Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mephisto from Missouri: Vincent Price Collection II (Blu-ray review: THE RAVEN, COMEDY OF TERRORS, TOMB OF LIGEIA, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL + more)


While horror fans wince at TCM's bizarre choice to fill the bulk of October with dull sanitized 50s musicals and 60s Doris Day movies, there's some great Blu-rays out for Halloween, like Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1964) and last week, the second Vincent Price collection dropped like the gallow's floor. Vincent Price is synonymous with Halloween as it was meant to be: grinning at one's own ghoulishness; merriment and malice in equal measure. Price had that rare ability to put you at ease, to convey the fun he was having, his delight with every syllable spoken; and yet never break character or descend fully into camp. No matter how evil his part, or how insane, he never became vulgar, shrill, or dull. And with the Poe films he made with Roger Corman, the bizarre Vincent Price diamond found his ideal setting. He was to Roger Corman and Poe what De Niro would become to Scorsese and Little Italy, a form of lightning that could zap a film to life.

This volume only has two Corman Poes: The Raven and Tomb of Ligeia (both from 1963) and some other fun spookshows, like AIP's Comedy of Terrors, and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill, round up the difference, and make up for some of the lesser dross. Even if you have these on DVD it's worth getting both sets: the HD restoration lengthens and deepens the image, saturating with deep dark colors--dark reds and greens, glowing amber and crypt-deep blacks, firelight reflections on maroon drapery; we can see every gossamer strand of the cobwebbed covered gates, every brush stroke of Bud Shonberg's twisted paintings of Usher ancestor, and shade of the moody-psychedelic paint swirl credits. Iit all adds up to horror fan crack, fired up by the great Matheson and Towne scripts and Price's cheerfully sinister voice. No matter how threadbare the situation, his aesthete air of mephistophelean delight that never wavers.

He was born to be this embodiment of the Poe horror story, born in Missouri to an affluent family in 1911--he's from the class of midwestern artists that seem to embody the best of English culture, class, droll deadpan wit, and gallow's humor, coupled to a uniquely American love of pop culture dross and carnival showmanship (think also of Margart Sullivan stalking the Halloween streets in Meet Me in St. Louis). In other words, Price is the Orson Welles of B-horror, and we all benefit extras including Corman commentaries, interviews with screenwriter Richard Matheson, and--as with the first set, those lovely lyrical introductions by Price filmed by Iowa Public Television for a PBS series from the 70s, each in its own way invaluable.

THE RAVEN
1963 - dir. Roger Corman
 ****
A personal favorite Halloween perennial--this film saved my life one dreary $2 Syracuse Student Union midnight showing ($2 w/i.d. - in the day they still screened an actual film prints. The colors were brownish evenn then, and the first scenes of this Shout Blu-ray might give one the impression not much had been done HD digital restoring-wise, but once the gang (including Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre's son, Rexford) enter Boris Karloff's castle the HD transfer begins to shimmer and glow in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light and inward depth. As we learn in the extras, Corman kept all the sets from past Poe films and would just add them onto the next film's, and by the time of The Raven he'd assembled a vast sprawling Gothic maze, which gets full glorious use here. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of the smugness, but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA
1964 Dir Roger Corman
***1/2
Definitely one of the better and more unnerving (and last) in the cycle, thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Towne, who captures the horrified eloquence of Poe, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing about how he wishes his head could be wrest open as easily as the cabbage thrown at Ligeia's trickster spirit animal cat. "What else is madness but belief that inwards does not exist?" No offense to Richard Matheson's earlier scripts; they were solid, but tended towards repetitive arguments between someone wanting the truth and Price withholding it, "Sir, I cannot tell you," as if the censor was glaring from offset. Instead of all that bother, Towne lets the rich existential poetry flow freely, trusting the audience to get the metaphors.

Which is good, because it offsets the things that don't work, like the shock of seeing Price outdoors and sans mustache. Maybe it's me. I find his naked upper lip upsetting and any English countryside exterior shots, unaccountably dreary. Poe, especially, should never see daylight--especially not England's sickly boy blue skies--maybe I'm still angry that Hammer sunk half the running time of their vampire movies with scenes of old ugly Brits with awful monk haircuts shuffling through dreary exterior shots in the flat ugly daylight, when they could have been spending more time indoors at the castle, on set, with atmospheric lighting and sexy birds coming out all crypt-like. Corman has every right to want to switch up his game, find some real castle ruins to shoot in, and Price wanted to play it complete straight, as a mournful Olivier type, with a dark secret al, but he comes off as hostile and aloof rather than the desired Byronic and enigmatic; we can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur.


The image on the Blu-ray isn't as resonantly color-touched as I was hoping either -- it still looks pale and thrift shop-pish around the gills--which I blame more on the 'realistic' settings rather than the digital color restorers, though when indoor color does come in, such as with the fire pit or the revolving hypnosis light (which also turns up in The Terror and Dunwich Horror) it's stunning. And in a way, the ghost of Ligeia is a great metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism, so the dourness works. I relate to the whole 'having a will beyond death' with Lady Whiskey as my Ligeia, feeling her call every time I walk past a liquor store window display, especially if I'm hungry, angry, lonely, or tired--Price seems all four here, and should call his AA sponsor, because between the crazy cat attacks and Price's sleepwalking, he needs intervention. Towne and Corman leave it deliberately open ended as to whether there really is a spirit of a willful real life woman floating around, possessing him, the cat, and her own corpse, or he's just a paranoid delusional crazy person, even getting us to the point where we understand there is no difference, that reality is subjective. The tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell. Therefore, it's a bell tree.

COMEDY OF TERRORS
1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur 
***
This film used to give me a massive headache, the forced comic bounciness of Ronald Stein-wannabe score, the unnerving sight of three of my favorite stars decaying into elderly humans; And I found Price's character awful, especially in his abusive relationship to his hot buxom terrible singer wife (Joyce Jameson). Luckily the Blu-ray makes every image gorgeous, the deep red throb and creep darker than that Stygian shore, so now Price's evil funeral director seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil, and Lorre looks like he's been partying too hard, but his drunken leering affection for the buxom Jameson is touching, and Price is, after all, killing to support them, even if he regularly tries to poison his father-in-law (Boris Karloff). Sure it's not The Raven, or even Spider Baby, but it's better than The Trouble with Harry or Arsenic and Old Lace. But Price and Lorre make a great team, somewhere between Burke and Hare and Abbot and Costello, and better than both put together, even if Les Baxter's score can still give me a pain in the Gulliver.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
1959 - Dir William Castle
***
A perennial public domain favorite, the HD here creates a dark rich sense of inner space, which Castle's spare sets don't necessarily require or benefit from. It almost works better on a blurry VHS so you could imagine there was more than was meeting the eye. That said, it's the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and Price is on full throttle, carrying the whole show as far as ghoulishness, and the deep shadows now go wayy back. All that's missing is the skeleton on the string!


LAST MAN ON EARTH
1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona
**1/2
The widescreen photography is gorgeous, the script intelligent and faithful to Richard Matheson's novel; and it's interesting seeing the connection (admitted by Romero) to the first NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with the hands coming through the boarded windows, the underground verite surrealism of shambling black and white bodies in the glare of headlights, though Romero wisely got rid of their monotone echo-drenched drunken slur, "Vargas, come out, Vargas..." (one guy even looks like the mangy Italian cousin of the very first zombie we see in NOTLD- the one who palms Barbara's car backwards down the hill.) But personally, I find a lot of this dispiriting, much of it is just pantomime to a Price voiceover; it's just isn't the same as seeing his lips move along with his voice; Price seems to feel it, too. The weight of the world seems on him, and while he never loses our sympathy, the flashback-heavy structure seems alternately rushed and tedious. The Blu-ray quality is outstanding though, and you can see some of the same retro-futuristic architecture that was alienating Monica Vitti in Antonioni movies around the same time. Imagine what a pairing that would be!

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN
1972 - Dir Robert Quarry
**
Like some weird gay horror burlesque, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with eerie array of purple and pink a-glowing in a 3-D depth of space. The problem is that this that this lovely clarity reveals a very cheap clapboard TV-show-style sets that were made with the not unreasonable assumption most people would be seeing this on TV or at a drive-in or at any rate nowhere near as pristine clearly and in perfect anamorphic beauty as this. We were never meant to see so much grain and flaking on Price's whiteface make-up and powdery Beatle wig; he seems like some sad gay diva wafting through a later Fellini movie. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots, but this is almost like a play --even when the whole shebang allegedly moves onto a yacht or then onto the deserts of Egypt, there's never any doubt they're on sets, which I love, usually, and I like the giant stone feet, but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop. That said, composition and blocking are sublime, like Kubrick on too many poppers at a gay ball in 60s London. It would be great with the sound off at a party, or projected behind my old acid rock band if we played Abba covers and had a bubble machine. As a narrative, though, it's infuriating. Phibes and his Vulnavia's self-congratulatory champagne toasting and dancing seems the height of self-aware camp, which, like so many lesser British horror movies, means it's not buying its own fantastical premise. And don't believe Peter Cushing has anything more than the teensiest cameo as a yacht captain, as if he's there just so they could add his name to the marquee.



One thing I never understood about the Dr. Phibes films is why they waste Price's beautiful voice with pre-recorded monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie, a cheap way to patch up loose ends and never have to sync sound, so Vulnavia (Vali Kemp) and Price can just waft around the sets in mock solemnity, pantomiming to his pre-recorded monologue like he's interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading.

RETURN OF THE FLY
1959 - Dir Edward Bernds 
**1/4
Released in 1959, capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success. Price reprises his role from the original, and finally gets to catch a human headed fly and undo the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, but otherwise he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves Phillipe (just a boy in the first film) tracking and killing the pair of industrial spies who've made off with his patents after purposely giving him a giant bulbous fly head. As monster on a vengeance trail films go, it's okay, but goddamn it's familiar, an old saw that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s, and when Price restores Phillipe to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scot free for his two murders. Must be nice to be so damn rich... 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bitches' Sabbath: Alex de la Iglesia's Comedic Battle of the Spanish Sexes Horror Masterpiece WITCHING AND BITCHING on Netflix Streaming


FX's AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW so far has been mawkish and cliche, with harrowingly brutality thrown in for a fake 'edginess' as trite as it is upsetting. But if you have Netflix streaming and need a ballsy, no-holds barred, vaguely family-friendly but brutally honest alternative, a battle of the sexes witches and robbers horror-comedy because you can't abide any more meekly apologetic madonna-and-son worshipping /  daughter-abducting dreck, seek out the unfortunately titled WITCHING AND BITCHING (the far better Spanish title is Las brujas de Zugarramurdi - but it's not great either.) This ballsy 'comedy of the sexes' film bursts with original ideas, carnal energy, wit, acumen, and Jungian archetypal initiatiory mysticism, like THE MAGIC FLUTE if Mozart did crank and was married to a hot-tempered girl from Seville, and so knew that a hispanic woman's love is more terrifying than a dozen monsters. 


The opening credits should give you enough of an idea: Amid Satanic symbols in red on black backgound are images that alternate between classical art, including the Venus of Willendorf, Marlene Dietrch, Margaret Thatcher, Garbo as Mata Hari, Medusa, Elizabeth I, Theda Bara, and Morgan le Fay. Strong women that devour men and do it with cinematic panache are all but conjured out of the credits.  Having been married to a hot-tempered Argentine I can vouch that they love almost to the point of ripping their children to pieces and devouring them (the way they already have their fathers' balls, so to speak). And if you think that's sexist, then I'd add that what's stolen the balls from today's American man is people like YOU, who give feminism a bad name by not getting that I'm on your side (as I write there's this guy behind me on TV whose voice is so Edward Norton high and effeminate he's all but urging me on). Here's a test to see if you'd be on board: if you see this image below, of a pair of crooks fleeing the cops with son in tow covering their escape with two guns blasting, and don't think it's awesome and don't think American cinema is woefully timid as far as depicting cherub-faced children as armed and dangerous felons, then this film isn't for you, flaca


I've been an Alex de la Iglesia fan since the amazing DANCE WITH THE DEVIL (another unfortunate English title, though the original PERDITA DURANGO isn't so hot neither - Alex, e-mail me first next time you need an English title, soy muy intelligente!), and I've been trying to find his DAY OF THE BEAST with English subtitles for years. His THE LAST CIRCUS which is also on Netflix Streaming, has more gonzo scary clown balls than all of AHS' FREAK SHOW has shown so far, or probably ever will, and all without needing to beat a single pinhead to death or abduct and terrorize even one innocent girl or child (that I remember). That's what you call trying to do more than shock and cloy and make excuses for anachronistic music numbers, los putos del Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk!


LAS BRUJAS' story is perhaps better experienced without any knowledge of anything coming, just trust in the genius of Iglesia and roll with it as--veering between hardened criminal and dad driven past the point of his insanity by his hyper-intense and angry nurse ex-wife (He has her as "Armageddon" on his phone)--Hugo Silva demonstrates a kind of sublime antithetical acting that is the soul of great furious deadpan comedy as he takes his son on the run following a pawn shop robbert, chased by the angry mom (the terrific Macarena Gómez), and winds up caught up in a bizarre witches sabbath, overseen by a three-generational female enclave: the older slightly senile, but always ready with her sharpened steel dentures, Maritxtu (Terele Pávez); the grand dame of the coven Graciana (Almodovar regular Carmen Maura); and the hot younger daughter Eva (Carolina Bang who, with her wild Kate McKinnon-style eyes and punk haircut, is a scary-sexy dynamo). These witches leap through the air, crawl on the ceiling, and live on a steady diet of psychoactive toad secretions and cooked children.

I could cite BRUJAS' similarity on some level to HANSEL AND GRETEL, WITCH HUNTERS but this is worlds more sophisticated and modern (and less misogynist); Bang's wild witch might be compared maybe Sherri Moon Zombie in DEVIL'S REJECTS but that film didn't know where to go so just relied, like FREAK SHOW, on the usual grim sadism, sordid sex crimes, and Gooble Gobble-style outsider solidarity. Simply put, like his countryman Pedro Almodovar, Alex de la Iglesia doesn't need to try and be controversial; he knows that nothing remotely as violent or devouring as a mother's love, nor as controversial as saying so. Those maniacs over in Spain are still bouncing from the explosion of repressed creative energy released by the death of Franco.


I may have already talked it up too much. Maybe it helps to have some experience with this breed of women, las fuertas pelligrinas and not be from a nation where each gender tries to outdo the other in passive aggressive pussyfooting rather than standing tall and benefitting from one another's unique strengths. Most Americans who don't suffer from the blue state PC-kow tow disease have a red state hatred of subtitles. Even if he isn't as big a name here in the U.S. as Guillermo del Toro, he should be. Though they're compared often, to me del Toro's work suffers from a Catholic soapy child-sanctifying le Iglesia avoids, and his first season of FX's THE STRAIN suffers from having to stop every five minutes for these misery-streaked family moments, and the kind of dad who kneels down when talking to his kid, like he's trying to make a slightly mentally-challenged first grader stop crying, instead of talking to him man-to-man and giving him a set of loaded revolvers. I wait for the day la Iglesia does finally break as big here as he deserves, as big as del Toro or bigger, bigger than your American Spielberg. Maybe he will, once he gets less Herzog-level bad at English titles, and once our dads stand up to the ball-crunching tyranny of the madonna-son coalition (1). America, aren't you ready to stop growing down? Give that boy some guns and take him to the zoo! Libertad para todos los animales! 


NOTES:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

24-hours of Netflix Streaming Horror--A Curated List of 16 Weird, Spooky Wonders


The all-night horror marathon --a long-standing tradition wherever Halloween traditions are solidly entombed in the crypt of cinematic history. The idea behind it is simple: the longer you stay up, the more films you watch, the deeper into late night / early morning you go, the creepier it gets as more people fall asleep and the night gradually becomes yours and yours alone and consensual reality fades and you move inside the screen, and your date follows a creepy bunny out of the theater down the sleep arson rabbit hole, no wait, that's you, a half-dreamer / half-watcher and the movie and your unconscious merge and characters in the film look right at you, talk to you, freak you out. You turn around and when you look again you just see an empty couch onscreen, and you're holding a candelabra and walking down a dark hall. And there's no one awake to hear you scream, because you put the volume down low to not wake them.


At college they had one of these festivals every year and after the first few hours they stopped taking tickets at the door and half the crowd went home, weary and irritable. By dawn it was only the hardcore, and the people working the projector. Then I'd sneak in, armed with flask and dilated pupils. There was nothing quite as satisfying as creeping across a deserted campus at the first crack of dawn, coming into the darkened theater to find THE TINGLER had just begun... If you have Netflix though, you can skip having to out your boots on to slog across campus. All you have to do is clear your que and line them up: each film is hand-selected for each particular time of evening, night and morning and afternoon, and to follow one another organically, like a good mix tape. Because if you have a sizable DVD collection as I do, then you know it can become paralyzing to choose the next film, fumbling through your bookshelves, scrolling endlessly through your instant libraries.

It's also annoying when you stumble on a cool list of weird movies online, read about one you never heard of and want to see, but can't find it. So you put it in your Netflix que and by the time it comes you forgot why you wanted to see it! Well, with this list you can forget about the options, the Acidemic Horror festival has you covered--we've done everything but link to them because Netflix won't link titles direct to accounts, 'cuz they're pussies.

And special Note: there's NO torture porn or sexual assault or slapstick, or animal abuse,  just the spine-tingling spookiness (and occasional lesbian cannibalism) that carries the tingling electric current along the soul's angsty wires.

5:00 PM - ABSENTIA (2010)
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Start with this one and don't worry about it--the film takes it's time getting started but it lures you in via the lived-in natural rapport between Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as two sisters, one of whom is pregnant in the process of declaring her husband dead after seven long years in the titular legal limbo; the younger one (Parker), recently off drugs, here to help with the pregnancy, jogs every morning and goes through a mysterious tunnel that recalls Billy Goats Gruff... at first, but might be home to an interdimensional giant super-intelligent insectoid portal. Turns out, well, I shan't spoil it, but the movie gets the lack of visible monster right, so the terror comes from the anxiety of not knowing entirely what we're dealing with; highlights including Bell seeing her dead husband everywhere but being conditioned by her therapist to just ignore him --great stuff that reminded me of my own tortured delirium tremens. I saw it alone on Saturday as it just happened to be on Showtime while I was writing the first part of this post, and just listening to the great rapport between the sisters from the TV behind me lured me in. I was alone and it was getting dark faster than I was prepared for, and the film ingeniously dug deep into my ancient fears, the way only BLAIR WITCH and Val Lewton have done before. And Parker is so good, warm, intelligent, and gutsy that you just might fall in love.

6:30 PM - HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)
Dir. Ti West 
Ingeniously retro and practically in real time across one overcast grey late afternoon into the late evening, it's Ti West's best film so far, and maybe one day he'll make something as good (if he remembers the value of tick-tock momentum), The cast is mixed but Jocelin Donahue as cash-strapped college student Samantha is beautiful, believable, and courageous in her doomed grab for a dollar, and Greta Gerwig sports some great feathered hair and a cozy college sports shirt and in her late afternoon fast food joint scene with Samantha has the ache of an upstate New York fall winter in the bones; and you want to be able to curl up with her in a fire-lit dorm room and take a nap spooning with her on that crappy dorm twin bed, and you feel the sense of desolation creeping up like tendrils of cold around her broke buddy Samantha for needing to take this babysitter job so badly. I went to school in Syracuse, so I relate. The evenings there are so oppressively gray, they don't need Satan lingering in the edges to be mega ominous.  The men are kind of anachronistically miscast--one's too quiet and wussy, the other too Williamsburg hipster for the 1970s-- but Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace in minor roles, smash through that mess. The perfect film to watch in the early evening.

8:05 PM - BLACK SABBATH (1963)
Dir. Mario Bava
The only one of Bava's films, and maybe also the only trilogy, I find truly scary - the good, shivery spine tingle kind, especially the Wurdulak segment, which taps into a very primal anxiety, the way family ties can become nooses without you ever noticing. Even strongly suspecting their father (Boris Karloff) has been turned vampire, the family do his bidding, too conditioned by the Catholic social structure to rebel; and the mama can't resist running out in the cold to comfort her pale dead bambino, even stabbing her husband when he tries to restrain her. Did I spoil it? No man, I didn't. PS: The American version presented here is different from the Italian most fans know by heart from the DVD, in a different order, dubbed into English, missing a lesbian undercurrent, but providing instead Karloff's real voice (not in the Italian version) and "Sdenka" (Susy Anderson) is still sexy, as is Rosie (Michèle Mercier--above), gorgeously lit as she prowls the red telephone sequence.

9:30 PM: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Dir. John Carpenter
It's the HD version and it sure looks good. There's no supernatural element, but just seeing the cop get out of his house and drive off to his first job as captain, moseying through the deserted eerie battle zone of East L.A as the big red sun sets and Carpenter's music thuds ominously along on that click track is enough to qualify. Not to mention a gang member hsoots a kid through the eye for asking an ice cream man for sprinkles. There was some real concern in the late 70s that gang violence was going to destroy America, so groove on the scariness of that and how we never hear any of the gang members say a single word. Even here, before HALLOWEEN, Carpenter knew that once a monster talks, smiles, or even laughs, he's lost half his menace. Laurie Zimmer is a great Hawksian heroine, and Austin Stoker is a great level-headed cop; Darwin Joston is convict Napolean Wilson; Carpenter would revisit the concept and reverse the gender/races in in GHOSTS OF MARS, which would make a great choice, too. 

11 PM: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Dir. George Romero
Two (non-blaxploitation) horror films in a row starring a black man? Are we dreaming? No, just lucky--and is it a coincidence both films are classics worth endless repeat viewings? In fact, I got the whole idea for this post while spending the weekend in Harrisburg, PA (a stone's throw from where it was filmed) and turning to NIGHT via their cable's 'free on demand' channel as a last resort after everyone else was asleep, and even wrongly formatted and badly digitized, Romero's film blew my mind. From the start it's been the kind of movie that can reach a viewer right through any televisual limitation, surviving in potency even through a million second generation public domain VHS dupes. Aside from a rather wearying stretch of road with a bald uptight dad going on about how "the cellar is the safest place" there's nary a dull moment and even if you just saw it for the 100th time; see it again, with us, at eleven. Forever.

12:30 AM: LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)
Dir. John Hough
Dark, thick atmosphere, decadent art design; red bathed Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly light; the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper women; the throbbing echo-industrial drone breathing, the score like one long auditory hallucination, sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--and ideal for the midnight hour of any festival (see more here). Or if, like me, you just saw it a month ago... go for (also in HD)

DAY OF THE DEAD (1984)
Dir. George Romero
1985 was a year of great zombie contention, according to a hazily remembered source, between Romero and co-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD screenwriter John A. Russo. The result was two different zombie movies coming out at the same time back when there were NO other zombie movies, outside of Italy, of course, certainly none that would make it a first run cineplex instead of a decaying drive-in. My punk crew and I saw both in one weekend; we loved THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which really jibed with our then life style (the whole thing with zombies going "Braaainnsss!" begins with RETURN). But we found DAY to be way too much of a downer. Half the film is spent in irritable bickering between gonzo scientists trying to isolate what makes zombies tick and a bunch of crazed military guys getting understandably tired of being bossed around by a bunch of civilian ectomorphs down in a cramped mine shaft. The yelling and Gary Howard Klar's evil giggling get annoying, but the idea of Bub (Sherman Howard) the first sympathetic zombie, being trained by one of the lead scientist (Richard Liberty), like a combination mentally-challenged son, is tellingly Romero, who's always gone more for the social critique underlying the zombie menace, than the comedic self-awareness of most of his imitators. And perhaps the split from Russo hurts them both - the military and the scientists needing each other after all. Meanwhile, a cool Jamaican chopper pilot (Terry Alexander) and and an amiable Irish drunk (Jarlath Conroy) have the right idea: set up some inflatable palm trees around a camper at the edge of the mine shaft and grow ganja. Humanity is saved.

2 AM - THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Not only does it open on one of the worst matte painting castle exteriors in history, it also stands as a great British horror crossroad, straddling the decades with unrepentant 70s sapphic nudity right alongside all the typical 60s Hammer vampire Gothic trappings: florid dialogue, gorgeous Brit actresses, Peter Cushing, all that. Especially if you have a good HD TV, it's worth its precious 2 AM time slot because the colors are sublime. Once you see Peter Cushing's blazing red tunic in the post-credits dance scene, and you're like DAMN. That ballroom looks 3-D, and then in comes Ingrid Pitt as Marcela Karnstein, with two gorgeous fertile looking virgins and their easily misled fathers, just waiting to get knocked over like bloodless ten pins.

3:30 AM - THE AWAKENING (2007)
So now it's late, and all that's left is a yen to see and hear British women--so effortlessly smart, confident, sexual, and relaxed compared with American actresses-- as they engage in candle lit supernatural hallway walking and weird noise investigating. Rebecca Hall, as a professional ghost-debunker lured to her existential Waterloo fits the bill; and as the movie around her aims in the direction of THE OTHERS, THE INNOCENTS, DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and THE WOMAN IN BLACK, she aims for the stalwart company of Olivia Williams, Rhona Mitra, Kate Beckinsale, and Kierra Knightley. Bullseye on both counts. The setting and photography are evocative; greenish blue hues abound; Dominic West is suitably Rochester-esque as the superintendent; there's a kid with a distracting haircut and a creepy dollhouse. You'll guess the twists a mile off, but that doesn't mean you don't like guessing. Just means you're good at it. 

5:00 AM - PONTYPOOL (2008)
Dir. Bruce McDonald
As the sun comes up with the October briskness, it might not be as cold where you are as up in Pontypool, Canada, in the dead of winter when it's still completely dark as you drive to your early morning job. but you can glean the early dawn vibe, the special feeling when you and maybe none or two of your mates and only a few early risers and very very late-to-bedders are up and about in your time zone. Spread you auric tentacles out and bask in the collapse of concrete consensual reality, the bizarre and magical mix of bleary crankiness and magical openness, like a whole alternate dimension that's neither asleep dream nor conscious waking. What really makes PONTYPOOL work so well, beyond the unique zombie-language gimmick, is the comfortable sense of being in a warm radio booth on a frozen Ontario small town early early morning, as disgruntled talk radio host Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) begins to think the locals are all fucking with him as the calls coming in become more and more panicked, incoherent, and violent; his producer (Lisa Houle) shows the wear and tear humoring this charismatic witty but bitter dude has wrought on her, as well as the confusion that even after all that she still kind of has a thing for him, something he's way too self-lacerating to do much about. It's so organic it all unfolds in more or less real time for long stretches without the viewer (me at least) noticing any lapse; as the influx of news and shaky narration causes a breakdown in our perception of reality, leaving us to imagine most of the carnage in a kind of WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast in reverse. In other words, while not being specifically scary, and always kind of funny, even romantic, there's a sense that something meta is always at stake, something that might leak out and effect even your seeing it, like you could call in to Mazzy's show while watching him in the movie and maybe he'd answer, and you'd both realize you'd probably fallen asleep.(more)

6:30 AM - HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Dir. William Castle
William Castle prided himself on being the dime store spooky matinee knockoff Hitchcock, and its his palpable love of the dime store horror tropes that save him, and make his films endure, like hazy childhood memories of parking lot haunted carnival rides. His films are like how horror movies are remembered by children who love horror movies, and this his masterwork, as subtle as a skeleton on a string zooming over the heads of the popcorn tossing kiddies (a process called "Emergo") and six times of terrific. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD it has a punchy energy that endures past any amount of public domain dupe streaking. Netflix's copy is adequate (you don't really want it to look too good--though the Blu-ray in Vincent Price Vol. 2 is terrific) and, take it from me, six in the morning is the best time to see it, ideally with ten year-old kid who just woke up and is sitting on the floor because your sleeping bag is taking up the whole couch. Dude, that kid was me! Meanwhile, Elijah Cook Jr. gets drunk and babbles the grisly exposition; Vincent Price plays deadly games with his scheming wife (Carol Ohmart); the elderly caretakers of the house walk around the hall on wheels, frozen in papier mache poses of carny ride menace; pistols in little coffins are handed out as party favors; there's two severed heads, and an animated noose. (see my first ever site, Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood, which includes this as part of its 50s Canon)

 8 AM - MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971)
Dir. Gordon Hessler
The Grand Guignol meta effect is pronounced here, as it was in PENNY DREADFUL after it, and MAD LOVE before it. A movie about people performing dastardly deeds onstage is bound to echo. Here the troupe is reimagining Poe's classic story: now the ape is the hero and Herbert Lom gets acid thrown on his face (again?) but the audience of semi-bemused royals presume it's part of the show. If the ape looks familiar, it should, it got it's start smashing bones for Kubrick in 1968, spooked Joan Crawford as TROG in 1970, and now here it is, much the worse for wear but still the only sympathetic face in the film. It's Gordon Hessler's finest hour, which doesn't say a lot unless you like fake mutton chops, ratty period costumes, a script that's just a few dull stretches of THE AVENGERS taped together (without the actual Avengers - just the bad guys and their victims), and boozy British actors pretending they remember their lines and marks. Well, there's some of that here, but the Demoiselles are stunning and dressed in dusky reds and black lace chokers (making their acid scarring all the more painful) and Jason Robards star, the period mise en scene is at least at Hammer level and there's galore post-modern leakage which is why it's after PONTYPOOL. And if you fall asleep, well dream your way right in, into the cage, that is, with Erich, the gorilla! (and then see the 1932 Florey version, which is sublimely weirder and more controversially lurid).

9:30 AM - BLACK SUNDAY (1965)
Dir. Mario Bava
I could do without the schmaltzy concert piano score or the misogynist torture of the opener, but the rest is great, and it's perfect Halloween fare. Lots of long pans and dollies across acres of ancient castle griffins and Barbara Steele standing or lying with eerie alien stillness and holes in her face. Even the 'good' Steele is spooky looking, like a reverse Rondo Hatton! This was Bava's big American calling card, and it's a perfect breakfast movie once the ugly taste of Catholic metal spikes is out of your mouth. The print used here is just so so, but it might inspire you to get the Blu-ray, to better savor the tactile, brilliant cinematography and dreamy dark fairy tale poeticism for which Bava is without peer. Just ask Tim Lucas!

11:00 AM -HELLRAISER  (1987)
Dir. Clive Barker
This was just an innocent list but it's become about the actresses of Great Britain, more cigarette resonant and unabashedly sexual than most American girls depicted in films. this chick Julia (Clare Higgins) has the balls to ask for a brandy from her husband when she's sick, rather than refusing one with a dainty little 'eh' of a sneeze like a Yank bird, and it's pretty great the way she plays with a sadistic smile after her first kill, traumatized but hardly succumbing to the American tendency to play the glum martyr --though even now she says she's afraid of thunder, and worthless husband Larry is like, "I'll protect you!" not realizing she's already done and seen things that would turn him ashen like a Poe sailor. To bring his brother (her lover) back from the Cenobiteverse Julia gamely lures a string of grotty 70s-looking British business men on their three martini lunch hour up to the attic, where she bashes their heads in with a hammer so her love can slowly absorb their blood and put some meat on his bones, as it were. Her stepdaughter meanwhile (Ashley Laurence) is getting wise, and endangered by angler fish-esque demons and shit. She's cool too but with her beyond morality pursuit of pleasure, unapologetic wit and intelligence, and adult way of handling her body,  Julia's exhibit A in what's lacking in so many similar American ladies who tend to be youth-worshipping baby doll types until it's too late to dodge the Baby Jane mirror headlights (click this searing yet lovingly indulgent list that tracks them from Lolita to cougar). Think Julia gives a fuck her man's got no lips or skin? She'll shag him anyway just as he wouldn't care if she was in the thick of her period. Fookin' A. Oh yeah, the Cenobites themselves, they're kind of fucked up, not my bag, but respect the analogy towards the masochism of the horror marathon viewer! If you've seen it lately, HELLRAISER 2 is pretty good too, even #3 is watchable, but it's a steep slope, human!

12:30 PM: LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1985)
Dir. Ken Russell
Keep the British lady thing going with this gem from Ken Russell, the colors on the Netflix look gorgeous (the DVD seemed washed out, though it has a wry unmissable Russell commentary track that's one of the greats). And Amanda Donohoe is a tour de force, never camping or vamping but nailing, in every possible permutation that verb can be permuted, the most intoxicating upper crust broad since Stanwyck as the Lady Eve. Her snake goddess is what Auntie Mame always aspired to be but could never shake her ostentatious Americana baggahge. Familiar Scottish face Peter Capaldi is a summering archeologist who unearths a dragon skull; Hugh Grant, in his film debut, is the local lord-inherit who inherits too the burden of a giant white worm neighbor; the two local blonde sisters at the inn (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) are fetching, smart, and crafty, and even the hallucination scene has a disturbing potency-- "she had a bad trip" - notes Grant, after one of the sisters accidentally touches some of hallucinatory snake venom. No one ever says no to a drink anywhere in the film, thank god. Between this and his Chopin opposite Judy Davis in IMPROMPTU, and Capaldi after this and LOCAL HERO. There's also the hottest older woman-on-paralyzed younger boy seduction in film history (until Creedence Leonore Gielgud's in TROLL 2). So forgive the occasional silliness, such as the absurd fangs and charmed dancing of Paul Brooke. And be charmed yourself.

2 PM - INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1977)
Dir. Phillip Kaufman
Let's face it, you're never going to make it this far in this bizarro festival -- the 'you' who began doesn't even exist anymore; a slough of cells, a weariness, probably passing out, falling asleep, and when you wake up, you're not you -- you're groggy, maybe irritable. The you back in the cool raro moments at the crack of dawn with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL are long gone. It's cool. I get it. Move on if you must, but make sure it's still you and there's not a shell of a being that was once or will be you under your pool table or cooling in your sauna, or in your garden, or in the crawlspace, or under your bed. And then put this on the 'stream and join the flow of ditrates and bata. And then read Poe's William Wilson. And weep...


And let's just say the HD print on Netflix looks damned good, which is important as the photography is of that great 70s urban texture dilapidated period, filled with great moments of alienation, San Francisco as a crucible for the dehumanization of 20th century society, the urban disconnect from your closest neighbors, and it's gorgeously photographed by Michael Chapman, who brings the same urban alienated beautiful grime-glisten and disturbingly wayward roving he brought to TAXI DRIVER. Cast includes: Leonard Nimoy as a pop psychologist; Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as health inspectors on the run; Jeff Goldblum and a pre-ALIENS / post-BIRDS Veronica Cartwright as their mud bath managing friends; and even Kevin McCarthy and Robert Duvall in moments of cameo stuntcasting. See it with someone you love and then wonder, just what do you know about that someone, and when you come out of the bathroom are they still the same someone? Is that even you coming out of the bathroom, Wilson? William, it's me... William...  

4:00 PM - YOU'RE NEXT (2013)
Dir. Adam Wingard
Let's end on a cheerful, non-supernatural note... Scrappy Sharni Vinson is a great final-ish girl, full of wily Australian gumption in this tale of a besieged family reunion in the woods; it works because it recalls not just classics of the 70s and 80s, but classics of the 30s, i.e. the old dark house full of secret panels, greedy relatives gathered for the will, lightning storms, scary masks, strong female leads, no one who they seem, ironic karma, sudden twisting violence, moody Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack, and a refreshing lack of any moral compass. (MORE)

If you've recently seen any of the above, do substitute GRABBERS, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, SCREAM, SCREAM 2, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, RE-ANIMATOR, JOHN DIES AT THE END, EVIL DEAD 2 (though it's got some slapstick, fair warning) and/or CABIN IN THE WOODS, CANDYMAN, or WITCHING AND BITCHING, or see them later. And for god's sake, stay alert, lock your doors, keep watching the knobs and clutching the butcher knife, large wrench, hammer, baseball bat, or fire poker, turn on a white noise machine or Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast to block the spooky noises of trees against the window, because they're not trees....

Friday, October 10, 2014

October Capsules: OCULUS, SHIVERS, DETENTION, HOWLING, MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL


OCULUS (2013)
***1/2
A brother and sister reunite at the house where, as kids, they watched their dad and mom lose their minds inside the influential sphere of a haunted mirror. She's got it all wired for sound with cameras set up and timers to keep them from drifting out of reality, because the mirror has a habit of making the people hallucinate. The brother, though, having been in an institution since the traumatic event in their childhood, explains away the supernatural tragedy of their childhoods as stress-born cover memories and his sister says "they really did a number on you in there, didn't they?" And it's awesome to hear rote psychiatric skepticism blasted open in such a direct manner. With great camerawork that services the story and slow ride suspense instead of just shock-schlock showing off, this is one spooky, cool film.



With its ingenious fusion of flashbacks, mental aberration, haunting, possession, and madness, OCULUS slowly builds towards a real peak of madness, showing the way the collapse of the real can occur anytime a family is closed off from the world. You don't need a big empty hotel in Colorado, you just need to be alone with a mirror, and objectivity dissolves as the flashback childhood events and the modern remembering blend into each other until the children the brother and sister were in the past even begin to notice their future selves watching them, just another set of ghosts.

Lucky for us also, OCULUS isn't content to just do the subtle hallucination-or-was-it schtick, delivering some pure monster moments: as the mirror drives their mom towards trying to choke them to death, her face contorted with madness, and the weird vampire woman appears to molest their psycho father, the thrill ride gonzo aspect is thrilling, and the combination remains utterly creepy right up to the end, making it the best horror film since THE CONJURING (2013).


In that film, Vera Farmiga as real life demonologist psychic Lorraine Warren was a great model of courage in the face of ensuing darkness, and here we have that same courage in two first-class performances: Karen Gilan as the older, and Annalise Baso as younger Kaylie. Bayo's cute little redhead alien face and orange hair are perfectly lit and she could teach a master class on channeling terror into adrenalin-spiked courage: "We're going to have to be very, very brave," she tells her young brother, realizing their all alone, their parents are insane and neighbors just keep bringing them back home, and so on into the nightmare. Heartbreaking, exciting, and genuinely spooky all at once, OCULUS gave me a literal spine tingle.

SHIVERS (1975)
dir. David Cronenberg
***1/2
This weird first Cronenberg film hasn't been available on DVD for awhile, but it's now showing on both Netflix and Amazon streaming and it mustn't be missed. The story concerns a parasite that can devour and replace faulty kidneys developing a mind of its own and causing relentless sexual drive in order to propagate, or in other words, Night of the Rabid Orgiasts. Spiked with livid, funny gross outs as a squrimy red kidney thing hops from mouth to-locked-in-willing-or-unwilling mouths, the film's a 'careful what you wish for' example of a swinging Montreal high rise swinging rather too successfully. The paltry budget and glaring lights actually work to the film's advantage; the performances are deceptively brilliant, and the scenes of orgies breaking out in the halls and stairwells reminded me of my freshman dorm in Syracuse in 1985!


There's only a few familiar faces in the cast, but all are great: Barbara Steele is great as a vampiric lesbian swinger, and Lynn Lowry is the hot-to-trot nurse and take the time to admire the deep sultry breathing of Susan Petrie. Add a nice car crash, lots of sick vignettes as each apartment holds its own bizarre snapshot of Canadian nontraditional living, and the result is one of those rough-hewn gems of the 1970s. A real trendsetter, it made a lot of bread and cinema would never be the same. As Cronenberg on Cronenberg author Chris Rodley put it
"One experiences a tremulous sensation that suggests one might have reached the end of the unconscious. There it seems to be, thrown up on the screen in all its perverse and truly repulsive splendour, unmasked and unashamed." (40)
DETENTION (2011)
 dir. Jospeh Kahn
***
Sharp wit and slashing rejoinders are not dead in the everything-but-the-sink post-modern high school deconstruction comedy for the 'twitter generation,' a high school horror comedy of the CLUELESS meets SCREAM 2 variety, a SCARY MOVIE for high school graduates, or a REPO MAN for Generation Y. It's a lot of stuff, in sum, zipping by in layers too fast (presuming many repeat viewings--perhaps presuming too much) but the presence of diminutive HUNGER GAMES hunk Josh Hutcherson should lure enough girl fans in to at least give it a few hits and Shanley Caswell is solid as the 'second biggest loser at Grizzly High' with whom he has a shared connection, though he's going out with the hot chick Ione (Spencer Locke), agering big dumb jock Billy (Parker Bagley) who wants to fight Hutcherson but keeps erupting into THE FLY like symptoms, the result of touching a meteorite as a child and spending most of his elementary school life with his hand in a television.


I can see Godard and Antonioni loving this movie, especially the scene where the kids watch a bootleg copy of CINDERHELLA 4 while in detention to see how to survive their situation, and a whole screen-within-screen infinite chronosynclastic infindibulum meltdown occurs. Stunt casting includes Dane Cook as a dickhead principal and.... that's about it, but there's a time-traveling bear school mascot and enough cheerleaders to make this a bizarro parallel to the other Netflix high school horror comedy, Lucky McKee's ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, and enough bizarro world alien invasion transdimensional portal activation to make this the callow tweaker cousin to JOHN DIES AT THE END. Show it to that ADD friend of yours when all else fails. Directed and written by music video director Joseph Kahn whose previous feature was 2004's TORQUE which I also liked a lot for its gonzo over-the-top deadpan but in-on-its-own-joke dumbo comic momentum.

MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL (2001)
dir.  Jean de Segonzac
***
You don't often get to see awesome direct-to-video sequels of anything, but here's one badass high school etymology teacher, navigating treacherous urban streets and fending off insect suitors. Alix Koromzay, using sewing scissors as mandible talons to rend the exoskeletons of her imperfect dates, brings a lot of depth, ginger sexual oomph, and maternal tenacity as said teacher. She and the director clearly decided to treat this like A-list material and, like true artists. Bzzzzzz! No less a luminary than Kim Newman recommended this as one of the best of the direct-to-video horror sequels ever. And with no one looking, Koromzay and Segonzac wiggled past the usual patriarchal groupthink to depict a super strong woman still so sexy she has a whole coterie of devoted, smitten inner city students with whom to hole up in the high school while giant insect mimics hunt them and a cabal of governmental agents seal off the building with plastic. So what if there's a smudge of direct-to-video sequel cheapness? It's the ideal third or fourth entry of any all-night horror binge, one where your defenses are down and your pheromones at peak between-shower pungency.

THE HOWLING (1981)
Director: Joe Dante
***1/2
For my money this is the best werewolf movie since WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1934), the one with Henry Hull and Warner Oland fighting over a Tibetan flower, not the one with David Naughton arguing with a decomposing Griffin Dunne in a Piccadilly cinema (not that there's anything wrong with that). Maybe I just don't care much about werewolves that get hung up on the letter of the law like Landis' AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which came out the same year as HOWLING and there was much to-do about which make-up artist did the better transformation. Rick Baker is a genius, but Landis makes the changes agonizing, the moon inescapable, the beast itself a real wolf puppet on all fours, running amok and dying too suddenly. Joe Dante on the other hand knows it's a goddamn metaphor, a myth, don't get hung up on the 'real' parameters of a supernatural being. HOWLING is way beyond such hang ups, following instead in the shoes of director Joe Dante's patron saint, Roger Corman, and tapping instead into the lupine side of 1970s sexual swinger and EST-ish energy (ala Cronenberg's works of the same period like RABID, THE BROOD, SHIVERS and SCANNERS) and adding De Palma meta-refraction and audio mimesis procedural delirium, Carpenter ominousness, and a plethora of in-joke cameos including Dick Miller, Roger Corman, John Sayles, Kenneth Tobey, and Forry Ackerman.


The story grabs you from the start, like walking into a halfway through De Palma movie of the same approx. period, at the Deuce, maybe, your seat crawling with vermind but what do you care? Pre-E.T. Dee Wallace is great as a TV reporter, bravely heading off to interview a serial killer at a downtown SF adult book store. Some bad shit goes down, she has nightmares. Her therapist (Patrick Macnee) sends her to 'the Colony,' a Northern California Pacific beachfront encounter group that like to make bonfires and eat lots of meat. Elizabeth Brooks (above) makes an impression as a wild child of the forest named Marsha Quist; she has a great fairy tale-like scene coming onto Dee's mustachioed husband (Dennis Dugan) after he's separated from his hunting party. You may find yourself questioning your loyalty to the non-lycanthropic human race when she cooks his shot rabbit and infects him with a love bite on the lip. Can you do less? Later he and Marsha get it on by the bonfire, the powers of desire and orgasm shifting and churning their inner wolf power while Dee Wallace nightmares it up in their cabin. Like Cronenberg's SHIVERS and RABID, it's more than just sticking sex scenes into a horror movie, it's using desire and sex as the horror, entwining them in deep Jungian-Freudian style. And these werewolves aren't running on all fours or just a guy with some fur, they're freaking big, vicious, unstoppable killers, and they can shift back to human if cornered to avoid being shot. They're more like "skin-walkers" than than the traditional type, and so far more interesting, and even scarier despite the big Red Riding Hood style ears.


And for all that, despite LONDON being meant as a jet black comedy and having a far a smoother snout grow, HOWLING is a lot funnier and scarier, with more intelligent characters and less tedious dismissal of fears, denial of signs, and no sudden unsatisfying ending, first person camera tube stalk, naked balloon swipe, or Peter Grant-style dream sequence, and--despite igniting my lifelong crush on Jenny Agutter--HOWLING is sexier. As the unofficial matriarch sage of the wolf clan, Elizabeth Brooks is reminiscent of GIA-era Angelina Jolie) proving that in the late 70s/early 80s, horror film, (unprotected) monster sex with a carnivorous wolf lady could still be guilt-free and even E.T's future mom could have a carnal immediacy that enhanced rather than detracted from her courageous intellect, non-bitchy authority, and (unfortunately poodle-like) nose for news.