Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of March, 2013.
Absurd (Rosso sangue) (1981) dir. Joe D'Amato
Absurd is Joe D'Amato and George Eastman's quasi-sequel to their own Anthropophagus (1980). Though the former begins where the latter ends (with a disemboweled Eastman stumbling about), similarities cease immediately thereafter. Something is lost in retrofitting Anthropophagus' moody, often quiet, gore-leaking atmosphere into Absurd's bombastic, Halloween-ripping slasher tropes. It feels wrong to call Anthropophagus a subtle film (if we consider the fetus-munching and all), but in comparison with its successor it's unquestionably the film more willing to allow dread to breed in the viewer through a lack of action. Absurd tries a bit too hard to be an action-packed American slasher (of course it can't completely succeed: this one is Italian to the bone), and so feels more like a tightly assembled Greatest Hits package for the peaking subgenre. Fun, clever, and messy-- assuredly-- but because of its safe (if manic-paced) plumbing of conventionality, Absurd can only express a creative originality through slight twists on stock situations (of particular note is the superbly tense sequence in which a bed-ridden preteen girl must escape from her confining traction apparatus to evade Eastman). A decapitating finale cements my appreciation for the film, but it's fair to say my heart rests more with tortured, sun-blistered, gut-munching cannibals than lumbering, self-regenerating, bearded, wavy-maned night stalkers.
Deadtime Stories (1986) dir. Jeffrey Delman
Deadtime Stories is a horror anthology film that gives an intermittently mid-'80s approach to classic fairy tales, mushing tones and time periods together into an occasionally captivating jumble of stories and ideas that is in fact quite well summarized by casting a glance at that poster to your right. The film does indeed shove a mess of disparate elements down our throats, but despite the pained expression of the poor man in the poster it's not an entirely unpleasant viewing experience. A humorous wraparound about a drunken uncle regaling a sleepless child with sloppily told fairy tales bridges our three increasingly ridiculous segments together. Though perhaps an intentional progression, this devolution of the film into a full-fledged comedy as the uncle becomes restless and annoyed over having to tell yet another story is also a pretty big problem considering the overlong nature of the first segment (concerning some witches and their slave boy) and the fact that the strong sense of demented humor displayed in the final tale (a murderous riff on Goldilocks) leaves it feeling set apart from its more straight-faced peers. Nonetheless, Deadtime Stories is brief and diverting, with fantastic practical special effects throughout. My only true gripe is that the singular 1980s charm is restricted exclusively to the sadly forgettable second story (about a spunky, teenaged, color coordinated red sweater and pants-wearing Red Riding Hood who neglects to bring Grandmother her meds in favor of boinking her boyfriend in a shed) and the film's opening tune, which manages to namedrop Hitchcock, De Palma, and Romero in the same line, leading to comparisons between their work and itself which it should probably wish to avoid.
Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama (1988) dir. David DeCoteau
Though far from what most sentient beings would refer to as "a good film," David DeCoteau's exquisitely titled Ghoulies-in-a-bowling-alley flick, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, is irresistibly enjoyable. Reveling in sophomoric humor and barely competent lunacy, the film takes a largely predictable spin on the old maxim in re: monkey's paws and wish-granting genies: "Be careful what you wish for!" (Though the genie here is more accurately a foul-mouthed, trophy-dwelling imp puppet with a drunken operator.) Though there are moments of pleasing cartoon violence, the bad wishes instead generally result in some kinky sex comedy "eroticism" that allows for the rampant ogling of bosoms, buttressed by some early sorority hazing sadomasochism with a paddle and some rear ends. (A scene that's led one salivating Wikipedia writer to opine: "This proved to be one of the best spanking scenes in mainstream film and helped the film to become a cult favorite.") The star of the film is the incomparable Linnea Quigley as the nihilistic juvenile delinquent Spider, and she's perhaps never been better than here as she forms an unlikely platonic bond with the nerdy Calvin (Andras Jones) and sends the wicked imp back into the bowling trophy from which he sprung.
Black Candles (Los ritos sexuales del diablo) (1982) dir. José Ramón Larraz
While Larraz uses sleazy eroticism in films like The House That Vanished (1974) and Vampyres (1974) in service of his story and in the hope of producing Freudian psychosexual unease, Black Candles-- emerging nearly a decade later when the director had fewer opportunities for getting his films made-- is little more than satanic softcore with the revolting inclusion of a goat in its demon seeded orgies. The film brings erotic horror to new patience-testing lows, its gigantic shrug of a horror plot existing solely to occupy the screen in the bits between the dry humpings. Because the film is so totally uninterested in imparting any feeling or emotion through its copious erotic activity, we're left having to conclude that the film exists solely to titillate, and poorly at that. Authors Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill report in their book Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Films, 1956-1984 that Larraz was embarrassed with the film, and it's not too taxing to discern why.
Boardinghouse (1982) dir. John Wintergate
Boardinghouse is an early shot-on-video horror film, and perhaps the most ambitious and cheekily demented of them all. Writer/director John Wintergate casts himself as Jim, a wealthy and perpetually shirtless landlord who rents the remainder of the rooms in his large house to a gaggle of likewise perpetually shirtless young women. The premise sets us up for a sleazier ego-driven affair than the film ultimately delivers, for which we can all remain grateful. While there's a smidgen of hanky panky, the bulk is devoted to odd spurts of cornball humor, perplexing early video effect-addled slasher killings, and supernatural ESP shenanigans falling somewhere just shy of Blood Beat (1983) on the insanity scale. Clocking in at a flabby-considering-the-paucity-of-story ninety-eight minutes, it's assured to grate on the patience of most viewers, but there's more than enough inventive weirdness for those willing to accept the faults and the decidedly amateurish sheen.
Dr. Jekyll & His Women (Docteur Jekyll et les femmes) (1982) dir. Walerian Borowczyk
Dr. Jekyll & His Women is the first film by Walerian Borowczyk I've had the pleasure of viewing, and it has fast made me anxious to devour the rest of his lengthy filmography. Though it significantly-- nearly explicitly (Hyde's giant prosthetic penis, I'm looking at you)-- amps up the sexual and sadomasochistic tendencies only latent in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, what's incredible is how faithful Borowczyk's film is to the novel's presentation of the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, if not the particulars of its plot. As in the novel, the sheer primal joy Jekyll feels at being able to transform into Hyde and let his id run wild by shirking his public face is the emphasis. To transform into the rape-happy Hyde, Borowczyk's Jekyll (the fabulous Udo Kier) must roll around in a tub full of blood-colored chemicals, and whenever he does so (which is, greedily, multiple times over the course of a single night) he appears to be at the height of orgasmic ecstasy. This Jekyll, like the novel's, is not at war with Hyde, but is Hyde. The film uses its isolated castle and overnight lodging party guests to reveal-- rightly so-- that Jekyll's condition isn't unique to him, and that perhaps we all have a Hyde within us that we're eager to set loose, if only we can discover some secret formula for evading the hypocritical pressures to behave that society places on us. (See: the General's (Patrick Magee) enthusiastic Hyde-like whipping of his sexually active daughter, and the willing curiosity of Jekyll's fiancee, Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), to experience his chemical freedom and the violently emancipating actions she takes under its influence.) Borowczyk's visual style, replete with extreme closeups and discontinuous editing, is an intimate, claustrophobic marvel, and Dr. Jekyll & His Women is a mature and disturbing probe of the seedier, but perhaps more liberated, side of human nature. Expect to see some further words on this film here at the blog at some future date.
Silent Madness (1984) dir. Simon Nuchtern
One of the more tiresome slashers I've seen in some time. Silent Madness (in axe-flinging 3-D) makes the unconventional choice of mostly neglecting to spend any quality time with its sorority sister victims. Rather, the film centers on a pair of adults-- a medical psychologist and a local newspaper reporter-- who attempt to apprehend a neglectfully released homicidal lunatic in-between sessions of batting their eyelashes at each other. Loading a slasher film with mature protagonists is rarely a poor move, but placing them (for the majority of the film) out of direct peril sucks dry any immediate tension, the abundance of which is a dire necessity in a film in this mode, and the fact that spending so much time with them prevents us from getting to know-- much less distinguish between!-- the sorority sisters makes their inevitable deaths feel all the more perfunctory, as inspired as they might occasionally be. (See: a particularly gleeful-- and particularly '80s-- double homicide involving workout equipment and the arcade version of Dragon's Lair, in 3-D.) If the film has one thing going in its favor, it's an almost un-slasher-like subplot concerning the wild abuses of medical institutions that violate human rights while assuming authority of the management of hostile human bodies. But this queasy sci-fi tangent doesn't elevate the film: it instead leaves the film feeling more confused about what it aims to be. The film is no Hospital Massacre (1982) or Alone in the Dark (1982), both of which easily folded similar medical concerns into the slasher formula and became all the more thematically rich for them. Silent Madness is primarily rich in yawns.
The Uninvited (1944) dir. Lewis Allen
A puzzlingly well-regarded ghost yarn from the classic horror era, The Uninvited is brimming with much too much corny, folksy humor that deflates (one imagines unintentionally) all of the few horror bits, which barely register on the horror scale to begin with. At times the film more closely resembles a less-spirited (pun optional) foray into the contemporaneous romantic comedy genre, though with the perplexing distinction of the central couple being a brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) cohabiting a (barely) haunted house. This romantic comedy tone becomes an issue when we notice that not even our protagonists are frightened by the ghost that appears every evening in their new abode. If they're not the slightest bit uneasy, how could we possibly be? The film concludes with Milland's character actually laughing and wagging a finger at the ghostly apparition in front of him until it vanishes in shame, back into the ether. The film's needlessly complicated plot doesn't help matters much either, as it serves to only confuse the viewer and dedicate much of her remaining attention to its fruitless unraveling. The architecture of the haunted seaside house is rendered in a mundane contemporary style, and while this is a refreshing move away from the Gothic tradition it's a choice let down by the bland and workmanlike cinematography, which never attempts to capture the eerie quality that even relatively modern domestic structures can possess in the dead of night.
Images (1972) dir. Robert Altman
Images is one of Robert Altman's least often seen and talked about films, probably because it's one of his least "Altmanesque." Weird to say, because the film features many of his already-fully-developed signature stylistic touches (overlapping dialogue, ambiguous plot points), but Images differs from its obvious descendant in Altman's filmography, 3 Women (1977), in that it's wrapped snugly around a conventional psychological thriller story and concludes rather neatly with a definite (and not unexpected) closing revelation concerning the psychological state and prior actions of its tortured protagonist (Susannah York). This results in the film occupying a peculiar place in '70s cinema: it's too weird for the bulk of the psychological thriller crowd, but also ultimately too ordinary for the arthouse filmgoers. I think the pat quality of its resolution and some of its symbolism (the film returns on numerous occasions to the protagonist assembling a jigsaw puzzle) distracts from the complex psychological portrait of York's character painted throughout the film: that of a woman at war with her own desires, a conflict creating fluctuating perceptions of the men in her life-- both those present and absent-- that terrify her and threaten to collapse her various lives and identities into one messy, unfathomable jumble. It's an often startling film, with an impeccable score and lush cinematography revealing the vast, isolating nature of the Irish countryside that abandons York among the rolling hills with nothing but her multiple selves for company.
The Seventh Victim (1943) dir. Mark Robson
The Seventh Victim was a revelatory film experience. Frankly, I hadn't previously imagined a cheap horror production from so early in the genre's life could have mined such philosophical and psychological depths to such devastating effect. It's the best of the Val Lewton RKO horror productions I've seen thus far (now that's an accomplishment), and, moreover, one of the best early Hollywood films I've encountered, period. Dripping with stark but softly lit black and white compositions and morose, sleepwalking performances, the film is a dejected, nihilistic, minor-key masterpiece. Regardless of her sparse screen time, Jean Brooks is a captivating stoic presence as the tragic and doomed Jacqueline, pursued as desperately by her own depression as by the sinister forces out to silence her. Even when stripped of its admittedly toothless primary horror element (the passive satanic cult, so easily swayed from its devilish beliefs by only the slightest bit of preaching) the film remains an undeniable-- if experimental and unfortunately neglected-- pinnacle of the genre, wallowing in the most mundane but paralyzing of horrors: that of continued existence.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
I Walked with a Zombie is another Lewton-produced horror classic with an atmosphere almost more oppressive and mournful than The Seventh Victim's. The entire film feels like a protracted funeral procession, from which none of the participants wish to depart. Despite being produced in the 1940s and being set in the Caribbean with a largely black supporting cast, the film manages to toe the fine line between exploitation of indigenous cultural beliefs for moody and atmospheric chills and respect for the genuine power those beliefs seem to carry. This balance is probably best observed in the towering, bug-eyed zombie guardian Carre-Four (Darby Jones), who we're allowed to perceive as unnerving before the revelation of his total benevolence. Better yet, the film unambiguously asserts that the villains here (though such a term is difficult to bandy about) are the white settlers who have used the voodoo religion of the natives foolishly and unthinkingly, producing an unnatural (if harmless) creature, an undead physical reminder of their sins that locks their family into a painful and destructive stasis from which they cannot escape, even as it rots them from the inside.