Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Beyond (1981)

"[T]he final product is considered by many fans to be one of Fulci's best films and has even been praised for its oneiric incoherence."
--Wikipedia

Praised for its incoherence!  In a sepia-toned prologue, we find ourselves in Louisiana circa 1927.  An artist named Schweick is killed in gradiose fashion by an angry mob of intolerant Southerners—he's scourged with chains, then doused with acid and nailed to a wall for good measure.  One of the things that interests me about The Beyond is the way it shows an outsider's perspective on America, Fulci being Italian, of course.  In this early scene, there's the film's only glimmer of Southern racial tensions, as the mob passes a nervous, sweating black guy on their way to kill Schweick.


I'm Catriona MacColl as Liza and I'm so pretty and concerned!  Now it's 1981 and Liza has inherited the very hotel where Schweick was done in.  There are omens that things might not turn out great—the alarm in an empty room keeps going off, the plumbing is a wreck, and a workman falls from some scaffolding after being frightened by something.


The warnings soon become literal verbal warnings, courtesy of blind girl Emily, who hangs out in the middle of the 20-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.  


When even more things go wrong and corpses still piling up, Liza enlists the help of local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck).  It eventually emerges that the hotel, which resides in Mandeville, was built over one of seven gateways to hell.  This leads to all sorts of unpleasant happenings.  By the way, I used to live in Mandeville and I can totally believe that it is the home of a gateway to hell.


This film definitely does not proceed according to anybody's rules or logic.  Allegedly, Fulci took a deliberately surrealistic approach, crafting a story that works more like a chaotic nightmare than a movie with a linear A-B-C plot.  Far-fetched elements, like a machine that can monitor a corpse's brainwaves, are introduced without explanation.  You either accept it or you don't, whatev.  Just as with Suspiria, a narrator appears out of nowhere for a line or two.  Even things that are products of accident or ineptitude, like the DO NOT ENTRY sign below, add to the movie's dreamlike feeling.


Being a Fulci film, the effects are admirably effective and blood galore gushes out.  In one memorable scene, a huge spider burrows inside someone's mouth and bites out pieces of that person's tongue with its fangs.  Flesh in general gets abused and ripped away, but the violence always has a bizarre quality, like even it's affected by the film's weird atmosphere.  We get close-ups that are too close, threatening to show the rigidity of makeup, and they contribute to The Beyond's unique feel.  Given how much control Fulci exerted over this one and how well-mounted other aspects of the film are, it's tough to imagine that these scenes weren't intentional.  No matter what Roger "Strictly speaking, it is a scene of spiders eating makeup" Ebert believed.


This will be loved or hated, depending on your taste for the strange.  That said, there are flaws that will irk anyone.  I loved Catriona MacColl's performance overall, but she does have some issues with maintaining her accent, especially in the film's second half.  Some of the dialogue sounds like a European wrote it, portions resembling the speech of TV Southerners and other portions not even trying to adapt to local speech.  


But I can't help but praise a film that tries so hard to innovate and is such a successful product of its creator's intentions.  For adventurous viewers, this is a deeply involving and rewarding horror film, a special moment in the genre and proof that it pays to fight for a vision.


****

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fascination (1979)

Euro horror directors of the 70s have a reputation for elevating style over substance.  The most famous offender is Argento, of course, but even his love of visuals at the expense of plot can't match Jean Rollin.  Over the course of a 52(!)-film career, Rollin established a style that forsakes action for beauty, especially nude female beauty.  Put women in period costumes, take certain parts of them out of costume, splash a little blood around, and put them on the back of Eeyore the depressed donkey (because it takes forever to get anywhere in these films), and you've got an inkling of the Rollin formula.


So Fascination.  We open with apparently incongruous shots of slaughtered animals and women in Jane Austen attire, then swiftly move to the aftermath of a robbery of gold coins.  The robbery was planned by these gentlemen, which must have been super-shameful for the victims.  One of them opts to take the coins himself and takes along a hostage.  The bilked thieves pursue.


Whoa, this is a whole lotta plot for a Jean Rollin movie!  Don't worry, the tits flop out soon enough.


Will do!  The thieving thief escapes to a castle surrounded by a moat.  There he meets two women who very slowly reveal to him that they're expecting guests tonight.  From there, we get a languid unwinding into horror-movie territory by way of diaphanous gowns and slow, sexy death.



Fascination feels drugged, not least of all because of the exceedingly plodding camera movements and editing.  It takes the gentleman below forever to die and we watch as time drags on.  That's indicative of everything in the movie and, if you can't the slowest burn ever committed to film, this isn't the film for you.


Snail-paced pace, minimal plot, this does sound great!  But the rewards you earn for your investment are these rich visuals.  Rollin was a master at utilizing light and space in a frame to create very striking images.  Art critics agree that this semi-naked woman with a scythe is basically better than everything M.C. Escher ever did.


So this might be a good choice for viewers who gravitate toward the artsier side of horror, but it will also please enthusiasts of erotic horror.  Rollin cast France's best betties for his evil women's book club and, though this doesn't include tons of bed time, the film is permeated with a sensual atmosphere.  


I tend to enjoy visually-stunning films, even when they don't have a surfeit of plot going on, so I might like this more than most.  It's not amazing or anything that I'll probably ever revisit, but it had enough charms for one go-round.


***

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Dear Consumer, we understand that you enjoyed the first installment of Return of the Living Dead© and would like to direct your attention to this sequel.  As you can see, the barrels of Trioxin© that you loved in the first film are back!


FAQ #1: So are the punker kids and the punk soundtrack also back?  And was this directed by a returning Dan O'Bannon?  A: No, sorry, but we do have a child actor that we hired to make up for including no punks in this sequel!  And Dan O'Bannon was too busy with his piles of guns and porn periodicals, so we hired the director of Meatballs II to make this instead.  We feel that you'll be delighted!


FAQ #2: What about James Karen and Thom Mathews?  They were great in the original!  A: Yes!, Karen and Mathews are featured in Return of the Living Dead Part II©, but in different roles, but they basically do their entire routine from the original film.  It's like they're covering themselves and you're invited to the show!


FAQ #3: Okay, but the zombies?  Like the tar man?  A: We felt that the original tar man was a little outdated by 1988 standards, so we rebooted him in this rad new form!  Think how envious your pals will be when you throw down a tar man pog and they look at his perfect teeth.  Totally bitchin'!


FAQ #4: So at least you have zombies, so this is pretty much a 50/50 horror/comedy again, right? A: Horror movies don't sell.  It's 1988 and no one went to see Brain Damage or Lair of the White Worm, but they did go see The Naked Gun, so we made this like a Naked Gun with zombies.  The standard viewer should be diverted by this entertainment.  


FAQ #5: Ugh, really, why?  A:



**1/2

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

It could be argued whether this is really a horror film, but October rules because there are no rules, so away we go.  Way back when in history, medical schools had a tough time procuring corpses for dissection and demonstration.  Since gaps in the market tend to be filled, even when the fillers are gross weirdos, bodies were often supplied by gravediggers and corpse-looters.  As competition got more heated and monetary reward became linked to the freshness of the corpses, anyone could probably predict the ultimate result.


Edinburgh, 1828.  Doctor Knox (Peter Cushing, winking above) lucks into a fire sale on fresh corpses, supplied by local scumbags Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasance).  As you might anticipate, the pair are killing drunks, tramps, and other ne'er-do-wells and then carting their bodies off to Dr. Knox's academy for medical studies.  


Given the premise, you might not expect much from the film, but it's shockingly well-crafted.  I think that the best part has nothing to do with murder and cadaver-buying.  It's the scenes of believably improbable romance between young med student Chris (John Cairney) and local party girl Mary (Billie Whitelaw) that reach the film's highest heights.  Both actors do a fine job at imbuing their characters with life and give us a subplot that brings dynamic change for the young lovers.


Two characters who don't change are Burke and Hare, unless getting more repulsive counts.  Watching Donald Pleasance in this and in Wake in Fright recently made me a little sad.  I'm sure that his last days were full of questions about Halloween at the expense of everything else he'd done.  Pleasance is great here, going the extra mile to make his Hare as creepy as humanly possible.  There's a scene in which he pantomimes a murder victim while the murder is happening that is just solid gold.  His facial work throughout is just great.  Rose is also a blast as the rough, primitive Burke.


And, surprise, Peter Cushing is good, too.  Knox in this film is a sort of Frankenstein-style figure, forsaking conventional morality in pursuit of higher ideals.  At one point, he downplays the importance of the individual while asserting how beneficial corpse study will be to his doctor grads.  But, even though we know he knows where the bodies are coming from, he still seems more sympathetic than his rival doctors, who can't even tell aneurysms from abscesses.


It's pretty remarkable that a movie about Burke and Hare manages to incorporate class boundaries, medical ethics, and mob mentality as secondary themes, but here they all are.  Being that this was filmed in 1959 or so, it's pretty tame when it comes to violence, although there are some literally squalid kill scenes.  The overall atmosphere of decadence makes up for any missing squibs and latex, though, so don't worry and definitely check this one out.


***1/2

Friday, October 17, 2014

Witching and Bitching [Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi] (2013)

I've had a tumultuous relationship with Alex de la Iglesias.  Not to go all hipster, but I saw and loved his early work (Accion Mutante and El Dia de la Bestia).  His later stuff, though, was more hit and miss with me.  100 Bullets and The Baby's Room were fantastic, Common Wealth and The Last Circus not so much.  But Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi (not using the US title, not sorry) cements our love as everlasting.  This is an incredibly well-constructed and very entertaining film.


The credits roll over images of the greatest witches in history, then we dive right into the plot, as what appear to be street performers mastermind a gold-shop robbery.  These first twenty minutes or so are just frantic gold themselves, as Christ, Minnie Mouse, Spongebob, a soldier, and the Invisible Man all say, "Screw copyright" and bring out the guns.  Oh, and Jesus brings along his young son because...


Freeze frame: how weird is it that Madrid apparently has street performers who portray Jesus?  I know New Orleans has the typical silver dudes with beggar cups at their feet, but Jesus carrying a cross is a whole other level. 


They escape with a bag full of gold wedding rings and such, but end up at a town named Zugarramurdi on their way to the French border.  Said town is alleged to be the birthplace of witchcraft and this is where the horror elements of this horror/action/comedy hybrid take the stage.


Of course, the witches are our baddies (and the gold thieves are our heroes).  And we get a rich roster of witches, from super-hottie Eva (Carolina Bang, queen of all names)...


...to frumpier, marriage-weathered housewife witches...


...to other women(?) with wise advice for the young.


The plot's not that complicated, but de la Iglesias keeps the pace brisk.  More than anything, this reminded me of 100 Bullets with its rapid-fire scene-switching and action pieces.  The energy here definitely feels like a throwback to the director's earlier stuff.  Plus it kind of centers around a young boy's relationship with a male family member (a dad, not a grandpa, in this case).  Brujas also incorporates a lot of the man/woman compare-and-contrast the director's been doing ever since Julia's travails with her loser husband in Common Wealth.  It's notable that the evil ladies are the ones who generally make successful plans; the dudes mostly just stumble into solutions, sometimes literally.


The acting across the board is great.  Seriously, you can't point to a weak performance in this and there's tons of chemistry between the individual actors.  Even the kid actor is good!  And they're all working with a fun script that kind of recalls the better Indiana Jones adventures or, say, Gremlins.  It's the same kind of thrill-ride entertainment, only without all those monkey brains.


Look at one more screenshot of Carolina Bang's terrifying beauty and then watch this movie, I implore you.


***1/2

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bloody Pit of Horror (1965)

When you watch enough of these, you start seeing cool titles like Bloody Pit of Horror and thinking, "Uh-oh, I hope they didn't think of the title and make the poster before they actually wrote the movie."  I suspect that's the case with this thing, as plot is not at all a huge consideration.  Nothing says I'M CHEAP AS HELL like a prologue in which the only sound is a narrative voiceover.  Medieval serial killer The Crimson Executioner kills people who don't live up to his moral standards.  Society thinks this is wrong, so they kill him.  In an iron maiden that looks like a ride car from a really third-rate carnival.


The Marquis de Sade gets top billing and a swanky pencil-written animation, a big clue that the exploitable element in this exploitation movie is gonna be torture.  And, indeed, a bunch of models and a few of their dudes travel to the ancient castle of the Crimson Executioner.  Because that is where you do your photoshoots.


They're summarily tortured and killed.  We the viewers might not be killed, but you can't say we aren't tortured.  Because this is a 1965 film, which means the girls wear Gidget/grandma underthings and the blood is sparingly shown.  As a boring workaround, we get elaborate, Bond villain-style traps, including the shitty giant spider below.  I would estimate that the hero takes 15 hours to scuttle underneath all this webbing and reach this girl.  And this is one of the film's high points. 


Typically, the movie's whole reason for existence—torture—gets saved for the very end.  These are tortures that you can enjoy with the whole family, like tying a girl to a rock thing or making girls spin on a wheel in their underwear.  One would guess that the film derives from those Betty Page bondage shoots or maybe the fifties sexploitation roughies, but I feel bad for the pervs of the sixties if this is how they had to get their kicks.  


This (obviously) lacks the class of the best horror of its era, but also can't match stuff like the H.G. Lewis films for sheer brutality.  So Bloody Pit sits in a boring, midway limbo, which is where you will leave it, if you are wise.


**

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scream (1996)

The 90s were a terrible, boring time and don't ever let anyone tell you differently.  The 90s were marked by fake disaffection, proto-hipsters, and a last-minute resurrection of teen slashers engendered by this so-called Scream.  I was at college in 1996 and vividly remember people who were not horror types going crazy for this thing.  There was even a public screening at the football field, one week after a Soul Asylum concert.  Even my smarter professors liked it, extolling its meta structure and use of irony.  I fucking despised it back then.  But it's probably time to re-evalutate it now that it's decades removed from the gross artifices of its era.


20 years later and the term "scary movie" still makes me cringe.  "What's your favorite scary movie?" purrs our killer to Drew Barrymore in the opening scene.  "Horror" is rarely invoked as a term and it's shameful when a movie is too ashamed to even admit what it is.  "Scary movie" just sounds so generic and childish.  No one calls comedies "funny movies" or westerns "horsey movies".  Anyway, the film proper opens with a cover version of the bedroom scene from Troll 2.


Except that the dialogue in Troll 2 is more believable than this.  Here begins a bunch of inside-baseball film talk, which will haunt the entire movie.  Sidney's boyfriend Billy wants to penetrate her, but she is too upset about her raped/murdered mom to contemplate such filthiness.  This is all expressed in a very strained-sounding exchange about NC-17 and PG-13 ratings.  Metaphors!  The Kevin Williamson script here aspires to be witty and self-referential, but it's a lot more Diablo Cody than Joss Whedon.  Especially given that this is a very simple film at heart: a ghost-masked murderer stalks the teens of whatever town this is.  Ultimately, he appears to be aiming for Sidney.  Who is it and why?


Courteney Cox has been hypnotized by this intricate premise!  She plays tabloid reporter Gale Weathers (lol get it get it??), who is trying to get the scoop on this killing.  Cox probably gives the film's best performance.  Anywayz, one of Sidney's friends is a scary-movie enthusiast and you can tell because he never wears a black shirt.  He provides the rules for survival in scary movies, but generally these don't even enter into play in Scream.  So it's curious why these scenes are included.  They feel dismissive, like Scream is throwing shade on horror movies even as it is trying to be one and reap the financial benefits.


I am getting steamed even as I type this.  It's pretty hilarious that the film ostensibly mocks horror for having rules.  You know, given that this is shot and staged in the most slick and predictable fashion.  The Wes Craven who directed this had long abandoned the anything-goes anarchy of Last House.  Scream utilizes all the well-worn tricks, like fakeout scares, and has immaculate Hollywood photography, but it also has a structure that seems specifically designed to have commercials jammed between scenes.  Everything wraps up neatly and quickly, like this is just a super-long episode of Melrose Place.  


This movie does includes scads of nods to other, better things.  Halloween gets a ton of screen time here: in the lengthy scenes of the gang watching it on TV, in the reversed-roles fall from the balcony, and in the music liberally sprinkled throughout Scream.  Steal from the best, I guess.  There are oodles of other references, from Friday the 13th to Prom Night and so on.  Strangely, the horror discussion comes from preppies wearing button-up shirts and this aspect of Scream could be read as sad wish fulfillment on the part of Craven and Williamson.  Like, if only our fanbase were frat boys and their dull girlfriends talking about horror in a loud, endearing, loud way!  This part of the movie came true, btw, at least for a little while.


Man, I can't believe I still hate this movie so much.  It does have some merits, of course.  I liked how heated the kill scenes were, with the victims really fighting back and the killer having to struggle to kill.  The ghostface design is pretty decent.  


Overall, though, yuck.  The script is so smug that it just feels pompous.  Scream is a stupid-as-fuck movie that thinks it is very smart.  None of the characters have any depth and it's never more apparent than when they're reciting pseudo-intellectual arch dialogue, like muppets being piloted by a community college philosophy major.  The attempts at comedy aren't welcome, either, my reactions ranging from Sigh to "Ugh."  What would ordinarily just be a generic slasher flick has been dressed up in ironic skins, lamentably.  Plus I am still angry about Scream pushing out supernatural/real horror films for a few years so that it could pump out clones of itself, like some kind of goddamn HIV of horror.  Thank the gods that Blair Witch saved the day and this genre that we all love.


**