Sunday, July 29, 2007

#18: Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Almost everyone loved Guillermo del Toro's most recent film, Pan's Labyrinth, and I did, too. Some of the over-the-top gushing for the movie got a little cloying, particularly Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black's wishes for the film to be implanted in his skin and on the inside of his eyelids and for the memory of the film to replace the other memories in his head (??), but you can't blame Nirvana for Candlebox. It was a great movie, never mind a nation of fanboys' urine-stained pants. With Pan's Labyrinth relatively fresh in my mind, it was enlightening to go back and watch Cronos, del Toro's first film, again.

It's about an elderly antiques dealer, Jesus Gris, who takes care of his young granddaughter. He finds what looks like a gold replica of a scarab beetle inside an old angel statue and winds it up. Some mechanical legs protract and then stab into the man's skin. The device, Cronos, invented by an alchemist in the 1500s, has, unbeknownst to the antiques dealer, rendered him immortal. To retain his immortality, he'll need to suck down some fresh human blood. Unfortunately for Gris, he doesn't want to be immortal. He just wants to run his shop, hang out with his wife, and take care of his granddaughter. Meanwhile, an evil American owner of a Mexican factory (played by Mexican actor and Luis Bunuel regular Claudio Brook) who is slowly dying from cancer has been tracking the Cronos device for years and wants it bad. He sends his thuggish nephew (Ron Perlman) to bust some heads and get it from Gris.

Cronos, like Pan's Labyrinth, is full of childlike fantasy, humor, brief bursts of intense violence, unsentimental but affectionate familial relationships between a little girl and her parent (or in this case, grandparent), and an acceptance of death as an inevitable, natural part of life. It also features excellent performances from everyone in it, particularly Federico Luppi as Gris, Ron Perlman, and Tamara Shanath, whom Jonathan Rosenbaum correctly describes as "a highly expressive little girl."
For a young guy who'd never made a feature film before, del Toro's style, technical skill, and visual expressiveness were already fully formed. Although more modest in ambition and scope than his later work, Cronos doesn't look like a first film. He's a born filmmaker.

Monday, July 16, 2007

#17: Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980)

This was a big surprise. Knowing nothing about "Christmas Evil" other than the title and the fact that it was distributed by Troma Films, I was expecting nothing more than a trashy, schlocky "killer Santa" slasher movie. (Which I kind of love, in my own small way.) However, this may be the most atypical Troma film, or Christmas-themed horror movie, ever made. I fell in love with "Christmas Evil" about five seconds in, and, despite a few rocky patches, my love grew stronger with each passing frame. Where did this movie come from, and why don't more people know about it?
A superficial plot synopsis makes it sound much sillier than it is: A little boy and his younger brother sit on the stairs of their home on Christmas Eve with their mother and watch a man in a Santa suit come down the chimney and put presents under the tree. The younger brother says it's their father, but the older boy believes it really is Santa. Sneaking back down the stairs in the middle of the night, the boy sees Santa in a sexual tryst with his mother, goes into a state of shock, runs upstairs, smashes a snow globe, and purposefully cuts himself with a shard. Fast forward thirty years: the boy is now an asexual, Christmas-obsessed toy factory worker who has just been promoted to an executive position with the company, which is named Jolly Dream. In his spare time, he spies on neighborhood kids with binoculars, not for sexual reasons, but to discover who's been bad and who's been good. He then enters their information into two oversized ledgers, "Bad Boys and Girls" and "Good Boys and Girls." (The baddest boy of all is named Moss Garcia, possibly my favorite character name in all of film.) After a series of perceived slights, he fuses his identity with Santa's and takes to the streets in his sleigh (a white van), meting out punishments and rewards to the deserving on the wintry streets of New York.
Visually, narratively, tonally, and performatively, "Christmas Evil" is much richer, stranger, funnier, creepier, and freer than the plot synopsis suggests. Take the opening scene: Ostensibly positing a single traumatic event in the character's childhood as an explanation for his adult behavior, a rancid and dishonest cliche prevalent in horror films, murder mysteries, and bio-pics alike, "Christmas Evil" is really undercutting this oversimplification. The unsettling surrealist touches (Santa/Dad can somehow propel himself into and out of the chimney like a rocket) and the oddness of the sex scene (what looks like cunnilingus is actually just Santa/Dad pressing his face near the woman's crotch while rubbing the same spot on her leg over and over in a weird, repeating loop that never seems to go anywhere), not to mention that the younger brother is already too old to believe in Santa, seem to suggest that the boy was already nuts, denying any pat explanations.

"Christmas Evil" is hard to describe, visually and narratively, so I'll do the lazy thing and offer some comparisons. Made for less than a million dollars, the film barely suffers from its low budget, and the cinematography is beautifully and carefully composed. Visually, the film looks like a combination of late-period Fassbinder (a big inspiration for director Jackson), William Eggleston's photographs, Edward Hopper's paintings, the inside of holiday snow globes, and 1970s beer commercials, particularly the scenes inside the toy factory. Tonally, the film is equal parts Luis Bunuel, John Waters (a huge champion of the movie, who claims to watch it every Christmas), 1960s and 1970s television Christmas specials, and Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," with one scene paying homage to "Frankenstein" and the two murder scenes given the generic slasher-film treatment. Brandon Maggart, who oddly enough is Fiona Apple's dad, is excellent in the leading role. He's simultaneously incredibly sympathetic and horrifying. The rest of the cast is equally good, and there are loads of visual treats (particularly the Santa Claus police lineup).
Needless to say, this was not at all what I was expecting, and thank God for that. I loved this movie.

Fun fact: Moss Garcia's mother was played by Patricia Richardson, who would later go on to star in "Home Improvement," or, as Lloyd Kaufman put it in his DVD introduction: "Patricia Richardson is in this movie. She later starred with ex-junkie Tim Allen in the TV show 'Home Improvement,' which sucked."
Not-so-fun fact: Director Lewis Jackson, prior to "Christmas Evil," or "You Better Watch Out," the title he prefers, directed two drive-in movies so obscure they have no entry on He hasn't been able to make a single film after "Christmas Evil." This is not right and not fair.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

#16: A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-Tung Ching, 1987)

"A Chinese Ghost Story" was made, I'm guessing, for no other reason than to be as entertaining as humanly possible. It mostly succeeds. Equal parts horror film, comedy, romance, and martial arts actioner, it manages to incorporate ghosts, zombies, forbidden love, evil spirits, flying severed heads, sibling rivalry, blatant rip-offs of scenes from "The Evil Dead," thrilling fight scenes (that were in turn blatantly ripped off by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), enormous killer tongues, slapstick comedy, killer wolves with glowing eyes, human/ghost sexual relations, beheadings, Taoism, grave-robbing, ancient curses, slime, hidden forests, braggadocio, heavy rain, talking skeletons, painful sacrifices undertaken in the name of love, reincarnation, tax collecting, and the fakest beard I've ever seen. Also, the man with the incredibly fake beard, a Taoist monk/martial arts master/ghost killer, performs a rap song midway through the film about how great Taoism is. And this takes place several hundred years before the birth of rap.

The incoherent, confusing, and mostly irrelevant plot concerns a wimpy, peace-loving tax collector who travels to rural China to collect some tax. The inns are full, so he is directed to a spooky monastery deep in the forest. After a perilous journey, he finds the place and quickly meets the Taoist monk and a beautiful ghost. The monk is there to kill ghosts, the ghost is there because she is being held prisoner by her evil demon mother, who in turn is bound to an evil tree spirit. The ghost ensnares men with her beauty and sexual allure, and the evil tree spirit takes care of the rest, devouring the flesh from their bones. Our friendly tax collector, however, cannot be ensnared because he is pure of heart. He and the ghost fall in love, and he attempts to steal her ashes and place them somewhere special so the curse can be lifted and she can be reincarnated. Meanwhile, a bunch of crazy stuff happens every five seconds.

I am unfamiliar with Ching as a director, but I have seen two of producer Tsui Hark's films as director (the insanely fast-paced action film "Time and Tide" and the even more insanely fast-paced period-piece/gangster/action-adventure/comedy "Peking Opera Blues"), and "A Chinese Ghost Story" follows the Hark template of ADD/change-scenes-every-three-seconds editing and pacing. This can grow a little wearying over the course of an entire movie--I occasionally wanted to shake the filmmakers and say, "Slow it down just a bit! A little character development, please! I want to see those flying severed heads for a few more minutes!"--but, mostly, I loved the speedball insanity of the whole endeavor. (Side note: Hark had an unhappy dalliance in Hollywood in the late nineties, directing a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme buddy-cop flops, one with Dennis Rodman and the other with Rob Schneider, said "I don't like this much," and moved back to Hong Kong.)
A couple other things I liked about this movie:
The acting was much better than it needed to be. A movie like this doesn't particularly call for thespian skill, but Leslie Cheung ("A Better Tomorrow," "Farewell My Concubine," "Happy Together") (who unfortunately killed himself by jumping out of a high-rise window in 2003, though conspiracy nuts claim sightings of him in Argentina after his death), Joey Wong, and Ma Wu bring a lot of zazz to their parts.

The subtitles are atrociously fantastic as well, depending on which DVD or VHS copy you get. Be prepared for a lot of broken English translations like "Nice destructioning of you ghost. Let's having lunch for to Thursday."
I liked this movie.