Monday, February 24, 2014

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Lawl, remember when people in The Horror Community were convinced that WHITE ZOMBIE was some kind of forgotten classic?  And then it was released on VHS and people saw it and were just like, "Oh."


It still has its defenders, but there's no denying that it's pretty creaky and B-movieish.  It mostly seems to derive its fame from a Bela Lugosi performance and the fact that a momentarily-popular 90s metal band cribbed its name.  Otherwise, what we've got is pretty much assembly-line voodoo horror.  An engaged couple (Madge Bellamy and John Harron) travel to Haiti, where heavily-eyebrowed "Murder" LeGrende is resurrecting local corpses to work in his sugar mill.  


The zombies don't look like that (I wish they did!), but they are all black, being Haitian and such.  The zombie color barrier gets broken when LeGrende zombies the bride-to-be, giving us the white zombie the title promised.  The zombies on display are purely pre-Romero, so they don't really attack or get aggressive.  Their blank, sleepwalker style is pretty creepy in small doses and is pretty effective in the mill scenes.


Basically, though, if you like WHITE ZOMBIE, it's probably going to be because of Lugosi's usual Lugosy performance.  Bela sneers, snarls, and cackles his way well past the rest of the cast here.  His interaction with a buzzard is my favorite part of WHITE ZOMBIE, for real.


It's pretty hilar that, while black zombies labor all day at the sugar mill, the white zombie gets to sit around playing a piano and moping.  You can't hurt a corpse's feelings, so let me posit that Madge Bellamy was a pretty terrible actress and it was kind of fortunate that she stopped talking after becoming a zombie.  That Ozark honk, my god.  Apparently, WHITE ZOMBIE was the apex of her career, as her prior filmography included stuff like ANKLES PREFERRED and BERTHA, THE SEWING MACHINE GIRL.  Unfortunately, she's a big giant roadblock standing in the way of enjoyment of this film.  Lugosi's really fun, some of the other actors are pleasant, others are merely okay.  But Bellamy is fairly atrocious and her character is the whole pivot upon which the film turns, so...


My estimation for WHITE ZOMBIE drops every time I see and hopefully this will be the last time.  It doesn't scrape the very bottom of genre fare for its era, but it's really nothing special, curio reputation aside.  Chop it down to Lugosi, the screeching buzzards, and the mill scenes and you might have a diverting 15-minute movie.  But, at over one hour, it's far too long and light to really love.


RATING: 5

Sunday, February 23, 2014

SHOCK (1977)

Mario Bava's last feature makes some significant stylistic departures from the movies that made his reputation.  With a script written by Lamberto Bava and three other dudes, SHOCK is far more modern in approach, although the masterful camerawork and labyrinthine plotting are plenty Bavaish.  


Following the mysterious death of her first husband and her subsequent breakdown, Dora (Daria Nicolodi) remarries.  She and her son Marco and new husband Bruno move back into the murder house.  This works about as well as a therapeutic strategy as you'd expect.  Supernatural stuff also appears to be happening, as doors and swings move all on their own, and young Marco goes from merely annoying to bratty and destructive.  Is he possessed by his deceased dad?


It certainly seems that way, as he simulates humpy sex with his mom on the lawn, proving that the breastmilk dwarf from BURIAL GROUND was part of a long Italian tradition and not just some weird one-off.  There's an awful lot of incesty business happening here—Marco steals and mutilates Dora's panties, among other things—and it's definitely unexpected with Bava at the helm.  

Those scenes are generally the most shocking thing about SHOCK in the early stages.  The film isn't rife with buckets of blood or sloshing gashes.  The self-swinging swing and aberrant child behavior are firmly in the tradition of slow-moving ghost stories of old.  Early on, SHOCK is like a mixture of those films and the evil-kid horror of THE EXORCIST and THE OTHER.  Honestly, it gets a little draggy, especially since we're not enjoying amazing dialogue here.  The lines that do impress, like, "Mama, I'm going to have to kill you", aren't really delivered that effectively in the dubbed audio.  Maybe the Italian track is better.


Kind of a shame that the dialogue doesn't sing, because we've got a lot of superstar actors here.  David Warbeck shows up, albeit all too briefly.  Ivan Rassimov also puts in an appearance.  And, of course, Daria Nicolodi is her usual joy to watch, especially since she's at her youngest and most silhouette-sexy here.  


So SHOCK has its follies and charms, but visually it's really rich and choice.  Bava hadn't lost his sensibilities for camera placement and movement.  The sets look nice and we get tons of well-wielded shadows.  


The movie really kicks into overdrive in the second half, when restraint gets tossed out a window and humped on a lawn.  Suddenly, SHOCK is a movie about hallucinations, razor slashes, jump scares, and Daria Nicolodi running away from furniture.  And, really, it's a much better movie.  I was tapping my fingers and winding my watch for much of the early scenes, but the last half or so of this really redeems it.  And, after thinking about it, the more energetic tone of these scenes don't really conflict that much with the early stuff.  Bava was good enough at narrative to make SHOCK's many different parts feel like an organic whole.


Probably a bit overpraised on the Internet because Bava made it, but still well worth your time.  PS I am painting this Daria Nicolodi image on my ceiling, Sistine chapel-style.


RATING: 7

Friday, February 21, 2014

KONGO (1932)

Remember how 2013 on this blog was mostly about going year by year through the history of horror movies and trying to pick the prettiest one of all?  It feels like that might be a good thing to revive, since I'm in the mood for older stuff, for whatever reason.  So we're up to 1932 and the first pick, KONGO, ended up being no kind of horror movie whatsoever and is therefore disqualified from competition.  But it's too sublime and sleazy to not be celebrated on yon blog, so away we go.


Walter Huston is Flint, sitting bitterly in his wheelchair in the jungle, plotting revenge and ingratiating himself with the natives.  He does so in these ways: by wearing buffalo hats with skulls on them; by shouting things like "BOOGIE B-B-BOGEY BA"; and by performing entry-level magic tricks with the assistance of his Portuguese hussy Tula (Lupe Velez).  All this business is aimed at taking revenge on the man who wounded him and sneered at his misfortune.  Like a Bond villain, he constructs an elaborate plot involving the man's daughter.  Later, a drug-addled doctor wanders out of the jungle as well.


Any description of this movie that you find reads like personnel files at a school for very delinquent girls.  Sex, drugs, tongues torn out with wire, monkeys trying to undress sick women, submersion in leech ponds.  All things that make America great and they are all here!  Unbelievably, this began its life as a stage play (lol~!), then was transformed into a 1928 Lon Chaney film called WEST OF ZANZIBAR.  I strongly suspect that the dialogue was mostly untouched in porting the play into a screenplay.  In KONGO, we get prolonged soliloquies and very hokey verbiage.  I confess, my eyes were rolling in the early goings, but this gets salvaged by its commitment to transgression and by its surprisingly effective troupe of actors. 


This was my first time seeing Lupe Velez after reading (tall) tales about her death in Hollywood Babylon.  The Mexican Spitfire is indeed pretty great here, adding all sorts of little touches to her performance.  I loved her instinctive little bow after they perform magic tricks for the African tribesmen.  Lupe brings the glam here, but she gets outactressed by Virginia Bruce as the debased daughter who's pulled out of a convent and into a hive of scum.


Bruce is tremendous and really establishes her character, Ann, as a real character, not a vehicle for makeup and close-ups.  Ann is bedraggled, often drunk, and constantly trading shrieked accusations with Flint and yet Bruce nails every second of her screen time.  I should like more Virginia Bruce in my life.  Huston is impressive as Flint as well, and probably has the most weight to carry in terms of clunky lines.  There's a shift in his character that you won't believe from his scumbag early scenes, but, if you watch KONGO all the way through, you will believe, because Huston is that good.


One other thing: if racism is a big trigger for you, you should maybe not watch this movie.  The Africans in KONGO are very much of the ooga-booga variety, complete with bone hoops through their noses.  We get dialogue like, "I haven't seen a white woman in years!" and "I hate to see good gin wasted on a dried-up monkey like that."  Let's be fair and admit that most of the questionable stuff comes from characters we're not really supposed to like, though.  It's kinda grindhousey in that way.


This reminded me a bit of the Dwain Esper stuff that I'd seen, but transplanted to an African setting by way of MGM soundstages.  And with far, far better actors!  KONGO's a ton of fun and really revels in impropriety like few other films.  


RATING: 6

Monday, February 17, 2014

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

I do declare, I have never developed the hopeless crush on Hammer stuff that lots of horror folk have.  I acknowledge that the Hammer brand meant consistent quality and that some of their stuff offers surfeits of joy.  But Hammer means gothic horror, pre-NOTLD horror set in windy castles of the eighteenth century.  It's polite, kinda restrained.  And I like to think of myself as putting the "cult" in "uncultured", so it's not surprising that there was no chemistry between us.


Even so, pretty much any Hammer I've ever seen has been at least good entertainment and CURSE is no exception.  The lengthy pre-monster prologue is actually really satisfying.  An itinerant beggar ends up at the lavish dinner party of an old English aristocrat, who acts like you'd expect.  And, through a series of circumstances, the aristocrat gives the beggar to his busty new bride as a pet.  


The beggar's thrown in the dungeon and, since England's rich don't have time to keep up with every little urchin who shuffles out of skid row, he's soon forgotten and left to rot.  Slowly physically devolving even beyond his original skeezy state, he's abandoned without a friend in the world...


...except for the mute girl who grows up to be a Hammer hottie with a penchant for revealing upper-level clothing.  A situation happens with the now-reclusive aristocrat and she gets sent to the dungeon with her hobo friend, who's become a rape fiend.  Remember, this is just the prologue!  It's not even the main body of the movie.


Alas, once we get to the meat of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, it clops along at a much slower pace.  The child that's born of this dungeon romance exhibits traces of lupine behavior.  Don't expect a flurry of werewolf attacks, as much more screen time is spent on the now-grown wolf-child Leon getting a job at a winery and exchanging dialogue with an upper-crust girl.  


The acting, as usual with Hammer, is very solid.  Oliver Reed announced himself to the world in this debut role and his performance is certainly searing enough.  The material probably wasn't going to lead to a world-burning performance with any actor, but it's still easy to see sparks of the Oliver Reed magic smoldering here.


Standard ladies and alternative men will enjoy the multiple shirtless in bed scenes, which prove that Stephenie Meyer didn't even invent the notion of a werewolf with no body hair.  


Speaking of, oh, yeah, this is a movie about a werewolf!  And we actually get to see it in the closing scenes of the film and it looks pretty good as it goes on a metal-throwing and building-climbing rampage.  But we're talking exceedingly delayed gratification and the preceding scenes are pretty staid and stagey.  


Again, I liked this, but I probably would have loved it if we just forgot all about the werewolf thing and turned the mute girl/dungeon hobo thing into a full film.  Once this becomes an official horror film with a monster, it becomes less interesting and more rote, like it's following the Hammer template.  Still fun and worth watching, but not really a gem in my eyes.

RATING: 6

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

MONDO CANE (1962)

If you wanted to draw a map of modern exploitation, MONDO CANE would make a good line of demarcation between the grand old MOM AND DAD days and the shocking new.  Or not so new now, as this movie is 52 years old, old enough to be a great-grandparent in our debauched modern day.  Kids become moms and dads at the drop of a hat now, and then become reality TV stars if they're disgusting enough in an interesting way.  Which takes us, full circle, back to MONDO CANE.


The first shockumentary?  Maybe.  Definitely the one that looms largest.  It spawned a whole brood of imitators that ganked its name (MONDO CANDIDO, MONDO BIZARRO) and ripped its style.  CANE was the product of two Italian reprobates named Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti (a third dude, Paolo Cavara, had a hand in CANE, *and I was wrong about him not doing any mondo after this* —interesting Wiki info here via anonymous commenter).  Usually, one can devote a paragraph to a brief synopsis of a film and everything will be fine, but CANE doesn't work that way.  This isn't a film about any particular thing, unless you want to say it's a film about excess or oddities or extremity.  It's more of a style.  Or maybe the cinema equivalent of the old carnival ten-in-one sideshows.


So here's the story.  The Italian film crew traveled to various locations and captured random strange events, then tied them together in the film thematically.  So we begin with a memorial for Valentino, attended by random uggos from his village who dream of being the next Valentino.  This segues into America, where a random Latin lover is beset by clothes-tearingly horny women.  That segues into love rituals of tribal islands and our first excuse for National Geographic-style nudity.


This is how CANE works.  It chains together disparate things by their common elements, so the film's narrative proceeds like rivulets of water running down arbitrary crevices in a piece of earth.  Or primitive breastmilk running into the mouth of a piglet.


Fair warning: there's some questionable content here.  First, CANE inaugurates the Italian tradition of animal cruelty in seedy films.  We get tons of bull-hacking, pig beatings, and chicks dyed for Easter, then dried in ovens.  The shark scenes are pretty terrible, too, since the poor fish are visibly mutilated, like Varg Vikernes has been after them, then they're pushed back into the sea to presumably drown.  When the narrator assures us that the sharks have been eating people in the area, I feel that they are justified in winnowing down the number of dickbags in this seaport.


But who knows if that's what really happened?  Because CANE's very prescient in its treatment of facts.  Basically, it uses them when they work and works them into entertainment otherwise.  How much of this is a con, a scam, hustle, fake?  Who knows, but it's difficult to take certain scenes seriously.  Like, I'm pretty sure I would've heard about it if there were a restaurant in New York that caters to the rich and serves muskrat, butterfly eggs (lol), and rattlesnake.  However, someone watching MONDO CANE in a Belgian grindhouse or rural Italian cinema probably wouldn't bat an eye at such claims.  Likewise, I have no idea if the flagellation scenes in Italian streets are real or not.  They sure are striking, visually, though.


So are these pre-Baywatch Australian lifeguard babes.  CANE cares about eating practices and other made-up anthropological data, but it loves the hell out of sex and death.  


Plaintive narration hovers over all the images here, tying things together, and turning the end of a single sea turtle into some kind of world-weary meditation on the futility of life. 


But don't worry, because we also get to go to a German bierhall, where hideous people josh around and slosh beer all over the place and also a vomiting man's girlfriend gets very upset about being filmed.


As you can see, these are wildly varying subjects and this really shouldn't work as a cohesive whole.  But it does!  CANE is arranged almost musically, with dour parts butted up against very light and fluffy fare.  Riz Ortolani's superb score holds the film together, in tandem with the ironic narration.  By the time we get to Hawaii, all of these elements have congealed into a singular brew.  The Hawaii scenes are maybe boring on a surface level, but I'd argue that they are the most mondo of MONDO CANE.  We have a bunch of elderly tourists watching hula girls dance and an MC is addressing the audience (in English).  The narrator of MONDO CANE provides a purported translation, giving us this lengthy philosophical diatribe that is clearly not what the MC is saying.  It's a pretty bare-bones scene, spiced up with a lot of grindhouse sugar.


Once we get to the cavepeople, though, we as viewers are starting to die of diabetes.  Too much sugar, too much sizzle.  But we're taken this trip through MONDO CANE and we must pursue it to the end.


Which ends up being a cargo cult.  One suspects that some artifice is happening here, as we're told all about this tribe's belief in white hijackers who steal the planes sent by their deceased elders.  But, really, is reality the most important question?  Does it matter that, given how long it takes to set up lighting and cameras, it's likely that, say, "The Bachelor" or cave people are probably entirely works?  Should we, post-BLAIR WITCH and such, just treat the alleged reality of these artworks as simply more artistic attributes that enhance the experience?  No more or less honorable as gimmicks than smash cuts or soft focus?  Because, at least, cave people are good and worth it.  And so is MONDO CANE.


RATING: 8

Sunday, February 9, 2014

CORPSE MANIA (1981)

It has been literally forever since I gave time to a Hong Kong thing on here (and I've learned how to deal with aspect ratio and screenshots over the past four years).  When I see a title like CORPSE MANIA, I wondered how closely the translation follows the original Mandarin or whatever.  This film's real name is SI YIU, but Google Translate refused to recognize it.  Then I discovered that you can make the Google Translate robot woman voice say "clitoris" and the like, so the SI YIU research ended there.


Anyway, CORPSE MANIA as a title suggests that things are going to be off the chain in this movie.  Corpses should abound and there will probably be lots of shrieking and blood.  As it turns out, a fair portion of the film is pretty standard fare.  It's much more of a thriller than a horror film and one could almost call it giallo-esque.  A brothel in Hong Kong is our setting, where a few corpses start to pile up.  The presumed cause is infamous necrophiliac Li.   


Corpses come in two types in CORPSE MANIA.  A minority of them arrive like peaceful sleeping versions of their alive selves.  Stick them in an expensive box and then into some inexpensive dirt!  But mostly corpses here swarm with maggots, ridiculous bucketfuls of them, in the peak scenes of the slow and meandering first half of the film.  


Li is back in town, opting for the Michael Jackson/Invisible Man look that you use when trying to avoid attention.


The first half to two-thirds of CORPSE MANIA doesn't really deliver on the title's lurid promise.  The lighting choices were very effective and some of the dialogue was ace (I especially liked the exasperated brothel manager saying that necrophiles should be chopped up "by ten hunks").  But a lot of it drags or feels like a suspenseless suspense movie.  I had to gird my loins to pay attention.  That changes once this turns into a kung-fu movie for three whole minutes.


The last third or so of the film just goes nuts in a beautiful murderous way.  We get the aforementioned martial arts mini-battle, lots of stabbing and gunshots, the movement of a massive troupe of police that looks like something you'd see on Broadway, and other assorted mayhem.


It's silly to call a movie with, what, five corpses total "CORPSE MANIA".  But the film at least sticks the landing and, by delaying our gratification until the crazy gooey end, causes us to leave semi-satisfied, leaping over our lowered expectations.  2/3 of an average movie + 1/3 of a pretty great movie=???


RATING: (IDK) 6

Saturday, February 8, 2014

MONSTERS (2010)

This was a rewatch for me.  I didn't fall for MONSTERS the first time around.  It had been hyped to infinity as a game-changing genre film, plus it is named MONSTERS, and so I was expecting a film full of monsters.  The movie's a lot more sly than all that would suggest, though.  The monsters are there, intermittently, but they get far less screen time than their human costars.  These are modest monsters, barely glimpsed, like wives on a harem balcony.



Listen: a probe went to space after possible extraterrestrial life was detected.  It burst before it could land and the pieces of it landed in Mexico.  Subsequently, an array of large squid-like monsters began walking the land and northern Mexico was declared a quarantine zone.  The U.S. finally builds that wall that John McCain kept screaming about.  People in the afflicted areas keep calm and carry on, although their new lives as hosts to aliens color everything, even popular entertainment.


Against this backdrop, we have photographer Andrew, who is instructed to escort publishing scion's daughter Sam back to America.  This is really what MONSTERS is about: these two people, believable but likable, trying to survive and get back to their less hazardous homeland.


Even if the story were total B-movie nonsense, MONSTERS would be worth watching for the visuals.  Like I mentioned, the alien elements and related coping-with-random-bombings lead to some striking imagery.  But we also get arresting visuals that basically arise from plain old poverty and necessity.  Having a photographer as a lead gives the film a lot of opportunities to show off its cinematography and what we get is well-designed and well-done.


I love dogs who wear plastic bags and newspapers.


MONSTERS is also proficient at really nailing its setting and minor characters.  Some of Mexico's pretty pitiable anyway, but the land of this film is just wrenchingly awful.  We see a lot of children, who are essentially adapting to a very unnatural situation.  We also see children who are less lucky, victims of the indiscriminate bombing sorties aimed at destroying the monsters.  It's not really a stretch to see these scenes as metaphors for, say, drone attacks in the Middle East.  Although MONSTERS isn't primarily a political film (don't worry!).


The desolation is mounted very well.  The monsters aren't bad-looking, kind of Chthulhu-y, but my favorite parts of this visually are the bombed-out buildings and crumbling ruins.  


Much like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, this wouldn't work at all if our two leads weren't convincing, but Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able give incredibly confident performances here.  The whole film hinges on their relationship (and not in a chick-flick way, really) and they totally deliver.  Not that surprised to learn that they're married in real life.


Why didn't I like this the first go-round?  The problem was me and my expectations, I think.  This is easily the most restrained and subtle "monster" movie ever, but, if approached with an open mind, it yields a ton of rewards.  I'm very curious to see what director Gareth Edwards will do with his American GODZILLA project.  Godzilla is almost a 180 from this film as far as atmosphere and mood, so here's hoping we can get that old Godzilla spectacle with the right amount of gas-mask realism.  And dogs wrapped in newspapers.


RATING: 7