Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!


Pedro Almodóvar, 1990
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril, Loles León, Francisco Rabal

The most quickly descriptive thing I can say about Atame! is that it is delightfully offensive. A young, energetic Banderas plays Ricky, a troubled young man recently released from a psychiatric hospital. He stalks and kidnaps Marina, an ex-junkie porn star turned actress who he has decided to love, cherish, and marry. His plan is that by kidnapping Marina, she will have time to get to know the real him and also fall in love. Marina is naturally horrified and tries to escape, but Ricky is determined that she will come to love him in time.

At its essence, Atame! (meaning "tie me up") is a romantic comedy and, as much as it chagrins me to admit it, one that I was tricked into thoroughly enjoying. It's partly so entertaining because it openly mocks the narrative structure of most romantic films and the often flagrant misogyny found in that genre. The two main characters are attractive, but are deeply emotionally damaged and not overly intelligent. Marina has spent most of her life as a promiscuous heroin addict who made a career in porn and is finally turning to legitimate film, though of course it is a horror production. Ricky grew up in a psychiatric hospital where he survived by pimping himself out to the older female staff members. These two emerge from their supposedly tormented pasts to pursue a normalized heterosexual model of adult life, though Almodóvar pokes a great deal of fun at the ridiculous nature of heterosexual courtship and love.

Though this is one of his less colorful, more subdued works, it still comes highly recommended. Atame! is Almodóvar's eighth film and was critically and financially successful if controversial. The original NC-17 rating doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though there are some sexy moments and a scene of Loles León sitting down on a toilet seat and peeing. There is nary a hardcore scene to be found.

The references to Stockholm syndrome and John Fowler's novel The Collector are slightly uncomfortable. Not only does Marina convince herself that she loves Ricky, but she also convinces her more suspicious sister, who knows about the kidnapping. In a certain sense the basic plot also reminds me of Shaw's Pygmalion and, as I mentioned, the romantic comedies of the '50s and early '60s. Though Ricky is not trying to mold Marina into a particular role, he is trying to show her the wisdom of adopting a conventional heterosexual romantic role of her own choosing... sort of.

Atame! is usually described as a dark comedy, which I don't think is entirely accurate. There are some dark moments where we don't know how far Ricky is going to take things, but the threat of violence dissolves into sexual tension and humor. Like romantic comedies from the '50s and '60s that I can't help but feel that Almodóvar is mocking, the romantic/erotic elements are blended with moments of oddball comedy. These bits of humor occur particularly on the film set Marina wrapped up before her kidnapping, which is a horror film about a well-muscled, masked half-man, half-undead monster who is in love with Marina's character and, after murdering several other characters, wants to take her with him to the underworld. There are numerous references to horror films throughout, including a nice scene where Marina watches Night of the Living Dead while placidly tied up, waiting for Ricky's return.

There's a lovely soundtrack by Ennio Morricone which is more reminiscent of a horror film than a romantic comedy. Apparently Almodóvar only used about half the score and also mixed in some ironic Spanish pop music. There's a nice DVD from Anchor Bay that has a good print and optional subtitles, though sadly no extras. Definitely track it down, particularly if you are a fan of unconventional romantic comedies or of Almodóvar's work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CRUISING


William Friedkin, 1980
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox

I'm going to throw caution to the wind and immediately admit that I think Cruising is William Friedkin's best film, hands down. Sure, The Exorcist is iconic. Both films sort of ride on a gimmick -- satanic possession in The Exorcist and the gay S&M scene in Cruising -- but I still think Cruising is a more evolved, complex film. Also, where The Exorcist has become a household name, Cruising is still generally ignored and reviled.

Al Pacino, in a bold, if confusing move, plays Steve Burns, a lower-level police officer who goes undercover in the underground gay S&M scene to help catch a serial killer who is preying upon men of his physical type. The killer takes men home, ties them up, stabs them to death, and leaves their body parts in the Hudson. There are few clues and the police department is reluctant to get too involved.

Steve begins to immerse himself in the S&M world, first exploring clubs in the meatpacking district and soon making friends with a gay neighbor who is having boyfriend troubles. Steve himself begins having troubles with his girlfriend and looses interest in their sex life. He brings a suspect to the police for questioning and is repulsed when they beat up and humiliate the man, who is actually innocent. Soon he is alerted to another possible suspect, a music student Steve has been tailing.

Based on the novel, Cruising, by New York Times writer Gerald Walker, Friedkin's film was hated by critics, misunderstood by audiences, and equally loathed by anti-gay protesters and gay rights supporters alike. Critical support has increased over the years, but the film still remains controversial. There seem to be three main issues: the constant, in-your-face gay sexuality, the portrayal of gay sexuality as inherently violent, and the ambiguous ending/plot holes.

This film is unapologetically full of sex. It is about sex, sex, and more sex and, in particular, leathersex. The title, Cruising, could imply a police officer on the beat or a person strolling the streets looking for illicit sex. There is a lot of crossover between police uniforms and S&M costumes, as well as between the physical actions of police interrogation and Steve negotiating sex encounters with strangers. I think every scene, in some way, oozes with a sort of filthy sexuality that is indicative of late '70s/early '80s New York cinema. Let's face it, this is a sleazy serial killer film riding right on the coattails of Maniac, which was released the same year. Speaking of, Manaic's star Joe Spinell has a cameo in Cruising as an abusive patrolmen who forces gay club patrons to give he and his partner blow jobs in their patrol car.

Having grown up reading about the gay leather scene of the '70s (don't ask my why), I was excited to finally see this film film. There are plenty of explicit scenes and it was originally given an X-rating. Friedkin reportedly had to trim about 40 minutes of footage off of the original print before its theatrical release. As for whether or not the film is homophobic, I cannot fairly say. I think it is surprisingly non-judgmental on the surface level, but is obviously problematic at addressing Pacino's latent homosexuality in connection with violence and a possible mental breakdown that occurs toward the end of the film. I saw this less as a comment on his homosexual desire and more as an exploration of an obviously naive character suddenly immersed in a world full of sexuality and violence, where the line between the two is permanently blurred. With that said, it is also a product of its time and should be seen as such.

While it is not really a realistic portrayal of the leather scene, Cruising is a wet dream for anyone who loves giallo films and is interested in underground sex culture. If you're used to watching giallo films or even some slasher flicks, the ambiguities and plot holes are going to be a lot less distracting. One of the things I like so much about this film is the lack of easy answers or solid conclusion. The final scene is also genuinely creepy.

The acting is mostly solid, particularly from the supporting cast. Paul Sorvino is great, as always, and there is a nice cameo from James Remar. The obnoxious Karen Allen barely has a line of dialogue -- Cruising is unmistakably a man's film -- and I think the only two female roles are Allen as Pacino's suffering girlfriend and a waitress who has a bit scene spilling coffee. As for Pacino's performance, I know it is highly criticized, but I like him as an actor and think he chose an interesting angle for the performance, regardless of whether it was intentional. Steve is innocent, confused, simply going with the flow. He flounders about (literally, his dancing is painful to watch), which made sense to me, but will likely be irritating for some viewers. Originally Friedkin considered giving the part to Richard Gere. Shudder.

On a side note, The Germs wrote and recorded a handful of songs for the film, though only "Lion's Share" was included. The rest of the soundtrack, which I recommend, was written by Jack Nitzsche, who also composed Nicholas Roeg's Performance, Friedkin's The Exorcist, and Adrian Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks, among many others.

I highly recommend Cruising, though it will only appeal to a certain type of viewer. That is to say, perverts with good taste in movies. Warner, in a surprising move, released a deluxe edition DVD that includes commentary from Friedkin and two documentaries, one about the making of the film and the other about its controversial reception. As far as I know, no director's cut exists and the studio reputedly lost the cut 40 minutes. But that's what Ken Russell thought about The Devils and look how that turned out? Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

CRAWLSPACE


David Schmoeller, 1986
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Barbara Whinnery, Carole Francis

David Schmoeller’s neglected gem Crawlspace has been rescued from obscurity by Shout Factory subset Scream Factory alongside a release of another ‘80s cult classic, The Beast Within (1982). Released on a newly restored Blu-ray disc this month, Crawlspace is one of the late, great Klaus Kinski’s final cult films and surely one of his weirdest, which, if you’re familiar with the actor’s work, is really saying something. 

Lori (Talia Balsam) is the newest tenant at Karl Gunther’s (Klaus Kinski) neat, orderly apartment building. While Karl and the other tenants - all women - seem friendly, Karl is the son of a Nazi doctor and gleefully continues his father’s sadistic profession. He performs cruel experiments in the attic and throughout the apartment building, where he spies on and murders his tenants. He also sets up a series of devious violent booby traps in the building. 

One by one, Karl begins to dispose of the women in the apartment building and slowly works his way toward Lori. A Nazi hunter (Kenneth Robert Shippy) tracks him down, but is quickly dispatched by a particularly gruesome booby trap. While attempting to flee and hide throughout the building, Lori makes some horrifying discoveries. Will she survive the CRAWLSPACE?

A film that unabashedly makes as little sense as possible, Crawlspace is chock full of sleaze, violence, mean-spiritedness, and a commandingly creepy Klaus Kinski. He seems to have totally embraced his role as an ex-Nazi doctor pervert turned murderer, though Karl is really only the son of a Nazi, wished he was born in more horrible times. Allegedly writer and director David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) had a very difficult time with Kinski on set and the actor frequent went as far as to tell Schmoeller that only Kinski was capable of directing himself. 

Kinski may have been a pain in the ass, but his performance here is truly incredible, certainly at the top of any B-movie insanity list. He plays Russian Roulette with himself, weeps openly, dons a Nazi uniform and smears lipstick across his face, keeps a tongueless woman in a cage, and so much more that I don’t want to spoil. With any actor other than Kinski, this would have been a slightly weird and probably very boring slasher film, as the general plot construct is set up around a madman killing middle aged women in a nonsensically booby-trapped apartment building.

The women of the film don’t fare so well, particularly because they’re mostly played by a cast of inexperienced, middle aged women, none of whom are particularly attractive. The exception is Tane McClure (Heavy Petting Detective) who walks around scantily clad and bafflingly engages in a rape fantasy with her boyfriend early in the film. Most of the other actresses are better known for their television rather than film careers, such as star Talia Balsam (Mad Men) and Barbara Whinnery (St. Elsewhere). 

Directed David Schmoeller also made one of my favorite weird, neglected films from the ‘70s, Tourist Trap (1979), and he does a similar job here despite his complaints that Kinski nearly ruined the production. Surprisingly, the interesting cinematography is from Sergio Salvati, known for his work with Lucio Fulci on The Beyond (1981) and Zombie (1979). Brian De Palma’s regular collaborator Pino Donaggio created the fitting, if very ‘80s score. 

Crawlspace is undeniably entertaining, but may be too exploitative for casual horror fans. It’s willingness to throw logic to the wind and embrace a sort of mind-blowing, sheer balls-to-the-wall insanity is difficult to describe without giving too much away. There is some sex and nudity, but absolutely nothing about this film is erotic. As with Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982), the sex is mean-spirited, confusing, or simply gratuitous. The violence is largely off screen, with much of the nastiness implied, yet hard to ignore. A minor, final note is that there is no true crawlspace in the film, just a terrifying attic and some very large air vents. 

Scream Factory’s new HD transfer, presented in 1080p with the original aspect ration of 1.85:1, looks fantastic and is an improvement over the old MGM DVD. Though the film itself is somewhat dark, the colors and contrast both look great here and there is no obvious print damage. There is a DTS Master Audio 2.0 mono mix that sounds sharp and clear. There is no noticeable damage or distortion. Both dialogue and the score are well mixed, though there are no subtitles included. 

With a notable like Kinski starring in the film, of course there were going to be some interesting extras. First and foremost is the entertaining commentary track from David Schmoeller, who explains how difficult Kinski was on set and the overall stressful nature of the production. Please Kill Mr. Kinski, a short documentary from 1999, further explores this in an interview with Schmoeller. Tales from the Crawlspace with John Vulich is a new featurette where special effects wizard John Vulich (The X-Files, Day of the Dead) discusses his relationship with Kinski and the effects he created for the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and TV spots.

Scream Factory’s Crawlspace Blu-ray is definitely an improvement over the out of print MGM double feature (with The Attic) and I hope this release will attract a little more attention for such a neglected film. Chances are few people reading this review will be as over the moon about the film as I am, but all ‘80s horror and/or exploitation fans, as well as Klaus Kinski devotees owe it to themselves to see it at least once. 

THE SKIN I LIVE IN


Pedro Almodovar, 2011
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet

There are a lot of things I love about the few Almodovar's films I've seen, but something in particular that he does with character keeps me coming back for more. He has a way of keeping his protagonists untouchable, unknowable, always out of reach. While this might be irritating for more conventional audiences, it is probably my favorite thing about Almodovar as a director. He reminds us not only that characters in film and fiction are never meant to be real people, but also that other people can never be completely known to us and we will only ever see them from certain angles and vantage points.

While I unquestionably loved La piel que habito, it is a troubled, elusive film that is akin to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Medical experimentation, sexual horror, and a profound sense of identity confusion and displacement connect it with these earlier films, but it manages to stand on its own as an unsettling tale of mystery, trauma, and revenge.

Based loosely on Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale, The Skin I Live In follows Robert (Banderas), a surgeon who has been doing some unconventional and possibly immoral experiments on synthetic skin. He also keeps a girl in his home who wears a body suit, is not allowed to leave her room, and is always monitored by camera. It becomes clear that Robert has been doing these experiments because he lost his beloved, if unfaithful wife to a fiery car accident and though she survived, she eventually killed herself when she saw the extensive burn damage to her body. The girl, Vera, bears a strange resemblance to his dead wife. There is also the matter of his daughter, who killed herself after a traumatic assault. But who is Vera? How did she get in the room?

Told in a series of chronological leaps backwards and forwards, The Skin I Live In is essentially a blend of horror and melodrama. It visits Almodovar's trademark themes of trauma, memory, sexuality, and identity, as well as revolving around the two mainstays of body horror: sexual trauma and medical experimentation. Like Dead RingersThe Skin I Live In is made up of characters struggling with anxiety and loneliness, characters trapped in their own bodies and trying, but miserably failing, to make the best of it. The plot is completely implausible, but if you treat it like a horror/sci-fi film, the more impossible elements melt away in Almodovar's constantly whirling, changing cinematic creation.

There are plenty of reasons I would highly recommend this film, but first and foremost is Almodovar's visual style. Full of bold colors, striking set pieces, and references to many famous paintings, the set is dripping with important symbolic details that it will probably take a few viewings to catch all of. There is also the importance of masks, costumes, and uniforms. Most of the clothes were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and they all play critical importance to the various characters' shifting identities, the way that costume shapes personality.

Horror fans will not only enjoy the suggestive, but disgusting body horror elements, but also the clear Gothic inspiration. There is an obvious but elegant nod to Victor Frankenstein with Banderas's Robert and it is great to see him return to form. His chilling, but somewhat sympathetic character is reminiscent of some of Hitchcock's handsome, charming if utterly cold and determined villains.

There is a twist that is revealed towards the end of the film, but you're just going to have to see it to find out what it is. The Skin I Live In is out on a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Sony.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE HAUNTING (1963)


Robert Wise, 1963
Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

One of the greatest films about a haunted house based on one of the greatest novels about the same subject, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, this film is included in my trilogy of greatest classic haunted house films ever made, along with Legend of Hell House and The Changeling.

Paranormal investigator, Dr. Markaway, is trying to prove once and for all the existence of the supernatural. He takes a couple of research subjects to a mansion that is allegedly the most haunted house in America, Hill House. He brings the future owner of Hill House, Luke, who is the rational skeptic of the group, as well as two women, Eleanor and Theo, who are "sensitive" and have had documented paranormal experiences in the past. Eleanor -- aka Nell -- is particularly drawn to the house. She has spent almost her entire adult life caring for her sick mother, who has recently died, and seeks adventure and liberation from the shackles of the past. The house calls to her and a number of macabre events unfold. When his wife makes a surprise visit, Dr. Markaway realizes that Nell has to be taken out of the house, but it may be too late.

One of the most influential haunted house films ever made, The Haunting is chilling, suspenseful, and also manages to be a sensitive portrayal of one woman's trauma. Julie Harris's pathetic, almost tragic Nell is truly the driving force of the film. While she is not always a likable character, she is sympathetic and curious enough to pull us along with her as she gets sucked further and further into the psychic aura of the house. I really can't say enough good things about the film. It has complex characters, a simple plot, and absolutely beautiful visuals. Wise balances everything perfectly and does justice to Jackson's remarkable novel, even if he has to change a few minor details along the way.

While I tend to hate feminist horror -- "The Yellow Wallpaper" can absolutely fuck off -- Jackson does an amazing job combining a terrifying yarn with real issues of the time, namely the difficult expression of sexuality and domestic life as a prison. Between the insecure, neurotic Nell and the sexually confident but troubled Theo, Jackson presents two believable and sympathetic female characters.

Twin Peaks fans, prepare to have your minds blown by a very young Russ Tamblyn as the skeptical, greedy Luke. If you haven't seen this film... for shame. Pick up the very basic Warner DVD and school yourselves. As a final note, absolutely ignore the 1999 remake. I have no idea why that travesty was ever visited upon the earth.

CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND


Alfred Vohrer, 1967
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Harald Leipnitz, Carl Lange, Ilse Steppat

Die Blaue Hand aka The Bloody Hand is part of a particular genre of film that I enjoy immensely, but don't think I've ever covered on this blog before: the krimi or German crime mystery. Usually based on the works of British murder mystery novelists like Edgar Wallace (who wrote the source novel for this film), krimi films are sort of the German version of gialli. They are generally stylistic crime thrillers with gruesome enough elements that they are usually marketed as horror films. Shot mostly in Germany and Denmark by Rialto, most of them were dubbed in English for a British market.

Creature with the Blue Hand has all the elements typically found in the genre: over-the-top acting, dialogue-heavy scenes, a maniac on the loose, terrible dubbing, and an extremely complicated plot that involves dark secrets and plenty of double crossing. It also has Klaus Kinski.

Kinski plays twins Dave and Richard Emerson, two of the least German names imaginable. Dave has been wrongly committed to an insane asylum, so he escapes and sneaks back to his ancestral family mansion to prove his innocence and his brother Richard's guilt. There is a family legend about a peculiar suit of armor that has a blue glove with razor sharp claws, but the glove has never been found. It seems some mysterious, hooded figure has uncovered the glove and is now using it to kill an astounding amount of people. Can Dave prove his innocence and Richard's guilt before everyone gets killed by the creature with the blue hand?

Sure, it's a little schlocky, but Creature with the Blue Hand is incredibly entertaining. The film feels dated and the dubbing is appalling, but it's well-paced, suspenseful, and has an almost Scooby Doo-like series of unimaginable plot twists. There are some very creepy visuals, such as the medieval looking manor and the asylum. I don't want to ruin any surprises, but if you're new to krimi, this is a great place to start. Keep your eye on the many memorable side characters from the suspicious mother and the quirky Scotland Yard detective, to the eccentric butler, who is my favorite character next to Kinski's Dave.

A note on The Bloody Hand version: Sam Sherman came along and added some extra gore. This "new" print is known as The Bloody Hand and, as far as I'm concerned, should be avoided. Unfortunately the only way to get Creature with the Blue Hand on DVD is the double feature Image DVD that also contains The Bloody Hand. For some mystifying reason, Image has put most of the work into restoring the latter, which has an impressive commentary and a superior looking print. I'm not sure why they didn't lavish any of this attention on Creature with the Blue Hand, but I still recommend that version over the newer doctored print.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)


Brian De Palma, 1980
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon

Though I'm somewhat reluctant to admit it, Dressed to Kill is my favorite De Palma film by far. Wait, I'm sorry. My favorite non-musical De Palma film.

Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, a repressed housewife who has a libido like a cat in heat. She goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Caine) to deal with her desires. One afternoon, while visiting an art museum, she lets herself get involved in an affair, but when she tries to sneak back home to her husband and teenage son, she is brutally murdered by a mysterious blonde woman. This murder is witnessed by prostitute Liz Blake (Allen), who has to try to figure out the identity of the blonde assassin before her own life is forfeit. With the help of Dr. Elliott and Kate's tech-savvy teenage son, Liz tries to get to the bottom of the murderer's identity in time.

In many ways, Dressed to Kill is a blatant homage to Hitchcock, but there's really nothing wrong with that. I would rather see a thousand decent Hitchcock rip-offs that most of the garbage coming out of Hollywood lately. And this is delightfully sleazy. I mean, the film opens with a woman masturbating in the shower to a rape fantasy while her witless husband stands shaving at the sink.

There are great performances from Dickinson and Caine, who I would watch in anything. Dickinson in particular brings an almost disgusting level of sexuality to the screen that unfortunately fades when she is killed. Allen is annoying, but I'm not sure if that can be blamed on her performance or the script. Either way, she plays a convincing part as an amoral call girl more concerned with staying alive than playing by any conventional rules.

As long as you can get past some of the weird, slow-motion shots, this comes highly recommended. Not technically a horror film, it is more of a perverse murder mystery/thriller. I also recommend the creepy Pino Donaggio score. Though set and shot in New York, Philly locals will be interested to know that the interior art museums scenes were shot in the Philadelphia Art Museum. There's an MGM special edition DVD that might be a little annoying to track down, but that comes with a nice documentary and some interesting featurettes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Top Thirteen Satanic Horror Films

It's that time of the year (my favorite time of year) when I try to read as many spooky books as possible and watch 31 new horror films, or at least films that are new to me or that I haven't seen in many, many years. Here's an article I wrote for Cinedelphia about my Top Thirteen Satanic Horror Films.

Halloween is a time for all things spooky, sinful, weird and otherworldly. It is a time when even mainstream culture celebrates ghosts, ghouls and witches. Speaking of witches, we can’t forget about their diabolical master, the Accuser, the Deceiver, Angel of the Pit and Bringer of Light: Satan. The Lord of Darkness is a popular subject for horror cinema from Hollywood blockbusters to more obscure European cult fare.
Personally, I think the Devil should have a place in every Halloween horror marathon, but it’s hard to know where to start. I will watch any kind of deplorable garbage that features Satan, Satan worshippers, satanic possession or satanic rituals. Sometimes it’s pretty disappointing, which is why I’m here to give you a quick guide to my favorite thirteen satanic films.
1. ALUCARDA (Juan Lopez Moctezuma, 1978) - One of the best satanic films of ALL TIME. This Mexican release got little critical acclaim, but remains a cult classic. Two orphaned teenage girls living in a convent establish an incredibly close bond. Unfortunately one of them unleashes a diabolical force when she becomes possessed by Satan, who may also be her father. It is lush, surreal and, in my expert opinion, is the perfect satanic masterpiece.
2. HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) – Amazing documentary-style silent film about Satan, evil and witchcraft. It’s wonderful, beautiful and would make an excellent backdrop for any Halloween party. Definitely go with the restored Criterion DVD.
3. THE DEVILS (Ken Russell, 1971) – Russel’s opus about a sinful priest (the wonderful Oliver Reed) who is the victim of a country-wide conspiracy perpetrated by the crown, a famed witch hunter and a local convent. Based on Aldous Huxley’s equally wonderful non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon. The best film you will ever see that blames it all on Satan, plus my favorite film of all time. It is not yet on DVD because Warner can’t get their shit together. Make sure to track down an uncut version with the blasphemous “Rape of Christ” scene that was believed to be lost until fairly recently.
4. THE EXORCIST (William Friedkin, 1973) – I don’t need to describe this one. Probably the greatest film about demonic possession ever made and something I watch every Halloween. If one Exorcist film isn’t enough, there's Exorcist II, which features a constantly-drunk Richard Burton chewing on scenery the entire film. Exorcist III, though different in tone from the original film, is a wonderful and shouldn’t be so neglected. It's one of the best horror films of the '90s. Avoid any of the prequels.
5. THE OMEN (Richard Donner, 1976) – Again, I shouldn’t have to describe it. Probably the greatest film about the Antichrist and still holds up after thirty years. Unlike the sequels, which get persistently worse.
6. HORROR HOTEL aka City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960) – Creepy, effective film about a young girl who visits a New England town and stumbles into a satanic cult. It is fortunately in the public domain and you can watch it here. Definitely a classic of British horror.
7. THE BLACK CAT (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) – One of my favorite horror films. Lugosi-Karloff classic about the showdown between two old war buddies and a satanic cult. For the time period, it has a number of shocking subtexts like genocide and necrophilia. Boris Karloff has never been as evil and Expressionist-influenced set pieces have never looked so foreboding.
8. THE DEVIL’S RAIN (Robert Fuest, 1975) – Shatner vs Satan. What more do I need to say? Plus the late, great Ernest Borgnine, blood rituals and a mess of Satan worshippers. Some people find this cheesy, but I think it’s a load of fun.
9. DON’T DELIVER US FROM EVIL (Joel Seria, 1971) – French film about two girls who become friends and immerse themselves in debauchery and evil. This flick has been banned, partly because of the young age of the two stars. It was loosely based on the same New Zealand murder case that inspired Peter Jackson’s wondrous Heavenly Creatures.
10. SATAN’S BLOOD aka Escalofrio (Carlos Puerto, 1977) – Sleazy Spanish film about a couple who goes for a visit in the country and winds up playing with a Ouija board, having an orgy and getting kidnapped by Satan worshippers. One of the first films in Spain to receive the infamous “S” rating, which stands for sexy, satanic sinema (or should).
11. SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS (Greydon Clark, 1977) – One of the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen, also with some of the most ineffectual Satanists ever committed to film. Slutty cheerleaders are kidnapped by a sexually frustrated cult member, but with a little help from the Father of Lies, they accidentally kill him and find their way into the heart of the cult. Luckily Satan sides with the girls.
12. ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK (1976) – Slow, creepy, atmospheric Sergio Martino film about a woman’s descent into madness. Is she being persecuted by a Satanic cult or just losing her mind? Stars the lovely Edwige Fenech and is also a successful giallo.
13. ROSEMARY’S BABY (Roman Polanski, 1968) – Last, but surely not least is Polanski’s great, great film about a woman’s descent into madness during her pregnancy, mostly due to the suspicious activities of her neighbors.
Here are some runners up:
FAUST
(F.W. Murnau, 1926)
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT
(Terence Fisher, 1968)
TOBY DAMMIT
(Federico Fellini, 1969)
I DRINK YOUR BLOOD
(David E. Durston, 1970)
BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW
(Piers Haggard, 1971)
DRACULA AD 1972
(Alan Gibson, 1972)
PSYCHOMANIA
(Don Sharp, 1973)
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER
(Peter Sykes, 1976)
THE RETURN OF WALPURGIS
aka Curse of the Devil (Carlos Aured, 1977)
FEAR NO EVIL
(Frank La Loggia, 1981)
ANGEL HEART
(Alan Parker, 1987)
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
(John Carpenter, 1987)
DAY OF THE BEAST
(Alex de la Inglesia, 1995)
Watch and enjoy. Also, if you want to read my full zine, which is a 69+ film guide to all things satanic horror, you can find it at Atomic Books.
Hail Satan.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE MUSIC LOVERS

Ken Russell, 1970
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Cable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska

While I am a huge fan of Ken Russell, it's been difficult in the past to get access to a lot of his films. I finally got a chance to see his Tchaikovsky biographical epic, The Music Lovers, and I was absolutely blown away. While this is not a film for everyone, it comes highly recommend for lovers of the weird and the unusual.

Tchaikovsky is a teacher at a music conservatory and is about to unleash his newest composition. He gets a lot of criticism from friends and family for his open homosexuality and public romps with his paramour, Count Anton. The only woman he really loves is his married sister, who he frequently daydreams about. His new symphony is met with mixed reviews and the president of the conservatory dismisses it as ridiculous. A wealthy, eccentric widow, Madame von Meck, hears it and decides to become his patron. In an effort to become more respectable and impress his patron, he decides to get married.

A local nymphomaniac, Nina (Jackson), sees Tchaikovsky in passing and becomes obsessed with him. She begins sending him love letters that he responds favorably to, though everyone else disapproves. He marries her, but is unable to consummate their relationship. This, combined with the unexpected arrival of her mother, drives Nina slowly insane. Tchaikovsky has a breakdown and is invited to recuperate on Madame von Meck's estate. Their relationship has been solely conducted through letters, but she decides to see him in person. Count Anton also returns, but is rebuked by Tchaikovsky. Jealously, he reveals the true nature of their relationship to Madame von Meck, who locks Tchaikovsky out of her home and ends her patronage. With a failed relationship, a failed marriage, and alienated from his family and patron, Tchaikovsky deliberately drinks a glass of contaminated water and agonizingly dies of cholera.

Critically skewered, Russell's film is delirious, self-indulgent, psychedelic, and ultimately a wonderful portrait of artistic genius and its inevitable connection to insanity. Written by the great Melvin Bragg, the script is largely taken from a series of letters between Catharine Drinker Brown and Barbara von Meck. Though there are many truthful elements, a lot of Tchaikovsky's life was improvised by Russell. This might be hard to digest for more conventional cinema fans. There are many scenes of nightmares, flashbacks, and extended fantastical music sequences that will likely drive the unprepared viewer into a state of psychosis.

Some of the scenes are genuinely chilling with their wild, over the top presentation of madness. Nina's relationship with her mother is nauseating and her subsequent induction into a mental asylum is terrifying and saddening. For genuine Tchaikovsky fans, there are some beautifully arranged segments put together by Andre Previn and played by Rafael Orozco.

This is an incredibly personal film and I think a lot of the criticisms are unfounded. It's been called sensational, irresponsible, a garish fantasy, unstable, etc. To a certain extent, it is all these things, but what's wrong with excess? The film's reputation has improved in subsequent years. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch the film streaming, but there is sadly still no region 1 DVD available. If you need to own a legitimate copy, check out the VHS, though it is still outrageously expensive. If you enjoy The Music Lovers, check out Russell's series of films about composers, which include Elgar, Mahler, and Lisztomania.

Friday, September 9, 2011

SWIMMING POOL

Francois Ozon, 2003
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sangier, Charles Dance

Though usually advertised as a sexy murder mystery or psychological thriller, Ozon's breakthrough film is more about the difficult process of writing and, as a writer, I absolutely loved it. Sarah (the great Charlotte Rampling) is sent on holiday by her publisher and part-time lover John (Charles Dance). She is a well-known mystery and crime fiction novelist, but is suffering from the strain of her lonely, London existence. John is eager to help her move past writer's block, but also seems interested in getting rid of her for awhile.

She heads to his home in the French countryside and settles down to a relaxing, if isolated schedule of writing. Late one night she is startled by the arrival of Julie, John's young, pretty French daughter who has shown up unannounced. Though Sarah is initially irritated by the younger woman's presence, she soon becomes fascinated by her voracious, indiscriminate sexual appetite and the secret diary hidden in Julie's bag. The two strike up a competitive friendship and Julie invites over a waiter Sarah is interested in, partly to drag her out of her repressed, English shell and partly to make her jealous. Sarah retires to bed and Julie makes a pass at him, which he rebuffs, only to turn up missing the next morning.

It turns out that Julie's mother died in some sort of accident and Julie has a breakdown, confusing Sarah for her mother. Sarah begins to care for Julie, discovering that the poor waiter has been stashed in the pool shed. Julie admits it was an accident and the two women go about disposing the body. Julie gives Sarah a manuscript she claims her mother had written years ago, one that John refused to publish. Sarah returns home and finishes two books, the murder mystery she was initially working on, as well a newer, more personal book based on Julie's mother's manuscript, called Swimming Pool. She meets with John, who doesn't like the book, and confides that she has already had it published and is moving to a new firm. As she exits his office she passes his daughter Julie, who is pretty and blonde, but is not the same girl from the villa.

Though Swimming Pool went in a totally different direction than I expected, I loved it. There's a great script and wonderful performances from the two women. I'm a huge Rampling fan, so I went in expecting her to make the film a success. French actress and model Ludivine Sangier is also perfectly cast as Julie.

Swimming Pool received favorable reviews, but a number of critics and film-goers had a problem with the ending, when Ozon abruptly reveals that Julie, at least as we have come to know her, does not exist. I honestly don't see what the problem is. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film so much because of its comments on what it's like to be a writer. In addition to the isolated, daily hours of self-discipline required, you also have to have enough experiences, imagination, and spontaneity to be inspired. As Alan Moore will tell you, artists and writers, like magicians, create and shape their own realities. Is this what Sarah has done for the purpose of her fiction?

For a sexy murder mystery, this isn't overtly sexy or too violent. Ludivine Sangier is frequently nude and exudes youthful sex appeal, but the sex scenes are carefully edited and barely rate as softcore. Rampling is one of those women, like Helen Mirren, who will be incredibly sexy regardless of age and her repressed British sexuality spills out over the edges in her fascination with Julie, obsessive voyeurism and masturbatory dreams.

This film comes highly recommended. Check out the unrated single-disc DVD from Universal. For the subtitle wary keep in mind that the dialogue regularly switches back and forth between French and English.

Friday, August 26, 2011

TESIS


Alejandro Amenábar, 1996
Starring: Ana Torrent, Fele Martinez, Eduardo Noriega

I don’t deal well with the heat. As a result, going to movie theaters has become a habitual summer activity and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m willing to tolerate a lot more fluff than in the colder temperatures. I’m disgusted to report that while I've seen a number of entertaining bad action films, the only effectively scary movie I've seen all summer has been a rental of Amenábar’s excellent Tesis (Thesis), also known as Snuff. Released in 1996 and starring Ana Torrent and Fele Martinez, this was Amenábar’s award-winning first feature film. It cleaned up at the Goya’s, which are essentially the Spanish version of the Oscars, and received rave reviews in the Spanish press.

A graduate student, Ángela, chooses to write her thesis on violence in film and media, so she seeks out the help of her adviser and a fellow student, Chema, who is obsessed with horror films. Her professor locates a snuff film in the school archives and has a heart attack while watching it. Ana steals the tape and convinces Chema to help her get to the bottom of where it came from when they recognize a missing student in the film. Their nosing around draws them close to the heart of the mystery and within dangerous grasp of the murderer.

Tesis has a lot to offer. There is some capable acting, helmed by the lovely, wide-eyed Ana Torrent as Ángela. Her character is pitted against the awkward, antisocial Chema and the charming, handsome, but potentially dangerous Bosco. Ángela’s sexual desire thickens the plot and brings her self-destructive tendencies to light, namely when she begins to have violently sexual dreams about Bosco. There are also some delightfully terrifying moments that take place in either semi or total darkness in the bowels of the school. Not genuinely a horror film, Tesis is part thriller and part commentary on the obsession with violence, violent sexuality in particular, in the media.

With that said, this is not a perfect film. Though it is a great first effort, it is overly blunt in parts, particularly if you’re expecting any sort of complex philosophical analysis of the attraction to violence that brings so many of us horror nerds to the genre in the first place. It is a successful riff on the great giallo films of the ‘70s and reminds me of the better efforts of Brian de Palma, particularly Dressed to Kill. Amenábar deftly displays his excellent visual style, which includes numerous scenes of people watching and listening to media in a subtle, suspenseful way.

Coincidentally, at the dawn of the string of appalling Hollywood remakes of European and Asian horror films, Tesis was loosely remade as the dreadful Nicholas Cage vehicle 8MM, which you should avoid at all costs. Fortunately, Tesis has been re-released in a special edition DVD; it was out of print entirely too long.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY


Alfred Hitchcock, 1955
Starring: Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Mathers

Hitchcock's only true comedy, The Trouble with Harry is predictably a black comedy. A number of people in a small Vermont town each find a corpse and are convinced that they've killed him and must now hide the body. Harry, the corpse, is not particularly well-liked and is regarded by most of the townspeople as little more than an inconvenience.

Captain Wiles thinks he accidentally shot Harry while rabbit hunting in the woods and is the first to discover the body. A spinster, Miss Gravely, thinks she killed him, because Harry ran out from the bushes and attacked her, so she hit him in the head with a hiking boot. Harry's wife, Jennifer, thinks she killed him because they fought and she hit him with a bottle. They each discover the corpse in turn. Captain Wiles is determined to bury the corpse when Miss Gravely comes upon the scene. She thinks the Captain has intuited that she killed Harry and is burying the body for her. Jennifer and her young son discover him and are content to leave him in the woods. Sam, an artist, has a crush on Jennifer and is determined to help his friends however he can.

The foursome decide to bury the body, which later involves unburying it, moving it and otherwise trying to hide Harry from the police, who will simply not understand the situation. It turns out that Harry actually died of natural causes and everyone will live happily ever after. The respective couples, Sam and Jennifer, the Captain and Miss Gravely, have romantically paired off and Sam has sold his avant garde paintings to a millionaire.

I think my favorite thing about The Trouble with Harry is the incredibly whimsical attitude the townspeople have about death, romance and, above all, themselves. They are all weird, flawed characters who manage to come together despite their personality drawbacks and the corpse on their hands. The four actors have great chemistry, but particularly take note of a very young, feisty Shirley MacLaine. The film is based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story and is notable for being the first Bernard Herrmann score in a long and famous partnership between Hitchcock and the composer.

Though it comes highly recommended, it's an acquired taste. If you like quirky, black comedy this is for you, as the film is genuinely very funny. It would make an entertaining double feature with Arsenic and Old Lace, though the script and performances are a lot less flamboyant. The pastoral, homey nature of the setting is perfectly echoed in the script, so don't expect the fireworks and masterful suspense that mark most of Hitchcock's work. Here's the Universal DVD, which is pretty basic, but comes with an entertaining featurette.

THE HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS


Pete Walker, 1983
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine

It's truly a shame that this last gasp effort from a group of beloved horror legends has fallen into obscurity. Though it took me awhile to track down a copy, this is one of my favorite rainy-day movies and I recommend it to anyone who likes haunted house mysteries or anyone who wants to see Price, Lee, Cushing, and Carradine together one last time.

A snotty, young writer makes a bet with his publisher that he can write a creepy mystery novel in 24 hours. To achieve this, he rents an abandoned Welsh manor for the night, but he discovers, to his horror, that it is already occupied by the aged Grisbane family, ancestral heirs of the manor. The wizened Lord Grisbane (Carradine) has been living there with his daughter, but soon his sons Lionel (Price) and Sebastian (Cushing) make an appearance for a family visit. They are also interrupted by Mary, the publisher's secretary, who was hired to scare the writer in the middle of the night, along with a few other stragglers seeking shelter from the storm.

The somewhat decrepit family members finally admit that they have reunited to release their eldest brother, Roderick, who they have kept walled up in room because of a murder he committed as a youth. Roderick, as you may have imagined, has already escaped and bodies begin to pile up around the house. When everyone tries to leave, they discover that their cars have been sabotaged and they are forced to wait out the storm. Can they find Roderick before he kills them all?

You're going to have to brace yourself for a ridiculous ending, or rather three ridiculous endings in a row. The film is based on a book, The Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers of Charlie Chan fame, but someone should have stepped in and cut it off at the first, best ending. The script has its weak moments and definitely feels dated, but there are murky family secrets, hidden passageways, a dark, stormy night and some grisly murders. I was hoping the writer would get slowly tortured and then murdered, but no such luck. Price, Cushing and Lee outshine any of the other annoying characters and Price, in particular, is in top form as Lionel Grisbane.

Another amazing tidbit about this film is the fact that it's directed by Pete Walker, British master of nasty sex/exploitation/horror films from the '70s. This is a departure from the rest of his work, but it still has enough mean-spirited moments and brutal deaths to remind you who is at the helm. Strangely, it's Walker's last film to date.

Like I said earlier, it doesn't have the strongest script or acting, but it's clear that almost everyone involved had a really good time making this film. Track it down if you can. This is the VHS copy I have, though there are also bootlegs and torrents available.

Monday, July 18, 2011

13 ASSASSINS


Takashi Miike, 2010
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki

During peacetime, an aging samurai, Shinzaemon, is secretly charged with the task of assassinating the young, sadistic Lord Naritsugu. He is the Shogun's brother and has legal immunity, but his devastating acts of cruelty and murder have forced the council to move against him. Shinzaemon begrudgingly comes out of retirement to gather a small band of warriors for this suicide mission.

Shinzaemon gathers 11 other samurai and their apprentices. Among them are the experienced, sassy Kuranaga, his second-in-command, who brings some of his students, and Shinzaemon's nephew, who drinks, gambles, and otherwise has nothing to live for. Most of the band are either older, experienced ronin samurai looking for one last battle, or newcomers hoping to prove themselves. They also accidentally collect a dirty, renegade hunter who guides them through the forest and stubbornly stays on to fight.

With some incredible planning, the assassins intend to confront Naritsugu and his men in a village they have emptied and outfitted with a variety of nasty booby traps. When Naritsugu is successfully re-routed from his original path and finally arrives, they are dismayed to find that he has brought 200 men, more than twice the number they expected. It is up to the skill of the samurai and their military-style fortifications to trap Naritsugu and stop him once and for all.

Jusan-non no shikaku aka 13 Assassins is essentially a remake of Eiichi Kudo's film of the same name from 1963. Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this film. I don't want to sound overly skeptical, because I'm a huge Takashi Miike fan, but I haven't been up to date with his releases over the last few years and wasn't sure what to expect. After the major disappointment of "Imprint," his Masters of Horror episode, I've tried to take his newer work with a grain of salt. Plus, I adore classic chanbara and tend to dislike modern samurai-themed films.

13 Assassins is an absolute joy. It's perfectly paced and has the right mix of adventure, justice dispensing, sword fighting, and general samurai awesomeness to thrill anyone who loves the genre. There are many welcome references to Seven Samurai and other beloved jidaigeki, a sub-genre of Japanese period drama that focuses on samurai and sometimes working class people from the Edo period. If you're unfamiliar, check out Kurosawa films like Ran and Throne of Blood, or the Hanzo and Lady Snowblood series for jidaigeki with a healthy dose of exploitation. A side element of the genre is the use of the supernatural. Films like Ugetsu Monogatari and Onibaba pit working class people against yokai. Miike snuck in an element of this with the character of Kiga, the hunter and guide, who may or may not be human.

There's a great mix of humor with the usual Miike touches of violence and depravity. In particular, there's a gruesome scene in the beginning of the film involving one of Naritsugu's naked, limbless victims. In general, the violence is spectacular. It doesn't feel at all like Miike's earlier, excessive horror films and is perfectly suited to the heroic-epic style of the film. The violence leads linearly towards the death of Lord Naritsugu, his men, and the end of the 13 assassins, though if you've seen films in the genre before, you have a good idea of where things are heading.

Another aspect I really enjoyed, and was again surprised by, were the well-developed characters. For the most part, all 13 of the warriors stand out clearly, even if they are just given little tidbits of personality and motivation. There is something especially touching about the fact that this is a group of men all born in the wrong century. They are sacrificing their lives to restore justice, but it is clear that they would rather be great warriors at one final battle, than live long, healthy, but flaccid lives in a stale time of peace.

I also have to applaud the acting. Koji Yakusho (The Cure, Charisma) is great as the serious, take-no-prisoners Shinzaemon. He's a wonderful actor in everything I've seen him in, but seems particularly suited to play a world-weary samurai. Hiroki Matsukada (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) is equally wonderful as the humorous Kuranaga, who is unmistakably deadly, but capable of some much needed mirth. Goro Inagaki is delightful as the spoiled, villainous Lord Naritsugu. Though he doesn't have an abundance of scenes, he does a lot with the little given to him and our understanding of his character shifts immensely throughout the film.

13 Assassins comes highly recommended and is one of my favorite theatrical releases of 2011. I saw the theatrical international cut, which is 126 minutes, but if you get a chance to see the 141-minute uncut Japanese version, go for it. The Magnolia DVD is the international cut, but the missing footage is included in the extras. If you have a Blu-ray player, you should probably view this like it was meant to be seen, in all its Blu-ray glory.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THE DEADLY SPAWN


Douglas McKeown, 1983
Starring: Charles George Hildebrant, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, James Brewster, Elissa Neil

Despite all of my misconceptions, this movie is amazing. Also known as Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, it is not actually a sequel, but like several other horror films in the '80s, the studio attempted to link it to other films (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, anyone?) with a tricky name change. It has nothing to do with Ridley Scott's Alien.

Using a tried and true plot device, a meteorite crashes to earth, unleashing a holocaust of demented alien beings that look like a cross between the Shai Hulud and Venus flytraps. And by a holocaust, I mean a handful of creepy crawlies that infect a small, suburban neighborhood. They find a nesting place in a family's basement, growing large enough to do some real damage and eating the occasional family member who wanders downstairs. The primary victims are a group of hormonal teenagers and a luncheon for older vegetarian ladies.

Though the acting and dialogue are terrible, I couldn't help but root for the characters. There are some nice effects and some truly hilarious moments that get better the higher your blood alcohol content rises. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of Evil Dead II, Peter Jackson's early films, and most '80s horror that straddles the line between gore and comedy. Also, anyone who enjoys fun should like it. Visit the awesome website and check out the DVD, which has some amazing commentary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

COUNT DRACULA


Jess Franco, 1970
Starring: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams

Normally I'm right there with Jess Franco. His films might not be the most popular, but I usually respect what he's doing and leave his movies feeling entertained and like I've shared some sort of private joke with this anarchistic director. That was sadly not the case with his rendition of Count Dracula. I suspect a large part of the problem is that the world absolutely does not need another Dracula adaptation.

You know the story. Jonathan Harker is hired to travel to Transylvania and aid Count Dracula in securing several properties around London. The Count turns out to be a vampire, puts the bite on Harker, travels back to London, and spreads his vampiric plague, namely to Harker's wife and her hot friend. Harker, with the help of an eccentric doctor and some friends, tries to stop him. Blah blah blah race against time, gypsies, blah.

Count Dracula is a flawed, but entertaining attempt to make a successful adaptation of Stoker's novel. Like Macbeth, I'm pretty sure Dracula is cursed. Instead of accidents and deaths, Dracula is plagued with a dozen "faithful" film adaptations, none of which really try to stay true to the novel. Count Dracula comes relatively close, but Franco and Harry Alan Towers still felt the need to change a number of things in the script, which infuriates me. I know it's irrational, but why claim you're faithfully adapting a novel if you're not going to. Plus, I'm pretty sure Franco has no business adapting anything. His original films are always the most interesting, bizarre and rewarding. Vampyros Lesbos puts this film to shame.

With that said, there's a great cast, which makes the film worth checking out at least once. Lee shines as Dracula, though feels strangely out of place in this German/Italian/Spanish co-production. I expect him to be surrounded by a bevy of generously-bosomed British babes, not exotic beauties like Franco regular Soledad Miranda. She is lovely, as always, though she should have gotten more screen time. Fred Williams, another Franco regular, is perfectly cast as Jonathan Harker, though, like his character, is a bit bland. Herbert Lom is only second to Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Klaus Kinski was pretty much born to be Renfield. He's insane.

Moody, but kind of slow, it's at least worth watching to see such an interesting combination of actors under Franco's direction. Interestingly, this is the first film to show Dracula as he is in the novel -- an older man, growing younger only when he gorges himself with blood. It's also one of Franco's most beautiful films, despite the crushingly low budget. Check out the cheap DVD that claims to be a "special edition."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN


Mel Brooks, 1974
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars

I was going to start this review off by talking about how Young Frankenstein stars the great Gene Wilder -- and he is great -- but upon reflection, so is everyone else in this film. Arguably Mel Brooks's best work and certainly the best horror spoof ever made, this is one of those films that, if you haven't seen it, I demand you stop reading and go watch it, immediately.

Wilder stars as Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced "Frahnk-en-steen,"), a brilliant scientist who gives impassioned lectures at an undisclosed American medical school. When a strange man contacts him about his grandfather's will, he is forced to return to Europe, despite his deep disdain for his grandfather's attempts at science -- reviving the dead -- which he regards as ridiculous superstition. He sadly parts with his fiancee, the vain Elizabeth, and is soon greeted by Igor, a servant descended from his grandfather's famous hunchbacked henchman. They also meet with Ilsa, a sexy lab assistant, and Frau Blucher, caretaker of the castle. After a series of disturbing dreams, Frankenstein discovers his grandfather's hidden laboratory and notebooks and embarks on an attempt to recreate the famous Frankenstein monster. Of course this goes wrong and the monster escapes. When the townspeople get a whiff of what's happened and his fiancee arrives, all hell breaks loose. Can he find the monster and put things right before it's too late?

Co-written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, this is one of the funniest films I've ever seen, though it does help to have a familiarity with the Universal Frankenstein films, as it references both Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and some of the lesser sequels -- plus it was shot on some of the same set, amazingly enough.

It's really difficult for me not to ruin any of the jokes by quoting them incessantly, so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. Needless to say, there's a ton of brilliant humor in the film. It's widely available on DVD in a cheap region 1 from 20th Century Fox.


WITHNAIL AND I


Bruce Robinson, 1987
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths

The first time I saw Withnail and I was a few years ago when I began my crusade to see and own every Criterion film ever made. While that battle is still on going, I like to revisit my favorites time and again. I'm a compulsive re-reader and re-watcher and I'm not ashamed. With Withnail and I I'm happy to say that the humor, acting, and charm has held up. However, a couple of years later, as someone who does a lot of drinking and spends a lot of time around other people doing a lot of drinking, it is, if anything, a hell of a lot funnier. Or at least more relevant. And vaguely depressing.

Richard E. Grant plays the titular Withnail. Though he claims to be an actor, this hilarious, disaster of a drunk uses his considerable intelligence and wit to look for booze, drink it, and then deal with the inevitable hang overs instead of acting or going on auditions. Paul McGann costars as his unnamed roommate, a nervous, passive fellow who does much of the same and is in the same profession. While he is at least a little more responsible than Withnail, he follows along with Withnail's schemes with a kind of submissive mania. The two decide they are reaching the pinnacle of unwell and need to take a vacation. They persuade Withnail's urbane, gay Uncle Monty to let them use his country cabin for a time. When they get to the cabin, nothing is as they expected. It is cold, raining, and muddy. They have no food, firewood, or fuel, and little booze. The locals are unfriendly. The situation slowly begins to turn around, but Monty shows up and throws another kink in their plans. What will become of their accidental vacation?

If you've never seen this film, get on it immediately. There are an appalling number of instantly quotable lines and should you meet anyone out at a bar who has seen the film, you will probably make an instant friend. It richly deserves the cult status it has achieved, as well as its Criterion release, which I recommend buying as soon as possible. The documentary, "Withnail and Us" is almost as funny as the film itself.

It's amazing that this was Grant's first feature role and probably his best performance to date. Despite the fact that he is an avowed non-drinker and I believe is allergic to alcohol, he's perfect as Withnail. McGann is also quite good as his roommate, hovering constantly between paranoid, drunk, and outraged.

This is definitely a black comedy, but if you hate British humor, it doesn't really fall within the same boundaries as most films of that category. It's more drinking-because-life-is-miserable-and-I-hate-my-job-or-am-unemployed humor than anything else.

I leave you with two of my favorite scenes:



WILD ZERO


Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000
Starring: Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf, Drum Wolf, Masashi Endo, Kwancharu Shitichai

This has pretty much everything I've ever wanted in a move: zombies, gore, aliens, a punk band, transgender love, a drinking game, motorcycles, muscle cars, guns, hot Japanese dudes, and the spirit of true rock'n roll. It's an absolutely fun time and bears a lot in common with the spirit of Return of the Living Dead. Anyone who likes that film will surely enjoy Wild Zero (and anyone who doesn't like Return has no business reading this blog).

Ace (Masashi Endo) is the biggest Guitar Wolf fan in the world. While he is following them on tour he runs afoul of some zombies, who have come to earth because a flying saucer crashed somewhere in Japan. He has to protect Tobio, a cute girl he develops a crush on. Guitar Wolf, who are actually extra-terrestrials with super powers, become blood brothers with Ace and come to his aid. They wind up in an abandoned warehouse with a rag-tag band of people who have managed to survive the zombie invasion. Can they fight the zombies and the Captain, a club-owner and drug dealer who has come to defeat Guitar Wolf once and for all?

It's utterly ridiculous and joyful. I love this movie. It borrows mercilessly from Western horror, particularly over the top films like Evil Dead II and the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead. There are a couple things you need to know. First Guitar Wolf is a real band. They're actually pretty awesome. It's a mix of rockabilly, punk, and noise. In the film they play "themselves": Guitar Wolf, Seiji, the singer and guitarist, Bass Wolf, who is now deceased and has been replaced by a dude named U.G., and Drum Wolf, Toro.

Instead of the normal method of contagion found in Western zombie films -- toxic chemicals -- a couple of Japanese movies feature zombies that comes from space and are brought to earth by crashed UFOs. It seems a little ridiculous at first, but you get used to it. Wild Zero and Zombie Self Defense Force (2005) are my two favorite examples of this plot device. If you like to consider these things, it says a little something about cultural differences and unconscious fears. Obviously we aren't as concerned about things falling from the sky. But then, we've never been hit with an atomic bomb. Let alone two.

One of the best things about the movie, ridiculous though it may be, is its message: love has no boundaries. It openly supports love regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. Fuck yeah, Guitar Wolf.

I'm reviewing the Synapse DVD, which has a number of cool special features. The best of which is a drinking game you can select like a commentary track. A little foaming beer mug pops up in the corner anytime someone drinks or combs their hair, says "rock'n roll," a zombie's head explodes, anything explodes, or fire shoots out of something. Supposedly there are about 100 drinks total. I've made it halfway through with serious drinking and all the way through with little sips of beer. Hang over city.

I leave you with this...

Vincent Price - Happy Vincentennial!


Today, Vincent Price turns 100. Well, would if he were still living, though as far as I'm concerned he lives on in the multitude of great films he left behind and the people whose lives he touched. Yes, that is cheesy, but I really don't care. If I had to pick a single figure in the horror world who has forever changed my life, it would be Vincent Price. Sure, there's a long list of writers and directors whose work is near and dear to me, as well as a smaller list of actors, but Vincent Price has been there from the beginning and has always been the most beloved.

Along with his dear friends Peter Cushing, whose birthday was yesterday, RIP, and Christopher Lee who is also celebrating an amazing 89th birthday today, Vincent Price brought charm, class, talent and heart to a business that is frequently maligned, misrepresented and grossly under-appreciated. I grew up watching his films, still watch them as often as possible and always love introducing his work to newbies.

It's well outside my ability to write an article length memorial for the great actor, but I had to add something to the hundreds of articles already on the internet for this wonderful man who always brings a smile to my face. He's incredibly inspiring to me because of his genuine enthusiasm and love of the horror genre. He gleefully accepted starring roles, cameos and guest spots alike and is also known for his work in the theatre. He is well-known for his passionate love of the arts - he was a voracious collector and has a museum named after him - and his talent for gourmet cooking.

There's nothing I can say that you don't already know or can't find out elsewhere in more detail, so I thought I'd just give a video retrospective of some of my favorite highlights from Price's fabulous career.

Though his first horror film was the Boris Karloff vehicle TOWER OF LONDON, I prefer his first horror starring role in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS:



In the '40s he established himself as a villain in some classic films before moving on to straight horror in the '50s. He was also in a ton of television this decade, including an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Perfect Crime." 1953's HOUSE OF WAX is one of my favorite films. It's also notable for being the first color, 3-D feature from a major American studio.



Though THE FLY is pretty amazing, Price's next film, William Castle's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, was one of my first favorite films. It's in the public domain, which means you can watch the entire thing for free right now.



He closed out '59 with THE BAT, RETURN OF THE FLY and another William Castle great THE TINGLER. Watch the whole film below, including the amusing introduction by Castle.



The '60s is probably Price's greatest decade. It includes the Roger Corman series of films for AIP that adapted a series of Poe stories and started with HOUSE OF USHER (1960).



Next came one of my favorites, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), where Price co-starred with the ravishing Barbara Steele.



Then the anthology film, TALES OF TERROR, with the great Peter Lorre, which you can watch here.



While the TOWER OF LONDON remake starring Price is recommended for serious fans only, THE RAVEN with Lorre and Karloff is kind of a ridiculous treat that I try to watch every year around Halloween. DIARY OF A MADMAN is also of minor note. None of these really have anything to do with the Poe cycle, though AIP tried squeezing THE RAVEN in despite the fact that it has little to no connection with Poe. Next up is the wonderful Lovecraft adaptation, THE HAUNTED PALACE, that I recently reviewed. It's another one of my favorite Price-Corman films. Watch it below.



We move back to anthologies with the Hawthorne inspired TWICE TOLD TALES and then to the silly comedy/horror mash up COMEDY OF TERRORS. It's a bit ridiculous, but I love it. How can you deny Price, Lorre, Karloff and Basil Rathbone in one film?



LAST MAN ON EARTH, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, takes a more serious turn as Price is confronted not only with hordes of vampires, but with the last woman on earth who may not be what she seems. Watch it below.



Next comes another one of my favorites, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which I recently reviewed and had the pleasure to watch on both DVD and laser disc. It also brings us back to the increasingly amazing Corman-Price-AIP Poe cycle. This is certainly one of the loveliest horror films I've ever seen. Watch it below.



TOMB OF LIGEIA is the last in the Poe cycle and I'm happy to say that the series goes out on a strong note. I'm also happy to say that this is another Price film that you can watch in its entirety on the internet!



After this ol' Vinnie lightened things up with the hilariously wonderful DR GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, which went on to spawn two sequels. He also had a cameo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and had a regularly occurring role as the villain Egghead in the original Batman series.



His only film of '68 is the impressive, mean-spirited WITCHFINDER GENERAL, probably the only time I've ever actually been afraid of Vincent Price. It's also one of the greatest masterpieces of British horror. Watch it below.



Next came a series of pleasing, but average films, THE OBLONG BOX and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, both of which co-star the clearly bored Christopher Lee, as well as CRY OF THE BANSHEE, another attempt to put Price in a witch-hunter role. He also hosted the memorable Canadian children's show, The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. This show has a cult following and I recommend seeking it out.



1971 brought us one of my all time favorite Price films, the legendary ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES. It is surely one of the cinematic loves of my life and has to be seen to be believed. I must have seen this a good thirty times over the years, but it never gets old. Watch it below.



I also recommend the sequel, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, co-starring the hammy Robert Quarry. '72 also ushered in the average, but entertaining AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLEN POE, which he narrated. He also starred in a few Night Gallery episodes that year. THEATRE OF BLOOD, which hit theatres in '73, is another film high on my list of Price greats. It shares a lot of similarities with DR PHIBES, but is more violent and less goofy. Watch it below.



I also recommend the much sillier MADHOUSE, where Price stars as an aging horror actor attempting to revive his career while being framed for murder. Or is he? Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry co-star. "To those among you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away. Now."



The early '80s brought the painful MONSTER CLUB and the whimsical HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, both of which are generally lame attempts to cash in on the past success of various horror stars and are fortunately saved by Price, despite the absurd scripts.

Despite his age, Price kept working. He narrated the Tim Burton short "Vincent," recorded some dramatizations of Poe stories and poems, lent his voice to Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare and Michael Jackson's Thriller, then narrated some episodes of Faerie Tale Theater, which is where I first encountered him when I was a child.



Another place I let him terrify me was on the Scooby-Doo spin off The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, where he had a regularly occurring role as Vincent Van Ghoul.



I also want to mention his somewhat earlier contribution to The Muppet Show, which is amazing and needs to be seen by any Price fan. He was on a few episodes and here's a good one. Coincidentally, The Muppet Show is the only place Vincent Price ever played a vampire! I love The Muppets almost as much as Vincent Price, so the two of them together blows my mind.



While we're still on the subject of Price and children's film, he had a co-starring vocal role in the wonderful Disney film THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. This is the part where I start giving away my age. He plays, of course, the Napoleon of Crime. Growing up as a kid obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, I just about lost my mind when I realized who Professor Ratigan's voice belonged to.



He sadly finished his career with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, after he finally succumbed to lung cancer. Did I mention he loved to smoke? He looks so old and feeble in this scene that it breaks my heart to watch it.



He was truly an inspiring man. He performed his own one-man stage play, Diversions and Delights, about the sad end of Oscar Wilde's life, where he was broke, ill, socially stigmatized and love sick. I've already written about that here.

I've already posted so many videos I'm sure my head is going to explode if I post any more, but I'll wrap it up with these.

Price's brave stance against racism in 1950 on a radio broadcast of The Saint:



An episode of The Price of Fear, Price's mystery/horror radio show. This is the first episode and is particularly amusing.



I mentioned his art history prowess and here you can take a brief class with him.



He was also a hilarious man and put his cleverness to use in TV interviews, namely on Johnny Carson. Here he's witty, urbane, and talks about his love for horror.



I could keep going, but I'm going to stop myself. Check out Vincentprice.org, the biography by his daughter Victoria and this great interview with Roger Corman on Cinefantastique for the Vincentennial.



I love you, Vincent Price! Happy birthday!