Monday, 17 October 2016

October Shorts:
A Pre-Halloween Horror Round-up.

Every year, when October rolls around, I survey the movie bloggers and film forums undertaking “31 films in 31 days” pre-Halloween countdowns and so forth, and feel a profound sense of envy as I consider those lucky enough to enjoy a lifestyle that allows them the time to view, let alone write about, a feature film every single day - that being a circumstance which usually feels beyond the reach of my wildest dreams at this time of year, sad to say.

Nonetheless though, this year I’ve been doing my best – aggressively ring-fencing movie-watching time, squeezing in double-bills wherever possible, prioritising horror above all other genres and trying to find a few minutes to scribble down some thoughts afterwards. Thus far I’ve only clocked up a mere six films in seventeen days, but believe me – under the circumstances, I count that a success.

Hopefully I’ll be able to rack up enough to compile a “Part # 2” to this post later in the month, but for now, let’s crack on. Needless to say, all the write-ups that follow are “first thought / best thought” type efforts banged out with a minimum of forethought or proof reading, so make of them what you will.

The Wasp Woman 
(Roger Corman, 1959)

Well, this was… quite alright I suppose. It’s snappily paced, smartly scripted (by b-Western ‘heavy’ actor Leo Gordon, no less), has an agreeably loopy premise and is full of likeable characters portrayed by a crew of familiar AIP/Corman faces. Unlike Corman’s best black & white era films however, ‘The Wasp Woman’ never really manages to transcend its status as a five-day-wonder double bill timewaster, failing to offer up anything that is liable to live long in our memories the way that ‘A Bucket of Blood’ or ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ did, or to challenge an audience’s pre-existing expectations of a movie named “The Wasp Woman”. There are any number of interesting directions that the Countess Bathory-esque ‘aging-woman-will-go-to-any-lengths-to-preserve-beauty’ storyline could have been taken in, but instead Corman and Gordon just serve it straight, avoiding of any social commentary/satirical twist despite the film’s self-aware, cosmopolitan atmosphere and Madison Avenue setting.

Still, it’s a thoroughly diverting seventy-something minutes that remains approximately 126 times as entertaining as what might have resulted had any other director active in 1959 made a film about a woman turning into a giant wasp with a budget roughly equivalent to Charlton Heston’s dry-cleaning bill.

Shock Waves 
(Ken Wiederhorn, 1977)

Similarly, this little number – in which Peter Cushing and John Carradine lead a cast of younger/lesser known performers pitting their wits against undead Nazi super-soldiers in the Florida keys – has all the necessary ingredients in place for an absolutely bad-ass under-the-radar ‘70s horror…. but somehow, it just never manages to get the engine running.

The main boons to the film’s intermittent effectiveness come from it’s incredibly atmospheric shooting locations, which convey a convincing sense of isolated deprivation, and it’s uniquely conceived antagonists, who rise from the water uniformed and be-goggled like some nightmare combination of Golan-Globus ninjas and Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead. The cast are all fairly good too (Brooke Adams, who went to better things in the ’78 ‘Invasion of The Body Snatchers’ particularly stands out), and much of the photography is superb, despite being shot on 16mm.

Quite why such a promising outlay eventually fails to deliver the expected thrills therefore, I’m unsure, but let’s reluctantly grit our teeth and think it through. Firstly, continuity is all over the place (at several points early in the film, the characters seem to be discussing and acting upon terrible events that we have not been privy to), and, cool though it is, the whole Nazi zombie concept is rather undeveloped, as early suggestions that we’re dealing with an occult/supernatural menace are dropped in favour a presumably scientific rationale for their existence, which likewise remains unexplored, as does their obvious thematic status as a potent return-of-the-repressed atavistic terror, ala those aforementioned Blind Dead.

Furthermore, once they’re wandering about on land, the zombies gradually shed their initial menace, moving like ordinary human beings (presumably whilst being shouted at by an Assistant Director) and failing to demonstrate any abilities that would render them significantly more threatening than any other bunch of semi-mindless, unarmed men.

Perhaps most damaging of all though is the production’s decision to avoid any gore or explicit violence, which, though in some sense admirable, also wreaks havoc with the essential build up and release of tension necessary to the success of any chase/stalk/kill-orientated horror movie. When the expected crescendo of bloodshed that would traditionally accompany the demise of each of the zombies’ victims is watered down to an “oh, well… I guess he’s supposed to be dead now?” damp squib, the theoretically remorseless survival horror showdown of the film’s final act is stripped of any real urgency, leaving us instead to simply admire the view and reflect that the poor extras in the nazi/zombie get-up must have had a really rough time shooting this thing.

Carradine and Cushing are both under-used – presumably bacause the production cut corners by only hiring them for a few days each, which I’m cool with – but, whilst the former is as boisterous as ever, this is sadly one those mid-‘70s movies in which poor Peter seems to be at his lowest ebb, looking more cadaverous than ever before. Though professional to a tee, his lack of engagement with the material is clear, as he fails to really put any meat on the bones of his potentially fascinating character, the way he would almost certainly have done a decade earlier.

But, I should step back at this point and stop knocking this movie. I’ve made my point. If nothing else, it’s a fairly unique entry in the canon of ’70s American horror, and if you come to it with your expectations primed for ‘interesting failure’ rather than ‘lost classic’, you’ll likely find it a somewhat worthwhile experience.

Count Dracula’s Great Love 
(Javier Aguirre, 1972)

Ah, now we’re talkin’! Despite a plodding and rather campy opening half much concerned with hunts for lost coach wheels and inconsequential romantic trysts, Paul Naschy’s sole outing as the Count eventually warms up into not only one of his best films, but one of the most exultantly delirious slices of euro-horror nirvana ever to emerge from the sainted ‘70s. The set up that gets us there may be clumsy, but as soon as “Dracula”s voice-over starts delivering ultra-reverbed metaphysical pronouncements and his be-fanged ladies begin their slow motion peregrinations through the cobwebbed corridors, we’re on a different plain entirely, supping an intoxicating brew that leaves our heads spinning happily as love and death commingle, footsteps clang through a brace of effects pedals and Kensington (Madrid?) Gore dribbles ‘pon cleavage.

Infused (in its stronger ‘export’ cut, at least) with a degree of sexual content that pushes it firmly into the realm of the Erotic Castle Movie, the genius of ‘Count Dracula’s Great Love’ is that, whilst it is undoubtedly delirious, it nonetheless remains emotionally coherent throughout, as the trivial faffing about of the film’s poorly drawn human characters is gradually replaced by that of a love story from another world, played out with aching seriousness, as Naschy – ever the tragic romantic – essays one of strangest and most conflicted Draculas in screen history, anticipating a conclusion that is startling to say the least for devotees of vampire lore.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched this film several times in various stages of degradation, and each time the closing card rears up and the music plays out over blackness, it never fails to hit me with that feeling of having just awakened from some extraordinary dream, the usual whys and wherefores of cinema long forgotten – an instant hit of exactly the phenomena that keeps me coming back to these mind-warping euro-horrors again and again in other words, and to finally see it returned to its full glory via Vinegar Syndrome’s recent blu-ray edition feels like a minor miracle. Really, just an absolute pleasure to experience this one again in such fine form.

Dracula AD 1972 
(Alan Gibson, 1972)

As you will no doubt be aware, this film has attracted its fair share of mockery and critical brick-bats over the years, so now I think is as good as time as any to come out and say it loud and proud: I really like ‘Dracula AD 1972’.

Though it is certainly not one of Hammer’s best, and the damaging effect it’s oft-lamented drawbacks (the five-years-out-of-date Swinging London goofery, the almost total absence of Dracula, the rushed and inconclusive final confrontation, the antics of “Johnny Alucard”) remains substantial, I nonetheless maintain that this one is a lot of fun, and actually has quite a lot going for it beside the potential for ironic sniggering. Though not in the same league as the genuinely great ‘Taste the Blood of..’ (which the script here to some extent reworks), I’d probably place it above most of the other ‘Dracula’ sequels.

For one thing, I love the way that it – as is only appropriate, I suppose - oozes pure essence of “Britain in the early ‘70s”, in spite of the uproariously off-message ‘youth culture’ stuff. From the young Mr Alucard’s straight-from-a-NEL-paperback occult proclamations at his black mass, to the heavy-handed allusions to the Manson murders, to the Scotland Yard detective with a desk covered in ‘executive toys’ who dresses and behaves like a slightly younger and posher dry run for Jack Regan in ‘The Sweeney’ (I particularly love the bit where his partner begs some time off to get “a cup of coffee and a cheese roll” before they head off to bust the kids’ drug party)…. you could just bottle this stuff and I’d buy it by the crate.

It helps too that Alan Gibson largely directs the picture more like a crime drama than a traditional horror, rendering it one of the snappiest films Hammer ever made, with Van Helsing Jr and the cops’ pursuit of the vampire menace taking on a frantic feel akin to an episode of ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ – an approach I very much appreciate.

The ‘deconsecrated church’ set upon which much of the action takes place is genuinely impressive too, and the aforementioned black mass, with reversed tape recorder freakouts and Johnny slitting his wrists all over Caroline Munro, is a real showstopper, probably one of the coolest scenes of its kind in early ‘70s horror.

Meanwhile, Peter Cushing – in stark contrast to his subdued turn in ‘Shock Waves’ - just radiates gravitas here, playing it straight enough to add weight to any amount of patently ridiculous plotting, and momentarily imbuing his final confrontation with Lee with a fateful intensity that successfully recalls their hair-raising showdown in Hammer’s first Dracula all those years ago (until the filmmakers bugger it all up a few moments later, but the less said about that the better).

I even quite like weird, ‘alternate world’ aspect of the script, wherein we’re presented with a 1970s wherein Count Dracula isn’t a pop culture household name, but a dread figure of obscure esoteric lore, mentioned alongside Belphegor and Belial in Johnny Alucard’s run-down of demonic top trumps, whom “legend has it” was buried somewhere in Hyde Park one hundred years prior.

Oh yeah, and if that wasn’t enough to win you over, I’ll put it to you that Stoneground’s ‘Alligator Man’ absolutely rules – a monster jam that sounds like it could have come straight off Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, perhaps lending credence to the argument that those upright cats at Hammer weren’t as far off the pulse of AD 1972 as is generally supposed.

The Brood 
(David Cronenberg, 1980)

Almost four decades later, and this remains Cronenberg’s most thoroughly disturbing film to date [persuasive counter-arguments welcomed at the usual address]. Almost entirely devoid of the “don’t worry kids, it’s just a horror movie” retreats into genre convention that softened the unsavoury subject matter of his earlier (and indeed, later) efforts, his heavy-handed use of a SF/horror metaphor to unpack the cyclical nature of familial abuse, together with a side order of disdain for the machinations of the psychiatric profession, grinds toward its conclusion with a sense of doom-laden inevitability, leavened only by the creepy feeling of ‘scientific distance’ from human behavior that characterizes so much of the director’s work.

With the exception of a startlingly effective horror movie ‘kill scene’ early on, no diversions, escape routes or sign-posts toward more conventional “entertainment” are offered to the viewer at any point, as Cronenberg’s determination to rub our faces in the nasty, serious business of his troubled characters’ case histories, and to generally go there each time we kinda wish he’d hold back, make this both, a) a remarkable and shocking film, and b) an extremely poor choice to open a Saturday night horror movie marathon. Cue uneasy silence and sombre discussion as the credits roll.

A couple of observations that occurred to me on this particular repeat viewing:

1. There are some striking (if entirely incidental) crossovers with the narrative of Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ going on here. Given that that film was made roughly a year later, could we consider the possibility that a few scenes and ideas might have sunk into Zulawski’s consciousness during a screening of ‘The Brood’ and popped up again during the writing process for his own film..? Somehow I’d imagine no one ever dared put the question to him, but… just a thought.

2. Oliver Reed’s performance in ‘The Brood’ is really good. The character he plays is extremely ambiguous, as scripted –  a cruel arch-manipulator whose Frankensteinian disregard for professional ethics was solely responsible for letting the film’s supernatural menace get out of hand, but who also backs up his ‘tough love’ attitude with a genuine streak of well-meaning heroism - yet Reed embodies these contradictory impulses brilliantly. At this stage in his career, you’d have very much expected him to phone in his turn in a cheap Canadian horror flick from the nearest hotel bar, so it's surprising - and great - to instead find him putting in one of his best ever turns as a ‘serious actor’.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers 
(Fred Olen Ray, 1988)

And meanwhile, at completely the other end of the horror spectrum... let’s just say that if you knowingly sit down to watch a film named “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers”, you’ll get exactly what you expect and/or deserve from this godawful piece of weirdly charming crap.

Camp as a row of tents and artlessly shot on what seems to be the same grubby, rescued-from-a-bin film stock utilised by John Waters on his early features, this basically seems to chronicle what happens when some people who theoretically work in ‘the film industry’ lower their expectations and instead begin competing with backyard SOV gore flicks made by horny teenagers – and if we think they should know better at their age, well, we’re the ones who paid money to watch the bloody thing, so who’s laughing now?

Telling the tale of a generic hardboiled private eye (yes, there are “private dick” jokes aplenty) who ends up on the trail of a cabal of prostitutes who belong to a quasi-Egyptian “chainsaw cult”(?!) overseen by TCM’s Gunnar Hansen (who, it turns out, has the least appropriate speaking voice imaginable for playing a cult leader), what we’re left with is essentially a non-stop pep rally for the delights of good ol’ LA sleaze, nothing more, nothing less, but if you’re in the right mood, then hey - dive right in.

The ostensible “gore scenes” – in which topless women wave chainsaws at off-screen victims whilst stage-hands throw blood and rubber limbs at them – are a disgrace to all concerned, whilst the relentless one-liners and tongue in cheek misogyny runs the gamut from knee-slapping to groan-inducing depending on your state of mind. Happily on this occasion, I found myself veering more toward the former. (“What do ya do, pray to Black & Decker?” was my favourite).

By the closing act, the whole thing has built up enough of a head of steam to become pleasantly deranged, and when we get to Linnea Quigley’s body painted double chainsaw dance, well… what need I do except repeat the phrase “Linnea Quigley’s body painted double chainsaw dance” and remind you that this film is commercially available on various formats? Actually, she doesn’t appear to be dancing all that effectively with those saws (they must have been quite heavy), but what the hell, it's still great, and Fred Olen Ray wins again!

Seriously though, for all my nose-holding, I had a pretty good time with this one – it’s a heck of a lot more likeable and good-natured than the Troma-type films it was presumably in competition with upon its initial release, and it’s really short too, so as long as you don’t make the rookie error of watching it sober, you’ll be home safe.


To be continued (I hope)....


MajorWeir said...

First thought reads just fine! Must see or re-watch a few of these. Sorely tempted by the Naschy reissue.

Maybe not a fair comparison, but I was watching one of the roughly contemporary Yorga films from Arrow recently, and if anyone ever tries to tell you Naschy films are poorly made . . How often do we need to see that damn VW van pull away from the kerb? How hard do we need to labour the exposition of vampire lore? Who thought an opening scene of a forklift unloading cargo would be atmospheric? Egad!

Ben said...

Thanks for your kind words Doug.

I've never actually got around to watching the Count Yorga films, so I can't really make a comparison.... I'm planning on picking up that Arrow release when it comes down in price, so hopefully I'll be able to ponder the filmmaking deficiencies you point out sooner or later...

Elliot James said...

I saw Yorga when it was released theatrically. During the sneak attack scene when he charges out of nowhere, I reflexively jumped out of my chair. I've never done that since then, watching any movie and I still remember it. Robert Quarry, very good in the role. had more dialogue in the first 30 minutes than Chris Lee in all of his Dracula and vampire films.

One Naschy films that needs a fresh reevaluation is Los Monstruos Del Terror or Assignment Terror (or The Man Who Came from Ummo). After decades of putrid VHS copies and bad TV dupes, I saw a wide-screen, beautiful print and I was astonished by how well-filmed it was. It has the creepiest Mummy makeup of them all. "Frankenstein's" Monster, not so much.