Friday, August 30, 2013

Meltdown 09: Yellow Days of Summer (Part III)

Blood Link 



dir. Alberto De Martino

The ultra-sleaze of this early '80s giallo is, well, unexpected. Two years after filming the delightfully insipid, MST3K-lampooned children's superhero film Pumaman (1980), director Albert De Martino returned under the pseudonym "Martin Herbert" to buck expectations by delivering Blood Link, a Michael Moriarty-starring giallo that primarily concerns itself with scenes of rape and exposed breasts. It doesn't reach Giallo A Venezia (1979) levels of sleaze, but one can't help but feel dirty watching Moriarty apply his usual amiable slimeball charm to truly horrific ends. Consequently, Moriarty doesn't shine as often here as he does in any of Larry Cohen's films, but he sure savors every moment he gets to play off himself while starring as a pair of once-siamese identical twins-- one a doctor, the other a psychopathic serial killer-- who have an inexplicable extrasensory ability that allows them to, on occasion, transmit visual images to each other with their minds. (In one scene, while speaking to his other identical half, Moriarty whistles through his grin, "I'm a very flip character.") When one twin, Craig, sees the vile, sexualized murders committed by his estranged brother, Keith, though his own eyes, he decides to travel to Hamburg to track down his long lost blood relative and prevent any more violence. Much confusion of identities follows as the police hassle Craig thinking he's Keith while Keith impersonates Craig in order to give a wobbly Cameron Mitchell a heart attack and rape/murder a woman that Craig was cheating on his girlfriend with in the hope of framing his not-so-goody-two-shoes sibling. It's often very amusing, in part-- Keith's murderous psychosis was caused by, of all things, seeing his parents making out in the garage when he was a child, to which he promptly responded by squishing them with the family automobile-- but on the other hand the bulk of it is downright unseemly. When Craig's girlfriend, Julie (Penelope Milford), is raped by Keith and, seemingly, enjoys it, we catch shades of a similar moment in Straw Dogs (1971). But De Martino is no Peckinpah: this is misguided titillation at its lousiest, where rape is considered a horrifying cinematic spectacle only if someone "gets hurt." 

So Sweet, So Perverse 

(Così dolce... così perversa


dir. Umberto Lenzi

Decades before he played a sad old man in Michael Haneke's Amour (2012), Jean-Louis Trintignant snogged and rode jet skis with Carroll Baker, his mysterious upstairs neighbor, because his character in Umberto Lenzi's So Sweet, So Perverse was really bored. Jean Reynaud (Trintignant) is a wealthy businessman suffering from the pangs of ennui that afflict all of those with too much privilege: he's bored with his mundane high-power job; he's bored with his marriage to his beautiful wife, Danielle (Erika Blanc), and no longer even interested in her "slice of cake" that she's been denying him in bed; he's bored with his mistress (Mabille De Lancré herselfHelga Line) who provides him all the slices of cake he could ever desire. "Life is so boring nowadays," he grumbles, so when the noises of his new upstairs neighbor, Nicole (Baker), being beaten and abused by another man (the ever-swarthy Horst Frank) filter down to his apartment below, Jean is quick to jump into the sleazy soap opera drama of her life and aspire to the role of the rescuing white knight. But Nicole is simply a diversion for Jean-- a beautiful image of the tortured woman who requires assistance-- who will in fact rescue him, however temporarily, from his dull, pampered existence. He's not really interested in the particulars of her sad tale: before she relays her story to him and becomes a defined personality, he admits that he's be more content if she remained a mute image for his fascination: "I much prefer your silence." It's this blind, uncritical pursuit of a seeming damsel in distress that leads our pathetic, bored hero into a bramble bush of trouble and murder as the film progresses. In the second half of the film, our attention is focused on Jean's wife Danielle, who attests early on that she's sick of the antiquated Victorian notion of the dominant male and attempts to rebel against it by denying her husband any of her love and carrying on a lesbian affair. Her story, which comprises the remainder of the film, is a little more typical of the subgenre (i.e. gaslighting galore), but her fate is more tragic than usual: we receive the sense that she actually did care for Jean and her guilt over the plot she enacted against him haunts her until her cruel death. The climax of So Sweet, So Perverse is about as delectably bleak and cynical as these things come, but the film's overall story feels diluted by the mid-point twist, which especially leaves Carroll Baker's intriguing storyline (that of a rape victim who remains psychologically attached and sexually aroused by her attacker) by the wayside. It's not Lenzi's finest or most thematically complete, but it does open with a killer track from the great Riz Ortolani, and that counts for something.

Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor 

(Giorni d'amore sul filo di una lama


dir. Giuseppe Pellegrini

I suppose that every movie marathon meltdown needs a dud at its center to remind you of the relative qualities of everything else you've been watching. Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor is that dud. Simply, it is the worst giallo I've yet had the displeasure of encountering. This is the only film directed by Italian screenwriter Giuseppe Pellegrini (who co-wrote Renato Polselli's early days Italian horror flick The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)), and for this I am glad: I would prefer not to feel obligated to watch another film from this man. Despite possessing the most giallo-rific film title in the subgenre's history, Love & Death on the Edge of the Razor is not a horror-thriller. Nor is it anything else of note, besides a partial cribbing of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Forcing a label, it would have to be called, I suppose, a... romance crime drama? Perhaps, if one can earn that label without being romantic, dramatic, or action-packed. As the choppy editing telegraphs great spans of time between cuts, we are given the story of a boy (Peter Lee Lawrence) who meets a girl (Erika Blanc, or, as the credits amusingly re-dub her, "Blank") and who together fall madly in love until the girl dies in a car crash and the boy gets sad for a while but eventually picks up with another girl (Ivanna Novak), except it turns out that the first girl didn't actually die in a car crash but is now working as a journalist staging shady textile importation deals with gangsters because the boy's wealthy father blackmailed her into faking her own death in order to protect her own slightly corrupt father. This paucity of dramatic interest is approximately all that transpires in the film, except it's stretched out from a single overstuffed sentence into ninety minutes. Thankfully, the film concludes with an uplifting message: the power of love can save the lives of those people we hold dear who have large, gory gunshot wounds in their chests. Ugh. I'd rather have spent this lost time with my eyelids forcibly peeled open in front of The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975) again. At least that one had some severed heads made from paper mache: Love & Death on the Edge of a Razor has reminded me to appreciate the simple pleasures.

The Red Headed Corpse 

(La rossa dalla pelle che scotta


dir. Renzo Russo

A hidden gem of early-'70s Italian gialli, The Red Headed Corpse takes a manic spin on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and sprinkles it with the aesthetic content (if not the social critique) of a few earlier troubled-artist-turned-murderer flicks like Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Lewis's Color Me Blood Red (1965). A slightly wizened Farley Granger plays a drunken, struggling artist named John Ward whose paintings are no longer in demand from the local dealers. He stumbles around town cursing his luck one day and happens to wander into a park full of hippies. He turns down their offer of a joint to smoke ("you like the world as it is?" one of the hippies asks in astonishment), but he does take home an expressionless female mannequin that the lead hippie gifts to him, with the endorsement that it's "better than the real thing: it doesn't talk back." John makes the mannequin his new art project, and he talks to her while he fixes her up into an object that's "lovely, pure, faithful. Everything a woman should be." Of course, he fails to notice that she's also a hunk of plastic, but that's not about to stop his deranged mind, which imagines the mannequin coming to life one evening as a real woman (Krista Nell), who is referred to in the credits as "The Subservient Doll." The term "doll" is appropriate because this animated female becomes John's mute plaything, embodying his notion of the ideal female who is to be seen (to spill champagne on her breasts, mostly) and touched but not heard. 

John and his doll's happy co-existence is one day shattered by John's haunting memory of the rampant infidelity of his former wife (Erika Blanc), who is referred to in the credits only as, interestingly, "The Sensuous Doll." The bulk of the film then occurs in flashback, showing us first Blanc's instrumental hand in gaining John some momentary success as a painter of nude figures with her as his model and then her constant betrayals of marriage by getting randy with just about anyone who asks, including a pimply 16-year-old teen boy on the beach. Her selfish actions eventually lead John to murder... or do they? The film is ambiguous on the point of what exactly is reality and what is the delusion of John's mind. How can John have flashbacks to events that he wasn't present for? Are his memories of his wife's infidelities merely the anguished, misogynistic delusions of some male cuckolding fantasy, one in which a women who says "no" always means "yes"? A man haunted by a bleeding sentient mannequin is not quite an authority on empirical events, so we're never sure what to make of the images and memories on screen. What is apparent is that John is a man torn between two false fantasies of women: he's neither satisfied with the faithful but dull subservient doll who "never asks for anything" or the untrustworthy sensuous doll, whose treachery (real or imagined) is as alluring as it is torturous (the film ends on the kooky but somewhat chilling image of Blanc's giant transparent ghost head imposed over a shot of the outside of John's dingy house, laughing at him merrily as he watches wistfully from the rear window of a car in which he's being carted away to the loony bin). One imagines John's position might have improved if he'd only stopped thinking of women as dolls.

The Devil Has Seven Faces 

(Il diavolo a sette facce


dir. Osvaldo Civirani

Osvaldo Civirani tricked me. With a title, poster, and trailer like that bestowed upon his film The Devil Has Seven Faces, is it any fault of mine that I believed I was being set up to watch a Gothic-tinged giallo starring the formidable duo of the ever-present Carroll Baker and that charming rapscallion George Hilton? My brain starts to drool at the very idea of such a movie existing. But Civirani, the lousy scoundrel that he obviously is, tricked me. Barring a pretty cool but aesthetically jarring scene in which Baker descends into a basement with only a lighter for illumination and discovers-- to her horror-- a cobwebbed corpse, The Devil Has Seven Faces is far from what you might expect. Sure, it borrows liberally from the giallo's cabinet of plot curiosities-- we have twins, duplicitous lovers, mistaken identities, concealed identities, frantic chases, wigs, and fakeouts and twists galore-- but there's no obscuring the reality that the film is, at its core, a diamond heist film. On that action-and-intrigue-oriented level, it's a kooky pleasure: I'll watch Carroll Baker climb ladders in tight black short-shorts and smoosh a crazed George Hilton under the wheels of a bulldozer any day. But it's a crap giallo, and yet Civirani, his producers, and his distributors sold it to me as something special. Shame on them. I will, however, give them credit for one thing, for their's is the only film that's allowed me to see Baker's impressive emotive facial acting on display from underwater while her head is being plunged into a tub full of watery torture by some villainous villains. Spoiler.

The Fourth Victim 

(Death at the Deep End of the Swimming PoolLa última señora Anderson


dir. Eugenio Martín

Carroll Baker makes her final flirtatious appearance of the day in Eugenio "Horror Express" Martin's Spanish-Italian co-production, The Fourth Victim. This fine, Lenzi-esque film concerns the unusual occupation of one Mr. Arthur Anderson (Michael Craig), described by a prosecuting attorney as "a professional widower": Mr. Anderson marries women, takes out large life insurance policies against them, and then collects his reward when they inevitably perish in one kind of "accident" or another. This unexpected gender reversal of the old "Black Widow" routine helps Mr. Anderson persuade a jury of his innocence when he's put on trail for the suspected murder of his latest wife. A well-to-do man who would lower himself so far as to kill his wife for the money? Who could imagine such a dishonest way for a man to make his living? That's (clearly) wicked women's work. These thoughts are those that-- ostensibly-- pass through the brain of Julie (Carroll Baker) when she embarks on a love affair and eventual marriage with Mr. Anderson (his fourth) soon after their first encounter during a quick dip she steals in his pool. Julie attests that she harbors no suspicion against Mr. Anderson, a claim which even he's skeptical of: it's only after she presents him with a life insurance policy that she's taken out for him in her own name that he agrees to their marriage. Naturally, Julie hasn't told her new husband absolutely everything about herself, and the arrival of puzzle pieces like secretive late-night phone calls, information about years-long psychiatric hospital stays, and a murder-happy Marina Malfatti serve to further complicate an already fairly loopy plot. Still, the film's most bewildering moment occurs in its denouement when, all deadly secrets and murderous intentions revealed, Mr. Anderson and the latest Mrs. Anderson blissfully decide to stay hitched, having taken out-- together-- a joint life insurance policy. This might be the most sneakily cynical ending of all time: happiness in marriage is always knowing that you can bump off that other lethal crook you call your spouse for fat stacks of cash at a moment's notice. Ah, love.

Fatal Frames
(Fatal frames: Fotogrammi mortali)
dir. Al Festa

What was all that about gazing into the abyss and it gazing also into you? A bloated vanity project of epic proportions (it's over two hours long), Al Festa's Fatal Frames is both entirely baffling and weirdly satisfying. On the one hand, the film is obviously intended to prop up the career of its leading lady/director's lover/pop star prodigy Stefania Stella, which we can note due to her central presence in the film despite her possessing the acting talent of an exaggerated stuffed animal with googly eyes and her uncanny ability to mimic the sound of a slurred, drunken computer reading the phonetic pronunciation of words whenever she speaks. We also notice this obvious intention of the film during moments in which the action stops dead so that Stefania can flop around in a fountain and record a music video set to her mush-mouthed non-hit "Eternal City." And yet, on the other twisted monkey's paw, Fatal Frames is a loving tribute to the gialli of previous decades (though specifically those of the 1980s). It remains aesthetically consistent with those grimy, glitzed-out films from the likes of Lamberto Bava and Carlo Vanzina by featuring lots of fashion models, the odd seance or two, several male actors who look exactly like Furio from The Sopranos, pit stops for slinky photoshoots, and sleepy performances from a cavalcade of washed up genre vets. (David Warbeck, Alida Valli, Linnea Quigley, Angus Scrimm, and Donald Pleasence all fatally poke their sleepy heads into frame here, though Warbeck gives his performance a bit more energy than you'd expect. Sadly, Fatal Frames would be Pleasence's final film due to his death during production, leaving his performance incomplete. Naturally, Festa wrote him out of the film in the most tasteless of fashions). Fatal Frames should have gone terribly wrong, been insufferable even, but it's reined in enough that it's actually quite watchable and self-indulgent in all the right ways. Think of it as akin to a giallo helmed by Tommy Wiseau, only starring someone with even less of a familiarity with the English language than him. Stefania help me, I actually liked it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Meltdown 09: Yellow Days of Summer (Part II)

Body Puzzle 



dir. Lamberto Bava

They're never the best of the lot, but it feels wrong to ignore a giallo from Lamberto Bava whenever one watches a whole pile of them in a row. Although they were all produced a decade or more after the subgenre had peaked, there's still something quintessential about his giallo films, or at least quintessentially '80s European horror about them, meaning they're cheaper, gorier, frillier, and more colorful and garish than their forefathers. From A Blade in the Dark (1983) to Delirium: Photos of Gioia (987), Lamberto's gialli forgo subtlety and style in favor of big blades and bigger hair. As the great Mario Bava's talent-challenged son, Lamberto chooses to overcompensate for his lack of cinematographic grace in all of his directorial efforts by piling on the decade-specific sleaze and cheese. And as in the cases of the two films mentioned above, this overabundance can be a lot of fun, as his gialli often border on a sensibility close to that of the frenetic insanity of his biggest horror hit, Demons (1985). But I have to suppose that by the early '90s, after several years of cranking out mostly Italian TV features, Bava had begun to mellow out. Body Puzzle, his chief giallo of the period, is an almost restrained effort, barring the inclusion of a few pieces of inspired lunacy (like a toilet bowl cam that watches from underwater as a severed hand plops down into the bowl, or when the snarling killer pops out from the interior of an icebox full of cubes and corpses). Through its restraint alone the film winds up tonally and aesthetically closer to the traditional gialli of the '70s than Bava had ever come before, and the result is a curious change of pace. Following the Columbo formula, we're presented early on with a killer (François Montagut) who listens to classical music through earbuds while he harvests donated organs from his assorted victims for conspicuous placement around the house of the recently widowed Tracy (Joanna Pacula), and it's up to the efforts of a dedicated police inspector (Thomas Arana) to unravel why. Many convoluted revelations concerning identity, sexuality, and vital statistics follow, along with some cameos from nearly unrecognizable older versions of Erika Blanc and Gianni Garko. Its constant, running-length-stretching plot twists and contortions keep the proceedings involving, but it's both amusing and beguiling to watch Lamberto play-- even fleetingly-- at building a classy production. I mean, consider who we're talking about here.

In the Eye of the Hurricane 

(El ojo del huracán


dir. José María Forqué

In the Eye of the Hurricane is a very Jean Sorel sort of film. It's an erotic thriller in the Diabolique mode concerning a handsome playboy who slyly plots the torment and hopeful death of a wealthy woman that he's romantically involved with in order to gain access to her vast funds. So, it's a lot like some of Sorel's other gialli: Parnoia (1970, written about below) and The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), in particular. As luck would have it, Sorel happens to star in this enthralling Spanish-Italian co-production too (hooray for type-casting!). I won't deny that I'm a sucker for this type of giallo, as I've found that much joy can be wrung out of the games of domestic treachery and double-crosses even when they're not all that creative in their respective approaches or implementations. But In the Eye of the Hurricane, I'll hazard to argue, holds a dagger of originality up to the sub-subgenre's throat and dares it to make a clever move, resulting in a film that's both more suspenseful and ultimately more satisfying than its formal typicality would initially suggest. 

In this type of giallo, the female protagonist is generally beleaguered and hysterical, driven to madness, beset by paranoia, and left without much hope of saving herself from her own predicament without outside aid. In contrast, In the Eye of the Labyrinth's leading lady, Ruth (Analía Gadé), overhears the unambiguous late-night scheming of her envious ex-husband (Tony Kendall) and her sexy yet duplicitous new boypal (Jean Sorel, naturally) about halfway through, and thus she uses this secret knowledge to shape the events that follow. We spend the rest of the movie observing Ruth's emotional waffling between silent heartbreak over her beloved's betrayal and her cool determination to foil the plans against her before her danged brake fluid is tampered with again. (This waffling isn't always graceful, but it is always enjoyable to watch: in one scene, Ruth pretends to lay asleep and bizarrely resigns herself to death while Sorel's character stands behind her and points a gun at her head, unaware of her cognizance of his presence and intention. The editing in this scene hits a fever pitch as it quickly cuts back and forth between extreme close-ups of their anguished faces waiting far too long for something to happen before it finally does: the bedside phone rings.) Our uncertainty about which perspective Ruth will ultimately align herself with (revenge or resignation) makes the last act (which mirrors Carroll Baker's blackmail home imprisonment at the hands of two nymphomaniacal siblings in Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo (1969)) a riveting watch as Sorel sneers, a crazed Rosanna Yanni snarls, and the sexual torment commences. Without divulging too many details of the wrap-up, it should be noted that Ruth is a complex and capable female protagonist-- independent, strong-willed, and essentially faultless-- and these qualities alone set the film that rises up around her apart from the pack and their parades of tragic or guilty women. All this, plus a scene in which Sorel and Gadé perform an upside Spider-Man kiss on the beach while rubbing each other's tummies. This corpse is exquisite.

Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead 

(Tutti defunti... tranne i morti


dir. Pupi Avati

It's not an arduous task to place myself back into the frame of mind that once thought, "A giallo spoof from the director of one of the subgenre's finest entries (The House with Laughing Windows (1976))? How could this viewing experience possibly go awry?" But, as I was reminded of after watching Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead, one should probably never underestimate the enigma that is 1970s Italian comedy: it will always find new horrendous ways to baffle and repel. We are, after all, speaking of the cinematic output of a country whose horror-thrillers even end, from time to time, on the high note of an anal rape gag (see: Andrea Bianchi's uber-sleazy Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)). Commercial Italian films of the period were in no way subtle or refined, and the comedies even less so. If you haven't seen any but would like a general idea of how they feel, then imagine the general tasteless tomfoolery of a Screwballs (1983), a Joysticks (1983), or any other lewd and crude American teen sex comedy of the '80s and then skew that exact same content towards a middle-aged audience rather than post-pubescent teens. So, in short: jokes about masturbation, loose women, the mentally-handicapped, little people, homosexuality, cowboys, and... book salesmen. The story concerns just such a bulbous-nosed book salesman (Carlo Delle Piane) who arrives at the Zanotti family mansion on the eve of their patriarch's funeral in order to sell that collected bunch of eccentrics and perverts a reproduction of an old manuscript detailing the finer points of their family curse and a prophecy promising treasure if nine corpses are accumulated over the course of one stormy night. One member of the household, seeing this prophecy, decides to don a fedora and black gloves in the hope of speeding fate along. Hilarity ensues? 

There are certainly some good jokes to be found in-between all the groan-worthy nonsense: I quite liked the exchange between a confused victim and his killer immediately after the latter has stabbed the former in his side: "What's that?" "A nice stab, can't you see?" "(groans, dies.)" The film contains a few of the warm, fuzzy Old Dark House laughs that you'll receive from watching similar yet superior slapstick murder mysteries like Clue (1987) and Murder By Death (1976). For example, when the power is cut by the killer, the perpetually clueless Inspector Martini (Gianni Cavina) shouts at the others assembled, "pay the bills, guys!" (when the lights flicker back on later in the film, he sighs, with relief, "so they paid it!"). The film's most amusing gag occurs when the gathered family members, led by Inspector Martini, attempt to instruct a pair of dogs to follow the killer's scent from one of his victim's severed hands that they've discovered. They toss the bloody hand to the dogs, who then promptly devour it. There's clearly something amusing about the giallo murder mystery ripe for skewering, but  Everybody Deceased... Except the Dead's parody is far from as focused as it ought to be. When's the last time you saw a giallo that featured death-by-electric anti-masturbation machine?

Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It

(Uccidete il vitello grasso e arrostitelo


dir. Salvatore Samperi

Salvatore Samperi's ultra-rare and ever-so-excellent Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It deserves a wider audience, for its peculiar cinematic tale would satisfy genre junky and art film connoisseur alike. Far from a straight-razor wielding giallo, the film has as much in common with one of Poe's darkly humorous Gothic family tragedies as it does the more eccentric, atypical products of the subgenre it has been lumped in with due to historical proximity. This sad but inevitable tale of the doomed Merlo family, who are plagued by ancestral madness, Oedipal complexes, incestual lust, and sibling backstabbing, holds artistic pretensions that would place it in line with the demented, sexually-malformed social commentaries of Samperi's compatriot Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film not-so-subtly posits that Italy's rich old families, who have built their vast ancient wealth on the destruction and murder of whole villages of those less fortunate than them, are diseased at the root and fated to poison themselves through desire and aggression turned back on itself now that there's no one left to subjugate. After the unexpected death (or murder?) of the family patriarch, youngest son Enrico (Maurizio Degli Esposti) begins an investigation that places his shady older brother Cesare (Jean Sorel, making his second appearance today) and his dryly seductive cousin Verde (Marilù Tolo) as the primary suspects. At the same time, Enrico also busies himself with creating a creepy shrine for his insane dead mother and carrying on an illicit affair of motherly affection with his cousin Verde, who has sex with him but also dresses in his mother's clothes before offering him her breast to suckle. Sublime, surreal Freudian weirdness runs high throughout: it's the sort of film that inspires one to jot down a note reading "boob/pudding jiggle juxtaposition." Eventually, Enrico wades deep enough into his family's deadly business that he begins to drown, forcibly. The film submits through its title and some internal dialogue that in this way Enrico is like an innocent calf among hungry wolves, but it also becomes clear through Enrico's damaged psyche and the story's grim conclusion that a calf too long among wolves grows sharp teeth.

Death on the Fourposter 

(Sexy PartyDelitto allo specchio


dir. Jean Josipovici

An Italian-French co-production, Death on the Fourposter (also known by the less striking title Sexy Party) arrived in cinemas the same year as Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964), a film of no small importance to the foundation of the giallo subgenre. Consequently, director Jean Josopovici's film doesn't have an ingrained giallo tradition to draw upon when concocting its own murder mystery, and so instead draws upon elements of the Gothic. And yet, those elements of the Gothic that Death on the Fourposter employs-- seances and mediums, chilly castles, returns from the dead-- would soon become as much a part of the giallo tradition as Bava's fashion models and gloved killer. This observation is not intended to give Death on the Fourposter (which is, after all, a rather obscure film) equal or even a significant amount of credit in the development of the subgenre, but it does make clear that Bava's film didn't appear out of the ether: it, like Jean Josipovici's film, was the product of an evolution of a long and storied tradition of murder mystery and Gothic horror cinema in Italy and throughout Europe. That these and other Euro mystery films were, by the mid-1960s, simultaneously beginning to include scenes of more blatant sexuality and bloody violence than those films of previous decades is a sign of the fast-changing times post-watershed horrors like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960).

Through almost entirely deficient on the bloody violence count, Death on the Fourposter's proto-giallo cred certainly shines through in its sultry sexual content. There's none of the explicit sexuality or nudity of the '70s giallo canon, but the film's alternately titular sexy party certainly earns that designation. A band of irritatingly rich young men and women whose names invariably end in either "y" or "ie" descend upon a castle for a weekend get-together (one of them quips, "this is better than your father's castle") and their evening soon devolves into a string of naughty parlor games in which there is much seducing, teasing, partner-swapping, wagering, sexy dancing (set, off-time, to a special guest's new hit party record, entitled, naturally, "Sexy Party"), and shattering of illusions. This first half of the film is quite a lot of steamy fun, thanks in no small part to the bewitching presence of actress Antonella Lualdi as Serena, a sort of devilish socialite with devious charm and sex appeal to spare. Serena puts her fellow party guests on trial through her only ostensibly playful games, revealing the others' various hypocrisies and petty vices while she smiles all the while. Serena is such a strong and alluring presence in the film that the action takes a nosedive in its interest for the viewer after she's knocked off at the midway point. Who killed her? Why? Who's dead next? Where are the stolen rings? Who's going insane? These are all questions that the film spends the rest of its length answering, but I would have preferred to have seen some more of Serena putting chinks in high society's armor of respectability.

Cross Current 

(Un omicidio perfetto a termine di legge


dir. Tonino Ricci

Like In the Eye of the Labyrinth, Tonino Ricci's Cross Current twists and turns endlessly in its trashy attempt to simulate a Diabolique-inspired murder soap opera. (Also like in that film-- released in the same year, by gum-- the lovely Rosanna Yanni pops up here as a scheming sexpot who favors boogieing in miniskirts. No complaints.) Cross Current isn't as clever or as complex as that other film, but it certainly makes up for that lack in plot complexity. Most of the notes I took while watching the film were mostly intended to help me keep the details straight as it barreled along in its tale of boating accidents, gardener blackmail, midnight stranglings and the like. As is usually the case, everyone here has a hidden agenda and more than likely a hidden lover. More than a few of them "die" before popping up very much alive in order to enact some new nefarious plot. The rich plot and scheme, killing each other and themselves, all over measly business interests. This is the standard score, but Ricci and his crew pull an admirable job by maintaining its appeal. It's kind of hard to frown on a film that ends with a character being so scared by some spooky music playing on the record player that she trips, hits her head, and dies after guzzling down some J&B, only to then have it strongly implied that it was all part of the villain's plan. Ludicrously messy murder-plotting all in good fun, with the added benefit of providing our first sighting of the ever-smirking/ever-dashing Ivan Rassimov this month. No complaints at all.


(A Quiet Place to Kill


dir. Umberto Lenzi

Carroll Baker is a race car driver. If you need me to continue, then your eyes must have skimmed past the previous sentence without fully gleaning its import. Paranoia, Umberto Lenzi's third giallo with the inestimable Ms. Baker and the only in which her character stars as a bonafide prizewinning race car driver, has driven a symbolic race car off of a cliff and into my heart. It might not be the best giallo that this power duo concocted together (my vote would still go to Orgasmo), but-- from its solarized, spoiler-filled opening credits to its closing ironic twist that dooms the villainous victors-- it's awfully close. Three years before the action of the film begins, Helen (Carroll Baker) had all of her money spent by her lazy European boyfriend, Maurice (Jean Sorel, again), before he split, forcing her to spend the next few years making drastic career moves (i.e. race car driving) in order to recoup her wealth and get over her heartbreak. When Maurice's new wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer), sends Helen an invitation to stay at their home in Maurice's name, Helen impulsively decides to take up the offer. What she discovers after arriving is that Maurice is still up to old tricks and that Constance wishes to enlist her help to rid him from their lives, preferably by strategically placed harpoon. However, Helen's rekindled passion for all things Maurice makes her decision a difficult one. A murder, a cover-up, and a guilty conscience later, the film reaches an entirely new level of delirious entertainment when Constance's sultry schoolgirl daughter, Susan (Marina Coffa), arrives at the estate and begins to sniff that something foul is afoot. We're then gifted with a parade of wigs, whiskey abuse, and exploding cars to close events out (complimenting the film's earlier parade of a carrier pigeon, bubble disco dancing, and a frumpy green bikini quite nicely).

There are many neat things to be found in Paranoia for the subgenre buff, but the neatest might be the film's pointed inversion of typical gender roles. It is the film's women, rather than its men, who are the providers. Both Helen and Constance are self-made women, using their earned wealth to lead extravagant lifestyles that cater to the whims and tastes of their hunky but penniless arm candy (like the unemployed Maurice). Helen and Constance both make clear that they've cycled through many young live-in playboys due to lust over the years, as if they've been irresistibly tempted by their masculine charms. This sort of domestic and romantic arrangement is totally typical in giallo films if you reverse the sexes, but Paranoia's evacuation of gendered expectations is unique, and, in a way, sort of total: when the car that Helen and Maurice are driving breaks down on the road, it's Helen who takes a peep under the hood and announces the car's failure while Maurice idles by helpless. Carroll Baker is a race car driver.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Meltdown 09: Yellow Days of Summer (Part I)

Summertime: the best time of year to don black gloves and chase fashion models and their boyfriends through the back alleys of Rome. Throughout August I'll be spending my weekends in a whiskey-soaked haze of murder, inheritance scams, psychosexual pleasure, and sex-concealing trench coats as I stalk my way through twenty one fiendish gialli that I've yet to make acquaintance with. These dog days will be decidedly yellow.

French Sex Murders 

(Casa d'appuntamento


dir. Ferdinando Merighi

Of the ten gialli covered for this entry, Ferdinando Merighi's French Sex Murders is easily the most typical of the subgenre, but that doesn't mean it isn't oozing a weirdness all its own. In addition to its familiar spat of black-gloved sex murders we're also witness to its more eccentric bits, like the facts that the killer carries a pair of accusatory eyeballs around in his pocket and that the lead investigator of the crimes is a Humphrey Bogart impersonator. Right from the start we know we're in for something special when we witness a man's unexplained falling from the top of the Eiffel tower, twice. (Editing is credited to the illustrious Bruno Mattei, naturally.) From there things play out in much the same fractured, loopy manner. A hoodlum beats up his prostitute girlfriend for being a "whore" and when she's found dead the police chase after him as the obvious suspect. When he's caught, tried, and sentenced to die by guillotine (!), he curses the assembled onlookers and declares that he'll have his revenge from beyond the grave. (Fun and sort-of-insane fact: France was still guillotining folks all the way up until 1977.) Of course the condemned hoodlum then escapes and dies in a decapitating motorcycle wreck (ironic cosmic justice!), but we have to figure his curse still applies. When assorted prostitutes are murdered in elaborate fashion, Inspector Bogey and his associates must ponder whether the fiend really is a ghost or something more corporeal. Amusingly, Mattei edits all of the film's death scenes to repeat multiple times in quick succession with Bay of Blood (1971) trailer solarization layered over top, making every death look as if it were caused by a Christmas strobe light malfunction. Pretend incest, decapitation by antique sword, and stretch-marked lovemaking round out the events. French Sex Murders is a silly but delectable slab of yellow cheese with an enviable cast of Eurohorror regulars (Rosalba Neri, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Bouchet, Howard Vernon) from a director who sadly put his name to little else.

The Bloodstained Butterfly 

(Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate


dir. Duccio Tessari

Duccio Tessari's The Bloodstained Butterfly sure does look like a giallo (on paper and poster, at least). With its string of suspicious murders and shot of a bottle of J&B within the first few minutes, it feels safe to say that it is a giallo, of course, but it never feels like one. The story is appropriately absurd, but Tessari refrains from presenting it in the giallo's sensational fashion. The cinematography of Carlo Carlini (who had worked with Fellini on I Vitelloni (1953) and Rossellini on Il generale della Rovere (1959) previous to this film) is flat and procedural, observing the action from low angles in close-up, deflating any sense of spectacle that the subject could create (placing the film in contrast to Tessari's later giallo Puzzle (1974), which is all chainsaw-wielding spectacle). The murders occur almost entirely off-screen, preventing the inclusion of any gory set pieces. This means that many of the subgenre's admirers are going to find The Bloodstained Butterfly quite dull, but the lack of bloodshed doesn't significantly detract from the film's sneaky Wrong Man plot and brief flirtation with social critique. (The wealthy and affluent killer-- I won't say who-- must kill so that he can take suspicion off someone else, and the victims he chooses are prostitutes, because the poor and unfortunate aren't people. Right?) But there's no denying that this isn't primarily a police procedural with elements of courtroom drama and sprinkles of melodramatic romance, adultery, and the attempted rape of a minor. It's not totally without sleaze, after all. The film also contains a choice piece of dialogue: one character refers to "the limited amount of blood" she has in the whiskey pumping through her heart.


(Murder Near Perfect


dir. Carlo Vanzina

I'll tell you what's not a mystery: why Mystere isn't well known, even among those stricken with giallo fever. That's not to say that Carlo Vanzina's latter day giallo is either forgettable or a celluloid abomination, but it is rather confused about what exactly it's trying to be. The bulk of Vanzina's work before and after writing and directing Mystere (excepting his other major mid-'80s giallo, Nothing Underneath (1985)) falls under the umbrella of Italian comedy, and there's certainly an element of "humor" here, if your idea of humor is a meat-head detective who is adamant that white women are boring and catty, innuendo-rife repartee between prostitutes and pimps. Even more than a comedy, Mystere resembles a scrappy spy thriller when its giallo killings give way to car chases, explosive money drops, and double crosses. Those early giallo moments are enticing (a killer with a razor sharp cane is stalking and dispatching anyone on his path to recovering a golden cigarette lighter full of incriminating negatives), but they don't endure. The medium-to-low octane action that overtakes the rest of the film isn't on par with that of any of the finer poliziotteschi of the period, and even then we see that its modest fumbling of thrilling set pieces can be chalked up to Vanzina's preference for comedy. (An amusing corpse decoy gag is used twice within five minutes near the film's back end, which just goes to show that there's no respect for the dead in Italian cinema.) 

The film's most obvious appeal is wisely the sole feature printed on its theatrical poster and highlighted by its title: Mystere, played by former Bond girl Carole Bouquet, who had also starred in the films of Luis Bunuel and Ulli Lommel, is a bewitching screen presence. Bouquet is a beautiful woman, obviously, but its her character's striking self-reliance and autonomy that is nearly the film's saving grace. In contrast to far too many female characters in Italian genre cinema, Mystere (at least initially) is an independent woman who, as a prostitute who pimps herself out, utilizes and controls her own sexuality to take monetary advantage of the weaselly males around her. True, this hardly allows her to stand as a progressive feminist icon, but when compared to her contemporaries (who are almost exclusively crazed villainesses or hopeless victims) she stands out. And yet, in a surprising bit of bleak reality, the film also demonstrates that despite her personal strength Mystere is still the victim of blunt, as well as ingrained, patriarchal forces: to maintain her relative independence as a prostitute, she must trade her sexual favors to a local pimp on a monthly basis. The unfortunate message the film slowly reveals is that even a woman with Mystere's self-possession and intelligence can't operate with total autonomy in the film's world. This is reinforced explicitly by the film as it progresses. When Mystere meets the repugnant and aptly named Detective Colt (Phil Coccioletti), she crumbles as both a character and an outlying figure in giallo cinema. Colt beats her, and she crawls into bed with him. He grossly betrays her, and she tracks him down and forgives him with a kiss. The film's humbling and debasement of Mystere over its concluding acts is embarrassing and vaguely infuriating. Why go to the trouble of teasing us with a strong female character like Mystere only to then destroy her? Is her destruction the film's entire misogynistic point, making the absurd claim that even the toughest women give up when courted by a juvenile but manly stallion? What exactly Vanzia and his crew were thinking with this evacuation of any sort of complexity from the film's portrayal of gender relations can be responded to with the same quip Mystere (when she's still herself) snarls at Colt after he asks her the meaning behind her name: "It's a mystery."

The Bloodstained Lawn 

(Il prato macchiato di rosso


dir. Riccardo Ghione

Long before the mad scientist's refrigerator-sized robot begins to suck all nine pints of blood from the body of a prostrate nude woman through use of its unfurled hose claws, we realize that something is off about Riccardo Ghione's The Bloodstained Lawn. This tale of a wealthy couple (Marina Malfatti and Enzo Tarascio) who employ the woman's brother (Claudio Biava) to pick up hitchhikers, gypsies, drunkards, and other undesirables for pampered imprisonment on the grounds of their moddish property in order to further their shadowy and nefarious scheme is certainly not a typical horror tale, though that basic premise is recognizable enough to anyone steeped in too many of these films. See, The Bloodstained Lawn, with its oversize bow-ties, screeching mechanical mannequin heads, and vagina-shaped doors that lead into mirrored rooms perfect for psychedelic orgies, resists being just another giallo. Technically it's not a giallo in any traditional sense, but, then, what the hell else could it be? Is it a... comedy? It's certainly often humorous, but it's difficult to tell if the film itself is aware of this fact. Throughout, the film plays its barefaced satire straight, despite the progressive introduction of increasingly bonkers plot points and situations. It lampoons its pleasure-seeking youths and flamboyant, eccentric wealthy class to an equal extent, with the former being shamed for their shocking dimness and inner vacuity and the latter for their egomania and wanton devaluing of human life for profit. 

Our lead couple of hitchhikers (Daniela Caroli and George Willing) are a pair of barely functioning, free-spirited druggies blissfully unaware of the danger that they're in as long as chemicals are provided to them at regular intervals. Humorously, they discover numerous blatant clues as to their hosts' evil intentions-- including a furnace brimming with human bones and a freezer full of exsanguinated corpses-- yet never display any definite signs of being eager to escape their imprisonment and the fate that awaits them. They sit meekly, groovily by, like lambs to the blood-letting. Their murderous hosts, Dr. Antonio Genovese and his wife Nina, justify their actions with flimsy claims of selfless endgames: Dr. Genovese dreams of creating a race of immortal cyborgs through his experiments while Nina imagines she's helping the poor, needy people of the Orient dealing with war and famine. Both ignore the fact that they're profiting-- exorbitantly and lustfully-- from their black market blood bank. Though they bear no striking resemblance to one another, The Bloodstained Lawn is reminiscent of Sergio Bergonzelli's nearly as strange In the Folds of the Flesh (1970), another sorta-giallo that contains some out-of-nowhere social and political content.

What Have They Done to Your Daughters? 

(Coed MurdersLa polizia chiede aiuto


dir. Massimo Dallamano

What Have They Done To Your Daughters?, Massimo Dallamano's follow-up to his ultra-sleazy, schoolgirl-defiling, Fabio Testi-starring giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), is perhaps not as memorable as that earlier piece of outrageously questionable content, but it is a tighter and more thematically rich effort. A 15-year-old pregnant girl is discovered hanging from the ceiling on the top floor of an abandoned building, and the investigation of her ostensible suicide by a police inspector (Claudio Cassinelli) and an assistant district attorney (Giovanna Ralli) uncovers something far more sinister than one troubled teen's lamentable death: the dead girl had been drugged, raped, and coerced into participating in a secret but far-reaching teenage prostitution ring servicing powerful local interests. To protect the secrecy of the ring, a butcher knife wielding chap decked out in a full-body leather motorcycle outfit and helmet begins to wave his weapon at the fleshy limbs of anyone getting too close to the truth. Dallamano's film has some fantastic chase sequences, well-crafted moments of suspense, and clever cinematography throughout, but I was most endeared with its progressive attitude towards women in the workplace doing "men's work" (Ralli's district attorney is a strong and confident female character, and her strictly professional relationship with Cassinelli's inspector is based on mutual respect and admiration) and its cynical yet ultimately defiant attitude towards corruption in the world (though our heroes solve the case and present damning evidence of the prostitution ring's bigwig clientele to their bosses, they're told that no one will be indicted as the criminals have too much political pull. Disgusted, Cassinelli's Inspector Silvestri speaks for himself and his associates when he tells their superior to "go fuck [himself]"). There are some disappointments to be had within the film (the casting of Mario Adorf and Farley Granger in what amount to pointless cameos is a serious annoyance) but one would have a difficult time denying that this is a satisfyingly yellow mystery.

Slaughter Hotel 

(Cold Blooded BeastLa bestia uccide a sangue freddo


dir. Fernando Di Leo

One measly year after completing Slaughter Hotel, director Fernando Di Leo began to carve his name into the stump that is Italian cinema through his numerous and always excellent entries into the crime genre, including the likes of such breathtakingly crafted films as Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and Shoot First, Die Later (1974). But before all that was Slaughter Hotel, Di Leo's sole horror effort and-- as many would likely claim-- an enormous, pus-filled blemish on the director's otherwise largely impeccable filmography. True, there's little if any of Di Leo's unmistakable talent on display here: Slaughter Hotel is crude, artless, brashly exploitative, and about as deep as one of the oily nude massages it displays on screen. The film is rather lacking in most narrative and cinematic aspects and-- worse yet-- it's more often than not quite dull, and yet Di Leo's slapdash effort is still a fascinating and marginally unique example of the giallo. It's the first ever softcore giallo, and that is quite the distinction. After all, the giallo subgenre was founded on the titillating tension that exists between sex and violence, and its films' innumerable instances of beautiful nude women being slashed to pieces before and after copulation deliberately toss viewers back and forth between states of excitement and revulsion. (Despite how it sounds, the juxtaposition of sex and death in the giallo film is often vastly more complicated in its portrayal than that of its blatantly moral North American slasher descendants. In the giallo film-- and in the bulk of European horror generally-- sex is rarely if ever frowned upon as a corrupting force; it is, rather, the denial or perversion of sexual impulses that creates monsters.)

But Slaughter Hotel, with its unabashed crotch closeup a scant five minutes in and many more spread labia to follow, cranks up the giallo's erotic component to a new level of explicitness. One can read the film's plethora of eroticism as an argument that the subgenre should aim to celebrate sexuality in a society and cinematic landscape that often violently suppress it. The film's primary conceit of a prison-like "rest home" for suicidal and sexually active women (whom their husbands and male doctors have deemed to be abnormally sexually active) is the perfect vehicle through which to deliver such an argument. To make a blatant point a little less subtle, Di Leo has the titular rest home-- ostensibly a place of healing-- casually outfitted with a full array of medieval weaponry and torture devices, including an iron maiden. This grim setting, which ensures the loss of personal and sexual liberty, helps to explain the derangement of the female patients within. Eventually, the setting also allows for the creation of a sexually supportive environment between the patients and female nurses that excludes the repressive specter of male dominance (read as: tender lesbian action galore). Di Leo's camera focuses and lingers far more lovingly on the film's many scenes of same-sex and solo softcore (at times nearly hardcore) heavy petting than it does on its infrequent attacks of violence. Di Leo may favor the former as a filmmaker, but the repressive society he has established (and perhaps the regional film industry he's working in) demands that the latter accompany it. Though not adverse to including scenes of murder, the film is also clearly doubtful that the relationship between sex and violence in gialli should be slanted in the direction of murder. Its most significant moment critiquing that relationship comes along with the demise of Rosalbi Neri's nymphomaniac character: cornered by the axe-wielding killer, her death inevitable, she purrs at her assassin and pleads with him to at least have sex with her first. Di Leo is aware that violence is the unavoidable culmination of the giallo plot, but he also knows that violence isn't necessarily where its pleasures lie. To savor only the murder and discard the sleaze would be a bit boring, would it not?

The House of the Yellow Carpet 

(La casa del tappeto giallo


dir. Carlo Lizzani

I'm not certain, but it may be the case that The House of the Yellow Carpet is the only giallo coming to us from an Academy Award Nominee, for whatever that's worth. At the 1951 ceremony, director Carlo Lizzani was nominated for the now-retired Best Story award for his work on Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice (1949). Nearly 35 years later, his work on The House of the Yellow Carpet is less worthy of a Best Story statuette than it is one for Best Old Story Repurposed to Darkly Comical Ends. Adapted from a play by Aldo Selleri, the film is a Gaslight-inspired chamber drama concerning a trio's convoluted and wrongheaded attempt at curing a young married woman of the psychological trauma of being sexually abused by her stepfather as a child. Honestly, this is one of the more bizarre premises I've come across in my exploration of the giallo: annoyed that his wife Franca (Beatrice Romand) keeps moaning the name of her abusive stepfather during her late night dream fantasies instead of his own, Antonio (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) hires a married pair of experimental psychiatrists (Erland Josephson and Milena Vokotic) to cure her through their unconventional method. That astonishing method is to eradicate Franca's past trauma by creating a new, safer trauma for her to fret about. This unscrupulous couple of head shrinkers hope to accomplish this by staging a twisted, elaborate play for Franca, in which Josephson's character poses as a demented doctor who gains entry to Franca's apartment under false carpet-buying pretenses and then proceeds to lock them both in, admit to murdering his wife, and terrorize Franca with a knife to the extent that she will then attempt to turn the tables on her domestic abductor. After Franca believes she's dispatched of her antagonist, Antonio arrives home and begins to plant doubts in her mind about the reality of the day's events-- see, her symbolic murder of a crazed stepfather-like figure and disposal of his body wrapped up in a carpet given to her by that stepfather is certain to stop her from calling out his name during her fits of dream passion, especially if she thinks it all happened only in her own crazy, mixed-up head. Of course

That's one bizarre plot outlined above, but the film doesn't play it without a certain amount of snickering contempt. The film seems to be amused by Antonio's pathetic, insecure reasons for "helping" his wife, and the psychiatrists are painted unambiguously as criminals, perhaps suggesting the film's view of psychiatry in general. Freudian psychology and interpretations of motivation are a staple of the giallo, but usually they're put forth in earnest. That's not the case here. Lizanni's sympathies seem to rest firmly with Franca: she's not portrayed as pea-brained or helpless, and she's pretty quick to point out the likely possibility that her husband and his accomplices are probably just gaslighting her. At one point I jotted down in my notes "Everyone is acting like they're from outer space," and that seems accurate upon reflection: characters and performances are ever-so-slightly askew, like, for example, Josephson's mad doctor, whose hand is deformed and intermittently paralyzed. The hand, he tells Franca, is "in mourning" for the late wife whom he claims to have murdered. Dialogue and pacing are sharp, the plot becomes ever-more ludicrous as it barrels along, and the ironic closing twist is about as devilishly satisfying as they come. Devoid of giallo stalwarts, the film is populated instead with some strong and well-respected European arthouse actors: Josephson is a legendary actor who worked extensively with Bergman and Tarkovsky, Romand was an Eric Rhomer regular, and Milena Vukotic had roles in many of Luis Bunuel's great films. But don't let the film's pedigree fool you: this is a knowingly silly and outrageous ode to clunky meddling of the damaged psyche.

Friday, August 2, 2013

July 2013's Footstones

Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of July, 2013.

The Conjuring 
dir. James Wan

James Wan's The Conjuring is an excellent major studio-backed horror film, among the most well-crafted in several years. It hits every note of demonic terror to supernatural perfection. Essentially, it's the best Greatest Hits of 1970s-1980s Major Studio Horror that's been produced thus far, incorporating elements of such pop culture titans as The Amityville Horror (1979), Poltergeist (1982), and The Exorcist (1973) into its ceaseless assault of innocent audiences. (Appropriately, those involved had the good sense to make it a period piece set in 1971.) It's good press that The Conjuring is the first film to be given an R-rating by the MPAA not because of any specific content but because it's simply too scary. However, this badge of honor from the MPAA also inadvertently articulates an almost intangible quality of the film itself: it's horror filmmaking at its purest, most refined state. Every accelerated plot point, every dread-filled pause in the action, every move the camera makes is executed for maximum fright effect. To aid this, the filmmakers adopt the feeling of '70s horror alongside its base mechanical parts: The film avoids CGI and paces its jumps with suspense. It establishes a concrete sense of space with the Perron family homestead (one of the more simultaneously beautiful and creepily atmospheric movie houses of recent years) and then drops a thick, palpable layer of unheimlich menace over it. Deplorable teenagers aren't shoved in front of us as our protagonists, but a pair of loving and sympathetic families is. There's no story-betraying sting-in-the-tail twist, just the schmaltzy, reaffirming Poltergeist II-styled message that Love Conquers All (with a little help from Jesus, too: though the film's general lack of cynicism is refreshing, the social and religious conservatism implied by its conclusion is a tad too old-fashioned, supporting (rather sneakily) an overly traditional notion of the family unit as a man and a woman with clearly defined gender roles popping out an endless string of children in service of God. For more on how this implicit message is at odds with the more interesting and dynamic changes to social and cultural values brought about in the '70s, check out Jed Mayer's excellent essay on the film).

All of these deliberate stylistic choices signal that The Conjuring is determined to be a classical horror movie updated for modern viewing sensibilities, much like Wan's two previous horror films, Insidious (2011) and Dead Silence (2007). But The Conjuring sidesteps the eccentric creativity of those previous films in favor of conventionality. Every recognizable scary movie element is here: the dead dog, the child who talks to ghosts, the birds who fly into windows, the hidden basement, the possessed doll, the invisible force that pulls on your feet at night. Noting all of these components helps one to realize that The Conjuring might be the most generic horror film of the past decade, but not to its detriment. The film's effect lies in its ability to compound those elements of horror movie lore into one seamless though overstuffed entity that hurls itself incessantly at its audience and sticks, leech-like, at the back of our necks. It's exhilarating to watch the film push two hours but never outstay its welcome and not once lose the attention of its rapt audience. The Exorcist can't claim that much. 

True, it is a bit of a downer that Wan, one of modern horror's top directing talents, chose to retreat from the slightly more daring propositions of his early horror films, Saw (2004) included, because The Conjuring-- as technically excellent as it may be-- doesn't attempt to add anything new to the genre's repertoire. (Perhaps the absence of his frequent partner, screenwriter Leigh Whannell, has something to do with this relative lack of daring.) Even worse, Wan is beginning to display signs of a desire to move out of the genre, as we might guess from his recent landing of the Fast 7 gig. We're fortunate enough to be the recipients of Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) a couple short months from now, but if that's the last we see of "James Wan, Horror Filmmaker" for the foreseeable future, then we certainly have a lot less to look forward to. But maybe our future isn't hopeless. The monstrous financial success of films like The Conjuring and The Purge (2013) this year is heartening, for it shows the major studios that they can take risks on mature, inexpensive, and creatively made R-rated horror films because an audience hungry for them indeed exists. (Perhaps unfortunately, the equal success of Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) back in January also tells them that the easy-to-please teenage audience is still breathing, too.) If the studios decide to take a few more of these chances in the coming years while avoiding the big budget horror flops, remakes, and tossed off sequels of the recent past (all of which have had diminishing returns) the genre will be better off for it. And, who knows, maybe something more bold and original will slip past some executive's desk and into theaters.

dir. Jamie Blanks

The magnetic tape in my VHS copy of Urban Legend (1988) has degraded to the point that Rebecca Gayheart's irrepressible mane always looks like its snowing, and yet, as frequently as I've enjoyed that supreme slice of late '90s slasher throwback cheese over the years since its release, I've been neglectful in checking out the further work of its Aussie director, Jamie Blanks. Because Blanks displays in Urban Legend the most playful and perceptive understanding of the subgenre of any of his contemporaries during the latter part of the decade, this neglect of his subsequent films is especially egregious with regard to the second slasher flick he directed a mere few years later. Valentine (2001) switches out the stock college campus setting of Urban Legend (which brought to mind such campus slasher classics as Final Exam (1981) and Girls Nite Out (1982)) for that of the equally recognizable holiday party (like those in April Fool's Day (1986) and Killer Party (1986)). Valentine also trades on the time-honored slasher tradition of jilted dorks taking revenge against adults for affronts committed when they were childhood classmates, just like the jilted dorks in Slaughter High (1986) and Class Reunion Massacre (1978) do. Though based on a thriller novel by Tom Savage, it's clear after only peeping at the source material's jacket copy that the basic story was reconfigured by its screenwriters and director with the classic (and less-than-classic) slasher canon in mind. The resulting picture is not quite as much fun as Urban Legend is (it's missing that film's irresistible legend-based hook), but it's roughly as successful with regard to its aim of placing standard '80s slasher tomfoolery into the context of the new millennium. What inspires the killer's nose to bleed right before he makes his kills? On what planet could David Boreanaz be convincingly cast as an alcoholic? Why does Denise Richards strip down for a solo indoor jacuzzi dip during the middle of a party in a house that isn't her own? Why are these questions? The acting is bad, the punning valentine notes the killer sends his victims are worse, and a stalking scene set in a video-art museum installation is strikingly, nearly sublimely goofy. Valentine is the genuine article, a decade and a half too late.