When I wrote my review of Jenifer, I noted that it was unique among Dario Argento’s body of work in a few ways, for better or worse. Jenifer herself was imagined by Argento as an alien life form, even if that wasn’t explicit in the text itself, making her the only extraterrestrial in his canon (unless I’m in for the shock of a lifetime when I get to Dracula 3D); further, the effects work on Jenifer was grotesque and monstrous, with the only similar prosthetic work in his films that I can recall being the monstrous child in Phenomena. Argento’s second Masters of Horror episode, Pelts, is also quite unlike his previous work, although not in the way that is frequently referenced. Nearly every review of Pelts mentions the short film’s “political message,” especially given the generally apolitical nature of all of Argento’s work, but I don’t really think that there is one, at least not in the way the uninitiated interpret the word. As a composition scholar, I am obliged to perceive and interpret all forms of composition and creation as inherently political, as all creation is an act of expressing individuality and thus is a political act in and of itself; by choosing what to include and what to exclude in the created thing, be it a poem, speech, or painting, the author/composer makes a de facto “political” statement. And, yes, the fact that Argento focused this film on the fur trade does lend itself to the assumption that the director is making a capital-P “Political” statement, but I don’t think that was Argento’s goal, nor do I think that decrying fur played a larger role in the inception of this plot than wanting to show a man skinning himself of his own flesh and then working backwards to create parallelism did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first experience with Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t actually with the work of the man himself. When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Waukegan, a suburb of Chicago, and I would often spend a month or two with them every summer. There was a station they received that would show the same movie every day for a week, perhaps longer, and it was on this station that I first watched Back to the Future II (at least a dozen times) and often-overlooked Joe Dante flick Explorers, both of which I loved. The best movie shown on this repeating station, however, was Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety. Although not as well known or beloved as pictures like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or Spaceballs, High Anxiety remains, to this day, my favorite of the entire Brooks oeuvre. It’s a pastiche homage to the films of the Master of Suspense, and, as with Head Over Heels, I couldn’t stop thinking about it during and after watching Dario Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? I didn’t understand the references when I was a child, but every time my grandmother would laugh out loud, she would explain which of Hitchcock’s films was being parodied, and why the joke worked. I recently rewatched the film and was worried it would pale in comparison to my memory of it, but I’m delighted to say it’s only gotten better with time.
Cop Car is the second feature helmed by 34-year-old director Jon Watts, and it is hands down one of the best new thrillers that I have seen in quite some time. Somehow, it’s a Coen Brothers crime thriller that features no involvement from either Joel or Ethan, an unblinking gaze into Everytown, America, full of heartless thugs and killer cops, long empty highways, oppressive silence, and inevitable death. There are only five characters of significance, all but one in search of an exit, and the sweet, sweet voice of Kyra Sedgwick as the unseen dispatcher. It’s moody, cinematic, and not to be missed.
Steven Weber is not a movie star. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Every time I see him, all I can ever think about is his character from Wings, a sitcom that ran for the better part of a decade and then was syndicated for the entirety of my formative years. I can only see Brian Hackett. Even when Weber is supposed to be Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s poorly overproduced miniseries remake of The Shining, or whatever his character’s name was in that Larry David movie that Larry David hates, he’ll always be slacker Brian Hackett to me. The inverse is also true; Argento is not a director who should be bound by the limits of the small screen, as was seen in Do You Like Hitchcock? and here. Apparently Weber has a talent for screenplay writing, which he exercised here in this first season Masters of Horror episode, adapting a horror story from a 1974 issue of Creepy: “Jenifer.” This is also Dario Argento’s return to America after Trauma, which he chose to shoot in what he described as “featureless Minnesota” for presumably thematic reasons that I still don’t understand. All discussion about his crumbling auteurship aside, it can never be said that Argento does not put all of his energy into his work. The Masters of Horror DVDs are some of the best you can ask for, featuring hours of special features for each episode, including interviews with actors who worked with the director of that episode earlier in his career as well as featurettes and other behind-the-scenes footage; here, it’s really evident that Argento, despite being in his sixties at the time, is working just as hard on this one hour film as he did on the exalted films from earlier in his career. It’s just too bad that the end product isn’t really all that worthwhile.
Watching Do You Like Hitchcock? reminded me of one of my favorite guilty pleasures. In much the same way as Britnee discovered The Boyfriend School on cable late one night, so did I stumble upon the nearly-forgotten romcom crime thriller Head Over Heels. Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander, this second feature from director Mark Waters (following the darkly comical Parker Posey vehicle House of Yes) was despised by critics and the general public alike. Roger Ebert gave the film a scant 1.5 stars, and the film has an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score of 10%. To put that in perspective, Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, a movie so bad I would recommend screening it as punishment for unrepentant murderers were that not potentially a war crime, has a 13% approval rating. People hate hate hate this movie. And I love it.
Way back when I first started working my way through the films directed by Dario Argento, I opened my review of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage with a reference to the early U.S. promotional materials for that film, which banked on the connection between the young Italian director and Alfred Hitchcock. The quotation from Hitchcock cited therein, that he found Argento’s work to be troubling, fascinates me, especially as Argento himself was known at the height of his career as the Italian Hitchcock. As I reach the end of Argento’s C.V., I have to note that this comparison is reductive and does a disservice to both men. Even at their worst, Hitchcock’s stories always made sense, and his reprehensible antihero protagonists were viewed from a distance that was sufficient to allow the audience to have ambivalent feelings about them. For instance, famously, the intent of the scene in which Norman Bates pushes a car into a bog was designed to elicit an anxious reaction when the vehicle failed to sink, because part of you wants him to succeed. After three and a half decades directing films, Argento was finally able to go full Hitchcock in this tepid made-for-tv picture.
Roughly ten to fifteen years ago, poker was everywhere. The boom of internet-based video poker played a huge role in the game’s rising profile, and as more people got to experience the game and hone their skills in a low-risk environment, suddenly everyone was an expert. The World Series of Poker became must-see television, or else you would be left out of the watercooler conversation the next day; at night, USA Network would force teenagers across the country to wait an interminable thirty minutes to see Strip Poker contestants in their underwear. If you could poker-ify a product, you could sell it, as obsession with the card game brought poker to a point of cultural saturation that normally only your Seinfelds and your Cosbys get to enjoy. It’s not hard to imagine why; poker is like the lovechild of lottery and sport, allowing players (and viewers, by proxy) to experience the pure adrenaline thrill of wagering on something that combines strategy with luck. Like all fads, it eventually faded away, but not before several filmmakers tried to herd gullible people into theatres by making poker a focal point; search Google for “movies about poker,” and you’ll see that most of the results come from 2003-2008. For better or worse, Dario Argento was one of those directors.