Tuesday, July 30, 2013

DER MÜDE TOD (aka DESTINY) (1921)

Fritz Lang would grow up to direct M and METROPOLIS, but he cut his genre teeth with this early fantasy entry that's all about how death robs you of your loved ones.  But don't get out your cryin' towel yet, DESTINY is a remarkably fun film given its dire subject.  Any film that begins with this title card has already won my heart:


Fritz Lang is still a better storyteller than Jane Austen.  Into this setting comes a pair of lovers, riding in a carriage, kissing, and getting eyeballed by a pervert duck in a basket.  


They wrap the duck in a bandana because the ASPCA was essentially etiolated in Some Place, but the creepiness doesn't end there.  Because Death (Bernhard Goetzke) waits at the crossroads, as Bone Thugz-N-Harmony tried to warn us.


Death hitches a ride to town and plays on the greed of its prominent citizens in order to purchase land abutting the cemetery.  The satirical presentation of these elders is ultra-sharp, as we meet all of them in mid-gulp or -gnaw, the movie deflating their reputations by displaying their base behavior.  DESTINY succeeds at doing what THE BELLS tried to do.


Bernhard Goetzke might be my favorite Death ever, beating Brad Pitt and the guy from BILL AND TED part 2.  He's so gaunt and world-weary, a distinctly different approach from the usual Deaths of the spookier school.  The script affords him a real character, as he complains about being blamed for loss when he's really just a tool acting on God's orders.  


So he builds a wall to keep prying townie eyes away from his "garden".


Meanwhile, our lovers drink and adorn themselves with multiple cats, unaware that a time of reaping nears.


Then it's time to take off the cats and put on mourning robes.


We haven't even reached the real meat of the film yet!  Death is a good sport, so he offers three chances to stymie planned deaths in other times and places.  In exchange, he'll restore a loved one to life.  First, we visit the violent world of the Amish.


Lol jk, it's really Muslim country.  I don't want to get too spoily with the plots here, as this anthology portion of the film is really the bulk of what you'll be viewing.  I will say that I was pleased to see Goetzke and silent siren Lil Dagover inserted into each entry as new(?) characters—it allowed the actors to demonstrate their range while integrating our three stories with the wraparound.  This desert-set first foray is loaded with entertainment, as well as impressive sets and costuming.


Enjoy tits while you can because their time nears.  The Hays Code, like Death itself, would soon steal them away right at their apex of ripeness.  


This second story is a significant step down.  Italy being a fellow Euro country, perhaps it did not provide enough of a blank slate for the filmmakers to wrest entertainment out of the concept.  It's an okay tale, but nothing amazing.  The best aspects are the elements that connect to the rest of the film, like the recurring candle and stairway motifs.  


But don't worry, we're off to China, which might as well be Neptune, given how alien and arcane behavior seems to be.  People sit on the floor and kiss like stunned birds.  These two assist famed magician A Hi with his magical endeavors.


If you say nothing else about DESTINY, you must admit that it is bold.  They stuck a flying carpet scene two segments after the Middle Eastern portion of the film!


A Hi is summoned to the local magnate's birthday party and we get a reprisal of the film's critique of power.  Note the guy's Wolverine talons, not the hands of someone who spends days picking cotton or washing dishes.


But maybe he has a good personality??


This segment of DESTINY delivers on all fronts.  Lovers of comedy, connoisseurs of magic, and people who like unsheathed allegories for penises will all be very pleased.


The effectiveness of the Chinese and Middle Eastern scenes relative to the mediocrity of the Italy-set stuff seems to suggest that stereotyping can have its advantages.  Who would rather watch authentic/boring cultural practices than dreamy BS about flying carpets and elongated fingernails and magic horses?  Plus DESTINY is tapping into a rich cultural tradition that dates back to Herodotus claiming that Africans ejaculate black sludge and that their lands are full of flying snakes.  Read a book if you don't believe me.


Even with the slight nadir of the central segment, DESTINY is glorious viewing.  It's so alive and creative, and yet Lang blends and connects all the disparate parts with a master's touch.  I seriously did not expect the list to change until we got to NOSFERATU, but...

RATING: 7/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) 
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Der Müde Tod aka Destiny (1921)
10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

THE BELLS (1926)

And this one was a drag.  It's not that THE BELLS is all that bad, it's just that it's so unexceptional and incorporates so many things we've already seen that it's hard not to view it as well-traveled ground.  Let's mark the appeal elements with #hashtags to be 2.0.


Dateline Alsatia, 1868.  Lionel Barrymore plays Mathias, a barkeep and flour factory magnate with a very awful grasp of economics.  He allows his "customers" to take whatever they want on credit, provided that they support his bid to become burgomaster of the town.  


#Comedy-alcoholics (cf. WOLF BLOOD) sell their political loyalty for rotgut because they're too fat to eat more bread or go to any circuses.  Corpulent alcoholic deadbeats were sort of the Adam Sandlers and Emmett (circuses) Kellys of this era.  


Mathias is a debtor himself, owing the king of jerkoffs Jerome Frantz (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a whole bunch of francs.  So his wife Catharine shrews him to death just because he hands out free drinks like Halloween candy.  "We need money to buy food and medicine!"  What a bitch, right?  Later, we discover the weakness that she shares with all women of her era, a love for headgear that makes her look like a caravan gypsy.


Her daughter also has hat fever, only she prefers to look like a sailor/French maid with long curtainlike ears.  Despite this, she is the apple of multiple eyes, namely Jerome Frantz and newly-arrived gendarme Christian.


Don't let the girls have all the hat fun, Boris Karloff!  He shows up as a traveling mesmerist/#magician (cf. THE MAGICIAN, THE LAST PERFORMANCE).  


This all occurs at the #town-fair (cf. CALIGARI).  Admittedly, this is a pretty impressive fair.  There are no rides, but the bad-trip costumes are specially designed to mortify children.  


Not a lot of plot yet, but we are being smothered by the tons of characters the film is dumping on us.  THE BELLS doesn't exactly aim for subtlety, as Jerome is just a bastard because he's a bastard.  And he is hardcore into frowning in case that wasn't apparent.


Finally, the plot picks up a bit and this becomes more than a movie about Keynesian marriage and plump drunks.  A Polish Jew travels through town and immediately gets "Ewww, Jew!" stares from the local winos.  Mathias is nice to him, so much so that the Jew reveals that he has scads of Jew gold stashed in his belt.  I cannot believe that Eric Cartman was right about this!


You can guess the rest, I'm sure.  THE BELLS is Macbeth, only with burgomastership instead of a kingdom at stake, and with the heavy-set instead of Banquo and Malcolm.  And with headwraps that look like fly wings or Bullwinkle ears.


It proceeds sedately through its plot, taking few chances and seldom offering plum dialogue or unleashed shocks.  It barely qualifies as a horror film, as the only supernatural elements here are Karloff's mesmerist and the guilt-driven ghost who pops up to chat up Mathias.  
  

Competent, mediocre, excruciating.  These are the right reactions to THE BELLS.  One wishes for more ambition, even if it leads to failure.  It would certainly be better than the safe, clunky nature of the film as it stands, and might give us more lines like this:


I suspect that the director just wanted to make a film about jaunty hats and had to include the thriller stuff because of studio demands.  None more jaunty.


RATING: 5/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) 
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
10. A Page of Madness (1926)

Monday, July 22, 2013

THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

The beginning of this film sets the tone for the whole: famed pianist Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is returning from a concert via train when the train crashes.  The crash itself occupies only a few seconds of footage, but we spend five minutes plus on Orlac's concerned sweetie driving to the accident scene, then we devote more time to stumbling around the wrecked skeleton of the train.  



People who dismiss silent stuff as overly ponderous and deliberate could find worse evidence than ORLAC.  Scenes are dragged to absurd lengths while nothing much is happening.  Even so, there are rewards hidden here.  This never jumps fully into the muck of weirdness in which director Robert Wiene's CALIGARI and GENUINE slopped about.  But it still gets pretty strange, especially in terms of the performances.  Mrs. Orlac especially seems to be a callback to CALIGARI's Cesare, with her herky-jerky movements and sleepwalking stance.


Thankfully, she compensates for this lack of poise with smoldering passion.


The title is the HANDS OF ORLAC for a reason.  Orlac loses his hands to the train and gets affixed with some murderer's mitts.  The film goes to great lengths to hammer home just how important hands are to the Orlac household.  Not only is their concert-pianoing income hand-based, but Mrs. Orlac seems to have some hand-fetish paraphilia happening.


Even a royal baby that just came out could guess the plot from here!  The hands seemingly gin up killer thoughts in Orlac's post-train brain.  His piano skills deteriorate while his knife-wielding skills rise.  


Assuredly not the most intense or horrific movie ever to exist, ORLAC's benefits mostly reside in the surreal performances and the occasional surreal set-piece, like the girl who lives in a mound made of newspapers.


As it incorporates dreamy surrealism and subtextual perversity, two things that I adore in horror, I feel that I should like ORLAC a lot.  But the tempo is just too lax, almost a 180 turn from the hyperinsanity of GENUINE.  It plods its way to its (too-neat) resolution.  Let's call it good, but only just.


RATING: 5/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
10. A Page of Madness (1926)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

CHILDREN OF THE CORN (2009)





This is a depiction of my real feelings.  I am tickled that Stacie Ponder has resurrected Final Girl Film Club, but there could be no more painful choice than a CHILDREN OF THE CORN movie.  It's not the worst franchise in horror while WITCHCRAFT is still real, but it still sucks, a whooole lot.  To be fair to these movies, they're working with a concept that's unworkable and we'll get into all that, but first you should know that this is a remake/reboot of the lengthy series of original CHILDREN films.  I'm sure we all know the basic story, as it's an American classic, but here's the Q & D: a bunch of kids in Gatlin, Nebraska, take to worshipping He Who Walks Behind the Rows, a variant Earth-2 Jehovah of sorts.  They kill their adults and also kill outlanders, like horror convention tongue-kisser Linda Hamilton.  This rich concept is mined for a baffling number of sequels, none of which are very good, although I'll agree that Urban Harvest is fun in a nutso way.  This CHILDREN was a return to Stephen King's original story and aired on Syfy, just like SHARKNADO.  It's allegedly even worse than the CORN canon to date (mmmm, corn cannon!) and also reputedly darker and grimmer.  


This is sign #1 to get ready for dark grimness.  This baby cowboy is apparently the grandfather of the Corn Cult, instituting some weird fundamentalism after a bad drought.  Already, this film is shackling itself.  Because it's hard to make kids that frightening—you can push them over easily, try it sometime.  CHILDREN tries to compensate with a lot of upsetting red-state yelling about sacrifices and pig-sticking.  It's really not enough to establish a scary atmosphere, though.  I mean, look:


Seriously!  Right?  You would have to show some determined violence right at the outset to make Amish kindergarten chilling.  This could work if the film started off with kids massacring people (as the original did, I think).  Otherwise, you're just not going to get me to believe in the murdering capability of this squirt.  Problem #2:


These are our outlanders, Vicky and Burt.  We meet them in medias res, in the middle of an epic argument.  It's always a good idea to introduce your protagonists while they're shrieking irrationally and Vicky shrieks irrationally like a champ all the way through this.  "Is that what your Sarge taught you??  Out in the jungle???  Along with how to cut gook tits off??"  She's so nasty and unlikable and it's hard to see why.  Maybe she was supposed to be a foil for Burt, who is otherwise just this boring cipher who went to Vietnam.  If the movie could have shown them interacting with other people and Vicky acting like a human, it would have done wonders.  As it stands, she just feels like this lunatic who is angry all the time for no reason.  Stephen King contributed to the script, so presumably this is what he wanted, but I'm at a loss to explain why.  I also can't explain dialogue like "That's been your whole thesis as a wife!", words worthy of Tommy Wiseau.


Some things about the film were enjoyable.  The first half has a lot of nice cinematography and this film, like TEXAS CHAIN SAW, utilizes very bright daylight scenes to ramp up tension.  People always think about darkness when they think horror, but oppressive heat works just as well.  And at least the first half isn't boring, what with all the crazyland arguing and interesting design choices.


The latter half of CORN slows down a lot, comparatively.  We get Nam flashbacks and marathons through corn.  If the first half is TCM 1, the second is TCM 3, just a big chase scene that gets pretty dull and monotonous.  Even so, this was not as bad as I'd expected!  I'd say that its level of quality is right in line with the existing CHILDREN OF THE CORN movies...it makes about the same number of mistakes, no more, and stumbles into URBAN HARVEST territory with some of the deranged dialogue.  Plus, some of the visuals must be intentionally hilarious.


I'm going back to the 20s now, y'all have fun with your no vacancies for corn defilers...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

THE CONJURING (2013)

Currently sitting atop its 84% positive throne at Rotten Tomatoes and boasting a rare four skull rave from Bloody Disgusting, all this lavish praise leaves me feeling like a jerk for not loving this middling James Wan thing.  But, if history holds true, that Rotten Tomatoes score will drop as more real critics chime in (not that you're not awesome, St. Paul Pioneer Press).  And Bloody D is Bloody D, world's lightest-grading horror professor.  Let's talk about what went right and wrong with THE CONJURING.

"""Based on a true story""" in that the Warrens are real people and have probably been to a house sometime, the movie throws us right into the paranormal mix as demonologist Ed and psychic wife Lorraine crack the case of a demon that goes to intricate lengths to insert itself into an all-girl household.  It inhabits a gnarled, creepy doll, because they are sure to welcome that into their home rather than another object like a puppy in a basket or a bouquet of flowers.  The movie plays its hand early, signaling with booming pride that we can expect loud noises to inform us when we're supposed to be scared.  

Meanwhile, trucker Roger and his wife Carolyn and their collection of daughters and a dog move into a decrepit old manse.  Insidious and sinister things start happening, spooky enough for the midnight movie on Lifetime, but not intense enough to upset anyone.  So the dad, the wife, and the daughters ask the Warrens to bust their ghosts.  Said ghosts/demons/whatever are rendered in a nonmonsterlike fashion, basically just unkempt hairdos and pasty skin and bad teeth.  You could see the same in many sections of West Virginia.  Maybe THE CONJURING is an allegory about class friction and provincialism?

Or maybe it's just ye olde standard family-horror film.  There's not much to differentiate this from the glut of "Demons are after my kids!" movies that the past few years have produced.  The most horrific section, the finale, is basically a run-through of exorcism movies' greatest hits, with the solitary innovation arising from the coarse editing.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't really a bad film, it's just very bland (and you've seen it before).  The restrained tone, the jump scares, even the sad-prom piano music during the family-reunited aftermath—it's been done to death lately and it's weird that this template hasn't been assigned a genre name the way that "torture porn" and "postmodern horror" were.  How 'bout Domestic Horror?  It feels like a retread, especially when it gets hyper-Jesusy.  I'm not surprised that there were no young boy children cast, as the film is so Catholic that they would have probably come to a terrible end.

Some stuff worked well.  The actors all acquitted themselves nicely, although it hurt my heart to see Lili Taylor wasting herself in this.  Wan has a decent eye for wide shots and landscapes.  Word is that he's departing horror and I could see him doing nice things with family dramas.  Overall, this seemed very middle-of-the-pack.  But, who cares, there's already a sequel planned!  This whole approach of hyping things to death prior to release, then planning sequels based on artificial success is probably not going to be a good long-term strategy.  We'll see how naive moviegoers are when the returns for EVIL DEAD THE REMAKE 2, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D2, and MORE CONJURING arrive.  For now, I'd counsel lowering your expectations to matinee or DVD level.  This ain't magical enough to spend $8 on it instead of a pizza.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

THE LAST WARNING (1929)

Director Paul Leni must have been emotionally tuckered out after the relentless cryfest of deformities THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, because his next film would mark a return to the "old dark house"-style romping of THE CAT AND THE CANARY.  In terms of horror content, THE LAST WARNING is unlikely to alarm anyone who can handle Goosebumps, but it's got enough genre flair and enough fun & games to merit inclusion in our 1920s parade of dignity.  SALOME got in, so the door policy can't be too strict.


We open with dipping and swirling cameras, pivoting and clambering like a zombie in a shitty modern horror movie, while superimposed faces and legs pile atop one another like zombies against a big wall.  These early scenes are so energetic and inventive that it's inevitable that they won't last.  Burn out, we have a plot to get to! And here it is: actor John Woodford dies during a performance.  Then his body disappears!  Then the theatre is closed for years...but reopens!  With Woodford's original company.  But!  Someone is leaving nasty notes and trying to bully the performers into not performing.  Is it the dead or just a jock or something?  Hey, look at this scary building!


It's pissed.  Maybe it doesn't appreciate horror-comedy, which this is, clearly.  It even taps the same fountain of fun animated intertitles that we saw in CAT AND THE CANARY.

 

Thankfully, the comedy on offer is actually funny, not agonizing and tedious.  I especially dug the frequent scenes of an old woman being splattered with spiderwebs (Brazzers!) or inadvertently taking hydraulic rides (I'm sure there's a porn site that covers this scenario too!  Don't email me about it!).  Please note how incredible this looks!  If only she could have been our """monster"""!


The monster that we end up getting looks perfectly fine when shot from afar, as most things do.  LAST WARNING keeps him pretty close to the vest for most of the film's running time, which works wonders.


Wonders cease when we get a close-up that looks like a sexually-harassing crash-test dummy, but you can't win them all.


Goofy looks aside, LAST WARNING is lots of fun and doesn't fritter its opportunities on elongated dialogue exchange or overstay its welcome.  It's a rad haunted-house ride that functions precisely the way that Scooby-Doo episodes do.  Zoinks, Evalynda Hendon, I bet it was Harvey Carleton the whole time!  Those names are real, that is what kind of movie we have here.  If you enjoyed CAT/CANARY, you have no reason to not like this.  No excuses, young man or ma'am!  Not a world-changer, but it's not trying to be.


RATING:6/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
10. A Page of Madness (1926)