Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this would be a DVD of dessert recipes until he found out it was giallo, not Jell-O.
Five films from "The greatest of the giallo filmmakers."
DVD has been the quintessential blessing and curse for Dario Argento. On the one hand it got his films out of the edited-VHS hell and into the glory of uncut horror. But on the other, many of his films were released on DVD before things like anamorphic transfers became staples. So while many of his films have received good initial treatment on DVD (Suspiria comes to mind), others like Phenomena were released without anamorphic transfers (and subsequently went out of print). Considering how much Argento's reputation has been bolstered by DVD in the last decade, it's fitting that Anchor Bay should re-release these five films in a budget package for those looking to fill out their giallo collection.
Facts of the Case
I was expecting a set similar to the Mario Bava Collection, with the films housed in slimline cases in a cardboard cover. Instead, we get all five films in a classy looking standard-size steelbook with a complex platter scheme to hold all the discs. Housed in the steelbook are five Argento films from the last twenty-five years:
• Tenebre is the story of an American mystery novelist (Anthony Franciosa, The Long, Hot Summer) who comes to Rome. Apparently he's not alone, as a serial killer is using his latest book (also called Tenebre) as the inspiration for a series of grisly murders.
• Phenomena features a young Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a movie star who has a special relationship with insects. Her father sends her to a famous girls' school in Switzerland. Unbeknownst to him (and her), a killer is on the loose offing young women. With the help of a kind entomologist (Donald Pleasence, Halloween), Jennifer will discover more about her gift as she uncovers the killer.
• Trauma is Dario Argento's first full American production, and it stars his daughter Asia as Aura, the anorexic daughter of professional mediums. When her parents are killed for knowing too much about a series of killings, Aura runs away and finds David (Christopher Rydell, For the Boys). Together they hope to track down the killer and understand the killer's motivation.
• The Card Player takes the giallo into the 21st century, as a killer challenges the police in Rome to an Internet poker match. The stakes are the life of a young woman. Police officers Anna (Stefania Rocca, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and John (Liam Cunningham, Dog Soldiers) must use their wits to track the killer down before the laws of chance make them victims as well.
• Do You Like Hitchcock? follows a young film student (Elio Germano, Mary) as he witnesses a murder while spying on his neighbors. He's convinced that the killing was inspired by Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, so he goes around trying to find evidence to prove his theory.
Before we go any further, I should mention that it appears that the latter three films of this package are the exact same as the standalone releases previously issued by Anchor Bay (although the progressive-scan flag on The Card Player seems to have been fixed, at least on my equipment). What's new here is the anamorphic transfers of early releases Tenebre and Phenomena. Unlike some other cash-grabbing studios out there, Anchor Bay has released this box set in conjunction with new standalone DVDs of Tenebre and Phenomena. So if you already own Trauma, The Card Player, and Do You Like Hitchcock?, you won't be forced to buy them again with this set if you just want Tenebre or Phenomena. I think Anchor Bay should be congratulated for this decision. Now on to the films.
Tenebre is a straight-up giallo in the old-school tradition. It may have been filmed in 1982, but it comes straight out of the '70s tradition. We've got all the usual suspects, including a writer for a main character, lots of killer-cam point of view, some crazily over the top kills, and approximately seventy-two twists before all is revealed. I'm no expert in the genre, but this is certainly the most convoluted Italian thriller I've come across, which both helps and hinders the film. It helps because I was constantly going "Did they just do that?" which gave the film a kind of voyeuristic carnival air. It hurt, however, by making the film a little difficult to follow, so I didn't care as much about the characters as I would have liked. For fans of Argento's earlier giallo, this is a must-see.
Coming on the heels of Tenebre, Phenomena is a bit of a left turn because it combines his two strengths, the thriller and the supernatural. By taking a typical "killer at a boarding school" plot and adding the entomological angle, Argento serves up an interesting film that can't quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up. The thriller aspects win out in the end, with a climax that left me grinning from ear to ear at the sheer audacity of it all. The use of macro-photography to capture the insects was interesting to see, and a nice direction for Argento. Jennifer Connelly deserves some praise for her first leading role. She's not perfect, but even in this early film it's possible to see the star she's become. The film screams 1985, from the music to the cinematography, so fans of the era are urged to seek out this film. It's also worth watching just for Donald Pleasence's spotty Scottish accent.
Trauma marks the first time (of four so far) that Argento directed his daughter Asia. This film harkens back to some of his earlier films, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, where a character witnesses something and spends the entire film trying to unravel what they actually saw. Except for a little bit of torpor towards the end, Trauma keeps the kills and the mysteries coming. Argento toned down much of his signature violence for a stab (ha ha) at the American market, and many fans have complained that Trauma suffers because of this. I disagree, as all the other elements (including a wonderful murder weapon) are there. It's far from a perfect Argento film, but I think the flaws make Trauma a more interesting film.
The Card Player is my favorite film in the set. To some I'm sure that sounds like sacrilege, considering there are very few of the typical Argento touches, like crazy camera work and heavy psychology. Instead, we get an above-average thriller, featuring video poker. I think it's my favorite of the bunch because it feels tight and moves quickly, but also has a really interesting premise (something Argento is very good at finding and devising). The dubbing was also a bit better this time out, making the actors and characters more believable, which made it easier to get into the story. It's far from Argento's most stylish work, but I think this one's going to be well-regarded in another decade or so.
Finally, the set is rounded out with the minor genre exercise Do You Like Hitchcock?, made for Italian TV. Since Argento has long been referred to as "The Italian Hitchcock," it was high time he paid tribute to the director. Mixing in plot elements from a number of Hitchcock films (most notably Strangers on a Train) with some distinctly Argento touches (the obsession with lens, voyeurism, and viewing, not to mention the shots of locks in action), Do You Like Hitchcock is less than the sum of its parts. It reads like a great idea on paper, but on the screen it seems like everyone is going through the motions. Seriously, I think CSI did the story better, and although Argento's direction is interesting in places, it can't save a film that should have been about half as long as it is. Diehard fans should seek it out just to keep up with the maestro's work, but others can easily skip this one.
The big deal about this set is the new transfers of Tenebre and Phenomena. To be honest, neither blew me away, but they look darn good. I'm used to Argento's work looking lackluster in the technical department. (I'm guessing due to budget constraints and the fact that his prints probably didn't receive top-flight archiving in the '70s and '80s). However, both Tenebre and Phenomena overcome most of the lost limitations. The source prints are mostly clear of damage, although grain is still a significant issue. The transfers look fine, reproducing the prints well, with no compression issues to be seen. Both Trauma and The Card Player look really good, with no print or transfer problems to speak of. Do You Like Hitchcock? shows its TV origins, with a ratty looking print that didn't do anything for me.
On the sound side, we get 5.1 mixes for every film but Do You Like Hitchcock?, and they do fine with the sources. Music (and especially important part of any Argento film) comes through nicely in all the films. However, the dubbing is pretty obnoxious for most of the films, excepting Trauma and The Card Player. In the other films I often had trouble making out the dialogue, and the mix of dialogue relative to the music didn't help. Subtitles would have been really nice.
With the exception of Do You Like Hitchcock?, this set contains ample extras to delight Argento fans. Each of the other four films contains a commentary. Trauma and The Card Player feature writer Alan Jones, a longtime acquaintance of Argento's. His talks are chatty, informative affairs. There is some quiet here and there, and a little narrating on-screen action, but overall he discusses the history of Argento's work while providing production tidbits. The other commentaries feature Argento and guests being prompted by journalist Loris Curci. These make for frustrating listening, as it's difficult to determine who is speaking, and then the thick Italian accents make it hard to determine what is being said as well. Also, the info isn't terribly screen-specific. I would have preferred interviews augmented by film clips, especially if Dario could have spoken in Italian and been subtitled, as he is on the documentary accompanying The Card Player. Each disc (even Do You Like Hitchcock? also features a "making of" documentary. The earlier four films also contain featurettes on music and special effects. For fans of the films, these discs provide a lot of value.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Argento is an acquired taste. His films are often dreamlike in their atmosphere, not quickly paced like a Hollywood blockbuster. His films, typically violent and gory, also feature the occasional nude shot. If you have trouble with dubbed films, then this is not the set for you.
Also, this is second-tier Argento. Although it's obviously budget-priced for easy purchase, this is not the place for those uninitiated in Argento's world to start. Instead, try The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, or Deep Red. If you enjoy those films, by all means come back to this set to dig deeper into his work.
For those looking to expand their Argento collection beyond the much-loved Suspiria, this is the set is a no-brainer. Featuring excellent (anamorphic) transfers and a boatload of extras, there's nothing that doesn't recommend this set (except, perhaps, for the deadweight of Do You Like Hitchcock?). While none of the films are outright classics, there's enough here to keep many a horror and thriller fan happy.
Dario Argento and Anchor Bay are found not guilty for this set. Direct on, maestro.
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Scales of Justice, Tenebre
Perp Profile, Tenebre
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Tenebre
• Commentary with Director Dario Argento, Composer Claudio Simonetti, and Journalist Loris Curci
Scales of Justice, Phenomena
Perp Profile, Phenomena
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Phenomena
• Commentary with Writer/Director Dario Argento, Special Makeup Effects Artist Sergio Stivletti, Composer Claudio Simonetti, and Journalist Loris Curci
Scales of Justice, Trauma
Perp Profile, Trauma
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Trauma
• "Love, Death, and Trauma"
Scales of Justice, The Card Player
Perp Profile, The Card Player
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, The Card Player
• "Playing with Death"
Scales of Justice, Do You Like Hitchcock?
Perp Profile, Do You Like Hitchcock?
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Do You Like Hitchcock?
• "Do You Like Hitchcock?: Backstage"
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