Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Neighbor (Il Vicino Di Casa) (Dario Argento's "Door Into Darkness" Episode 1) (1973)

So if you don’t know that I’m a Dario Argento fan, let’s throw that card out on the table right now and get it over with: Ever since I first laid eyes on Suspiria back in the mid-nineties, it was true love from that moment on. I now own the majority of his films ranging from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage all the way to Trauma and Sleepless and everything in between- save for some of the ones that really didn’t end up floating my boat, which were only a few. Without going into the details of the how and why – because we could be here all night – for me, the man is fantastic and a true influential innovator when it comes to the horror genre. Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that in the early 1970’s he had done a made-for-television series in Italy. I knew that Lucio Fulci had done his House Of…series – in which I own two entries, The Sweet House of Horrors and The House of Clocks, so of course, I was immediately interested. I wasn’t able to find it for a decent prince over the internet – and by “decent” I mean “a price I was willing to pay” - so I consider myself very lucky to have found it by accident last night at the Fresno Rasputin’s for the low price of $11.99. Without even thinking, I yanked it off the shelf and made a dash for the cash register. Well, actually, I spent about an hour and half with it under my arm before I actually left the store - which always happens when I make a Rasputin’s stop - but I made sure that it went home with me. Mya Communications – who, conversely, released Argento’s own Four Flies on Grey Velvet – is the company that put this out. Solely on the merits of how great of a job they did with FFOGV, I knew that this 2-disc set was going to be just as good. 

With every episode being just under an hour in length, I immediately decided that I would do a separate review for each of the four episodes, as doing them all in one entry here wouldn’t be such a great idea. Most film reviews, especially in this genre and on a blog like this, shouldn’t take more than ten to fifteen minutes to read, if that. Plus, by the time I got home and popped this into the player, it was after midnight and I didn’t have the strength or the energy to sit through the entire set in one night. So I sat back in bed, grabbed a pillow and selected the first episode, “Il Vicino di Casa (The Neighbor)”:

If you’re even thinking of getting your hands on this set, let me immediately warn you that if you’re expecting something digitally re-mastered and fancy, you’re facing major disappointment. According to the opening screen, the original film elements of this series no longer exist leaving Maya no choice but to use old television tapes from RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) and use them as masters. I’m going to be honest and say that normally, I would be just a wee bit frustrated with that but for this series, it works. I will explain why later on. The episode begins with Argento himself hosting the show and giving a little overview of the idea of fear and how differently it affects us. And let me tell you, Sir Dario looks as chilling as he ever did, does, or ever will. It then cuts to the director himself (or his doppelganger) looking into the hood of his car that’s just broken down in the middle of the highway. He is picked up by a young couple, Luca (a very handsome actor by the name of Aldo Reggiani) and Stefania (a beautiful actress named Laura Belli) and their infant son who will become the main characters of this episode.

We cut to the interior of an apartment to an older, spectacled man (Mimmo Palmara) standing in front of a coatrack as his wife, who is bathing, asks him for her bathrobe…more than once. He appears distraught and irritated, to the point to where he slowly takes the belt off the bathrobe and proceeds to the bathroom with the idea now in his head that maybe getting rid of her once in for all will be a good idea. But will he do it?

Luca and Stefania arrive late that night and by a stroke of bad luck, get their car stuck in the sand and are unable to get it out. Frustrated and too tired to do anything else, they come to the lovely beachside apartment building they are moving into and try to find a place to put their son down for the night. After lighting a solitary candle and scoping out their new surroundings, they settle down for the night and watch television together: an airing of Frankenstein that Luca has been looking forward to. As they sit together and bask in the light of the candle – that is slowly burning out – Stefania looks up at the ceiling and sees a huge water spot in the corner of the room, coming from the apartment above them, where the older spectacled man and his now possibly deceased wife reside. Not knowing if the above neighbors know what’s going on with their water pipes, Luca makes his way upstairs to knock on the door and make sure everything is OK. With no answer, he goes back downstairs only to come back later as the water spot grows and grows. Stefania now becomes worried and when Luca buzzes the door with no answer the second time, he takes it upon himself to turn the doorknob, and walks inside.

I’m really torn between telling you the entire story and letting you find out on your own what transpires from this point.  And I’m being serious when I’m telling you that I’m fighting with myself as I write this because from this point on, the tension rises rather quickly, and effectively. Though Argento himself produced the entire series, this episode was directed by fellow italo-director Luigi Cozzi (Contamination) and it looks and feels like he took great notes from the Master himself. It shifts suddenly from a soft expository piece (it takes a while to “get going” because we’re given some time to really get to know the two main characters)  to a semi-claustrophobic piece of terror. And it’s a great piece overall, and I’m surprised that something this terrifying and great was allowed on television back in the 70’ Italy. From the homework I’ve done on this series, it was the first to break the ground rules of how much terror could be shown on Italian television. The entire episode screams of influences from Hitchcock, mirroring Rear Window in many ways (even reminding me of more modern fare such as Disturbia) and director Cozzi manages to transition from tranquility to intensity quickly and almost seamlessly. 

The set pieces are absolutely gorgeous. The apartment building is painted stark white from the inside, totally foreshadowing, in my opinion, the way the color scheme will be for Tenebre. The house and its surroundings remind me of my childhood/teenage summers in Mexico. The doors are simply hinged and lined with wood paneling. I felt like I was back at my grandmother’s again back in the late 80’s. Immediately, I made a connection with the house and how it is deceitfully warm and welcoming. The atmosphere was too familiar for me so you know that the film had me in its grip just with that. The house itself and everything within it can also be seen as symbolism. The apartment is empty when they arrive, just as their new lives are and everything they own is coming later (which will be shown in the episode’s conclusion). The choppy and active sea next to where they live foreshadows the rough terrain they are about to go through - and most importantly, the candle itself that is next to them. It starts off brand new – just like their new lives in the new apartment. Slowly, but surely, it burns shorter and shorter and just as it slowly melts away and dies out, showing just how much time they have left and if you pay attention closely enough, it’s almost like a clock, giving the climax just after its gone out. So when Luca goes back upstairs after realizing that he left his lighter in the bathroom next to what they’ve discovered, all hell quickly breaks loose.

I may just have to post a link here so you can watch this because the final act is fantastic (Update: Only the introduction by Argento to this episode is online). Even for television in the mid-70’s, it packs a wallop and I don’t know how this would even pass today by network standards. I honestly wasn’t expecting much since this was an Italian horror television series – and if you’ve seen Fulci’s The Sweet House of Horrors, you know exactly what I’m referring to – but this was a great surprise and is now going into the ranks of top television horror for me. When the neighbor comes back and finds that Luca was walking around in his apartment, the game changes to a hostage situation which is destined to end in a deadly fashion. But pay close attention, because while Luca and Stefania are bound and held by the villain, and while he’s is out digging up holes in the sand to bury not only the evidence of the crime he’s committed, but Luca and Stefania as well,  there’s a piece of the original puzzle that disappears for a while. And the emotions and terror are so well executed, leaving you so involved in what’s happened to them, that you actually don’t notice that piece of the puzzle is missing. And it’s a very important one because it comes up at the close of the third act…and you completely don’t see it coming, or can you? The final scene is chilling and effectively done in a manner that left me pondering on its ambiguousness. Why did it end the way it did? Was it written that way and why weren’t we able to find out what ultimately transpired? Why was I left to make my own conclusion? Why was there no denouement?? Even 24 hours later, I’m still thinking about it. And that’s what I love about some Italian films, that some end in the most bizarre, sudden and absurd manner that you can’t help but hurl expletives at the television. You toss the remote to one side and swear to yourself that you’ll never lay eyes on one again. Yeah, I say that each time. Yet, here I am.

Get this one if you can locate it. I’m not sure if it’s out of print yet or had a limited print run, but the set has 2 discs with all four episodes and the classic documentary Dario Argento: Master of Horror (also directed by Cozzi), which you already know is essential viewing if you’re even a remote Argento aficionado. I’m glad that the set was not re-mastered and was presented in the manner in which it is. With the lights off, it actually feels like you’re watching it during its first run airing, resembling that you’re watching it secretly in your parent’s living room way after bedtime. And any horror fan my age remembers doing that. You feel cozy, secure and young again. For a little while, it’s 1973 and let me say that I miss the simplicity that some films can bring, especially thrillers like this one. I’ve learned with films such as this that gore is never necessary to achieve a good scare, and let me say that there is not a drop of blood in this film. But it wasn’t needed at all. It is well-deserving of multiple viewings, by far.  

Allow me to conclude by saying that with the film’s closing moments, you will never hear the sound of a baby’s cry the same ever again. Shit. I’ve said too much. 

Godetevi il filmato!