command and becoming a dangerously on-edge obsessive.

This is a tough movie to enjoy but it certainly achieves its goal of disturbing its audience. Its two hour running time feels a little too long to sustain such draining themes, but in general “Stendahl” illustrates why Argento is famed for his works of horror. Its hooks remain under your skin for some time after the movie has finished.

 

Terror at the Opera DVD“Terror at the Opera” (1987)

The final movie is also the oldest, though it has a certain timeless quality thanks to its classic setting: an opera house. Cristina Marsillach stars as Betty, an opera singer apparently up on her luck when, days before the opening night of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, the leading lady is run over in a tragic accident.

Initially reluctant to take on the role because she fears she is too young and her voice not suitable, thanks to encouragement from the director (Ian Charleson – “Chariots of Fire” – in one of his final performances), Betty warms to the role and is an instant hit with the public. Despite her success, the starlet is convinced that the opera is cursed, and unfortunately for her and other behind the scenes crew, a sadistic and psychopath killer is determined to ensure that the production is anything but plain sailing.

Argento certainly makes the most of his theatrical setting, utilising it to ratchet up the creepiness factor. We repeatedly get taken for a first-person, Steadicam-style ride through the gloomy, claustrophobic corridors and tightly-winding staircases, seeing the action from the perspective of the killer. There are plenty of quiet nooks and crannies to prey on the unsuspecting; meanwhile the audience is distracted by the booming opera and the behind the scenes people buzz about distractedly, in a barely-controlled state of chaos.

You effectively get two shows in one, as the film acts like a documentary on the production of an opera, complete with magnificent sets, costumes and all the trimmings. Special mention must go to the flock of Ravens that forms part of the opera’s backdrop. Initially they generate some amusement by upsetting the original female lead by cawing comically in time with her arias and flapping about; later on their contribution is altogether more inspired and blackly humorous.

The movie delivers plenty of gory moments. The murderer is stalking Betty, and delights in kidnapping her, tying her up and taping rows of sharp needles beneath her eyes to prevent her from blinking. Once the singer is helpless, the psychopath horrifically executes one of her colleagues with Betty forced to take in every gory detail. It is a highly unpleasant setup, and makes for tense and bloody viewing.

Only two things let the film down slightly. Firstly, its pacing is suspect. The International cut runs for at least quarter of an hour too long (102 minutes), losing momentum when Argento has so keenly built it up. An alternative US cut is included with roughly 10 minutes less footage, and may be better for it (this reviewer has not yet seen it). Secondly, the goriest parts of the film are accompanied by heavy metal music that feels horribly out of place when all of the other musical cues are gloriously operatic.

All three DVDs come with a selection of special features and inserts such as a reversible sleeves and posters, mini-essay booklets, a mammoth Argento trailer gallery (18 adverts totalling around 40 minutes!), and various English and Italian audio tracks. Each release, by their very nature, is rated certificate ‘18’, and  priced at £15.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

We had two sets of all three DVD discs to give away. To enter our competition, you had to answer the following question:

Which famous composer of the Western genre worked on “The Stendahl Syndrome”?

Was it:

a) Hans Zimmer

b) Ennio Morricone

c) James Newton Howard

The answer was (b) and the two lucky winners were Kate Ruloff of Haverfordwest and Yvonne Rea of Mersham. Well done both!


 

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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