Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CRUISING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

CRAWLSPACE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SKIN I LIVE IN


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD

Bill Philputt, 2011
Starring: Jules Brenner, Don Calfa, James Dalesandro, Clu Gulagar, James Karen

“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”

I am probably the worst person to write a review of anything Return of the Living Dead related because I have no ability whatsoever to be objective. I grew up watching and loving the first three films with the original still remaining among my favorite films of all time. As far as I’m concerned, it’s high time someone made a documentary about this wonderful punk-rock zombie comedy that has since become a cult classic.

And what a documentary it is. Clocking in at well over two hours with all the special features, it is chock full of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, photos, art and answers to any question you could possibly have about Return of the Living Dead. There are interviews with all of the surviving cast and several of the crew members. Actor Brian Peck (Scuz), who kept himself involved with the Return franchise over the years, narrates. Actress Beverly Randolph (Tina) co-hosts some of the special features with Peck and also acts as the documentary’s executive producer.

Obviously it’s appealing to any Return fan, but even if you have a passing interest in horror or want to learn more about how films are made, More Brains will be of interest. Despite its long running time, it flies by and was clearly a labor of love from every person involved. The amount of information packed in is a little mind-blowing and at times feels a little unorganized with everyone clamoring to give their opinions, but this usually feels more like a strength than a weakness.

I am generally uninterested in special features, but these are actually very enjoyable. There are featurettes about the making of Return 2 and Return 3, a filming locations featurette, a music video, deleted scenes and, the icing on the cake, director/writer Dan O’Bannon’s final interview. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I cried, but I definitely teared up at the end. Even though he could apparently be a bastard on the set, he was a great man and made many wonderful contributions to the horror genre. He will be missed.

More Brains is available on DVD from Michael Perez Entertainment and was created by the same team responsible for Never Sleep Again, the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary.

I also had the good fortune to talk with Return of the Living Dead actress and More Brains executive producer Beverly Randolph, who answered a few questions about her experience with the film and the documentary.

Satanic Pandemonium: How did you come to be involved in the documentary as an executive producer?

Beverly Randolph: I had started a previous documentary on The Return of the Living Dead with a co-star but had a difference on how it was to be edited. Michael Perez thought it might be nice to have Thommy Hutson of horror documentary fame have a go at it. We all agreed and proceeded with More Brains. Clearly the right choice!

SP: What was it like to be submerged in the Return of the Living Dead world again after so many years?

Randolph: It was great fun! Everyone was in communication again after such a long time. I have been in touch with quite a few crew members and a lot of cast members already but to expand beyond that was pure joy to me. The cast already keeps together by doing signings and appearances all around the country. We truly are like a big family. I must say too, that it was like going to therapy! Getting all of the bad stuff out and finally telling what really happened. It felt good.

SP: One of my favorite things about More Brains is how enthusiastic and heartfelt everyone seems when they talk about their experiences on the Return set. What impact did it have on your life?

Randolph: It made me want to run from show business! I now know that what happened to me was not "the norm." At that time it scared me quite a bit. The impact on me now has made me want to jump back in to the film business with both feet. Going to all the conventions and appearances are so rewarding. The people we meet are the nicest fans/friends. It makes you feel so fortunate.

SP: I feel like any question I could ask about your work on Return of the Living Dead has already been answered in the very thorough documentary, but is there anything you’d like to say about it?

Randolph: Without crying this time... I would again like to thank all the wonderful fans. Without their warmth and kindness, our ride would have been over a long time ago.

In addition to Beverly Randolph’s kind words, I managed to squeeze in a second, more behind-the-scenes interview. My love for horror and sci-fi is apparently genetic. My uncle, Drew Deighan, was lucky enough to be cast as Ambulance Driver #1 in Return of the Living Dead, which you can learn about in More Brains. I was lucky enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the experience.

SP: I wanted to interview you because you're my uncle and you're awesome, but also because I always think it's interesting to get perspectives on filmmaking from some of the fringe cast/crew members. Namely people who got a bird's eye view of the situation. Were you involved in any other parts of the production than just Ambulance Driver #1?

Deighan: Short answer, yes. Longer answer: I was originally hired to be a "stand in" which is an actual job where you stand around, watch what the real actors are doing during the blocking of the scene and then when they all go away to eat jelly beans, snort coke or shoot craps, you move to those spots (marks) for the Director of Photography who then lights the scene accordingly. As a result, I was on the film for the entire shoot, every day, all day and saw EVERYTHING. I know where all the bodies are buried -- figuratively, literally, and politically. I was also one of the zombies that first come up out of the ground after it starts to rain and it's my hand that's the first hand you see coming up out of the ground. Essentially I was the "utility infielder" for the whole shoot and would up doing quite a few things, some of which I don't like to talk about because of how it scarred me psychologically.

SP: Can you talk about what that process was of acting as a zombie coming up out of the grave was like?

Deighan: They had built a fake hillside from wood on location to act as the graveyard and even filled certain parts of it with "edible mud" - at least they told us it was edible but that might have just been bullshit to keep the squeamish from complaining too much. By the time they got ready to shoot that scene, (there weren't any of the cast scheduled for that night -- they were just shooting the zombies) and the art department/set decorator guys asked me if I wanted to be a zombie. Being a "hand to mouth" actor at that point, I said sure, cause it meant another day's work (I wasn't on the call sheet for stand-in work that night). When the DP, Jules Brenner, found out I was going to be there as a zombie, he also made the command decision that they'd use me to be the close up hand that first comes out of the ground as well. As far as "acting" and "process," even though I was a classically trained actor who'd attended the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, I wasn't putting a whole lot of thought into what my character motivation was ("find brains and eat them?"). Basically it was "don't F up the shot," an "let's try and do it right the first time cause it's cold, they're using fake rain and we all want to get clean and dry as quickly as possible." After it was all over and I'd emerged from the fake hill in full zombie make up and zombie costume from inside edible mud with 30 other zombies, and everyone cold, wet, tired and completely covered in mud, I looked at one of the art department girls and said, "Well, I guess I can add that to my list of things I don't ever need to do again."

SP: On a scale of one to ten, how much fun was it to get eaten by zombies?

Deighan: Zombies only rate a 4, cause after the initial excitement of finding a meal, they're kinda just plodders. Now... your werewolves? Much more style and gore. I give them an 7 easy, maybe a 8. Getting flayed and then munched on by a Balrog is probably the pinnacle of being consumed by something that's nasty. Just ask Sir Ian McKellen.

SP: Do you have a specific favorite memory of making the film?

Deighan: Yes. We had just moved indoors to shoot at a converted warehouse in Simi Valley and no more night shoots. Everyone was hoping that Dan O'Bannon would not be as big a tool inside in day time as he had been outside at night. Sadly, that was not the case and he somehow managed to be an even bigger ass. Anyway, we were shooting a scene with almost the whole cast/crew present and he was just being a full-on Richard Cranium (much more advanced form of Dick Head) and everyone wanted to kill him. Anyway, somehow I would up with a water pistol in my hand and decided to have some fun. I squirted Dan a couple of times for the cast - all of whom seemed to know that I was doing it. Never got caught, either. Stand In 1 - Dan O'Bannon 0.

SP: Everyone who grew up watching Return (as well as some of the cast members, it seems) had a major crush on Linnea Quigley. So far I've heard nothing but positive stories about people working with her in various films. Can you talk at all about what she was like on set?

Deighan: My memory was that she was very quiet and very sweet -- but as I was pretty much a nobody on the set, she had no real reason to talk with me anyway. Also, she was pretty punked out for the film and, as punk chicks were never really my type, I didn't pay much attention - at least until the night we shot the scene where "Trash" decides to get naked. Linnea had a smokin' hot body, and that night anyway, she definitely had my full attention.

SP: One of the things that makes the documentary so enjoyable is that all the cast and crew, almost thirty years later, talk about how great it was and their amazing memories of the film. Why do you think this small film, which has obviously grown over the years, was so impactful for the people who made the film?

Deighan: The people making the film were amazingly wonderful, very professional and extremely interesting and talented people who all banded together even more closely than they ordinarily might have because Dan was consumed with being such a dick most of the time. People remember making the film so fondly I think because it was a little like going to sea with Captain Ahab and we knew we all needed to pull each other through. At the time we were shooting, Hemdale (the production company) was also making another little film called "The Terminator." During the shoot, the producers (Hemdale was producing both films) thought that both could be somewhat successful but weren't sure which one would pull ahead - thus reinforcing my belief in William Goldman's statement that "no one in Hollywood knows anything." Beyond that, for me personally, even though they made some great films in a very short amount of time, Orion went bankrupt in 10 quick years and so, financially, other than SAG scale I've never seen a dime (no real residuals for the actors, cause you can't get blood from a turnip). Frankly, I had no idea that the film had become such a cult classic -- at least until Beverly Randolph called me up out of the blue a few months ago and told me that the producers wanted me to be in the documentary.

SP: You should have asked me! Finally, can you say something about what it was like to work with Dan O'Bannon? He will be missed sorely by horror fans everywhere.

Deighan: Um... you mean something nice? Seriously I think he was a marvelous writer and obviously has the writing credits to back that sentiment up. As a director, though, he floundered around and didn't really know how to express to people what he really wanted and would then very quickly became frustrated and start taking out his own inability to communicate effectively on other people by bullying and belittling them. Other than that, I'm sure he was probably a good conversationalist among people he considered his friends.

Thanks Drew and Beverly! Send more paramedics...

Originally written for Cinedelphia.

THE CAT PEOPLE (1942)


Jacques Tourneur, 1942
Starring: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph

A truly wonderful horror-noir hybrid that comes highly recommended, Cat People is a collaboration between director Tourneur and famed writer/producer Val Lewton and is one of the best American horror films to come out of the '40s.

Irena, a Serbian fashion designer, has a chance meeting with Oliver when she is at the Central Park Zoo drawing the black panther. They strike up a close bond and begin to fall in love. Irena explains her heritage to Oliver. She is believed to be descended from Serbian witches who could transform into cats. They were killed by the Christian King John, who drove them from the villages to live in the mountains. Oliver thinks she is merely suffering from a combination of paranoia and superstition, but Irena makes it clear that she is afraid sexual passion is the inciting element that will make her transform into a murderous beast.

They marry anyway, but Irena refuses to consummate the marriage. At first Oliver is patient, but encourages her to see a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, Oliver and his assistant Alice are growing closer and Alice admits that she loves Oliver. Irena becomes jealous of Alice and follows her home one night. Irena refuses to let go of her delusions. The situation worsens when Oliver tells Irena he loves Alice and wants a divorce. Can Irena let Oliver and Alice go? Is she psychologically disturbed or is she really a satanic feline?

I can't say enough good things about The Cat People. It is sad, subtle, scary and compelling and I am loathe to give away the ending of the film. It was Lewton's first production in a long line of classic '40s and '50s horror films for RKO and is a perfect blend of his writing talent and Tourneur's noir-influenced visual style. The Freudian and even post-Freudian interpretations of sexual repression and an intense blend of desire and fear comes across powerfully through Simone Simon's Irena. She is sinister, yet sympathetic and we spend most of the film hoping she can overcome the power of belief and suggestion -- yet she cannot. Simon gives a hypnotic performance, despite the parlor-room acting usually exhibited in '40s cinema.

Please watch this film at the first opportunity you get. It's available as part of a two-film single-disc DVD from Turner with its loose sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. I recommend the entire Val Lewton box set, which comes with a number of other great films. Keep in mind there are two versions of this and the more recent edition has an extra disc with a Scorcese-produced documentary on Lewton.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE CRIMSON RIVERS


Mathieu Kassovitz, 2000
Starring: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Nadia Fares, Dominique Sanda

It was too much for me to resist. A French serial killer film starring two of my favorite actors, the inimitable Jean Reno and the sassy Vincent Cassel. I knew that there was no way this could actually be a good film, but I was stuck on the couch, hung over, and Comcast On Demand led me down a bad, bad path.

Fancypants Detective Niemans (Reno) is investigating a murder at an old, prestigious university in the middle of the French Alps. A corpse has been discovered with severed hands and removed eyeballs. Evidence leads him to the glaciers and he seeks out the help of Fanny, a glaciologist at the university. Nearby, free-spirited and lower ranking Detective Kerkerian (Cassel) is investigating the desecration of a local girl's grave. The two detectives are reluctantly drawn together as their case gets bloodier -- and much more confusing.

This movie actually makes no sense. Whatsoever. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that it's not really a serial killer movie, instead, it has to do with a conspiracy about scientists at the university doing genetic experiments. I feel totally flummoxed and have no idea what to say about it. It's not really a good film, so I can't recommend it, but I almost want other people to see how much of a ridiculous, nonsensical mindfuck it is. It's been a long time since I've seen a film that doesn't attempt to explain anything and instead spends the duration of the running time focused on three key things. First, the film revels in how awesome Reno and Cassel are and essentially lets them wander through the set pieces doing completely cool but implausible things. Second, a lot of attention is paid to the gory dead bodies and The Crimson Rivers really makes an effort for them to be disgusting and to live up to its title. Finally, there are many shots of the sprawling, magnificent scenery. If there is a reason to watch this, the shots where Reno and Fares go down into the glaciers is it. It's truly breathtaking.

The Crimson Rivers is entertaining, but in a big dumb action film sort of way; there are even some great fights and chase scenes. It's more of a thriller than a horror film and is based on a novel of the same name by Jean-Christophe Grange, who actually co-wrote the script. I wonder if it made any more sense to him?

If you do decide to watch it, make sure you track down the Sony DVD. Do not, I repeat DO NOT watch it on Comcast if that option is available to you. For some reason, probably because Americans are stupid, they decided to dub the film into English. The three leads all dub their own voices, which is bizarre but OK. Everyone else is dubbed with these horribly generic American robot voices that probably made the film see much more ridiculous than it already is.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE HAUNTING (1963)


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

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

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

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

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

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

CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)


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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NINTH GATE


Roman Polanski, 1999
Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigneur

I have an almost obsessive love for the films of Roman Polanski, but, as they say, the buck apparently stops here. Despite its issues, I still think the film is worth viewing, particularly if you want to watch something satanically themed. It's also a much better film than the somewhat similarly-themed The Devil's Advocate.

Based on Perez-Reverte's novel The Dumas Club, The Ninth Gate follows the career of morally-questionable rare books dealer Dean Corso (Depp). He is hired by the very wealthy Boris Balkan (Langella) to track down all three copies of a rare book supposedly written by the Devil himself. The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows is a seventeenth century tome with few surviving copies. Balkan wants Corso to track down the two remaining copies in Europe and persuade their owners to part with them. At the very least, he wants Corso to carefully compare the books and the engravings printed in them.

Corso is reluctant to set out on this adventure, but can't turn down the money. He immediately meets with resistance in the form of sultry widow Liana Telfer (Olin), whose dead husband sold her copy of the book to Balkan. She will do anything to get it back. Meanwhile, Corso keeps running into a strange woman (Seigneur), who seems to be some sort of guardian angel. Can he track down all the copies and keep his life at the same time?

While the plot is interesting and the film definitely has its worthwhile moments, for the most part the character of Corso is so slimy and unlikable that it's hard to keep a solid focus on him for the duration of the film. Though Polanski is usually excellent at maintaining audience interest in nebulous, unlikable, or mentally unstable main characters, it just doesn't work here. Depp does give a good performance, as does everyone else. I have a passionate love for Frank Langella, who gives a no-holds barred performance as Balkan. He makes the film worth watching, though Olin and Seigneur also put in a good effort.

It's hard for me to totally reject this film, even though I know it was almost universally reviled. It has beautiful set pieces, old books, Satanic lore, and a black mass. It's also convoluted and slow moving, but if you go in with the right expectations, you might be entertained. Do not, at any cost, make the mistake of assuming that this is Rosemary's Baby II. If you do get around to watching it, Frank Langella's performance at the end of the film is truly terrifying.

There's a region 1 DVD from Lion's Gate worth tracking down. If you like Polanski and slow-burning historical mysteries, please give it a shot.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Top 10 Haunted House Films

In my opinion, it’s impossible to celebrate Halloween without watching at least a few haunted house films, preferably before a trip to the local haunted house. Unfortunately, this is a pretty popular horror sub-genre, so it’s easy to get stuck with a lot of garbage. And I mean a lot of garbage, particularly if you get sucked into the trap of watching recent supernatural films (Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you). I know there’s an audience for this type of junk, but they will never replace classic ghost films. Here is a rundown of my favorite ten, in case you need somewhere spooky to start this season. I also went a bit overboard and included a few dozen honorable mentions.
1. THE CAT AND THE CANARY (Paul Leni, 1927)
Not only is this a good place to start for a haunted house film fest, but you could have your very own Cat and the Canary themed marathon, because it has been remade several times throughout the years. An adaptation of a 1922 play of the same name by John Willard, the film is more of a black comedy than an outright horror film, but is still a delightfully creepy classic horror effort. I know it isn’t technically a haunted house film, but falls more into the “old dark house” sub-genre where malevolent figures sneak around spooky mansions frightening or killing people with a motive of financial gain. In this film a young girl (Laura La Plante) inherits her uncle’s fortune and she and her surviving family members are stuck in the mansion with a menacing figure. Nearby, a crazed criminal called “the Cat” escapes from an asylum. I also highly recommend the 1979 Radley Metzger remake with Honor Blackman.
2. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, 1944)
Starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, The Uninvited tells of a brother and sister that discover an abandoned seaside estate on the English coast that is up for grabs for a surprisingly low price. The man’s granddaughter, Stella, is upset by the sale of the house, but Rick (Milland) is attracted to her and allows her access. Unfortunately, the house is not as charming as it first seems and they begin to experience a number of chilling disturbances. It becomes clear that the hauntings have a sinister connection with Stella and her dead mother. One of the first Hollywood films to take supernatural activity at face value, rather than as a stand-in for crime or psychological disturbances.
3. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (William Castle, 1949)
Though this film doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the others on this list, it was one of my favorite Vincent Price films as a kid. Directed by the great William Castle, schlockmeister and king of the gag, this is a worthy addition because it combines, humor, scares, mystery and murder, as well as an excellent performance from Price. If you want to visit with Castle further, this makes a nice double feature with another haunted film of his, 13 Ghosts. Both films have been remade within the last ten years and the newer versions should be avoided at all costs.
4. THE INNOCENTS (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Based on one of my favorite horror novella’s, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is an effective mixture of psychological horror, sexual repression and the suggestion of supernatural evil. Deborah Kerr’s Miss Giddens is hired as a governess on a Gothic-looking British estate despite her lack of experience to look after the niece and nephew of a wealthy man on the prowl (Michael Redgrave) who wants little to do with the children. While Miss Giddens is at first charmed by them, it turns out that the dead former governess and dead valet were involved in a number of violent and lewd sexual behaviors that they might be supernaturally passing on to the charming Flora and her brother Miles. Is Miss Giddens losing her mind? Or are the children in danger of a supernatural menace? As a note of interest, the lovely cinematography is provided by Freddie Francis, a regular director of Hammer and Amicus films in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as cinematographer for David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Dune.
5. THE HAUNTING (Robert Wise, 1963)
Based on Shirley Jackson’s terrifying The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting concerns a group of paranormal investigators who spend a few nights in a haunted mansion. The head of the group, Dr. Markway, thinks the house will help him prove his theory that the supernatural exists. He brings a skeptic, who is also to inherit the house (Twin Peaks’ Russ Tamblyn), as well as two women with the supernatural in their pasts. Eleanor, one of the women, seems to act as a conduit for the house with unpredictable results. Truly one of the most atmospheric and haunting (no pun intended) films in existence.
6. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, 1973)
Starring Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall, this is another excellent haunted house film based on a famous novel, Hell House; in this case both the novel and screenplay were written by the great Richard Matheson. A physicist investigates the very haunted mansion of disturbed, now missing or deceased millionaire Belasco, who was known for his many perversions and for a violent massacre at his home. The physicist, Barrett, and his wife are accompanied by two mediums. Barrett is hoping to clear the house with the aid of a machine he has built, but soon the house begins to turn them against each other and they descend into a psychosexual orgy of violence and repression.
7. BURNT OFFERINGS (Dan Curtis, 1976)
A creepy film improved by the performance of a saucy (and probably sauced) Oliver Reed, Burnt Offerings is based on a novel by Robert Marasaco and tells of a family who rent a mansion for the summer for a suspiciously low price. Ben (Reed), his wife (Karen Black), his son, and an aged aunt (Bette Davis) are delighted at the summer in store for them, but they don’t realize that the accidents occurring with increasing regularity are connected to the house’s growing psychic strength. Very understated, effective and bleak, Burnt Offerings definitely had an influence on later haunted house films like Amityville Horror. Look out for a deranged Burgess Meredith.
8. HAUSU (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
For some reason this is only one of two non-English language films on the list, but it is well worth straying off the beaten path. As far as I know, there is no other haunted house film so insane and psychedelic that by the time it’s over, you’re going to feel like you ate an entire field of mushrooms and washed it down with some acid-tinged Kool-Aid. A group of high school girls go on summer vacation together to visit the long absent maternal relations of Gorgeous (yes, that really is her name). They meet her strange, wheel-chair bound aunt, who lives alone in the spooky family mansion and has an equally strange, possibly magical cat. I can guarantee that you’ve NEVER seen anything like it.
9. THE CHANGELING (Peter Medak, 1980)
My favorite haunted house film, which stars the wonderful George C. Scott as a grief-stricken composer who rents a Victorian mansion in Seattle to get over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. The mansion is haunted by the ghost of a murdered child, a particularly violent and vengeful one. Scott begins to unearth connections between the child and an old, wealthy family in the area. If you’ve never seen this film, you’re not likely to forget the creepy scenes with a ball bouncing down the stairs and a wheelchair rolling forward on its own.
10. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
The second foreign language effort and the only recent film on this list, The Devil's Backbone is an effective period piece by del Toro about a boy abandoned by his father at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The orphanage has a large, diffused bomb in the center of the building and its fair share of ghostly happenings in the halls. There is a crazy plot involving hidden treasure and child murder, but it is atmospheric, well done and genuinely scary in parts. It was released in the same year as the Nicole Kidman-vehicle, The Others, though this is the superior film in every way.
Of course I have a few runners up:
THE ENTITY
(Sidney J. Furie, 1981), about a woman who gets raped by a spectral presence.
CASTLE OF BLOOD
(Antonio Margheriti, 1964), in which a writer takes a bet from Edgar Allen Poe that he cannot spend a night in a haunted mansion.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK
(Herbert Wise, 1993), based on the terrifying novel of the same name, this creepy made-for-TV British film is about a solicitor who goes to clean up an isolated old house and gets more than he bargained for.
GHOST STORY
(John Irvin, 1981) somewhat improves Peter Straub’s novel and concerns four elderly gentleman (including Fred Astaire!) who gather together to tell ghost stories. The scariest story, however, is their darkest secret that will soon come back to haunt them. Literally.
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS
(John Hough, 1980), not strictly speaking a haunted house movie, it concerns an American family who moves into an English manor house. The two daughters become obsessed with the mystery of a missing girl many years before, a girl the same age and appearance as one of the daughters. The woods seems to be haunted and they get sucked deeper into the increasingly weird and unsettling mystery.
No, I didn’t mention any of the Amityville or Poltergeist films. If you haven’t already seen any of them, I’m flabbergasted. I also didn’t mention The Shining, which I still regard to be the scariest movie of all time. It’s a staple of the genre, but is also something everyone should already be savvy to.
I also didn’t mention a handful of films that you absolutely have to watch at some point this season, one of my favorite sub-genres, the haunted house comedy. Namely I’m talking about older supernatural classics like the Don Knotts’ vehicle The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, and my personal favorite, High Spirits -- all precursors to contemporary favorites like Beetlejioce, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II (though admittedly none of the earlier films have Viggo the Carpathian). For good measure I also think I should mention a romantic comedy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which stars the very grumpy Rex Harrison as a deceased sea captain terrorizing a single mother who moves into his seemingly abandoned cottage.
Happy hauntings!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Top Thirteen Satanic Horror Films

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

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

Friday, September 30, 2011

DREAM HOUSE

Jim Sheridan, 2011
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas

Going to see this film was not the best idea I’ve ever had. I’ve hated every single horror film to come out of Hollywood for at least the last ten years and, if anything, Dream House only intensified that hatred.

Theoretically, the movie should have had a shot. It was helmed by Oscar-nominated Irish director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) and has a star-studded cast with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as the lead couple and Naomi Watts and Marton Csokas as their neighbors. These are all capable actors and you would think that if I could handle watching the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX to see Marton Csokas, Dream House would be a walk in the park.

Not to be confused with the superior Korean film Dream Home, the plot vaguely rips off Amityville Horror, The Shining, and A Tale of Two Sisters. The film concerns a publishing exec (Craig) that moves his family to the New England suburbs to spend more time with them. They soon find out that several years ago a man murdered his family in their house. Is the house haunted? Is the killer still on the loose? Do I care?

No, not at all.

Dream House is crippled by its inane premise and the fact that it is a total failure in terms of script-established expectations, and, overall, is a boring mess. The film sadly went the way of one of my favorites, Tinto Brass’s Caligula, where the studio/producer ripped the film out from under the director and created, through the cunning use of bad editing, their own print. Except Dream House lacks the hardcore inserts that at least provide a few moments of stupid entertainment in Caligula.

You know things are bad when the director and stars refuse to do press to protest the lousy editing job the production company did. There wasn’t even a proper press screening. This may be due to the fact that the trailer gives away an important plot twist. Great job, Universal. I hope someone got fired for this.

I want those two hours back.

Dream House opens today in Philly-area theaters.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I love noir and detective novels, but have huge gaps in my bibliography, so I'm trying to go back and read some of the old classics. Dashiell Hammett is an obvious place to start and, as I love the film version of the novel, figured I would track down a copy of The Maltese Falcon and give it a whirl.

Sam Spade, the private detective who is The Maltese Falcon's protagonist, is probably my favorite literary detective I've come across yet. He is cold, rational, has a genius for detail and knows how to handle the ladies whether he's bestowing them with sexy caresses or slapping some sense into them. Like most anti-heroes, he also has a strict code of personal justice he adheres to, even when laughing in the face of the law.

Spade's new client is Miss Wonderly, who hires himself and his partner Miles to follow a man, Thursby, and her runaway sister. Miles turns up dead later that night and Thursby a few hours later, making Spade a suspect, partly due to his affair with Miles's wife. Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly is actually Brigid O'Shaughnessy and she was after Thursby, not a made-up sister. He also gets a new client, the slimy, effeminate Joel Cairo, who offers him a lot of money to find and return a black statue of a bird that has shown up in San Francisco but is allegedly stolen property. Cairo attempts to double-cross Spade, believing for some reason that he has the statue.

Spade puts two and two together and realizes that Brigid and Cairo are connected. He sets up a meeting for all three of them, which turns bad when Brigid and Cairo fight and the police show up. Spade realizes he is being tailed by an unpleasant looking young man whose boss, Gutman, is also offering to pay Spade for the statue. Gutman explains the statue's rich history, saying that it is potentially priceless. The situation continues to get murkier and more dangerous. Who has the figure? And who can Spade trust?

Hugely influential to the detective genre, this 1930 novel was originally published in serialized form in Black Mask magazine. The Maltese Falcon is tight, well-written and full of hard-boiled excitement. Though the general mystery is expertly put together, the strength of Spade's character alone could carry the novel. He's bitter, sarcastic and appears to trust no one, giving the book a heavy dose of misanthropy that characterizes the genre. Some of the other characters establish classic tropes like Cairo and Brigid. All are interesting and colorful. The plot is quickly paced and as things rapidly unfold you never know who to trust, including Spade, till the bitter end.

If you're looking for somewhere to start with hard-boiled detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon is the best place. There's a nice Vintage paperback available, though older editions of the novel are plentiful in used bookstores. Here's a great run down of the different editions. I also highly recommend the third film adaptation, The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.