Nightfall: Solve the Mystery, Save Your Soul

Cover of NightfallI love it when I come across a great surprise. Stephen Leather’s Nightfall is one of those surprises. In the first book of his Nightingale series, Leather creates his own take on the traditional noir style detective story and introduces us to his protagonist, Jack Nightingale.

Nightingale is a former police negotiator who turned detective after losing a most unusual suicide jumper and being implicated- but not actually charged – in a subsequent unfortunate death connected with the incident. Things are going as well as can be expected until he finds out that everything he thought he knew about himself was wrong. In a few short days, Jack learns that he was adopted at birth, and his real father was a rich, crazy man obsessed with the occult who sold Jack’s soul to a devil. Oh, and payment will be due on his 33rd birthday – which is just three weeks away. As if that isn’t bad enough, as time runs short and he keeps looking for answers, people keep dying around him. What follows is a great detective story laced with murder, the occult, and some very interesting characters.

Jack Nightingale is a great hard-boiled type. A tortured soul who continues to question himself after the last, worst, experience in his former career. Leather uses this inner turmoil and self-doubt well throughout the book as Jack frequently encounters situations where he is informed that he is “going to hell” (other characters mutter it during conversations, he finds it written in blood on a mirror, etc.) – only to immediately be unable to determine if what he has just heard or seen is real. His sanity is continually in question by those around him, and by Jack, himself. His secretary, Jenny, is rich enough to not have to work and joins him in his sometimes dangerous and illegal exploits. Her character functions both as a support for him and a touchstone for the saner, more normal world. But, she never reveals exactly why she’s working for him. It could be that she’s secretly in love with him, but as she refuses to ever directly answer his question and the plot thickens, the reader begins to wonder about her motivation. A variety of other characters are encountered in the book from former colleagues and informants, to millionaire occult book collectors, to the demon that is behind the scenes, manipulating Jack’s fate.

In addition to liking the character and format, there are a lot of visual images that the book provides, which I found extremely well done. I really like the house he inherited – a crumbling, empty mansion, with a hidden basement containing some of the most rare occult books in the world. And, some of the conjuring sessions – with the ouija board and within the chalked out circle – were really good, too.

Overall, there is a nice combination of familiarity and novelty throughout the book as Leather takes a genre that seems familiar at first and works it into his own dark vision. I am looking forward to reading more in this series!

Mommies Dearest: Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy

Posters for the Three Mothers movies

Ever since I first watched Deep Red I’ve been big fan of Dario Argento. I like the giallo genre in general. Something about the blend of elements – the overall style of the films, the mystery/slasher/supernatural, the subtle eroticism, violence, and darkness – works for me. So, over the holidays I decided to watch through the Three Mothers trilogy.

I had seen the first, Suspiria (1977), a couple times before, but watched it again to have it fresh in my mind. I had not watched Inferno (1980) or Mother of Tears (2007), so these were new to me. While there were things that I liked about all of the movies, there were a few things that stood out to me. Most of this probably has to do with the timing of when the movies were made. The first two were only three years apart, but the last didn’t come until 27 years later, which is a really large gap for a movie in a series, and the time between definitely showed.

The history of the Three Mothers story is that there were three powerful witches bent on gaining money and power. They each took up residence in a different city – Freiburg, Germany (the Mother of Sighs); New York City (the Mother of Darkness); Rome, Italy (the Mother of Tears) – and commissioned an architect to build houses for them. There are three signs associated with identifying the houses of the witches: a strange, bittersweet smell, a portrait of the mother housed underground, and a third key to be found underneath your feet.

So, here is what I saw – the first two movies are closely paired with many similarities:

  • lighting – both make use of brightly colored accent lighting in reds, blues, yellows, and greens. This lends a particular feel to the darkness that infiltrates the rest of the films, and enhances the use of stained glass windows that appear throughout both films. In Suspiria stained glass serves as a dramatic way to expose the murder of one of the dancers.

Image of the red hall in Suspiria

  • rainy cab rides – both protagonists arrive at their destinations on dark, rainy nights, after riding with some kind of weird cab drivers.
  • the use of disabled characters – in Suspiria there is a blind pianist and in Inferno there is a book seller suffering from partial paralysis. Both of these characters are victimized.
  • architecture – the architecture in both films creates a gothic element (while not, at least from what I remember from art history class, being technically gothic in design) and lends a brooding feeling. In Suspiria the building is a dance school while in Inferno the building is an apartment building.

Image of hotel from Inferno

  • death by glass – both movies make use of this in different fashion
  • killer animals – cats, rats, bats, and a dog. Both movies have groups of animals that are overtaken by demonic forces and then go on to kill. In both cases, the disabled characters are killed by possessed animals. In Inferno there is quite a bit of animal related violence – cat on rat, man on cat, cat on man, etc.

Suspiria had the advantage of having Jessica Harper (from the Rocky Horror spinoff Shock Treatment) and Joan Bennett (from Dark Shadows), along with Udo Kier (who is actually in Mother of Tears, too). The feel of this film is dark and dreamlike and there are several shocking moments and a death scene that will stay with me forever (death by room filled with snarls of razor wire).

Image of room with wire in Suspiria

Overall, I felt that the quality and feel of Suspiria was superior to Inferno, but I still thought that there were some interesting aspects in this movieFor example, I liked the opening of this movie where in trying to identify the odd odor surrounding her apartment building the girl explores a bit underground, and drops her keys in a sort of puddle that turns out to be an opening to an underground room that has been flooded. In this room we see evidence of the portrait of the Mother of Darkness. Additionally, I liked that there was an unpredictable nature to who the actual protagonist was – the focal point changes throughout in an interesting way.

Mother of Tears differs greatly from the others in that none of the similarities of the first two appear. (We don’t see the extreme colored backlighting, death of disabled characters by possessed animals, etc.) The plotting in this movie is more well defined, but there is also an extreme focus on violence – whereas the first two films see violence visited on individuals in secluded locations, in this film demons possess the general populace creating havoc in the city. There are also roving bands of witches that are gathering for the “rise” of the Mother of Tears. The building in this movie – rather than being actively inhabited and working as the main setting for the film – appears to have fallen into disuse, except for some homeless people sheltering in the basements. Our protagonist has the benefit of her mother’s ghost as a guide and she has some of her own, white witchcraft to call upon to help her. There are a lot of interesting “surprise!” moments – like surprise – demons!, and surprise – baby murder! The deaths in this movie are more extreme as is the sexualization. I think the most amusing part of this movie, to me anyway, was what I have deemed the “red half-shirt of power” – a relic garment that apparently bestows power upon the Mother of Tears when she puts it on.

Image of the Mother in Mother of Tears

So, basically, this last movie has more plot – but also more gore, and gross-out factor. Oh, and only one, solitary possessed monkey.

Overall, I wish, that the third had stuck more closely to the format of the first two – to me, they were more along the lines of traditional giallo, whereas the last branched out more into horror. I did, however, enjoy watching these three movies so close together.