Friday, 30 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
More Short Takes.

Three more shorter-than-usual takes on recently watched Horror films to glide us into the big day itself tomorrow. Including some actual positive comments this time around.

It Conquered the World 
(Roger Corman, 1956)

When AIP released The She-Creature (reviewed earlier this month) in 1956, it formed one half of a double-bill with this rather more widely remembered little number from Roger Corman. Quite a night out, by my estimation. For the sake of random cyclical completeness therefore, I thought I’d dig out ‘It Conquered The World’ and give it a quick going over, having not seen it for many a long year.

During the first half, I was surprised to note such a high incidence of clunky dialogue, painfully bad line-readings and general meandering tedium, which has no doubt done a lot to aid the film’s retrospective status as a more-or-less definitive cheap n’ cheesy b-movie. In view of the fact that the film's principal creatives were all smart and competent people however, I tend to suspect there was a certain amount of sniggering self-awareness creeping in here, which makes me sad.

As cynical as the production circumstances behind Roger Corman's movies may have been, when it comes to his directorial efforts, I've always appreciated his earnest dedication to making a straight-facedly decent movie out of whatever meagre resources were available to him. So, it’s disappointing to imagine him knowingly signing off on a load of sub-par crap at some points on this one, underestimating the intelligence of his audience in precisely the manner he usually so strenuously avoided. Perhaps Lou Rusoff’s script - just as shamelessly barmy as the one he provided for ‘The She-Creature’ - might to some extent be to blame?

Anyway, regardless, there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy here right from the outset. Surely no genre movie fan can fail to be moved by the sight of a (relatively) young Lee Van Cleef firing up his inter-planetary radio-set (hidden behind a curtain in the corner of the living room) to speak to his friend from Venus? 

Appearing just a few years after he played sneering, homosexual hitman Fante in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic ‘The Big Combo’, Van Cleef’s plummy, pointed-finger-aloft delivery of his dialogue here (“listen Paul - listen to the VOICE!”) must have become an acute embarrassment for him as he began settling into his more familiar taciturn cowboy persona over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile of course, the thunderously obvious nature of the obligatory anti-commie sub-text, expressed through Van Cleef’s interplanetary collaboration with a malign being who promises heaven on earth to mankind in exchange for their emotions and individuality, is so clearly comical that I’d like to believe that Corman - not to my knowledge a rabid McCarthyite - very much did have his tongue in his cheek in this regard.

And, once things get going in the second half, ol’ Jolly Roger really gives us our money’s worth. In fact, as soon as the Best Movie Monster Ever (accept no substitutes) shows up, conquering the fuck out of Bronson Canyon (if not quite the world) with his killer grin and adorable, residual-arm-waggling “just frontin’” moves, it’s all gravy for a surprisingly action-packed final act.

First we get the great Beverly Garland blasting away at the bugger with a shotgun (and, how often do we get see the heroine of a ‘50s sci-fi movie sneaking out from under her husband’s nose to give the monster hell, incidentally?), then the Dick Miller Commandos show up with their bazooka, and finally, an enraged Van Cleef getting up close and delivering the foam-melting coup de grace with an f-ing blowtorch, of all things! His final words: “I bid you welcome to this earth... you made it a CHARNEL HOUSE!”

For all the missteps and faffing about in the first half in fact, this is a thing of beauty and a joy forever - god bless you, Mr. Corman. 

Daughter of Darkness 
(Stuart Gordon, 1990)

Nothing to do with Harry Kumel or Delphine Seyrig, this is a made-for-TV vampire movie shot in Romania, directed by the late Stuart Gordon. In view of the info in the preceding sentence, I'd always assumed it must naturally be a Full Moon/Charles Band joint (some kind of spin off from their Eastern European ‘Sub-Species’ films perhaps?), but when I finally sat down to watch it this week, it immediately became clear that we’re dealing with a different kettle of fish entirely.

None of the usual suspects or company logos turned up on the straight-laced opening credits, and once things get underway, the tone is very different from yr usual Empire/Full Moon house style. It’s slicker for one thing, with somewhat higher production values, but also blander and more conventional, as if attempting to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, rather than rabid horror fans.

The plot sees a young American woman (Mia Sara) arriving in Bucharest in search of her long lost father, who turns out to be none other than Anthony Perkins. Along the way, she collides with variety of sinister and/or seductive characters, gets into a few scrapes involving the sinister dragon pendant she inherited from her Dad, has ominous bad dreams in which she traverses areas of the city she has never previously visited, and so on and so forth.

Thanks to Gordon’s brisk pacing and inventive direction, this is all fairly diverting, but unfortunately, once it gets down to brass tacks, vampire stuff in Andrew Laskos’ script is pretty hackneyed, much of the dialogue is fist-in-mouth terrible (the alleged “flirtatious banter” between Sara and U.S. embassy attaché Jack Coleman is especially painful) and the performances (with the exception of Perkins and a couple of the Romanian actors) are extremely poor. This latter point is especially disappointing, given that Gordon's theatrical background and good eye for casting usually helped his films to punch well above their weight in terms of acting and character stuff.

Meanwhile, the obvious requirement to stick to PG-level content also proves a stone drag. Although there are a few potentially memorable horror scenarios, and vampires’ manner of feeding proves a bit of an eye-opener, you can almost feel the director straining at the leash, wishing he could unleash some of the nastiness of his better-known work, but clearly under orders to keep things as mild as possible.

On the other hand though, the film is, as mentioned, very well directed, and the photography (by Romanian DP Iván Márk) is extremely good, making excellent use of the evocative and unusual urban locations. In fact, whereas many American horror films over the years have tried to hide the fact that they were made in Eastern Europe for budgetary reasons, this one makes a real virtue out of being shot under the nose of the Ceaușescu regime, which by my calculations must have been struggling through its final tempestuous final months at around the time ‘Daughter of Darkness’ was filmed.

As such, the film’s evocative and seemingly authentic Bucharest street footage carries an electric and fearful atmosphere, effectively conveying the idea of a city living under a cloud of intrigue and paranoia, and even incorporating a sub-plot about Sara being pursued by the dictator’s secret police.

With a stuttering electricity supply, gun-toting soldiers on every corner, and brief glimpses of breadlines and dishevelled streetwalkers visible as Sara roars through the streets in a broken down taxi, the film suggests an interesting contrast between these symptoms of late 20th century misery, and the older, more dust-shrouded European world represented by the shabby five star hotels, over-priced restaurants and subterranean craft workshops which both she and the vampires are obliged to frequent.

At times, I was even reminded of Zulawski’s use of East Berlin in ‘Possession’ (a comparison further suggested by the fact that this film’s main bad guy, British actor Robert Reynolds, is a dead ringer for a young Sam Neill), but... there the similarities end, unfortunately.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the trouble to track down ‘Daughter of Darkness’ unless you’re a Stuart Gordon completist (or an Anthony Perkins completist?), or unless you have a special interest in films shot in Romania, possibly. But, it is at least a sufficiently respectable effort for me to continue truthfully claiming that I’ve never seen a Gordon film I didn't enjoy. 

(Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of director Shinya Tsukamoto, but I am a fan of films based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, wild gel lighting and buying stuff from Mondo Macabro, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Results proved…. mixed, shall we say. The basic Rampo-derived story, about a former battlefield surgeon (Masahiro Motoki) being terrorised by his doppelganger, remains very compelling, using an ostensibly simple horror conceit to explore a wide range of uncomfortable thematic territory, touching on the dehumanising effects of war, the collapse of family hierarchies and, most pointedly, the pernicious violence inflicted upon society by the rigid enforcement of socio-economic inequality.

Rest assured however, this is all treated by Tsukamoto more as a visceral, ero-guro tone poem than some high-minded political allegory, as he adapts his jarring, dissociative audio-visual style (often likened to the cinematic equivalent of a tape cut-up or extreme noise record) to the needs of a slightly more refined period setting, delivering some truly shocking and bizarre moments for us to, uh, ‘enjoy’, in the process.

Former pop idol Motoki does fine work too in what is a challenging pair of roles to put it mildly, with his portrayal of the ‘evil twin’ character in particular standing as easily the most unsettling display of skin-crawling evil I’ve encountered during this October season.

In many other respects though, I’m afraid I just didn’t dig the approach Tsukamoto takes to this material. Although there is some beautiful photography in places, the ‘extreme’ colour schemes used through much of the film are achieved through ugly-looking post-production filtering rather than actual, on-set lighting and production design, with the unfortunate effect of making a lot of the footage feel as if it’s been brutalised by the pre-sets on an arty teenager’s iPhone, whilst the director’s fixation with lo-o-ong sequences of people silently maintaining creepy/natural postures or just generally freaking out in front of the camera for minutes on end likewise got on my nerves.

Ultimately, these questionable aesthetic decisions served to distract me from the central narrative (which I was enjoying) to a sometimes catastrophic degree, ultimately making the whole venture feel a bit pretentious and uninvolving.

I’m also not really sure why the occupants of the film’s early 20th century “slums” all needed to be crazy, Noh-dancing neo-primitive cyberpunks, but hey, you hire the guy who made ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, that's what you get I suppose.

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