Friday, August 26, 2011


Alejandro Amenábar, 1996
Starring: Ana Torrent, Fele Martinez, Eduardo Noriega

I don’t deal well with the heat. As a result, going to movie theaters has become a habitual summer activity and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m willing to tolerate a lot more fluff than in the colder temperatures. I’m disgusted to report that while I've seen a number of entertaining bad action films, the only effectively scary movie I've seen all summer has been a rental of Amenábar’s excellent Tesis (Thesis), also known as Snuff. Released in 1996 and starring Ana Torrent and Fele Martinez, this was Amenábar’s award-winning first feature film. It cleaned up at the Goya’s, which are essentially the Spanish version of the Oscars, and received rave reviews in the Spanish press.

A graduate student, Ángela, chooses to write her thesis on violence in film and media, so she seeks out the help of her adviser and a fellow student, Chema, who is obsessed with horror films. Her professor locates a snuff film in the school archives and has a heart attack while watching it. Ana steals the tape and convinces Chema to help her get to the bottom of where it came from when they recognize a missing student in the film. Their nosing around draws them close to the heart of the mystery and within dangerous grasp of the murderer.

Tesis has a lot to offer. There is some capable acting, helmed by the lovely, wide-eyed Ana Torrent as Ángela. Her character is pitted against the awkward, antisocial Chema and the charming, handsome, but potentially dangerous Bosco. Ángela’s sexual desire thickens the plot and brings her self-destructive tendencies to light, namely when she begins to have violently sexual dreams about Bosco. There are also some delightfully terrifying moments that take place in either semi or total darkness in the bowels of the school. Not genuinely a horror film, Tesis is part thriller and part commentary on the obsession with violence, violent sexuality in particular, in the media.

With that said, this is not a perfect film. Though it is a great first effort, it is overly blunt in parts, particularly if you’re expecting any sort of complex philosophical analysis of the attraction to violence that brings so many of us horror nerds to the genre in the first place. It is a successful riff on the great giallo films of the ‘70s and reminds me of the better efforts of Brian de Palma, particularly Dressed to Kill. Amenábar deftly displays his excellent visual style, which includes numerous scenes of people watching and listening to media in a subtle, suspenseful way.

Coincidentally, at the dawn of the string of appalling Hollywood remakes of European and Asian horror films, Tesis was loosely remade as the dreadful Nicholas Cage vehicle 8MM, which you should avoid at all costs. Fortunately, Tesis has been re-released in a special edition DVD; it was out of print entirely too long.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Alfred Hitchcock, 1955
Starring: Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Mathers

Hitchcock's only true comedy, The Trouble with Harry is predictably a black comedy. A number of people in a small Vermont town each find a corpse and are convinced that they've killed him and must now hide the body. Harry, the corpse, is not particularly well-liked and is regarded by most of the townspeople as little more than an inconvenience.

Captain Wiles thinks he accidentally shot Harry while rabbit hunting in the woods and is the first to discover the body. A spinster, Miss Gravely, thinks she killed him, because Harry ran out from the bushes and attacked her, so she hit him in the head with a hiking boot. Harry's wife, Jennifer, thinks she killed him because they fought and she hit him with a bottle. They each discover the corpse in turn. Captain Wiles is determined to bury the corpse when Miss Gravely comes upon the scene. She thinks the Captain has intuited that she killed Harry and is burying the body for her. Jennifer and her young son discover him and are content to leave him in the woods. Sam, an artist, has a crush on Jennifer and is determined to help his friends however he can.

The foursome decide to bury the body, which later involves unburying it, moving it and otherwise trying to hide Harry from the police, who will simply not understand the situation. It turns out that Harry actually died of natural causes and everyone will live happily ever after. The respective couples, Sam and Jennifer, the Captain and Miss Gravely, have romantically paired off and Sam has sold his avant garde paintings to a millionaire.

I think my favorite thing about The Trouble with Harry is the incredibly whimsical attitude the townspeople have about death, romance and, above all, themselves. They are all weird, flawed characters who manage to come together despite their personality drawbacks and the corpse on their hands. The four actors have great chemistry, but particularly take note of a very young, feisty Shirley MacLaine. The film is based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story and is notable for being the first Bernard Herrmann score in a long and famous partnership between Hitchcock and the composer.

Though it comes highly recommended, it's an acquired taste. If you like quirky, black comedy this is for you, as the film is genuinely very funny. It would make an entertaining double feature with Arsenic and Old Lace, though the script and performances are a lot less flamboyant. The pastoral, homey nature of the setting is perfectly echoed in the script, so don't expect the fireworks and masterful suspense that mark most of Hitchcock's work. Here's the Universal DVD, which is pretty basic, but comes with an entertaining featurette.


Pete Walker, 1983
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine

It's truly a shame that this last gasp effort from a group of beloved horror legends has fallen into obscurity. Though it took me awhile to track down a copy, this is one of my favorite rainy-day movies and I recommend it to anyone who likes haunted house mysteries or anyone who wants to see Price, Lee, Cushing, and Carradine together one last time.

A snotty, young writer makes a bet with his publisher that he can write a creepy mystery novel in 24 hours. To achieve this, he rents an abandoned Welsh manor for the night, but he discovers, to his horror, that it is already occupied by the aged Grisbane family, ancestral heirs of the manor. The wizened Lord Grisbane (Carradine) has been living there with his daughter, but soon his sons Lionel (Price) and Sebastian (Cushing) make an appearance for a family visit. They are also interrupted by Mary, the publisher's secretary, who was hired to scare the writer in the middle of the night, along with a few other stragglers seeking shelter from the storm.

The somewhat decrepit family members finally admit that they have reunited to release their eldest brother, Roderick, who they have kept walled up in room because of a murder he committed as a youth. Roderick, as you may have imagined, has already escaped and bodies begin to pile up around the house. When everyone tries to leave, they discover that their cars have been sabotaged and they are forced to wait out the storm. Can they find Roderick before he kills them all?

You're going to have to brace yourself for a ridiculous ending, or rather three ridiculous endings in a row. The film is based on a book, The Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers of Charlie Chan fame, but someone should have stepped in and cut it off at the first, best ending. The script has its weak moments and definitely feels dated, but there are murky family secrets, hidden passageways, a dark, stormy night and some grisly murders. I was hoping the writer would get slowly tortured and then murdered, but no such luck. Price, Cushing and Lee outshine any of the other annoying characters and Price, in particular, is in top form as Lionel Grisbane.

Another amazing tidbit about this film is the fact that it's directed by Pete Walker, British master of nasty sex/exploitation/horror films from the '70s. This is a departure from the rest of his work, but it still has enough mean-spirited moments and brutal deaths to remind you who is at the helm. Strangely, it's Walker's last film to date.

Like I said earlier, it doesn't have the strongest script or acting, but it's clear that almost everyone involved had a really good time making this film. Track it down if you can. This is the VHS copy I have, though there are also bootlegs and torrents available.