Sunday, April 29, 2012

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) dir. Terence Fisher

Logline: Baron Frankenstein returns as a benevolent freeloader working on the transference of souls. His first successful experiment places the soul of an executed man into the body of his female lover. Gender-bending mayhem ensues.

Note: This entry is the opening section of a much larger paper on sex, gender, and the female Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Therefore, it's not the usual type of analysis I do here (it also necessarily eschews much of the film), but I think it's fine enough reading nonetheless.

Of the sundry adaptations and reinterpretations of the Frankenstein myth, one of those most deserving of feminist critical evaluation is the 1967 British film Frankenstein Created Woman. Produced by the renowned Hammer Film Productions and directed by Terence Fisher, Frankenstein Created Woman is the fourth Frankenstein film of the seven that Hammer would create between 1957 and 1974, and—significantly—the only to feature a female Creature. This Creature, named Christina (played by Susan Denberg), is an intriguing and ambiguous figure, simultaneously monstrous and sympathetic (much like Shelley’s own Creature). For the film’s first hour, Christina is not yet the product of the experimentation by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), but a hideously scarred and disfigured young woman, the daughter of an innkeeper, working at the inn that they maintain together somewhere in 19th century Europe (probably Switzerland). In her naturally scarred and disfigured state (although we are not given the cause of her deformities, we are informed that they were present from birth), Christina presents a sort of monstrous corporeality that others find repellent. Tellingly, a group of three foppish Dandies, who represent the film’s materialization of institutionalized culture, cruelly torment her with teases and insults concerning her natural visage. Although her appearance is the product of natural processes, the manufactured society that the Dandies represent will not accept her: Christina does not adequately fit the role of what a “natural” woman should look like. Instead, she is the result of actual nature at work, with all of its inconsistencies and abnormalities. Nor does Christina act as society would have her. She is loyal to her father out of love, but is not afraid of disobeying his orders. She is sexually liberated, sleeping with the man whom she loves, though they are not married and her father forbids their meeting. Moreover, she makes the tragically autonomous decision to take her own life after her lover has been wrongly executed.

It is at this point in the film’s narrative that Baron Frankenstein’s revivifying, unnatural science steps in to rectify Christina’s unfortunate situation, making of her a “healthy young woman.” Through unknown means, Christina is brought back to life and, more notably, cured of her physical deformities through Frankenstein’s surgical knowledge. She emerges from her bandages as a make-up caked bombshell (a blonde one at that, Frankenstein’s science having also somehow cured her of her naturally auburn hair color). As an aesthetically “natural” member of society, Christina has been robbed of her outsider status and the liberties it afforded her, leaving her permitted to do little more than stay indoors and prepare Frankenstein’s breakfasts. But it is this permutation of Christina, not the one who looks monstrous, that becomes the monster as she embarks on a crusade of vengeance against the three Dandies who wronged her executed lover. Fittingly, she destroys them by first seducing them, turning the more broadly accepted sexual import that has been implanted into her back on society. The Dandies find the artificial woman that Christina has been warped into utterly irresistible, failing to discern that she is the same woman they mercilessly mocked. She murders them all, and—her mission completed—reasserts her own autonomy however fleetingly by again throwing herself off a cliff into a rushing river in order to drown. We plainly see that her enculturation has gone awry: the “natural” woman of society that Frankenstein’s patriarchal science has made of her stands in direct opposition to the true processes of nature (those of Christina’s original body and unrestrained, independent female identity). She becomes a strictly codified and delineated female body, which her true feminine nature rebels against. Unfortunately, she cannot rebel through a refusal to acquiesce to male demands, but only through brutal violence. Christina is a tragic character and Frankenstein Created Woman is a tragic film, one that appears to lament the expectations society places on women, forcing them to act and appear totally against their own natures in order to appear “natural.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

Nightmares Come at Night (1970) dir. Jess Franco

Logline: An exotic dancer moves in with her biggest fan and begins having nightmares that she's murdered someone. All well and good except for the fact that she's waking up with actual blood on her hands. Gasp!

At this point it feels safe to call myself more than a casual admirer of the cinema of Jess Franco. Franco, that excessively prolific Spanish wunderkind, has directed (as of 2012) nearly 200 feature length films, the best of which all fall under his unique brand of erotic horror. His low budget productions are often criticized for their lack of quality control, stylistic flairs, thematic impenetrability, and pandering to exploitation markets. Personally, I feel that any sort of close scrutiny of his corpus would reveal precisely the opposite: Franco is the closest horror cinema has to a poet outside of anyone besides Jean Rollin. Where Franco has the slight advantage of Rollin is in his sheer quantity and breadth of genre exploration (which of course may be part of the problem in re: the general conception of Franco--how can someone who produces so much so quickly possibly be any good? For an answer, look towards Fassbinder), but also in the chasm in-between their respective approaches to filmmaking: Rollin knows he's crafting poetry, while Franco is creating cinematic visions closer to abstract jazz. Some of his best films (A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Eugenie de Sade, Succubus, Venus in Furs) all operate on this basic level of free-wheeling experimentation and improvisation, becoming all the more hypnotic for it. When he's really on the mark, it becomes difficult to look away from a Franco film--his best bewitch and ensnare the viewer with their sensuality and psychoanalytic fervor.

Nightmares Come at Night is not a film produced at those same heights of profundity, but it's an intriguing picture with enough elements to recommend it. Filmed in the same year as Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, Eugenie de Sade, and She Killed in Ecstasy, it is decidedly the lesser entry of the bunch, possessing neither the intense focus or beguiling eccentricities of any of those films. It's not even much of a horror film, though it finds some touchstones in the contemporaneous Italian giallo movement and the wonderful Gaslight-inspired thrillers. What the film does have is a lot of style: a crafty, foreshadowing still frame montage credit sequence; scenes of eroticism filmed in extreme close up, falling out of focus to capture little but entwined limbs; cutaway shots of parrots flapping around; fascinating play with light and shadows; a truly magnificent and eclectic score by Bruno Nicolai; a few all too brief scenes with the late Soledad Miranda, the most entrancing woman ever captured on celluloid. The film's highpoint occurs in flashback, as the nightmare-inflicted protagonist recounts (and we become visually-privy to) her old strip routine at the nightclub she used to work at--it's more than 10 minutes of lazy seduction as she performs what may be the slowest and least active striptease ever captured on film (the majority consists of her laying down, caressing a feather boa, and shaking off a slipper). A scene like this captures our attention not simply because of its titillating content, but because it allows us to become the actual audience referred to, lingering and enjoying the deferral of completion that the voiceover explains. It's a cheeky interlude with an ever cheekier conclusion, and it boils down to a fine mush one of the aspects that makes Franco's films so eminently watchable--they're a knowing tease.

The thematic content is nowhere Franco hasn't been before. We see abusive and destructive dependent relationships leading to betrayal and personal cataclysm, half-baked into a convoluted crime plot about stolen money and murder that, in all honesty, I could hardly make sense of much less follow. Not that it matters much-- Nightmares Come at Night, like most Franco, is an experience rather than a linear narrative: a free-form assemblage of sights and sounds that is as likely to unnerve as excite.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Asphyx (1973) dir. Peter Newbrook

Logline: After the accidental boating deaths of his son and lover, melancholy scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham extends his research into immortality. Aided by his futuristic inventions and his adopted son Giles, he begins documenting, capturing, and containing the ancient Greek spirit known as the "Asphyx"--the ghostly, unseen apparition that leads the dying to the underworld. As long as the Asphyx is contained, Sir Hugo discovers, a person will never die. This known, he desires to ensure such a fate for himself and his loved ones, whatever the cost...

Peter Newbrook's 1973 production The Asphyx (his first and only as a director, after a long career as cinematographer and camera operator in England) is an engrossing variation on the Frankenstein mythos. In this version, we see the doctor and his creation blended into one: Sir Hugo becomes his own experiment in the attempt to halt the progress of death. Such an adjustment leads to all sorts of internal pathos as those two aspects of his character battle it out within him. His ambitions lead him to forcing immortality on his family, and when his attempts come to a disastrous end, he both feels and is responsible for the deaths of his loved ones-- simultaneously embodying the narcissistic creature and the mournful creator (or is it the other ways around?). Putting both Frankenstein and his creature into the same body leads to a fascinating conclusion where, in a parallel with the voluntary sojourn to the Arctic, we find the immortal Sir Hugo retreating into poverty and homelessness over the decades, as Victorian London morphs into that of 1972 and he becomes a grotesque yet invisible part of the setting. We read such self-enforced punishment through solitude even more ambivalently here because of Sir Hugo's crystal-clear status as a tragic hero. And although ostensibly a morality picture, the thematic message is also pleasantly murky. We receive a bit of notice for the perils of technology (hammered home by the film's magnificent closing image of Sir Hugo and his immortal guinea pig being crushed (ineffectually) between two cars in a head-on collision), but also for the perils of ambition (Sir Hugo's daughter, Christina, warns that humans "are merely creatures of God, not God," but this is shortly before she volunteers to be mock-guillotined and made immortal, so, perhaps she's not the finest judge).

More importantly, we notice that the film is clearly not totally condemning technology once we observe how much darn fun it has with it. The period setting is rife with anachronistic equipment, luxuriating in Sir Hugo's many steampunk inventions (moving picture cameras and projectors, light boosters, containment units, plus an electric chair and a gas chamber). These elements are absolutely fascinating to observe. For instance, the initial capture and containment of a guinea pig's Asphyx is the film's most gripping sequence and one that we're glad to find the frame lingering on--it's a bit like what we might imagine a Victorian Ghostbusters would resemble. Also neat is the implication that Sir Hugo's many inventions would have been introduced into our society way back in the nineteenth century (and, consequently, altered science and modern existence quite drastically) if not for his downfall. Of course, this realization adds to another theme reinforced by that final image: the sentient, marching progress of dangerous, destructive technology continues even with the truly irresponsible inventors taken out of the equation.

There's a lot to like here. A strong script is bolstered by inordinately good performances from Robert Stephens and Robert Powell (Stephens especially dominates his many later scenes). Set design is impeccable, with Sir Hugo's inventions taking the crown--almost wouldn't have minded if all the film showed was their inner-workings. Moreover, The Asphyx features a peculiar and unique visual style; in almost all instances (excluding a well-filmed fluid P.O.V. shot), the cinematography treats the action in the same flat and static manner as we often see with filmed stage plays. This isn't necessarily a detriment, as the film uses the style to its advantage, allowing us to gaze undisturbed at all those wonderful mechanisms and enlivened performances.

The Blu-ray from Kino Lorber's Redemption label is very nice looking. The print is clean, detail is high, and movement within the frame adds some nice depth. Audio is quite clear but about as unspectacular as these 70s productions go. Sadly, I discovered only after the fact that the disc contains a composite extended cut of the film with over ten minutes of additional material spliced in from a low quality print source. I'll certainly need to revisit this version at a later date.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jason Goes to Hell (1993) dir. Adam Marcus

Logline: Jason Voorhees is dead. Unfortunately, his double-sized demon heart (almost at nice-Grinch levels!) lives on and is possessing random strangers, making them carry out the normal shenanigans.

Jason Goes to Hell presents certain problems to any fans and admirers of the Friday the 13th franchise, foremost among these being that in no way does it resemble a Friday the 13th film. Gone are the summer camps, teenagers, camp counselors, and creative machete techniques of yore, replaced by body-hopping demon slugs and jokes like the one plastered on a banner in front of Crystal Lake’s most popular diner: “JASON IS DEAD 2 FOR 1 BURGER SALE!” We can note this fundamental shift away from the series’ typical focus as early the film’s first scene: zombified Jason falls victim to the old defenseless-showering-woman-is-in-actuality-a-military-operative-leading-you-into-an-ambush-ploy, and is promptly exploded to bits. This is an unexpected and intentionally humorous turn*, but one that sets us up for what will play as a tonally irresolute slasher. And that’s a problem, too: we can’t even call Jason Goes to Hell a proper slasher. Instead, it’s a comedy horror with fantasy overtones (and we’re talking Masters of the Universe level fantasy here)—it’s an uninspired knockoff of The Hidden with Jason Voorhees bookends.

Reconsidering, perhaps it’s unfair to call the film uninspired; Jason Goes to Hell’s whole M.O. is to introduce new elements into the series. Unfortunately, these sparkly features display little understanding of the appeal of a Friday film and, perhaps more importantly, no sense of where horror films were in the early 90s. Parts of this thing feel so much like a corny magical, supernatural action-adventure from the mid-80s. We’re presented with a sketchy quasi-mythological background for the Voorhees family and Jason’s revivifying powers that doesn’t make a lick of sense (for instance, why does a normal knife turn into a ceremonial dagger upon the moment Jason’s cousin grasps it in order to slay him?). We see things like cheap, orange CG-orbs circling Jason’s body and a cadre of giant sand arms pulling him to hell. Most ludicrous of all: Jason is fully reanimated into his pre-exploded form at the film’s climax by way of the demon slug carrying his soul crawling into the womb of his dead half-sister. One moment we’re watching the demon slug’s frantic P.O.V. journey back to the womb and the next we cut to a fully-grown (and, strangely, burned and zombified) Jason bursting out through the door of a house to attack the survivors. Director Adam Marcus and company not only understand biology, but they incorporate it with class.

Jason Goes to Hell also attempts a bit of ham-fisted satire of early 90s media culture and its eponymous killer’s entrance into the popular canon (after all—and regardless of the rights snafu that left this unbranded as a Friday—the film was marketed on Jason’s name alone). The former is tackled through a rather superfluous side-story concerning the host of an exploitation television news program entitled American Casefile, who plans to stage a story about Jason’s return by stealing a body from the morgue, stashing it in the old Voorhees stead, and catching its reveal on tape. This storyline goes nowhere (the TV host is possessed by Jason-slug immediately after revealing the plan), so it would be a stretch to make much out of it other than “gee, what won’t those media hounds do for ratings?” Slightly more interesting is the latter issue of Jason’s status as a pop culture icon, but even this seems to be only cursorily addressed. That Crystal Lake diner sells hockey mask-shaped Voorhees Burgers and Jason Fingers on the menu, and everyone in the region seems to be (finally) aware of Jason’s mounting body count, but this is by no means a clever critique/rejuvenation of the popular character à la New Nightmare (again, Jason is barely even in this thing). No, what it truly is becomes clear in the film’s final shot, when Freddy Krueger’s glove shoots from the dirt to pull Jason’s abandoned mask underground: a teaser trailer of sorts for another lousy movie to be released ten years hence.

*and it’s not as if humor fits the series poorly—Parts III-V have their own goofily charming moments, while Part VI—the series’ first thoroughbred comedy—in not entirely unsuccessful in that aim.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Play Misty for Me (1971) dir. Clint Eastwood

Logline: Playboy radio deejay Dave Garver wants to retire from his womanizing ways and settle down with his estranged girlfriend. Unfortunately, an obsessed listener is inserting herself into his life in uncomfortable and eventually frightening ways.

Play Misty for Me was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut and the progenitor of the psychotic lover subgenre of thrillers, best typified by Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction. But while the creaky morality (don’t cheat on your wife) and reactionary gender role stereotyping (strong women be crazy) of Fatal Attraction has always sat wrong with me, I was pleasantly surprised to find in Play Misty for Me a more nuanced if still flawed presentation of the situation. The film seems to me more a direct condemnation of Eastwood’s character Dave than a vilification of Evelyn (Jessica Walter), the psychotic lover who plagues him. But, unlike the later Fatal Attraction, this film doesn’t condemn Dave for his initiation of an affair with Evelyn in the first place (unlike Michael Douglas, Dave isn’t married and, in fact, his girlfriend has already left him because of his incessant lapses into temptation), but because of his inaction in all the events following. As Evelyn’s erratic behavior increases and eventually passes into dangerous territory, Dave does little to rectify matters. He instead continually defers the confrontation—he’ll place her in a cab, drive hurriedly away, or—in some early cases—even sleep with her rather than deal realistically with the situation. These deferrals only exacerbate the psychological experience of a clearly damaged Evelyn—she becomes more hysterical when he continues to cave to her demands while clearly investing none of his emotional self in them.

The film’s most striking scene comes after Evelyn’s attempted suicide. She wakes up from a nightmare in Dave’s bed while recovering and asks him to hold her and not let go. Although he’s planned a date with his girlfriend Tobie, Dave silently acquiesces to Evelyn’s desire—he sits with her curled against him, the camera slowly zooming in on his face, chillingly colored with no emotion at all. In this moment, there is not a trace of empathy discernible in Dave—he seems like the sociopath. Yet the scene continues: the extreme zoom transitions to the exact shot but several hours later. The sun has fallen, and as the camera pulls back out we see that Dave’s face has evolved into an expression of disgust and barely-concealed rage. His inaction has not only intensified Evelyn’s behavior but has slowly bottled up his own frustrated feelings. When Dave does perform a genuine action in order to end the relationship, the result of his prior concealment on this action is devastating—the hatred is transmuted into violence, as one punch sends Evelyn crashing through a window and down a cliff face. It’s a horrifying end to the film. We cannot call it a victory or a moment of relief, but a tragedy. The feeling that the situation could have been resolved differently, more pleasantly, pervades. Three quarters of the way through the film, after Evelyn has repeatedly slashed Dave’s housekeeper with a knife in a fit of jealous rage, Dave comments to the police sergeant on the scene—as if the thought had just occurred to him—that “what she really needs is a psychiatrist.” The sergeant’s sardonic reply (“Really?”) mirrors the audience’s own—in Dave we are presented with a character living an entirely internal and selfish existence, unable to anticipate, feel, or respond to the emotional lives of others. We can’t help but wish he were a little quicker on the uptake. In this light, the film's horror derives not from the machinations of a psychotic stalker, but from the complete disconnect we witness between the emotions, intentions, and mutual regard of the two people embroiled in the human relationship at the film's core—a relationship producing little else but madness and violence.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Soul to Take (2011) dir. Wes Craven

Logline: Exactly sixteen years after the Riverton Ripper’s bloody demise, it seems that his evil, stab-happy soul has transferred into the body of one of the seven children born on that day.

My Soul to Take has the distinction of being the other film Wes Craven directed in 2011, coming off a brief hiatus from filmmaking. It also has the distinctions of being widely panned, a flop at the box office, and needlessly post-converted into 3D (a truly baffling move once you’ve actually seen the thing). All these things considered, it’s immediately preferable to that other 2011 venture, Scream IV. While the fourth Scream wasn’t all that bad, it was sadly marred by an over-reliance on some nutty slapstick and farce that detracted from its much stronger satirical aspects (with that one, I left the theater hashing out with a friend all the different ways they could have nailed their themes perfectly, but didn’t. An unfortunate circumstance considering that at times Craven and Co. came so close.) In contrast, My Soul to Take is utterly insane from the word go, so we can’t start to complain when it further devolves into more inspired lunacy. As it stands, it’s probably one of the most successful recent slashers I’ve seen over the last few years, if for no other reason than its giddy oddball status. Make no mistake: this is not a great piece of cinema (nor even a particularly good one), but its shot through with that blatant disregard for common sense and film logic that makes it in some ways reminiscent of a few of the sloppier/more charming 80s offerings and in other ways totally unique. I can’t say I’ve seen another film quite like My Soul to Take, which may or may not be a label of praise.

Allow me to explain. The film’s general tone might be best captured by its opening prologue, which proceeds like so: we overhear a TV news story about a killer dubbed the Riverton Ripper, who has been terrorizing the town of Riverton, shortly before a man building a dollhouse for his daughter trips, face-plants, and, through the discovery of an inscribed knife, realizes that he is the schizophrenic killer. Okay, fine. Then the rest of the prologue plays out close to what seems 8x speed as crazy, inane events pile up on one another and leave us disoriented, confused, and unsure over how to take all this. It’s the same sort of lunacy we find in Scream IV’s final scene but with some added jerky editing and buckets of bloodshed—approximately 25% of which ends in actual death. In fact, the prologue seems predicated on the supposed shock of the villain comically popping back to life (ad nauseam) when such an occurrence is completely unfeasible (see: shot, stabbed, very definitely killed) in order to both taunt and/or wreak more havoc. Yet, funny as it is, it is incredibly difficult to discern whether or not this is all supposed to be taken as a joke. The police and medical staff in these scenes seem genuinely pissed off that this guy won’t keel over and die, as if it were only good manners to do so. Before the movie proper begins, there are a rash of rapid throat slashings, multiple gun shots, stab wounds, and displays of humanity. The prologue ends with an ambulance flipping and exploding. This is the first ten minutes of the film.

The remainder can best be described as “unexpected.” The film shifts its focus to sixteen years later, following a group of teenagers, the drama of their high school lives, and a masked supernatural killer out to stab ‘em all who may or may not be the crazed killer from the prologue. All fairly typical, except that Craven’s screenplay (which he wrote himself, mind you) seems more than a smidgen out of touch with contemporary youth culture (and not only because the main character, Bug, receives a circa-2003 flip phone for his birthday). The dialogue, when serviceable, seems written for a cast of eight-year-olds, while at all other times sounding like it fell from orbit. The flick’s many verbal gems (“You’re a condor; you eat death for breakfast”; “I can’t remember buying you bananas”; “If things get too hot, turn on the prayerconditioning”) make more sense out of context than within. High school politics also seem wildly off-base: the high school is run by a girl named Fang, who is about as intimidating as your little sister and who every day holds a five minute briefing/smoking session with her cronies in the Fangzone (read: girl’s bathroom) where she proceeds to outline the sale of test answers, detail the beatings that will be pummeled out, and micromanage the love lives of said cronies. My Soul to Take also branches out into the avant garde with a classroom presentation performance piece on the California condor (which weighs as much as 350 parrots, we’re told) that ranks among the most memorable scenes of filmmaking insanity that somehow snuck their way into a major studio picture.

All this, plus there are some genuinely competent aspects to the film. While the plotting is daft, the atmosphere is superbly creepy—always stormy and blue-tinged. It’s stuck in that small town suburban setting that drives me wild, where walking through the forests is preferable to taking the roads. The deaths are brutal (if you’re into that), though never well-staged. In fact, the brutality on display is much akin to what we find in Scream IV—which, if you think about the two films in conjunction, sort of deflates some of the commentary that film was making in re: the brutality of modern horror. Such bloodlust is bit more unsettling here—do these dumb but excessively childish teens deserve such wanton cruelty? My Soul to Take never gives us the time to ponder such questions. It’s a ceaselessly entertaining gust of cinematic wind. As weird as it is (and it is very, very weird), it is also clear that My Soul to Take has an internal vision for itself. In the nearly desolate landscape of modern horror, that is nothing but a boon.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) dir. Drew Goddard

Logline: Five attractive young people head to a dusty old cabin in the woods for the weekend. You think you know where this one is headed? Now think of all the other directions it could also head in. Crush. Blend. Stir. Serve.

Cabin in the Woods has put me in a bind: I would love nothing more than to talk at length about it, but—on opening weekend, no less—I feel that overt spoilers should be avoided. Generally, I could care less about spoiling, but as has been widely noted by about everyone, a good amount of fun can be had by letting Cabin in the Woods unfold without bringing too much prior knowledge into it*. However, it is worth mentioning that the film has far more to offer than those initial surprises. This is an intelligently-made modern horror film and a sharp piece of genre criticism. I think what I’ll try to do is write about what the film is talking about without explaining how it accomplishes those critical arguments. There are a couple different ways of reading the film:

One interpretation would have to do with examining the creative process behind formula horror pictures. The film seems less interested in poking fun at these inherent genre conventions than in explaining them (why does the heroine always drop her weapon after using it? Why, because it would ruin the plan). There is some requisite snark here and some commentary on voyeurism**, but mostly I was pleased to find Cabin in the Woods actually celebrating the formula as an art form in itself. Because as un-formulaic as so much of the film is, it is simultaneously purely by-the-numbers—so much of the film’s first section feels (intentionally so) exactly like similar pictures of the past decade, with the major disparity being how charming and well-crafted Cabin in the Woods is and how dull and abrasive so many others are.

Another reading can be looked at only from a wider cultural (or, as the film suggests, global) perspective: horror films represent a 20th-21st century form of religious sacrifice. Horror films fulfill a basic human need for bloodshed in hopes of reasserting a grand moral order. As we grow older and look at the youth of the new generation, we are horrified by the corruption we perceive them instigating (even if the perceptions are wrong, as the film shows, and must be enforced). This is why so many formula bodycount horrors feature the young as protagonists: they are sacrificial lambs on the altar of mass culture. While the film does make use of the fact that these sorts of horror films are created by corporate adults, it doesn’t really explore the other implication: formula horror is a genre marketed predominantly to those same teens who are slaughtered on screen. Perhaps Cabin in the Woods is making the point that formula horror is both a symbolic purging of that nasty, youthful moral corruption and a cautionary preventative (Don’t go into the woods… without condoms)?

Another impressive aspect of the film is how well it manages to chart the various directions formula horror films have taken over the decades. Whedon and Goddard cram in implicit references to almost every horror trend in recent memory (I think the only one it missed was the found footage film, but the inclusion of such might have stretched the meta-reflection to its limits), and all these influences crescendo almost sublimely near the film’s conclusion (there’s one 20-second sequence in particular that deserves frame-by-frame viewing). While postmodern in approach, the film is actually a direct archetypal analysis, and so in that way it’s sort of inimitable and beyond the ken of more straightforward meta-horrors (Scream, Behind the Mask). If it has any sort of legacy to stamp on the horror genre, hopefully it’s the realization that these archetypes, conventions, and formulas do have a sort of cultural significance for us—fittingly, a truly modern horror film can either play with or perfect them. Cabin in the Woods does both.
*TBH, an observant genre cinema fan should probably be able to figure out the broad strokes after the opening credits and first scene.

**One character comments, after a specific revelation, “We’re on a reality show,” which is not entirely incorrect. Like reality shows, horror films of the formulaic variety deal in archetypes whom we want to see perform certain roles. We never get upset when reality show stars fail to act as human beings do, but it often feels ludicrous to some when watching these types of horror films. Others of us know better.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cemetery of Terror (1985) dir. Rubén Galindo Jr.

Logline: A medical psychiatrist’s demon-possessed patient is finally killed… until a bunch of partying teens read some incantations from an old book in a graveyard and bring him back to life (looking no worse for wear). On Halloween night, no less! Haven’t children learned never to play with dead things?

Cemetery of Terror is a breezy Mexican horror production, equal parts Halloween and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and about as fun as that combo sounds (read: quite). It’s sloppy, illogical, a bit confused, but never without a certain sense of the lighthearted spirit of these sort of things. This is a film that features periodic cutaways to identical shots of top-billed star Hugo Stiglitz driving a car while looking extremely concerned and/or drunk just to remind us that he is indeed in this one. It’s a film where one character has an intense struggle with a murderous floating axe, another squints and fails to see for a solid twenty seconds the attacker standing directly in front of him, and yet another curiously eyes a violently shaking door handle before deciding to ignore it. Refusing to accept Cemetery of Terror on its own terms will only leave you bound for disappointment.

The film’s most interesting aspect is its almost total tonal shift in the last 25 minutes. At about that point in the film our initial group of horny “jet set” teenagers have met their respective makers (in quick succession), and so what has been a fairly typical, though breakneck-paced supernatural slasher picture simply halts before veering down a different genre path: the children’s supernatural horror film. We switch our focus from the teens to a group of trick-or-treating children who also decide to make a spooky trip into the cemetery (of Terror). Because the film feels it unnecessary or inappropriate to put these young children in any serious danger, the cemetery starts spewing forth a gaggle of colorful, not-particularly-gruesome zombies to lumber after them, who every few minutes feebly grab a limb or two without serious repercussions (if this were an Italian film, these kids would be fucking dead). This modus operandi is in stark contrast to the gut-ripping attitude of the first half, so might be a turn-off for some (the closest thing to violence that happens here is a tree falling on Stiglitz, almost completely incapacitating him. Full disclosure: it can only be described, being most generous, as a medium-sized shrub. Fullest disclosure: my oatmeal nearly shot out of my nostrils when it happened). Nevertheless, I found this switch-up refreshing—it was interesting to see the children walking through the same house all the teens had been slaughtered in only to find it strangely antiseptic and nonthreatening. The body of one of the teens has been hung up on the wall like a sconce and the group of children fail to notice it as they walk past—it’s a moment that gives the impression that the movie’s two dominant narrative strands exist on entirely different wavelengths, unable to interact.

What else to say? It has a pleasant atmosphere, distinctly autumnal, and is geographically nondescript (is this supposed to be Mexico or the suburban Halloween-ized America it seems to aspire to? Why do these wispy-mustachioed Mexican cops have American flag patches on their uniforms?). I viewed it shortly after waking up in the morning and that hazy, half-conscious state felt like the right one to approach it with. The last note I wrote during my viewing of Cemetery of Terror was “this ending makes no g-d sense.” But, more importantly, the penultimate note reads, “good Halloween fun.” And that it is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Comeback (1978) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: An aging crooner attempts to launch a career comeback by recording a new album while staying in a creaky palatial mansion in the country. But what’s making those noises he keeps hearing in the night? And why is everyone he knows disappearing? And what does any of this have to do with a crazed lunatic in an old woman’s getup?

Pete Walker is fast becoming one of my favorite English horror directors of the 1970s, which is impressive considering I’ve only seen two of the many he produced over the decade (the first being the terrific Frightmare, the most wholesome of cannibal family pictures). But while Frightmare coasts by on its grisly dedication to the domestic grand guignol, it was pleasant to see that The Comeback has subtler charms—the film seems to me predominantly about the ghostly persistence of the memory of lost love (be it romantic or familial).

Because although it is by parts a slasher, a murder mystery, and a Gaslight-plot to drive our protagonist mad, it emerges at its end as a film about ghosts—not those be-sheeted ones that haunt our attics, but those we create for ourselves in the depths of our psyches. Perhaps the central image of this mental state comes near the end of the film. We discover that the kindly housekeepers Mr. and Mrs. B have walled their daughter’s body up in her bedroom after she committed suicide many years before the events of the film. This act creates a sort of mausoleum of memory—Mr. and Mrs. B are driven quite literally mad by the ghost haunting their consciousnesses and so physically recreate it as a tangible haunting inside the house: apparitions, prerecorded sobbing, and all the rest. Similarly, pop heartthrob Nick (a jazzier Bobby Vinton) is haunted by the presence of the wife who he has recently split with. Her actual death at the beginning of the film (unknown to Nick until the conclusion), seems like a logical extension of his mental state concerning her. He can’t bear to return to the penthouse they used to share, and he’s tormented by visions of her decayed corpse in the mansion he’s occupying. When in the final act it is revealed that those apparitions of her corpse were in fact real and staged by the film’s antagonists, it hardly makes a difference: as the startling and masterfully-conceived final shots illuminate, Nick has been a haunted man from the start, regardless of any external assistance. In this light, the film’s title may have dual meanings: not simply Nick’s career revival, but those spirits of memory that he cannot prevent from staging a maddening “comeback” into his consciousness.

This is also an exceedingly well-made film. Look, for instance, at the initial murder of Nick’s wife, Gail—it is fast and furious, with rapid-fire cuts re-presenting the visual information from diverse angles (reminiscent of that little scene in Psycho), preventing us from taking it all in while never losing the sense of the high-velocity brutality taking place. Then watch as the fury dies out and we’re given a static shot of the killer’s feet dejectedly and oh-so-slowly ambling out of frame. It’s something to behold. Also of note is a wonderful long-shot of the mansion's exterior late at night, as Nick runs frantically down a flight of stairs, flicking on lights as he goes and illuminating the windows facing the camera one at a time. The most unsettling and effective stylistic technique occurs throughout the film’s first half, as intermittently we cut from the major action to shots of Gail’s murdered body (each time in an increasing state of decomposition), as if the film is unwilling to let us forget that inciting act of violence through the comfy confines of plot progression—the film literally haunts us through its discursive assembly.

There are some issues and inconsistencies, mostly due to the film’s interest in preserving its murder mystery angle. The red herrings are copious and some of those threads remain unresolved (Nick’s manager Webster is revealed in one scene to be a depressive transvestite, and there seems to be a curious relationship between Nick and his intimidating, perverted, more-than-likely drugged-up old friend Harry), but these are only quibbles. The Comeback is an excellent late-career film from a director who I very much desire to see more from.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Wicker Tree (2011) dir. Robin Hardy

Logline: Two Born Again musical missionaries are invited to turn “the lost people of Scotland” toward Jesus. What they discover when they arrive is that those kilt-rocking rural Scots practice their own brutal, ancient religion, and would love the two songbirds to be the centerpieces of their May Day festivities.

Robin Hardy directed the highly-regarded Pagan horror musical The Wicker Man in 1973, the generally-ignored (but fairly good!) serial killer drama The Fantasist in 1986, and then vanished for twenty-five years, apparently unable or uninterested in directing another feature—a fact probably not aided by the two previous films’ box office failings. Yet here we are in the 2010s and, after a few false production starts, Hardy has completed a new film. The product of those efforts, The Wicker Tree, is a reimagining of the themes and situations informing his 1973 film. Those themes and situations have been updated, reshuffled, and tinkered with, but they’re still recognizably those of The Wicker Man. Unfortunately, Hardy’s filmmaking is not: the film’s medium-grade digital compositions are lensed largely flatly with almost no dynamic camerawork, leaving the film with the general appearance of a lackluster BBC production*. Add to this a Wonderful World of Disney score, peppered with twangy, countrified orchestral tunes, and what we find is a film somewhat lacking in technique. The one major step forward in his filmmaking abilities is his new penchant for making the musical moments more organic to the diegetic world of the film—characters do not simply burst into fully orchestrated song, as they did in The Wicker Man, but can generally be found carrying around a guitar or sitting at a piano. But an adjustment like this makes clear that Hardy is oblivious to the very elements of his earlier film that worked: those left-field musical interludes in The Wicker Man (which, upon first viewing, left me slack-jawed) are part of its inherent appeal.

Also lost in any sense of tone—is it a black comedy? A melodrama? A cult horror thriller? A religious critique? A film that could deftly blend these various tones into one film while defying audience expectations would be great (and it is; it’s called The Wicker Man), but The Wicker Tree cannot seem to clearly utilize any of them. The horror elements are muted to the extent that it’s difficult to even read this as a horror film until the last 25 minutes—when the May Day is underway, what horrific premises we receive are decent, but a little too late to make much difference (plus, the horror is still continually undermined by offbeat jokes). While The Wicker Man has an uneasy, tension-filled build-up, The Wicker Tree is content to have its villains continuously snickering at their gullible victims, cracking crude jokes, and falling just short of comically running their fingers across their throats. It’s these humor elements that commit the most egregious sins: the religious satire is incredibly reductive, and what isn’t satire is simply corny innuendo.

So let’s deal with the satire and the film’s “message.” It’s attacked from two basic angles. In one, it’s laid out in a scene of exposition by the film’s Lord Summerisle proxy, Sir Lachlan Morrison. The town of Tressock is conveniently situated next to a nuclear power plant. This power plant, having some sort of ambiguous “incident,” has contaminated the town’s water supply and rendered the townsfolk infertile. Sir Lachlan, the owner of the power plant, has taken to persuading the townsfolk that it was in fact the goddess Sulis who cursed the town with infertility and only their renewed faith in violent, cannibalistic Celtic rituals will reverse these effects (the town being apparently incurious as to the effects of having a poorly-managed nuclear plant in their backyard). The second angle of the satire arises in the general cluelessness, blind faith, and spiritual hollowness of the film’s Born Again protagonists (Beth, who looks like Britney Spears but with the career trajectory of Katy Perry played in reverse, and Steve, a thick, hunky cowpoke). When we reach the film’s conclusion and see whom is punished for their transgressions, that satirical message shines through brightly: it is barbarous to utilize religion—be it Christian or Pagan—for selfish, personal ends, especially when indoctrinating others. A conclusion such as this is simply too pat and frankly too moral. A measure of religious ambiguity introduced nearly right before the credits roll doesn’t soften or complicate this cut-and-dry thesis. It’s not that this is a notion wholly undeserving of being included or explored (though “nuclear power/capitalism = cannibalistic” probably is), but the entire film is left to hang on it, which is simply weak, simplistic thematic structuring. What’s being left to consider? In the wrong hands, religion is manipulative and empty, says The Wicker Tree. O rly?

I hate to keep looping back to discussion of The Wicker Man (because the last thing I would have wanted this film to be was a total retread of that film), but compare the resolutions we must: In The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle and Sergeant Howie use their religious beliefs to support their boorish and malevolent behavior. When their clash of wills comes to a head, we’re not presented with a definitive statement—neither man is condemned outright, nor is one deemed correct and the other mistaken**. Instead, we’re forced to absorb some ambiguity and stare deep into the horrifying result that their struggle has produced. It’s one of the most profound and unsettling endings in horror cinema. Conversely, The Wicker Tree ends with a visual joke involving a vacuum cleaner. Case closed.

*Occasionally, as in the case of Wicker Man villain Christopher Lee’s twenty-second cameo, it looks even worse. This scene, filmed with a painfully-hazy green screen, is rather more upsetting than shoddy: age has taken a decided toll on Lee in the interval between his performance here and the relatively limber turns he took in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars prequel trilogies. He was initially cast in the Sir Lachlan Morrison role, but watching these brief moments makes it depressingly easy to understand why plans changed.

**A recent film that deals with similar issues and conflicts to a much more successful degree is (surprisingly) Kevin Smith’s equally tonally-challenged genre mashup Red State. It reaches Wicker Man-levels of contemplation at its crescendo before also falling victim to a gag and a message (a couple, actually). Regardless, it’s a competently made film that nearly succeeds in blending its diverse tones—and I think it contains the seeds that, if present and allowed to blossom, could have made The Wicker Tree work.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Galaxy of Terror (1981) dir. Bruce D. Clark

Logline: A hand-picked team of space pilots is sent to the bleak, alien planet Morganthus to try and discover whatever became of the last team sent there. Guess what happens.

It would be quick and easy to label the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror a dollar menu Alien and leave it at that, but such a pigeonholing would be discounting the fact that Ridley Scott left out his own rape-by-giant-space-maggot scene. Thankfully Corman and director Bruce D. Clark have us covered.

Closer to the truth is that Galaxy of Terror pilfers the core concept from Alien—a bodycount picture in space—and dashes light-speed ahead with it. And in consideration of pure, guttural, goopy entertainment, this flick probably has the prissier Alien beat. The film is more-or-less a loosely tied assemblage of FX shots, all of which earn a gasp of disbelief or (at the very least) a chuckle. And despite its clearly low-budget origins and early 80s pedigree, Galaxy of Terror rarely looks bad (though some effects could have benefitted from never being conceived of in the first place. See: the supernova head of The Master, the rapid growth of the space maggot). It has a solid cast of b-movie actors at hand (early turns by Robert Englund, Grace Zabriskie, and Sid Haig), and fair set design for the alien planet and the spaceship’s interior (so fair that a few of its sets would be re-used the next year in Corman’s Forbidden World. Why waste?)

But do not mistake my tempering as a thorough endorsement, because this is a real piece of trash we’re talking about (some of us, sad to say, do enjoy the trash). The plot could fit on a post-it note and contains about as many inconsistencies as you can imagine such a scarcity of inspiration would produce. In fact, as the film played out, my list of notes turned mostly to questions dubious of the film’s many conceits. The quasi-Eastern mystical aspects that show up both early and late in the film seem at odds with the Federation-esque comportment of the rest, making it difficult to imagine what the society we’re dealing with actually looks like. The organizing principle (a game planet that materializes your deepest fears) is also open for question when we see what ends up killing these hapless folks. Dameia, the technical officer, expresses her dislike for worms a few scenes before being raped* by the giant space maggot (which is not exactly the same thing as a worm, by the way). A dislike is equivalent to a deepest fear on this tricky planet? I dislike many things, but I doubt the planet would choose to dispatch of me by forcing me to clean bathrooms. Add to this the fact that some of the deaths are downright vague (I cannot even begin to figure out how the captain ends up a charred corpse simply by walking into the airlock of her planet-side ship. Have I somehow neglected this very important part of airlock science?), and we’re left with one inconsistent celluloid beast.

What carries us through is a sense of reckless abandon: this is a film where the characters incinerate everything—even each other—with laser guns because the alternative is talking, which would only slow the proceedings down. Where else will you see a film that has its characters set aflame, brain-sucked, leeched, and squeezed to explosion by tentacle thingies? Or one that features Robert Englund miming the mirror scene from Duck Soup with his doppelganger and a mostly-silent Sig Haig running about hurling three-pronged throwing crystals at everything within range? That sort of film, if you embrace it, can be a lot of fun.

The Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, under their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics label, is an ample release. The film hasn’t been commercially available since the days of VHS and Laserdisc, and it makes a fine showing in high definition. While the image is overly soft at times (especially when the crew is on the planet’s surface and some distracting lighting is provided by bright bulbs attached to everyone’s backpacks), this doesn’t seem to be a flaw of the transfer but inherent in the film itself. Otherwise it’s a crisp and impressive-looking print for a thirty-year-old film. There’s also an informative array of extras, as is usual with Shout! Factory’s Blu releases.

*To death? To unconsciousness? Difficult to say for sure, but it hardly seems to matter as her crewmates incinerate her as soon as they stumble across her naked, slime-covered body. This scene is easily the film’s most infamous, but also one mostly undeserving of overly-thoughtful analysis. It’s a brief, tasteless, and sticky affair intended to titillate (and if your penchant is for thrusting space maggots, you won’t be disappointed). It’s easy to throw a blanket condemnation down on particularly superfluous sexualized violence like this, but doing so would shun a good majority of exploitation cinema. Still, this one’s particularly without tact or function. Perhaps the only aspect worth commenting upon is the scene’s Straw Dogs-like reversal of the victim’s position: as the attack progresses, her screams very clearly turn into those of pleasure. While this revelation isn’t in service of the story as it is in Straw Dogs, it does leave us with some curious after effects. After all, the initial confusion at the start of this paragraph stems from the fact that Dameia does not appear to have been violently murdered by her maggot attacker, but instead left slumbering peacefully. It’s an odd turn with some less-than-stellar implications: has this been a forced sexual awakening for her, perhaps even shaming the maggot into skulking away? Does it hint that submitting to your attacker is the only way to escape a brutal death? Some questions are best left open. This isn’t the first time that a Corman-produced film would revel in inter-species rape (it’s sort of the whole concept behind Humanoids from the Deep), but it is in some ways the most difficult to process.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis

Logline: A collector of arcane paraphernalia is placed in the path of bloody horror when the floating, exhumed skull of the Marquis de Sade decides it will do anything to join his collection—after all, it needs fresh sacrifices. And throats to tear out.

British production company Amicus, well-known for its many horror anthologies (including the superb EC Comics adaptations Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, alongside others like the cheeky and divisive The Monster Club (which I adore)), also produced a few less frequently cited full-length horror pictures in the 60s and 70s. Among these is The Skull, a pleasant little picture that, discounting any knee-jerk comparisons between it and its contemporaneous Hammer brethren, emerges as a quite unique and bold example of mid-60s British genre filmmaking. But first we need to shake that initial comparison because, of course, this appears at first blush very much like a Hammer film: frequent Hammer top-billers Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star, that work horse Freddie Francis directs, and it features an opening prologue in a period setting. But even in that opening graveyard scene we begin to sense different influences at work here: the expressionistic, primary-color drenched set design looks straight out of Bava’s gothic chillers, not the more naturalistic Hammer variety.

It’s a mixture of the two sensibilities that will ultimately define The Skull: a Hammer Horror envisioned through a slightly askew continental perspective. The little research I’ve done on the film has turned up nothing to support this thought, but it’s evident that the film does not conform to the typical standards of its day. For instance, look at the film’s best scene: midway through the film, Cushing’s character (under partial influence of the demonized skull) has an elaborate nightmare wherein he’s arrested in his home by two officers who refuse to tell him the charges and then bring him in front of a judge who forces him to play Russian roulette. This scene, bizarre, suspenseful, and played almost entirely without dialogue, is directly reminiscent of Kafka’s own prose phantasms and bespeaks its wider European sensibilities.

The Skull is also a confident film. It's well known in horror circles as “the one without any dialogue in the last half an hour,” and for the most part it carries this tactic off well. The fantastic score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, Cushing’s frantic exasperation, and the endlessly intricate set decorations keep things interesting, considering that a levitating skull (visible string and all) is somewhere low on the list of compelling screen monsters (though I do appreciate the several skull-P.O.V. shots that we are given). Unfortunately, the fact that the film refrains from playing around in any of the more obscene or salacious aspects of de Sade’s mythology, casting him instead as a mundane demon-worshiper, is what most hampers the proceedings. De Sade’s skull wants Cushing’s character to sacrifice his wife to a demon, rather than whip, torture, or otherwise sexually abuse/liberate her. Obviously those concerns would have been nearly unimaginable in the censor’s eyes of 1965, but they also seem far beyond the aims and intentions of the film. So why de Sade in the first place? Why not someone like Crowley, who would obviously better suit the material? One might find the answer in the Robert Bloch’s source story, but I can’t be certain of this. My guess is that the film is simply perpetuating the mainstream conception of de Sade. In the early fifties scholars as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir and Horkheimer/Adorno were teasing out the relevance from de Sade’s work, but for most (continuing up until today) he’s still just that filthy man writing deranged things. Plus, like in the film, his skull actually was stolen from its grave. So why not imagine him, as the film does, as slave to a demon lord? It’s an easier explanation than assuming he was a self-possessed man who in fact enjoyed those things he wrote so freely about.

The Blu-ray release from Legend Films is quite good. The picture is clear and stable with a healthy amount of grain. Print damage in the form of dirt and specks is present throughout but never a detriment—adds to the charm, I say. That wonderful Lutyens score pipes through quite nicely, too. Legend has released it as a double feature with, what else, an early Hammer production: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, with Anton Diffring. Both films have their own disc, so there is no sacrifice in quality. Plus, the thing is an absolute bargain (I think I picked it up for around $10). Indulge.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ghosthouse (1988) dir. Umberto Lenzi

Logline: Little girl is given a clown doll, goes insane, kills her whole family, dies. Twenty years later, her ghost is causing lots of trouble for some needlessly inquisitive ham radio operators.

Ghosthouse is Italian genre director Umberto Lenzi’s late career horror opus, and if you define opus as “formless heap of preposterousness” like I do, then you’ll understand what I mean. He’d only work for a few more years after this (and only shoot a handful more horror flicks, including Hitcher in the Dark, which the unwatched DVD on my rack tells me I’ll take a look at soon) before hanging up his gloves. But by this point we’re not talking about the Lenzi who gave us bonkers giallo classics like Eyeball, Spasmo, Knife of Ice, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, but the Lenzi who had matured into crafting beauties such as Nightmare City and Cannibal Ferox. And this film was made eight whole years after those—just imagine how much he grew as a filmmaker in the interim!

The truth is of course that Lenzi was never very good and simply got worse and worse as he went along, but what sets him apart from so many other hacks is how ludicrously enjoyable his films are. Following in the age-old Italian horror tradition of lifting ideas from anything that ever made a dollar, Ghosthouse, a senseless assemblage of various elements from American antecedents like The Evil Dead, House, and Poltergeist, crams as many goofy “scares” as it can into its 90 minute funhouse. And “funhouse” might be the most apt way to describe the film, not only in terms of the general feeling it imparts but because the titular ghosthouse is actually designed like one—when one of the heroines steps inside and almost immediately has flames shooting out of the grandfather clock in front of her path, we’re then surprised when compressed air jets don’t blow up her skirt in the next room. Of course, it’s exactly this dark ride-esque feeling of gee whiz what are they gonna throw at us next that carries us gleefully along. And Lenzi throws pretty much everything: light bulbs and mason jars that expand and pop like balloons, possessed TV sets, deranged fundamentalist groundskeepers, strangle-happy clown dolls with man hands, self-propelling motorized fan blades, and pits of bubbling, milky-white… acid? With all these ingredients in the mix, it’s difficult to be dull—

But it is incredibly easy to be stupid, and this is one dumb cake. Ghosthouse partakes in my favorite filmmaking conceit: it’s one of those truly clueless films that hinges its entire plot on the assumed popularity of some outmoded or completely fabricated device or service. In this particular instance, Ghosthouse takes place in an alternate reality where everyone owns a ham radio and, you know, takes their system with them when they go on vacation and stuff. Our wonderfully uncharismatic hero Paul and his expressionless German girlfriend Martha hear a creepy music box lullaby and some screams of terror over Paul’s radio. After magically triangulating the location of the unresponsive broadcasting radio (computer magic, of course), Paul and Martha set out to uncover the mystery without bothering to alert local authorities because, egads—it could be murder! They then arrive at that feisty old ghosthouse only to meet a group of people in a camper who’ve set their own radio up in the attic. Why? You get a good signal up there, of course. All types of heck breaks loose as a ghost girl and her murderous clown doll from the film’s prologue decide to slaughter the assembled group because… well, something has to happen.

Where the film truly excels is in its über-colorful cast of supporting characters. There’s Pepe, the jocularly aggressive hitchhiker who hates hiking, loves 20-year-old croutons, and never goes anywhere without his withered corpse arm gag. There’s Tina, the film’s requisite 14-year-old younger sister, who has the gall to wear a denim skirt and jacket. More impressively, there’s the police Lieutenant who shows up at about the halfway point, returns briefly at the end, and who may just be a deranged lunatic posing as police (evidence: he recounts the discovery of the ghost girl’s body twenty years previous, claiming that she died in a locked room under “mysterious circumstances” because there were no visible signs of violence, discounting (based on his deductive experience, of course) unlikely scenarios like starvation; at the film’s conclusion he has an entire conversation over a police car radio with no voice on the other end). We are also blessed with an extremely logical, straight-shooting coroner (“from an upward angle”), a narcoleptic gravedigger, and a skeevy mortician who might be John Waters. And this is to say almost nothing of our main cast of characters, of whom Paul is the clear standout. This is the sort of man who admits, after being queried whether or not something supernatural is going on at the ghosthouse, “I don’t know; I only know about computers.” A bit later, he gives Martha a rundown on the history of precognition, to which Martha responds by asking him how long he has been into that subject. Paul, blank-eyed, responds that it’s been around 45 minutes, that he’d really only been catching up while she was in the shower. This is our hero.

I’ve probably already gone on far too long, but Ghosthouse is one of those revitalizing movies, those giving life new purpose. It’s an hour and a half of the finest aged cheddar, and I can even admit that it isn’t totally devoid of scare-value, although very nearly so (points of interest: that lullaby with the squeaky voice layered over top is fairly unnerving and the little girl is creepy enough while never besting her obvious ancestor, Bava’s golden-haired spook from Kill Baby Kill!). But this is a movie whose score tries to sound like Goblin and ends up closer to Ernest Scared Stupid. How could I not adore it? Bless you, Umberto Lenzi, bless your coal black heart.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Don’t Go to Sleep (1982) dir. Richard Lang

Logline: A mourning family is haunted by the malevolent presence of the recently-departed Jennifer, their beloved but awfully mean spirited daughter and sister—is Jennifer’s spirit influencing her younger sister Mary to commit evil acts? Is Mary simply dangerously delusional? Ghosts?!

Once again proving that the made-for-TV horror flicks of the 70s and 80s were every bit the peers of their cinematic counterparts, Don’t Go to Sleep is a fantastic, understated primetime chiller. While the film doesn’t quite shake those unmistakable made-for-television touches (limited location shooting, 4:3 compositions, past-their-prime star TV performers), it also manages to transcend that label—stylish camerawork*, unusually strong performances, and a ruthless attitude make it what I can only imagine was a fairly horrifying evening of television back in December of 1982.

Like similar TV horrors, Don’t Go to Sleep is a slow-burn—its horror develops through the suspense of inaction, coupled with our knowledge of the inevitability of things going horribly for our principle cast at any moment. And although those horrible moments are more than worth the build-up, one also has the sense that the film has had its running time padded slightly (perhaps for contracted broadcast length?). This slight foot-dragging is the film’s only noteworthy flaw (and a minor one at that)—especially noticeable after the film’s climax in its far-too protracted dénouement.

But back to the things that work, for there is a slew of them. Performances are across the board solid, perhaps even better than the material itself: Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) is amusingly cantankerous and heartbreakingly fragile as Grandmother Bernice; the parents (Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver) have some very well-played scenes of falling apart at the seams that cleverly skirt the potential for melodrama (particularly one involving the fate of their son’s iguana, Ed, which we are informed is the stupidest possible name for an iguana); and the children are annoying like real children, not stage children (the young actress playing Mary is especially good at the film’s climax, playing evil incarnate with a naïve simplicity but determined (and terrifying) physicality).

Also worth noting is that this is a film chock full of well-paced fright sequences. The inciting incident of Mary’s bed catching aflame for mysterious reasons is downright eerily surreal (I momentarily wondered if Bernice’s nasty habit of smoking in bed had, in some cosmically karmic coincidence, led to her granddaughter’s flaming bed rather than her own. Alas, the film takes a different route…). In addition, Don’t Go to Sleep deftly shoes in a particularly sharp pizza cutter as the most intimidating mundane household item caught on celluloid, a title previously held by Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

And, as noted, this is a fairly gutsy movie—knocking off an entire family over your running-time doesn’t exactly sound like the typical family-friendly primetime fare. Moreover, the film has a pleasantly sick sense of humor about itself peeking around the corners (only the gnarliest of trash cinema would match cut a scene of a young boy falling to his death with a shot of his own mother smashing apart a melon). It's nearly impossible to chart the line of descent leading from TV flicks like Don’t Go to Sleep, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and the numerous Dan Curtis productions to the unending SyFy originals and Stephen King miniseries that are drooled out by the networks today. It was a special time in TV land back in December of ’82, and one deserving of our interest.

*a lengthy and masterful suspense sequence with extreme close ups and point-of-view shots near the end of the film (let’s dub it “the pizza cutter banister sequence”) explicitly recalls all our slasher favorites but arguably does the trick best of all. It works so well because the person from whose perspective we’re viewing things appears positively possessed and so unlike herself from this interior perspective—it instantly elevates her childish accidental murder-spree to something far more hands-on.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Final Terror (1983) dir. Andrew Davis

Logline: A group of forest rangers do forest ranger-y things, except this time they’ve brought a group of women and plan a camping trip in the territory of a deranged madwoman. Call her “Mother.”

For its first hour, The Final Terror is a fairly typical, if still fairly enjoyable, backwoods slasher. It has some nascent talent in its cast (Rachel Ward, Daryl Hannah, Joe Pantoliano) and a tried-and-true premise (city slickers go where they ain’t wanted/meet doom). Moreover, it actually has a few effective moments that play well even in the degraded VHS quality that I viewed it in. My favorite: an extreme downward angle from the treetops looking at one of the campers from behind as a figure begins to move in the branches above him. Plus, the feral design of the killer mama is pretty great (with a big honking knife strapped to her wrist that makes her almost reminiscent of the Reavers from Serenity), even if the film completely neglects to use her as much as it probably should.

The problems begin once the campers realize that a few of them have been picked off by the killer and then decide to “go to war” against him/her/whomever. Having proactive victims in a slasher is a fairly uncommon but not impossible maneuver to accomplish (hell, Dream Warriors?), but The Final Terror stumbles when trying to incorporate it. The movie seems to take the notion a bit too seriously, and even tries to equate itself (through the rallying cries of its “hero” Zorich) with Vietnam (which is all sorts of baffling). I might be wrong, but I think I counted at least two distinct “applying war paint” scenes.

Director Andrew Davis would go on to direct the totally competent Steven Seagal action vehicles Above the Law and Under Siege, and it’s a shame that whatever talents he has an action director can’t be found here. The film’s final twenty minutes—when it really starts wanting to be a Deliverance-swiping action-thriller and drops its slasher pretensions entirely—couldn’t be much duller. Long scenes of our war-painted campers leading a boat downstream suck whatever tension the rest of the film had built up right off the screen. This said: the coup de grâce performed on the killer is quite well-filmed, but also sort of a non-event after the drudgery leading up to it (see in comparison Just Before Dawn for the catharsis this film needed).

The Last Slumber Party (1988) dir. Stephen Tyler

Logline: An escaped lobotomy-candidate sort-of-terrorizes his doctor's daughter and her friends (and their boyfriends) during what may turn out to be (egads!) the last slumber party these gals ever have.

A lovely example of limited means, resources, and ambition producing a thoroughly limited picture. Everything about The Last Slumber Party screams low-budget video release (some late pick-up shots in the film even look as if they’ve been shot on consumer home video). Nonetheless, and probably by pure coincidence, the film maintains a cheesy charm that earns it some good will through the first half an hour or so. History has proven that slumber parties are a wonderful setting for slasher shenanigans because of their ability to strand teens in the most unassuming of suburban settings (see: Slumber Party Massacre I & II), and yet the film even somehow flubs that up by having the mother of one of the girls sleeping soundly upstairs all night, oblivious to any of the screaming or throat-slashing around her.

But it’s those more-than-slightly off-kilter elements that elevate the film from being simply inept to being bizarrely inept. For example, witness the repeated conversations about the necessity of orange juice in the morning, or the fact that the surgical-masked killer spends the majority of the film crouching next to a bedside table making bug-eyes in the world’s most frequented bedroom. Most bizarre of all is when our bug-eyed killer is momentarily halted in his rampage by another murderer stealing his kill (in this case the second maniac is an ancillary nerd character who is presumably taking revenge for having wads of paper thrown at him one too many times. Also his name is 'Science'). Our killer’s bug-eyes have never been wider.

To be fair, he almost blends into the Bee Gees poster.
Sadly, our heroines are a bit less than compelling (Chris, the sunken-eyed final girl, spends one shot considering for half a minute whether or not she’s going to pick up a newspaper from the front porch), and there’s a strong line of homophobia running through the script that is especially curious considering it’s funneled mostly through the mouths of said heroines (memorable dialogue: “He’s such a homo; He took the bedspread”). That said, one of them has posters for both Xanadu and Tom Selleck on her wall, so they can't be all that bad.

Budgetary restrictions naturally put a damper on some aspects: take, for instance, the entire opening scene, which for about ten minutes features the actors’ muffled dialogue and its cheesy dance score mixed at exactly the same volume, or the fact that in ADR one of the actresses is far too close to her microphone. Similarly, the film also has the budget for only one make-up effect (surgical scalpel across the throat) which it utilizes repeatedly (meaning: nearly every time there is a scene of violence). But these are the sort of things you come to expect when you watch straight-to-video “classics” like this from the late '80s boom. For the longest hour and ten minutes of your life, may I present: The Last Slumber Party.