21 May 2011

FLIPPING THE BIRD

Kevin Olson made his donation to the Carry On Campaign a long time ago, but only recently made up his mind what review he wanted. Given our shared love of Italian horror, it's no surprise he went that direction; but I owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me not just to a movie I'd never seen, but a director whose work had, till now, been entirely unknown to me.

First-time filmmakers, despite what it might sometimes seem, do not come from nowhere. We have here the case of Michele Soavi, whose first feature in 1987, Deliria, is the kind of ridiculously self-assured debut that declares its maker to be some kind of savant or prodigy, a young man who has celluloid in his bones. Yet by the time this film was made, Soavi had been toiling in the trenches of Italian genre filmmaking for years: as an actor, a writer, and an assistant director to both Dario Argento and Joe D'Amato.* That's not the same as having talent, of course, and the creator of Deliria most certainly did not want for talent; but at the same time, there's nothing sui generis about this picture - Soavi paid his dues in order for the movie to turn out as well as it did.

One cannot accuse him of lacking massive stones: Deliria (given the absurdly inferior title StageFright: Aquarius in the U.S. and UK) opens with the kind of "look at me!" gesture that many a more seasoned director would have feared, and it only gets progressively more apoplectic over the course of the first scene. There is, over black, the sound of a singularly pissed-off cat yowling; then there is a tracking shot of a woman's feet, in fuck-me high heels. Literally, since she turns out to be a prostitute. She stands there, smoking for a few seconds, and then a pair of strong hands pull her, screaming, into an alley - the victim staring right into the camera as she vanishes into the black. Already, this is a combination of heightened sound (the cat, the clop of footsteps) and imagery (walking feet, direct address to the camera) that's more than a little disorienting, as as overwhelmingly Italian as the opening scene to a horror movie ever has been. It's just warming up. (Warning: The next two paragraphs spoil the best part of the movie, but it is the opening scene, so...)

As a quintessentially '80s beat picks up on the soundtrack, the woman's screams rouse the neighborhood, and a cluster of people run in - more close-ups and tracking shots of feet (I am shocked that Quentin Tarantino doesn't talk abou this movie all the damn time), and the dead hooker is found. A crowd gathers around her, staring, and then a Something vaults from the alley over their heads: a muscular man in black with a giant owl head. The music crescendos and the owl-beast begins to dance, violently and aggressively, and the crowd begins to dance against him. This is the moment at which I paused the movie so that I could scrape my brains off the wall behind me.

It turns out pretty quickly that Mr. Owl and the hooker and all are part of a modernist dance piece but lets linger in the moment. Even with the alternate title StageFright, there's no reason whatsoever to doubt the film's veracity in presenting a city street that looks fake, but no more fake than any given cheap Italian horror picture. When the dancing starts, we have absolutely not a scrap of preparation for it, so for a brief second, we are plunged right into the richest, sweetest disorientation imaginable. And thus does Michele Soavi begin his career: with a full-on assault against the audience's sense of balance, and some of the most cunning manipulation of cinematic veracity - our assumption that if we see something onscreen, it must be valid - that I think I've ever witnessed.

In a nutshell, this very strange performance piece is the brainchild of Peter (David Brandon), a real sonofabitch director whose treatment of his actors would make Alfred Hitchcock stand back and be all, "Dude, chillax". The particular object of his ire at the moment is Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), the actress playing the murdered prostitute - he claims she's not putting enough sex into the moment when she comes back from the dead to rape the owl-beast - and at one lull in the rehearsal she has the temerity to sneak off to get her messed-up foot looked at by a doctor. The problem is, the only nearby hospital happens to be a mental institution, and though Alicia and the wardrobe mistress, Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) manage to talk their way into getting help, the night is only beginning; as it happens, the hospital's star patient, notorious spree killer and former actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), has just murdered his attendants and hitched a ride back to the theater in Betty's car. Which Betty learns to her intense misfortune not much later.

With a dead body on their hands, Peter and moneyman Willy (James Sampson) hit upon a rather morbid bit of inspiration: rework the piece to be about Wallace, rather than some random owl-headed embodiment of violent modernist society, and watch as the crowds can't keep themselves away from the gory spectacle of it all. Just to make extra certain that his cast will play along, despite the fact that all of them hate him as much as he hates them, and also despite the fact that he just fired Alicia (and hurriedly, without apology, rehires her), Peter hides the key. There's nothing to it now but a long night of emergency rehearsing, with plenty of overtime pay, and in a spot of bad luck, it just so happens that Wallace snuck into the theater before the doors were locked. Which means that there are now nine people and one maniac stuck inside an impregnable, underlit building, with two massively detached cops "keeping watch" outside.

What comes after is, broadly, expected: a Ten Little Indians-style removal of Expendable Meat one after another. But StageFright has more up its sleeve than that: for one thing, it pushes through the middle "kill everybody" part of its plot with a speed reminiscent of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, arriving at the Final Girl sequence with about 30 minutes, or one-third of the total running time, left to go. And if that's structurally the most unique thing about the movie, it's hardly the only thing that sets the film apart from the pack as far as slashers in the late-'80s go: indeed StageFright comes perilously close to the film I'd always dreamt of writing myself, never hoping to actually see one with my own eyes, namely the Slasher Film Wherein the Cast is Made Up of Shockingly Well-Defined Adult People, Whose Fates Actively Distress You. As opposed to the infinitely more common Teenage Assholes You Can't Wait To See Die.

I almost can't stand how legitimate the characters are in this movie: the antagonistic other star, Laurel (Mary Sellers), for example, or Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, one of the key faces in '80s Italian horror), who in the English dub anyway (and the English dub, as far as I can make out, is the "right" way to see the movie) is a particularly mincing homosexual, but who gets an actual personality and and characteristics beyond that, which by '80s horror standards makes him one of the most progressive characters in cinema history. Admittedly, in true "Kill All Gays" fashion, he dies first (sort of), but that doesn't even read as punitive; it's because he's the man in the owl mask, and if Wallace is going to stalk around wearing the owl mask, convincing people he's actually Brett, then Brett has to go at the start. And incidentally, the fact that Wallace gets mistaken for Brett leads to one of the film's most ludicrously effective moments, when Peter irritatedly directs the murderer to kill his victim with more convincing brutality, right before the very instant that everyone figures out that shit is getting way too real.

The film is also a magnificent blend of the related, but distinct subgenres of slasher film and giallo; from the former comes its rigid plot structure, from the latter comes its loopy visual sensibility. One cannot call StageFright a giallo with a lot of slasher tones, nor a slasher with unusual stylisation; it is close to being a perfect mixture, right down the middle. This makes it, if anything, more effective the more expectations one brings to the table: for Soavi combines elements in just the right way to subvert anything the viewer brings in (for example, I was truly shocked when it turned out to be as completely straightforward as "the guy we set up at the very start to be the killer is the killer"; a pureblood slasher idea that jars excitingly in the context of a mystery, the default mode for all gialli).

So if the narrative is a slasher, then, the way the film is told is all Italian; besides boasting a milieu undeniably close to Argento's Opera from later in the same year, it has a sensibility that perfectly triangulates silliness, surrealism, and horror, creating something absurd and poetic in the same breath. Most obviously, there's that owl mask, the image from the movie even people who've never heard of StageFright might have seen; with large glass eyes that look uncommonly perceptive, it's creepy on one hand and fucking peculiar on the other, and one never quite gets used to the idea of a giant owl hacking people's heads off with an axe or running after other people with a chainsaw in the way that e.g. Jason Voorhees wearing a hockey very quickly goes from threatening to just a thing that happens, no big deal.

But there are plenty of ethereal, giallo-ish touches: there is a protracted moment near the end that serves exactly no narrative purpose whatsover, in which Wallace sets up his victims in an elaborate theatrical tableaux, as Alicia attempts to steal the key from under his very nose, at which point the theater cat (StageFright is a wantonly anti-cat movie by the way, placing this particular feline in the killer's lap like he was a Bond villain) flicks a switch and starts up the fan that, naturally enough, spreads a storm of white feathers across everything. Once seen, it's not easily forgotten, and it serves literally not point at all but being gorgeous; the very meat and potatoes of the gialli.

Indeed, it's fair to say that StageFright is altogether loopy at points, with all the broken plot points typical of Italian horror, made far more incoherent because of the relatively more realistic slasher tropes driving the plot (relative, that is, only to gialli). Is this frustrating? Doubtlessly, for plenty of people. I found it stunning. If most surreal horror is something like a messy dream, Soavi's debut is something almost better, a film in which dreamlike horror keeps interfering with something almost realistic, from the moment that dance number erupts in a back alley, to the deliberately obnoxious joke ending. It is horror expressed as purely as it can be, not so very frightening, but massively unsettling and chaotic, an exercise in crafting 90 minutes of uncanny sensory overload just for the pure brutal delight in doing it. This is, as such things go, not a terribly "meaningful" horror movie, theme-wise; but oh how very wonderfully it captures the capriciousness of the inexplicable and the psychotic!

4 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

This is great stuff, Tim. You nail perfectly what makes this film so great. I'm glad you spend so much time on the incredibly strange hard-open. Italians are always looking to disorient the viewers senses, and Soavi does it so well with such memorable visuals and such a bizarre opening (especially when that sax riff hits...the first time I saw it I didn't know whether to laugh like, "oh, it's one of THOSE Italian horror films," or check the tape to make sure I had the right movie).

Aside from the famous man-in-the-owl-head visual, Deliria has some other amazing visuals that you aptly describe as seeming to exist simply because Soavi can create them. I'm thinking of course of not just the owl head or the arrangement of bodies on stage (which are my two favorite, ethereal images from the film), but I'm also thinking of Soavi's love for placing creepy mannequins in the frame with the killer and Final Girl. Also, is there anything more nonsensical disorienting than when the character Willy shows up at the end ("right between the eyes!").

As for Soavi, I like what you say about the fact that you can tell, even though it's his first film, that he had the chops of a major horror visionary. There are a lot of moments where you can just why Terry Gilliam thought so highly of Soavi after seeing Deliria at a film festival (Soavi was AD for a few Gilliam films). I'm thinking specifically of that low-shot where we see the killer sitting with the cat in his lap, and we're looking straight up with the key that the Final Girl is so desperately trying to get towering in the forefront of the frame.

It's just one of those bizarre shots (never has a key been filmed in such a way) that announces Soavi's love of Gilliam's gonzo aesthetic as well as the obvious influence from his master, Argento. This isn't as pronounced as it is in The Church or The Sect...and it's definitely not as pronounced as in the incredible gonzo Cemetery Man.

I think what makes Deliria even more impressive is considering the fact that it came out at the absolute nadir of the slasher era. Thank God for the Italians because despite their hack tendencies (I loved your side comment about equating Soavi working for Argento and D'Amato with an American filmmaker working for Hitch and Dennis Duggan), they could always be counted on to at least inject a little life into stale genres. Soavi was obviously a natural talent, though, despite the obvious influences from other filmmakers.

I remember reading an interview with Soavi where he mentioned that he never intended for himself to be seen as the new Argento, he just wanted to be seen as his own visionary who happened to get his start working for Argento. I think he succeeds in convincing people of this with his debut film. That's a damn impressive thing to accomplish with film #1.

Anyway, I'm rambling now. This was outstanding, and even though his other films aren't necessarily better than Deliria, I hope you check them out because they are REALLY interesting messes. Especially The Church, which, despite its flaws, I still find myself coming back to even more than Deliria.

Thanks for this review, Tim!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Er...you made the parallel between Scorsese and Dugan...not Hitch. My bad.

Colin said...

Wait... If the original Italian title is Deliria, and the U.S./U.K. title is Stage Fright: Aquarius, how come the poster says Bloody Bird?

Tim said...

French release title (why it's not Oiseau du sang, I cannot say). And the only other "poster" I could find was the US DVD cover, so I figured, what the hell.