Thursday, April 26, 2007

# 7: Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

It's going to be hard not to turn this post into a wake. Bob Clark and his 22-year-old son were killed less than four weeks ago by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane and smashed into them head-on. Clark made a series of excellent horror films in the 1970s before moving on to the highly regarded (but unseen by me) Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper movie "Murder by Decree," stupid but funny teenage sex comedy "Porky's," and undisputed holiday classic "A Christmas Story." I love so many movies of Clark's, it's easy to overlook his decline into unfunny mainstream Hollywood comedies and shitty children's movies like "Baby Geniuses" and "Karate Dog." ("Karate Dog?" What the fuck?) He was planning a return to the horror genre shortly before he was killed, and I had a lot of hope for his future projects. Unfortunately, we will never know how those projects would have panned out. Fortunately, his entire filmography is widely available on DVD and/or VHS. I loudly proclaim to the rafters that "Black Christmas" and "Deathdream" are two of the best horror movies ever made. "Deathdream" will show up later on our Fangoria list, so let me concentrate on "Black Christmas." I LOVE this movie. It is scary. It is funny. It is loaded with great character actors, like John Saxon (weary detective), Margot Kidder (alcoholic, caustically witty sorority girl), Keir Dullea (nutty music student), Olivia Hussey (British expatriate, super-serious sorority sister), and Douglas McGrath (dumb-ass cop/police dispatcher). These roles, and the film itself, milk cliches without being slaves to them. It gives an audience what it wants without supplying a lot of dumb-ass solutions. For example, the killer's identity is never revealed. The setting is believable, lived-in, and visually appealing.

The film has a wonderful structure of alternating disturbing, horrific scenes with relaxed, comedic, or character-heavy scenes, keeping the tension level high and supplying an ever-changing tone. The film is about a sorority house infiltrated by a psychotic killer who hides in the attic, picking them off one by one beginning the first night of Christmas break. Clark's location shooting, interest in actors, and respect for a sharp script allow this film a lot of breathing room. A lot of its slasher flick tropes have been ripped off ad infinitum, but the film still works better than anything following its lead. The sorority house sisters and house mother (a middle-aged party animal with flasks stashed all over the house) are so much more interesting than what you'd expect from a sorority house (fictional or actual) in today's real or fictional world. This film was pointlessly remade last year (Clark, who vowed never to allow any of his movies to be remade, finally succumbed to studio pressure and gave the go-ahead. He later publicly lambasted the film and said it would never happen again unless he remade his own films personally. He didn't live to make good on the promise, so who knows what will happen now.) Let me reiterate how much I love this movie, and how much I consider anyone who disagrees with me to be a humorless stick-in-the-mud. RIP, Bob Clark.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

#6: Beyond the Door (Ovidio G. Assonitis aka Oliver Hellman & Robert Barrett aka Richard Barrett aka Roberto D'Ettore Piazzoli, 1974)

The second filmed-in-the-USA Italian production with "Beyond" in the title in a row on our list, "Beyond the Door" has a lot of the same weaknesses as Fulci's "The Beyond" without a lot of its strengths. Assonitis and Barrett don't have Fulci's visual skills. The two men are pedestrian filmmakers, shooting in a flat, anonymous style that, in its use (or lack thereof) of visual space calls to mind an average generic network television show. The dubbing is, again, mostly atrocious. Some of the acting is terrible. The script directly rips off huge chunks of both "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" with incoherences all its own. (The filmmakers and producers were unsuccessfully sued by Warner Brothers for plagiarizing scenes from "The Exorcist.") Characterization is ignored to such an extent that in one scene, after our heroine Juliet Mills (Hayley Mills' sister) vomits up an ungodly amount of blood, her husband (Gabriele Lavia) tells her she looks tired and needs to go to bed.
However, there are some things about "Beyond the Door" I liked a lot. I liked all the brazen stealing. I believe art and entertainment belong to everyone and should be plundered, reconstituted, and ripped off as much as possible. Copyright laws are for businessmen. Creative endeavors belong to the people, and the people should do whatever they want with them as long as the originals are still available. (Oddly enough, Michael Haneke seems to have stolen the fish-tank smashing scene for his great film "The Seventh Continent.")
I liked Juliet Mills' nutty, creepy performance, particularly when she was in the all-out, balls-to-the-wall throes of demonic possession. I liked the location shooting in San Francisco. I've never been there, but judging the city from photographs and movies, San Francisco's landscape is so remarkable, it can become a strong character the equal of or superior to the actors and director. Setting and how it is used is very important to me as a movie viewer. The full-on horror scenes are very well done even though the rest of the movie stumbles hard narratively. And I particularly like the possibly evil little red-headed kid, the second possibly evil red-headed kid in a row. Demon-possessed red-headed kids were all the rage in the heady days of the demon-possession movies, the mid-1970s-the mid-1980s. My mother should have taken me to Hollywood. I could have been one of those kids. I could be a has-been ex-heroin addict born-again Christian living in a Malibu home with John Tesh, Flavor Flav, and a couple of women wrestlers for a reality series airing on the CW. Goddamn you, my parents.

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, April 15, 2007

#5: The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

Despite my lifelong love of horror movies, I haven't seen many Lucio Fulci films. Fulci is a cult favorite in the genre, but, besides "The Beyond," "Zombie" is the only Fulci film I've seen. Judging the man solely from these two movies, I find his
work full of incredibly memorable images, wildly over-the-top gore effects, wooden and badly dubbed acting, and incoherent/borderline retarded storytelling. Oh, and the occasional supremely ridiculous scene, such as this one in "Zombie" of a zombie fighting a shark. However, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Beyond" and even grew to love its major flaws. When it's bad, it's lovably bad, and when it's good, it's awesome.
First, the flaws: Like Dario Argento, Fulci is primarily concerned with the visual aspects of his work and is weak when it comes to narrative coherence. Also like Argento, he delivers nightmarish images of both great beauty and terror. Unlike Argento, his films are choppy and inconsistent, with lousy actors. Argento's stories may be silly, but he is a real artist with a consistent vision and a real affinity for and understanding of cinema. Fulci is a trash maven with great visual skill but complete ignorance of characterization, acting, narrative coherence, and common sense. In "Zombie," and especially in "The Beyond," scenes seem to appear out of order as if the reels had been switched, major characters turn up dead without any mention being made of their deaths or scenes showing how they died, a bunch of really cool shit happens that has absolutely no connection to much of the film or its characters, people do and say incredibly stupid things (e.g., "You have carte blanche, but not a blank check") and major plot developments are set up and then forgotten about. All sound was dubbed after the film was shot, which was common practice in Italy until the late 1980s, but it's a complete mess in this movie. Set in Louisiana, the character's accents jump in and out of bad American, bad British, and bad Italian.
However, "The Beyond" really works as a horror movie. The "story" is about a New York woman who inherits an old hotel on the outskirts of New Orleans from her deceased aunt. Unfortunately, the hotel sits on one of the seven portals to hell. That's pretty much it for narrative. Fulci is masterful when it comes to shocking scenes and horror setpieces, and there are some pretty amazing visual images that are hard to forget. It's not a case of style over substance because substance is not even acknowledged. It's really one nightmarish image after another, with falls from great heights, demons, vigilantes, zombies, killer spiders, possessed children, creepy mediums with large dogs, haunted houses, portals to hell, Louisiana swamps, gore, goop, slime, etc. This is a really cool-looking movie. The opening scene of a group of men in wooden boats, holding lanterns, floating down the Louisiana swamps toward the hotel, is beautifully lit and shot. A demon-possessed redheaded girl, who happens to be this site's mascot over on the top right side of the page, is a visual stand-out though she has nothing much to do with a lot of the film. Also, "The Beyond" has one of my favorite movie lines ever: "You ungodly warlock!" This is glorious trash.

Here's the German trailer:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

#4: The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook, 1972)

Peter Newbrook's only film as a director, "The Asphyx" is a Victorian period piece, wacko mad scientist movie, stern morality lesson about playing God, and unintentionally campy farce of the out-of-control British thespian spit and bluster variety. What I mean to say is: this movie is not very good, but it is a very good time. The story concerns itself with Sir Hugo, a scientist/inventor and beloved family man. Sir Hugo is also a photography enthusiast with the odd habit of photographing the elderly and the sick at the moment of their death. No one in the film seems to think it an odd hobby, but everyone is intrigued by the weird smudges that appear in each photo next to the heads of the near-dead. Sir Hugo has also invented a motion-picture camera. Since the film is set in 1875, this is some accomplishment for our man Hugo. However, the entire cast, including Hugo himself, is relatively unimpressed with the remarkable invention. Until tragedy strikes, that is. Sir Hugo films a family outing that, when viewed later, surprisingly contains close-ups and freeze frames even though it is explicitly stated earlier in the movie that the camera cannot zoom in or out and must film everything from a fixed position. This goes unremarked. Not particularly curious or perceptive for a group of science aficionados, am I right? Getting back to the story, the family outing ends in tragedy, and when Sir Hugo is finally able to bring himself to view his filmed footage (actually later that evening, he recovers fast), he discovers a nasty-looking little spirit hovering near the heads of his dearly departed loved ones. He views and films a public execution a short time later (being an enlightened man of knowledge, he opposes execution and is filming it for posterity's sake) and sees the nasty little spirit again. This could only be one thing, he surmises, using only the finest movie science 1875 via 1972 has to offer. It is the asphyx! The spirit that comes to you the moment before you die to escort your soul to the afterlife. Using even more high-tech science, Sir Hugo comes up with a plan to trap one's own asphyx, thereby ensuring one's immortality as long as the asphyx remains trapped. He enlists his surviving family, his daughter and her fiance, to aid in his crazy immortality experiments. Everything goes perfectly. Just kidding. Things go wrong! Ha ha ha ha! This would be a good place to explain the best reason to watch this movie. I assumed before renting "The Asphyx" that it was pronounced "uh-sfix," as in "asphyxiate." Hilariously, I was wrong. The word, spoken repeatedly in the film, is pronounced "Ass-fix," emphasis on the "ass." The incredibly hammy Robert Stephens, as Sir Hugo, is fond of yelling, "Release my ass-fix." This never got old. My wife and I were howling with laughter every time. Instead of a cry of pain at his tragic hubris and science run amok, it sounded like Sir Hugo wanted a big ol' booty up in his grill. Sir Hugo's an assman.

Newbrook, who had previously worked on the camera crews for "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," understandably never directed again. He doesn't have much of a visual flair or distinct directorial style, but he does manage to come up with two or three effective scenes and a truly great ending. Also, a lot of unintentional hilarity. This is an ideal Bad Movie Night candidate. Eleven thumbs up.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

#3: Apt Pupil (Bryan Singer, 1998)

This film's subject matter is something that must be dealt with, but I don't think this is the proper forum, and I don't feel like getting into it tonight. The problem is not specifically with this film (or the Stephen King novella it's based on), but with any piece of art or entertainment that uses the Holocaust when the primary author of the work has, at best, a tenuous connection to the subject. The Holocaust has become Starbucks shorthand for artists wishing to give their work some unearned gravitas, false depth, or dramatic punch. There is more to be said about this, but let it stand as an ever-present problem hovering in the background of my otherwise mildly positive enjoyment of the movie. Also, I am a man who watches movies about people being murdered in a variety of gruesome ways for relaxing, light entertainment, so maybe I'm ethically compromised, too.

Moving on, "Apt Pupil" was marketed as a drama on its release, savaged by critics, and a disappointment at the box office. It is now remembered as a momentary setback for director Singer, in between his hits "The Usual Suspects" and "X-Men." The Fangoria list places the movie where it belongs, as a horror film, and sets it up for reevaluation. In this context (or, really, in any other), ethically compromised plot or no, it is a much better film than it's been given credit for. I prefer it to its bookends, the former a fun but empty exercise in film-school bag-of-tricks show-offiness elevated by a great cast, the latter a boring, expensive Hollywood crapfest. "Apt Pupil" isn't exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but it's effective and well-acted, with skillful pacing and some delightful nastiness. Brad Renfro plays a high school student and intensely repressed self-hating homosexual who becomes obsessed with the Holocaust and recognizes a reclusive man who lives in his neighborhood, played by Ian McKellen, as a former Nazi SS man in hiding. He blackmails him in exchange for stories about what it was really like to be a Nazi. The blackmail becomes more sadistic and homoerotic in nature until the dormant Nazi in McKellen is awakened. And McKellen loves it. Soon, the playa is getting played, and the blackmail tables are turned. McKellen is fantastic in the role, and he is crucial for the film's success. If they got some jobber or Hollywood billionaire to play the part, the movie would have imploded. McKellen plays him in that dangerously narrow area between realism and camp, and never once plunks down too hard in the former or explodes all over the latter. He's a great actor. In many ways, McKellen's character is a classic movie monster, with Renfro as his assistant. Renfro is purposely annoying in the part, which I think is the right choice. In King's novella, which I haven't read since I was nine years old so I could be full of shit, the character is much more evil. The story ends with his character shooting his fellow classmates during school. This may or may not have worked in King's story, but the movie takes a much quieter tack with a completely different ending, which I think is a smart move. It realizes that a real-life Nazi is much more evil and frightening than a fascistic teenage asshole, and the Nazi is the one we should really be scared of. Again, I'm not sure how ethical it is to turn the Nazi into a fictional Dracula or Wolf Man boogeyman, but it makes plenty of cinematic and American folkloric sense. This is, basically, what the Nazis are for an average, upper middle class American: campfire horror stories whose realities never really intrude too much on our complacent creature comforts.

Oh yeah, the most terrifying thing about "Apt Pupil"? The mustache of David Schwimmer, playing Renfro's guidance counselor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

#2: Alone in the Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)

"Alone in the Dark" boasts a cast list unique in the annals of cinema history: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Donald Pleasence, punk band The Sick Fucks, and Dwight Schultz (better known as "Howlin' Mad" Murdock on "The A-Team"). It is worth seeing for this reason alone. Fortunately, there are many other reasons to see it. I'm not one to particularly give a damn about plot, but "Alone in the Dark" has a great one that gives the actors a chance to go apeshit. Schultz plays a psychologist who has just been hired at a prestigious but highly unorthodox mental hospital run by Pleasence, a supreme hippie oddball who loves to bearhug everyone and smokes pot out of a pipe while at work. Pleasence is a proponent of the touchy-feely peacenik values of understanding the disturbed that may work in real life but certainly don't fly in horror films. Jack Palance is the ringleader of a murderous quartet of psychopaths, including Landau, who are locked up in the maximum security ward of the institution. When Pleasence introduces Schultz to the gang, the wheels start spinning in crazy Jack's head. He decides, pretty much out of the blue, that Schultz has murdered the beloved psychologist who previously held his job and hatches a plan to kill him. When a city-wide blackout shorts out the electric locks in the hospital and Palance, Landau, and the other two non-famous psychopaths escape, it is time for City Slickers 3: The Search for Murdock's Entrails. First, our lovable psychos break into a shopping center and take some crossbows, axes, etc., and proceed to knock the shit out of everyone in the parking lot. Then they surround Schultz's house. The mild-mannered, non-violent Schultz is forced to react to this "Rio Bravo"/"Straw Dogs"/"Assault on Precinct 13"/"Night of the Living Dead" scenario and protect his wife, daughter, and visiting sister (who is recovering from a mental breakdown of her own and, incidental to the plot, loves smoking pot and listening to punk and reggae) through extreme vigilante-ism. Don't miss the scene where Palance visits a punk club and fits right in because he's punker than punk (i.e., he laughs maniacally, beats the shit out of some people, and lets a punk rock chick fellate his gun). The two non-famous psychos' nicknames are "Bleeder" and "Fatty." The latter is an overweight pedophile and the former gets a bloody nose whenever he's about to go on a rampage. Yes, it just keeps getting more ridiculous, and thank god for that, but Sholder's film is also streamlined, lean, and effective. It's paced like a crime film or solid action movie, but finds time for plenty of black humor and a couple of visually impressive dream sequences. Some pretty sweet kills as well.

And one of the psychos occasionally wears a hockey mask, beating Jason's first appearance with a hockey mask by a few months. (Of course, that would be in "Friday the 13th: 3D." Before that, Jason wore a burlap sack, because nothing is more terrifying than burlap.) This movie is so much fun.

Coincidentally, we rented this film the week Palance died. It is a worthy tribute.
In another coincidence, it is the second film in a row on the list to be shot in New Jersey.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

#1: Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976)

Horror, for me, is so attractive because of its ability to simultaneously comfort and disturb, the way it exploits our childhood fears and plays with our expectations. It supplies a danger-free way to experience danger. It's close to our dreams and, in the best horror films, follows dream logic. Horror is a profitable genre with plenty of cliches, tropes, and conventions, but, as a genre, is much more plastic, elastic, experimental, and freeing than action movies or romantic comedies or police procedurals. Horror films at their best are also inviting homes for many of my favorite things about the movies, namely mood, atmosphere, setting, tonal changes, and great, odd, or wonderfully terrible character acting. I also like exploding heads. Except for exploding heads, everything I mention above is included in the first film on our list, "Alice, Sweet Alice." This is exactly the kind of film that should kick off our list. It's got that seedy, dirty 1970s atmosphere I love so much, some overwrought Catholic imagery that's overwrought in just the right way, a main character who is simultaneously creepy and sympathetic, some nice character roles, freaky masks, a young Brooke Shields in her first film performance, a tone that is simultaneously dreamlike and realistic, and a pervading sense of menace.

Set in a squalid-looking New Jersey, the story focuses on Paula Sheppard (whose only other film role is in another cult film, 1982's "Liquid Sky"), a disturbed girl who is bitterly jealous of her sister, her mother's clear favorite, Brooke Shields. Something horrible happens during Shields' first communion, and much creepiness ensues. Sheppard is an intensely compelling actor, and it's baffling she wasn't able to get more film work.

Alphonso De Noble (whose only other screen credits are "Blood Sucking Freaks" and "Night of the Zombies") has a great character role as the landlord, Mr. Alphonso. He plays him as a morbidly obese, effete pedophile who dotes on his cats, eats cat food, and sits around listening to opera all day in an undershirt and urine-stained pants. It sounds over the top, but De Noble plays him with a matter-of-fact directness that makes the character queasily disgusting and disturbing instead of laughable. He is probably the most revolting-looking human being I've ever seen in a movie. Take a look for yourself:

This is a very satisfying horror movie, with a consistently creepy atmosphere, solid acting, an interesting score, and some heavy-handed Catholic-bashing that brought a smile to the face of this lapsed Catholic (director Sole, a former Catholic, had recently been excommunicated for making a porno movie and had an ax to grind). I liked it a lot.

Here are the first eight minutes:


Welcome to Dr. Mystery's third blog. As some of you may know, I have an obsession with lists. Movie lists, music lists, book lists, sandwich lists, etc. While I find the ranking of films, albums, etc. in any hierarchical order ridiculous, I love watching, listening to, reading, and/or eating all the items on a list. It's fun for me, and it's a good way to expose myself to the many wonderful, good, overlooked, underrated, overrated, baffling, stupid, and occasionally shitty things life has to offer that I otherwise might never have encountered. It's also fun to watch, read, etc. the big pile of stuff in the context of the list, and make interesting connections between each item. I'm a list nerd. I also really like movies, and I like writing about movies. I do this on Film-Watching Robot, and the predominant subject tends to be film as an art form. The word "art" has been so badly abused by jerks and assnuts that most people think art films (as opposed to "art films," c.f., the real-life equivalents of art-film parody "The Flower that Drank the Moon" in Zwigoff and Clowes' "Ghost World") are dreary, dull, depressing, and elitist. I find real art exciting, thrilling, fun, and pleasurable. Sometimes real art can be difficult and frustrating, but, then again, so is skiing and eating too many hot dogs. People tend to make up their minds about art before they give it a chance. "Art's not for me. It's none of my business." But I digress. I spend a lot of time writing about neglected artworks, or at least what I feel are neglected artworks, but I'm also a big proponent of stoopid fun. Fun is important. High culture and low culture are both worth our time. It's only middle culture that should be avoided, at all costs. I'm taking a long time to get to a setup of this blog. I apologize for the shittiness of this introduction. Let's try this again.

I love horror movies. I haven't had much of a chance to write about horror movies on Film-Watching Robot. My love of lists and horror movies led me to a used copy of Fangoria's 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen, a guide to underrated and overlooked horror movies. (I used to buy copies of Fangoria magazine behind my mother's back as a child. She thought the blood and gore would warp my impressionable young mind. And IT DID! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!) I have made it my business to watch all 101 of these films and report my findings on this blog, hopefully with lots of stills and YouTube clips. I have watched nine of them so far, and have been averaging two or three a month. Won't you join me and rekindle our collective love of horror movies (all of us, right?)? Pleasant screams, douchebags. First update to come later today (or tonight).