Giallo January

Giallo January
Image credit: Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), dir. Dario Argento

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of those books I keep coming back to, this time to stimulate my first draft writing gland and get my novel moving again. I’d run aground at twenty thousand words. King’s advice? Write every day and keep going. Thanks, Stephen. Annoyingly, he was right, and I wrote 500 words every day this week. Yay, me.

Even with this blockage removed, and perhaps because the blockage wasn’t there to fixate on, it was a tough week, the hardest emotionally since the pandemic started. This time we know it will be months, not weeks. Outside it’s cold, dark and icy, and I turn forty-eight in March. The life clock is ticking.

To inject some fun into things, I watched Tentacles, a B-movie Jaws ripoff starring John Huston (!), Shelley Winters (!!), Henry Fonda (!!!) and Bo Hopkins (?!). It was much worse than I hoped. Where Piranha had Joe Dante to add some humour and irony, Assonitis is seemingly incompetent. All those great actors wasted. Where did the money come from to make this? I’m glad I watched it though, because I never take a complete punt on a film like this, and now I know what a terrible B-movie looks like.

Clearly a glutton for punishment, I went Thai aquatic horror next with Brian Yuzna’s Amphibious, a.k.a (which I only realised after a completely unnecessary battle axe was hurled at the camera) Amphibious 3D. My eyeballs were still seared from Tentacles, so as poor as the script and acting were, this felt like a banquet of cinema in comparison. The giant sea scorpion was memorable, and the Miskatonic University sticker on marine biologist Skyler Shane’s laptop made me smile. It had an odd tone, like a gory mix of Big Trouble in Little China and Pirates of the Caribbean. I can’t recommend it.

After those two stinkers, and also being primarily a writer of novels, it seems wrong to bring in 2020 Booker shortlisted Real Life here, but that’s how the week unfolded. Like real life, Real Life is impressive but left me frustrated. The book’s protagonist, Wallace, is similar to me in some ways (emotionally damaged, male, scientist) and not in others (he is black and gay). Over an intense weekend, we see his previous experiences and assumptions spark against those of his friends and colleagues. My problem with the book is too many times I felt overwhelmed by, and impatient with, the cattiness, games and histrionics of his friends and peers. Perhaps it’s where I am in my life. I’m glad I’m not in my twenties anymore. Perhaps I’m jealous — he didn’t even want to write a novel and wrote it in five weeks just to get his agent off his back. Damn it, Brandon, at least pretend it was hard.

It is, of course, Giallo January, and like Taylor, Dario Argento is prolific (yes, I see the pattern in my choices here). After Argento’s debut masterpiece The Bird With the Crystal Plumage came out in 1970, he released two more films in 1971 — The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The former is a sprawling crime mystery set in Turin and has a blind ex-journalist join forces with a reporter on a big newspaper to solve the murder of a scientist at a genetic research facility. The latter is more in keeping with Argento’s other work, where a serial killer torments a rock musician and makes him question his sanity. There are red herrings galore, and lots of over-the-top and super-camp side characters, but for me these films are about striking images and what can be done with a moving camera. They both drag a little in places, but more than make up for it in extended bursts of suspense and action.

Argento demonstrates the power of looking and framing what you see. Both Argento and Taylor create impressive works at pace. Yuzna is enthusiastic and professional, even when he must know the problems with his script. Assonitis is ambitious and knows what sells. Let’s funnel energy from these unlikely role models into the week ahead.

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