Thursday, 30 December 2010

Black Sunday / La Maschera Del Demonio
(Mario Bava, 1960)

Ok, I’ll level with you: right up until I sat down to write this, I’d been torn as to which Mario Bava film to include on this list, “Kill Baby Kill/Operazione Paura” (1966) or “Black Sunday”. The former is probably my favourite Bava horror, its haunting imagery, stunning Technicolor production design and delirious psychedelic plotting all second to none. “Black Sunday” by comparison is somewhat stagey and linear in its non-setpiece scenes, its black & white photography admittedly brilliant, but perhaps not truly representative of a director best known for his use of colour. But on the other hand – “Black Sunday” has the immortal iconic value of it jaw-dropping opening scene, its status as the all-time definitive example of ‘60s gothic horror, and, most importantly, it has Barbara Steele.

I thought long and hard, I considered reviewing both of them side by side, but… “Black Sunday” wins, I think. “Kill Baby Kill” might be a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty obscurist masterpiece. A jewel in the crown for aficionados of loopy Euro-horror cinema maybe, but probably too disjointed and strange, too specialist in its appeal, for many. “Black Sunday”, on the other hand, is a film for everyone! Watch it with the family, and bar the door if they try to leave! Who in the world could watch that opening sequence for the first time and not be completely floored?

Words failing me, I am forced to quote from “The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to The Devil in Cinema” by Nikolas Shreck (not that one), which I conveniently happened to find knocking about in a pile of old books this week;

“‘One day in each century it is said that Satan walks among us. To the God-fearing this day is known as Black Sunday,’ a portentous voice has told us. Surely this is that day, and the face that glares at us from the screen, transfixed in a seeming ecstasy of evil, is Satan incarnate in bewitching mortal form. The glaring depths of her eyes radiate pure hatred, but strangely, this in no way obscures their beauty. A predatory joy in her savage expression imbues the pale visage with an inhuman quality. Her lips are thin, yet sensuous. Wild black hair frames the pale cheekbones. A study in chiaroscuro, her luminous portrait is delineated in shadows worthy of the brush of an unknown master. The exquisite face is cruelly marred by a pattern of wounds, impressed upon her flesh by the spiked mask she has worn for centuries.”

Quite so! Thanks for that, Mr, uh, Shreck.

The unforgettable moment of stylised violence that closes the film’s prologue makes clear that “Black Sunday” is going to be extremely strong medicine for its era, and it is slightly unfair I feel to claim, as many reviewers have done, that “Black Sunday”s script subsequently follows a hackneyed, predictable path, the film drawing its power entirely from Bava’s virtuoso direction and stunning production design. That may seem an accurate enough assessment from a modern POV, but it is easy to forget that to a great extent “Black Sunday” defined the gothic horror conventions that we now see as hackneyed. It is often assumed these kind of films have been around forever, such is their anachronistic hoariness, but it seems to me that throughout most of the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was little resembling gothic horror to be found on-screen. The Hammer films of the late ‘50s, whose success presumably inspired the Italian film industry to start bankrolling horror flicks, can to some extent take credit for pioneering the kind of self-conscious archaicism and theatrical mannerisms seen here, but “Black Sunday” is still probably the earliest film I’ve seen in which the conventions of full-blown ‘60s gothic (the “come, you must be tired from your long journey” syndrome, you might call it) come into full bloom. Not that that’s necessarily a recommendation I hasten to add, but for those such as myself who feel irresistibly drawn to this weird sub-genre, it’s an interesting point to note.

Something else I’ve noticed about “Black Sunday” – something it shares with just about all of the later, less vital Italian gothics that appeared following this film’s success – is it’s reliable on an unremittingly dreamlike, incorporeal atmosphere that almost completely undermines the importance of a linear narrative. Just as in the films of directors like Ricardo Freda or Antonio Margerheti, or indeed Bava’s later gothic reveries in “Kill Baby Kill”, “Whip & The Body” or “Lisa & The Devil”, it is almost impossible to recall the precise details of what went on in “Black Sunday” a few hours after viewing. After a certain point, who did what to whom when and what it meant simply ceases to matter: what you remember of the film is rather the incredible images, burned upon your waking mind with a strength that seems to plunge them straight through to your sub-conscious. And also, you remember the overall feeling of the film, as if it were some dream that seemed incredibly important, but that you just can’t quite recall the details of, until they return the next night, ready to bite.

In the avalanche of cheaper, less celebrated horror films and giallos that went on to characterise the next two decades of Italian cinema, this incorporeal spirit is often mistaken for bad filmmaking, as movies are written off as lazy, slow-moving, incoherent. But Bava, in his indisputably masterful realisation of this film, proved once and for all that there is a lot more to the Italian approach to horror than simply random, woozy-headed weirdness. It is incredible in fact that a thriving commercial industry could be built up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, centring around the obsessive presentation of this kind of disturbing, almost subliminal, oneiric imagery. Chuckle all you like at those Italians with their barmy, gas-huffing scripts, but they know a thing or two about what makes us tick - the dark magic of “Black Sunday” runs in their veins.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Bride of Frankenstein
(James Whale, 1935)

“I hope her bones are firm..”

I know, I know, an obvious choice, but seriously guys: in much the same way that I spent about ten years stubbornly refusing to listen to The Beatles, I only got around to actually watching this a few months ago, and what can I tell you: it knocked my block off. What a movie!

Ok, so the opening fifteen minutes or so – in which Mary Shelley refers to her husband as “Shelley, dear” and Baron Frankenstein cuddles up with his bride-to-be wondering how he ever got involved with all that god-challenging evilness in the first movie - is sorta inexplicably terrible. But as soon as Dr. Pretorious is on the scene, well… I’ve rarely seen a film that turns on a dime so suddenly and just fuckin’ goes for it with such furious vigour.

It’s all so, so… VIVID, y’know – the absolute antithesis of the kind of slow-moving, stagey filmmaking we tend to associate with the 1930s - barely a minute is allowed to pass without our senses being bombarded with something utterly grotesque and incredible. Seventy-five years of cumulative influence and analysis have served to give films such as “Bride of Frankenstein” a sort of ‘high art’ aura, as our attention is drawn to the German Expressionist influence, to the weighty themes and sub-texts and yadda yadda yadda. And that’s all well and good, but really I think that “Bride..” can be better viewed as one of the all-time triumphs of LOW art – pulp in excelsis! Full of booze and cigars and crazy, craggy faces and desperation and rage and confusion and ecstasy, this is two-fisted gothic madness of the highest order, a film that doesn’t so much hint at the more twisted and disturbing aspects of its plotline as throw them in your face and insist you wrestle them to the ground.

Whatever else may or may not have been on James Whale’s mind, his main motivations here were to titillate us, repulse us, excite us, and generally keep us glued to our seats with crazed, barbaric imagery and ghoulish, transgressive notions, fired at us more quickly than we can really process them. Even today, “Bride..” makes for startling, violent and fast-moving viewing – in 1935 it must have been nothing short of mindblowing! I mean, first of all Pretorious is gulping down straight gin, showing us these fucked up little people he keeps in bottles, telling us he “grew them from seed”, then we’ve got poor old Karloff stomping around like a hunted beast, absent-mindedly caving people’s heads in and hurling old ladies down mineshafts, and then the film is asking us to imagine what would happen to the human race if a man-made creature constructed out of sewn together corpse-parts was to mate with his female counterpart to produce living offspring, and… oh my god “Bride of Frankenstein”, slow down, you’re freaking me out!

And of course, the lightning rod for all this weirdness is Dr. Pretorius himself - surely one of the most fascinating and ambiguous characters in all of horror cinema. Not quite a villain, not quite a tragic mad scientist, he’s utterly inexplicable – a genial avatar of amoral, Luciferian anarchy, parachuted into the movie to take charge and ride the fucker to masterpiece status, reducing Frankenstein himself to the status of an irritating, priggish sidekick. Who WAS this guy? Where did he come from? Where did he GO? Merrily gallivanting back into the horror sub-conscious, a figure so dangerous no one’s ever quite dared to call upon him again, no matter how many thousands of subsequent mad scientists and cult leaders have ripped a chunk out of Ernest Thesiger’s definitive performance.

What more can I possibly tell you? You’ve seen it, you know. I know I talked in the “Black Cat” write-up about the genesis of the ‘weirdo horror film’ – well it’s rare that anyone has managed to top this one.

The Black Cat

(Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)

“Strange about the cat… Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it..”

Recently, I’ve been conteplating the notion that cats, black ones in particular, are good omens for a horror film. From Lucio Fulci’s astoundingly peculiar “Il Gatto Nero” to the Peter Lorre/Vincent Price segment of Corman’s “Tales of Terror”, to zany beatnik murder caper “The Fat Black Pussycat”, and even that nutso low budget ‘60s version of “The Black Cat” put out by Something Weird where that guy force-feeds his parrots champagne and whacks his wife in the face with an axe, the presence of a black cat seems to be a pretty reliable indicator of a great time. Whether or not my theory would stand up to a viewing of 1972’s Night of 1000 Cats remains to be seen, but for the moment I’m sticking to it. And where better to mark the genesis of this noble cinematic lineage than with Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 Black Cat – surely one of the strangest and most extraordinary horror films ever made, and the one I’m going to try my best to hold forth about here today.


A common interpretation of German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s sees it as a therapeutic/interpretive reaction to the mechanized horrors of World War I, and the same logic is of course applied to the whole of the wider explosion in Modernism that took place in the arts after the war. And if the Universal/Hollywood horror film of the 1930s can be seem as the bastard child of Expressionism, then “The Black Cat” is the mutant beast that squares the circle, as Austrian director Ulmer combines the familiar gothic trappings of Universal horror with a strange variation on stark, European Modernism, drawing us back explicitly to the traumas wrought upon European consciousness by the Great War.

As soon as the opening credits have rolled, our straight/normal honeymooning couple have the singularly bad luck of seeing their train carriage canoodling disturbed by an anxious Bela Lugosi, who tells them in agonising detail of the fifteen years of soul-destroying hell he has spent in a POW camp. Try that one out for ‘things you’d least like to happen on your wedding night’. When they all leave the train and continue their journey by coach, the driver regales them with tales of how the land they are traversing was the scene of some of the worst slaughter of the war, cheerily recalling the sight of bodies piled upon bodies, before the poor fellow promptly joins them when the coach takes a tumble off the rain-soaked mountain road, a circumstance that sees our characters changing their travel plans and paying a visit to Bela’s ‘old buddy’ - Boris Karloff as the almost impossibly sinister visionary architect Hjalmar Poelzig, whose terrifying modernist edifice of a house is literally built atop the mass graves of the men who died during the war under his treacherous command. Worst honeymoon ever, I think it’s fair to say.

A top-heavy wreck of conflicting aesthetic and cultural ideas, in which traditional horror movie notions of good and evil are left vague at best, “The Black Cat” is a challenging film to really write about or analyse. More-so than just about any other ‘golden age’ horror movie, it is an uncomfortable, disturbing viewing experience, reconstructing distant echoes of Poe’s original scenario into a modernist nightmare in which characters seem to exist in a constant state of nervous desperation and nothing ever quite seems to make sense.

As their characters renew their long-standing blood rivalry, Lugosi and Karloff seem to be competing to see who can appear the most utterly cracked, maxing out their respective allowances of morbid weirdness almost straight away as they start indulging in marathon staring contests, twitching like lunatics and undertaking lengthy, unprovoked digressions about such matters as ‘the dark of the moon’ and ‘the nature of evil’, as the appropriately named Peter Manners as Mr. Straight Guy looks on incredulous. Even their servants are fucking mental – Karloff’s major-domo played by craggy-face horror regular Egon Brecher, and Lugosi’s servant some kind of mute oriental strong man. In a scene that has to be seen to be believed, Bela spears Karloff’s cat with a thrown fork, before Boris quietly explains that his friend ‘suffers from a nervous affliction’ that renders him utterly terrified of cats – the only point at which cats, or Bela’s inexplicable fear thereof, are referred to in the whole damn movie!

Dull as they are, it’s hard not to sympathise with our ‘normal’ couple, plunged unexpectedly into this realm of world class boggle-eyed lunacy, trying to relax and recuperate in a complex of bare, Travelodge-esque bedrooms, under constant threat of Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff barging in unannounced through the communicating doors to subject them to strange tirades of obsequious politeness. Bela is supposed to be a ‘good guy’, relatively speaking, and indeed he does his damnedest to take on a Van Helsing style gravitas when telling young Joan of the dangers she faces from evil old Karloff, but he’s not fooling anyone – it’s clear that he’s just as much of a vengeance-crazed loon as his opposite number, and understandably she just wants the whole lot of them to fuck off and leave her alone with her husband.

Then, just when you feel things have gotten about as freaky as was possible for a 1934 movie without its makers being incarcerated in the name of general public well-being, Ulmer drops the bomb that Karloff’s character is a Satanist. I mean, an actual, honest to god Satanic cult leader who summons his robe-clad coven to celebrate the rites of Lucifer around a terrifying Cubist/Expressionist altar in the catacombs beneath his house!

I realise that doesn’t exactly sound like much of an eye-opener by modern horror standards, but how many Satanic cults do you reckon had been seen in American cinema prior to 1934..? Now I’ve not done any actual research into the matter, but I’m gonna take a wild guess and say NONE. And furthermore, I don’t really think devil worshippers and black magic cults began to become an accepted part of horror movie procedure until probably the late fifties/early sixties, with the emergence of films like Jacque Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon” and Hammer’s “The Witches”. Why on earth did Ulmer feel the need to make Polzig a Satanist? Like, as if this film wasn’t berserk enough already! The Satan angle comes completely out of nowhere in the film’s final act, serves little actual narrative purpose, and rendered “The Black Cat” so controversial that Universal allegedly cut down Ulmer’s director’s cut down to a lean sixty minutes prior to release, whilst the British censor objected so strongly to the Satanism that he excised it completely, presenting UK film-goers with a version that ran less than fifty minutes.

Thank god for obscurely-inspired maniacs like Ulmer though, because “The Black Cat”s black mass is absolutely breathtaking – the first scene of its kind seen in popular cinema anywhere in the world, and the last too for many years, it brings a dream-like, ritualistic intensity to the film that prefigures all my favourite bits of modern horror.

Everything about “The Black Cat” is completely inexplicable – it is a work of near protean high weirdness, a haunted, desperate, genuinely unstable film in which nothing is easy, nothing is certain, no one is happy, nothing is the way it should be. I know I’m often inclined on this site to talk about my conception of ‘the weirdo horror film’ - well, “The Black Cat” (perhaps in a fifty/fifty split with the next item on our list) can be considered the daddy of them all.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Plague of the Zombies
(John Gilling, 1966)

“Would you like to tell me about your dream, Peter? It sometimes helps..”

An unusual choice for ‘favourtie Hammer movie’ perhaps (back when the Watching Hammer weblog was asking people to pick their favourites, it didn’t even turn up in anyone’s top ten), but John Gilling’s “Plague of the Zombies” holds a special place in my heart. I’m not sure why really – partly just nostalgia for seeing it for the first time on late night TV many years ago I’m sure, but more than any other Hammer film, it just makes my nerves twitch and my senses warp in the best possible way.

And, looked at on a more objective basis, “Plague..” does thankfully prove pretty unfuckable with as a solid, mid-table British horror flick. Andre Morrel is absolutely superb as our hero, Sir James Forbes, holding the sanity of the afflicted village together with a mixture of aristocratic authority, courageous practicality and humane concern that he should have had bottled and sold to lesser horror movie protagonists. As in his role as Professor Quatermass in the definitive BBC version of “Quatermass & The Pit”, Morell is a joy to watch here, his stirring delivery of the script’s frequently absurd dialogue and his character’s vigorous, two-fisted approach to the action marking him out as the best leading man Hammer ever had, Peter Cushing notwithstanding. I really wish they could have cast him in more leading roles.

More than anything else, my love of British horror films probably crystalised during the scene in which Sir James and his younger doctor friend are busy doing the washing up after dinner (and oh what a sterling example of a Victorian peer he is - elbow deep in suds without complaint in the middle of a mysterious plague outbreak, rather than leaving the women/servants to get on with it while he sees to more ‘important’ matters - good chap), when the following exchange transpires;

“But we must have a body to examine, we can’t possibly work without one!”
“If you’re thinking of applying for an exhumation, I can tell you now --”
“Apply for nothing, we’ll dig one up.”
“We’ll WHAT?”
“Dig one up – that one they buried today will do, nice and fresh.”
“But we can’t just start --”
“Why not? There’s a full moon, couldn’t be better. We’ll start off about midnight.”

Amazing. And joy is heaped upon joy when said escapade sees Sir James being very politely arrested by Michael Ripper as the local copper – “and on what charge, Constable?”, “ooh let’s see.. graverobbing I should think, Sir”.

By its very nature, the script for “Plague..” is stranger, more imaginative and more action-packed than your average mid-sixties Hammer, its tale of the decadent squire of a small Cornish village importing Haitian voodoo to help resurrect a new workforce for his ailing tin mine so batty, it’s hard to do anything else but just sit back and accept it in stunned good humour, especially as relatively authentic-sounding voudoun drums start to pound ceaselessly on the soundtrack, and the iconic oatmeal-faced, cassock-clad zombies start to march abroad on the barren moors, menacing the classically nightgowned Diane Clare in an astounding bit of cracked cross-cultural exchange, at least two years before George Romero brought our modern conception of ‘zombies’ to the masses.

More than just a great, fun horror movie though, “Plague…” has a heavy, potent atmosphere too it that just slays me - the doomed, fog-drenched village with its dilapidated stone cottages, the sodden, swampy woodland surrounding it and the rusty machinery of the obsolete tin mines – one has the feeling Sir James and friends are fighting not just against an evil weirdo and the fears of a superstitious peasantry, but against a whole tide of cosmic lethargy and empathy, threatening to drag this benighted corner of England literally back into the ground, food for the tunnel-dwelling zombies who trudge away eternally to the hypnotic beat of out-of-place Caribbean drums - a perfect, mindless proletariat, kept alive to serve the needs of industry until their rotting flesh literally falls from their bones.

As much as I love the exquisite production designs of Bray-era Hammer, this film has somewhat altogether different going on. Something thick and sulphurous, something more in tune with the atavistic, rural, subversive horrors of “Blood On Satan’s Claw” and “The Wicker Man”; something, in other words, that is more in tune with morbid teenage layabouts like me about ten years ago, staying up past their bedtime, smoking pot, letting the poorly tuned in images flicker before their eyes…

The first time I saw that scene – yeah, THE scene, the one everyone remembers from this movie - where Jacqueline Pearce rises from her grave, I was absolutely stunned, I could barely move or speak. Her dead eyes, her evil, Mona Lisa-like smile, the way Morell makes a grab for that shovel…. here, essentially, is EVERYTHING that defines the modern horror film, compressed into one, primal, heart-stopping sequence.
I could wax lyrical on that scene for pages, but thankfully you’ll be spared that, as the sequence has been immortalised for all time (well, for a few months at the very least) on Youtube, for you to experience yourself and draw your own conclusions;

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Wicker Man
(Robin Hardy, 1973)

“After all, what girl would not prefer the child of a sun god to that of some acne-scarred artisan?”

Spiritually and philosophically the very opposite of “The Devil Rides Out”, it says a lot for the diversity found within the supposedly monolithic structure of ‘The British Horror Film’ that both it and “The Wicker Man” – moralistic Christian diatribe and open-ended meditation on sexual freedom and atavistic pagan belief respectively – can be cheerfully discussed in the same breath.

(It is doubly curious that Christopher Lee, who was the main driving force in persuading Hammer to adapt “..Rides Out”, also agreed to appear in “The Wicker Man” free of charge, and has frequently talked it up as being the best film he ever acted in. I dunno - maybe he just digs movies about opposing belief systems or something?)

Anyway, after so many years of dedicated fandom, discussion, re-evaluation, praise, canonisation, restoration, re-release and lunatic comedy remake, it’s difficult to know how to go about trying to find something new to say about Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s utterly unique film.

More than any other entry on this list, “The Wicker Man”s classification as a horror film is tenuous at best. I will count it as one, because it was funded and initially released as horror, because it stars Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, and because it is hard to know what else do with a film that’s basically a drama about comparative religion. Plus, the film’s overriding atmosphere of otherness and paranoia, the incorporation of recognisable witchcraft imagery, the buxom barmaids, sinister aristocrat and grizzled peasants clearly left over from a Hammer gothic - above all the constant commingling of eroticism with fear – all of these things point to a horror film.

But at the same time, there have been occasions when I have found myself arguing strongly that “The Wicker Man” is NOT a horror film (usually when trying to persuade non-horror fans to watch it and/or take it seriously). In its pronounced lack of either graphic violence or any element of the supernatural, the film’s ‘realism’ must have been a daring decision for Hardy and Shaffer, and if “The Wicker Man”s swift descent into a couple of decades of distribution purgatory was the initial result of their bravery, they can at least be proud that it is this same approach that forty-plus years later sees their film reaching a wider audience, and attracting wider critical attention, than any other British ‘horror’ film ever made. And deservedly so, perhaps. As with previous entries on this list, I’m sure I don’t have to waste time trying to summarise the myriad qualities of “The Wicker Man”. In every respect, it is a true one-off, and the very fact it exists at all, let alone in such vivid, intelligent and beautiful form, is a profound achievement for all concerned. Such is the film’s overriding atmosphere, the long history of whispered rumour and supplementary lore surrounding it, that every screening, whether at home, on TV or in the cinema, seems to take on a ritualistic quality – devotees glancing at new initiates, trying to gauge their reaction. Talk about a ‘cult film’.

These days, it’s easy to take it for granted that the film’s sympathies (and by extension, ours) lie with the islanders. Certainly I’ve never had any problem choosing between Lord Summerisle’s wholesome, open-minded approach to life and Sgt. Howie’s dogmatic, self-destructive puritanism. But I’ll never forget the time I watched the film with a friend who afterwards insisted in no uncertain terms that Howie is the hero of the film, and that the islanders are an insane, repugnant aberration. And, of course, he was right – as appealing as the easy-going lifestyle of the islanders may seem, are they not essentially still fulfilling the obligations as every gang of mad cultists in b-movie history, kidnapping a man and committing murder to appease their strange Gods, as their resources dwindle and their desperation grows…? The unswervable ambiguity of “The Wicker Man”, and the stresses it places on our implicit belief systems, could easily be seen by handing out a questionnaire to a cinema audience as the sun sets in the final shot: do you believe their harvest will return? Answer Y or N.

I love too the fact that I have seen the film in various different formats over the years – bootleg VHS, TV broadcast, cinema screening, several different DVDs – and I’m sure that I’ve never seen exactly the same film twice. “The Wicker Man” exists in so many different cuts that I never know whether the action will take place over three days or two, whether or not we’ll get to see Willow’s full dance, or Lord Summerisle reciting Walt Whitman as slugs fuck in the graveyard (a particularly rare inclusion). I’m sure on at least one occasion I’ve seen an establishing scene in which Sgt. Howie prays in a church on the mainland, but then again, maybe I imagined it. I’ve not yet watched the latest DVD copy I’ve gotten hold of, so who knows, maybe it will have some shots in it I’ve never seen before, and maybe other bits will be missing? I’m sure I could google “Wicker Man alternate versions” and sort the whole thing out for good, but y’know, I prefer the mystery. Whatever you do to this film, its central vision remains. Even after they (allegedly) burned the negatives and/or buried them somewhere under the newly constructed M3, Lord Summerisle and his people have lived on, popping up as a free gift in Sunday newspapers, being eulogised in ‘Sight & Sound’ and screened at the NFT, casting a questioning shadow across our modern way of life.

Oh, and a soundtrack loaded with hits certainly helps too! Paul Giovanni should be driving around in whatever the folky equivalent of a solid gold Cadillac is for the tunes he managed to cram into this movie.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Les Yeux Sans Visage /
Eyes Without A Face
(Georges Franju, 1959)

Some quote or other on the DVD jacket proclaims Yeux/Eyes to be “..the most beautiful horror film ever made”. Who am I to argue?

Rewatching it to harvest the above screengrabs though, it occurred to my that the beauty of Franju’s film is one that cannot be properly be communicated by still images. More than anything, it lies in the slow, deliberate camera movement, the delicate, deliberate pacing. In the flow of visual information, withheld, suggested and then, eventually, revealed.

For horror fans in particular, the film makes for fascinating viewing, acting as it does as a bridge between the older formal history of the gothic and macabre in cinema, and the more shocking, visceral future approaching over the horizon – a split which can be clearly observed as Franju takes us behind the socialised ‘mask’ of his film’s world - beyond the gauche, overcooked elegance of the Génessier house, through to the concealed world beneath it – to a place of bare concrete floors, exposed heating pipes and car garages, of caged dogs, sordid brutality and chloroformed victims being dragged around by their elbows; a place where the grotesque reality of Dr. Génessier’s surgeries is revealed to us in sickening close-up.

Looking back, we can see the French fantastique tradition of Feuillade and Fantomas - drawing room mysteries and gentle, elegant surrealism - breathing their last sad breaths. Looking forward, we see the more garish cinema of Franco and Bava, of Fulci and Argento. Of Cronenberg, Romero, “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Of everything, in short, that we think of as defining ‘modern horror’. And always at the crossroads, we’ll find Franju’s masterpiece, and the mixture of desire and repulsion lurking at the heart of all horror, personified forever in the unforgettable, unhiemlich visage of Edith Scob and her white mask.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Devil Rides Out
(Terence Fisher, 1968)

It’s funny how I’ve always found Dennis Wheatley’s best-selling witchcraft potboilers to be an insufferable load of insufferable, sanctimonious guff, and yet somehow I love Hammer’s take on “The Devil Rides Out” - an adaptation that if anything renders its source material even more smug and puritanical.

In some ways, I’ve always thought there is almost something almost sweet about Hammer’s Manichean puritanism - something quite comforting and noble about the steadfast, upstanding heroes of their vampire movies, forever protecting their buxom womenfolk from the depravations of immoral monsters. Wheatley’s dire warnings against the forces of darkness by contrast just seem sleazy and hypocritical, like a public school master berating his charges for their ‘dirty thoughts’. Thankfully though, it is the former aspect that predominates in Terrence Fisher’s film, a thoroughly enjoyable affair that sets out to define itself as ‘the quintessential, old-fashioned witchcraft movie’ with such Victorian vigour that witchcraft movies made ten years before it end up looking modern by comparison.

One of my favourite scenes in all cinema has to be the one here in which The Duc de Richleau and his allies watch from a distance as evil sorcerer Mocata’s coven carry out their black mass on a starless Walpurgis midnight. Partly because their polite, fully-clothed ‘orgy’ is such a gas, but mostly for the moment when our heroes look on in disbelief as a giant, horned figure – “..the Goat of Mendes… the devil himself!” – rises at the climax of their ritual. I mean, that’s motherfucking SATAN, standing right right there guys! No messing around! And how do our heroes respond but by hitting the accelerator and driving their motor-car RIGHT AT HIM. Physical manifestation of the lord of all evil, pah - run the bastard over, that’ll sort him out! I can only assume it is the sheer, true-hearted bravery of our protagonists, rather than the hurled crucifix, that gets the job done, making The Horned One cut his losses and quit the scene in a puff of smoke.

It is this wonderful, bloodyminded literalism that I love above all about “The Devil Rides Out”. Faced with the prospect of trying to represent magical conflict and the evocation of demons in a movie, Fisher and co bypass all the go-to techniques usually brought in to make such subject matter palatable – excessive atmosphere, implication and subtlety, ‘monsters of the id’ style psychological peril, psychedelic freakout etc. – and instead misstep the audience by doing the last thing anyone would expect: giving it to us straight. There is something incredibly unsettling about the way the horrors of Mocata’s bestiary simply *appear* at his command, centre-screen in full light - a shock that mirrors the way one might actually feel if suddenly confronted with a boggle-eyed imp or a giant, spectral tarantula. The sequence that see The Duc and his allies under attack from the forces of darkness within their chalk circle is one of the most effective ever seen in a supernatural horror film – a masterclass in building tension and dread from almost nothing whatsoever. Whatever you do, DO NOT STEP OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE, or you will be lost. Rarely has the idea of cringing before the forces of goodness and light and promising not to be naughty seemed so tempting.

If Christopher Lee as The Duc initially comes across as a rather self-satisfied and bullying character, what with his dictatorial pronouncements, his haughty attitude to servants and his tendency to beat his friends about the head and kidnap them if he disapproves of their social life, he more than rises to the occasion when the supernatural shit starts to hit the fan – the very personification of stern, benevolent authority, with more gravitas than the cliffs of Dover. I’m not Lee’s biggest fan, but he’s great here - enough so to make me wish he’d had the chance to play good guys more often.

Although given a more low-key role than villains are usually allotted in a Hammer picture, Charles Grey too is excellent as Mocata – a casting decision that in its own way is as unusual as making Lee the good guy. Not in any way the kind cool, aspirational face of villainy more common to witchcraft movies, Grey cuts a chubby, smirking, manipulative figure – closer perhaps to the face of an actual ‘60s/’70s occult huckster. And, whilst we’re on the subject, I’ll also throw in a good word for Nike Arrighi – a striking actress who manages to turn the nothing-role of Tanith into a really engaging presence here, her demure looks and mannered performance placing her in a whole different universe from Hammer’s usual buxom beauties, and making her character all the more intriguing as a result.

For all that I enjoy it though, it must be admitted that there is a deep current of anachronistic imperialism, even flat-out racism, running through “The Devil Rides Out” that many modern viewers might find distasteful, beyond just the sight of our comfortable, independently wealthy heroes and villains cruising between country houses in their fleets of unfeasibly speedy and reliable motor-cars. I’m not usually one to try to project social consciousness onto a film that never asked to be judged on such terms, but the presence of a few black extras who are seem milling around whenever Mocata’s coven meets is a strange and completely unnecessary inclusion (perhaps trying to imply some spurious connection between Western witchcraft and African ‘hoodoo’, or merely warning us that people who consort with other races are not to be trusted), and it is hard not to read at least some sub-text into the film’s first supernatural manifestation, which sees The Duc and Rex Van Ryn reduced to stunned terror by the spectre of a semi-naked black man impudently grinning at them (“for God’s sake, don’t look into its eyes”).

But as noted, these few weird missteps aside, I find the old fashioned tone of “The Devil rides Out” perversely comforting. The staunch moralism always present in Fisher’s films is given perhaps its ultimate expression here, and, together with screenwriter Richard Matheson’s characteristically thoughtful approach to ‘us & them’ story dynamics, I feel that “The Devil Rides Out” succeeds in giving a more elegant expression to Wheatley’s dusty bluster, conveying a more genuinely humane take on the battle between good and evil. This is beautifully illustrated when Sarah Lawson’s Marie boldly steps forward to reclaim her daughter from Mocata’s altar, calling out the creepy Satanists not in the name of God, but of that which they truly lack and fear, that which ultimately separates our upstanding heroes from them - love without desire.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Masque of the Red Death
(Roger Corman, 1964)

“The doctor dances in the white room… but I passed close by him. Truly Prospero, do you not know me?”

Until I acquired a new copy on DVD last year, I’d built up “Masque of the Red Death” to near-mythical status in my own mind, based on catching it randomly on TV a few years ago – an event that was perhaps responsible for triggering my whole love of ‘60s gothic horror. The rich, overwhelming colours, the swirling shapes of the dancers, the suffocating, decadent evilness of the whole venture – Corman’s vision may have had little to do with the blacks and blues and empty, echoing stone chambers that Poe’s writing has always communicated to me, but on its own terms it was a real aesthetic mind-blower – a mixture of psychotropic ‘60s excess and esoteric medieval grue in Hollywood drag, fusing the core themes of Poe’s story to the more extreme accruements of its own era, like, I dunno, Kenneth Anger meets Torquemada on the set of a ‘Robin of Sherwood’ movie or something.

So naturally when it came to revisiting it, my expectations were high. And as ever with high expectations, I was slightly disappointed. Having familiarised myself in the meantime with the work of Mario Bava and Terrence Fisher, of Rollin and Margerheti and all the other masters of weird cinematic gothic, “..Red Death” made less of an impact on me than it did the first time ‘round. Nicolas Roeg’s dazzling colour-coded cinematography and Daniel Haller’s otherworldly art direction seemed somewhat less dazzling and otherworldly. Having decided that I tend to prefer Vincent Price in tragic/sympathetic roles, his portrayal of the amoral Prince Prospero, though still excellent, seemed to lack that certain something that characterises his very best performances. The metaphysical pronouncements of the emissary of the Red Death began to sound less eerily profound, more like some of yr hastily pulled together AIP mumbo-jumbo.

Of course, that’s what happens when you build things up to gigantic proportions over time. If not approached as a life-changing masterpiece, “Masque..” is merely a really, really excellent example of a technicolor era gothic, with a first class cast incorporating at least four members of the official Breakfast in the Ruins Weirdo Horror Hall of Fame, a heavy, oneiric atmosphere, an luridly imaginative script and superb production design. The film’s big set pieces – Prospero’s opening visit to the village, Juliana’s dream-sequence and blood-pledge to Satan, the manifestation of the Red Death and the closing Dance of Death – are all breathtaking.

And, all other considerations aside, we should remember: this is a film in which Patrick Magee is hung from the ceiling dressed in a gorilla suit and set on fire by a dwarf. If that doesn’t guarantee a film a place in my top 20, what would?

Monday, 20 December 2010

Return of the Living Dead

(Dan O’Bannon, 1985)

“I don’t know how to tell you this Ernie, but those things in the bags aren’t weasels…”

The OTHER big horror/comedy classic of 1985, “Return of the Living Dead” is the kind of movie that it’s easy for horror fans to take for granted, but also the kind that I think it deserves more love than it’s possible to give it.

Back when I did a deathblog for Dan O’Bannon last year, I said;

“What can I possibly say about ‘Return of the Living Dead’? For all my love of the strange and wonderful and poetic and obscure in cinema, if you were to feed me enough beer and ask me about the elements that go together to create a GREAT MOVIE (as opposed to a good film), ‘Return..’ is pretty much the dictionary definition. For any Halloween “get drunk and watch movies” type party, it’s always the number one choice, now and forever – satisfaction guaranteed for horror freaks and innocent bystanders alike. Frankly, I think the fact the guy who directed ‘Return..’ died without a long and illustrious string of directing credits to his name speaks very poorly of the human race as a whole.”

And that still stands I think. The banter and three stooges capers of Burt and Frank and Ernie are little short of genius – honestly some of my favourite comic acting in any film. Giving those guys equal screen-time to the identikit dopey teenagers is a masterstroke, but the film’s tongue in cheek fake ‘punks’ are a riot too, a great parody of the kind of ludicrously unlikely ‘teen gangs’ who were routinely rampaging through cheap American movies at the time. O’Bannon’s script is a wonderfully smart piece of work - by all accounts completely reinvented from the straight-laced attempt at an alternative NOTLD sequel submitted by John Russo. O’Bannon’s addition of humour to the mix functions in much the same way it did for Southern & Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” script, opening up the material to endless new freedoms and possibilities for grotesque, self-reflective fun – a comparison perhaps reflected in the welcome introduction of some absurdist cold war satire into proceedings here.

Whilst it may be tons of goofy, drunken fun, “Return..” certainly isn’t stupid, and I think the streak of nasty, pitch black wit running through it (Ernie’s spine-chilling dialogue with the captured zombie, Burt’s final phonecall to the military, the doomed ironic ending) has a lot to do with how well the movie stands up today. Add plentiful, imaginative gore, a genuinely engaging zombie survival showdown, and The Cramps, The Flesh Eaters and Roky Erickson on the soundtrack and I think you’ve got a pretty much perfect rollercoaster of an endlessly rewatchable good time horror movie. For any friends you’ve got who don’t like watching horror movies, I think this is the best one to bring over to try and and show them what they’re missing.

(Stuart Gordon, 1985)

“..and what would the note say, Dan? ‘Cat dead, details later’?”

In this country as least, it is safe to say that Bruce Robinson’s script for his film “Withnail & I” has permeated the social lexicon to such a degree that quotations from such may be employed, sparingly and in appropriate circumstances, without fear of embarrassment or misunderstanding. Try as I might, I can’t shake the irrational urge to try to employ Dennis Paoli’s script to Stuart Gordon’s “Re-animator” to similar effect, however ill-judged and ineffectual I know such an effort would be. The film’s dialogue, and more particularly the cast’s delivery of it, carries I think a sense of the same timeless, blackened wit as Robinson’s script, but alas, at the end of the day I suppose modern life simply doesn’t provide enough opportunities to bust out with “you’re not even a second rate scientist”, or “don’t expect it to tango, it’s got a broken back”. Modern life’s loss. If I were some obnoxious jock medical student, or an obnoxious horror convention attendee, we’d be having a gas with this stuff I’m sure. But as it is, I’d at least like to think that “Re-animator”s lack of conversational universality doesn’t in any way diminish the film’s winningly twisted charm.

Only last month, I was wasting space here talking here about Stuart Gordon’s background in theatre, and the corresponding importance his best films place upon tight scripting, memorable characters and strong performances – well, obviously “Re-animator” is the prime example. Not only was it the first film Gordon made after leaving his theatrical career behind, but allegedly he was pretty much forced to resign in disgrace from the Organic Theater company which he had helped found in Chicago, such was the collective disgust of his colleagues at the idea of their director trying to make some dough via a low budget horror film. I don’t know whether or not aforementioned snooty colleagues actually went to see “Re-animator”, but the joke’s on them if they did, as the considerable success Gordon’s film has achieved is driven as much by a hard-won sense of theatrical craftsmanship as it is by nasty ideas and eye-popping gore effects.

Think about it: you’ve got a cast that’s essentially limited to five characters, their personalities and relationship to each other all carefully established and ready to kick off. You’ve got a witty, fast-moving, dialogue-driven script, two or three simple, unspectacular locations, and five really good actors. Dynamite. “Re-animator” could have worked brilliantly on stage, and the old fashioned solidity of it’s execution as a movie is doubly refreshing in the midst of a genre that so often cruises by on visceral thrills, visual weirdness, wafer-thin characters and sloppy, illogical story-telling. Of course, stage plays rarely feature shovel decapitations, intestinal strangulation and mutilated undead cats, which at heart probably has a lot to do with why I’m not writing my ’25 favourite plays’ here, but so, er, yeah – “Re-animator” is win-win on that score really.

Above all, the success of the film is in the characters and the cast, and how many ‘80s horror movies can you really say that about? I’m assuming you’ve probably seen it, so I don’t have to tell you that Jeffrey Combs is the stuff of legend, that David Gale as Dr. Hill is one of the all time great villains, that Bruce Abbot and Barbara Crampton manage to invest their traditionally dull “normal” roles (always the anchors that drag down a good gothic or Frankenstein movie) with a rare degree of depth and likeability. It says a lot that I made it cheerfully through both of Bruce Yuzna’s objectively-quite-poor sequels and thoroughly enjoyed them, such was my happiness at seeing Herbert West and Dan Cain and Dr. Hill back in action, getting up to further necrotic mischief.

Like I say, you’ve probably seen “Re-animator”. You probably don’t need me to tell you how great it is, how perfectly pitched Gordon’s mixture of black humour and genuinely disturbing nastiness is, how well paced the film is, and how, unlike the sequels, it knows exactly where to stop, and never spoils the brew by letting things boil over into silliness. It is the modest little horror movie that does *everything* right, and it is heartening that its killer rep as a fan favourite reflects that. “Who’d believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!” Ha, ha, yeah… it’s all in the way he tells ‘em I think.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Forthcoming: Rollinades

Further to the rather inadequate tribute to one of my favourite directors found below, I was thinking that next year, it might be good to undertake a kind of ‘overview’ of Rollin’s work here, and as such I’m going to try my best to write something about one of his films, say, roughly once a month during 2011.

Despite the fact that his first four vampire movies are very much the cinematic holy grail for me, Rollin made a lot of extremely strange and interesting films that extend far beyond the common view of him as “the guy who makes the sexy vampire movies”, so I will try to concentrate in particular on some of the less well known entries in his filmography. Hopefully it will be learning process for both of us, as there are still quite a few of his ‘minor’ works that I’ve yet to get around to watching, and hey, it’s likely that won’t be desperately trying to shift their warehouse surplus of all those Redemption DVDs forever, so now seems a good time to catch up and complete my collection.

In the meantime, Top # 25 Horror Movies count-down will be recommencing imminently – let’s just put this week down as ‘compassionate leave’.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Jean Rollin
(1938 – 2010)

Taking an unavoidable break from the #25 count-down, it is my sad duty to pass on the news that Jean Rollin died yesterday, at the age of 72.

Hopefully Rollin will need no introduction for regular readers of this blog, but either way, I’m too taken aback right now to really pull together the kind of grand tribute he deserves.

His films are certainly not for everyone, and that’s fine. But on behalf of those who have been touched by his work, let’s just say: thank you M. Rollin, for the dreams, the stories, the strangeness, the beauty. To myself and many others, you were one of the greats.

I had plans for tonight, but instead I think I’ll stay in, and return to where my Rollinomania began about five or six years ago: with a glass of wine and an old Redemption VHS of “Requiem for a Vampire”, complete with ridiculous fetish-porn cover photo. It was an astonishing and beautiful thing that happened when I pressed play.

Here is a quote from Tohill & Tombs’ “Immoral Tales: Sex & Horror Cinema in Europe 1956-1984”, p. 173;

“As a kid of seventeen Rollin came to England. One day he found himself, as you might expect, by the sea – in Bexhill of all places. He met a girl there and he kissed her goodbye on the beach. ‘And I have never forgotten her,’ he says now. Of course he hasn’t; she’s there in almost all his films. At their best they are expressions of just that sort of moment, when our lives seem to belong to us. When we feel the enormities of all possibilities that stretch out before us.”

So long Jean, and thanks for the memories.

Most of the images in this post – from “Le Viol Du Vampire” (1968), “La Vampire Nue” (1969), “Le Frisson des Vampires” (1970), “Lips of Blood” (1976) and “Lost in New York” (1989) - are sourced from Jeremy Richey’s Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience. You can read Jeremy’s tribute to Rollin here.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Astro Zombies
(Ted V. Mikels, 1968)

Ed Wood? Doris Wishman? AMATEURS (or perhaps even worse, PROFESSIONALS). With “The Astro Zombies”, Ted V. Mikels gives us the absolute zenith of ‘60s trash cinema, standing proud in its rejection of rudimentary film-making logic, its defiance of all human reason.

Do not ask why this or that shot was included in the film. Do not ask why all this is happening, or what any of it is supposed to mean. As soon as you starting questioning what you are seeing, you will be lost. And yet the questions remain.

Why do the opening credits play out over footage of some toy robots and tanks in a quarry, accompanied by a soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded straight off an old war movie? What exactly is it that separates these ‘Astro Zombies’ from, say, a crazy dude with an impractical rubber mask on? What ARE those police guys in the head office that looks like someone’s living room with a world map hung on the wall talking about? How exactly does that guy using an oscillator to make a brain in a cake tin wobble prove that “one man’s thoughts can be transmitted directly to the brain of another”, and how does that then lead him directly to the notion of “building quasi-men to undertake interplanetary space flight with a steel skin that makes it impervious to micro-meteorites”? How does their conversation then manage to turn to the recent ‘mutilation murders’, which they decide “cannot be coincidental”? Was Wendell Corey reading his lines off a crib sheet on a table just below the bottom of the frame? And did they have to poke him with a stick to stop him falling asleep? Was it really necessary for that one sequence, in which John Carradine repairs a bit of his mad scientist apparatus by taking a small piece of circuit board out of a metal drawer and then slowly putting it back in again, to go on for, like, five minutes, complete with technical close-ups of utterly fake, purposeless objects? Come to think of it, why did they put such effort into building so much elaborate mad scientist gear and showing it all to us at length when none of it is really interesting or noteworthy in the slightest? And what is WITH that hunchback assistant guy anyway? Who’s the girl in the bikini who spends the entire movie politely chained to a slab in their lab, for no apparent reason? Why is it night, and then day, and then night again, and when that guy takes his girlfriend home to bed, it’s like midday again, only there are grasshoppers croaking away deafeningly? Does that means it’s night, or does it mean the Astro Zombie is close? What are those sort of weird, echoplexed burblings and rumblings and tape hiss noises that seem to play in the background throughout this whole movie? And am I the only one who finds them strangely soothing? Why don't ALL films have these noises?

(..pause for breath..)

What kind of crazy-ass foreign government uses a team of undercover agents consisting of Tura Satana, a knife-wielding Mexican gangster kid and a big, dumb Tor Johnson type guy in a porkpie hat? Furthermore, can I go and live in that country, wherever it is? Why does the sky keep changing colour? How can I even pass comment on the hero-guy’s plan to apprehend the Astro Zombie by sitting a pretty girl in a room and waiting until it turns up to get her? Has anyone ever actually managed to make sense of the sequence where those guys chase each other around a crummy looking swimming pool until Tura Satana shoots one of them? Where on earth did she get those astounding outfits? How awesome is the bit where the Astro Zombie ‘recharges’ itself by sticking a torch on it’s forehead and sprinting home? How can one movie manage to pack so many hare-brained schemes and baffling notions into eighty minutes and STILL find time for so much joyously interminable ‘point the camera out the car window’ suburban travelogue footage? And hold on, wow, are you telling us that thing’s supposed to be a severed head?

Remember: there are no answers. Like Jehovah himself, “The Astro-Zombies” is what it is – as inscrutable and astonishing as a transmission from another galaxy.

I know what you’re thinking: maybe Ted V. Mikels can explain what the hell his thinking was when he made this thing. Well, you remember that scene in the nightclub that looks like a country club steakhouse, where that guy is interminably demonstrating a cocktail party magic trick to the other characters while they watch that really terrifying looking stripper do her thing? You remember how the stripper was being accompanied by a bare-chested middle-aged man, frenziedly beating a pair of bongo drums? Meet Ted V. Mikels.

You still wanna ask him questions? I thought not. So seriously, just try to sit back and go with the flow, as Ted takes you places you’ve never been before, shows you patterns and colours and weird, scrunched up faces that are rarely seen by those in full command of their faculties, spits in the collective faces of taste, decency, physics, and the laws of cause & effect, initiates you into the exquisite pleasures of utter boredom, and even lets you play with his robots.

“One of the all-time worst”, said Weldon in the Psychotronic Guide, but I’d like to think he meant it affectionately.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Driller Killer
(Abel Ferrara, 1979)

Ha, wow. Awesome. Whatever happened after that title card I probably would’ve loved it, but what does happen is more strange and exhilerating than anyone probably could’ve expected - a definitive piece of punk rock film-making to rate up there with “Repo Man”, “Liquid Sky” or “Night of the Living Dead”. “Driller Killer” is the only serial killer movie on this list, and it is difficult to put into words why it appeals to me so much. By rights, this should be a disgustingly indulgent ego trip on the part of Abel Ferrara, and in many ways it is. But like all of his better subsequent films, “Driller Killer”s ostensibly depressing, obnoxious, maddening surface somehow opens up to reveal a film that is utterly inspired, magically transformed by that oblique, furious energy that Ferrara-on-form always brings to proceedings.

Oh, but what an incredibly STRANGE film this is, moreso than the relatively cut n’ dried likes of “Bad Lieutenant” or “Ms 45”. I always enjoy it, but I can never quite get an angle on it. The standard line here is to point out that “Driller Killer” is not really a horror movie as such, but a personal, quasi-documentary headfuck of a film about life on the fringes of the art world in New York in the late ‘70s, with all the slasher shit thrown in as a tongue-in-cheek bonus to help secure financing and to get the movie some notoriety/distribution.

But, necessary though that observation may be for any newbies renting this one expecting “The Toolbox Murders” or whatever, the logic of it never *quite* sits comfortably with me. As jarring and ridiculous as all the driller killin’ may initially seem, crowbarred into the mumblin’, slice-of-life un-drama of the film’s wider post-Warhol, post-CBGBs era whole, Ferrara definitely ain’t making no fucking cissy art film here – the whole thing is slathered in vicious, cheap imagery, fast edits, rock n’ roll and total sleaze, all parachuted in straight from the grindhouse. Which is great! Thematic/emotional commitment, beautiful, harrowing street-life footage AND manic trash craziness – that’s a combination I can live with. After a few viewings (I know, I know), I started to treat “Driller Killer” as a comedy, and that is the approach to the material I would definitely recommend for optimum enjoyment. You may have this pre-established idea that “Driller Killer” is some grim exploration of urban alienation and psychosis, but seriously: put it on, keep thinking “THIS IS A COMEDY”, and you’ll have a pretty good time.

Ferrara’s performance as Reno is so over-the-top with all his alienated New Yorker mannerisms, it’s just flat out hilarious, and I love the way that rather than suffering from any serious psychological dysfunctions that more traditionally tend to lead characters in movies to take up mass homicide, he’s basically just really grumpy. I mean, ok, so his relationship with his old lady’s not going too smoothly, his neighbours are making a godawful racket, his flatmate bugs him, and he doesn’t wanna pay the phonebill. That doesn’t exactly make for a perfect weekend, I’ll admit. But I daresay dear reader that you and I have probably dealt with similar issues at various points in our lives, and have probably managed to resolve them without even considering the possibility of running around the streets ventilating hobos with a powerdrill. Not our Reno though. No, he JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE, MAN! He’s GONNA SNAP! I mean, what other choice does he have..? It’s like tuning into an episode of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ where Tony flips out and starts beating everyone to death with a hammer.

And, squalid and sickening as they may be, the killings themselves just crack me up – less real crimes, they’re more joyous acts of self-righteous catharsis – Billy Liar mind-machinegunnings on a bloody, mass scale. So much more random and beserk than the carefully mapped out, heavily fetishised murders we’ve become accustomed to in a million Giallo and slasher flicks, it’s hilarious to see Reno just running around the streets in an uncaring rage, plunging his drill in the general direction of whoever gets in his way before charging off to cause more mayhem. And I love the fact that at no point does he even *consider* that the police might be looking for him – the film presents New York as a city in the grip of such terminal despair that you can wander around murdering people for the hell of it in the middle of the street and no one will even bother clearing up the mess, let alone try to stop you.

So many great moment of bizarre, deadpan humour in this film – I love the scene where he eats all the pizza (no explanation needed), or the ‘foreshadowing’ bit where Reno helps Pamela drill a hole in the door, and they’re all like “so you wanna hole to go here, or here, or over dere?”, “uh, I think I wan one dere, NO – over there” and so on, without either of them raising the issue of why she’s just got up in the morning and suddenly wants to drill a hole in the front door.

“Tony Coca-Cola” makes for a wonderful big-mouthed rock star asshole, who oddly doesn’t get drilled despite being the character in the movie you immediately wanna strangle, and his band’s rehearsal / concert sequences and the power struggles in the strange cult of groupies that follow them are fucking beautiful punkoid footage, at times becoming so involving it almost takes over the whole movie.

Oh yeah, and what IS that whole sequence at the start where Reno goes to the church and encounters that strange old man all about? It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie whatsoever! But it’s a stunning scene, a great opening, a really unusual introduction to our central character, so I don’t much care. I’m guessing Ferrara just thought likewise after whatever reason he’d had for filming it fell out of the script, so he left it in. Good attitude!

Above all though, I love the caption card that closes the film –

You still wanna tell me it’s not a comedy?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

I Drink Your Blood
(David Durston, 1970)

“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acidhead. Drink from his cup! Pledge yourselves! And together we’ll all freak out!”

You said it, Horace Bones! What a great way to start a movie.

“I Drink your Blood” began life when appropriately-named producer Jerry Gross hired David Durston, a veteran TV/sexploitation director with notable counter-cultural sympathies, to come up with some ideas for a bloody, modern horror movie – something new that would bypass gothic/supernatural hokum and capitalise on the recent success of “Night of the Living Dead”, in terms of both graphic violence and, hopefully, box office.

Durston had some ideas alright, and idea number one was RABIES. Idea number two was on the front of Time magazine and his name was Charles Manson. Idea three was BLOOD and BLOOD and LSD and SATAN and MORE BLOOD and…. well anyway, Durston wrote a script, Gross flipped out and reached for his chequebook, Durston was given a free hand to cast and direct the film himself, and the rest is history (or crazy person exploitation movie history, at least).

The story Durston came up with for the film has been reiterated thousands of times, in plot synopses, capsule reviews etc, but such is its fiendish, crack-brained singularity, I think it bears repeating:

Horace Bones, played by charismatic Indian dancer Bhaskar, is the leader of a Satanic hippie cult, The Sons and Daughters of Sados, who have decided to pitch up in a remote town in Upstate New York. The town is practically deserted thanks to a big new dam project which has claimed the land, with the few remaining inhabitants staying on to cater for the attendant construction workers. But such isolation naturally doesn’t stop Horace and the gang finding people to give a hard time to, and after they assault a local girl and dose her granddad with LSD, a chubby, sour-faced youngster named Pete decides enough is enough and concocts his own unique form of revenge: drawing infected blood from a rabid dog he shot dead in the woods, he injects it into a batch of meat pies and sells them to the hippies for their dinner.

Hilariously, the film assumes that people infected with rabies would instantly transform into psychotic, wild-eyed killers who flee in terror at the sight of water, and so obviously one thing leads to another, and before you know it, berserk, bloodthirsty Satanists are staggering across the countryside leaving a trail of mayhem and dismemberment in their wake, mixing it up with an army of foam-gargling, machete-wielding rabid construction workers as an increasingly small number of uninfected characters scatter in panic, trying to get the hell toward the end credits of this f-ed up movie as fast as their square little feet can carry them.

Seemingly unaware or uncaring of the ‘sizzle not the steak’ maxim of exploitation film-making, Durston’s film barely lets up for a minute, delivering mad, unforgettable characters, stomach-churning bad taste yukks and random, inexplicable weirdness on an almost conveyer belt-like basis, spiralling off the deep end into a tornado of ever-increasing craziness, until it feels as if the film itself has been infected with rabies. As David Szulkin puts it in the liner notes accompanying my DVD copy: “just when you think Durston can’t push the delirium any further, somebody drags a dead goat across the screen… or an old man in long underwear pukes up his dentures while being strangled… or an electric carving knife strays from a side of ham with disasterous results… or… well, you get the picture.”

For its era, the violence in “I Drink Your Blood” is pretty extreme. I’m not usually at all squeamish about on-screen violence, but there is one moment here that has me covering my eyes and whispering “ah, no, please don’t go there..” every time I watch it. But they do go there, time and time again. Instead of the squalid, torturous viewing experience you might reasonably expect from a film like this though, “I Drink Your Blood”s masterstroke is that it manages to convey such an irrepressible sense of good-natured joie de vivre even in its grimmest moments, drawing us into a spirit of gleeful, blood-soaked abandon, reminiscent of a twelve year old boy in art class, happily scribbling sprawling vistas of carnage as his teacher looks on appalled. Rarely has the liberating, anarchic power of wanton violence been so purely evoked. As Jadine Wong’s Sue-Lin says at one point, as if pre-empting the movie’s critics; “fear and blood are signs of life, not death!”

It helps of course that the film is extremely well made: bright and energetic and fast-moving, imaginatively shot and tightly edited, full of lively, intense performances – a world away from the amateur hour HG Lewis gorefests that were its only real precursors – and executed with a sense of dry wit and intelligence throughout, despite some clunking dialogue and soap opera acting from the non-hippie characters (“rape is a little outside the field of an engineer, dontha think?”). It is not without a sense of wonder that one can look back after a viewing of “I Drink Your Blood” and realise that, despite the abject lunatic stupidity of the storyline, the film actually manages to NOT be at all misogynistic or reactionary, or even all that sleazy – quite an achievement for a 70s drive-in flick full of sex-crazed psychotic Satanists!

Animals may arguably get a rougher deal, but that’s probably an issue best left for another day (in short, Durston sez: no freakin’ way, I didn’t hurt any animals in my film, audience sez: yeah, sure, so all those dead rats and that freshly slaughtered goat were just conveniently lying around, were they? - Chances are, if you’re the kind of person who’s already watching a movie like this you won’t be too put out, but hey, a warning never goes amiss.)

Many commentators have tried to read a deeper social significance into “I Drink Your Blood”, based on its occasional vague stabs in the direction of race and gender issues, anti-Vietnam protest and freaks-vs-squares rhetoric, but to quote Szulkin again, “any resemblance to a master’s thesis is purely coincidental”. Better just to enjoy the movie as exactly what it is: one of the most deliriously entertaining, unashamedly nasty, purely whacked out b-movies ever made – no message, no meaning, no apologies. As the ad-libbing sheriff whose men arrive to clean up the mess concludes: “Well, what can ya say… at least it’s OVER.” Roll credits.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Valerie & Her Week Of Wonders
(Jaromil Jires, 1970)

Sorry folks, I honestly can’t think of a single coherent observation to make about Jaromil Jires’ folk-gothic-adolescent-poetic-Vampire-fairytale at the moment, but… well it’s just wonderful really, isn’t it? Like a great psychedelic rock album turned into a film, it’s the kind of thing one obsess over, get lost in. Another one of those films that makes you wish you could claw your way through the screen and live in its world of strange, earthy beauty. Absolutely unique – there is a richness to it that positively demands multiple viewings that I wish I had time to give it. You should see it if you haven’t already.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, it IS a horror film because it’s got vampires in it, and Redemption released my copy. END OF.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Fog

(John Carpenter, 1980)

“So I never hitchhiked before, and I just wanna be careful. Can I ask you something?”
“Are you weird?”
“Yes. Yes, I am weird.”
“You’re weird? Thank god! The last ride I had was normal it was disgusting..”

There is something irreducible about The Fog – a simple story strongly and imaginative told, it inhabits a self-defined world oblivious to criticism. It is a slower, gentler and more visually expansive film than we would have expected from John Carpenter in 1980, and one of very few modern(ish) American horror films to zero right in on the kind of ‘comforting eeriness’ that forms such integral part of the appeal of the kind of older, ‘weird tales’ horror that the fim quietly references throughout. A beautiful communal viewing experience, “The Fog” plays as a mass media-era equivalent of the campfire ghost story so memorably narrated by John Houseman in the film’s opening.

A digression: can only speak for myself here, but I’ve always hated that Stephen King-birthed style approach to American horror stories that started to become prevalent through the ‘70s and ‘80s, wherein our story is seen to take place in a normal, healthy suburban community which is threatened by some malign outside influence. I mean, like I could give a crap whether Suzy and Bobby can get to school safely, or whether sinister occult forces are out to undermine the sanctity of marriage, or any of this other OH NO, THREAT TO THE STATUS QUO bullshit! I’m here to hang out with the weirdos! No, what I like are horror stories in which the world itself is weird - in which time and space seem frozen in some strange interzone in which the conflict or threat seems to grow, or return, from the surroundings that nature or humanity has built for it, rolling in as naturally as, well.. the fog.

I’m not sure whether I’m explaining myself very well, but this is something that is returned to time and time again in the films that appear further up this list, and it is a feeling that Carpenter captures perfectly through the town of Antonio Bay in “The Fog”.

Imagine if you will, a perpetually off-season Northern California coastal town, full of dark, empty streets, cheaply-built beach-houses stretching out into the bay. Businesses failing from a basic lack of people to patronise them, but continuing nonetheless, running on empty cos the rents are so low. Nautical knick-knacks, weather stations on the cliffs. Everyone is friendly, but kinda suspicious with it. Adrienne Barbeau is a single mother who runs a radio station that broadcasts out of a lighthouse, playing anonymous, jazzy muzak through the dark hours of the night. As the only DJ, she chooses to run the station through the night, and shuts it down during the day, for some reason. Janet Leigh is the mayor. Sailors and harbour officials look out to sea and talk boat-talk. Nobody ever really seems to do any work, and everyone is very vague about the concept of, y’know, leaving.

If you’re thinking “I wanna live there” then join the club. Come on over and and we’ll watch “The Fog” together. Rarely have I seen a more perfectly inviting mini-universe built up in a film, a place I’d be more inclined to walk straight through the screen and become part of. Dark secrets and vengeful ghost pirates notwithstanding, I wanna take a ride out to Spivey Point right now.

So many of the elements compiled in “The Fog” help to define a certain, strange strain of horror that I love, but that I don’t really have a name for. The isolation, the coastal setting. The disembodied radio broadcasts, severed communications, fragmented narration. The weird, highly localised folklore. Figures emerging from/returning to the sea. The lighthouse. These things move me wherever they turn up, but, oddly, we’ll be seeing every single one of them again in another film higher up the list – a film made before “The Fog” that I think is even better. I don’t believe the similarities are anything more than completely coincidental, but in some ways they are truly uncanny, as if the two were tapping directly into the same nexus of imagery and atmosphere…

Anyway, I could happily list the many, many qualities of “The Fog” all day long, but I’m sure that would be surplus to requirements. Should you ever find your faith in john Carpenter slipping, just consider that he made this – a film about vengeful ghost pirates so great that the vengeful ghost pirates are the least good thing in it.

For further elucidation, I direct your attention to this great piece written by Erich Kuersten of Acidemic earlier this year. I concur with all points made, and for some reason had never previously clocked the uncanny parallels to “The Birds”.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Dunwich Horror

(Daniel Haller, 1970)

“When the seasons, and the cycles of the moon were right, then they came, one by one, and gathered among these stones. They selected a beautiful girl like you, and with their black robes blending into the night, they lit candles and gathered round… and then they waited… they waited for the moment when she would allow the powers of darkness to enter her… the moment when the gate would open and The Old Ones would come through… and a strange chant echoed in the night… Yog… Sothoth… YOG… SOTHOTH!”

I know, I know – Cronenberg and Fulci don’t make the cut, and yet this load of old hoo-hah is on the list? What gives? Well, to begin at the beginning: when I started reading (and by extension, reading about) H.P. Lovecraft as an impressionable teenager, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that there was little point trying to track down the various movies that had been made based on his work. Perhaps with the notable exception of the not-terribly-Lovecraftian “Reanimator”, word was that they were all godawful embarrassments – commercialised, watered down bowdlerisations of the master’s work undertaken by men with little interest in, or understanding of, the material they were adapting, with this 1970 AIP version of “The Dunwich Horror” being singled out for particular scorn.

And in many ways, the Lovecraft scholars were perfectly correct – arguably, there has still never been a film that has successfully captured the essence of the Cthulhu Mythos stories (the name of Lovecraft-film blog says it all really). But, taking off my po-faced Lovecraft fan hat (or sinister, diamond-encrusted tiara, I suppose) and putting on my trusty Weirdo Movie Fan fedora, I’ve got to admit that having now watched just about all of those much-maligned Lovecraft adaptations, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all on at least some level. If rarely leading to anything you’d file as an outright ‘classic’, a Lovecraft-based script almost always seems to lure ostensibly sane filmmakers over the hill into uncanny valley, inspiring the creation of some inexplicable, oddball films that trip themselves up in a rush to sidestep traditional horror tropes and find something eternally strange and confounding instead. Precisely the kind of films we like to watch around here in other words! “The Shuttered Room” with Oliver Reed, “The Haunted Palace” with Vincent Price, “Die Monster Die” with Karloff – all are well worth tracking down, but “The Dunwich Horror”, helmed by long-time AIP/Corman art director Daniel Haller, is the daddy of them all.

From one of AIP’s best ever animated credits sequences, to Les Baxter’s deranged ‘Black Mass in a tiki lounge’ score, to the heavy dosage of horny ‘70s pop-Freudianism, to Sandra Dee’s post-Manson naked hippie bloodlust nightmares, to endless freaky psychedelic lighting effects, a Shaw Bros style magical shoot-out finale and the erstwhile star of Gidget squirming in ecstasy with a copy of the Necronomicon between her legs on a storm-ridden cliff top altar set that looks like some it’s fallen straight out of an opium vision, I can only really quantify “The Dunwich Horror” as a hurricane of utter weirdness.

And who better to stand at the centre of this garish tempest than Dean Stockwell, in a career-best performance as the sublimely creepy Wilbur Whateley, using his questionable charms, piercing warlock-gaze and hypnotic pinky-finger wiggling to lure former beach movie queen Sandra from the confines of Miskatonic University back to the night-haunted backwater of Dunwich? Stockwell and Haller actually manage to build Whateley into a very compelling and funny character here – a self-made young master of the occult who has grown up in isolation and transcended his lowly hillbilly origins through sheer force of will, his book-learned charm mixing with an egotistical fixity of purpose to mask a poor lad who’s probably never had a chance at a proper, human relationship in his life.

As in Lovecraft’s story, the outside of the Whateley residence is a fetid, backwoods shack, but when Stockwell leads Dee inside, the scene changes to a kind of opulent, gothic entrance hall, full of esoteric murals and glowing, geometric oddities – presumably bought through mail order or painstakingly built by Wilbur himself, whilst Sam Jaffe as his embarrassing old granddad sits in the corner muttering (they have a kinda ‘Steptoe & Son’ thing going on). Perhaps my favourite moment in the whole film is when Wilbur graciously offers tea to his guest, and we see him duck through a side door into a crappy looking tract house kitchen, burning his fingers lighting the stove with a match, before he returns in majestic style with an oriental silver tea-set on a golden platter.

Then we’ve got cop movie/western veteran Ed Begley (you WILL recognise him) playing a Dr. Henry Armitage who acts as if he’s spent more time rubber-hosing informants in ill-lit basements than perusing obscure works of medieval theology in the Miskatonic library, and snigger if you will, but when the indescribable invisible creature in the Wheatley attic is eventually unleashed, I think the approach taken by the filmmakers is actually pretty effective, mixing scenes of terrified, shotgun-wielding villagers searching the woods and hills for an unknown adversary with treated stock footage of rivers overflowing, trees collapsing, undergrowth being flattened by high winds etc. Sounds unbelievably stupid on paper I know, but as handled here in tandem with gratuitous sub-2001 light show FX, I think it’s a pretty decent a way of filming the unfilmable. Oh, and Lovecraft’s dreaded whippoorwills calling home the soul of mad Lavinia Whateley is a beautifully creepy touch too – a great scene in the middle of all this raving buffoonery.

Not many people seem to like “The Dunwich Horror”, but I found it an absolute joy – a profoundly unheimlich artifact sitting right at the crossroads of so many things I love, and executed with such an unremittingly crass sense of wrong-headed inspiration – I can’t help but love it.