Saturday, February 21, 2009

#55: Let's Scare Jessica To Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)

I love excessive gore and ridiculous, over-the-top vulgarity and all the cliches and conventions of horror, but the movies that reside in my top echelon of the genre tend to be more understated. The best horror movies, for me, create a sustained tension and dread, a slow creep. They also use sound wisely and know how scary noise, and the spaces between noise, can be. They use light and darkness and the careful composition of image. They notice details and create vivid characters. John D. Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica to Death is one of these understated gems.

Aside from a shakily awkward zoom out from a scene and a couple of jarringly misplaced closeups, Hancock's film is a sustained classic of unease. The beauty of the composition, the quality of the performances, and that freaky feeling of something always being a little off create a palpable mood that your whole body feels. This movie engages the senses.
I won't spoil much of what happens. Like Lemora, this movie requires a certain unfamiliarity to make its full impact. The movie opens with a trio of post-hippie bohemians arriving in the bucolic New England countryside, fresh from a move out of NYC, driving a hearse with their belongings and Jessica (Zohra Lampert) in the back. Jessica, recently released from a six-month institutionalization for hallucinations and extreme fear, travels with her husband Duncan, a symphonic musician, and their free-spirited unemployed friend Woody. When they arrive at the farmhouse, they find Emily, another bohemian, squatting there. They befriend her and let her stay. And that's all I'm going to tell you.

At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.
Lampert, excellent as Ben Gazzarra's wife in Cassavetes' Opening Night and as George C. Scott's wife in The Exorcist III, gets to carry a whole movie here. Her lack of pretense, relaxed naturalism, and expressive face create a fully developed, interesting character. When was the last time you saw a complex portrayal of a fight between a husband and wife in a horror movie? The filmmakers, especially the sound editor, skillfully weave together Jessica's private thoughts, the understated and jazz-inflected score, and noise and silence, creating a sustained and intriguing unease. This movie is scary.

The director, John D. Hancock, gave Robert De Niro the role that first made him famous in the following year's Bang the Drum Slowly. He also directed several episodes of Hill Street Blues. Also, his name is John Hancock. Whenever he needs to sign something and is told to put his John Hancock on the dotted line, the expression is both figurative and literal. What a country.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

#54: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Jorge Grau, 1974)

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is just one of the many titles this Spanish/Italian/British co-production has been given. Here are some others:
Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue
Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead
Don't Open the Window
(the inspiration for Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright's fake trailer, Don't, for Grindhouse) (also of note, the opening of a window plays absolutely no part in this film)
Invasion of the Zombies
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
Zombie 3
(This is the most confusing, since it's not a sequel)

Spanish director Jorge Grau's zombie film was conceived and financed as a Night of the Living Dead rip-off, and, on those terms, it succeeds. It also succeeds as an inessential, entertaining piece of Eurotrash twaddle with a couple of excellent moments. The opening twenty minutes are atmospheric, eerie, and unusual, but the film eventually lines up in lockstep with the post-Romero zombie template, though it adds a few unique developments. Unfortunately, the characters are unlikeable, stupid, and thinly developed, and the pace tends to drag in spots.
Our main character, George, a post-hippie, post-Mod, ill-mannered, self-centered, leather-jacketed biker hipster closes his London curio shop for the weekend, hops on his motorcycle, and navigates through the city traffic and various distractions (including a naked woman streaking around and through the traffic) on his way to the countryside for some R&R with friends. When he stops for gas, a woman at the pump in front of him, Edna, backs into his bike, messing up the tire. A new tire can't be delivered until Monday, so he invites himself into the woman's car and tells her, "I'm driving." She convinces him to drop her at her sister and brother-in-law's country home first, since she and the in-law are about to have her sister institutionalized for heroin addiction. After George snippily and grudgingly accepts, they get lost. George goes off to a farmhouse to ask for directions, where he finds the government doing experiments ... with SCIENCE! You know how this is going to end. Never experiment with science in a horror film. Shit gets fucked up when you do that.

Anyway, the government scientists are using low-level soundwaves to turn the insects against each other as a chemical-free pesticide. Unfortunately, the low-level radiation adversely affects the nervous systems of any low-functioning entities, not just insects. So, within a mile of the experiment, the developing nervous systems of newborns are affected, creating violent, angry babies (my favorite part, though I, and probably most other people, think a baby's nervous system is a lot more complex than the filmmakers do -- they equate it to an ant's nervous system) and the recently dead (WARNING: DUBIOUS SCIENCE AHEAD: whose nervous systems are, of course, still perfunctorily functioning a week after their deaths) pop out of their tombs and graves and start kicking ass.
Needless to say, our motorcycle hipster doesn't believe this at first, and when Edna tells him she was attacked by a zombie while he was getting directions, he patronizingly tells her she was merely scared of being alone at dusk. The female characters are patronized and condescended to throughout the film, and the filmmakers seem to condone and support this condescension.
Anyway, when our pair arrives at the sister's home, the zombie mayhem begins. You probably know most of the rest if you've seen a zombie movie.

I forgot to mention American character actor Arthur Kennedy as the detective. He blusters and hams it up throughout the film, telling our protagonist that he is guilty of the zombie murders because of his "long hair and faggot clothes. It's nothing but sex, drugs, and filth for you people." Will he get his comeuppance?
These are possibly the stupidest characters ever put on film. In one scene, the characters are facing down zombies climbing a ladder. They kick the zombies off the ladder, but never think about kicking the ladder over, even though they don't need to go back down the ladder. In another scene, a policeman decides to run out of his safe hiding place, face down some zombies, and grab his radio to tell the chief detective where he is, even though he radioed his chief and told him where he was when he first arrived. The detective, who has been trying to radio the policeman, grows agitated that he can't reach him. His course of action: Send some backup? Go and check it out? No. Ignore it and do nothing. In another scene, our suspects steal a roll of film that may exonerate them from the police and get it developed themselves. Not suspicious at all. Also, Edna has no idea where her sister's house is, though she lives nearby. Do you know where your siblings live if you live in the same rough geographical area? I'm guessing you probably do.
I'm giving this one a marginal recommendation. I enjoyed it, but I can't say it's anything particularly special. See it if you have time.