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“Amer” & “Tenebrae” Double Bill

London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts recently hosted a murderous double bill to celebrate the imminent Blu-Ray release of 2009’s postmodern Giallo homage Amer, directed by real world couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, both of whom were on hand to provide an insightful Q&A session after the screening, alongside a rare projection of the 1982 genre classic Tenebrae, one of the macabre maestro Dario Argento’s finest and most beloved entries to this blood spattered school of mystery and violence. Hosted by Frightfest guru Alan Jones, one of the world’s leading authorities on that Italian sub-genre so beloved of the horror connoisseur, the event illustrated the compelling and competing factors of the Giallo movie, illustrating how it oscillates from the sublime to the ridiculous. Though it may invite a bloody homicide from the rabid fans of the Grand Guignol, one might well assert that the  black-gloved little bastard brother of the slasher pic frequently suffers from some terrible acting, atrocious dialogue and dubbing, ludicrous and illogical plot constructions and almost amateur scenic transitions. These alleged failures are counterpoised, however by some terrific soundtracks, striking expressionist lighting, shrouded atmospherics and in most cases – and let’s be honest, perhaps most importantly – some superbly choreographed and uniquely executed kills. The past masters of the craft – Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino – also inflict a parade of unnerving sexual fetishisations, the psychological drivers for their schizoid assassins, unencumbered by the censorship frameworks and moral qualms of an earlier era that restricted the likes of Whale, Browning or Hitchcock these films revel in an orgy of nudity, sex and violence – as they should.

With that in mind I would recommend Amer only to Giallo enthusiasts. It’s a lovingly crafted, seductively photographed valentine to those murderous tales of the past, but its rejection of simple storytelling essentials – a plot, any tangible characterizations, a discernible narrative that invites identification – will alienate all but the most ardent enthusiasts. The film accelerates its progenitors’ attractive qualities so that the film is little more than a ninety-minute mood piece, symbolically charting the three ages of woman – childhood, adolescence and adulthood – in three distinct acts where the same child, teenager and woman prowls the interiors and grounds of a decrepit, moody Italian château throughout an almost dialogue-free run-time. It is certainly atmospheric and expertly choreographed – the opening section is by far the best with some genuine knuckle-whitening twists and a keen sense of visual panache – but the repetition begins to grate and ultimately frustrate as yet another sequence unfurls in a strange, detached limbo from its precursor. For passing fans this can be quite an intellectual exercise, irritating and visually enthralling, but I’m sure the genuine Giallo aficionados will find it indispensable.

During a compelling Q&A, the directors revealed the tricks of their trade, noting how the film lifted not only from the genre classics (apparently Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was a big influence) but also from the Japanese cycle of pinku movies, with their curious blend of female sexuality and taboo imagery. One of the film’s major accomplishments is its distinctive and eerie sound design, replete with creepy detail work, seeming to compensate for the lack of dialogue. The team factored in an 8 week post-production Foley schedule in addition to the standard ten week editing window. The film was shot in a reputedly haunted villa close to the director’s home town, an apt choice as he knew the location very well from sneaking into the grounds as a youngster with his friends on spooky dares. An exploration of the five senses was the mantra that informed the shaping and storyboarding of the film, and in that sense one has to concur that the film’s execution was superb; the tensing of the audience when that razor is bisected across a victims teeth in a closing movement with its subsequent nails on a blackboard aural reaction of the hardwired audience will probably serve as some of the most uncomfortable few seconds at the cinema this year, and Transformers 3 isn’t out until June. Next up, the duo are raising funds for their superbly titled sophomore follow-up, The Strange Colour of Your Bodies’ Tears.

If you thought it was rare to see a screening of Tenebrae in England, then consider the poor Italians: as the film features Veronica Lario, the wife of Silvio Berlusconi (and her memorably horrific death), it has been censored and forbidden from public screenings since his ascent to power back in 1994. At this event, we got the full unexpurgated version of the film, with the previous cuts restored, as the film was originally neutered after being lumped in with the notorious UK video nasties phenomenon of the early Eighties. The plot is textbook Giallo –  Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is an American horror and mystery author who commences a book tour of Rome to publicise his new shocker Tenebrae, an exercise that coincides with a litany of gruesome murders that appear to be replications of his novels terrible slayings. Accompanied by his literary agent Bullmer (John Saxon, covering the usual English speaking part to help distribute the film in international markets, just as David Hemmings did for Profundo Rosso and Karl Malden in Cat O’ Nine Tails) and his assistant Anne (Argento’s wife Dario Nicolodi, mother of Asia Argento), Peter begins to conduct his own dangerous investigation into the crimes, a foolhardy activity that may result in some lethal consequences.

Most of the fun of seeing Argento’s wicked imagination on screen was the companionship of fellow fans, all of whom laughed along at the inappropriate dialogue, ridiculous developments and hysterical terminations. The film gains a thematic momentum as the bodies stack up and the list of potential suspects are eroded, I personally found the most terrifying aspect of the movie was that almost superhuman Doberman that chases one victim to ground, hurtling effortlessly over fifteen foot chain-link fences; give me some sexually perverted, knife wielding psychopath to combat rather than Cujo’s more dexterous whelp any day of the week. The screening was of a clear and corrected Blu-Ray print which fans will be delighted to hear should be in shops by April courtesy of  Anchor Bay, a re-issue that is accompanied  with an expert commentary from Alan Jones and Kim Newman, recorded in London this week. Deconstructing its parent genre, its director (witness the scene where the author is accosted for his unacceptable misogyny) and its doomed and unfortunate cast with a lacerating precision, Tenebrae remains one of the most beloved and influential Giallo ever made.

John McEntee