Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PHANTASM II


Don Coscarelli, 1988
Starring: Angus Scrimm, James LeGros, Reggie Bannister, Paula Irvine

After a brief recap of the end of Phantasm, we come across Mike, now in his late teens and about to be released from a mental institution. His insistence that a Tall Man killed his brother and repurposed the bodies of the dead landed him there. He has also been dreaming of Liz, a girl Mike has never met, but is sure exists. After his release, Mike reunites with his friend Reggie and convinces him that the Tall Man is real and must be destroyed. They take Reggie’s Plymouth Barricuda across country and eventually find Liz, who shares a deep psychic bond with Mike. The threesome, along with a hitchhiker named Alchemy, try to stay alive and defeat the Tall Man once again.

This follow up to Phantasm reunites writer and director Don Coscarelli with stars Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm nearly ten years after the first film. I would recommend Phantasm II only to fans of the original — it’s not really an ideal introduction to the series, though there is plenty about it to enjoy. As with most ‘80s sequels, there is more of everything: more guns, chainsaws, mortuary equipment, blood, gore, cars, nudity, explosions, and even more of the Tall Man. There are also some great effects from the legendary Greg Nicotero and the gross-out factor is higher here.

This was Coscarelli’s biggest budget for a Phantasm film at $3 million, though at the time, it was Universal’s smallest budget for a film. This was somewhat of a double-edged sword for the series. Yes, things are bigger, but not necessarily better. The studio exerted some control, insisting that Coscarelli include fewer dream sequences and surreal elements; in other words, the things that made Phantasm so unique. But all of Don Coscarelli's films have moments of undeniable weirdness, from The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-tep to his latest, John Dies at the End, so never fear — the script doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and there are plenty of elements that might confuse viewers.

A controversy surrounding the film was the casting of James LeGros as Michael. I didn’t really have an issue with this. While this film was made nearly 10 years after the original and the first actor (Michael Baldwin) would have loosely been the correct age, it’s pretty standard to recast an older looking actor in a sequel if the original character was a child or young teen. He also works very well with Reggie Bannister. The acting and group camaraderie is on par with the first film. Reggie Bannister kicks even more ass here (miss that ice cream truck, though) and Paula Irvine (Doin’ Time on Planet Earth) is likable as Liz, who is a surprisingly welcome addition to Mike and Reggie’s little group. The group also wouldn’t be complete without the car — the Barricuda returns, but is sadly blown up. It’s still as sexy as ever, though and there is a car chase scene with some nice stunt driving. 

There are plenty of things about this film that don’t make any sense, though I can't help but love it anyway. While there are many jump scare moments and far more gore, this lacks the mood and atmosphere of the first film and it certainly lacks the sense of dread. We do learn more about the world, specifically that it’s the Tall Man’s pattern to travel to small towns and suck them dry, killing everyone and harvesting the corpses until he is ready to move on again. But for every detail Coscarelli reveals, he also raises half a dozen more questions.

Phantasm II was impossible to find on DVD for years, so Scream Factory’s recent Blu-ray release was a welcome addition to any horror fan’s collection. It has a number of great special features, including a commentary track and some interviews. Phantasm II comes recommended, despite its issues, and I love it nearly as much as the first film.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

PHANTASM


Don Coscarelli, 1979
Starring: Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm

Jody and his younger brother Mike are struggling along together after the death of their parents. Jody is planning to leave and send Mike to live with an aunt, which Mike fears and works to prevent. They are occasionally joined by their friend Reggie, a musician and ice cream man. After one of Jody’s friends is killed, Mike spies the mortician, an imposing, tall man, lift the coffin into the back of the hearse on his own. He tries to tell Jody about the strange events, but Jody will not believe him. Soon, they learn that something is happened with the dead bodies at the funeral home. They are all pursued by the terrifying Tall Man and his minions, and must struggle to survive.

If you haven’t seen Phantasm, there is no real way to do it justice without spoiling things. It is one of the most bizarre and sublime films of the ‘70s and absolutely must be seen by all genre fans. The film was truly an independent affair, with creator Don Coscarelli acting as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and more. He acquired funding from his family, effects, costumes, and make up were designed by his mother, and a cast and crew made up of friends and amateurs. The script was rewritten as shooting went along (on weekends for several months) and this, along with Coscarelli’s quirky editing, adds to the surreal, nightmarish feel.

Phantasm is the loose story of young Mike spying on trouble at the local graveyard and trying to keep his brother around, but there are many inexplicable events and little nonsequitors spliced in for a surreal, almost absurd effect. There are jawas from Star Wars -- the midgets the Tall Man crushes down and dresses in brown robes -- and even a scene right from Dune, where Mike sticks his hand into a box (presumably the gom jabbar is hidden somewhere) and is essentially told by an old, black-clad woman that “fear is the mind killer.” This is a film full of nightmare logic, where the sensory takes precedence before the rational or the linear.

The film successfully represents the fears of death and abandonment, as well as Mike’s struggles to emerge from childhood/adolescence into adulthood. He is able to act like an adult for much of the second half of the film, including scenes where he drives a muscle car, drinks beer, fires a gun, and uses other masculine tropes to defend his own life and the lives of his friend and brother.

Throughout the film, Coscarelli constantly declares that he is playing by his own rules, something he astonishingly accomplishes with Phantasm, despite such a small budget and inexperienced cast and crew. There are some very thinly written but incredibly endearing characters that drive the film on despite the odds. The performances from all three leads are strong, Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, and Bill Thornbury. Reggie Bannister is an amazing human being and deserves his own television series. The film is peppered with wonderful, memorable moments from all three, such as one of my favorites, where Mike mouths “what the fuck,” after he first spies on the Tall Man single-handedly lifting a coffin into the back of a hearse.

And let us not forget the great Angus Scrimm, who, despite his relatively small amount of screen time, is both memorable and terrifying. He doesn't do much to actual instill terror, other than leer menacingly at the camera, barely squeezing into the frame. He is perhaps the most iconic remainder of Phantasm, a symbol that even newbie or fringe genre fans will recognize.

Phantasm has it all: aliens, other dimensions, loads of inexplicable and supernatural events, convincing effects, plenty of gore, and more, as well as dizzying blend of dreams and reality that was an obvious influence on Nightmare on Elm Street. The plot remains intentionally unresolved in yet another example of Coscarelli boldly bucking convention. There’s also a nice score from Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave that is a little reminiscent of John Carpenter’s work. He does include some conventional scares, but gleefully abandons horror clichés and throws in the wackiest shit imaginable, including the iconic silver ball that flies around and drills into unsuspecting human heads.

Available on special edition DVD, Phantasm comes with the highest possible recommendation. Followed by Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), a fifth film was just announced, Phantasm V: Ravager. I can’t say I have high hopes for that one, though it’s always better than another horror remake. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

TOURIST TRAP


David Schmoeller, 1979
Starring: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts

A group of friends on a road trip are delayed when one of the two cars gets a flat tire. One of the guys, Woody, goes off to find a gas station, but it seems to be abandoned. When he explores, he finds a room full of mannequins and is mysteriously killed. Unaware, the rest of the friends – Eileen, Becky, Molly, and Jerry – go looking for him. Their car also breaks down and Jerry tries to fix it while the girls so skinny dipping. The owner of a local tourist trap, Mr. Slausen, finds them and they awkwardly explain the situation. He lets them look around his creepy museum while he fixes their car, but explicitly tells them not to go in his house. Disobeying him, Eileen goes in the house to make a call and is mysteriously strangled by her own scarf. Her surviving friends go looking for her, but find far more than they bargained for, including Slausen’s masked brother and a number of creepy mannequins who are more than they seem to be.

Though Tourist Trap borrows some elements from other horror films from the period – telekinesis from Carrie, teenagers lost in the wilderness from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, menacing dummies from Hatcher for a Honeymoon, human mannequins from House of Wax – it is absolutely one-of-a-kind.

Director David Schmoeller is also known for the insane Crawlspace (1986) with Klaus Kinski and his most well-known film, Puppet Master (1989). Tourist Trap is among the best of underappreciated ‘70s horror films and is one of my favorites. Robert A. Burns (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was responsible for the excellent art direction and some of the special effects, which are impressive despite the obviously small budget.

Atmosphere and the building sense of dread is where this film really excels. The mannequins are truly disturbing and have some haunting vocal/sound effects that will send some very real chills down your spine. The telekinesis element (I don’t want to ruin anything by explain it too fully) is awkward and pushes the film toward an unnecessary jaunt into the supernatural. On the other hand, it effectively adds to the overall sense of weirdness and utter unpredictability.

Though it might seem silly at times, with silly dialogue, characters making idiotic decisions, and more, make no mistake that Tourist Trap is full of genuinely creepy moments and takes its time to explain the horrors unfolding. It has a breakneck pace and some elements of satire or comedy, particularly where the telekinesis is concerned, but this works in the film’s favor. At times, it becomes cartoonish, almost a mash-up of old EC comics and episodes of Scooby Doo. This mixture of whimsy and menace, enhanced by the score, is part of what makes Tourist Trap one of a kind.

The acting is far from spectacular, but adds to some of the film’s unintentional humor and is easy to ignore; no one is offensively incompetent. Tanya Roberts (Charlie’s Angels) and Robin Sherwood (Death Wish II, Blow Out) are both nice to look at, but most of the other young actors were unknowns or B actors. Jocelyn Jones (The Enforcer) is laughable as the Final Girl, though Jon Van Ness (The Hitcher) is decent as one of the group of friends. Chuck Connors (Soylent Green, The Horror at 37,000 Feet) absolutely steals the film as Mr. Slausen, one of the most delightfully creepy characters in ‘70s horror.

Available on DVD, Tourist Trap comes highly recommended. Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) composed the excellent score, which is also a must-listen for horror soundtrack fans. Tourist Trap is also finally available on Blu-ray, but there is a controversy over a missing 5 minutes of the original run time. While it has some nice, new special features, including a commentary track from director Schmoeller, he has written online about how outraged he is that producer Charles Band inexplicably removed five minutes of the film. I would have to recommend the DVD over the Blu-ray in this case, particularly as I’ve heard that the print clean up wasn’t too extensive. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out this underrated gem. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

SHOCK WAVES

Ken Wiederhorn, 1977
Starring: Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, John Carradine, Fred Buch

A young woman, Rose, is unconscious in a small boat out in the ocean. She is rescued by fisherman and relates a the horrible experience she has barely survived. She was part of a group of vacationers out on the sea, including a surly Captain, his first mate Keith, a cook, and three other tourists. After the Captain has trouble with the boat — it eventually begins taking on water — they encounter an old, menacing looking shipwreck and heads towards a strange island. The Captain goes missing and they later find his dead body, presumably drowned. An old man living on the island helps them, but they are soon overwhelmed by strange, undead men. They discover that these men were a special unit of aquatic Nazi commandos, the highly trained “Death Corps,” who were eventually abandoned. They have returned for vengeance. 

The surviving members of the group make it back to the hotel to try to barricade themselves in. They are killed, one by one, drowned by the zombies, until just Rose and Keith, the second in command, are left, struggling to survive.

Though other Nazi zombie films have come and gone — Zombie Lake, Oasis of the Zombies, Frankenstein’s Army, the dreadfully bad Dead SnowShock Waves will always be the best. Though I’ve been a fan of this film for years, I never realized that it’s a U.S. production, probably because it has such a European sensibility. Shock Waves is something of a combination of the Blind Dead series and Fulci’s Zombie. It has Fulci’s tropical setting and boat travel, but Ossorio’s sense of dread and hallucinatory atmosphere that made his Spanish zombie series such a beloved cult classic.

Writer and director Ken Weiderhorn did a phenomenal job making this look far more expensive than it really was and there is a great sense of style throughout. Einhorn also directed Return of the Living Dead II, another excellent effort that is far better than it has any right to be. Actor, writer, and make-up artist Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things does the make-up here and frankly, his soaked, water-logged Nazis look great. They are decaying, but not quite in the same way as George Romero or Lucio Fulci’s zombies. 

The zombies don’t eat flesh, but drown their victims instead, making this pretty light on the gore. Though they become a bit repetitive, the scenes of the Nazi zombies hiding in pools, waves, and coves and suddenly emerges is incredibly effective and very stylishly shot. The underwater shots are absolutely beautiful, and even give Fulci a run for his money. Moody and understated, Shock Waves overcomes its illogical, messy script often enough that there are far more hits than misses. Richard Einhorn's electronic score is fantastic and, much like the Tombs of the Blind Dead’s score, is key to the terrifying atmosphere.

Horror veterans Peter Cushing and John Carradine are really the only big name actors in the film and they both give predictably wonderful performances. Cushing and Carradine have little more than cameos, but bring the full force of their respective talents into the film, without which it surely would have suffered. Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Luke Halpin (Mako: The Jaws of Death) also give decent performances.

Also know as Death Corps and Almost Human, Shock Waves is on DVD from Blue Underground, a nice release with some worthwhile special features. Both the release and the film come highly recommended, though I will admit that this is probably something of an acquired taste. But really — aquatic Nazi zombies.

Friday, April 25, 2014

MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH

Rene Daalder, 1976
Starring: Derrel Maury, Andrew Stevens, Robert Carradine, Kimberly Beck

David, the new kid in school, is quickly adopted by the school’s group of most popular and powerful boys, thanks to his old friendship with Mark, one of their members. Unfortunately the boys are bullies and terrorize the entire school. He begins to fight back on behalf of the other students, finally interfering when the boys try to rape two girls, along with Mark’s girlfriend Theresa. Tired of David’s interference, they sneak up on him while he’s working on a car. They drop the lift and break one of his legs, crippling him. He slowly, quietly recovers and privately vows to get revenge.

He kills off the group one by one, making each death look like an accident. He uses exploding hearing aids, a pipe bomb in a locker, one boy’s hang-glider crashes into a power line, another goes for a dark, late night dive and careens into an empty swimming pool, etc. Though he leaves Mark alone, Mark becomes terrified of David. Though there’s a brief period of reprieve and camaraderie at school, students quickly jockey for head bully position, and the reign of terror continues. Sick of the power struggle and endless cycle of violence and humiliation, David plants a bomb in the basement and decides to blow up the school during the upcoming dance.

Dutch director Rene Daalder was allegedly a student of Russ Meyer and certainly brings an element of exploitation to his second feature-length film after The White Slave (1969). Massacre at Central High is both a self-explanatory and misleading title. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill slasher film; it isn’t actually a slasher film at all, though it has something distantly in common with Happy Birthday To Me. While Massacre at Central High was an obvious inspiration for the later, more popular Heathers, this earlier film is darker, more nihilistic, and far more exploitative.

Somewhat bizarrely, the film opens with a hippie being bullied because he drew a swastika on a locker. This sets the tone for the film’s themes of rebellion, fascism, and brutality, which it portrayals frankly and honestly. The bad acting, awful dialogue, and sometimes silly combinations of sex and violence do not hamper the seriousness of these themes. Its tone has made Massacre at Central High something of a cult classic, one that will hopefully find a bigger viewership when it’s released on Blu-ray later this year.

The exploitative elements are relatively few and far between. There is some nudity, mostly in the form of David and Theresa skinny dipping at the beach and later during an implied threesome between three random students. Hilariously, there are no adults to be found anywhere and the actors playing high school students are clearly all in their 20s. Plenty of the death scenes – and bullying scenes, for that matter, including an attempted gang rape in a high school classroom – are completely absurd. Dialogue is clichéd at best and often seems improvised. But despite all these things, the film still works and is one of the (somewhat unsung) exploitation classics of the ‘70s. Though the acting is terrible, the cast is likable. Several minor genre actors like Andrew Stevens (The Fury), Kimberly Beck (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), and Steve Bond (The Prey) appear.

Massacre at Central High must be seen to be believed, and it comes highly recommended. David struggle against bullies and attempts to liberate the students and champion the outcasts quickly comes to naught. In a gruesome, nihilistic fashion, his solution is to kill anyone who gets in his way and continues the wave of violence and psychological terror. He quickly comes to learn that he’s just going to have to kill everyone to make any headway. Though a DVD of Massacre at Central High is available, I would wait for the Blu-ray slated to come out later this year from Cult Epics. I’m excited to see what they do with the print and the special features. It’s certainly high on my list of most anticipated releases of the year, though you should rush out and see it as soon as you can. This is definitely the type of celluloid insanity that could never be replicated in a post-911, post-Columbine America. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

GOD TOLD ME TO

Larry Cohen, 1976
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney

Lieutenant Peter Nicholas attempts to talk down a man high up on a building shooting people in New York City. He kills more than two dozen people before telling Nicholas that God told him to do it, and then flings himself from the tower. As more killers are found around the city with seemingly no motive other than “Gold told me to,” Nicholas finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. His own life is beginning to unravel thanks to his intense and closeted Catholic beliefs and the fact that he lives with his girlfriend, but is unable to divorce his wife. The more he uncovers about the investigation, all signs point to a mysterious religious figure and to Nicholas’s own murky background.

I love many of writer, director, and producer Larry Cohen’s films, including the It’s Alive series, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, etc. God Told Me To actually has a fair amount in common with Q. Both begin as police procedurals set in New York City and a surround a central cop figure, sort of an anti-hero or black sheep, who is the protagonist trying to solve a series of bizarre murders. To varying degrees, both films are deeply critical of organized religion and spiritual mania. While the murderers in God Told Me To claim that the Christian God told them to go out and kill people, the perpetrator in Q is a high priest obsessed with sacrificing people to bring back his God, the Aztec winged serpent, Quetzalcoatl.

Unlike Q, God Told Me To is deadly serious. There are some bad effects, very dated moments, and unintentionally funny scenes, but the film’s utter seriousness and sincerity – carried across by both Cohen and the cast – is part of what makes it so unique and so effective. Questions of identity, aimless murder, virgin birth, and alien gestation, haunt the protagonist, Detective Lieutenant Nicholas. He is a closeted Catholic; obsessed with his faith, he also feels intensely guilty about it and conceals it from his girlfriend. It also prevents him from getting a divorce and from totally abandoning his wife. This religious aspect also makes him take the killers, their crimes, and their alleged motive so seriously. Tony Lo Bianco (The Honeymoon Killers) is competent and suitably dark as one of Cohen’s signature cop protagonists. It’s easy to see how The X-Files’ Fox Mulder was modeled on Nicholas, as both men are antiheroic, guilt-ridden, and obsessed.

The other performances in the film are mixed, but mostly solid. Next to Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Barbarians) is the most memorable and is excellent as Nicholas’s adversary, a supposed messiah and cult leader. The pretty Deborah Raffin (The Sentinel) is likable as his girlfriend, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Sandy Dennis (976-EVIL) is somewhat menacing as his ex-wife and her role in his life isn’t clear for much of the film. Comedian Andy Kaufman appears in a very early role as a police officer who shoots a number of people during the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in one of the film’s most effective scenes.

It’s fair to say that there’s no one quite like Larry Cohen and there is certainly no other film quite like God Told Me To. With elements of the police procedural, apocalyptic cult movie, horror flick, and sci-fi film, this has tidbits of everything from The Night Stalker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Cohen’s own Q: The Winged Serpent, The Sentinel, and so much more. Cohen includes a diverse range of plot elements including religious mania, government and police corruption, aliens and spaceships, mass murder, and a serious amount of masculine and Catholic guilt. He even offers up an explanation for virgin birth, which, to this atheist, is equally as plausible as any other.

The plot is long, winding, and complex. If you miss more than five minutes of the film, chances are you will be utterly lost; either way a second viewing is probably necessary for a lot of people.  The film’s unpredictability may frustrate or confuse a lot of viewers, but I think that’s one of its finest points. Cohen’s treatment of religion seems silly at the first pass, but is really a brilliant moment of social satire. There are also some very effective body horror scenes – which I will not ruin here by describing – that are suitably disturbing and very reminiscent of Cronenberg.

God Told Me To is certainly a neglected film. It expects a lot out of its audience and lacks much of the humor that make Cohen’s other films so endearing. Distributor Roger Corman also did the film a disservice by trying to piggy-back on the ‘70s run of satanic horror during its initial release. The film was retitled Demon for certain audiences and had a correspondingly misleading poster. This has far more in common with The X-Files than it does with The Exorcist, however.

The film is available on DVD and it comes highly recommended, though you will certainly need some patience and an open mind. It’s one of the unsung apocalyptic films of the ‘70s and stubbornly defies categorization. Though his more whimsical films are far more accessible, God Told Me To just might be Larry Cohen’s masterpiece.

IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE

Larry Cohen, 1987
Starring: Michael Moriarty, Karen Black, Laurene Landon, James Dixon

Several years after the events of It’s Alive and It Lives Again, mutant babies have become public knowledge, and are generally exterminated on site. One of the infants’ fathers, Stephen Jarvis, is acting as a witness in a trial where the infants' fate will be decided. A compassionate judge decides that because they are capable of love and compassion, they should be spared. He orders their removal to an isolated, tropical island. Stephen’s life, meanwhile, is not going very well. His ex-wife Ellen doesn’t want anything to do with him, women won’t touch him once they recognize him, and he can’t seem to get a job. Worst of all, a book full of false information is written about his experience and life.

After a few years, Stephen is dragged somewhat against his will to the island to check on the babies. Of course, they are still deformed, mass murdering psychopaths, and they promptly slaughter everyone in the expedition except for Stephen. They want him to take them away from the island, but they all wind up shipwrecked in Cuba, and Stephen is taken captive by Fidel Castro (I wish I was making this up). Stephen escapes and he and the babies find his ex-wife Ellen. For some reason, the mutant children are sick and dying, and they want to pass something precious onto Ellen: a baby of their own. 

The make-up and effects are certainly more uneven than in the first two films. The “babies” are now essentially adults wearing rubber suits and though they look a little silly, we don’t see a whole lot of them. The film doesn’t explain why they’ve grown up in only five years. There is a lot more gore, death, and violence in this entry, though so much happens that it feels more spaced out than in the earlier films. It’s Alive III has pretty much everything, including a mutant baby delivery in the back of a New York cab, a courtroom drama, a carnival scene with a prostitute, a punk rock nightclub, a lengthy trip by boat, a tropical island, Cuba, and so much more. It’s dizzying.

There’s a lot more comedy thanks to the great Michael Moriarty, a Larry Cohen regular who also appeared in The Stuff and Q, as well as everything from Law and Order to Pale Rider. Some of the humor is awkward or ill-timed, so if you don’t love Moriarty, this might feel like the weakest entry in the series. 

This was shot back-to-back with Return to Salem’s Lot, the sequel to Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV Salem’s Lot, but does a lot despite its low budget. It’s overwhelmed with action, changes of scenery, and social satire. It runs the gamut from punk-themed nightclub to seaside carnival to Cuba, of all places. I don’t really understand why Cohen felt the need to put references to Cuba and Fidel Castro, but the more the merrier, I guess.

If you liked the first two films, there’s no reason you won’t also love this one. My only major complaint, aside from the fact that simply too much happens, is the presence of Karen Black as Stephen’s ex-wife Ellen. I know Black (Burnt Offerings, Trilogy of Terror) is considered a classic genre actress, but for about half her films, she really gets on my nerves. She has some funny scenes here, namely when she pretends to vomit in a would-be blackmailer’s car and then runs hysterically screaming into her apartment for seemingly no reason. It’s a good thing she has about five minutes of screen time total, though. 

It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive is available with the entire trilogy on a two-disc DVD. If you enjoyed the first two films and the work of the wonderful Larry Cohen, you’re definitely going to want to pick this up. It has more comedy and improvisation than either of the first two films, but Michael Moriarty is a delight and it’s nice to see that Cohen made an effort to take the film away from the suburban focus of the first two entries. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

IT'S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN


Larry Cohen, 1978
Starring: John P. Ryan, Frederic Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, Eddie Constantine, Andrew Dugan

Emboldened by the success of It’s Alive, director, writer, and producer Larry Cohen (The Stuff) decided to throw plot out on a limb, add a few more mutant killer babies, and hope fans would hang on for the ride. Again, color me surprised that I liked this film so much. When I saw the first one, I had my doubts — it seemed implausible that I would be able to enjoy a film about a killer mutant baby and its parents’ struggle to love and accept it — but I love the first movie. I was sure I'd hate or be completely bored by the sequel. Though it's certainly more ridiculous than the first, three times the killer babies means three times the gore and three times the fun. 

Again written, produced, and directed by Cohen, It’s Alive’s John Ryan returns as Frank Davis soon after the events of the first film, this time as an activist seeking out families who are likely to give birth to mutant babies. He wants to help them deliver their babies away from the prying eyes of police, scientists, and the pharmaceutical companies, in order to give them a chance to get to know their unfortunately deformed offspring. The couples in question are taken to a private, secured facility full of scientists trying to study and help the babies, but obviously putting a bunch of mutant killer babies with razor sharp claws together might be a poor choice. They react the least violently towards parents of the babies, but eventually they escape and cause a serious amount of mayhem.

It Lives Again really must be seen to be believed. I don’t want to give away too much with my review, but part of the fun is watching what unfolds without knowing what to expect. Larry Cohen may be something of an acquired taste, but his films are nearly always delightful — It Lives Again is no exception. I saw this in a theatre as part of a horror festival (Exhumed Films' annual 24-hour Halloween horror fest) and I recommend watching it with a group of like-minded horror and exploitation fanatics if you can. Like most of Cohen's films, it's great fun if you're in the right mindset and has a nice mix of horror, gore, humor, and relatively compelling, sympathetic characters.

Sure, this is a sequel to a movie about killer babies, which means the audience is probably limited. It does unfortunately rehash some of the same themes from the first film, but if you can suspend your disbelief and remember that you're watching a Larry Cohen film in the first place, everything should be fine. It Lives Again does also introduce some fresh new scares and moments of killer baby action, so don’t assume it is just a repeat of the first film. 

The acting is about on par with the first, which is to say that it's similar to any '70s horror-exploitation film. Frank Davis returns, looking more aged and haggard than in the first film. There are some great appearances from Cassavetes’ regular John Marley (Faces, Deathdream), Andrew Dugan (In Like Flint), and Eddie Constantine (Alphaville, The Long Good Friday). The new parents are played sympathetically by Kathleen Lloyd (The Car) and the awkward Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now). The effects are easily as good as the first film and It Lives Again was also scored by the great Bernard Hermann (Hitchcock's regular composer for a time). 

As far as I know this is only available on the two disc trilogy DVD, which comes with It’s Alive, It Lives Again, and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. And thanks to the power of the internet, you can also watch it right now on youtube. As with It’s Alive, the second film comes highly recommended. Both of these remind me a little of ‘80s horror, several years before similarly comic and grotesque creature features like C.H.U.D. or Basket Case

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

IT'S ALIVE


Larry Cohen, 1974
Starring: John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, William Wellman Jr, Shamus Locke

Frank and Lenore Davis are expecting their second child. Though they were ambivalent at the beginning of the pregnancy, they’re excited to welcome a new Davis baby into the world. Unfortunately, the child is born fanged, clawed, and hideous. When one of the doctors tries to smother the baby, he kills everyone in the operating room except his mother and flees. While the police are harassing the family and searching for the baby, he heads slowly towards home, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. It seems Lenore was given some prescription drugs that could be responsible for her horrible, mutant offspring, but the rise of toxic pollutants in the environment is another possible factor. The disgusted Frank is actively a member of the search team determined to find the baby and put it out of its misery. But first, the wee Davis finds his way home and wins over his mother, who realizes he just wants love and acceptance. She hides the child in the basement and vows to protect it. Will the baby win Frank over, too? Or will he kill IT?

In all honesty, It’s Alive is a movie I wanted very much to dislike. As a person who hates babies and finds the thought of pregnancy physically revolting, the monster and its victims – the parents – are both totally unsympathetic. In theory, anyway. In reality, the great Larry Cohen has made a wonderful film. He is able to turn the most inane subject matter into fantastic cult cinema in films like Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, Full Moon High, God Told Me To, etc. I can’t help but love It’s Alive. Written, directed, and produced by Cohen, this film has heaps of gore, charm, absurd violence, and a pinch of the magic that made the '70s one of the best cult and horror filmmaking decades.

Banned in several countries, though I have no idea why, It’s Alive does sport some truly gruesome effects and gore, all designed by the wonderful Rick Baker. This is one of those weird films that works despite its flaws and comes highly recommended for any horror or cult fans. The combination of gore-fest and cheesy exploitation should please most horror fans. There are also some solid performances from John P. Ryan (Bound) and Sharon Farrell (Can’t Buy Me Love) as the unhappy parents, and some nice appearances from Cohen regular James Dixon (Q, The Stuff, A Return to Salem’s Lot) and Andrew Duggan (In Like Flint).

I usually prefer to include stills with my reviews, rather than images of the promotional art, but I love this poster. It includes the wonderful tagline (“There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis Baby… IT’S ALIVE”) and has an interesting back story. Apparently when the film was initially released it tanked in the box office. Warner Bros decided to redo the marketing campaign and gave it a scary new poster and then re-released it in theatres almost three years later to much greater acclaim. I wish I could say I'd like to see someone try that now, but instead, everything just gets remade.

Pick it up on a cheapo DVD from Warner or get the trilogy
. You can also find it on Youtube, should you feel the immediate urge. Don't forget to pay attention to the robust score by Bernard Hermann, a regular Hitchcock collaborator. Again, It’s Alive comes highly recommended and is followed by two surprisingly good sequels, It Lives Again (it doesn’t, it’s a different baby… ahem, babies), and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. There is apparently also a 2008 remake, though I absolutely refuse to watch it.

THE BABY

Ted Post, 1973
Starring: Anjanette Comer, Tod Andrews, Marianna Hill, Ruth Roman

Social worker Ann Gentry takes on a new case with the Wadsworth family, whose adult son, only known as Baby, has never progressed past infancy. Ann soon gets the idea that Baby’s controlling mother and creepy sisters, Germaine and Alba, are keeping him from developing on purpose and she becomes determined to rescue him. At first, Mrs. Wadsworth and her daughters become angry and threatening, refusing to allow Baby to go through with testing or any psychological evaluations, but then they suddenly change their minds and invite Ann to Baby’s elaborate birthday party. But the family has other plans for Ann and hope to get her out of the picture, so they can keep Baby all to themselves…

The ‘70s was a decade full of films about evil, possessed, and disturbed children, including The Exorcist, The Omen, Who Can Kill a Child?, Alice, Sweet, Alice, It’s Alive, and more, but there is nothing – and I mean nothing – like The Baby. This is a rare film that is horrifying without being gory, violent, or concerned with the supernatural. Of course, there is some pretty lurid subject matter, as the titular is an adult baby unable to walk, feed himself, or go to the bathroom without a diaper. There is plenty of additional insanity on display, including infantilism, sibling rape, torture with a cattle prod, a hint of lesbianism, and more. Though I would classify it as a horror film, The Baby has definite elements of exploitation. This feels like a darker Russ Meyer film without the nudity (and enormous tits), or like a John Waters film with more horror elements and a bigger budget. For example, Pink Flamingoes, a film about a different kind of demented family, came out the year before this.

The film certainly benefits from taking itself seriously and from a series of strong central performances. Anjanette Comer (The Night of a Thousand Cats) is likable as the well-meaning social worker with a tragic past and an air of undeniable sadness that perhaps makes her actions understandable, or at least somewhat easier to sympathize with. Marianna Hill (High Plains Drifter, Messiah of Evil) and Susanne Zenor are perfect as Baby’s two older sisters. Hill in particular gives off a vibe of absolute insanity and sexual frenzy buried very shallowly beneath the surface, though Zenor is also not to be outdone.

The real star here could have been Ruth Roman (Strangers on a Train), whose performance as Mrs. Wadsworth hints back to Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Unfortunately Roman is never really permitted to go fully off the rails, which would likely have driven this film over the line of obscurity and into real cult classic status. The unforgettable Michael Pataki (Grave of the Vampire) has an appearance as a party goer interested in Ann who won’t take no for an answer. I wish he was given a bigger role in the film, but outside of David Manzy’s Baby, this is a largely female cast.

Manzy is excellent as Baby, though acts more like a toddler or a puppy than an actual baby. Still, he’s convincingly creepy. Allegedly David Manzy made his own baby sounds, but these were later dubbed over by a real baby’s cries. I think it would have been creepier to leave Manzy’s voice in or, better yet, Manzy on helium. After the recent video of a different take on the famous Blue Velvet scene where Frank uses an inhaler (now with helium), I can think of nothing more terrifying.

There is so much more happening here that I can’t really cram into a review of normal length: an unpredictable, twist ending that I’m not going to ruin, a ‘70s disco party that should feel out of place, but doesn’t, and a scene where the sexually frustrated, young babysitter allows Baby to suck on her nipple. Pleasantly – or disturbingly – unpredictable, the only other film that I can really compare The Baby to is Jack Hill’s even more insane Spider Baby.

Director Ted Post (known for television, particularly episodes of The Twilight Zone, Magnum Force, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, etc.) does a solid, if serviceable job here. As I said earlier, his deadpan, serious treatment of the material helps the film go a long way towards being uncomfortable, gruesome, and sometimes downright scary. Another major bonus is the wild and varied score from Gerald Fried (The Killing) with some absolutely bonkers, carnivalesque moments. As with the disco birthday party, it is another element of the film that should not work, but does anyway.

The Baby is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix. It is not recommended for the faint of heart or sexually squeamish, but it is essential viewing for any fan of ‘70s horror or cult cinema. You’ve been warned.

Monday, April 21, 2014

GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS

Fredric Hobbs, 1973
Stars: Christopher Brooks, Stuart Lancaster, E. Kerrigan Prescott

“WANTED! Have you seen this sheep?”

A young man named Eddie is taken in by scientist Dr. Clemens after being robbed and beaten by the local populace in a seemingly quaint desert village. Eddie develops a relationship with Clemens’ hippie assistant Mariposa, and the three discover an infant mutant sheep. Thinking he has stumbled across some sort of mutant messiah, Clemens rushes it back to his isolated laboratory deep in the desert to study it and help it grow. Meanwhile, back in town, a stranger named Barnstable arrives, hoping to buy up property for his wealthy employer. Though they pretend to be friendly to him, the town’s elite craft an elaborate set up, in which they make Barnstable think he killed a local’s beloved dog. They have him arrested, beaten, run out of town, and nearly lunched. He escapes to Dr. Clemens’ laboratory, where some of the cowboys find out about the mutant sheep, now fully formed, and are determined to kill it. The monster escapes and goes on a rampage through the desert, though it is headed right for the village.

This blend of Western and horror is a Z-grade effort that shockingly has not been given the Mystery Science Theater treatment, though it richly deserves it. Director Fredric Hobbs is also known for his career as an ecologically-minded artist, though he also directed Roseland (1970) and Alabama’s Ghost (1972), among others. Godmonster of Indian Flats remains his bizarre and somewhat unsung masterpiece.

Hobbs used the real town of Virginia City, Nevada as his shooting location and worked directly with the locals. Virginia City is something of a legend, as it was a gold-rush era town that has been preserved over the decades and transformed into a tourist destination. The town’s motto is actually “Step Back in Time,” and, somewhat amazingly, Hobbs co-wrote a book about the phenomenon, The Richest Place on Earth: The Story of Virginia City and the Heyday of the Comstock Lode. Without the town’s fascinating appearance and history, it’s unlikely Hobbs would have had the budget to make the film as visually impressive as it is.

If you really want to catch Virginia City in all its bizarre glory, check out the scene that captures the Bonanza Day Festival. Truly a dizzying affair, it is one of the film’s more interesting moments. It almost feels like a Western farce at this point, with drunken cowboys, children eating (and throwing) pies, brass bands, screaming prostitutes, and more. Weirdly, the mutant sheep doesn’t take up the majority of the film’s plot. That honor goes to Barnstable, an African American sent to town to try to buy up land for his rich boss and is denied at every turn by the two-faced locals. There’s also the story of Eddie, who has a really rough time in town before falling in with the cute, yet flaky Mariposa and her scientist boss. These different strands of plot eventually weave their way together by the psychotic conclusion, though I can’t say it makes a lot of sense.  

The “Godmonster” or mutant sheep is actually quite a tragic, pathetic figure. It may be hideous, but it doesn’t do a whole lot of murdering or rampaging. Its struggles to walk around upright are frankly hilarious, but its defeat at the hands of some cowboys is actually pretty depressing and the creature just looks pitiful and helpless.  This is certainly another instance where I wish the monster of the film would prevail and devour the town and all its crooked inhabitants in some sort of ecstatic frenzy of feeding and destruction. Alas, it really only runs amok through the countryside, scared and hungry, then accidentally blows up a gas station and harmlessly frightens some children.

Aside from the scientific experiments and mutant sheep, there are a slew of other insane things: racism, fascism and military rule, political corruption, and some insane events such as a malicious pie eating contest, a near lynching, an elaborate, though fake dog funeral, an attempted bisexual seduction over brandy that turns into a double cross, and so much more. The ending features a surprise riot from the townsfolk that must be seen to be believed, as they fight with the cowboys and utter chaos reigns.  

Something Weird kindly put out a special edition release, which is a must-see for anyone who loves schlocky monster movies or Western-horror hybrids. This comes recommended to all fans of more ridiculous horror and is an inspired, creative work, despite its low budget and completely nonsensical script. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

PATRICK (1978)


Richard Franklin, 1978
Starring: Susan Penhaligon, Robert Helpmann, Rod Mullinar, Robert Thompson

Coma patient Patrick killed his mother and her love a few years ago, and has laid in the hospital since, unable to see, hear, speak, more, or feel. He takes a shine to his new nurse, Kathie, and begins communicating with her by spitting “yes” or “no,” and by psycho-kinetically typing to her on a typewriter. He also begins violently intruding in her love life; Kathie is stuck between her estranged husband, who is trying to get her back, and a doctor trying to date her. Patrick becomes more and more out of control as his desire for Kathie intensifies. Will she be able to keep him in check, or will he really hurt someone?

Director Richard Franklin (Road Games) is something of a descendant of Hitchcock’s expert use of suspense and black humor, and he eventually went on to direct the surprisingly great Psycho II. The success of Patrick is largely due to Franklin’s expertise, a great script from writer Everett de Roche, and solid performances from stars Robert Thompson and Susan Penhaligon. Everett de Roche is responsible for some of the finest Australian genre classics, including Long Weekend, Road Games, and one of my personal favorites, Razorback

Susan Penhaligon (The Land That The Forgot) is excellent as Kathie and this is essentially her film. She helps make the character instantly likable and sympathetic. Though there is an abundance of men in her life, she is largely independent, able to make her own decisions, and uses her intuition to come to a quick realization that Patrick is far more than just an inert, useless vegetable. Robert Thompson (Aussie vampire film Thirst) is memorable as Patrick. Though he killed his own mother and his juvenile aims include being violently possessive of Kathie, and even openly asking her for a handjob, he is still surprisingly likable. 

In terms of both the character and the film, Patrick is an excellent example that it’s possible to make a wonderful, effective film out of a totally bonkers premise. Franklin and company manage to make Patrick — a mute, immobile man in a coma — a compelling and sympathetic figure. He is monstrous, but also to be pitied and has some fine moments. For example, he writes Kathie an honest, raw letter on the typewriter, quoting Oscar Wilde’s famous epithet, “Each man kills the thing he loves,” from the heart-breaking “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

There’s some great dialogue and some nice side performances, including from Robert Helpmann (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Though the film has a low budget, very limited locations, and almost no gore or effects, it’s an effective work of horror. It makes good use of the hospital set and actually develops the side characters, such as nurses, the eccentric and possibly unethical head doctor, and a crazy, but amusing patient. 

Patrick is overly long, though it is generally well-paced. There are a few repetitive scenes, such as moments when Patrick communicates with Kathie but he won't repeat it front of others. The film does becomes more stylish, frenzied, and violent as Patrick’s telekinesis becomes more pronounced, resulting in quite a memorable ending.

As with several other Australian cult classics from this period, it wasn’t a huge hit in its home country, but was a success in Europe and the U.S. In Italy, it was re-scored by Goblin and in the U.S. it was somewhat re-cut and overdubbed with American accents. There was an unauthorized, unconnected sequel made in Italy in 1980, Patrick Still Lives, and a dreadful remake in the '00s. Patrick is available on Blu-ray and DVD with some nice special features. It comes highly recommended and really must be seen to be believed.

Friday, April 18, 2014

THE LAST WAVE

Peter Weir, 1977
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil

David Burton, a lawyer, agrees to defend a group of city-living Aborigines in Sydney when they are convicted of murdering one of their friends. They explain that they didn’t kill him; he just died. That obviously won’t hold up in court, so David explores further and is disturbed by the fact that one of the Aborigines, Chris, appeared in David’s dreams before they met. Chris and one of his friends, a shaman named Charlie, begin to intrude on David’s domestic life. He begins having stranger and stranger dreams about water and menacing other worlds. He thinks that Chris and the group of Aborigines are part of a secret tribe and the death of their friend was part of tribal law. This defense doesn’t hold up in the city, but David continues to learn more about Aboriginal life and the Dreamtime, a separate world that overlaps with civilization. He comes to believe that signs from the Dreamtime indicate the impending apocalypse.

Also known as Black Rain, Peter Weir’s follow up to his masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is another triumphant exploration of terror and dread in Australia. As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, this isn’t really a horror film. Both movies are immersed in dread, concerned with the horror of nature, and have more than a touch of the supernatural. And as with Weir’s former film, the ending may not satisfy viewers used to tidier, more linear filmmaking. The conclusion is ambiguous and the “last wave” that Burton pictures is not a literal sign of the apocalypse, but a figurative one; a symbol of the terror that comes from civilized humanity’s interactions with what it does not know and cannot understand.

There’s some great acting, particularly from David Gulpilil (who has been in everything from Walkabout to Crocodile Dundee) as Chris and Nanjiwarra Amagula as Charlie. I’ve always found Aboriginal culture fascinating and Weir clearly did too during the making of this film. There aren’t an abundance of ‘70s Australian films where Aborigines play central roles, so this is something of a rare treat. Amagula did not act in anything else; he was an Aboriginal clean leader and agreed to help Weir with the film. Apparently numerous changes were made to the script at his request, particularly in terms of the portrayal of Aborigines. He understandably refused to allow Weir to use real tribal symbols, but added an air of veracity, as well as disturbing mystery to the film. He’s truly one of the most fascinating Australian personalities ever captured on film.

The somewhat milquetoast Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is enough of a mediocre, unthreatening personality to be truly effective as David. Though somewhat dull at first, his character is fascinating. In some ways, David is as far removed from conventional Australian society as the Aborigines are, due to his constant, unsettling dreams. There is a link between water, dreams, and the Aboriginal concept of the Dreamtime, something David is able to access through no conscious desire of his own. His connection with these forces pushes him further from family, career, and society, and closer toward the Dreaming. This also heightens the film’s sense of dread, suspense, and the uncanny, bringing the film to its inexorable, inexplicable conclusion.

The film opens with a scene of school children playing, but then they are terrified by a sudden, inexplicably hailstorm. These moments of a violent, unpredictable natural world, usually linked to water in some way, increase as the film continues. Flash storms, rain, dreams of water, and finally, a massive wave, tie society, Sydney, and David’s family life into this other world of intuition, inspiration, and chaos.

Moody, disorienting, and frustrating in a more visceral, less dreamy way than Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave is another triumph for talented director Peter Weir. In addition to Russell Boyd's eerie cinematography, and an effective use of mood and atmosphere, The Last Wave is another must-see Australian film that brushes up against the horror genre, but winds up being so much more.

The film comes highly recommended. As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, there’s a great Criterion release of the film, which is excellent. While I would say Picnic at Hanging Rock is somewhat a better film, The Last Wave is more intimate, personal, and oddly more real. It’s the story of a man’s interaction with his landscape, as if seeing it for the first time, and his rational understanding that there will always be things hovering somewhere out there on the edge, the wild, the untamable, the destructive.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Peter Weir, 1975
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver

On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of teenage girls from a private school in Victoria, Australia, go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, an ancient and ominous geological formation. Sara, one of the students, is prevented from going by the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard. She must stay behind for an afternoon of punishment for some unspoken crime. Some of the girls, Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith, decide to go for a walk and climb up in the rocks. The chubby, whining Edith complains and must eventually lie down, while the other three girls climb higher and higher. Miss McCraw, one of their teachers, eventually goes to look for them, though no one notices her absence.

Hours later, the group returns to the school, but Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Miss McCraw are missing. Edith is quite ill, having returned to the camp site in hysterics and covered in scratches. Local policemen organize a hunt, which includes a young English boy, Michael, who saw Miranda and, thinking her beautiful, tried to follow the girls. No one is found, the Edith admits she saw Miss McCraw walking into the rocks without her skirt on. Determined to find Miranda, Michael wanders into the rocks and nearly dies. His friend Albert rescues him and also finds the unconscious body of Irma, who is alive, but very ill. Her corset is missing, but she has no memory of what happened.

Parents begin removing their daughters from the school and Irma is nearly attacked by the other students. Meanwhile, Sara’s punishments continue. After a young teacher, Miss Lumley, finds Sara tied to a wall, she gives her resignation notice. Mrs. Appleyard, meanwhile, has become more odd and disheveled. The next day, she tells Sara that she must return to the orphanage, because her school bill was never paid. Sara’s body is soon found. Though a suicide is assumed, Mrs. Appleyard is acting suspiciously. At the closing credits, it is revealed that the girls were never found and Mrs. Appleyard’s body was soon located at the base of Hanging Rock.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, this haunting, illusive Australian classic is not quite a mystery and not really a horror films, but its themes of repressed sexuality and the menacing, almost alien quality of the Outback are disturbing and deeply impacting. Where another famous Australian film from that period, Wake in Fright, is concerned with a descent into hell, Picnic at Hanging Rock is about a journey into the void, an exploration of absence, nothingness. It is a mystery film that is obsessed with the mystery, not its solution, and a horror film that displays its horrors by implying, though never directly showing them.

One of the most terrifying elements of Picnic at Hanging Rock is the unspoken relationship between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara. At first glance, this is merely a headmistress disciplining a rebellious student, but it takes a particularly nasty turn with implications of sexual obsession at best and at worst, abuse. Sarah is isolated from the other students, manipulated, told she is going back to the orphanage (where she has a very real history of abuse at the hands of other adults), and tied up. As her ill-treatment continues, Mrs. Appleyard becomes increasingly disheveled and disoriented. Sara’s death is intentionally vague, though it’s fairly obvious that Mrs. Appleyard has knowledge of it: she lies to another teacher about Sara’s whereabouts, saying she has already left with her guardian, and is wearing mourning clothes before she hears the news of Sara’s death.

Making a film (or writing a novel) about a mystery that can never be solved is a difficult venture and probably frustrated a fair number of viewers, but director Peter Weir did an excellent job with Picnic at Hanging Rock. This central issue of the missing girls reminded me of a number of other works – Antonioni’s L’Avventura being the most obvious candidate for comparison, but also J.M. Barry’s play Mary Rose (which Hitchcock was so desperate to adapt), and oddly Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Virgin Suicides. Though we know what happened to the girls in Virgin Suicides – they all commit suicide – we never find out why. Picnic at Hanging Rock is also similar to E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, which is equally concerned with sexual repression, a hostile natural landscape, and unexplained events. This hostility, particularly in terms of the Australian Outback, is also explored in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout.

There’s some incredible, haunting cinematography from Weir’s regular collaborator Russell Boyd and a near-perfect score including pan-pipe compositions from Gheorghe Zamfir and dreamy, melancholic classical pieces from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others. Acclaimed director Peter Weir is also known for The Cars That Ate Paris, The Last Wave, Galipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, and more commercial films like The Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This is a masterpiece among many fine films and it is an absolute must-see.

Criterion released a lovely, director’s cut DVD of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I believe they plan to re-release it on Blu-ray in June of this year. Again, Picnic at Hanging Rock comes with the highest possible recommendation. This enigmatic film may be too slow or mysterious for some, but is one of the most magical exercises in filmmaking from the ‘70s. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

WAKE IN FRIGHT

Ted Kotcheff, 1971
Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay

A school teacher, John Grant, hates his small-town job and is traveling across Australia during a holiday to visit his girlfriend in Sydney. He takes a train to a mining town known as the Yabba to catch a flight, but gets held up in Yabba when the locals encourage him to constantly drink himself into inebriation. At first, John has fun and appreciates the local hospitality. But soon he discovers gambling and though he nearly wins enough money to stop teaching, he loses it all, including everything he came with. He is trapped in the Yabba and must rely on the kindness of strangers, namely the local doctor, Tydon. Part of the hospitality includes forcing him to drink insane amounts of beer, encouraging him to have sex with a local woman (he vomits instead), and dragging him to the Outback in the middle of the night for a brutal, bloody kangaroo hunt that he is expected to participate in. John’s trip plunges into various forms of violent, rape, and a permanent hang over. Will he escape the Yabba, or will he have to kill himself?

While Wake in Fright is generally regarded as a horror film, it is not as much a straightforward genre flick as it is a disturbing descent into hell, the heart of darkness, psychological horror that feels horribly real. Amazingly, I first saw the film as a bootleg (actually shown to me by an Australian) just before its revival, which could not have come too soon. Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel Outback, Wake in Fright was considered lost for several decades before its 2009 resurgence, where a print was allegedly rescued minutes before being sent into an incinerator.

The film disappeared due to poor performance at the Australian box office, despite a great reception around the world and at Cannes. It was allowed to screen at Cannes again after its 2009 revival, and is allegedly only the second film to receive to two separate screenings at the legendary festival. I think part of the initial problem with Wake in Fright is that it straddles the link between art-house (like Walkabout) and Ozploitation/horror (such as the arguably great Long Weekend and Razorback). As with its main character, the film exists in an uncomfortable no man’s land. Though it has since become a cult classic and received rave reviews, there was simply no way to position it within ‘70s genre cinema or the types of films being made in Australia at that time.

Similar to films like Deliverance or Straw Dogs, but more brutal, more real, and more vulnerable, Wake in Fright comes highly recommended, but it is not the sort of film you should let catch you unaware. Be forewarned that there is extensive, very real animal violence, as part of the film follows John on a midnight kangaroo hunt. This was shot with professional kangaroo hunters and was allegedly so gory and disgusting that the film crew faked electrical problems in order to stop filming. But in addition to these brief moments of violence, it is incredibly bleak. The perfect date movie, in other words.

Wake in Fright benefits from solid acting all around, thanks to a number of Australian side actors and lead performances from the great Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond (Zulu, Anne of a Thousand Days), looking somewhat like Peter O’Toole here. Pleasence’s Tydon is both charismatic and repulsive – at heart he is a rational man, a doctor who made the conscious choice to move to the Yabba, because the local populace is willing to overlook his alcoholism. Though John becomes stuck in the Yabba due to a downward spiral of violence and alcoholism, he is first drawn there because of the decisions he makes – he drinks and gambles away all his money. It is his inherent politeness and civility that prevent him from refusing the local citizens when they take pity on him and show him some charity.

The women in the film are practically nonexistent – this is a man’s world and it is primarily concerned with depictions of masculinity, as with many of director Ted Kotcheff’s films. John’s girlfriend is little more than a faded photograph, a mirage, while Janette is passed around from man to man in Yabba and Tydon talks about her as an idealized sort of woman, rather than as a specific person.

Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s), does a phenomenal job and everything from the soundscape to the cinematography are near perfect. While this is regarded as one of the greatest Australian films of all time (by the likes of Nick Cave, no less), keep in mind that its director is Canadian, its two leads are British, and it was co-funded by the U.S. It is a brutal picture of humanity, regardless of its origins.

The restored film is available on Blu-ray in a special edition release that comes highly recommended. Brace yourself for some Australian punishment and check out one of the greatest Australian films, thankfully rescued from oblivion. If you want to learn more about the film, check out Twitch’s interview with Ted Kotcheff or this page from the Alama Drafthouse, who helped release Wake in Fright for its 40th anniversary. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

THE DEVIL'S MEN aka LAND OF THE MINOTAUR

Kostas Karagiannis, 1976
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Luan Perwea

“I suspect the Devil has taken over this village.”

Father Roche, a priest located in an isolated area of Greece, requests help from his friend, detective Milo Kaye, who is living in New York. Milo arrives to learn that visitors, particularly archaeologists, are going missing and Roche is desperate to find what’s become of them. Milo and a stranded tourist, Laurie, are discouraged to learn that Roche thinks the disappearances are the work of a Satan worshipping cult that believes in human sacrifice, though Milo can come up with no better explanation. Soon they come across the path of the strange Baron Corofax, originally from the Carpathian Mountains and undoubtedly up to no good.

This should be great. It’s one of few Greek horror films from the period (other than Island of Death), it stars Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing, has an impressive score from Brian Eno (how did this even happen?), and a song from the great Paul Williams, plus decent production values, and a quality set. Sadly, Eno’s score is probably the best thing about The Land of the Minotaur. The cult scenes are straight out of Manos: The Hands of Fate and include the most bargain basement cloaks I’ve ever seen, as well as some lighting effects that rival Manhattan Baby.

Nothing really makes any sense in this U.K.-Greek-U.S. coproduction. Father Roche begs help from a detective who doesn’t believe in the supernatural at all (or religion, presumably). We also eventually learn that the only person who can defeat the evil is Father Roche himself, which he does with crosses and Christian mumbo jumbo. There’s also a hilarious scene where Roche spies a baby playing with a toy with an odd symbol on it, and he somehow recognizes that it’s an ancient Pagan symbol for human sacrifice. The ending is absolutely dizzying. The heroes chase the cultists, run from the cultists, and are chased by the cultists. It’s a never-ending chase where characters make incredibly stupid mistakes, bad decisions, and really never resolve anything.  

Weirdly repeating a campier version of his role in Prince of Darkness, Donald Pleasence gives a solid performance, as always, and chews scenery with gusto, but Peter Cushing is clearly just phoning this one in and doesn’t give a damn about the proceedings. Not that I can blame him. Hammer bit-actress Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire) does a lot of screaming, makes some stupendously dumb decisions that lead to her swift capture, and has numerous baths interrupted by cult members.

Pleasence and Cushing worked together on a TV version of Nineteen Eighty Four and The Flesh and the Fiends; this is undoubtedly a low point for both of them, which is really saying something when you consider some of the depths Pleasence’s career reached (here’s looking at you, Halloween 5 and Night Creatures). Director Kostas Karagiorgis plays Milo and you really have to wonder why he cast himself in such a major role.

One of the film’s biggest issues is that it seems confused about whether it wants to be pagan horror or satanic horror. This duality is even reflected in the two titles: The Devil's Men and Land of the Minotaur. While Cushing is apparently in a pagan horror film, Pleasence seems to be in a Christian/satanic horror story. The central figure could easily be the Minotaur of Greek mythology and follow that loose plotline (child sacrifice – everyone’s favorite), but the script makes an abrupt switch around to Satan, somehow.

I can’t actually recommend Land of the Minotaur. It should have been a much better film than it is (it’s total garbage), but however much I want to dislike it, I just can’t. If you like the most bottom of the barrel Z-grade movies, check it out, otherwise keep clear. The level of badness reached by this film is almost impressive. I’m still waiting for someone to make a quality, compelling horror film about the original legend of the Minotaur, which is thoroughly creepy. I guess if you’re going to watch this, look for the uncut version under the U.K. title The Devil’s Men. It’s available as a double feature DVD with Terror, another of Karagiorgis’s films. Good luck.