Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Bride from Hades (1968)

Wow wow wow, if a new discovery can get me this fired up this far into the engorgement of October, it must be pretty special indeed.  I like what I've seen from older Japanese horror, but I haven't delved deeply enough into it if gems like The Bride from Hades are waiting to be unearthed.


The Hades of the title is a good fit.  A movie entitled The Bride from Hell might make you shudder in anticipation of shrieky gore or a shrieky Melissa McCarthy """comedy""".  But Hades is a different, older concept—not so much a place of pitchforks and punishment as languid shadows.  We begin this movie with a lantern festival celebrating the onset of a three-day holiday in which the dead ascend from Hades and walk the Earth.


Our hero, Mr. Shinzaburo, devotes his time to teaching the poor to read.  He attends the lantern festival to assist the poor in their lantern ghost invocations as well.  There, he meets two ladies, one of whom will quickly posit herself as a romantic fixture in his life.


Problem: she is dead.  And encounters between the dead and the living in this film don't end well for the latter.  A sort of vampiric draining of energy seems to result.  Naturally, Shinzaburo's community is not enthused at losing such a good dude.  But it's not like the ghosts here are monsters.  The film goes to great lengths to make them very sympathetic figures and the whole thing is suffused in slow, quiet drama rather than intense shocks.


Everything here is on point.  If you're impatient with Ben Carson-tempo slow burns, you might not be able to sit still for this.  But you'd be missing out on plotting and acting that are masterfully executed, and a horror film with more atmosphere than anything I've seen in years.  


****

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ravenous (1999)

Birds sing and I complain about horror-comedy, which is why I'm glad that Ravenous follows yesterday's blog—it's maybe the most recent example of a film which strikes a good balance between giggles and entrails.  A period piece set in nineteenth-century west America, but ably directed by British lady Antonia Bird, Ravenous digs into more obscure horror dirt than most films.  It's centered around the myth of the wendigo: in this case, human cannibalism bestows power and relief from pain upon the consumer, but he also gets a severe craving for more man-meat.


Bird and the script wring black comedy out of this dark premise, but the film is pretty balanced overall and generates serious suspense when necessary.  And it's beautiful—visually, this could compensate for pretty much any script failings, but thankfully our story isn't bad at all.  Aside from the overall premise, the action and dialogue are fairly well-structured and reward a close viewing.  Anguished protagonist Boyd avoids death in the Spanish-American War by lying down and refusing to kill, but eventually ends up peer-pressured by cannibals and advised to kill or die. 


There's a weird tension throughout the movie that probably originated in its troubled shoot (Bird replaced the original director, and the studio tried to "help" a lot during filming).  This will either appeal to you or repulse you, as Ravenous never seems to shoot straight during the comedy or the bloodletting.  It's twitchy and odd and I like this aspect of it.


Oh yeah, and the score is excellent, too.  And that's a story in itself.  And sorry this is short, but October is long and I am weary.  But, yeah, see Ravenous.


***1/2

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Game of Werewolves (2011)

GLOUBON: Ah, Socrates, how was your trip to 2011?

SOCRATES: Quite enjoyable, Gloubon.  An empire named America has been ruled by a series of supermen.  But there was also talk of Game of Werewolves, which some call Attack of the Werewolves and others call Lobos de Arga.  

GLOUBON: Game of Werewolves?  It must be frightening, indeed.

SOCRATES: Alas, no.  In the future, storytellers tend to present frolicsome rather than fearful material.  

GLOUBON: Well, tell me of it.

SOCRATES: We first see a fully grown man and woman engaged in bedded love—

GLOUBON: That sounds rather horrifying!

SOCRATES: Well, times have changed and the Greek taste for man-boy interactions has fallen from favour, although the director of Jeepers Creepers would fit well in our Athens.


GLOUBON: And was this unseemly penetration interrupted by werewolves?

SOCRATES: No, despite the many titles that swear otherwise, werewolves are rather difficult to find here.  They are absent for a majority of the movie.  Instead, we spent time with an assemblage of fools and are presented with their foolery.

GLOUBON: Like the works of Simon Pegg?  Ah, so this is a horror-comedy then!

SOCRATES: Some would call it thus, but let wrestle with these words until we find the truth.  Would you say that horror is horror because of its attributes or because of its essence?

GLOUBON: I fail to understand your meaning.

SOCRATES: Let me plain things up.  Would you say that horror is horror simply because it includes monstrous beings?  That is, if an editor were to insert a CHUD into The Girl from Samos or Pretty Woman, would those then be works of horror?

GLOUBON: Well, I should think not, not simply by that addition.


SOCRATES: And if we presented Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but with fifty more gallons of stage blood, it would still not be horror?

GLOUBON: Assuredly not.

SOCRATES: It appears that we cannot look to appurtenances as proof of true horror.  So let us take up the opposite tack.  Can we recognize horror in its essence?

GLOUBON: I am not sure I understand.

SOCRATES: Here is an analogy that might help.  How would you recognize a man as a cook?  Would you look for a spoon in his hand?

GLOUBON: Why, yes, cooks often carry spoons.

SOCRATES: Ah, but so do cocaine enthusiasts and set designers for The Room and none would accuse them of being cooks.

GLOUBON: No, I see what you mean!

SOCRATES: So may we say that the best way of defining a cook is through his acts of cooking?

GLOUBON: That certainly seems reasonable.


SOCRATES: Therefore, may we not say that horror is most recognizable in its attempts to horrify?  And we cannot call something horror simply because it has werewolves or zombies or Bill Moseley?

GLOUBON: I think that you are correct.

SOCRATES: So may we also conclude that the term "horror-comedy" must be applied to works that seek to both terrify and amuse? 

GLOUBON: Yes.

SOCRATES: But the majority of works labeled "horror-comedy" make no attempt to horrify at all.  They certainly include monsters, but rarely ever make serious efforts at scaring their viewers.  Rather, they are clown shows as performed by established beasts.

GLOUBON: Um.

SOCRATES: But none could deny that these works, such as our Game of Werewolves, include monsters.  So, while it might be unable to present themselves as "horror" without stretching the truth, we could certainly call them "monster-comedies" with some justice.

GLOUBON: Yes, I quite agree.  And now that we know that Game of Werewolves is a monster-comedy and not at all a horror film, please tell me what you thought of it.


SOCRATES: Well, it was okay.  I mean, I laughed about three times and the werewolves looked decent, but it did seem like a poor copy of Simon Pegg's stuff.  The jokes that fell flat made for pretty tedious viewing, but the last fourth or so of the movie was all right.  I don't really understand why it was so hyped, but I think the fact that nobody ever mentioned it after its original wave of interest says a lot about it.


**3/4

Monday, October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

Don't freak out, but Guillero Del Toro's career is shaping up to be a better version of Tim Burton's.  Burton's long, sad slump mirrors the declining angle you can trace from Cronos and Pan's Labyrinth to good-but-not-great fare like Pacific Rim and, yes, Crimson Peak.  The difference is that Del Toro's stuff, even if no longer top shelf, is still worth watching.  And he has never made me violently angry by remaking Planet of the Apes.

It's the turn of the century and there's a character named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), and in her name we get forebodings of the film to come—Edith (American, like Wharton or Bunker) and Cushing (British as hell, like Peter).  She's a budding author who doesn't cotton to including girly romance plots in her fiction, but she falls for a visiting baronet (Tom Hiddleston) who is trying to gin up financial investors with his sister (Jessica Chastain, queen of acting) in tow.  Eventualities occur and Edith migrates to England, land of grey skies and angry ghosts.

This movie would be mad at me for using the "ghost-stories" tag, because even the dialogue makes clear that, just because a story has a ghost in it, that doesn't mean it's a Ghost Story.  I've heard that some viewers have walked away disappointed that this doesn't have more horror content.  We get blood, we get ghosts, but most of this is indeed akin to a Bronte novel, more focused on a slow unfolding of relationships than jump scares.  You could draw comparisons in the set design to some of Argento's art deco stuff, but otherwise it's hard to fit this into a horror-shaped box.

It is pretty literary in that it has elements of Henry James, Poe, and others.  The script has been carefully constructed with its dropped hints of butterflies and Arthur Conan Doyle.  And yet somehow this doesn't end up as fulfilling as you might expect.  Visually, it's beautiful and the acting is impeccable, but the plotting runs a little on the shallow side.  I don't regret seeing it, but I'm not too motivated to catch it again.  

Pretty, good, but not pretty good.

***

Sunday, October 25, 2015

House on Sorority Row (1983)

I've got no affinity for slashers.  I don't personally dig the genre and I really don't like it when people who don't know anything about horror assume that every movie is Friday the 13th.  I can recognize the overachievers, like Black Christmas, but most of the junk that was born in the eighties leaves me cold.


House on Sorority Row leaves me cold.  A woman gives birth under blue-tinted lights.  Years apparently pass and she ends up as the silver fox in the screenshot above, a house mother to a raucous sorority.  A raucous sorority prank goes wrong.  Death happens.  Then more death happens as a result.


It's pretty much like Prom Night and The Burning and that bunch.  To give you an example of the writing prowess of this movie, the fat dude in the screenshot above says, "I'm a sea pig!" twice.  If nobody reacts to your joke the first time, say it again, but louder.  


I mean, this is professional, but that's not exactly high praise.  If you've met the minimum requirements for film making, with actors hitting their marks and no lens flares, it's not like there's some medal of honor waiting for you.  This could have been more fun if the inane premise (a bunch of sorority girls kill someone and try to hide it in the most ignorant way) had been pressed even farther into absurdity.  As it stands, it's kind of a tired crawl to get through this thing.  Maybe the remake is better?  IDK.


One thing I will give slashers, they managed to make severed heads in toilets a recurring trope, against all odds.


**1/2

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stagefright (1987)

Two vets of City of the Living Dead, Michele Soavi and Giovanni Lombardo Radice, reunite in Stagefright, Soavi as director and Radice as wisecracking gay actor.  This is far less garishly vicious than the fine old Fulci film, though, and it's best described as a marriage between giallo and the American crop of Halloween clones.  Only set in a theater.


Yes, it's a theater-within-a-film, which is sort of a novel concept for horror.  The giallo touches are present in some of the camerawork, in the quirky one-off characters, and especially in the synthy soundtrack.  As for the Halloween content: a lunatic escapes from a psychiatric hospital and starts slashing his way through the cast.  


The cast is...uneven.  Radice does his usual great job, but some of the other actors are a little stilted and the script isn't glorious enough to compensate.  Conceptually, this is pretty sweet and Soavi keeps things moving at a fast clip, but there are definitely flaws on parade, even if you're not a rigorous critic.


But there are also joys.  I'd laugh if someone told me this was a slasher holy grail in the April Fool's Day vein, but it's certainly better than most of the knifey crap I rented from video stores back in the eighties.  At least it's trying to be somewhat original, even if the results are rather mixed.  


***

Friday, October 23, 2015

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

With the Universal monsters fully established, these kinds of projects were sort of like a monster Avengers for monster kids.  But this one puts minimal effort into fulfilling the title's exciting promise.


Two grave robbers disinter Lawrence Talbot and get mutilated for it.  Lon Chaney Jr. is, of course, splendid as the wolf man, doomed to live when he just wants to die.  


We get some crowd-pleasing callbacks as Talbot heads out in search of suicide.  Maria Ouspenskaya returns as the gypsy Maleva.  She accompanies Talbot in search of a doctor who might be able to help him.


DR. FRANKENSTEIN, THAT IS.  But it turns out that Victor is deceased, so the goddamn title is a fucking lie after all.  But at least Talbot unearths Frankenstein's monster, who is played by Bela Lugosi!  Finally!  But don't get too excited.  Lugosi's performance here seems really off.  After checking with the Internet, it seems that the monster was originally supposed to be a blind Igor, which would explain Lugosi's constant squinting and weird lack of energy.  The monster rampage in this film consists of a table being knocked over and a barrel of wine being tossed out of a cart.  So satisfying.


Plus the film gives us minimal Talbot-monster scenes and no monster-wolf man until two minutes from the end.  BUT we somehow have time to listen to a whole folk song about wine.


If you're a fan of Universal's monster crew, you're likely to like this and it is professionally executed, but it doesn't soar and the shifts in the script really take a lot out of the movie's sails.


***

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966)

Wonderfully, actively dumb in an Ed Wood way, Zontar was a much more fun sci-fi experience than the same year's Queen of Blood.  This is how cheap this movie is: for most of its running time, you don't see the monster.  Not for any Jaws-type reasons, but because Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston, below) communicates with it through a big CB radio.  Zontar sounds like static, so Keith constantly has to repeat and explain things.   The cave "is over a hot spring so it should be somewhat compatible with your Venus environment" and the like.  This is magical. 


Zontar is here to conquer Earth through the use of what appear to be kindergarten art class versions of tiny Gaoses.  Each Gaos affixes a tag to its target, allowing Zontar to control their minds.  Keith is super-excited about all this (as you can see) because it will mean an end to Earth's wars and political problems and what have you.  His science friend Dr. Curt Taylor (poor John Agar) is less enthused.  And Keith's wife (Pat Delaney) is also Team No-Zontar and shrewishly snaps at him in a Southern accent throughout this movie's entire running time.


This movie is endlessly inept and endlessly entertaining.  It's also one of the few examples of what you might call small-space apocalypse movies.  We're told that Zontar's attack on the world has rendered almost all technology useless, but we're shown this by watching ten or so people over the course of several city blocks.  Zontar's global aspirations get channeled into a teeny tiny funnel of characters here.


Some of the choices made by the screenwriter defy comprehension.  The big reveal of water coming out of a hose.  The comic-relief soldiers ("I sawr a boid!") with corny sitcom music, which incredibly turns into menacing corny sitcom music when one of them finally meets Zontar.  Scientists in a three-person lab randomly push buttons.  One is such a bad actor that it's tough to tell when he is supposed to be mind-controlled.  


Also, if you get bored with the movie proper, you can entertain yourself by staring at the "art" on display at Keith's house.  What the hell is that?


Oh, yeah, and this is Zontar.


***

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

City of the Living Dead (1980)

This review will be about, among other things, how hot Catriona MacColl looks in this movie.


Here's the story: a priest hangs himself in the town of Dunwich ("built on the ruins of the original Salem").  This fulfills a prophecy in the ancient Book of Enoch and will lead to the perpetual opening of the gates of hell if something isn't done by All Saints' Day.  MacColl's character teams up with a journalist named Peter Bell (Christopher George, channeling Columbo) and some locals to remedy this predicament.  


Positives first.  As is usual with Fulci, the technical aspects of the film are pretty irreproachable.  City is maybe his most ambitious film in terms of structure, as we're constantly switching back and forth between different scenes.  If this were a play, it would have like 100 short acts.  But we never lose sight of continuity and the editing is commendably crisp.  So is the camerawork, with slow loving pans of houses circled by blue-tinted fog.  And so is Fabio Frizzi's score, all morose electronics with no Psycho-style staccato jump scare stuff.  


Now the not-as-positive-but-still-not-bad.  As also happens a lot with Fulci, the understanding of America gets rather murky.  We're in New England, but the sheriff sounds like Mike Huckabee and we hear monkeys howling and people say things like "Sheriff, what the dickens is this?"  Some exacting viewers won't be able to get beyond all that and the dialogue is undeniably the weakest aspect of this movie.  But the confusion strikes me as rather charming and adds to the surreal feel of the film in many cases.


You can definitely see glimmerings of The Beyond in this film.  Fulci was beginning to dive into avant-horror, disconnected from reality and traditional narrative explanation.  Women weep blood and spit up their own intestines.  A dad catches his daughter with the local pervert and violently overreacts with a drill.  And the why of it all is never explained.


The clearest example of letting go is the famous ending, which was a technical botch in post-production, but I can't think of a better conclusion to a marathon of spirited weirdness like City.  I don't think this reaches the same level as Fulci's best work, but it's miles beyond your typical workaday pasta-zombie fare.  The gore satisfies, the acting is generally pretty good, and Catriona MacColl really does look fetching here in her casual hellgate-closing outfits.  An easy recommend.


***1/2

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rogue (2007)

Wolf Creek won lots of hearts, but for me it was an above-average example of a genre I don't tend to like.  For my money, Greg McLean's best film to date is this giant killer croc opus.  We open with those quirky Australians and their wacky ways.


But quickly shift out attention to this tourist boats, full of reps from the important nations.  They're out to view some salties, but disaster strikes as it often does.  These scenes set the table for the rest of the movie and it's easy to be impressed with how skillfully Rogue establishes its many characters.  A movie like this tends to have a big cast and limited time for non-animal action, so it's to this film's credit that it's peopled with memorable characters.  Very reminiscent of Hatchet in this respect.


But it's a more serious film than Hatchet, as the croc-human confrontations are made more fraught by the rising river.  This is a survival story, very much in the vein of The Reef or Open Water, but probably most akin to the former in its pursuit of bleak thrills.  


The film opts for the best approach when dealing with its monster and we mostly see the crocodile in quick flashes and murky shadows.  When it's finally revealed, it's impressive, so don't worry that CGI will let you down again.  Rogue is nothing if not professional.


There's a lot to like about this movie: its monster, its deft handling of character, and the masterful use of Australian landscapes.  Even if you dislike crocodiles eating people, you can still love this film for its study of big beautiful skies.


***1/4

Monday, October 19, 2015

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)

Conceptually, this thing earns all the good will in the world before its execution completely botches things.  A bunch of wealthy degenerates get together in a sparsely-decorated home to practice the arts mastered by the Marquis de Sade.


Of course, this involves wearing goofy masks...


And having women in sheer nightwear very gently chained to things.


All stuff that would be foreign to de Sade, but forward.  Onto the crux of the movie, a nuclear strike that has rendered everyone outside the orgy basement (which must be lead or something, I guess?) blind.  We actually have two great premises that underdeliver here.  A movie about life in a post-nuclear world with the people from your orgy group should, by all rights, be great.  And a "kingdom of the blind" scenario also holds promise.  


But this film is dashed by its low ambitions.  It definitely doesn't indulge in the perverse possibilities of the Sade stuff, as our surviving reprobates openly wish for a better world and other kinds of schmaltzy B-movie lines.  But it also never really pulls the trigger on the war between the blind and the sighted.  And it's shot like a TV movie of the week.


By the time we get to the Night of the Living Dead-gaffled ending, it's pretty impossible to still care or not nap.


**1/2