Sunday, December 13, 2015

#221: Waxworks (Paul Leni, 1924)

What is it with the Germans and silent horror? No other country produced as many expressive tales of terror and the supernatural in the same time period, or did it so well. I'm tempted to say it was a national psychic predictor of the real-life horrors to come, but that's also kind of a silly thing to say. Maybe their folk tales were darker, maybe it's that pessimistic German fatalism that runs through many of the masterworks of German cinema (except for the Nazi years when German films were either cloyingly mindless entertainments about how amazing German life was or disgusting anti-Jewish propaganda), maybe it was a trend that took on a life of its own, maybe horror was looked at as a malleable canvas for German Expressionism's expansion into the movies. Whatever the reason, horror movies flourished in 1920s Germany and most of them were pretty damn good.
Waxworks is an anthology film with a unifying overall story directed by Paul Leni, an avant-garde painter turned filmmaker, best known for The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs. While one of the three stories within the larger story is a mixture of adventure and comedy, the other two are much darker. All three stories take place on incredible Expressionist sets designed by Leni himself with performances from big names in German silent film.
The film begins at a nightmarish-looking carnival. A man is wandering around nervously with a newspaper advertisement for a strange job offer as a writer of scenarios for the figures in the carnival's wax museum tent. The man (future Hollywood director William Dieterle, who also worked as an assistant director here) meets the gnarly old proprietor of the wax museum (John Gottowt) and a woman who works for the proprietor (Olga Belajeff). They all hit it off. The carnival tent isn't quite Madame Tussaud's and has only three wax figures: the caliph of Bagdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper (also referred to as Spring-Heeled Jack throughout, even though one is a historical figure and the other a figure in folk tales). The old man wants the young writer to come up with stories for each figure. He gets inspired, and we see the results.
In the first tale, a baker in Bagdad (Dieterle again) gets on the wrong side of the caliph (Emil Jannings) when the smoke from his ovens wafts into the palace and throws the corpulent caliph off his chess game. He sends his right-hand man and his lackeys to the bakery to behead the man, but his advisor sees how beautiful the baker's wife is (Belajeff again) and forgets to do any beheading. He goes back and tells the caliph to get an eyeful of the babe. Meanwhile, the baker and his wife get into a big argument because he got flour on her one good dress and she's bored with the life of a baker's wife. The baker loses it and says he's going to kill the caliph and steal his wishing ring to prove what a man he is to his irritated wife. While the baker's out, the caliph sneaks into the baker's home to get a look at his wife, comical misunderstandings and hijinks occur, and things resolve happily through her intelligence and charm.
Things don't go as well in the second tale. In the much darker world of Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), the crazed Russian ruler is busy poisoning everyone, imagining slights and conspiracies everywhere, and generally acting creepy. The action reaches its frenzy at a wedding between Dieterle and Belajeff that Ivan turns into a dark time for everyone, including himself. Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hands of Orlac, The Man Who Laughs, Casablanca) gives his usual intense, charismatic performance, and he's a natural fit for Ivan the Terrible. The sets aren't quite as exaggeratedly expressionistic in this segment, but remain visually stunning in this dark, wintery, snow-filled story.
The final tale unfolds in a full-on Caligari-esque nightmare world, as our writer and the woman he has become enchanted with are chased through a distorted version of the carnival by Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss). This is the shortest story with the least amount of dialogue, and the closest in tone to modern horror.
Leni has made a visually sumptuous film with incredible set design and wild, enjoyable performances. It's pretty slight compared to some of the towering masterpieces of silent German film, but it's an enjoyable, expressive entertainment worth your time.
One last word about Emil Jannings, the actor who played the caliph of Bagdad. Jannings is well-known to film buffs for his performances in F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Faust and Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. He was the first person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929, but he actually lost the vote when the Academy counted ballots. Rin Tin Tin received the most votes that year, but the Academy decided they would look like fools if they gave the very first Best Actor Oscar to a dog, so the decision was quickly made to award second-place Jannings the statue. Jannings, unlike most of his talented peers, stayed in Germany during the Nazi regime and cowardly and opportunistically acted in Nazi propaganda films. When the Allies entered Germany in 1945, Jannings cowardly and opportunistically carried his Oscar around with him to try and ingratiate himself with the Americans. It didn't work. The proof of his Nazi collaboration was onscreen, and no one ever gave Jannings another acting role. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

#220: Bail Out (Max Kleven, 1989)

This super-goofy, low-budget action thriller written and directed by stuntman Max Kleven, also known as W.B., Blue and the Bean and Outlaws Incorporated, moves at a decent clip and is reasonably entertaining and entertainingly stupid and certainly didn't eat up too much of my precious, valuable time over this long Thanksgiving weekend, and for that I salute it, with some raspberries blown in the general direction of the ridiculous racial and sexual stereotypes casually sprinkled throughout this turkey like a poorly chosen seasoning. I think a brief description will let you know what you're in for.
Bail Out stars the one, the only David Hasselhoff as Roger "White Bread" Donaldson (W.B. for short), a tennis instructor/bounty hunter for an unscrupulous, sleazy bail bondsman named Haronian (Charlie Brill). W.B. is assigned to the case of Annette "Nettie" Ridgeway (Linda Blair), the wealthy daughter of millionaire developer Mr. Ridgeway (a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here John Vernon). Nettie was in the car with a man busted for $5 million worth of cocaine, and W.B. is hired to ensure she makes her court date on Tuesday.
When W.B. arrives to pick her up from her night in jail, Nettie is kidnapped by a couple of detectives hired to take her to her father's house. W.B. follows in his sweet ride, just in time to see another van pull in, this one driven by Colombian drug smugglers. They mow down the detectives and kidnap Nettie from the first kidnappers. W.B. is bummed about his job evaporating, but then concocts an elaborate scheme to wrest Nettie from the Colombians and get an even bigger payday than originally planned. He enlists a couple of racially diverse bounty hunter friends with nicknames to help him -- Mason "Blue" Walcott (Tony Brubaker), a former L.A. Raider, and Casper "Bean" Garcia (Thomas Rosales Jr.), a walking Mexican stereotype.
The three friends get mixed up in all kinds of crazy adventures along the way, especially when Nettie is kidnapped for a third time, this time by Colombian drug czar Zalazar (the very white Gregory Scott Cummins) after she slips free of the 'Hoff. These adventures will see them cross paths with an Iranian drug lord, strippers (one of whom plays a pantomimed game of tennis with W.B.), a nude motel clerk (ballet dancer and B-movie actor Debra Lamb), machine gun-toting Colombians, the guy who played Swamp Thing, a flamboyant gay stereotype car rental clerk, a guy dressed as a mariachi for no discernible reason, horses, and Danny Trejo. Oh yeah, and they eventually end up on a South American island.
Along the way, we learn that Mr. Ridgeway is not just a developer, but also a guy who lets drug smugglers use his dummy corporations and empty warehouses for some kickbacks, W.B. can pilot a helicopter, Nettie is an expert shot, nobody is getting paid enough for this shit, and Bean is great with explosives. Everybody has a good time, Hasselhoff butchers "La Bamba," rubs dirt in his hair, and makes comical facial expressions, and Bean hopefully makes enough cash to feed his nine kids. Cue '80s cheeseball guitars and gated drums while a pseudo-Eddie Money sings a theme song about our characters.
I don't need to spend any time analyzing this movie. You know exactly what it looks like and you can get it from Amazon Prime, YouTube, or your local independent video store. Or not. I had a good time.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

#219: The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)

It feels a bit strange to write a post about a silly horror film after last night's horrible tragedy in Paris. I can't say anything about it that is not inadequate and banal and unhelpful and inconsequential, but here I go anyway. We're a violent and destructive species, and we will be until we finally exhaust ourselves into extinction and let the world balance itself again. Some of us are capable of  extending tiny pleasures and kindnesses to each other, though, and there is a quiet dignity and grace in getting through our largely inconsequential lives with a minimum of damage to others. I may be no great shakes as a human, but I spend my days trying to make my wife and my cats happy and trying to make reasonably decent music with my friends and trying to write fun stuff for people who share my interests and trying to spend as much time listening to, watching, reading, looking at, eating, and experiencing the creative things some of my fellow humans have made when they were at their least crappy instead of spending my days mired in violence and greed and hate. Sometimes I fail at all these things, but I try. If that's what you're doing, too, thank you, and if that's what you're not doing, fuck you. Life is sad enough. Stop making it sadder.
In the spirit of getting on with it, let's talk about Mike Newell's 1980 horror film, The Awakening. I can't wholeheartedly recommend this film to a modern, general audience, but it's a fascinating period piece with some gorgeous cinematography, and I think film buffs will get a kick out of it. It has a very old-fashioned vibe (even by 1980 standards), for good and ill, and a lot of heavy hitters behind the camera. Unavailable for years, the film is now on DVD as a part of the bare-bones, mail-order Warner Archives series in a beautiful, widescreen reproduction. (Another great reason to support your local video stores. Netflix doesn't carry this series, but most existing independent video stores have a ton of them.)
Based on the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, The Awakening is about famed Egyptologist Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston) and his erstwhile assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York) searching for the tomb of an obscure Egyptian queen whose history has been scrubbed from the Egyptian records due to her murderous rage and overall scariness. Corbeck has been obsessed with this quest for years, much to the chagrin of his pregnant, neglected wife Anne (Jill Townsend). It's hard to tell whether Heston is supposed to be American or British in the film, but really, every character Heston plays is from the country of CHUCK HESTON, so that's very much where he's playing this character.
Matthew and Jane eventually find the queen and her tomb, which coincides with the premature birth of his daughter Margaret. Of course, Matthew misses the birth, and his fed-up wife takes the baby and splits as soon as she recovers. Matthew and his find are the hit of Egypt, and his obsession with the queen only increases, even as people in his orbit start dying mysteriously and gruesomely. The film then jumps ahead 18 years. Matthew is a professor in England and has left his family for his assistant Jane. His wife and daughter live in the United States. Margaret is 18 now and has grown up to become a pre-Remington Steele Stephanie Zimbalist, and she gets the urge to visit her absentee father in England.
Though they haven't seen each other in years, they connect immediately and creepily obsess over each other and the queen. When Matthew gets the news that there has been some damage to the queen's corpse due to a fungus or virus, he and Margaret go to Egypt and then bring the queen back to England for restoration. Lots of people die mysteriously, Matthew gets even more obsessively bonkers, and Margaret starts believing she's the reincarnated queen.
The Awakening has a very deliberate, slow pace that gradually accumulates in detail (except for the final third, where it's a little too obvious that some scenes have been cut for time and important details have been excised). This approach to storytelling was on its last legs in Hollywood productions at the time, and it's an approach I miss. The Awakening drags a bit, but overall, the slower pace creates an atmosphere and mood that fits the film well. Heston's hamminess works here. The story is silly but not ridiculous, and the tone is serious but not deathly self-important, and Heston never slides too far into campy self-parody while at the same time his scenery chewing keeps the film from being overly precious and pretentious.
On the negative side, the film is also old-fashioned when it comes to male/female relationships. Though the film is full of women characters, they are all fairly one-dimensional and are given only as much as they need to illuminate Matthew's character. They are defined by their relationships to him, not by their own personalities. Still, Matthew gets his comeuppance in the pretty awesome and pretty silly final scene.
The Awakening was the first feature film by British director Mike Newell, who up to that point had been an almost 20-year veteran of British television. He's had a pretty interesting career since in both the American and UK film industries. Newell is one of the last of the master craftsmen for hire in the Michael Curtiz mold, and his credits include such disparate films as Bad Blood, The Good Father, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The film's real star, though, is cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The guy is a wizard with light, and the golden sun and deserts of Egypt, the interiors of museums, and the vegetation and cityscapes of England are all captured beautifully by him. Cardiff had a long, distinguished career that included a fruitful collaboration with Powell & Pressburger on Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, and his other credits include Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa, Under Capricorn, Ghost Story, Conan the Destroyer, Cat's Eye, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Even the ridiculous movies looked good when he photographed them.   

Saturday, October 31, 2015

#218: The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

Happy Halloween, people. This is my first time delivering a movie review post on Halloween, and I'm pleased the film in question turned out to be a great one. I planned on writing it last week, but a houseful of my wife's relatives in town for a wedding led to this spookily appropriate postponement.
The first of many film adaptations of Maurice Renard's novel, The Hands of Orlac is a lesser-known triumph from Robert Wiene, the German director most famous for the 1920 German Expressionist horror masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari deserves all the accolades thrown its way and is a true creative blend of set design, cinematography, direction, and performance, but I might like The Hands of Orlac even more. This is just a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the lighter, subtler touch and the burrowing, methodical accumulation of paranoia and fear of Orlac to the more overt and hyper-stylized all-encompassing nightmare world of Caligari. Each film is great and widely available, though, so why pick one when you can have both?
Reunited with Caligari star Conrad Veidt, Wiene uses the gifted actor as the title character here. Orlac is a famous concert pianist away on tour. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) anxiously awaits his return and pines for him to run his famous hands all over her body. This hand fetish continues throughout the film, which caused American and German censors some discomfort and led to the film's delayed and disruptively edited release in the United States four years after its release in Europe. There are no double entendres or sly winks and hints here. Yvonne has a strong sexual desire for her husband's hands, and she can barely control herself even when discussing it with her maid and confidante Regine (Carmen Cartellieri). Fortunately, her husband played his last show of the tour and is returning home on the train that night. Unfortunately, a careless railroad employee makes a terrible error, causing Orlac's train to hit another train head-on just a few miles from the station.
Yvonne rushes to the scene of the accident and finds her husband badly injured but still alive. At the hospital, Orlac's surgeon Dr. Serral (Hans Homma) informs a grateful Yvonne that Orlac's head injuries are serious but not life-threatening and that he will recover. Then he gives her the worst news of all. Orlac's hands are so badly damaged he may not be able to save them. Yvonne goes into near-breakdown mode and demands that Dr. Serral save her husband's beautiful, sexy hands at any cost. The good news here is that Dr. Serral has been doing some freaky but successful secret hand transplants. The bad news is that Orlac gets the hands of notorious and recently executed robber/murderer Vasseur. Oh shiiiiiiiit!
When Orlac recovers and learns the source of his new hands, he freaks out. He feels murderous urges, which he suppresses at great psychological cost. Is he losing his marbles or is there some essence of the murderous man contained in his hands that is taking hold of Orlac? Or is something even more sinister going on? Surprisingly, world's biggest hand fetishist Yvonne never even notices that her husband has a completely different pair of hands, but she does notice that he won't touch her with them since the surgery and is pretty distraught about that. I won't reveal the rest, but I will say that many great scenes, images, and twists and turns in the story follow.
Wiene dials down Caligari's extreme stylization in this more earthbound tale of terror, but there is nothing routine or perfunctory about the visual world he creates here. The Hands of Orlac is filled with expressively beautiful and/or nightmarish images and shot compositions and a masterful use of shadows and light. Wiene used harsh, exaggerated, abstract angles in Caligari to let you know from the outset that you were in a world permeated by madness, while the exaggerated, expressionist touches in Orlac slowly accumulate as our character moves from a world he understands to a world filled with darkness, doubt, suppression, and fear.
I loved so many shots and scenes in Orlac, especially the dark taverns and bars, the most visually expressive newsstand in the world, the oversized doors and couches and their exaggeratedly rounded shapes, the expressive faces in closeup and medium shots, the darkly perverse humor and sexual content, the masterful control of a bizarre and difficult tone. I could go on.
This is a great movie, full of great moments, a silent gem that needs a bigger audience. Check it out.    

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The SLIFR Halloween Quiz

The highly enjoyable film blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule presents a film buff quiz a few times a year. I posted my answers to the most recent one on my general film blog We Can't Stop the Dancing Chicken. SLIFR has just unleashed a Halloween-themed horror quiz an unprecedented handful of days after the last quiz, so I thought I'd post my answers here instead, since this is a horror, cult, and midnight movie-themed blog.

1) Edwige Fenech or Barbara Bouchet?
Bouchet by default. I haven't seen any Fenech movies, which I should probably rectify soon.

2) The horror movie you will stand up for when no one else will:
Amityville II: The Possession has a reputation as just another terrible cash-in sequel, but I think it's a pretty solid horror movie with an enjoyably perverse streak, a kinetic style, and an expressive depiction of '80s teenage rebellion. It's much better than the first film, and much, much better than any other film with Amityville in the title.

3) Your favorite horror novel: 
It's technically a novella, so maybe I'm cheating, but The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

4) Lionel Atwill or George Zucco?
George Zucco, because he was in After the Thin Man and because of this still:

5) Name a horror film which you feel either goes "too far" or conversely might have been better had it been bolder.
I hate horror films that linger on rape and torture and the worst one for me is the original I Spit on Your Grave. (Haven't seen the remake. Won't see the remake.) I don't want to know anyone who enjoys watching a woman being tortured and raped repeatedly for 45 minutes. Conversely, any of the recent bland Hollywood remakes of classic '60s, '70s, and '80s horror movies would be improved by some boldness, perversity, and personality.

6) Let the Right One In or Let Me In?
I haven't seen Let Me In, but I loved every minute of Let the Right One In except for the ridiculous CGI cat scene.

7) Favorite horror film released by American International Pictures:
So many favorites and so much fierce competition here, but I'll go with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with honorable mention shout-outs to Black Sunday, The Masque of the Red Death, Witchfinder General, Sisters, Death Line (aka Raw Meat), and Deranged. And about 35 others.

8) Veronica Carlson or Barbara Shelley?
I haven't seen much from either actor, but Barbara Shelley gets the nod just for being in a few films and TV series I've seen.

9) Name the pinnacle of slasher movie kills, based on gore quotient, level of cleverness, or shock value. 
Leaving out Psycho and Halloween for being too obvious and too influential (the Beatles and Stones of slasher movies, or maybe the Elvis and Beatles of slasher movies) and any of Dario Argento's '70s and '80s kills (don't know if these are technically slasher films), I'm going to pick Margot Kidder's death by crystal unicorn while children sing Christmas carols outside her window in Black Christmas (the original, of course, not the remake) with honorable mentions for Wendy's long chase scene and death in the original Prom Night and Brooke Shields' death in Alice, Sweet Alice. These deaths aren't particularly gory, just shocking, tense, and atmospheric. I also can't overlook this scene from The House on Sorority Row, in which Jodie Draigie totally kills spoken English dead with much shock value in this insane line reading of a completely banal line of dialogue.

10) Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Dracula (1931, George Melford)?
I regrettably have not seen Melford's Spanish-language version, but I love Browning's Dracula, despite some clunky scenes when Lugosi's not around.  

11) Name a movie which may not strictly be thought of as a horror film which you think qualifies for inclusion in the category.
Most David Lynch movies and Todd Haynes' Safe, which is considered an indie drama but is a psychological horror classic on par with Repulsion.

12) The last horror movie you saw in a theater? On home video?
Theater: Yakuza Apocalypse has vampires in it, so that may count, but I don't think of it as a horror film. In that case, probably The Babadook.
Home video: Bad Taste

13) Can you think of a horror movie that works better as a home video experience than as a theatrical one?
I think horror movies are generally creepier at home, especially if you're watching them by yourself or with a small group of people, but Ringu (and probably its American remake, though I haven't seen that one) is particularly great in this setting, since it's about a curse that gets you if you watch a bootleg video on your TV.

14) Brad Dourif or Robert Englund?
I like Robert Englund, but he doesn't stand a chance against Brad Dourif's body of work. Dourif by a huge lead.  

15) At what moment did you realize you were a horror fan? Or what caused you to realize that you weren't?
I came out of the womb a fan of horror and rock and roll and have no memories of discovering either. It was always just a part of who I am. There must have been a moment when it clicked, but I suspect that happened on a subconscious level.

16) The Thing with Two Heads or The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant?
I have vague memories of seeing both films on television as a child, and though I'm a big Bruce Dern fan now, I probably liked The Thing with Two Heads better because Rosey Grier was in it and I knew him from Free to Be You and Me. It also taught us important lessons about overcoming racism and how to safely operate a motorcycle if you have two heads. We probably need another mini-wave of two-headed transplant movies. Summer movies have become too self-important.

17) Favorite giallo or giallo moment:
Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

18) Name a horror remake, either a character or an entire film, that you prefer over its original or more iconic incarnation.
I like the 1988 version of The Blob more than the 1958 original. A remake that I like just as much as the original is Herzog's Nosferatu, which most critics find inferior to Murnau's silent masterpiece, but I find just as beautiful, atmospheric, and disturbing.

19) Your favorite director of horror films:
Excluding some favorites who also work in other genres (David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Brian de Palma, Larry Cohen), my choice is George A. Romero. Martin and the first three Dead movies are classics, and even his weakest movies have moments of greatness, invention, and humor. I love his stuff.

20) Caroline Munro or Stephanie Beacham?
Caroline Munro. Like question 14, it's not even close.

21) Best horror moment created specifically for TV:
I love several Tales from the Darkside episodes and was pretty freaked out by "The Cutty Black Sow" episode as a kid (also, it's just fun to say "cutty black sow"), but the show's scariest moment was its freaky-ass intro, which never failed to creep me out every Saturday night.

22) The Stephen King adaptation that works better as a movie than a book:
I'm not the biggest fan of Stephen King as a writer, though I loved his books when I was a kid, so I tend to prefer any King movie with a great director to a King book. Let's go with a tie between Carrie and The Shining, with honorable mentions to The Dead Zone and Christine.

23) Name the horror movie you most want to see but to this point never have.
The few scenes from Tourist Trap and its creepy score that I managed to see and hear have me anticipating the moment I finally see the whole thing.

24) Andre Morell or Laurence Naismith?
I can't say I spend much time thinking about either man, but I prefer Andre Morell.

25) Second favorite horror film made in the 1980s:
This is an impossible question to answer, but let's go with Michael Laughlin's criminally underseen, wildly inventive slasher/mad scientist hybrid Strange Behavior from 1981. I have no idea if this really is my second favorite 1980s horror film, but it's the first one I thought of that I couldn't call my favorite but that I love with every part of me that loves movies.

26) Tell us about your favorite TV horror host and the program showcasing horror classics over which he/she presided/presides.
As a child of the '80s, I remember watching a lot of Elvira and enjoying her look, her (genuine?) love of horror, her goofy jokes, and the fun she always seemed to be having, but I also spent hours and hours watching a VHS tape called Horrible Horror that collected clips from old horror and science fiction films that was hosted by Zacherley,  the Cool Ghoul, with interstitial skits from him as well. Everything I said about Elvira above also applies to Zacherley, though Elvira is much easier on the eyes. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

#217: Bad Taste (Peter Jackson, 1987)

Oh, Peter Jackson. I'll probably catch up to the Hobbit movies and The Lovely Bones someday, mostly because I tend to be a completist about film directors I like, but my enthusiasm for the task is fairly low. I liked the Lord of the Rings well enough, as far as long and expensive CGI blockbusters go, and there were enjoyable moments in all three movies, especially the first one. I felt much the same about King Kong, particularly some of those beautiful shots of Kong and Naomi Watts in fantasy-movie Old New York before all hell broke loose, though there were some troublingly racist elements early in the film. He makes a pretty good CGI blockbuster, but any of you who have read more than two posts of mine know how I feel about CGI blockbusters.
I miss the old, varied, weird Peter Jackson, the guy who made low-budget splatter horror-comedies Bad Taste and Dead Alive, the behind-the-showbiz curtain expose of sex and drugs and crime and violence except they're all puppets Meet the Feebles, the sensitive character study/true-crime indie drama Heavenly Creatures, and the dryly funny film history mockumentary Forgotten Silver. This was an unpredictable, independent-minded guy with a great sense of humor taking his own weird path. Even The Frighteners, his first major-studio release that looks overstuffed with CGI and undercooked in terms of character development in retrospect, is pretty odd and endearing and human, with a story about small-time con artists that turns into a Ghostbusters homage and then morphs into a slasher movie, with a likable performance from Michael J. Fox in one of his last leading roles before his Parkinson's forced him to reduce his acting schedule. I'm happy Peter Jackson is successful and doing what he wants and has won some Oscars and continues to film in New Zealand, but I miss the weird and I don't think the weird is coming back. I hope I'm wrong.
Bad Taste, Jackson's first feature film, is weird and funny and disgusting and full of handmade effects and imagination. There's no real attempt at storytelling or character development, but that would only get in the way of the crazed, goofball fun here. This is a real nerdy young man's movie with no female characters, though it doesn't come off like malicious exclusion. Instead, this is a good-natured sausage party made by dorks who probably hadn't met many girls yet. Jackson would get better at including women very soon.
The film opens with a shadowy figure using a severed finger to call in a small government team to the fictional New Zealand village of Kaihoro. The humans have disappeared. In their stead are murderous aliens inhabiting human bodies. This is part of a larger conspiracy orchestrated by an intergalactic fast food conglomerate trying to regain their spot as the most popular fast food chain on their home planet. Humans are apparently delicious, so the aliens are using isolated New Zealand as the initial test batch of people meat. They plan to bring the slaughtered New Zealanders back to their planet in boxes and feed them to their stockholders. If all goes well, the aliens can then return and harvest the billions of other humans for their menu.
The aliens underestimated how resourceful a handful of goofy New Zealanders can be. The team includes Ozzy (Terry Potter), Barry (Pete O'Herne), Frank (Mike Minett), and Derek (Jackson himself), as well as a rescued public health and welfare worker named Giles (Craig Smith), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and almost became the main ingredient in a stew. The team battles the aliens, who morph back into their original pig/ape/old man hybrid form, and much blood, guts, brains, spit, vomit, and slime ensues. In addition to the alien bodies, seagulls are smashed and sheep are exploded. This is not a film to be enjoyed while eating. God, I miss the days of handmade guts and slime (stares wistfully in the distance).
Bad Taste is a film where the action starts from the very beginning and continues until the crazed, Rocky Horror-nodding end. This nonstop action is exhausting and uninspired in CGI films, but not in handmade horror and action movies. Bad Taste is immature, gross-out fun, an innovative labor of love from a young guy who would one day become a powerful Hollywood producer and director. It's probably the only movie made by an Oscar winner where an alien eats the brains of another alien directly from the blown-apart skull of the latter alien with a spoon. Can anyone check on that? There may be a few others.
Peter Jackson made this movie with his own money on weekends over the course of four years, using whatever friends were available. (One friend was fired and rehired because his religious wife wouldn't let him work on the Sabbath day, and his eventual divorce allowed him to come back to Sunday work duty.) Most of the leading actors played dual roles, and the alien costumes were created in Jackson's mother's kitchen. The alien heads tilt back because the latex had to be pushed in that direction to fit in the oven. Jackson eventually received a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission toward the end of production that allowed him to finish the movie and find distribution. The film ran into some censorship in Australia, but became a cult hit at home, and a video favorite in the United States. I enjoy it a great deal, and I hope you do, too.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

#216: Autopsy (Armando Crispino, 1973)

I really enjoy '70s Italian horror movies, though there are certain tendencies and tropes I've had to overlook or ignore. I don't want to generalize, and I don't want to lump a disparate group of films together, but I've noticed some commonalities, good and bad, among most of the Italian horror I've watched from this era. First, the good stuff. Italian horror from the '70s tends to have great music, strong and distinct women characters, great locations, beautiful color palettes, strikingly unusual images, a perverse and creative approach to scenes of violence and death, an international cast, an almost avant-garde approach to narrative that follows dream logic more than conventional storytelling and plotting, a real sense of style, and a deft approach to suspense, atmosphere, and unease. Now, the stuff you have to contend with that isn't always so enjoyable. These movies also tend to be ridiculously sexist, unnecessarily confusing, wooden in terms of character development and convincing dialogue, and too often full of atrocious dubbing (the Italian film industry standard was to shoot without sound and dub everything in later well into the 1980s, so the voice actors weren't always the same as the actors in the film, with sometimes godawful results). Some of the negatives can paradoxically turn into positives by becoming so bizarre and/or ridiculous that much unintentional comedy is created or simply by creating enough of a strange disconnect to add to the dreamlike feel.
Autopsy has all of these strengths and weaknesses and is a truly strange film. I don't even know whether I like it or dislike it as a whole, though there are many individual scenes that float my Italian horror boat. It certainly opens strong, with an abstract, strange piece of score by the legendary Ennio Morricone that is accompanied by almost operatic, terrified moaning and a succession of rapidly edited scenes of various people committing suicide and murder/suicide all over Rome. It's a wild, powerful way to set the tone.
Shortly afterward, we meet Simona (Mimsy Farmer), a half-American/half-Italian grad student in forensic pathology writing her thesis on the differences between authentic and staged suicide and working an internship in a city morgue. She has some weird sexual hangups relating to her playboy father Gianni (Massimo Serato), who lives in a swinging bachelor apartment directly above her own, and exacerbated by her boyfriend, a creepy, smarmy sexist jerk named Edgar (Ray Lovelock). Edgar is a rich kid who spends his days as a photographer and part-time race car driver, and you'll want to punch him in the face every second he's on screen. Their relationship makes little narrative sense. Thrown into this drama is a mysterious American woman crashing at Simona's dad's place while he's gone who claims not to know him. Her name is Betty (Gaby Wagner) and when she mysteriously kills herself on a beach, her brother Paul (Barry Primus) enters the mix. He's a Catholic priest and ex-race car driver who spent time institutionalized after accidentally killing 14 spectators during a crash at Le Mans, and he and Simona have some weird sexual tension, too. The plot only gets more confusing from there, though the confusion primarily stems from the strange way Italian horror doles out the narrative.
Nothing much makes sense until the end, when a scam involving inheritances, embezzlement, rare books, archives, druggings, and the 1966 Florence flood and the efforts of the Mud Angels to retrieve and save damaged rare books, artworks, and artifacts ties everything together. By then, the audience has been bombarded with so much blood, nudity, dead bodies, mysterious weirdness, barking dogs, sexist Italian dudes (seriously, the movie puts forward the idea that every Italian man is a drooling, horny sexist cretin and that attempted rapes are normal occurrences every attractive young woman in Italy must endure daily and that these attempted rapes are annoyances rather than serious crimes), shenanigans in the Museum of Crime, abstract art, international beauties in red wigs, swanky apartments, shady conspiracies, automobile races, images of autopsied bodies coming to life and doing weird sex things, deaf aunts, paralysis, and rooftop gardening that it barely seems surprising.
A side note: My wife is an archivist, and she was pretty psyched about the archival aspects of the story. She sent me these two links about the flood, and the efforts to save these historical artifacts, artworks, and books here and here, if you'd like to check it out. It's interesting stuff, and an event my wife says made huge changes in the archives profession unlike a single event before or since.
Director Armando Crispino is not a stylistic master on par with Argento and Bava in their prime and he's not as visceral and crowd-pleasing as Fulci, but he pulls off some highly strange images and scenes here. I like the oddball atmosphere and highly eccentric approach to narrative, and we get some pretty spectacular death scenes. As always, Ennio Morricone provides a quality score. This one features some of his most out-there experiments in sound alongside more conventional and sentimental melodies. Mimsy Farmer and Gaby Wagner have great Italian horror screen presence, but, ugh, the male characters in this movie. The sexism is even more pronounced here than the usual '70s Italian movie macho thing, which seemed to bother me more than my wife, probably because she deals with the actual shit every day of her life so a 1973 Italian movie is small potatoes, but I grew tired of it while remaining engaged in other aspects of the movie.
Nevertheless, Autopsy is packed full of weirdness, and that goes a long way with me. I probably won't ever watch this one again, but I'm glad I saw it.  The high points are worth slogging through the other stuff.