Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Happy Halloween, etc.

Well, that’s that. Over 20,000 words of horror movie reviewin’ posted in thirty days, somehow fitted in alongside an extremely busy and stressful period of day-to-day life. I must be crazy. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them and watching (at least some of) the films, anyway.

As it turns out, I stuck pretty much entirely to writing about films I was watching for the first time during this reviewing marathon, so, to round things off, here are some quick capsule takes on a few old favourites / repeat watches I also managed to fit in over the October season, culminating in a few more first-watches from a Halloween movie night I undertook with friends this weekend and don’t have time to write up in full. (Naturally those last ones weren’t my own viewing picks, but sometimes it’s nice to hand the reins to someone else and see where you end up, y’know?) Anyway - PHEW.

House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)

IMHO, this is probably the weakest link in the chain of Universal’s core “Frankenstein & pals” monster movies (Abbott & Costello not withstanding), so I found myself really questioning my priorities in life upon realising I was watching it for a third time. In my defence, I can at least make the case that the opening twenty minutes or so here are *really good*, with Boris Karloff putting in an absolutely fantastic turn as the sociopathic Frankenstein disciple freed from his cell by a convenient bolt of lightning before absconding with his hunchback assistant to hook up with George Zucco’s travelling sideshow troupe, who are on the road with The Authentic Coffin of Count Dracula. Just wonderful, old school monster movie stuff, oozing atmosphere.

Such a shame that after that it all goes to hell – the entire segment featuring John Carradine’s spiv Dracula is just bloody awful (it looks as if they pulled him in off the backlot for the role with about five minutes’ notice before shooting), and, after he’s disposed of, the promise of the opening seems to have dissipated, with the remainder of the movie becoming a lame-brained whose-brain-is-going-where type farce, with Karloff more or less giving it up for a bad job as Chaney’s Larry Talbot bangs on incessantly about his woes and the rest of the supporting cast run around killing time until the torch-wielding mob turns up. Ho hum.

House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)

My first time revisiting this one for a while, and it’s actually a fair bit better than its predecessor, despite the lack of Karloff. Carradine seems to have got his shit together sufficiently to turn his “Baron Latos” take on Dracula into a rather more menacing and interesting character this time around, and Kenton likewise comes through with some rather cool set-piece scenes and proper filmmaking type flourishes.

The plot-line – which sees Onslow Stevens’ rationally minded neurologist somehow ending up with both Dracula and the Wolfman on his list of patients and Frankenstein’s Monster defrosting on his gurney, all within the space of one memorable evening – is weird enough to maintain interest, and overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable curtain call for the Universal monsters, wisely ushering them off the stage before things got *too* ropey in the post-war years.

Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1972)

A while back, my friend Anthony took me to task for omitting this one from the “Top 15 Hammers” list I did a few years ago, and, upon re-visiting it for the first time in a few years, I must offer him my apologies, because it is indeed absolutely fantastic, and well deserving of a high ranking place on any such list.

Tudor Gates’ ultra-pulpy script drives things way over the edge of self-parody (perhaps the reason I’ve underrated the film in the past?), but the chaps in charge of production design, cinematography etc don’t seem to have noticed the shift in tone, instead delivering one of the best-looking and most atmospheric (not to mention most gory and erotically charged) films Hammer produced during the ‘70s. The result is a film that is really funny (the almost ‘South Park’-like antics of Cushing’s puritan witch-burning club), slyly subversive of the Hammer formula (no moral black & whites to be found here) and an exceptional example of straight up, late period gothic horror to boot. I give it a multitude of thumbs up, gold stars and whatever else.

Hands of the Ripper (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

In contrast, I actually found this one somewhat less impressive when returning to it for a second time, despite its growing reputation as an overlooked gem in Hammer’s latter-day catalogue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very well made, fast-moving film with a unique storyline that certainly must have proved an eye-opener for viewers expecting a straight up Jack the Ripper flick; it’s also full of fun, sleazy Victorian carrying on, has a terrific central performance from Eric Porter and the finale in St Pauls is stunning, but… I dunno.

Despite its ambition toward becoming a Freudian psychological thriller, any exploration of this idea is largely sidelined in favour of a contrived, bloodshed-every-ten-minutes proto-slasher formula, whilst the woman supposedly at the centre of all the psychoanalytical intrigue remains a complete cipher – a blank slate whose primary role in the film is to flip out and kill someone every time the bell rings. In effect, Sasdy presents a story that borrows heavily from the conventions of the murder mystery whilst offering no mystery whatsoever, which kind of upsets the balance of the movie’s many good elements. Or something. Correspondingly re-filed under “fun, interesting, but flawed”, anyway.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

I probably haven’t sat down and watched this since I was about sixteen, but… turns out it holds up pretty well! It has a very one dimensional, comic-book type feel – clearly aimed at a younger teen audience, even if the studio's submission to the ratings board presumably claimed otherwise – but basically, Craven & co just had such a great idea for a horror movie on their hands they couldn't go wrong. And indeed they wring maximum value from it, with an almost non-stop barrage of great scenes, imaginative visuals, random '80s pop cult surrealism and sundry other memorable moments.

Also – really cool synth score and some lovely photography in the ‘dream’ bits. Also – John Saxon as Cop Dad! Despite ripping off the ending from ‘Phantasm’ to little effect, this is by far the most entertaining/worthwhile Wes Craven film I’ve seen to date, and it’s little wonder it became such a monstrous, sequel-spawning hit.

Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Immediately after viewing, my opinion of this latest much-hyped example of new-Gallic-extreme-whatever cinema was pretty low. Leaving aside the hereditary cannibalism-related hi-jinks that place it within the horror realm, I found the film’s miserable depiction of the lifestyles of relatively privileged 21st century young people to be depressing in the extreme, feeling that any attempt to summarise the plot could probably be appended with “..meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, some people have real problems that they didn’t just make up to fill the time”.

Thinking further however, I will at least cop that Ducournau manages a lot of successful button-pushing here, shaking up the punters whilst offering no easy answers in a manner somewhat reminiscent of early Cronenberg. Furthermore, there is something almost Ballardian about the eerie brutalism of the (wo)man-removed-from-nature world in which the drama seems to take place, blurring the line between baroque ‘High Rise’ style decadence and what I take to be stark life-in-2017 realism just a little too much for comfort.

That I didn’t like it is probably just reflective of the fact that Ducournau’s vision veered pretty far from engaging with any kind of world I understand, or from addressing any issues I care about, rather than a judgement on her film’s objective quality. For viewers in other times and places in their lives, the possibility is certainly there for it to hit hard and correspondingly produce pertinent thoughts, I daresay.

Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)

Well…. this was alright. Fairly good fun - if you’re able to tolerate a relentless, monster-sized dose of Tim Burton-y pumpkins n’ candy American Halloween kitsch, at any rate. Not exactly my favourite flavour, but I can just about stomach it, so as such I rather enjoyed the clever way in which Dougherty avoids routine anthology movie drudgery by having his assorted short stories weave in and out of each other, resulting in a few really nice cross-overs and surprise twists – almost like a mainstream horror re-invention of the old ‘Nashville’/’Slacker’ drifting camera approach, I suppose.

Despite the well-scrubbed, post-Buffy aesthetic and well-rehearsed wise-cracks, I also liked the fact that it has the balls to function as a full strength, gory horror movie too, with some very nasty ideas and suggestions creeping out from beneath the candy-floss as the movie goes on, and not being treated in *too much* of a thoughtless/offensive fashion when they do fully emerge. Not entirely my cup of tea then, but certainly an enjoyable new spin on the more multiplex-acceptable side of modern American horror, and welcome proof that you can still break new ground within the genre without getting all “dark” and “extreme” and monochromatic about it.


And, finally, that’s it. October Horror Marathon concluded. I haven’t had time to convey to you my compressed thoughts on revisiting ‘The Man With Two Brains’, or ‘Kill Baby Kill!’, or ‘The Devil Rides Out’, but, long story short: I STILL REALLY LIKE THEM.

Stay safe everybody, and I’ll see you when I’ve had some sleep!


Elliot James said...

House of Frankenstein was the Universal Frankenstein entry that dropped the Ygor's-brain-in-the-Monster's-head plot line after Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and made the Monster a mindless automaton, then continued the same route with House of Dracula and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (although the Monster can speak in this film for the first time since Ghost of Frankenstein).

Gregor said...

Thank you for your Halloween blogathon Ben. I'm guessing after you reviewed so many out of the way films, it might seem a bit boorish to jump in here with Nightmare on Elm Street, but I have to admit to being a fan of practically the entire franchise. Not that I'm claiming that they are all works of cinematic genius or anything, but in some ways maybe that's exactly the point- that a series of often slapdash films by different crews did manage to all have something to contribute to a fairly narrow set of archetypes. It's almost like Italo Calvino's using a limited set of motifs for different tales in Castle of Crossed Destinies or something (well, maybe not but hopefully that makes me sound less of a dumbass).

I think for me the NOES series has a weird appeal because of how I found it incidentally tapped into my feelings at being born in the early 1980s when sociologists would debate if I'm Millenial or Gen X- but I do tend to think of myself as either millenial or neither though I have strong memories of the 80s. I guess this sounds a very abstract thing to brood over when discussing Freddie's killathons, but somehow ANOES captures the weird way that Generation X felt like people who were people I'd coexisted with and who were also oddly foreign. And who in some ways I have to admit I find quite annoyingly childish (I do remember finding it weird as a teen having to explain to slightly OLDER people I was the kind of humourless killjoy who didn't find it funny to see Jim Carrey pretending to speak out his bum and lighting his own farts or who wasn't filled with revolutionary zeal by millionaire musicians yelling rebellious lyrics about how shit consumerism is).

I thought especially the values that the later Elm Street films (3 and 4) seemed to promote youthful rebellion by their characters whilst probably unintentionally raising the question that if we idolise youthful rebels then what happens when we are no longer uhm youthful? Is it just coincidence, intentional or collective unconscious that Freddie resembles a Memento Mori or the grim reaper? Was the abandoned industrial wasteland where Freddie lived a kind of reminder to middle class America of their own softness?

I'm saying this stuff about rebellion as someone who is pretty left wing themselves, but who thinks actually analysing and confronting power and offering a substitute is more complex than feelings of bitterness and irreverence and self-pitying catchphrases. I'd even say that Gen X has in some ways turned out to be fairly servile and happy to be tossed bones about approved reasons to get self-righteous.

Moving along, I thought NOES that it also delivers on visual 80s nostalgia, but in a way that seems quite poignant in its obvious difference from today- the wealth and standard of life of middle class people. Maybe unduly opulent work from the production designers, but many quality of life indicators have indeed decreased for middle class people.

Dunno, maybe that just sounds crazy trying to wax philosophical about (being honest) some pretty silly fillums but I do find the Elm Street franchise oddly fascinating. Even Freddie's Dead which is objectively one of the worst films I've ever seen (which says something!) had an effective Children of Men style carnival and desolate town. I have to admit I had never heard of the Phantasm series until you reviewed it but I thought maybe there were some thematic crossovers in its portrayal of a lost generation and increasing desolation against an immortal enemy.

I also noticed Elm Street had some surprising thematic crossovers with Twin Peaks, but I admit that I found the 1st, 3rd and 4th Elm Street films more genuinely nightmarish and oneiric. If that makes me tasteless or someone who needs to have more arty dreams, so be it!

Ben said...

Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts Gregor!

My only nostalgic connection to the '..Elm Street' franchise consists of seeing the video boxes on rental shelves when I was a child and being extremely frightened by them... which probably dates me to more or less the same generation as yourself, whatever that might be!

I particularly remember seeing the one (was it part 4 or 5?) that has Freddy leaning over a baby's crib on the cover, and thinking "oh my god, he goes around killing babies in this movie? That's horrible!" -- the irony being of course that, if my parents had actually let me watch a few horror movies, I'm sure I would have realised pretty quickly that they were just a bit of fun, and not the terrible orgies of sadism that I was imagining from looking at the covers.

I saw the first entry on TV at some point, but it didn't make much impression, and never saw any of the sequels or revisited it until last month - I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it to be honest.

As I said in my review, the idea of a disembodied killer stalking teenagers through their dreams is such a great one, I can easily see where the fascination comes from, and I look forward to checking out some of the sequels.

I can definitely see a strong thematic crossover with 'Twin Peaks' too - even though '..Elm Street' tries very hard not to acknowledge it, both essentially use the idea of a "dream killer" as a metaphor for child abuse, allowing a seemingly supernatural monster to menace and molest teenagers in the very place where they should feel safest.

Even though, based on the first installment at least, '..Elm Street' does everything it can to avoid the nastier implications of this "evil begins at home" idea, Freddy's background as a child killer is still there, and there is an underlying ickiness to the idea of his ghost/spirit suddenly popping up in the bedrooms of children born to parents presumably traumatised by his earth-bound activities that is impossible to fully shake. (Even though it's a pretty light-weight, commerical movie, perhaps there's a still a shadow of Wes Craven's far nastier early films still lurking around in there somewhere?)