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.