Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cultists know Dario Argento, the Italian horror and suspense director behind such films as Suspiria and Creepers, but hardly anyone else does. He's sometimes compared to an Italian Alfred Hitchcock, but this lofty description isn't quite accurate or fair: Argento is from the wrong generation. Like Brian DePalma, a more apt comparison, he's studied the master's tricks and, recognizing that he'll never top them, knowingly plays with them, frequently underlining the suspense with blood and gore. It's for this reason—along with a general lack of respect for horror films in general, and non-arthouse fare from outside America in particular—that Argento's audience here has remained limited. That's too bad, because in his best films, Argento proves himself a craftsman of the first order, tempering his audaciousness with judicious amounts of wit. Cut dramatically and released here as Unsane, the 1982 film Tenebre provides ample evidence of Argento's talent. Anthony Franciosa (Across 110th Street) stars as an American mystery novelist who, upon traveling to Rome, finds that a series of brutal murders eerily parallel those in his latest novel. Turning gumshoe himself, he begins to unravel the mystery using the tools of his trade. Or does he? Franciosa and John Saxon (as his agent) turn in amusing performances, and Argento makes some points about the intersection of art, reality, and personality, but the director's stunning trademark setpieces, presented here in a fully restored version, provide the real reason to watch. The same can't quite be said of Demons, a 1985 film Argento produced and co-scripted. A huge European hit at the time, the Lamberto Bava-directed film hasn't held up nearly as well as Tenebre. Given free tickets to a mysterious premiere, two girls join an excited audience in a expressionistically styled theater called "Metropol." Once inside, they begin to recognize similarities between the plot of the film, in which mysterious masks turn unwitting people into demons, and some strange goings-on around them. Unfortunately, once that clever premise has been established, Demons has nowhere to go. It owes much too much to Argento pal George Romero's zombie movies, but without enough of the suspense or metaphorical weight. That said, it still has more imagination and style going for it than most horror films, and if the now practically taboo level of gore doesn't remind you that Demons comes from the '80s, the presence of Billy Idol, Scorpions, Go West, and Saxon on the soundtrack certainly will.

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