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There is a scene in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” in which Bill Pullman’s character, a musician, phones his house after playing a nightclub gig. Wife Patricia Arquette doesn’t answer. The extreme close-up shot of the phone as it rings seems to foreshadow the terrible events that unfold later in the film. I remember thinking at the time, & saying many times since, that only Lynch could make something as mundane as a telephone look so ominous.

Well, I was wrong.

Just as I coveted Paul Naschy’s work, Dario Argento is another name that’s been on my list for a very long time. I finally own one of his films now, too.

“Deep Red” (http://aol.imdb.com/title/tt0073582/) opens with a psychic demonstration being held in a theatre. Seems, at first, like pretty ordinary fare - knowing what’s in a person’s pockets & such - until the psychic picks up the thoughts of a murderer, who she says “has killed & will kill again.” Later that evening, her prediction comes true: she is violently murdered in her apartment.

Meanwhile, outside, one of the building’s other tenants, Marco (David Hemmings, the guy who had palm-to-palm ‘sex’ with Jane Fonda in “Barbarella”), is talking with his perpetually-drunken friend, Carlo. They hear a scream, & while Carlo would rather they remain uninvolved, Marco decides to investigate. He comes, of course, upon the body of the psychic, & is subsequently questioned by the police, as well as a strong-willed reporter named Gianna (Argento’s real-life paramour, Daria Nicolodi).

The story plods a little at this point, though the movie, like the psychic’s prediction, foretells of things to come (often with great subtlety), as Marco, driven by half-recollected details & feelings of something amiss at the crime scene, enlists Gianna’s help to do some sleuthing of his own. Until the next murders, however, one tends to wonder where, if anywhere, their efforts will lead. Some of the things they (Marco, especially) come across - a supposed haunting & the woman who wrote a book on it; a strange young girl & her father, caretaker of the beautiful & allegedly haunted house (from which, in one perilous moment, Marco hangs like Harold Lloyd off the clock!); Carlo’s transvestite lover; & Carlo’s daft, middle-aged mom, who thinks Marco is an engineer when he is, in fact, a pianist - give the film what “Nightmare Movies” author Kim Newman describes as “the sense of an irrational world lurking just beyond the boundaries of perception”, while simultaneously throwing off-track any viewer attempting to guess ‘whodunit’.

But the film’s high points involve more than simply plot. The story may be a bit loosely strung (according to what I’ve read, coherence has never been Argento’s strong suit), but the mystery of it takes hold after a while, becoming almost maddening by film’s end. The double-conclusion packs a few good shocks, even if the ultimate reason for all these deaths does tend toward the simplistic. The murders themselves, though not offering all that much in the way of gore (unless my version’s edited), are nevertheless made exciting, primarily thanks to the film’s obsessively cool soundtrack, courtesy of Argento’s pet band, The Goblins.

A master with close-ups, colour usage, & slow pan shots, Argento goes more for atmosphere than anything else. A fogged mirror, shadows on the floor, & a pair of gloves reveal the presence of the skulking killer in pseudo-Hitchcockian fashion. Sound, too, is included in the motif, such as the children’s song the victims can hear playing softly in the background in the moments before the murders, the squeaking floorboards & dark piano strains that inter-mesh in the nail-biting scene where Marco is stalked in his apartment as he’s composing, & (in the same scene) the chillingly soft voice on the other side of the door telling him he will be spared...for the moment.

Perhaps a little more style than substance, but in the nicest possible ways, Dario Argento may be an acquired taste, but “Deep Red” has provided me with a sweet first bite, & I’m already hungry for more.

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I think it’s been pretty well established that I like weird movies. Sometimes, I find films that are weird even by my standards. Most of these tend to be Japanese. But, believe it or not, I’ve found an American film that I can truthfully say is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

A man exhausts himself running. Soon after, he falls to the ground & a girl cuts his throat. Thus opens “Messiah Of Evil” (http://aol.imdb.com/title/tt0071396/).

A woman’s silhouette drifts down a long, brightened hallway. She begins to tell her story in a wounded, haunting voice-over which reaches a crescendo as she screams. The majority of what follows is a flashback of the events that brought her to her current state, accompanied by her soft, guiding narration.

The woman, Arletty, had traveled to a coastal town once known as New Bethlehem, but was later re-named Point Dune (which, at first, sounds suspiciously like Point Doom when pronounced by some characters) 100 years ago, after the moon turned crimson (locals called it the Blood Moon) & strange & terrible occurrences plagued the town. Arletty’s father, an artist, was living there, but he is missing, & his last letter to her, a sort of urgent warning, had her worried to the point of driving out there to look for him. Along the way, she stops for gas, but so does a very creepy guy in a red pick-up truck, with what appears to be 2 corpses lying in the back. The nervous attendant, who snuck a peek under the blanket that covered the bodies, is murdered in the garage in the next scene.

Arletty gets to Point Dune & finds it virtually deserted. The few people who do inhabit the town are an assortment of oddballs that would make even David Lynch scratch his head in wonder. There’s the blind woman who runs the art gallery, who taps Morse code into the palm of the man who serves as her interpreter (& who, himself, seems just a little off). Then there’s Old Charlie, the local drunk whose first lines in the film are about how his mother delivered him herself. “She pulled me out from between her legs,” he says, “a bloody little mess. She was about to feed me to the chickens when my Daddy said, ‘Maybe we could use a boy, Lottie.’ And that‘s how I came into the world.” Ooooooo-kaaaaaay. (As strange as he appears, however, Old Charlie’s actually pretty smart, we later discover.) Along with him, there’s Thom, a dapper gent who claims his mother was a Portuguese aristocrat (& who, for some bizarre reason, reminds me of Stephen Fry, don‘t ask me why). He’s more or less shacked up with two “traveling companions” as he calls them: pretty sophisticate Laura, & “half-woman, half-child” stoner Toni.

These 3 seem like pompous hedonists (except for Toni, who’s basically a brat), but after Old Charlie is found dead, his body half-devoured, they show up at Arletty’s father’s house (a set that would turn the “Real World” house designers green with envy) to stay, & pretty much become the most normal people in the film, apart from Arletty herself. Laura gets jealous when Thom makes a move on Arletty, says farewell to Toni, & leaves. Without the keys to the car, she is forced to walk, until she is picked up by (gasp!) that creepy guy in the red pick-up, more seemingly lifeless people in the back, this time sitting upright & staring at the moon, which is beginning to turn red. The guy, who listens to Wagner symphonies full-blast & likes to munch on live rats (told you he was creepy!), drops Laura off & she follows someone (who ignores her as she calls out to them) into a supermarket. Within moments, she finds the place’s only customers in the refrigerated section, eating raw meat.

Yep, that’s right, folks, this is a zombie picture, & soon these very normal-looking ghouls have Laura surrounded, hunting her like a pack of wolves might pursue a stray deer.

Meanwhile, Arletty finds her father’s journal, which details his descent into death-obsessed madness & physical decay, symptomised by uncontrollable bleeding, the inability to feel pain, & violent impulses. Over the course of her stay in Point Dune, these maladies begin to afflict Arletty, as well.

Questions abound: Will Arletty ever find her father? Why are there fireside gatherings on the beach every night? What is the story behind the Blood Moon? How does Arletty survive the flesh-eating townsfolk & escape to tell the tale?

I have to say again that this is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, & certainly the quietest zombie movie I’ve encountered to date. Don’t expect the usual head-ripping & entrail-gorging. In the best kind of ‘been there, done that’ ideal, it’s the build-up that’s emphasised here. It’s almost an art film, of sorts. Beautifully photographed (my favourite shot is of a female form pressed against a row of back-lit, cathedral-style windows), it sometimes evokes the feeling of an Italian horror movie, though, mostly, it creates an atmosphere of isolation & alienation. Not only do we share Arletty’s (initial) point of view as an outsider in a very weird crowd, but each scene of empty streets, stores, beaches, & parking lots pushes us out of reality & into the surreality that permeates the film from the opening credits onward.

Part drifting dream, part ‘last man on Earth’ movie, part horror film, part absurdist dark humour (as in the scene where Toni is in a theatre watching a film ominously titled “Kiss Tomorrow Good-Bye” & the place slowly fills up with zombies), “Messiah Of Evil” is an obscure little gem, indeed. Not your typical zombie picture, & not to be missed.

August 2017

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