Thursday, August 30, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part II)

It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978) dir. Larry Cohen

Of all the films to be covered in this moviethon, I would have figured that Larry Cohen's 1974 killer mutant baby classic, It's Alive, was the one least desirous of a sequel. While the film certainly contains overt hints about how its diegetic world may develop, the implication seemed to be all we would need-- what could the further realization of those developments add to our understanding of that world? It's an expertly constructed narrative driven primarily by its thematic elements concerning abortion and parent-child relationships. The plot and its discrete actions are of secondary importance to that, so any sequel might run the risk of merely changing up the pieces and the order that they fall in while reiterating the major points and failing to add anything new. I'd say that's maybe partly what befalls both It's Alive 2: It Lives Again and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive, though in reverse of what I imagined-- while the plots all hit the same emotional points, there is a slight reorientation (and intensification) of thematic concerns in each film. Although the controlling reigns of the maverick Larry Cohen on all three gives the world they're set in a basic coherence, one would be hard pressed to call them a natural trilogy.  

It Lives Again tries a bit harder to continue the direct story of its predecessor, reintroducing the first It's Alive dad, Frank Davis, as a sort of baby shower-crashing emissary between parents-to-be and the underground Killer Mutant Baby Protection Agency. See, ever since the Davis baby broke loose and chewed out some people's throats, the U.S. government has been secretly monitoring and then murdering all of the mutant babies born, generally while still in the delivery room. While It's Alive fretted about the various anxieties caused in new parents by the legalization of abortion in the year after Roe v. Wade and the general pharmaceutical/scientific/medical tinkering with natural reproduction, what we find in It Lives Again are state-sanctioned and enforced involuntary abortions. A woman's choice has been eliminated by society's desire to maintain a sense of normalcy against the rising tide of deviancy. What exact threat do the mutant babies represent for humanity? No one (except for the underground network of benign scientists) wishes to find out, because to find out would be to risk polluting society with whatever "it" is (and pollute it fast, too: the scientists figure the babies will be able to reproduce by the age of five). The monstrous babies are those abhorrent, unnatural "others" of late 1970s society, poised to disrupt the status quo: homosexuals, the mentally disabled, the physically deformed, those of mixed race. Society's almost eugenics-fueled crusade against the contaminating influence of the babies is contrasted with the gradual acceptance expressed by the parents in recognition of their horrifyingly "different" offspring's essential humanity. In this way, Cohen's societal critique has been expanded even while the basic story and resolution remain overly recognizable.

On the level of filmmaking, there are some things to appreciate here: the practical effects for the babies are much improved (no more stationary dolls or over-reliance on fish-eye lenses), Bernard Herrmann's score does its fine work, and a laborious, hysterically protracted hospital stick-up is a marvel of implausibility. In sum it may be no more than It's Alive from a different angle and with a different perspective, but I find little to condemn in that.

It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) dir. Larry Cohen

This second sequel in the It's Alive triptych is a good deal less cohesive than either of its ancestors, but (inversely) a great deal more adventurous. While again presenting the same fundamental story of two parents coming to accept and love their monstrous progeny, Island of the Alive props up this by-now familiar trajectory with a slab of dark comedy. Extrapolating the prior film's crusade against abnormality into a legal context, the film's intolerant society decides that if it can't kill the "freaks" outright, it can at least ship them off to an island to live among their own kind-- a comically perverse enactment of the perennial idiotic proposal of the bigoted. So off the mutant babies go to their own private Isla Sorna, where they quickly grow into even bigger mutant babies with telepathic abilities and begin to breed.

The babies look worse than ever here-- there's a preference for clunky stop-motion work when trailing the younger babies, while the adolescents are portrayed by men in rubber suits about as convincing as ZAAT's. These aspects are humorous enough, but the rest of the film's comic tone erupts from Cohen-stalwart Michael Moriarty's performance as Jarvis, the latest father of an "it," whose wry, sleepy humor adds a barbed edge to his every scene (whether he is trying to convince his mutant child to cooperate with him in front of the court or working at a shoe store and admitting to an accusatory mother that yes, he is trying to ruin her child's feet).

Another piece of new thematic content that Island of the Alive brings to the fold is the factor of the media, though it's not explored to the extent that you'd expect under the heading of a Larry Cohen film. The Jarvis baby trial is a big deal in the media, even earning Jarvis a book deal. (Though we also see how fickle the media and its public are, as his book is quickly remaindered, relegated to the discount tables in the backs of bookshops). Jarvis needs to wash up on the shores of Cuba before he meets anyone who doesn't know who he is, and even then he finds a few sympathetic ears. I admit, I'm sort of at a loss for what Cohen is trying to do with his social commentary here, even if it's all still quite entertaining. The clear themes of the previous films get lost in the bustle of a cannibal boat voyage, a rooftop shootout, mutant suckling, and Karen Black's shrieking. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate Island of the Alive is to let the first end credits card speak for itself: "A Larry Cohen Film Based on Characters Created by Larry Cohen."

Night of the Demons 2 (1994) dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith

At the end of a long first day of killing brain cells (Philippe Mora, that's on you), Night of the Demons 2 is the restorative I needed. This is a totally serviceable, enthusiastic, and consistent sequel-- in fact, I have no problem calling it superior to the first film. I like Night of the Demons well enough, but if you put me to the task I can only recall the same scenes everyone can recall: Angela dancing to Bauhaus and Linnea Quigley making a tube of lipstick vanish. Which is not to call the film a bore, but only intermittently entertaining. In contrast, that rascally UK-bred Aussie filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith (BMX Bandits, Stunk Rock, Dead End Drive-In) tries his damnedest to ensure that Night of the Demons 2 is endlessly entertaining, and I'd say he succeeds. Following the path laid out by The Evil Dead series (from which it derives much), this sequel is a great deal sillier than it's already quite silly forebearer. It has goofy characters, a plot that hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Abraham-Isaac story, a delicious Halloween atmosphere, and incredible practical special effects. I can't quite stress that last one enough: perhaps one hasn't truly lived until she's seen a pair of breasts morph into a pair of acid-coated hands that reach out and grab others, or witnessed a tube of lipstick expand into a lusty Satan snake. Moreover, the film features (how could I neglect to mention) a genuine Killer Nun who puts Anita Ekberg to shame. This is the sort of reckless abandon horror-comedy that you either walk into prepared to relish the company of or... why bother walking in at all? Plan accordingly.

Coming up: The Boogeyman II (1983), Basket Case II (1990), & Basket Case III: The Progeny (1991).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part I)

Horror sequels are a tough subject to approach. I suppose the knee-jerk response would be: "ARRGH, FORGET SEQUELS." But I'm not so convinced. While it's true that the production of a sequel in the horror genre is almost always an unnecessary act, it's not as if every horror sequel has been a hunk of cinematic garbage. From my viewing experience, I'd separate the full range of horror sequels into two broad categories: those that more or less faithfully recreate or refine the pleasures of their predecessors (Friday the 13th Part II, Evil Dead 2, Paranormal Activity 2 & 3) and those that fly totally against the expectations established by earlier entries-- those "in-name-only" sequels (Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2). One approach isn't decidedly better than the other. (I'd rate all of those films listed above as being of roughly equivalent quality). With the former approach, the benefit is being able to improve upon a formula that may have been somewhat underdeveloped in the original film (in every aspect, Friday the 13th Part 2 is the superior film) or to simply discover new ways to relate that formula (tonally, Evil Dead 2 is a radically different film from its parent, though no less satisfying), but the risks are either creating an unabashed note-for-note retread or an uninspired failure. Those films that adhere to the latter approach, while generally containing the germ of mild originality, always run the risk of alienating fans of their series (who may simply desire more of the same) or creating some form of individual story that is hampered by its connection to the flagship title (through restrictions imposed in marketing or narrative).

I've enjoyed enough horror sequels to prevent me from condemning them outright. (Remakes and reboots, of course, are a totally different situation. Forget them). This noted, I haven't seen nearly as many of them as I'd like--especially those sequels of some of the flagship franchises of the '70s and '80s. In an attempt to rectify this regrettable chasm in my horror film experience, I viewed 18 sequels over three days. (This number actually bloomed to 19 films before all was said and done. Thanks, Ulli Lommel). It wasn't always a fun experience, but it helped produce probably the most intriguing and varied moviethon I've yet completed. So without too much more ado, here is the first installment of six recounting my cornea-scratching journey, featuring the talents of Fright Night Part II, The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, and The Howling 3: The Marsupials.

Fright Night Part II (1988) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

Director Tommy Lee Wallace is probably more well known in horror as the director of sequels than as the creator of original properties. To his name he has a few notables: Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Vampires: Los Muertos, the screenplay for Amityville II: The Possession (which I'll be covering in Part 6 of this Sequelthon), and this one, Fright Night Part II. (He's also the man behind the miniseries adaptation Stephen King's IT, which ruined the life of every child who was lucky enough to behold it in 1990). While arguably a more consistent film in his career of continuations, Fright Night Part II is also a lesser effort, though not one totally devoid of some small charm.

In place of advancing the story of Charlie Brewster and Peter Vincent-- perhaps featuring them as a comical pair of fearless vampire killers attempting to juggle their mundane lives with slaying (i.e. Buffy)-- Wallace and Co. choose to hit the reset button, beginning with Charlie in a psychiatrist's office being convinced that vampires don't exist. The events of Fright Night were just a shared delusion, of course, so why not repeat them all here? It'll be exactly like we're seeing them for the second time, but somehow fresher this go-around. This bummer of a storytelling decision sets us up for what ends up as a basic carbon copy of the first film, wherein both Charlie and Peter are forced to awaken to the vampire menace threatening the stability of their simple lives. (Perplexing: even though this Peter Vincent begins the film believing in vampires and obsessed with finding them, he still needs to be convinced when Charlie starts having his suspicions. It's as if the film is hesitant to step outside of the exact beats present in the first film, at the expense of logic). It's a shame that this is the case; an early scene featuring Peter attempting to connect with Charlie through reminiscing over their previous slaying experience hints at the fun directions this could have sprouted in.

So we're given more of the same and yet it all winds up turning out somewhat less than. The breezy, seductive, neighborly appeal of Chris Sarandon's Jerry Dandridge is replaced by a group of Lost Boys outcasts (including Jon Gries and Brian Thompson, the psychopath from Cobra) led by Julie Carmen, as Dandridge's vampiric lil' sis. They never present the same sort of easy, insurmountable menace that Dandrige did, but the way they roller-skate through their scenes and participate in bowling montages certainly casts them as endearing. I noted that one of their early kill scenes looked like a piece of vampire performance art, and when the film later informed me that they are, in fact, vampire performance artists, my brain exploded. The initial entry's light humor is recreated here (evident in a scene wherein a psychiatrist vampire talks his slayer through the guilt of slaying). Plus, the practical effects are quite impressive at times (the vamps all expire with delicious gratuity and Jon Gries' vamp makeup approximates Coppola's furry WolfDrac several years before that film). It's unobjectionable, and for a horror sequel that's not a sin, if not quite a virtue.

The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) dir. Philippe Mora

On the spectrum of horror sequels outlined above, The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf would fall firmly in the latter category, those "in-name-only" sequels, primarily due to the fact that it is insane. The film does make a clumsy attempt to continue the narrative of its predecessor (the ludicrous subtitle relates at least in part to the fact that the great Reb Brown (Yor, the Hunter from the Future) is supposed to be Dee Wallace's brother), but this is precisely where similarities end. The Howling 2 ventures into the realms of the quasi-mystical and fantastic, often favoring the presence of Sybil Danning in glowy Kryptonian threads shooting lightning from he fingertips while mouthing "AHHHH-WOOOO," over, y'know, werewolves.

In fact, as the film traverses the varied landscapes of Los Angeles ("The City of the Angels," some on-screen text helpfully informs us) to the Carpathian mountain region, it would be easy enough to forget that you're watching a werewolf film, if not for the occasional fuzzy orgy. Top-billed is (astonishingly) Christopher Lee, lending some of his old world respectablility and gravitas to a role that requires him to don a leather jacket and thin white sunglasses inside a New Wave rock club. While Lee sleepwalks through his role in a state of abject embarrassment, my attention was drawn to the aforementioned Reb Brown, who makes a convincing argument for an alteration of the subtitle to "Your Brother is an Idiot" by spouting out lines like this: "Us country boys know that when the varmints start knocking off the chickens, we start knocking off the varmints." Typically, there is little consistency or logic here. Every time we see a new werewolf it looks radically different from every previous werewolf (I've tried, and one of them can only be described, rather indelicately, as a "mouth-violating werebat").

Despite its incessant string of lunacies, there is only the faintest whiff of self-awareness wafting off of this much-too earnest heap, and I suppose that works in its favor-- I'd honestly be frightened if I were to discover that this film knew what it was doing. As it stands, it's hard not to dig with unabashed fervor the theme song as belted out by the band in the New Wave club (they have a keytar!). The closing credits reduce the film to a summary music video of the preceding events, featuring a brief shot of Sybil Danning ripping off her top that is repeated (by my count) 14 times (!). Arguably, this Greatest Hits compilation is the most coherent format the events of the film could have been presented in. I hate this movie/I love this movie.

The Howling 3: The Marsupials (1987) dir. Philippe Mora

I am a fool. It seemed unlikely, but I was fairly certain that The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf was as nutty as things would get during this moviethon, and yet I was so quickly proven wrong. Why would I have expected the director of The Howling 2 to infuse into his sequel to that film, The Howling 3: The Marsupials, even a modicum of similarity between them? How could I have anticipated, even faintly, the slightest uptick in quality? Incredibly, The Marsupials is more off-putting and squirm-inducing than its counterpart. Philippe Mora obviously grew as a filmmaker in the two intervening years; unfortunately, that growth only extended to giving werewolves pouches for their young.

This film shirks the previous mysticism and old world folklore in favor of exploring the scientific community's underground interest in werewolf phenomena, the government's desire to eradicate all lycanthropes, and the Australian film industry's decision to make cheap werewolf films. (Yes, it's true, we do have some self-awareness and reflexivity this go-around. Bizarrely, the intentionally corny meta werewolf films-within-the-film are of exactly the same quality and tenor as the film itself. Chew on that one for awhile). The Marsupials also expands the mythology of the werewolf (in a manner that of course totally conflicts with both previous sequels) while highlighting a local variety (in this case, the Australian marsupial werewolf). In consequence, this film features a prolonged werewolf pup birthing scene involving saliva, excessive body hair, and pouches. I'll link you to this picture and say no more about it, as I wouldn't wish to profane the beauty of creation. (In addition, as werewolf pups (or would they be called "joeys"?) age, they begin to look like creepier versions of the Podlings from The Dark Crystal). Oh, there are also some werewolf nuns, who at one point spoil a costume wrap party and at another giggle riotously while watching the broadcast of the Australian Academy Awards. Sure, why not.

It's a funny film, and most of the time it knows it. (Some choice dialogue snippets, utterly free of meaningless context: "I don't like home because my stepfather tried to rape me and he's a werewolf"; "COMPACT DISC. RAAARGH.") The problem (let's just assume there's only one, for sanity's sake) is that it also devolves into a relentless, corny slog whenever it gets the chance. It earnestly attempts to garner our sympathies for the plight of the werewolves, and contains swatches of rhetoric supporting Marsupial Rights. (For real. It is dedicated to the memory of the extinct Thylacine, Australia's long-gone carnivorous marsupial). In a bit near the end, the film sort of turns into a cockeyed rendition of Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, our young heroes traversing the Australian outback aided by a trusty aboriginal guide, with the major difference being that in this film they're carrying around a baby that looks like this while attempting to escape an oppressive U.S. government looking to murder them. Having seen both of Mora's Howling films in a row, I have no choice but to assume that he is a madman. I hope he never gets better.

For next time: It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978), It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), and Night of the Demons 2 (1994).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Black Magic Rites (1973) dir. Renato Polselli

Logline: A group of rich folk are partying at a castle that they can't seem to leave, and when some of the women start being abducted and having their hearts plucked out, the fact that begins to emerge is that somebody or somebodies is desperate to resurrect a witch burned at the stake 500 years prior. That's about as cogent a synopsis as I'll hazard.

With Renato Polselli's Black Magic Rites (a.k.a. The Reincarnation of Isabel), horror cinema has its answer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961). While I acknowledge that such a label sounds like a joke or a jab at Polselli's film, it's actually my honest appraisal. Like Resnais' film, Black Magic Rites concerns itself with a set of characters bound to a location but unstuck in time, traversing it in a fashion most aptly described as "disorienting." (One character admits, "the castle is becoming an obsession for me, too," like a dutiful phantom). Nearly a non-narrative feature, its plot is nigh incomprehensible, but that's suitable as the film seems to prefer operating on a level of feelings and impressions. Its characters jump in and out of frame, the camera crash zooming in on their leering, vampiric faces. (The males enter every scene like Count Dracula himself, while the females are all giddy Lucy Westenras being led to the heart-plucking slaughter). We're continually forced to ponder what timeline theses characters exist in. Are the events we are witnessing transpiring in the film's present day or five hundred years into the past, carried out by the numerous characters' identical ancestors? The hectic, abrupt, non-linear editing refuses to give us a sense of the continuity of events. We're never even allowed a firm grasp on who each character is or how they relate to one another-- all that we know is that they're trapped in their Gothic farce, presumably repeating their fates endlessly. ("It's hard, it's very hard to die," relates one wayward soul to another). It's the sort of film where a death by staking ends roughly five minutes after the stake has pierced the victim's heart, dwelling on each of the three hundred some-odd seconds of wailing.  The sort of film where a line like "it had green hair, like all monsters" is the most natural piece of dialogue. Black Magic Rites out-Francos Jess Franco at his most stylishly obtuse. Which is a roundabout way of saying: it's not for everyone. But for those souls who can brave it, I think they'll discover a film laced with hysterical intrigue and Eurosleazy mania. I found the film to be a hypnotic pleasure, unlike virtually any other European horror film of its era. It's a suite of sound and vision, bold and hyperbolic in its touch. Sure, it's not the least bit subtle, but it's not a cinch to comprehend either-- one's best move is to let it wash over the senses in one gnarly, blissed-out wave, leaving rationality behind on the rocks.

Polselli is the director of one of my favorite sleazy gialli, Delirium (a.k.a. Delirio caldo) (1972). As perverse and off-putting as that earlier film may be, it failed to prepare me for the phantasmagoric mania on display in Black Magic Rites. For that surprise I am grateful-- this film is an experience that neither requires nor submits to expectations. The scant story that is present overtly hints towards the efforts of a cult to resurrect an ancient witch who was staked and burned on the castle grounds through the sacrifice of numerous young women and the stealing of their organs, but this storyline rather abruptly transforms into a series of vampire attacks led by the beefy Mickey Hargitay's Count Drac-proxy. But are the film's other men vampires too? Why are they biting all the women? Is this a sexual thing or overt vamprisim? (Regardless, it's a sexual thing). What does any of this have to do with the parallel storyline concerning one jittery female character's comatose sexcapades, punctuated by the tunes from a jaunty upright piano ("she feels neglected by everyone, even vampires")? Who knows? One character flatly states that one "shouldn't try to understand it. There's a fine line between the known and the unknown." Aptly phrased.

Kino/Redemption's brand new blu-ray release is more than adequate. The print is a tad dirty, and it doesn't quite pop like the best of the high definition horror back catalog, falling a bit on the flat side of the spectrum of images. Regardless, detail is adequate and colors excel. No extras besides a trailer, but the last thing I'd want to see included with this film is any sort of explanation or insight. (I'd say the plot summary on the back of the box is even going too far in trying to simplify the film's story. Naturally, such a synopsis (like my own) fails to convey a smidgen of the film's hyperactivity and ambiguity). Despite its obviously paltry budget, Black Magic Rites makes the most of its visuals, filming its brooding, opulent locations with inventively schlocky flair. This is a dreamy hallucinogenic in cinematic form and it deserves the best presentation possible-- and this Redemption release would be that.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lovely Molly (2012), Seventh Moon (2008), Altered (2006) dir. Eduardo Sánchez

The Blair Witch Project is an important film for me. I'd caught the horror bug young-- I was wearing out VHS copies of Gremlins, Critters, and The Monster Squad as a toddler and before I graduated to the double digits I'd moved on to fare like Halloween and The Blob-- but it was on Friday, July 30th, 1999 that I beheld The Blair Witch Project on the opening day of its wide theatrical run and horror started to really matter in my life. I'll leave the discussion of that singular film to another time and place, but I would like to spend some words catching up with its two directors, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, who have each been quietly establishing their own careers in horror in the years since. Upon seeing the initial trailer for Sánchez's Lovely Molly earlier this year, it dawned upon me that I had not seen a single film by either director since that debut collaboration. Why would I so completely ignore the current work of two filmmakers whose first film I hold in such high esteem? I can tell you it wasn't an intentional avoidance, and there are probably a couple of external factors contributing to it: a) besides their loose involvement in the Blair Witch sequel (which I've always enjoyed on its own merits) and the television/Internet hybrid series Freakylinks (of which I was a major fan back when it was airing (I may have run a fan site (I'll never tell))), both Sánchez and Myrick sat inactive in the immediate wake of their mutual success, the former not making another film until 2006 and the latter not until 2007. b) All of the films that both Sánchez and Myrick have directed since then have been released either direct-to-video or through small theatrical runs. I would have had to have been paying pretty close attention to catch them. So, egg on my face, I've decided to rectify my ignorance by viewing all of their films and covering each here on the blog. First up is this post, dedicated to all three of Sánchez's: Altered (2006), Seventh Moon (2008), and Lovely Molly (2012). A second post chronicling my experience watching all of Myrick's should arrive sometime in the next few months. Without further excuses: 

Altered (2006)

Altered, a somewhat unusual alien encounter film, is not the strongest start Sánchez could have had to his solo directing career. It has that unmistakeable mid-noughties horror flavor that accompanies a film trying to be jokey and grimly serious in equal measure. That's an almost impossible ratio to juggle, and so (no surprise here) the film falters in its tone throughout. Worse, the majority of the humor is just crass and groan-inducing, rendering most of the quipping characters a tad repugnant. (IMDb tells me it was originally scripted as a comedy entitled Probed. For once, I totally believe the information IMDb is providing). Moreover, this stale, omnipresent humor also detracts from the few attempts at generating legitimate tension: an alien slowly unraveling a character's intestines to the other side end of the room is, despite what you might think, funny. Nevertheless, it's those aforementioned twists on the typical alien encounter formula that kept it of some moderate interest to me. It's structured in media res, the entirety of the film playing out as a prolonged third act, leaving much back story and character motivation to unravel over time through inference rather than blunt exposition. In a film such as this, I found the use of my brain--in whatever limited capacity--to be refreshing. The characteristics and technology of the alien visitors is also quite well-conceived, and (though we see far too much of him) the primary alien even manages to be fitfully creepy. There's a certain pleasure to be had in watching a rubber-suited alien prancing about on screen in a film from as late as 2006, but that's a small recommendation.


Seventh Moon (2008)


Although possessing its own share of issues, Seventh Moon is, without question, a more accomplished film than its predecessor. For one, it has its tone figured out. Seventh Moon is only concerned in its situational horror elements, to the point of willful simplicity. At the expense of character and story, the film acts like an eager voyeur waiting to see what will happen when it places mice and snakes into the same maze. It can't be called a sophisticated storytelling approach, but it does make for a gripping viewing experience. While its integration of (actual?) Chinese folklore and traditions makes it somewhat unique (and so of interest on that score alone), I found myself most enamored with the film's eccentric cinematography. Like the later Chernobyl Diaries, Seventh Moon appears to be directly inspired by the aesthetics of the found footage movement without ever explicitly being one. Particularly in its opening act (but to a lesser extent throughout), the camerawork develops an extreme amateur handheld style, filming the protagonists from an uncomfortable distance and  picking up their voices through the camera's mic alone-- at one point, the camera even gets knocked over! Even though no one is actually filming the events in the diegetic world, the style results in the unshakeable feeling that there might be some camera-strapped voyeur present, which smartly reflects aspects of both the film's M.O. and plot. Fortunately, the film's mission to frighten is competently accomplished by the hungry Chinese ghosts that chase our protagonists across the Chinese countryside-- they're terrifying in their voraciousness and (unlike Altered) the film wisely keeps them obscured or out of focus for the majority of their appearances. The film's flaws derive less from its inherent situational/survival horror aspects than from its insistence on trying to complicate that simple formula with emotional resonance for its story and characters during the conclusion. Some rather obvious and conventional final act plot revelations and scenes of Amy Smart mourning do little to elevate the material, so instead sort of bog things down. I'm not convinced we desire emotional closure in a film like this; we only want to see if the mice are going to find their way out or not.

Lovely Molly (2012)


Something about "third times" and "being charmed."  But, honest: Lovely Molly is a tremendous film, one of my favorites released so far this year. Aesthetically, this is a continuation of Sánchez's retrieval and reconfiguration of found footage methods. Instead of mirroring the camerawork this time, he has his characters utilize a handheld camera when necessary and logically appropriate-- say, during a wedding, or when trying to capture proof of a ghostly entity. The film even begins with its lead actress, Gretchen Lodge, facing down the camera Heather Donahue-style and giving a crying confession, but besides this obvious connection the remainder of the FF sequences never feel shoe-horned in simply because Sánchez is the Blair Witch guy. They feel organic to the film, a familiar and fitting way to throw us off balance and, in moments of great distress, help us to identify with Molly's terror. The transitions between the found footage and traditional cinematography are seamless, which demonstrates that a touch of skill and finesse can pull it off without frustrating the viewer-- hopefully this will prove the antidote to [REC] 3's bad faith/camera smashing. (Sánchez's next film, a found footage Bigfoot film entitled Exists, is filming now. I can't wait to see where he'll take the form in this context). 

The story in Lovely Molly has the depth and resonance missing from Altered and Seventh Moon: Molly, a newlywed and recovering drug addict, moves back into her unoccupied family home with her often-absent trucker husband. Unexplainable late night break-ins and other unexplainable supernatural occurrences transpire, leading Molly to believe that the vengeful, demonic ghost of her abusive father has returned from the grave to continue his work on her. While attempting to prove and understand his ghostly reappearance, Molly begins to lose her cool (an understatement). A definite ambiguity hangs over the events: is the demonic paranormal activity real, or merely a psychological manifestation of Molly's heroin addiction? (The recurring horse symbols would seem to argue for either interpretation). Regardless, the film stands as a chilling exploration of the lingering effects of sexual and emotional abuse. There's even a nice economic subtext here too, with out two attractive newlyweds holding down shitty jobs (a truck driver and a janitor), having no health insurance, and maxing out their credit cards (yay, America!). 

Before I forget to mention it, Lovely Molly is also ridiculously scary. Gretchen Lodge's performance has an unnerving, brooding intensity in its own right, but couple that with a lip devouring, ghost rape, and a deer carcass birthing from a basement ceiling, and this is one grungy, horrifying flick. Of additional note are the wonderful sound design and the work by the band Tortoise on the terrific score, crackling with deafening white noise and feedback. At its conclusion, the film also contains one of the most horrifying movie moments of all time. I exaggerate not. You will know it when you see it. (One of the only complaints I'd lodge against the film would be that it fails to end immediately after this shot. We're given a brief coda that while logically consistent, also scatters some of the previous scene's visceral effect).

A film that Lovely Molly reminded me of during my viewing is another film from this year, Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact. Both films have strong-willed female leads, haunted family homes, troubled family histories, characters with drug problems, and a focus on shaky sisterly bonds. They both even share the same grimy yellow hues, drenched over every scene. But The Pact is such a dull, uninspiring movie. (So dull and uninspiring that I neglected to cover it here on the blog. What was the point?). It possesses no sense of subtlety when its material clearly begged for some. The Pact tries hard to freak you with screechy jump scares and by stabbing Casper Van Dien in the neck, all to no avail; Lovely Molly, working like the charmed film that it is, knows that the scariest thing on earth can be a hug.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Spirits of the Dead (1968) dir. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini

Logline: Three of the 1960s' most acclaimed European filmmakers take on the horror genre by adapting a trio of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known works, adding their own idiosyncratic twists to the source material. Roger Vadim has Jane Fonda fall in love with both her brother Peter and a fiery ghost horse in "Metzengerstein;" Alain Delon plays a kinky form of poker with Brigitte Bardot and has his sadistic whims foiled by his double in Louis Malle's "William Wilson;" finally, Terence Stamp plays a Poe-tinged actor/director ravaged by fame/drugs/booze and led into a nasty bet with a creepy little girl in Federico Fellini's hallucinatory waking nightmare "Toby Dammit."

In my admittedly limited experience, Spirits of the Dead (a.k.a. Histoires extraordinaires) is the definitive Poe film. It's never as pulpy or as blatantly, opulently horrific as American International Pictures' earlier slew of Poe adaptations helmed by Roger Corman, but the three interrelated segments that make up the composition of Spirits of the Dead do manage to capture that other side of Poe's work: the side dwelling upon melancholy reflections of death and the slow, agonizing disintegration of self felt by tortured souls. Corman's films nailed the cheap thrills and bitter situational ironies found throughout Poe's oeuvre; Spirits of the Dead aims for those metaphysical, existential ironies that peek out from between the lines. It seems to me that the uninitiated would get a better sense of the feeling of Poe's writing (both his poetry and prose) from these three brief episodes than from any other single filmed adaptation. Moreover, as an anthology of independent interpretations by vastly different creative minds, the stories blend together astoundingly well. All three share the fundamental thematic concern of irredeemable protagonists searching for a redemption that only comes through self-annihilation. Where the shorts diverge from one another is on the issue of style, which goes a long way towards keeping the film fresh over its two hour length. (I failed to notice the drag of minutes elapsing). Vadim's is the overly-serious yet extravagant costume Gothic, Malle's is the realistic narrative that degrades into psychological delusion, and Fellini's is the uninhibited fever dream. The psychological progression these segments exhibit together (probably unintentionally) from ordered control of the external world ("Metzengerstein") to the loss of one's control of  the self ("William Wilson") to the evacuation of order and sense from both the internal and external worlds ("Toby Dammit") is a thematic movement that could not be accomplished by one story (or even one sensibility) on its lonesome. Spirits of the Dead, as a whole pie, is more satisfying than its individual slices. But I suppose I should jot down a few ideas about each serving, too:

Critically, Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein" is the runt of litter, but I think this segment has received far too much misplaced ire from its detractors. True, it does miss some of the subtlety and artistic flair of the two following episodes, but I think "Metzengerstein" is best viewed as a sort of bridge between the decade's earlier Poe films and those yet to come within the remainder of Spirits of the Dead. Vadim switches the gender of Poe's titular "petty Caligula," and we end up with Jane Fonda strutting about in garish Barbarella costumes playing an advanced game of "William Tell" with her subjects and petting her baby cheetah. Like Corman's Poe films, it's played for the most part straight, in spite of its frequent flashes of absurdity (my favorite: the brooding, hunky Peter Fonda feeding a baby owl). This commingled seriousness and absurdity lends the segment a curious effect when it begins to unravel in the second half, as Fonda's Metzengerstein meets her ghostly black steed and the segment lapses into an approach almost abstract and impressionistic (a stylistic touch that finds a curious elliptical note in the short film's startling first shot, which seems to have no discernible bearing on or explanation in what comes after). This segment allows for us to witness as European sensibilities transform the aesthetics and concerns of the cinematic Poe adaptation into a beast more pointedly psychological. Some Rod Serling-esque narration throughout the episode is its only glaring flaw-- I reckon that Vadim's visuals are strong enough to stand on their own, unencumbered by the pat exposition and analysis that the voice over provides.

Louis Malle's "William Wilson" is, for me, the most problematic effort, being both predominantly brilliant and occasionally dull. The most impressive aspects are its casual integration of extreme sadism and the sheer effortlessness it expresses in making the antiquated doppelganger scenario genuinely unnerving. Most of the credit for the first of these can be left to to fall upon Alain Delon, whose character's sadism arrives (in both execution and confession) with his patented steely cool. The early examples are disquieting in their ruthlessness: stringing a child classmate up by a rope and lowering him into a bucket full of ravenous rodents and preparing for a live dissection of a frightened nude woman in front of a cadre of his medical school colleagues. It's brutal stuff, and his nonplussed admittance of these deeds to no less than a priest renders his sociopathic tendencies all the more chilling. This all leads into that second strength I mentioned: the success of its implementation of Delon's conscience-like double. This double (whose face is wisely kept off-screen until the final moments, even though we are fully aware he is Delon himself) commands attention simply by walking into a room, and Delon's sturdy exoskeleton cracking at the mere sight of him helps make their scenes together memorable for their uneasiness. All of this internal/external tension crescendos in a sabre duel and a vanquishing, but not before the segment diverts too much energy to a largely superfluous card game played between Delon and Brigitte Bardot-- it goes on for too long, the sadism that rears up (a whipping) seems far too mundane in comparison to previous events, and the double's interruption lacks the surprise or power of past encounters. It's a small quibble, as this is a strong portion, so let's forget I even mentioned it.

Lastly and never leastly: "Toby Dammit," Fellini's surreal, psychosis-fueled, "liberally adapted" reinterpretation of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," is even better than I'd been led to believe (and I'd been led to believe it was incredible; rather, I'd call it exquisite). Labeling it as beholden to the cinematic world of Mario Bava would be an understatement (Fellini's ball-bouncing blonde devil child has quite literally been swiped from Bava's Kill Baby Kill!), but it would be equally foolish to claim that Fellini adds nothing of his own to liven the stew. "Toby Dammit" features the overall film's only contemporary setting, and that setting is populated by locations showcasing a Rome of foreign nightmares: gaudy, blinding, disorienting, and incomprehensible (a translator, working her magic on the spoken drivel of a film executive, relates to Toby at one point that "there was something about bison there, but I didn't quite get the point"). It is a pointed, surreal satire of the Italian film industry at the same moment that it is a sad dirge for the decline of the creative mind. Terence Stamp is a sight to behold, imbuing Toby with a sort of beleaguered artist pathos that is simultaneously repugnant and attractive-- he's a soul awash and drifting at high speeds through a version of Rome populated by literal cardboard cut-outs where the people should be, reaching out towards a conception of innocence that is, while almost certainly demonic, preferable. At one juncture taking place at the Italian Academy Awards, Toby is invited to give a speech on stage and begins that famous soliloquy from Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5, but stops short of telling us that his life, which has been "full of sound a fury," signifies nothing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It is perhaps this lingering hope that drives him (and his loaned Ferrari) to his late night dance with the devil (one which, in opposition to Poe's tale, ends in a provocation towards suicide rather than a rigged bet): the hope and desire to obtain tangible proof of innocence divorced from the bleak landscapes of life, to discover significance. Nevertheless, while "Toby Dammit" is assuredly full of cinematic sound and fury, I believe we can rest certain that it signifies something. The sole facet of disappointment surrounding "Toby Dammit" is the fact that Fellini never went on to direct more horror. But then again, what else could he have had to say in the form? In one forty minute attempt, he perfected the horror film. Asking for more would be both greedy and redundant*.

*And I suppose we'll always have La Dolce Vita's seance. A small comfort.

Monday, August 6, 2012

V/H/S (2012) dir. Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, et al.

Logline: A gaggle of mustachioed, camera-equipped idiots are tantalized by the offer of breaking into some slob collector's house and stealing a nondescript "VHS tape." What's on the tape? We'll never know. But we will get to peep in as they load a couple other tapes into the machine and watch as some of today's best horror directors (and then some others) totally phone it in.

What a crushing blow. At the end of the final installment of my recent Found Footageathon, I tried to offer up some of the hope I felt for the future of the horror genre's latest cash cow/whipping post. I presumed, or at least hoped, that the innovators and storytellers would be arriving soon to usher the found footage film into new territory by tinkering with its aesthetics and possibilities. So one might correctly imagine that I've harbored some optimism for V/H/S, a new anthology FF film featuring the talents of some of horror's best new filmmakers (specifically Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next)). Not only would it have some bonafide horror storytellers in tow, but they'd all be crafting their own segments in an anthology context (one of horror's oldest and most reliable traditions). It could have been something special.

Instead, we're given six half-hearted FF films as opposed to the usual lone entry. It might be a case of "too many cooks," or maybe simply too many films, but no individual narrative is concerned with anything more than scare-making (which each summarily fails at, either through over-reliance on CGI, breakneck pacing, or unimaginative set-ups). Moreover, the frame narrative--courtesy of Wingard--is somehow nonsensical in its ludicrous simplicity and therefore tosses out any hope for a cohesive, coherent film in toto. It's a mess, and considering that the general level of quality in each segment barely registers above similar fare from The Asylum, one wonders why anyone bothered. It seems pretty clear that each director was approached separately, and each resulting segment has that feeling of being a dreadful little island in the tepid ocean that is V/H/S.

Worse is that I guess the filmmakers thought bro-culture was hankering for its own FF film, so what we're given here is the bro-iest horror film imaginable. The majority of the characters (across all segments) are either meatheads in various stages of inebriation or skeevy chaps attempting to coax their girlfriends out of their clothing on camera. And hey, don't worry, you don't even have to ask, because yes, the women do get naked all the time, as gratuitously as possible. (Hey, I guess they are innovators after all! Before this, FF films only had the nipple shot in Evidence and the near bump-and-grind in Paranormal Activity 3 to tide over the horndogs in the crowd. Way to go, movie). To be fair, we are given one brief dong shot, but the scales still seem tipped in the other direction. I'm making a point of this because this testosterone-drenched attitude is, if anything, the unifying factor between the segments. The film returns again and again to images of dudes attempting to take advantage of women (sometimes forcefully; see: a recurring image of some poor woman being sharked in public), and even though these dudes are clearly despicable it's never clear that the various segments agree with that assessment. Sure, the males are cows prancing to the slaughter, but this punishment hardly condemns their boorish behavior. The moral of the first segment, David Bruckner's "Amateur Night," could be "don't take advantage of drunken women; it's wrong" but seems to fall closer to "don't take advantage of drunken women; they are infernal hellbeasts and will eat you later, bro." The most we can commend this segment for is just barely avoiding a case of date rape. I suppose I'm being uppity, but there are contexts in which these things are more than acceptable and the gleeful, leering fraternity party-esque atmosphere of V/H/S is not one of them.

Some of the pieces aren't quite so bad, even if the movie as a whole does them a disservice: Ti West's segment, "Second Honeymoon," is the closest to anything worthwhile in the film on the level of horror, though it amounts to little more than a jokey twist, even if that twist does serve as a sort of cheeky corrective to the rest of the film's rampant machismo. Joe Swanberg's segment, "The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," a probably accidental remake of the earlier bizarro FF film The Collingswood Story (2002), fares better in this department of gender relations, portraying for us a weaselly, manipulative male clearly eligible for our scorn, but falters due to its narrative's failing to make the slightest sense (despite some late clunky exposition). And even this segment cannot avoid the gratuitous shots of breasts. (Additionally, this segment also breaks the film's aesthetic conceit, as we're forced to accept that a series of Skype conversations have somehow been transferred to a VHS tape. Not that I mind (see below)).

Peter Gutierez over at Unseen Films put up an intriguing post about the film today. While I concur with his assessment that V/H/S fails to come to any sort of fruition as a unified film, I wouldn't entirely agree with his overall theories regarding the inability of the FF film to sustain the anthology format. Using the example of V/H/S, he writes that the constantly transforming points of view between segments (both through distinct directorial approach and literal diegetic camera hand-offs) blows any chance the film has to immerse its viewers in the story (for any prolonged period, at least) and so prevents them from viewing it as anything other than a deliberately-constructed set of short films (instead of, y'know, actual footage). Maybe. I'd say it's hard to tell with V/H/S as the only piece under consideration once you acknowledge its wider narrative failings (Wingard's wraparound neglects to make any effort to dredge a coherent story or universe out of this communal urinal). But, speaking generally, I think too much has been made of the immersive quality of FF films, or--maybe more specifically--too much has been made in the wrong direction. While I do believe the M.O. for more than a few FF films is to give their audiences a sense of total immersion and involvement with the action onscreen, I don't buy that verisimilitude is the desired outcome from either the filmmakers or the viewing audience (The Blair Witch Project--and to a smaller extent Cannibal Holocaust--was the beginning and end of any such ruse). Simply put, we're too savvy at this point to ever buy into it being really real. Our brains can't turn themselves off to the extent that all of a sudden we believe in zombie outbreaks, violent poltergeists, or alien invasions. The joy and adrenaline we derive from found footage films rests in their ability to give the audience presence. The found footage film renders the cinematic eye (the audience as voyeur) an interactive piece of the environment by embodying it in the camera itself, allowing it to be more openly manipulated without creating the distance that calculated cinematography does. This is a contentious embodiment the audience faces, for while they are given physical presence through the camera they also become hypersensitive to and aware of those forces that manipulate their view. Whether it's the director or a character shaking the camera around, conveniently missing all the good parts, the effect is the same: the viewer is a part of the events, but never in control of them. The FF film then becomes one of denial and obfuscation, providing a sort of pleasure that a traditionally-lensed film cannot due to its visual requirements (I wrote a bit in my review of Chernobyl Diaries about how this last point might be changing as aspects of the FF genre begin to rub off onto traditional horror). An anthology of found footage films, in theory, would only increase the amount of first-person tampering we're subjected to and, possibly, our enjoyment of the tussle. V/H/S is far too careless a film to prove anything of the sort, but I'm not giving up all hope yet. Maybe a little, but never all.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Boogens (1981) dir. James L. Conway

Logline: A double date of turtley doom in the snowy seclusion of Utah! A pair of miners re-opening a long-abandoned mine invite their lady friends up for a weekend of beer, bed-tussling, and chocolate cake, but little do they know their mining activities has unleashed a long-buried, awfully hungry evil...

It's rare that one feels the compulsion to call a film "affable," but that is precisely what The Boogens is. It's one of those uncommon breed of films with an environment and characters that feel lived-in and genuinely human-- a film one wouldn't mind stepping inside of to shoot a few games of pool with, if it weren't for those bothersome mine-dwelling, tentacled turtle beasts always attacking. The Boogens has the distinction of creating four of the most likeable protagonists in horror film history, sticking them into a rubber monster movie, and still somehow pulling it off. While one would have a tough time calling it an adventurous or ingenious film, its commendations lie in the pitch-perfect execution of its production's every aspect: characters, performances, setting, suspense, humor, practical effects, sound design, score, cinematography; it's all handled by its filmmakers with a deft touch and a bounty of care that, frankly, one stumbles across in micro-budget creature features far too infrequently. The wintry faded glory of the once-prosperous mining town gives the film a suitably gloomy and isolated location in which to stage its moments of suspense. And stage them it does: besides the expert sequences placing our human pals in danger, we even feel dread when the foursome's irritating/adorable pooch, Tiger, is repeatedly menaced by those awful Boogens. A good deal of this suspense is generated by the filmmakers' decision to keep the titular beasts off-screen for most of the duration-- while this might stem more from embarrassment over the admittedly shoddy (yet still oddly effective) creature design, one might also choose to believe it's because they knew what they were doing. What we don't see is always built up to something much worse in our minds, and having the brutal and powerful disembodied tentacle attacks entice our imaginations before we're formally introduced to the brutes is a smart move. The eventual reveal of their somewhat inherently ridiculous mutated snapping turtle features winds up being a good deal more palatable when gradual, as opposed to how it might be if we'd been shown the whole hog from the first frame on. It also helps that (barring the easy charm and levity of the first half) The Boogens takes the horror of its rubber beasts entirely seriously-- in consideration of the 1980s' deluge of Gremlins, Ghoulies, Critters, and Munchies, it's not unwelcome to find one band of creatures worth their weight in ferocity, if not dread.

The film is an honest favorite, one I'd be pleased to snuggle up to on a winter's night, and it's also the first previously-seen film I've decided to cover here on the blog. The reason for this obvious betrayal of my usual mission is that after years of unavailability on physical media (its last commercial release was on VHS in the '90s) The Boogens is about to be released on blu-ray from Olive Films. In contrast to those years of full-framed, low-resolution viewings courtesy of VHS bootlegs and the infrequent TCM airing, Olive's high definition release is nothing short of a revelation. It was, after all, an exceedingly competent little film hiding underneath the video fuzz. This is a solid transfer. The print is riddled with dirt and scratches but that only befits the thoroughly blue-collar production. Colors and detail are lovely during the snow-encrusted exteriors, even sporting some depth on occasion. A handful of low-light interior scenes skew the image more towards a hazy gray than true black, but this seems a limitation of the film itself, not Olive's transfer. Audio is clear if (typically) unremarkable. Olive has even thrown in a commentary track featuring director James L. Conway and his wife and star, Karen Balding*. Despite this release's many strengths, the truly remarkable aspect of The Boogens arriving on blu-ray is that it was even considered for the format in the first place. The fact that a film like this, one having missed the DVD era completely, has now found new life on this most definitive of home video formats only foretells splendid things to come for lovers of genre cinema. Screw streaming; viva blu-ray.

(Buy it from Amazon if you want, but ImportCDs has it cheaper and they ship it early. Choose wisely).

* Olive is often slagged off on home video forums for their business practices. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate (burned in subtitles, what?) but more often not (lots of griping about bad cover art, the lack of bonus features or total restoration). As far as this chap is concerned, Olive are doing a fine service to the unholy lords of cinema by releasing such consistently high quality releases at the breakneck clip they do. With blu-ray releases of Fassbinder's Despair, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Elaine May's A New Leaf, and the Jeff Speakman kenpo-action vehicle The Perfect Weapon already available or forthcoming, they are trying really hard to appeal to every twist of my cinematic taste-buds. Heck, I received their release of The Boogens and their release of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar on the same day! This truly is a Renaissance.