Friday, April 30, 2010

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)

Start readying your lips to scream POSER because this viewing of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was my first ever. I must have heard something in my adolescence that warned me away from this film. Maybe the growing tide of skepticism about the Lutzs' claims colored my perception and made me reach for TERRORVISION on the VHS rack for the seventh time. Whatever.

I am filling this entry with images of Margot Kidder because I think she's prettier than a house.

In teenage me's defense, AMITYVILLE is clearly not a great horror film. Even for a haunted house picture (which entails lackadaisical pacing by tradition), it takes forever to unfold. The little things, like windowsills falling on child hands, happen, but the film overall is so bloated that, by the time the house-stigmata kicks in, the viewer is too spent to be totally invested. AMITYVILLE dishes out lots of cookie-cutter haunted house tricks and, really, a bit too many, perhaps. At under two hours, it still feels like a chore to endure. Any tension that is built is quickly undone by the film's Kardashian-esque bulge. It really sits around the house.

There are other problems. James Brolin's George Lutz is clearly supposed to be tainted by the evil of the house, but this is manifested in A) awful acting ("I'm coming APAAART!") and B) extremely minor and nonthreatening behaviors, like obsessively chopping wood and stealing books from the library. Okay, the latter did bother me, but the casual viewer would probably not swoon. Physically, Brolin's a good fit for the part, but his acting leaves much to be desired. I'm biased, but even someone who hadn't already picked a camp would likely finger Kidder as the film's real star. She's talented as ever and does what she can, but there's nothing much to elevate.

It's tough to evaluate this thing now since its power is almost certainly tied to the carny bullshit that surrounded it. With the ominous "true story" aspects ripped from the tale, it's an unclothed emperor, emaciated and dreary, just another widget from the spookshow factory. The movie equivalent of the What-Is-It? or Feejee Mermaid, only not even half as interesting.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)

Oh, hai!Final Girl Film Club FTW!

Literally Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi, but called The Gates of Hell in its cut big-box American VHS incarnation and awesomely titled A Cadaver Hung on the Bellrope at one point in Germany (thanx, IMDB!)! CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is perhaps the Fulciest of Fulci films. All of the elements that divide humanity into Fulci haters and fellaters are found here. You like close-ups of eyes? How about 20 minutes of them? Detest sexism? Maybe you're just "nursing a pet neurosis, like about 70% of the female population of this country." And, yes, this brings the blood and gore, too. If it's not his wettest film, it certainly boasts the most audacious kills.

CITY was the first of Fulci's trio of surrealist zombie outings (followed by THE BEYOND and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) and, like its sisters, cares precious little for straightforward plots or stopping to explain things. But, here let me try: a priest hangs himself in a cemetery just before All Saints Day, opening the gates of hell (Hell?) in Dunwich. Since the gate's open, zombies come out and shamble, teleport, and leap at their victims, at least ten years before 28 DAYS LATER. Now a reporter named Peter (Christopher George) and a psychic named Mary (Catriona MacColl) must travel to Dunwich and close the gate before the teleporting dead get out of the pasture.

The narrative structure here gets quite loose. Events unfold in Dunwich and are paralleled in New York. Scenes are choppy, drifting from character to character, making me glad that I take notes at the movies. For example, we meet psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren of MANGIATI VIVI renown), then meet Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), who enters the scene, then immediately ditches to meet Bob (the superbly scuzzy Giovanni Lombardo Radice). This is interspersed, by the way, with scenes of reporter and psychic in New York.

But it's hard to say that confusion isn't intentional with this film. There are so many jarringly illogical happenings that the viewer never quite gets a firm footing. Even the opening stages of the film delight in offering the unexpected: baby gurgling noises on the soundtrack as we pan across a row of tombstones. The zombies behave with little consistency, although the male zombies are clearly the more athletic and impressive in terms of leaping ability (this aspect of CITY seemed to foreshadow ZOMBIE 3's sometimes-slow, sometimes-fast semi-lucha zombies). And let's not forget the much-derided New England howler monkeys. Whether this was a DO NOT ENTRY-esque bungle or a deliberate addition to the film's surrealistic storehouse, it dovetails well with the rest of the madness on display.

Dialog and situations are laughable in places, but I'm not sure (again) that this is wholly accidental. I heart 33:25, when our two NY heroes are driving away and there is a loud hitting-something sound just as they pass a parked car. Also adorable is the scene in which someone is called a "murderer" just before being murdered. And what of this exchange?

PRIEST: You know that Dunwich was built on the ruins of the original Salem, the village of witches and heresy and evil?

PETER: Yes, but, uh, can you tell us how to get there?

It's a little surprising with the wanton weirdness and lighter touches that CITY can still creep you (by that, I mean me) right the F out at the film's end. The last fourth or so is very harrowing, flush with improbably-already-rotten zombies teleporting to lounges to devour patrons and driving child actors down fog-swirled stairs. Fulci does a fabulous job at exploiting a minimal number of sets and a very small cast (maybe ten people live in Dunwich), and it's still scary! And the end, as noted over and over, is one of the most fortunate accidents in filmdom. Especially in this genre, it's peasantish to start probing for intentions when something good shows up. And CITY is a good film and an easy recommendation.

Friday, April 23, 2010

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

Cinema Wasteland's screening of THE HAUNTING (for my money, the best haunted house film ever made and one of the best films ever) evoked pondering thoughts. Devotees of zombie films are a recognized race. There is a line on the census long form for peeps who dig Universal or Hammer fare or J-horror. But there's not really any space reserved for haunted house aficionados! Horror boards are flush with terabytes of talk about Fulci or Carpenter and podcasts & dissertations dissect every frame of every minor Italian gore epic. But haunted houses stand empty, forlorn, forsaken by genre kids and ignored by goth kids, who work wrought iron into Wednesday 13 logos. And I love haunted house movies, more than I love Jesus or Christmas by far! So this post begins a series of posts on haunted house movies, the good, the bad, and

BURNT OFFERINGS. I have had the worst dates with all-star casts lately. 92 IN THE SHADE boasts Margot Kidder, Warren Oates, Joe Spinell, & Burgess Meredith. No way, I thought, this could go wrong! But it was too disjointed to love, like the Hilton Sisters (JK, I would have loved them and disappointed them in all the ways that man-love can). More a collection of funny scenes than a coherent whole. Hilton Sisters. Wakka wakka.

BURNT OFFERINGS has Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and BETTE DAVIS, and disappoints in a wholly different way. The first thirty minutes of this film are going to give you scurvy, if you are like me. The writing is cringe-worthy. Bette Davis is your old-lady comic relief in excruciatingly unfunny set-up scenes, establishing a family dynamic which will assuredly be destroyed later. I poured out a 40 for poor Bette Davis. The longest 30 minutes of your life, but keep your finger off the STOP button. STOP.

Because it gets pretty intense, pretty quickly. Reed and Black play haunted-house corruption to the hilt. And even if some scenes are campily-dated (the recurring hearse chauffeur looks a LOT like K.C.'s brother from TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW), the haunted-house template is sturdy enough to make BURNT OFFERINGS pick up steam in the final lap. Dan (DARK SHADOWS) Curtis shoots this well as well, lots of dreamy soft-focus scenes which are the heartbeat of haunted house America. Said scenes occur surprisingly often in DAYLIGHT, a rare setting for this kind of film.

BURNT OFFERINGS is a seventies film, which does it no favors in terms of competition. The 70s, particularly for genre film, are a chimera of Mecca and orgasms, and something that's perfectly fine but no Google like BURNT OFFERINGS tends to get lost in the shuffle. I would probably recommend this to people who love haunted houses or any of the actors, as they all acquit themselves admirably. Davis stumbles a bit in the beginning, hamstrung by the material, but summons the Bette Davis fire from midpoint to the denouement. Karen Black is a superb actress, (and I had some mean stuff about Scientology here, but have deleted it, based on rumor...YAY, KAREN!!! BUT, oh no, I just read a dissenting Internet report!). And Oliver Reed has no mustache, but still rocks! Everybody's a winner!

In a five-star world, this is a three-star film. As DAWN OF THE DEAD is to ZOMBIE 3, so is THE HAUNTING to BURNT OFFERINGS. I doubt anyone has unwisely and excitedly gone immediately out to get the BURNT OFFERINGS logo tattooed on his or her body, but you could certainly do worse within the genre. Just consider the first thirty mins your walk up the big hill and enjoy the sweet slope downward into madness that follows. And count the number of films that might have plucked elements from this very uninnovative entry.