I skipped a year on my blog as, last year, I dedicated myself to a project of creating audio commentary for Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. The idea was kind of an art project. The movie itself is so well known for supposedly defying logic that I sought to undermine that interpretation with a logical psychological explanation for the film’s plot while, at the same time, my audio commentary itself almost imperceptibly devolved into a kind of irrational, trancelike, decadent, bordering-on-pretentious kind of expressionism of its own. Unfortunately, as it’s very hard keeping anyone’s attention for a rather thick, rapidly delivered spoken word commentary lasting an hour and a half, it was not really a success for the average viewer. I have no idea if it has been taken off the internet due to copyright violation at this point or not. I intend to provide a written revision of that commentary as part of this years’ blog and I’ll link to the streaming version on Youtube if it’s still available.
And so this year I’m returning to the regularly scheduled program of presenting a series of horror movies for my friends to enjoy during the build up to Halloween. I have three rules for selecting films: 1) the films must be available complete and free for streaming on the internet, 2) they must be rare enough that the average horror fan may not have seen them or, in my opinion, strange or underrated in ways that might be dismissed or overlooked by a casual viewer, and 3) of a quality that, in my opinion, makes them stand out amidst the glut of horror movies you’ll find on the internet.
As always, I reserve the right to break my own rules. This year I may disappoint some friends, in fact, as I am posting several movies that may not be considered horror at all. I am fascinated by “horror dramas” and “dark fantasy” this year. These are movies that might not primarily intend to scare, but have subtexts or other qualities that, in my mind, give them honorary placement on the edges of the horror spectrum. If this disappoints my readers, their disappointment may be compensated by the fact that I am trying to be careful this year to only post movies I consider of high quality. Of course I’ll share some sleazy exploitation trash that I find strangely beautiful, but I’ve been much more interested in carefully constructed “art films” lately and my blog will likely reflect that. I have gone so far as to add subtitles to several high quality gems on Youtube and repost them as they have previously been unavailable in English translation. Hopefully my subtitled reposts will stay online long enough for you to enjoy them. My subtitled upload of an excellent Polish horror movie, MEDIUM (1985), has unfortunately already been removed.
On to today’s movie…
EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (1972)
I’m kicking off this year with a fairly overlooked Italian Giallo movie. EYE IN THE LABRYNTH isn’t the most visually inventive of the Giallos, though the New Wave inspired cinematography and editing, not to mention the lemon yellow, spring green, sea blue, and bleached white color template, is actually superb. Watching the camera swoop and zoom poetically from moment to moment one gets the sense that this is what the films of Jesus Franco (the unchallenged king of the expressive camera zoom) would look like if Franco had been more disciplined and accessible with his visual eccentricities. EYE IN THE LABYRINTH moves in both a breezy and precise way that, like a talented dancer, feels like skilled improvisation. It is absolutely visually seductive and the makers of contemporary “shaky cam” movies could learn a thing or two from watching…
However, I’m not posting this film because of its polished look. I am posting it, and love it, for its use of characters and narrative to metaphorically represent psychological states of being. This approach to narrative and characterization is a common feature of Giallo films and, in my opinion, is the primary explanation for why many Giallos don’t seem to make much sense when evaluated based on the expectation of traditional, naturalistic narrative conventions.
Most are familiar with the horror/thriller trope in which all the characters/scenes in a movie actually end up being aspects of the protagonist’s own mind. Sometimes the protagonist is revealed as having Multiple Personality Disorder (whatever it’s called now) or some other perfectly logical explanation is given to queue the viewer into recognizing that everything they’re experiencing is the subjective projections of one mind.
Giallo films, EYE IN THE LABYRINTH included, should be considered as similarly expressing the subjective experience of one mind. However, Giallos don’t always give obvious queues to identify and separate “reality” from metaphorical, dream-like projections of a character’s psychology. In fact, everything that is shown usually also functions as straight, literal narrative. The world of Giallos is an in-between world in which action, characters, and settings are both “real” and a projection of the “unreal” landscapes of neurotic psychological complexes. This is often the trouble with interpretations of films by Dario Argento, the most famous of Giallo directors. I have mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: in an Argento film, when the protagonist breaks a heel and falls while being chased by the murderer, it is not just because this is a trope which superficially adds suspense to the scene. Rather, it is a signal that the “victim” wants to be caught and murdered. It is also a recognition that the audience, while fearing violence, also subconsciously wants the victim to be murdered. At one level this seems like a very basic celebration of our worst human instincts and a glorification of violence that many would consider immoral. However, if one considers that all the characters, as well as the scenario, are aspects of one mind, then the “murderer” and “victim” are, in fact, the same person: they are separated parts of a hidden whole. This gives the subconscious desire for violence between these separated “parts” an entirely different meaning for the characters and the audience. The violence can be considered metaphorically as a side-effect or realization of the “reunification” of an individual psyche.
Sometimes the organizational structures of Freudian psychology underly a giallo film’s conventions, but it is also just as often Jungian psychology that provides the pattern of relationships within which characters in a Giallo interact. Freudian theory, in its original application, has often been accused of being sexist. The same is true of Giallo films. Jungian psychology, on the other hand, made some headway in allowing for a more balanced, even “feminist,” approach of considering the “feminine” as something disconnected from social constructs of gender. Jungian psychology, with its use of “archetypes” to explain aspects of our identity, put forth the idea that we all have “male” and “female” aspects of self.
While Giallo films often depict stereotypical, sexist relationships between men and women, there is often a subtext which suggests that these relationships represent the conflicts and balances of power within one mind that is neither wholly male or female. EYE IN THE LABRYNTH is perhaps the most obvious, carefully designed example of this kind of Jungian (as well as Freudian) subtext at work in a giallo.
So that’s my intellectual reason for loving this movie. I also have visceral and aesthetic reasons. First and foremost, there are beautiful locations: a labyrinth of Brutalist architecture provides the bizarre setting for the introductory murder set-piece, a cavernous 70s cafeteria and strangely cluttered rest stop gift shop makes an appearance, an old Italian town bleached white with angles and uneven paths in every direction brings us further into the mystery, an abandoned building straight out of my own nightmares provides the unforgettable setting for an attempted murder, and a seaside villa half Frank Lloyd Wright and half 1970s elementary school hides the “eye in the labyrinth” itself.
The characters are always fascinating and surprisingly well acted, even in this dubbed version of the film. The tension builds, in part, as a result of the various characters’ eccentric behaviors. For that reason the film reminds me a bit of Roman Polanski’s THE TENANT or ROSEMARY’S BABY.
As in many Giallos, sexual violence and exploitation is central to THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH but, unlike some Giallos, sexism and the relationship of power between the sexes is an overt theme rather than just a subtext. There are no less than three times the lead actress takes off her clothes. Clearly this is meant to satisfy the prurient interests of the prospective audience but, significantly, her nudity is always presented within a context that implies the viewer is immoral…and even violent. Stereotypical “sexual objectification,” whether perpetrated against the protagonist by another character or by the audience itself, always obstructs the protagonist in her path toward realizing her goals (and, for the audience, the climax of the film). At the same time, she seems strangely impervious to these violations of her personal agency. She walks through them as if in a dream…shrugging them off and lending them no power over her. She even willingly submits herself to the care and “protection” of people who are obviously dangerous to her well being. This eventually becomes disturbing for me as a viewer. Rather than minimizing the significance of the sexual violence, it functions to draw attention to the kinds of extreme sexism, and sexual aggression, that some women must navigate, or even take advantage of, as part of their day-to-day lives. It may also serve to emotionally alienate the character from the audience. The more affectless and irrational her response to extreme situations, the more we question her motivations and reliability. At times we question the “realism” of her character and lose all empathy. All this is actually purposeful and is, eventually, resolved (and complicated) by the revelation of the movie’s central riddle.
I don’t want to include spoilers here, but I do want to point out that the ending of this movie is more ambiguous than it may appear to be. As in all the best Giallos, the supposed “explanation” given should be considered skeptically: it does NOT wrap everything up. In the case of EYE IN THE LABYRINTH, the explanation – presented like Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery with rational deduction – is literally unreliable. There is more than meets the eye here (get it?)…and it requires some speculation and a willingness to consider multiple interpretations to fully appreciate the literal and psychological significance of the final act. In one way it could be considered a direct criticism of Freudian theories from a feminist perspective…though it appears to be the exact opposite. I’ll just leave you with that. If you want to discuss it further or have any questions about what I am referring to, we can go into spoilers in the Comments section below…