Archive for December, 2014

Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)

Director: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci. Rene Russo, Stuart Wilson

What better reason to try new things than because we need a break from the norm? Routine is fine, but if we always did the same thing, there would be no room for excitement; no chance for mystery. We would always know every moment of every day in advance from beat to beat. Yet, in some instances, routine is best. In those instances, straying from the norm upsets the natural balance, and therein lies chaos. Movies, and reviews of movies, act in much the same way. Horror movies, especially the franchises of the 1980’s, worked best when they adhered to a specific formula. “Friday the 13th” was the best example. Once the series started to take risks and move away from the elements that made it popular in the first place, the result was a product the fanbase could no longer recognize. In the case of the action series, “Lethal Weapon,” the exact opposite proves to be true. These movies worked best when they were at their most daring. By the time of “Lethal Weapon 3,” the saga of Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtagh (Danny Glover) had slipped into a more “comfortable” formula.

Roger Murtagh is a week away from retirement… but don’t believe it, because there’s still a “Lethal Weapon 4” in his future. He’s even putting the family home up for sale. His wife is adamant that he take care of himself, which of course means that he’ll find his way into trouble on each of his remaining days on the force, especially with a guy like Martin Riggs as his partner. Trouble begins one night with the terroristic demolition of a large building downtown. Murtagh and Riggs were on the scene and were supposed to wait for the bomb squad, but Riggs took it upon himself to cut what ended up being the wrong wire. Busted down to beat cop status, the two happen upon another crime in progress (or is it the other way around?) when an armored car is hijacked. Enlisting the aid of a second armored car’s driver, Murtagh backs up Riggs who manages to detain one of the thieves.

Before the case can go very far, the thief is executed by his boss, ex-LAPD Lieutenant Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson), known for having been a particularly dirty cop who was sadistic when it came to the interrogation of suspects. He’s found a bigger payoff and fewer rules in arms dealing. Luckily for him, Travis just so happens to know where the city’s best supply is: the LAPD storage locker. He and his men are also loading their own personal weapons with armor-piercing bullets, ramping up the danger level. At the same time that Travis is sneaking in to kill his lackey, the LAPD is being paid a visit by Internal Affairs. Riggs and Murtagh meet Sgt. Lorna Cole (Rene Russo) in the elevator. Almost immediately, Lorna and Riggs start butting heads… a clear sign that they’ll wind up in bed together before it’s all over.

Without a doubt, Lorna Cole is the best thing about “Lethal Weapon 3.” Having been raised in a household full of boys, she’s hardly the damsel-in-distress type. She’s as good at knocking the bad guys on their asses as either of our two male heroes. Much to Riggs’ surprise, they share a love of the Three Stooges. In my favorite scene, they also share a certain pride in their battle scars, each playfully trying to one-up the other. Most of the scars Riggs points out are from wounds accumulated during the first two films. Lorna is the cure for the wound in his heart. While Lorna is a terrific new addition, one character lingers unnecessarily. As much as I loved him in “Lethal Weapon 2,” I have no idea what Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) is still doing here. Suddenly, he’s switched professions to that of a real estate agent, which conveniently keeps him around for Riggs and Murtagh to belittle him as they did before. Also convenient is his familiarity with Jack Travis, which nearly gets him killed at an L.A. Kings hockey game. Having Leo around again reminds us of why we liked him before, but it also reminds us of how well he fit into the story of the previous film.

The villain, Jack Travis, is almost as big a problem. As if the cop gone bad storyline weren’t overdone enough, his motives are either unclear or just plain uninspired. Sure, he’s stealing the weapons the LAPD has confiscated and is getting them back on the streets which is diabolical, but what is it all for besides money? Probably nothing, and this time, that’s just not enough. I’ve seen this movie several times, and I’m still not sure I understand how the construction site that figures in the climactic showdown was supposed to fit into everything. Travis is also not a terribly imposing figure, and pales in comparison to the Special Forces unit from “Lethal Weapon” and the South African druglords from “Lethal Weapon 2.”

Still, in spite of the flaws which make this a tepid, ordinary action movie, the chemistry between Gibson and Glover is still solid, and the humor is just as effective, even as the serious tone from the last two chapters which served as a counterbalance has been toned down. It’s also still fun to watch Riggs morph back into crazy Riggs when his life and the lives of those he cares about are threatened. I would have liked for this one to leave me feeling like I hadn’t seen the same story play out many times before. While Riggs and Murtagh have found that they have more to lose than ever before, I can’t help but wish that the filmmakers had taken the same approach.

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Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Director: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Joss Ackland, Derrick O’Connor, Patsy Kensit

If sequels are supposed to be inferior by design, then how does that explain movies like “Lethal Weapon 2”? Coming from one of the most sequel-heavy summers of all-time, where most were just unimaginative retreads of their predecessors, “Lethal Weapon 2” does not fall into the same traps, introducing terrific new characters and proving itself willing to take risks (within reason, as there was still a franchise to think about), managing at different points to be more light-hearted and darker than the first film. Furthermore, it never takes its foot off the gas, and the audience is too excited to be on the ride to care that the plot is quite preposterous.

Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is at a more stable place in his life than he was when we first met him. He’s coming to terms with the death of his wife, Victoria, and has found a friend in his LAPD partner, Roger Murtagh (Danny Glover). Just because he has fun at Roger’s expense doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect the hell out of his friend, as do all of their fellow officers (among them, Jennette Goldstein of “Aliens” fame and Dean Norris from TV’s “Breaking Bad” and “Under the Dome”). At least he’s no longer living on the edge, though his continued willingness to leap into the proverbial burning fire suggests that he could still be pushed to the brink at any given moment.

Having previously thwarted the plans of a drug smuggling ex-Special Forces unit, the latest adversary for the team of Riggs and Murtagh shows up in the form of South Africans protected by diplomatic immunity. These smug, racist pricks laugh as they make illegal shipments of gold krugerrands, trade drugs for a mountain of $1000 bills, and murder police officers who won’t back off as well as employees who either betray or fail them. That any one of these offenses (much less all put together) would not protect them in the real world even in the slightest degree is never meant to enter one’s mind.

Riggs and Murtagh, after failing to make an arrest during the extended chase scene that opens the film, are assigned as the protective detail for a material witness named Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). By sheer coincidence, he had been laundering money for the South Africans, but is now justifiably in fear for his life because he’d been using his gifts for numbers to skim a little off the top of their profits for himself. He figured, incorrectly, that they wouldn’t notice. One of the highlights, if not the best thing about “Lethal Weapon 2,” is Leo. In addition to giving someone for both Riggs and Murtagh to slap down when he’s being a nuisance, Leo also offers hilarious, relatable commentary. Listen to his rant about drive-thru restaurants and tell me you’ve never felt the same way as he does.

During breaks in the gunplay and trading of insults with the South Africans, Riggs takes a further step towards his emotional recovery in pursuing a relationship with the beautiful Rika (Patsy Kensit). Although clearly attracted to him at first sight, Rika is at first reluctant to accept his advances, noticing the wedding band that he still wears. Of course, no relationship comes without certain risks. Rika works as the secretary for Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), leader of the South African consulate and #1 enemy of the LAPD.

It’s so true that action movies can succeed or fail based on the strength of their villains. The case could also be made that the reason why sequels fail to measure up is because their villains are at best a pale imitation by comparison. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan never had a better match than Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio in “Dirty Harry.” No “Die Hard” bad guy could command attention better than Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. These are but a few examples of action movie antagonists whose magic could not be duplicated, yet there are some cases where the second time is the charm. Although Gary Busey and Mitchell Ryan were great counterpoints to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first “Lethal Weapon,” I find that it’s Joss Ackland and Derrick O’Connor who create the slimiest foes which Riggs and Murtagh ever faced. O’Connor plays Vorstedt as a particularly nasty bastard, one who seems to know a bit more about Riggs than he should.

My favorite summer for movies to this day, the Summer of 1989 produced a truckload of sequels amidst its blockbusters; some successful, some not. A few I went to see theatrically, while others I waited to catch onto at a later date. “Lethal Weapon 2” was one of the latter, mainly because I was only seven years old at the time. I can still recall seeing the trailer which, if memory serves, was attached to Tim Burton’s “Batman.” The “Lethal Weapon 2” trailer’s final image of a toilet landing on the hood of a police car is one I never forgot.

Still one of the greatest “potty humor” moments in cinema.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is among that small minority of sequels that either live up to or surpass the original. I don’t know how they did it, but this movie is both more light-hearted and darker than “Lethal Weapon.” There’s a lot more humor, thanks in part to the ingenious creation of the Leo Getz character and to certain running gags like Murtagh’s rapidly disintegrating, formerly brand new car and the suggestive commercial starring Murtagh’s daughter. This sequel also goes to a darker place than previously explored, particularly in the events leading to the final act. It also does a nice job tackling the real-world topic of Apartheid (which only lasted another five years in South Africa). After this, the series faced the same problem as most action series eventually deal with, that surpassing this chapter was likely a futile goal. I enjoy these characters and this story so much that, even if there weren’t a “Lethal Weapon 3” and “4,” I would still feel content knowing that this one is out there.

Lethal Weapon

Director: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan

Barely more than five minutes pass in “Lethal Weapon” before three characters are individually introduced wearing little to no clothes. I’ve seen a lot of commentary about this portion of the film on the Internet, the discussion ranging from “Why not? What’s wrong with that?” to “What’s the point of it all?” I can’t disagree with the former, and I can answer the latter. Each of these three characters, when introduced to us, have in their own way reached a place in their lives where they are at their most vulnerable, where they can no longer hide who they are or how they feel. Hence, they are truly naked.

Amanda Hunsaker, whom we see first, is drugged out of her mind on cocaine, so much so that she thinks she can fly from her high-rise apartment building. The drugs, we later learn, were poisoned with drain cleaner, so poor Amanda would have been dead no matter what. Next, we meet one of the film’s protagonists in L.A.P.D. Sgt. Roger Murtagh (Danny Glover), who is enjoying a nice bath when his family barges into the bathroom with a cake. It’s Roger’s 50th birthday, and he’s considering retirement (emphasis on “considering”). Finally, we meet the other hero character of “Lethal Weapon.” Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a cop like Murtagh, and the two are destined to partner up. Unlike Murtagh, Riggs’ personal life is anything but stable. He’s still grieving for his wife, lost to him in a tragic car crash a couple of years earlier. He walks around the inside of his trailer in the buff, drinking himself silly. Every day, this man thinks about taking his own life. His wild hair reflects his unstable mind. Criminals and fellow cops alike think he’s crazy. The only reason Riggs won’t off himself, he admits, is “the job.” Riggs lives for taking down the bad guys. The main plot of “Lethal Weapon” gives him ample opportunity to do just that.

When Murtagh and Riggs are first paired up, there’s nothing either would rather do besides work together. Someone up there must hate them, they think. Murtagh just wants to get through this assignment alive, fearing that even his unstable new partner might get him killed. Riggs is still in such a bad place emotionally that he walks into the line of fire of a sniper, handcuffs himself to a rooftop jumper, and even dares Murtagh to shoot him during a private discussion. Riggs is also one of the greatest shots in the world. He was lethal during the Vietnam War, of which Murtagh is also a veteran. Riggs was in a U.S. Army Special Forces unit. This comes up because one of the perps they’re tracking down happens to wear the same tattoo as Riggs. That man is named Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), and he’s part of a team which was… and is still… known as “Shadow Company.” These days, they’re drug traffickers, led by Gen. Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan). The revelation of the connection to Special Forces leads both to believe that Amanda’s father, an old army buddy of Murtagh’s, is connected somehow, and that his daughter was murdered to keep him in line. The involvement of Riggs and Murtagh in the case predictably serves to put them on Shadow Company’s radar. Murtagh, being a family man, has much more to lose than Riggs, and eventually a rescue operation becomes necessary.

A lot of buddy cop movies have come and gone, some completely becoming lost in the sands of time. But “Lethal Weapon” lingers on, and a lot of that is thanks to the chemistry created between actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Gibson is especially fun as Riggs. Even as we sympathize with this man’s broken heart and broken spirit, we can’t help waiting to see what kind of stunt he’ll pull next. Only Mel Gibson could have out-crazied Gary Busey. Certainly, with all of Riggs’ shenanigans, the movie could have easily been allowed to slip into farce territory. That’s where Murtagh, who provides the necessary stability to the story, comes in. He may have reached his sixth decade, but Roger’s no wimp either. You know the moment he points his gun and cranes his neck that shit’s about to get real.

As much as what goes on in front of the camera is entertaining, none of it would have the same impact without the personnel behind the lens. There is of course director Richard Donner, who also helmed 1978’s “Superman.” Providing the excellent screenplay is “Iron Man 3” director Shane Black. The beautiful soundtrack, which at times echoes the emotions of its characters just as easily as their appearance does, is provided by Michael Kamen and the one and only Eric Clapton, a true rock n’ roll god if ever there was one. Only one guitar in the world sounds like Clapton’s. Speaking of Michael Kamen, he would go on to do the soundtrack for “Die Hard,” another of the 80’s classic action fiicks. “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” also share in common several secondary actors, most of whom are used as henchmen for the bad guys in both movies.

I can’t speak as to what age is too young to see a movie of this kind (and, to be frank, I think that’s a decision left up to the individual), as it is most definitely a violent movie. That’s insignificant next to it’s status as a pure adrenaline rush, which is exactly what any great action movie is designed to be. There are few films of their kind which carry with them the replay value of a “Lethal Weapon.” No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the partnership of Riggs and Murtagh always feels fresh. This shit’s never going to get too old.

Stakeout (1987)

Director: John Badham

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez, Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, Forest Whitaker, Dan Lauria

Two friends hang around the house with nothing to do and no TV to pass the time. The only entertainment available to them is the attractive woman across the street, whose every move they gleefully spy on, eagerly waiting for something interesting to happen. Every now and then, others come over to trade insults/practical jokes… but usually it’s just the two of them, the telescope, a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. If this was high school, they might be considered pathetic for spending their evenings this way. But this is the adult world, the two friends are cops, and the neighbor they’re drooling over is their current assignment.

After their last case at a fish factory ended with the perp getting away and one of them needing a change of clothes, Seattle detective Chris Lecce (Richard Dreyfuss) and his young partner Bill Reimers (Emilio Estevez) are put on the night shift of a stakeout. The focus of their new task is Maria Maguire (Madeleine Stowe), whose ex-boyfriend Richard Montgomery (Aidan Quinn) is a recently escaped convict. It is anticipated that he’ll come back to Maria’s house because of money stashed away somewhere inside, of which Maria is unaware. Chris and Bill think this job is beneath them, especially when they learn that the FBI intends to take full credit for Montgomery’s capture.

Bill may be a bit of an immature horn dog, but he’s a happily married man who has no intention of doing anything against protocol which might result in his being suspended or fired. This includes fraternizing with an assignment. Chris is a different story. A bit older, but hardly wiser, Chris has not been experiencing wedded bliss as of late. In point of fact, his marital issues are the kind that resort in the wife packing everything up in cardboard boxes and leaving while he’s not home. Lonely and in need of a good lay, Chris decides against his better judgment to get to know the woman, and to let her get to know him without really getting to know him. He poses as a telephone repairman, which is how he had first introduced himself so that he could tap Maria’s phone line, but that facade is quickly tested, and it becomes harder for Chris to shield her from the truth, especially when he bails her brother out of jail and she shows up at the station. What’s he going to say if and when Montgomery finally shows up at her front doorstep?

Though the movie has its share of violent shootouts, “Stakeout” is first and foremost a comedy. One of the movie’s most uproarious sequences comes after Chris and Maria have become intimate. Chris is recalling a nightmare he’s just had, when all of a sudden he realizes that it’s now morning and he can’t be seen at Maria’s house. Unable to say why he has to leave in a rush, Chris dons a disguise, complete with a big pink hat he has borrowed, and leads police on a chase around the neighborhood before managing to sneak back into the steakout house with Bill. Another laugh-out-loud, wink at the audience moment comes when Chris and Bill are sitting around trying to stump one another with trivia questions. Bill comes up with a movie quote: “This was no boating accident!” We, the audience, know that this line comes from “Jaws,” and was in fact spoken by Richard Dreyfuss. Chris is, of course, completely stumped.

Richard Dreyfuss is one of those rare talents who, no matter what role he plays, never once appears to be acting. He is completely believable in an otherwise unbelievable situation as a man constantly battling against adversity in his job and in his love life, yet one who never seems to lose sight of his inner man-child. This may in part be due to his friendship with his partner Bill, who is more responsible and yet has no problem with pulling pranks on his fellow detectives (Forest Whitaker and Dan Lauria). Emilio Estevez’s career is relegated mostly to working behind the camera now, but he was a hot commodity back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, including starring in my all-time favorite movie, the 1985 John Hughes teen comedy “The Breakfast Club.” He’s perfectly suited for a role like Bill. “Stakeout” also represented the first breakout role in the career of actress Madeleine Stowe. She would later make more of a name for herself in films like “The Last of the Mohicans” and “12 Monkeys,” but it was here that she first impressed critics, audiences, and stakeout detectives alike.

Just as 1987 had two vampire flicks vying for superiority, it also unleashed two successful buddy cop pictures. Incredibly, if you look at the box office results from that year, you’ll find that “Stakeout” narrowly outperformed “Lethal Weapon,” which itself was followed by three sequels. The sequel to “Stakeout” didn’t come around until 1993, at a time when actress Madeleine Stowe had become more well-known (i.e. less available) and the world had maybe forgotten about this fun little movie. I didn’t even know of its existence until about a month ago. Funny what a little detective work can bring to light.

P2

Director: Frank Khalfoun

Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley

With most horror movies, I don’t find myself wondering what’s happening inside the mind of the villain, what his motivations are, and so forth. Too many modern remakes make the mistake of taking the originally suspenseful story and altering it so that they can spend a good deal of time showing us exactly what made the killer what he is. So why is it, when an original story like “P2” comes along, that I should be so curious as to what pushed its antagonist into behaving as he does?

The movie begins on the night of Christmas Eve. In Manhattan, New York, a young businesswoman named Angela (Rachel Nichols) is finishing up some late night office work and is preparing to visit her family for the holidays. Unbeknownst to her, however, a sinister plot is underway to make sure she sticks around for a while. When she gets to her car down in the second level parking garage, she finds that it refuses to start. Angela looks for aid from the parking garage attendant named Thomas (Wes Bentley), but his jumper cables have no effect. Somehow this doesn’t sound off any alarms, although at the same time I can appreciate that Angela doesn’t automatically assume that her car has been tampered with. I can even understand how someone who is in as much of a hurry as she is could write off the fact that she can’t seem to unlock the front door to get to her hailed taxi cab as simply having a bad night. But she’d have to have figured something was up around the time that Thomas turned out all the lights in P2 after she returned to ask him to open the front gate of the parking garage. Moments later, Thomas knocks her out with chloroform, changes her out of her coat and work clothes into a lovely white dress and chains her to the table in his office.

When Angela wakes up and discovers her changes in scenery and appearance, Thomas very calmly sets up a Christmas dinner for the both of them to share. His first moment of cruelty (aside from the kidnapping, of course) comes when he forces Angela to call her family and lie to them about why she hasn’t and won’t be showing up. When he decides to take Angela for a ride in his car, she attacks him with a fork as he unchains her. Handcuffing Angela’s hands behind her back, Thomas takes her down to P4 where he has tied to a chair one of her co-workers who, in a drunken stupor, had attempted to force himself upon her in one of the office building’s elevators earlier that same evening. Thomas sees this man as evil for trying to have his way with Angela. For some psychos with a morality complex, beating the man’s face in with a small club would be enough… but not for Thomas. The piece de resistance of this beatdown is using his car to repeatedly ram the man, still tied to the chair, into the wall behind him until his insides are on the outside. When you consider that Alexandre Aja (director of “High Tension” and the 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”) is one of the film’s three screenwriters, you can guess that he probably had the most input into the gory details of this scene.

After witnessing this horrifying display of violence, Angela finally is able to escape Thomas’s custody, albeit still restrained by his handcuffs. She manages to slide her legs past the chain of the cuffs so that her arms can now at least face forward. As Thomas cleans up after himself on P4, Angela runs back to the office on P2 to grab her cell phone and Thomas’s key cards. At the front gate on P1, she finally manages to get a signal on her cell phone and tries to call the authorities, but drops her cell phone through the gate and can’t get to it. With a returning Thomas on the way, Angela runs for the elevator which she locks in place so she can call for help from the panel inside. The voice on the other line, unfortunately, is Thomas. He flushes her out with the aid of a fire hose, and then drops the dead body of the building’s other security guard through the roof of the elevator. Both the body and Angela are thrust into the hallway when the elevator opens up. Angela then proceeds to smash all the nearby surveillance cameras with an axe while Thomas plays “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley over the loudspeakers. He couldn’t have found a more appropriate mood setter if he’d chosen “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Angela returns to Thomas’s office expecting to find him there. Thomas is nowhere to be seen, however he has a video cued up of him molesting her and applying lipstick to her lips as she was lying unconscious earlier on. Her response, obvious though it may be, is to smash the TV with the axe. She lingers in the office for far too long, and Thomas shows up to zap her with a taser and stuff her into the trunk of her non-functional car.

Just then, two police officers show up in response to Angela’s emergency call. Satisfied that they have found nothing incriminating, Thomas allows them to leave instead of kiling them with the axe he has kept close by. As they leave, Angela busts out of her trunk and attempts to catch up to them, but finds Thomas and his Rottweiler waiting for her at the front gate. Chased, Angela manages to kill the dog by stabbing it in the neck with a tire iron. She then enters a rental office to call 911, but is interrupted and forced to drive off in one of the rental cars. A furious chase ensues (with an enraged Thomas following in his own car), ending in a game of chicken which Angela wins, but she winds up flipping her car over soon after. Feigning injury, Angela allows Thomas to get just close enough to stab him in the eye. Stealing Thomas’s taser and keys, Angela finally rids herself of the handcuffs, chaining Thomas to the car instead. She’s quite content to leave him like that until he calls her a not so nice word that begins with “C.” Angela responds by using the taser to ignite the trail of gasoline leading from the car, Hollywood-style. This engulfs a screaming Thomas in flames, but his suffering is short-lived when the car suddenly explodes. Her ordeal finally over, Angela opens the front gate using Thomas’s keys and goes on foot into the freezing cold Manhattan streets.

When this movie originally came out, I watched it strictly for Rachel Nichols, with whom I was familiar at the time for her work in the final season of the American spy series “Alias,” and have since enjoyed her as the lead in the Canadian sci-fi series “Continuum.” That, and I love any horror movie which makes a genuine attempt at creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, which “P2” does quite well. But I also came to appreciate Wes Bentley’s performance as well. As I said, I surprised myself by wondering what circumstances made Thomas who he was. The thought occurred to me that while Thomas is clearly crazy, obsessive and evil, what isn’t quite clear is what had made him this way. Was it the pressures and loneliness of his job? Had he been the type who’d been scorned so often in his youth that he’d become so afraid as to be unable to interact normally with women? Was Thomas the product of a strict, repressive moral upbringing that so emotionally scarred him as to explain his evolution into something of a violent, sexual deviant? Or was he simply born with a few wires crossed? The movie never tells us one way or another, and I find that I like that because I come away with questions to which I can feel free to supply my own answers.

Phenomena (1985)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Donald Pleasence, Patrick Bauchau

Lost in a labyrinth of bewildering twists and turns, you would try to explain your situation, but it would only sound like madness. What you need is a light to show you the way. Sometimes, all it takes to help you get through the maze is the sight of a familiar face. Contrary to what some may believe, the first starring role in the career of actress Jennifer Connelly was not that of a young girl trapped in a “Wizard of Oz”-like fantasy world populated by Jim Henson’s Muppets and lorded over by David Bowie.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), daughter of a popular American film actor, is a new student at the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland. Jennifer has a special talent of her very own: the ability to communicate telepathically with insects. She also has a habit of sleepwalking, and it is the latter that first leads her to witness a murder, and later to find the only person in Switzerland who’ll believe her story, Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). Originally from Scotland, McGregor has been in Switzerland ever since a car accident robbed him of the ability to walk. Like Jennifer, he knows things that, if spoken aloud, would make him sound crazy to other scientists.

Back at the academy, Jennifer is made to undergo an EEG examination, during which fragments of the previous night come back to her, and the discomfort that accompanies these images cause Jennifer to interrupt the procedure. Her roommate, Sophie, who is supposed to be watching over her to make sure she doesn’t sleepwalk again, leaves to go for a night out with a boy. Sophie ends up the killer’s next victim, and Jennifer does indeed sleepwalk during this time. Once outside, a firefly comes to Jennifer and leads her to a maggot-covered glove, presumed to be that of the killer. Instead of being worshipped by her fellow students given their familiarity with her father, Jennifer is taunted when they hear about her supposed connection to insects. She proves it’s no joke by summoning a swarm to surround the school before fainting. Naturally, this must mean that Jennifer is insane and possibly an agent of the Devil, so the plan is to lock her away in a mental hospital. Jennifer has other plans.

Bringing the glove to Professor McGregor’s attention, he tells her of the Great Sarcophagus fly which, because of its attraction to decaying human remains, he says will lead Jennifer to the identity of the killer. In fact, it leads her to the very same house seen by a previous murder victim (played by Dario Argento’s eldest daughter, Fiore) in the film’s opening scene. The house now deserted, Jennifer is chased away by the real estate agent. On the verge of getting close to the truth of this case, Professor McGregor is murdered in his home. Jennifer, unwilling to return to the boarding school, calls her father’s lawyer, hoping that he’ll help her to return to the United States. Alarmed by her phone call, he rings her boarding school chaperon, Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). In what would seem at first to be an act of kindness, Bruckner offers to let Jennifer stay at her far-too-large-for-one-person, totally inconspicuous home. Yeah, buddy… Bruckner is as batshit crazy as they come, but that’s what happens when you’re a former nurse at a mental hospital who got raped by the most monstrous creature in the place and gave birth to to an equally hideous and homicidal abomination.

Of the group of Dario Argento movies I sought out this month, “Phenomena” was the one I was the most eager to see. A large part of that had to do with the presence of actors Donald Pleasence and Jennifer Connelly. Seen either together or separately, they are the most consistently good things about this movie. The plot is the most unique of the Argento films I’ve sampled, mixing the standard murder mystery with science fiction. I had a feeling that the psychic in “Deep Red” was only a trial run. It works much better here, where there’s never any serious attempt at realism. If you’re not a fan of Italian-to-English dubbing, be warned: the dubbing in “Phenomena” is laughable. Usually, I’d be right there with you, but somehow it made this movie even more entertaining.

Equally baffling is the score. Yes, Goblin is back… well, sort of. Only Claudio Simonetti (keyboardist) and Fabio Pignatelli (bassist) return for “Phenomena.” The group has split up, reunited and split up so many times over the years that there are now two different incarnations of Goblin currently performing, one featuring Simonetti and the other with Pignatelli. Joining Goblin on the soundtrack are Simon Boswell, Bill Wyman, Andi Sexgang, Iron Maiden and Motörhead. The result is a decidedly mixed bag. Motörhead and Iron Maiden are more invasive than anything, especially considering the scenes in which they appear: Jennifer’s attempt to escape from Frau Bruckner & the scene where Professor McGregor’s body is being rolled out by stretcher. The latter shouldn’t even have a soundtrack, much less music so loud it drowns everything else out!

Overall, I’d call this my second favorite of the Dario Argento films I’ve seen thus far. Be certain you’re watching the 110-minute cut. I made sure of it because I’d heard nothing good about the US edited version, retitled “Creepers.” Nothing good can possibly come from cutting a half-hour of footage out of a movie. Especially intriguing is seeing how talented Jennifer Connelly was at such a young age. Dario Argento put a lot of faith in the then-14 year old and she pretty much carries this movie all by herself.  I’ve deliberately left out a few early Argento films for later, possibly for the next “31 Screams” marathon in October 2015. Some have proven harder to track down than others. This one was too, but it was worth the challenge of finding it, and the time it took to sit down and watch it.

Inferno (1980)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

Curiosity first drew me to the work of Dario Argento, and it is that same curiosity which keeps me coming back for more. In total spite of that old saying which involves the grim fate of a certain four-legged animal, my curiosity demands that I press on. Dario Argento’s 1980 supernatural thriller “Inferno” is considered a sequel of sorts to “Suspiria,” with which it shares similar characteristics in both style and content. Both movies are based in part on “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas de Quincey. No mention of the plot from “Suspiria” is ever made, and the two films share none of the same characters (although it has been said that the taxi drivers from both films are in fact the same actor, which would not surprise me in the least). It is the connection to Quincey’s work, the concept of “Our Ladies of Sorrow” which is the only real link between the two.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) finding an old book called “The Three Mothers,” written by a man named Varelli. The book tells of three evil sisters (i.e. witches) who dwell in separate homes in Rome, Italy, Freiburg, Germany, and New York, USA. Rose, a New York native, believes that she lives in the domain of one of these evil sisters. She’s right, of course. Following a clue provided by the text, she investigates the cellar. Dropping her apartment keys down a hole in the floor, she discovers a flooded ballroom. Inside, there is at least one rotting corpse floating around. How this ballroom came to be flooded, who the dead person is, and why Rose doesn’t just ask her landlord for a spare set of keys instead of recklessly diving into that hole in the floor are things which are never explained. You’ll find that to be a common theme in this movie.

After this admittedly well-produced sequence, the focus shifts to Rose’s brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome. In class, he attempts to read a letter from his sister, but a female student’s gaze has him distracted. Although she’s never named on-screen, this “music student” is really one of the three evil sisters: Mater Lachrymarum, the most beautiful of the three and, as we’ll discover in a later film (2007’s “The Mother of Tears”), the most powerful as well. She’s already down one sister. Mater Suspiriorum (“Mother of Sighs”), or Helena Markos as we knew her, was vanquished at the end of “Suspiria.”

First on the chopping block is Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), another student in the music class who reads Rose’s letter to Mark after he leaves it behind, and is inspired to seek out a copy of “The Three Mothers” at the library. Someone else there recognizes the book, a mysterious figure who attacks her and sends her racing home. Uncomfortable with the idea of being alone, she asks a neighbor to stay with her. Soon, both are killed. Arriving at the scene too late, Mark sees the “music student” again through the window of a passing taxi cab.

Not long after a phone call with her brother is cut short, Rose dies in another elaborate murder sequence. Having survived for nearly half the film, she’s the “Janet Leigh” of this movie. Unaware of his sister’s fate, Mark travels to New York, where he meets Countess Elise (Daria Nicolodi), a friend of Rose’s, as well as the wheelchair-bound Professor Arnold, his nurse and Carol, the building’s caretaker. Odds are pretty decent that one of the three women will turn out to be Mater Tenebrarum (“Mother of Darkness”), the antagonist of the film. The others will be innocent victims. But what’s up with the guy in the wheelchair?

A bit more dreamlike than some of Dario Argento’s other early films, “Inferno” is also that much more confusing. Its greatest assets are the cinematography and the bait-and-switch it pulls at about the midway point. The way the plot moves in the early-going, you’re led to believe that Rose is meant to be the main character. It’s too bad she wasn’t, because her brother is a poor substitute. I get that Argento was likely trying for an everyman with Mark, but he’s just a little too weak for it to work for me. The ending is also somewhat of a letdown. The set-up to the confrontation with Mater Tenebrarum is good, but the execution once we get there falls a bit flat. Reminds me of the reveal of Donald Pleasance (who, coincidentally, features in Argento’s “Phenomena”) as Blofeld in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice.” Once it’s done, it can’t be undone, and the film suffers for it. I would have also liked to hear another score from Goblin but, alas, that was not to be this time. Argento wanted a more laid back musical composition, and so turned to Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Where “Inferno” may be lacking in other areas, it does make up for it a little bit by being beautifully filmed. Like with “Suspiria,” certain scenes are dressed in reds, blues, greens and yellows. These brilliant colors, like the soundtrack, are more subdued this go-round, but that adds to the disorienting atmosphere the film creates. “Inferno” is by no means a bad movie. You will want to stay with it through to the end. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it won’t kill you. Just don’t go in expecting something on par with “Suspiria” or “Deep Red.”