Sunday, February 17, 2008

#31: The Devil's Daughter (Michele Soavi, 1991)

In what's turning out to be a rotten month for both my wife's family and mine, it was nice to take a few hours off from the stress and watch a fairly nonsensical Italian horror film. The Devil's Daughter, aka La Setta, aka The Sect, aka Demons 4: The Devil's Daughter, aka Demons 4: The Sect is a collaboration between Cemetery Man director Michele Soavi and Suspiria director Dario Argento. Soavi directed, Argento produced, and both men wrote the screenplay with Gianni Romoli. While Italian horror is fairly incoherent in general, adding even more screenwriters to the mix just makes things more ridiculous. The film opens with a particularly eerie tracking shot that moves from a reddish-tinged lake to the desert, a transistor radio playing America's "Horse with No Name" rising in the mix as the camera moves toward a hippie camp. The song always sounds like a cheap, watered-down Neil Young ripoff whenever I hear it on the radio, but is creepy as hell in this scene. A title card informs us we are in "South California" (making me think of Kim Wilde's dumb-ass lyric from "Kids in America": "New York to East California/There's a new wave coming I warn you") in the late 1960s. The groovy hippies' isolated California idyll is soon shattered by the arrival of a Manson-esque creepy hippie who quotes "Sympathy for the Devil" and informs the groovy hippies that the Stones are a secret force that not many people know about. This is probably news to Mick Jagger. (A character later in the film calls the Stones "esoteric." ???) Needless to say, creepy things happen in the desert, especially when the creepy hippie's buddies show up. The film then moves to present-day Germany, and the plot takes a turn for the incomprehensible. If you watch a lot of Italian horror films, this should be no problem for you, but if you want a linear, three-act structure with character arcs, you're probably better off renting Big Momma's House.
In Germany, Kelly Curtis (Jamie Lee Curtis's sister) is a shy elementary teacher who almost runs down weird old Herbert Lom with her car. She takes the man back to her house to recuperate, and he mysteriously recognizes her home and knows her name and age even though she never tells him these things. He also finds a secret basement in her home she doesn't know about, and of course it's a portal to hell because all Italian horror films are required to have at least one portal to hell. Weird blue worm-like strings start appearing in the tap water. A death mask attaches to the face of a fellow schoolteacher. Stabbings occur. A human heart is carried around on the subway in the pocket of a trenchcoat. The world's stupidest, rudest doctor becomes a major character. A woman is sexually assaulted by a large bird. Shit blows up. Not a damn bit of it makes any sense, but at least the creepy hippies make a second appearance.
I didn't care one bit that the film was incoherent. Unlike Cemetery Man, most of the humor in this film is unintentional, but Soavi is a visually exciting director who manages to effectively stage one freaky setpiece after another. This is a hard film to track down, and it's only on VHS, but if you like this kind of thing, this is a particularly fine this kind of thing.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

#30: The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)

Pan's Labyrinth got the most attention of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language films, and it mostly deserved all that attention, but The Devil's Backbone is quieter, subtler, and almost as good. Working with similar subject matter (the Spanish Civil War, children in peril, an amoral villain who shares the same living space as the children in peril, a surprisingly serious treatment of the fact that sometimes children die), del Toro swaps the later film's dark fairy tale for a ghost story.
The Devil's Backbone takes place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, and a group of leftist holdouts run an orphanage under the guise of a Catholic school. An undetonated bomb sticks halfway out of the cement it smashed through, providing a beautiful and menacing visual centerpiece for the film's action. The dud bomb provides a constant reminder of the encroaching danger facing the dwindling Republican forces and the orphaned children. Cronos's Federico Luppi and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes play the school's headmaster and mistress. Luppi pines after the prosthetic-legged Paredes, but his impotence causes him to keep his romantic feelings to himself. Meanwhile, a tutor drops Fernando Tielve at the orphanage, letting on that the boy's family has been killed, unbeknownst to the boy. He's given the bed of Santi, an orphan killed in mysterious circumstances, and he is soon visited by a ghost whose motives are unclear.

That fairly uninspired plot synopsis on my part has failed to convey the film's poetic beauty, narrative satisfaction, and occasional dark humor. That rare thing, a humanist horror film, The Devil's Backbone reveals the full-fledged gifts of del Toro as a visual storyteller. A slow-paced but skillfully told story that favors atmosphere and character over heavy-handed plot mechanics, The Devil's Backbone showcases del Toro's ability for getting weighty, expressive performances from children without any cutesy-poo bullshit. He's no slouch at framing shots for maximum visual impact, either. He has Sergio Leone's eye for landscapes, and mashes together Cronenberg's interest in body horror with Bunuel's blackly humorous surreality. His treatment of Paredes's detachable prosthetic leg provides the best example of the Cronenberg/Bunuel sensibility blend. Of course, he's a

more accessible director than these three, and adheres to a much more classical, straight-forward approach to storytelling and interest in traditional genre conventions (fairy tales, ghost stories, horror, action, melodrama). I don't see this as a drawback, however, and the surreal visual touches (the undetonated bomb, the deformed fetuses floating in jars of rum in Luppi's office, the Japanese-horror-inspired ghost's cracked-doll forehead that dribbles a gravity-defying upward trickle of blood like bubbles in an aquarium) provide the bulk of the narrative's interest. The film's politics are thin and simplified, but avoid a heavy-handedness that could have overpowered the other elements. Who goes to fiction films to learn about the Spanish Civil War anyway? Goofballs, that's who. The Devil's Backbone is ultimately a finely detailed ghost story about universal subjects like vengeance, good and evil, death, and love. And that's enough.