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Snow dayz

Once again, Mother Nature has conspired to ruin my plans to see not one, not two, but THREE Oscar contenders — “Crazy Heart,” “An Education” and “A Single Man” — on the cheap.

Being all Southern, of course, “2-3 inches of snow” means “viewers, steal food and hoard gas … if you are a senior citizen, get right with Jesus ’cause you will not make it through this storm.” And don’t even think of going to buy milk 10 minutes into The Storm — grocery stores everywhere are out. On account of The Storm, see.

But that thundersnow*, it may be able to take away my movie films now, but it can’t take away my Netflix. I’ve had a chance to catch up on: “The Hurt Locker,” “Bright Star” and “Boyz N the Hood.” Reviews are forthcoming, as is a to-the-death battle for the 2007 Oscar M. Carter is throwing her dukes into (more about that later…).

In the meantime, I’m gonna hunker down and stare all wide-eyed and wonderment-like at this white stuff covering the hood of my car.

That’s all us Deep Southerners can do in A Storm like this.

*I can’t prove it yet, but The Weather Channel totally made up that word.

No. 27: “Halloween” (1978)

“Death has come to your little town, sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.” ~~Dr. Sam Loomis

During his tender, formative years someone in a mask scared John Carpenter witless, I believe, and that experience was the seed that grew into “Halloween,” the little low-budget horror film that became a genre classic. Or maybe Carpenter knew enough about the collective unconscious to know that some disguises — the kind that make human eyes seem like gaping black voids — dig up those feelings we really meant to keep buried forever. Whatever the reason, Carpenter turned that $2 rubber mask into the living, breathing embodiment of the Boogeyman, an iconic figure that still, more than 20 years later, puts a lump in our throats.

Of course, there’s more going on in “Halloween” than a lumbering, hulking escaped mental asylum patient Michael Myers (Tony Moran) stalking and killing teens in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois (though that alone could be the stuff of nightmares). The terrifying beauty of “Halloween” is the way Carpenter constructs his film as a total experience where the sounds and the sights work together. Some of the film’s most effectively scary scenes are the ones where the music and the visuals blend together almost seamlessly. Michael’s escape from the asylum, for example, combines the spare, haunting “Halloween” theme-of-sorts — composed by Carpenter himself — with dark, claustrophobic, rain-drenched footage of free-roaming patients hovering around a car, slipping on and off the hood like ghosts. It’s a brief scene done very simply, but one that threatens to put down roots in our psyche.

“Simplicity,” in fact, functions like the watchword for “Halloween,” from the effects to the props (found or adapted or made on the cheap) to the storyline and characters. The opening scene, with the camera peering out from what appears to be a Halloween mask, leads in with a vicious knife attack that leaves two teens, a boy and a girl, dead. Minutes later the killer is revealed to be Michael Myers (Will Sandin), barely six years old and still dressed in his Halloween costume. Carpenter’s first-person camera work in these crucial first moments offers up a promise of chills, and as the plot progresses “Halloween” does not disappoint. Later Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s psychiatrist, arrives in Haddonfield with news that he’s escaped, headed no doubt back to his hometown to finish what he started. The sheriff (Charles Cyphers) doesn’t believe a 23-year-old could be worth so much trouble; Dr. Loomis knows different. He’s seen the “pure evil” behind Michael’s eyes, and he won’t soon forget it.

Chances are Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) will have years’ worth of therapy material as well, considering her meetings with Michael — and the ones where he lurks the background, unseen — produce some of  the film’s most harrowing moments. Flash to the shot of Michael watching Laurie from a window outside her high school classroom, then another with him lurking behind a bush only to disappear when her friend (Nancy Kyes) tries to confront him. He disappears so quickly she can’t be sure he was there at all, and we start to doubt our eyes, too. There and gone — that’s the genius of these clips. Carpenter stages shot after shot this way, building toward a series of climactic scenes (all best experienced live, not killed with detail) brilliantly shot and framed with that insomnia-inducing music. The film begins and ends with this music for this reason; it’s intended to leave a lasting impression.

The characters also leave an impression, though not because they’re well-rounded or carefully developed; the exact opposite is true. Everyone — even Dr. Loomis and Laurie, the only people we get to know — falls neatly into a type: the promiscuous teen-ager, the good girl, the clueless adult. This lack of definition makes “Halloween” that much more elementally scary because individuality doesn’t matter; Michael Myers, pure evil itself, doesn’t happen to certain people or types but to everyone. In Carpenter’s small, $320,000 film, the Boogeyman is inescapable, and he puts a fear of Michael Myers in us that extends far, far outside the reaches of the screen.

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

The countdown begins…

…only 11 more days until my year-long misery is ended and “Shutter Island” is released!

Since I blabbered on about my excitement here, I’ll spare you a repeat performance and leave you instead with the trailer. Scorcese, don’t fail me now!

No. 26: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

“We have decided how sad it is for others that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
~~Pauline Parker

The story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teens who killed Pauline’s mother with half a brick jammed in a stocking, is too strange not to be true. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson makes it stranger. He brings Borovnia, the elaborate fantasy realm created by unstable friends Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), to alarming life with castles and expressionless, life-size claymation-like creatures. That these two worlds will smash into each other is inevitable; what’s surprising is the way “Heavenly Creatures” makes the collision feel just as shocking as the day it happened.

Jackson’s first few shots are designed to provide a portrait of hyperconservative 1950s Christchurch, then thrust us into the worst of the Parker-Hulme murder. “Heavenly Creatures” opens with idyllic scenes of Christchurch: wildflower-covered hills, whitewashed fences, quaint steeple-topped churches. This is a place where supper’s waiting on the table at 5, where words like “murder” are unthinkable. Abruptly the camera cuts to Pauline and Juliet, their faces covered with blood, screaming. With no context for their distress, Jackson sets a tone of profound unease. As “Heavenly Creatures” continues, the unease gives way to sheer horror as Pauline and Juliet’s obsession with each other grows. The two meet at school: Juliet, bright, pretty and self-confident enough to correct her French teacher’s grammar, is a new student. Pauline, played with spooky glowering intensity by Lysnkey, couldn’t be more different from her classmate. Shy and self-conscious about the scar on her leg caused by bone disease, Pauline exists in her own make-believe world. That makes her immensely attractive to Juliet, who wishes life could be a romance novel. “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” she insists. Listen carefully to how Winslet pitches her voice on this line; she sounds bubbly, but that cheer is tinged with mania, just enough to clue us in this friendship won’t be a beautiful one.

At first, Pauline and Juliet seem like a harmless enough pair, two dreamy teen girls swooning over tenor Mario Lanza and prattling on about Orson Welles. Then they are separated when Juliet has an attack of tuberculosis, and the friendship turns to what looks like romantic obsession. Soon they are so tangled up in each other’s lives that Juliet’s parents (Diana Kent, Simon O’Connor) and Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Pierse) start to wonder if … if what? In 1954 Christchurch, the word “lesbian” has no meaning except to Pauline’s doctor, who views homosexuality as a disease to be cured. Everyone agrees separating Pauline and Juliet is best; Pauline blames her mother alone and sketches a plan for her murder. No one, it seems, can or wants to understand how combustible the girls’ bond has become. But one line in Pauline’s diary says it all: “The next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd … yet how pleasing.” This frenzy has reached a point of no return.

How could two normal girls commit such a crime? There’s no answer, and Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh don’t invent one. (It’s intriguing that Parker and Hulme, after serving five years in prison, went on to lead uneventful lives: Hulme found success writing crime novels under the name Anne Perry, and Parker changed her name and converted to Roman Catholicism.) His focus, Jackson has said, was to provide a humane look at what happened, and he does not demonize the killers; instead, he recreates their friendship and turns the fantasy world in Pauline’s journals into a mythical place using digital effects and actors in green latex suits. The result is striking (this is Peter Jackson) and menacing as the bottomless black eyes of the Borovnian creatures.

The visuals, however, are but part of the reason “Heavenly Creatures” gets under our skin. Lynskey and Winslet, both new to film acting in 1994, are astonishing finds. Winslet heaps on sunny smiles, but they are twitchy and preternaturally wide, like she’s one step away from completely losing control. With her eyes alone Lynskey projects menace beyond her 16 years. When she remarks “it’s a three-act story with a tragic ending,” there’s gravity in those words like you can’t imagine.

No. 25: “Aliens” (1986)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
~~Ripley

Struggling to name a female action hero for the ages? Well, look no further than “Aliens,” James Cameron’s full-throttle follow-up to 1979’s “Alien.” Though Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t the first woman to kick ass and take names, she’s certainly one of the memorable, and maybe one of the best. Cameron wrote Ripley that way, no doubt, but Weaver takes her to another level. She’s not afraid to show the strength alongside the weakness, and she reveals the very real emotional toll of so much violence and stress. In Ripley Sigourney Weaver does more than create a first-rate action hero; she provides “Aliens” with an emotional center potent enough to push this tense sci-fi/action juggernaut from “very good” into “exceptional.” 

Cameron illustrates early on the tremendous faith he’s placed in Weaver’s talent, as “Aliens” opens and closes with Ripley’s image. She is the only survivor of an expedition 57 years before (the plot of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” more a horror film than “Aliens” is), where the crew members of space freighter Nostromo battled hostile aliens on a mystery planet. Ripley awakens from hypersleep inside a salvage ship headed to the same planet, LV-426, to find out why contact’s been lost with the terracolony there. Knowing what she knows, Ripley’s violently opposed to the mission, but agrees on one condition: Burke (a very scummy Paul Reiser), who works for the company that finances the colony, assures her they’ll every last alien. Seeing as he’s a corporate type well schooled in the art of spin, what he really means is he’s positive he can turn those creatures into some mighty effective weapons. The crew, composed of Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton, functioning as the comic relief), trigger-happy Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android, don’t like Burke any more than Ripley does, but a mission is a mission.

When the ship docks on LV-426, “Aliens” kicks into action overdrive. Every last colonist has vanished, seemingly dead, but one child, a girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), has survived. She and Ripley bond out of emotional necessity, and their relationship becomes crucial to Ripley’s character and to the film’s plot. The silence and emptiness is creepy, but not half as creepy as the sense that the aliens are there, hiding in ceilings or lurking in corners. It isn’t long before the crew discovers what Ripley knew all along: that the aliens have taken over, snatching the colonists and using them as hosts for alien eggs. That realization ushers in a veritable explosion of nonstop action, a series of crew/alien battles so unrelentingly tense and savage and frightening that “Aliens” actually becomes difficult to watch. The final half hour is a testament to Cameron’s technical skill as a director. These scenes are all build-up and no release; “Aliens” sucks us in, then slams us, squirming and struggling, to the floor, pins us down and refuses to let up. The alien queen’s final attack on Ripley — an impressive melding of fight choreography and effects — merits recognition as one of the most thrilling action sequences ever filmed.

From a technical standpoint, “Aliens” merits high marks across the board. James Horner’s dynamic musical score moves in unpredictable ways, heightening our unease and providing an excellent backdrop for the action. Visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak ascend to new heights in costuming with their conception of the alien suits worn by stunt artists, gymnasts and dancers. The alien queen, a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and more, is a work of art. Never before has an alien creature appeared so terrifyingly real; never before has what we see on screen surpassed what our imaginations could dream up. In the simplest terms, “Aliens” achieves what we viewers never thought possible.

And somehow, in all the explosions and the machine gun fire and the flames and draining violence, Sigourney Weaver stands out. She’s in the frey and manages to rise above it. Weaver’s Ripley is a testament to something most action films hide: She isn’t a hero because she’s invincible, but because she isn’t.

No. 24: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” ~~Red

Friends and acquaintances periodically ask how I can spend so many waking hours staring at movies on screens large and small. They want to know why I love films so much. When I have trouble forming an answer in words, I direct them to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Frank Darabont’s film says more — and speaks more poignantly — than I ever could on the subject. Put simply, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a motion picture that shows the unique ability of the cinema to transport us into worlds a far cry from our own and show us how we all feel the same pain, fear, determination, rage, hope. “The Shawshank Redemption” speaks to the fragility and the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity to stockpile hope. This is why people see movies.

So much of the film’s power lies in the screenplay, deftly adapted by Darabont from Stephen King’s moving novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” and Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which evokes a very real and chilling desperation that seems to seep into our bones. Darabont takes great pains to preserve the unsentimental but hopeful spirit of King’s story, set in Shawshank Prison in Maine, but he takes some liberties with the plainspoken narrator, Otis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). King originally wrote Red as a 50-ish Irishman, but here Darabont relies on Freeman. Nothing is lost and so much is gained in this translation, for Freeman is an actor who radiates quiet dignity. His Red, “the guy who gets things,” is a cautious observer of prison life more than a participant, and after 30 years he’s done anticipating his release. “One day, when I have a long gray beard and two or three marbles rollin’ around upstairs, they’ll let me out,” he reasons. Red also doesn’t think much of newcomer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover; in fact, he refers to Andy as “that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass.” Only Freeman could take that line and make it as astute as it is funny.

Red, as it turns out, and his cronies — Heywood (William Sadler), Floyd (Brian Libby) and Brooks (James Whitmore), a near-lifer dreading his approaching parole date — figured Andy all wrong. He’s tougher than he looks and he pulls some legendary stunts, like convincing Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), a cruel Bible thumper, to let him drastically expand the prison library, then locking himself in the warden’s office and blasting “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison speakers. Andy also forges a tentative friendship with Red, and their bond changes the shape of their lives: Red can’t pretend he’s still content marking time, and Andy can’t keep choking back the rage the rage his wrongful conviction and the warden’s shady dealings have left him with.

Bringing life to written words (specifically those written by Stephen King) necessitates a strong team of actors, and “The Shawshank Redemption” is not light on talent. Gunton hints at the insecurity behind Warden Norton’s tyrannical behavior, and Clancy Brown is fearsome as Captain Hadley, who delights in brutality and abuse. Darabont hand-picked Freeman for Red, claiming he was the best choice, and he’s right. Red requires a specific elegance, a mix of sardonic wisdom and world-weary humor that Freeman projects without effort. Though Robbins wasn’t the original pick for Andy, it’s impossible to imagine a better one. His role, too, is a delicate balance of simmering emotion, calm and cunning. Freeman deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but Robbins’ performance is the one that sneaks up on us, reminding us that dreams exist even when they’re forced into tiny, cold, walled-up cells.

There’s a moment, in fact, where we can see all this plain on Andy’s face. When he emerges from the hole, he tells Red of his dreams, of living in Mexico where the Pacific has no memory. As he talks, we see he’s not dejected but hopeful. More than that, he’s alive. Inside him is a resolve that the warden and Captain Hadley just can’t break, and there’s something beautiful and immensely uplifting about that.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Internets, you make my heart full today

Total Film has compiled a list of 600 Movie Blogs You Might Have Missed, and Vanessa at The Movie Ness wrote a deservedly joyous post about finding her blog listed there. Proud was I, so I wandered over there myself to have a looksee, and lo and behold! I found M. Carter @ the Movies there, along with so many other splendiferous blogs on my blogroll.

If you’re a blogger, check out Total Film and see if you’re listed on there. If not, go and flit about this movie wonderland.

Review: “Suspiria” (1977)

“Do it big or stay in bed.” Opera producer Larry Kelly said it, but Rome-born director Dario Argento put those words to work. With his remarkable eye for the light and primary colors, Argento elevated the horror genre to new heights in 1977 when he made “Suspiria.” This is an experience that overwhelms the eyes and ears and teases the nerves simultaneously. In many ways “Suspiria” is not so much a film as it is an orchestrated event, an opera of contrasting colors, textures and sounds. This is art for fright’s sake.

Indeed, Argento — who infamously remarked that he’d rather “see a beautiful girl killed than an ugly girl or a man” — intends to give us a spectacle, an exercise in full-on style, and follow through he does. And then some. Rather than slowly building up to the initial murder, Argento rushes headlong into the violence. In the first 15 minutes, he unveils what must be the most grotesque and disturbingly dazzling murder scene* in cinematic history. (At least half the credit must go to Goblin, the Italian rock band that composed the freaky, cacophonous score.) As hard as it is to watch, it’s harder still to turn away — the intensity is faultless; so is the artistry. And everything we need to know is contained in this opening scene: 1) that “Suspiria” is an artistic statement first and a horror film second and 2) that style will never be sacrificed for any reason whatsoever. This is the definition of “high-concept.”

Still, excess isn’t always a bad thing, especially it it’s done well. But too much in one area usually signals lack in another, and if “Suspiria” has one glaring fault it lies in the nonsensical story, ill-conceived and poorly told. Just before the initial murder takes place, American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, the spitting image of a young Jennifer Connelly) arrives in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, home to a world-renowned dance school. Rushing to get out of the downpour, she collides with the soon-to-be-killed Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), who mumbles something about secrets and irises. No need to make sense of that; eventually it will be explained in clunky, whispered conversations that take five minutes to reveal the entire plot. Suzy finds the school to be a little strange, a little creepy, and this bonds her to Sara (Stefania Casini), who believes Pat died because she uncovered a secret about the place involving witchcraft.

The interim between Suzy’s unease at the school and the bombastic conclusion is a veritable playground for Argento, who lets his imagination run amock to great aesthetic effect. The death of the school’s pianist rivals Pat’s death in terms of gore, while another student’s end is torturous and dementedly creative (a decidedly unorthodox warning to all those who believe in “leap before you look”). Beyond this, there are more visual treats. Every shot of the school’s shadowy hallways is punctuated with bursts of blocked color — the bright red drapes, rippled by some mysterious wind, or the eerie blue-purple lightning that cuts through the darkness. Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography contributes to the mood wonderfully in the hall shots, with the camera panning to make them feel cavernous, then tightening to make them seem narrow and claustrophobic. Argento’s fascination with red hues and with light is evident in one of the film’s eeriest scenes, where a red glow backlights a figure sleeping behind a drape. The sense of menace grows as the camera slowly moves in, then pulls back. What beauty and care there are in shots like these.

So there’s no question that “Suspiria,” with its bold color palette, is a class act. Does that excuse the farfetched script, the undeveloped characters, the acting (inexpressive at best, hammy at worst) and the leaden and obvious writing? The character drama lover in this reviewer cries foul at the thought, but in truth “Suspiria” is unsettling and visually stunning enough that the characters are beside the point. Argento wants to shock and awe his way under our skin. By the end of “Suspiria,” I’d say: consider it done.

Grade: B+

*Watch at your own peril.