Friday, December 31, 2010

#98: The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)

I love horror movies, but horror movies don't really scare me. I've been unsettled by a handful of disturbing movies and felt suspense and shocks and surprise during particular scenes of many films, but horror is fun. There is a pleasure and a joy I take in the watching of horror movies that I just can't get anywhere else. When I really want to scare myself, I have to turn to another interest. In a separate compartment from my love of horror films is a fascination with true crime, particularly murder, double particularly the murder of a stranger by a weirdo with no apparent motive. I haven't had cable for thirteen years, but when I stay in a hotel or travel back home for the holidays, I load up on murder shows like "Forensic Files," "Cold Case Files," etc. I became fascinated by the Manson Family and Ted Bundy and Son of Sam when I was a small child of eight or nine, and I devoured serial killer biographies and television specials. I dubbed Geraldo's ridiculous interview with Manson in the mid-1980s on a cheap VHS tape and watched it dozens of times. I would drop everything to watch an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," even a rerun.

I don't know why this fascination with murder and violent crime continues unabated. If I think about the victims too much, I start to feel terrible. Some people's lives are so brutal and short and full of misery, and too much thought about them and their families is a real buzzkill. However, the lives of killers, the cultural impact of the murders on the region where they occur and the area's collective psyche, the process of the police investigation, the science of forensics, the randomness of chance, all these things are so compelling. Murder also scares the shit out of me, and there's a sick part of me that thrives on this fear. I don't like rollercoasters, but a part of me likes the fact that there is a tiny chance I will be the victim of a violent crime. The fact that I haven't been the victim of a violent crime is, in some weird way, life-affirming. I'm not alone in my family. My mother used to read true-crime books. My sister shares my fascination with killers. (We once stayed up all night one Christmas break watching a marathon of serial killer specials.) My beloved late grandmother on my mother's side, a devout Catholic whose empathy and kindness explained her serious aversion to anything from the darker, dirtier side of life, nevertheless shared my same fascination with violent crime and serial murder.
You'd think horror movies about sociopathic killers would be right up my alley. Most of them, unfortunately, are pretty stupid. The Vanishing, a Dutch horror-thriller from the late 1980s, is one of the few that succeeds. This is an unsettling and disturbing film. It's also well made, well told, well performed, and compulsively entertaining. The Vanishing is a piece of fiction, but everything in it could conceivably happen. To other people. To someone you know. To someone you love. To you. And to me. A few of you sick bastards could even do these things. Maybe you already have.

The Vanishing opens with a Dutch couple in the middle of a road trip from Holland to France. They've been on the road for too long and are starting to wind each other up, as couples often do on long car trips. Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) won't drive on the highway even though Rex (Gene Bervoets) is tired. He won't stop for gas even though she thinks they're probably getting low. When they run out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel road that is only one lane each way, the tensions burst. Rex leaves Saskia alone in the tunnel and walks to a gas station without telling her where he's going. He returns with a gas can. She's gone. He fills up, drives out of the tunnel, and sees her standing on the side of the road. They make up, apologize for being jerks, and continue the vacation. They stop again later for a beer, some Frisbee, a chance to stretch their legs. Saskia promises to do some highway driving and goes into the gas station for a beer and a soda. She never comes back.

The film then subtly and expertly interweaves the chronology of events before, during, and after Saskia's disappearance. We follow the man who kidnapped her, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), as he gets the idea for the crime, practices it, makes some unsuccessful attempts, and finally gets his victim. We see Rex, three years later, with a new girlfriend, still haunted and obsessed by Saskia's disappearance. Finally, Raymond and Rex meet each other, and the film's supremely disturbing final act begins.
The Vanishing is a character-rich film without the usual blustering hyperbolic nonsense of the psycho killer genre. I could have done without the golden egg metaphor that crops up three or four times, but otherwise this is a film that proceeds intelligently, logically, and calmly toward its dark conclusion. Raymond is a fascinating character, a high school science teacher and a family man with a wife and two happy daughters, whose sociopathy drives him to do terrible things in the same matter-of-fact way he does the other things in his life. He's a complex, developed character, as are the other people in the film.

I first watched this film six or seven years ago, and the kidnapping scene still haunts me. I take a long road trip with my wife once or twice a year, and I think of this film whenever we stop for gas, food, or a bathroom or have those dumb arguments you have with your loved ones on a long car trip. A mild uneasiness hits me when we momentarily go our separate ways in those simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar gas stations in random small towns and cities off the interstate, and I don't breathe easy until my wife and I are back in the car together.
Dutch director George Sluizer made a horrible mistake when he directed a Hollywood remake of his own film in 1993. The remake cost more than 20 times the budget of the original and is, in every way, inferior. A truly inessential movie, the remake is ill-conceived, ordinary, stupid, and gutless. The usually wonderful Jeff Bridges is miscast as the sociopathic killer, and the film's second half betrays everything unique and disturbing about its predecessor. With a grindingly dull devotion to Hollywood convention, the remake's second half amps up the tension between the Rex character, here renamed Jeff and played by Kiefer Sutherland, and his new girlfriend. We get loads of dull scenes where Jeff fights with the girlfriend about his obsession with his missing ex-girlfriend (here played by Sandra Bullock, who I can only hope will actually disappear someday if a Blind Side sequel is ever proposed), and an extended fight scene in which Kiefer and Jeff Bridges battle each other to save the new girlfriend. Bridges is killed, Kiefer saves the day, poor Sandra is dead, but Kiefer and new girlfriend (Nancy Travis) can now live happily ever after. Avoid this bullshit at all costs.
Sluizer may have defamed his own accomplishment, but fortunately the original film still exists in a nice Criterion Collection edition. I highly recommend The Vanishing. Just make sure you're renting the right version.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

#97: Urban Ghost Story (Genevieve Jolliffe, 1998)

This low-budget Scottish film, though not without its problems, is a solid, enjoyable haunted house/social realism hybrid that convinces in both its modes for most of the running time. Take out the haunted house story, and you have a compelling drama about a 12-year-old girl, her young half-brother, and her single mom living in a Scottish tenement full of drug addicts, criminals, and the working poor. Take out the drama, and you have an atmospheric poltergeist story. Put them together, and you have a comedy about a lovable Sasquatch who moves into the household and turns it upside down. Wait, forget that last part. What you do end up with is a movie that successfully blends its genres into an organic whole.

Urban Ghost Story is full of memorable characters, and 12-year-old Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) is the pivotal one. A smart, angsty pre-teen, she and another friend from her building decide to grow up a little too fast. The two middle school tenement buddies make some poor decisions that are a little advanced for their tender ages, including joyriding in the boy's father's car while loaded on vodka and ecstasy. These things tend to end poorly, and this is no exception. She survives the terrible car accident, though she is clinically dead for three minutes. She's left with a bum leg, but her friend isn't so lucky. He's trapped in the burning car and gets incinerated.

Lizzie is left with a wicked case of survivor's guilt and a poltergeist who may or may not be the spirit of her dead friend. Furniture starts moving around the bedroom she shares with her little half-brother Alex, his bed covers jump off the bed by themselves, and some invisible something scratches the walls and pounds on the doors. Her stressed-out single mom Kate thinks Lizzie is responsible at first, but soon changes her mind. She reports the events to the police and social services, but no one believes her. In desperation, she stupidly turns to a tabloid reporter she thinks believes her. He sees a marketable story to exploit and temporarily moves in to milk it for all its worth. The apartment is soon crawling with paranormal investigators and psychic mediums. Fun fact: the reporter is played by Sean Connery's son, Jason Connery, who has a much subtler Scottish brogue than his old man.

Things are tough for the family. Social services is investigating the mother for possible child abuse and neglect, a group of hired thugs led by Billy Boyd of Lord of the Rings fame comes calling for a debt, and Lizzie is hanging out with a teenage mom/druggie who is another of the tenement's many bad influences. Meanwhile, the ghost becomes more aggressive. These story strands are fleshed out and compelling until the final third of the film, but I'll get to that later.
Director/co-writer Genevieve Jolliffe has a nice eye for detail and shot composition, and her characters are three-dimensional and well written. The cast is uniformly strong, and their Scottish accents are so cute. That's a little condescending, I know, but I love a Scottish accent. The most terrible news sounds heartwarming when delivered in a Scottish brogue.

I'm recommending this film, but I have a few reservations. The soundtrack is occasionally oppressive. There are nice moments when Lizzie has her headphones on and we get a blast of the industrial metal she loves, but other instances of loud score are less organic to the story and punch scenes harder than they need to be punched. The film's final twenty minutes seem rushed and a little forced. The filmmakers seem to have realized, "Oh shit! We need to conclude these story strands! And fast! 23 skidoo, gang!" Plot points are resolved in a dizzying array of activity. The film is only one hour and twenty minutes long, so an extra ten minutes to conclude things less frantically wouldn't have been excessive. Despite these quibbles, Urban Ghost Story is an unfairly overlooked film that mostly succeeds as a social drama and a horror movie. I liked it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#96: The Unearthing aka Aswang (Wrye Martin & Barry Poltermann, 1994)

NOTE: This film is available on video and DVD under both its original title, Aswang, and The Unearthing. I had a much easier time finding it under Aswang.

This low-budget horror film made by two college buddies from Wisconsin for under $200,000 is well worth your time. Based on a Filipino vampire legend (coincidentally, I was drinking a Filipino dark lager while watching it), The Unearthing/Aswang shares some tonal, atmospheric, and visual similarities with early Cronenberg, the first two Evil Dead films, and the darkest childhood fairy tales. While it doesn't come close to early Raimi and Cronenberg at their best, it's pretty damn good in its own right and certainly better than the majority of mainstream films, including Gone with the Wind, Daddy Day Care, and Event Horizon. Aswang is low-budget without being cheap and amateurish, darkly funny without being campy, truly weird without being affected or "quirky," and honestly unsettling and scary.

Aswang begins with a young woman discussing her unplanned pregnancy with her mildly mulleted metalhead boyfriend. Check out that alliteration. She has decided to sell the child to a couple who can't have a baby, with a slight catch. She will also be paid to pose as the wife of the couple at a rural Wisconsin mansion owned by the man's sickly mother so he can inherit the property. As he tells the young pregnant woman while they drive to the mansion, his mother won't leave him anything in the will if he doesn't produce an heir. Things get sinister when they arrive at the mansion, which looks like it was designed by Stanley Kubrick. The only inhabitants are the sickly mother, who keeps sucking on oxygen, a strange Filipino maid named Cupid, and an exotic white chicken who roams the premises freely. Oh yeah, there's also an unseen sister who lives in a cottage out back. Apparently, she's "a little touched." At this point, I'd probably call a cab and head back home, especially after seeing a painting of an aswang, a Filipino vampire who drinks the blood of newborns, given prominent place in the study. Fortunately, our heroine sticks around, ensuring our enjoyment of a fucked-up, unusual vampire movie.

First-time filmmakers Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann wrote and directed Aswang together, and they did an admirable job of creating a lot with a little. Working with a cast of amateur non-actors, including Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo as a bumbling sheriff, they get mostly naturalistic performances. Even the few awkward actors add to the film's weird texture. The directors have a nice eye (they share one giant eyeball), and though they're clearly new at the filmmaking game, they avoid a lot of dumb-ass overstylization and clumsiness. The film is loaded with atmosphere, too. A creeping sense of dread slowly increases, the house and the rural Wisconsin countryside are great horror movie locations, and the directors and their editors use sound and visual space well. The special effects are convincing, too, which isn't always the case in super-low-budget filmmaking.

I don't want to give too much away, so this review will be a little short. The movie's pleasures and surprises deserve fresh eyes and ears, and I don't want to diminish the Aswang experience. (That's what she said.) I'm a big fan of regional independent movies, and Aswang is a fine example of the creative freedoms possible within the financial limitations of non-Hollywood filmmaking. Joe Bob Briggs likes Aswang, too, so it's got that going for it.
Writer/directors Martin and Poltermann have remained active in independent filmmaking. Martin now works as a producer. Poltermann directed one other film, The Life of Reilly, a documentary about Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show, and has enjoyed a long relationship with director Chris Smith as his go-to editor, working on American Movie, The Pool, and Collapse. I admire their later work, but I think these guys need to get back together and make another horror movie. Aswang is too good to be a one-off.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

#95: The Ugly (Scott Reynolds, 1997)

This disappointing debut feature from New Zealand writer/director Scott Reynolds presents a dilemma for me as a writer: I have a lot of specific things to say about the aspects of the film I disliked, but its virtues are a bit more amorphous and abstract. I will try not to beat up on Reynolds too much because he's attempting something interesting with the serial killer storyline, and I'll try to describe just what he's doing that works without getting too vague or fluffy. Let's begin by beating him up.
The Ugly takes place in a bizarre insane asylum in rural New Zealand housing prolific serial killer Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo). Unlike most killers, he has no pattern for choosing his victims. He kills them by slicing their throats with a straight razor, but the weapon is the only constant. His victims are men and women, children and adults, friends and relatives and strangers. He doesn't rape, torture, or beat his victims, and he doesn't keep souvenirs. He's a mystery man. To use sophisticated psychological terminology, what is the cut of this guy's jib? Cartwright has been declared legally insane. Six years later, he decides he wants a second opinion, and requests famed and controversial psychologist Dr. Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs) for his reevaluation. This angers his current psychologist, Dr. Marlowe (Roy Ward), the head of the institution and a man who resembles a walking penis. He ensures that his only two employees, a couple of knuckle-walking goons (one of whom dresses exclusively in a sleeveless vest with no shirt underneath), regularly abuse Cartwright and attempt to intimidate Schumaker. He is what is known in the psychology biz as a dick. The rest of the film takes place in the two days in which Schumaker evaluates Cartwright, alternating between flashbacks to Cartwright's life before and during the murders, dream and fantasy sequences, and the present.

After a promising first fifteen minutes, the film unfortunately becomes a bit of a slog with some bright spots. Some of the blame can be placed on the miscast leads, Rotondo and Hobbs. I never accepted Rotondo as a serial killer. He lacks menace and intensity, and he's just physically wrong for the role. This may sound like a contradiction, but he's both too much and not enough of a pretty boy to convince as an indiscriminate killing machine. Maybe if the movie worked with Rotondo's almost-but-not-quite-teen-idol looks, something interesting would have developed, but painting him as a mysterious and threatening presence is a stretch. At least Rotondo is a fairly subtle actor. Hobbs chews scenery like she needs to compress every role she's ever had into one character. It doesn't help that the film's idea of psychotherapy is evil manipulation on the one hand (Marlowe) and yelling, confrontation, and high drama on the other (Schumaker). When Hobbs angrily throws all her papers on the floor with a sweeping gesture of her arms as she screams at Cartwright, I checked out. That is some ri-goddamn-diculous professional methodology. I think we're beyond the highly unorthodox at this point. "But she gets results!" you may offer in counterpoint. "Stupid results," I might reply.
Another problem with the movie is an overabundance of dream and fantasy sequences that borders on self-parody. On multiple occasions, the film devolves into the following sequence of events: Oh my god, that just happened! No, it was just a dream. Or was it? Yes, it was. No, it wasn't! Oh my god, yes it was! Or was it? No. Yes. Or, maybe... I sometimes wondered if I were watching a New Zealand version of an interminable Saturday Night Live skit.
Reynolds sometimes mistrusts his own admirable visual skill with abrupt switches to rapid jump cuts, shaky cams, and intrusive zooms in and out with an accompanying deep-focus/out-of-focus image. When he stays out of his own way and avoids over-stylization, he has a nice eye and the film is visually powerful. To his credit, he trusts himself more often than he feels the need to hyperbolically overzazz his imagery, music-video style, but when he punches up the visuals, the film becomes unnecessarily jarring and distracting.

My last criticism may be a little unfair since I'm slamming the film for what it isn't rather than what it is, but I found the overly serious tone oppressive. The Ugly tries too hard to be a serious art film but can't really pull it off. The movie's understanding of psychotherapy, serial killers, and mental asylums is too movie-cliched to reveal any new ways of seeing these subjects. A dose of exploitation or campy fun or a beheading or two would have been welcome, especially since the film's one moment of humor really worked. That moment involves penis-shaped Dr. Marlowe's secret one-way-glassed room with theater seats and piped-in classical music where he spies on Schumaker's sessions. Marlow is a balding, incredibly thin man with neatly trimmed sideburns and a soul-patch, and he's fond of wearing ascots. While he watches the session, he glares evilly and chomps on hard candy. The only thing missing is an aged cat or small dog for him to stroke while he formulates his evil plans.

Time to stop bashing Reynolds. Here's what he does right. His aforementioned visual skills are formidable when he's not bogged down in over-stylization. He has a nice eye for detail and shot composition, and the film's cinematography has that pleasing grit and grain often found in American films of the 1970s and Australian and New Zealand films of the 1970s-1990s. The black blood coming from the victims in the flashbacks and dreams is a nice little stylish touch that makes things seem not quite right without going overboard while also providing a payoff in the final scene. The asylum and Marlow's office are well designed, strong visual presences. The art director deserves some kudos for doing a lot with a little. The flashback sequences to the killer's childhood are handled in a straightforward, compelling way, ably performed by a strong cast. The mother gets some of the blame, as usual, but many actual serial killers had fucked-up mothers, so I can let this slide. Finally, the ghostly physical manifestations of the voices the killer hears are nicely handled. These apparitions are creepy and unsettling, and Reynolds uses them just enough without overusing them. I wish I liked this movie better, because Reynolds has some talent. Unfortunately, I can't work up much enthusiasm for The Ugly.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

#94: Two Thousand Maniacs! (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1964)

I nearly made the same mistake with Herschell Gordon Lewis I made with Mario Bava in my last post. I erroneously reported that Twitch of the Death Nerve was my first exposure to Bava's films. I later updated with the corrected information about seeing Bava's science fiction film Planet of the Vampires on the big screen as part of the Austin Film Society's global science fiction series several summers ago. I also nearly forgot that Two Thousand Maniacs! wasn't my first exposure to the films of H.G. Lewis, the "Godfather of Gore." I saw his biker chick movie, She-Devils on Wheels, on the big screen at an old motor speedway a few miles outside of Austin for an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow makeshift drive-in theater event. It was the first film on a double bill with Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Tura Satana and Hajji were there in person. The show was plagued with technical difficulties, stifling heat, and not enough restroom facilities (it was the first Rolling Roadshow event and procedures hadn't been nailed down yet), but I got to see some garage bands play live, watch a couple of cult classics on the big screen, and hear Tura Satana talk about her sex life with Elvis Presley.

At any rate, Lewis made biker chick movies, sexploitation, and children's adventure films, but he's better known as the man who invented the gore film, beginning with Blood Feast in 1963. His second film, Two Thousand Maniacs!, is probably the only gore film inspired by Brigadoon, though if you can think of any others please let me know. Two Thousand Maniacs! doesn't have it all, but it does have murderous Southern rednecks, a 1963 Playboy Playmate, the worst Southern accents captured on film, terrible acting, buckets of red paint, fairly decent suspense, some surprisingly powerful images, iconic moments in the history of horror/gore, amateurish camera work, a fascinating 1960s time-capsule quality, a Twilight Zone-esque twist ending, and an above-average bluegrass score.

The film opens with a pair of hillbillies hiding out on the side of the highway. One is up in a tree with binoculars, the other hides behind some tall grass next to the road. When Binocular Boy spots a car coming, Tall Grass Boy removes the "Augusta, Georgia - 110 Miles" sign and puts up his own detour sign leading the unsuspecting tourists to the town of Pleasant Valley instead of their destination. They need six Northerners to be the guests of honor at their centennial celebration. We never forget this because the phrase "guests of honor" is repeated at least 428 times. Why Northerners? You'll find out later in the film. Why six? That's never explained. The six Northerners they snag with their wily street sign switcheroo have many things in common. They all drive convertibles, they share stereotypical early 1960s fashion sense and good looks, and they can't act.

The film's depiction of small-town Southerners is so grotesquely over-the-top that it moves beyond the realm of stereotype and into some strange land of surreal, parodic homage. We get the fat, well-dressed mayor who likes to take off his pork-pie hat and provide you with overbearing Southern hospitality. We get the big dumb handsome guy, the regular-sized dumb ugly guy in a straw hat, the amply cleavaged Southern belle, and a lot of other goony, inbred dummies. We get a lot of dialogue like "We got us some good'uns! Dogged if we don't!" and "Yay doggies!" and "Yee-haw! We got us a mighty fine centennial!" We get moonshine in a jug.
This stereotypical setup is complicated by the twist ending, and the reason for the centennial. In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, a group of Northern soldiers killed and mutilated everyone in Pleasant Valley. It's now time for some revenge, Dixieland-style. The Northerners are separated from each other and forced to participate in twisted versions of normal centennial-type events like a barbecue, a horse race, a barrel roll, and a dunk tank. The blood flows copiously in these scenes, which are much more violent and gruesome than other films of similar early-1960s vintage.

Finally, it's up to our heroes, school teacher Tom (William Kerwin) and Terry (Playboy Playmate Connie Mason), the pretty lady who picked him up on the highway when his car broke down, to find out what's going on and plot their escape. Will they succeed? And what is going on? I'll let you find out for yourselves, although, if you're familiar with Brigadoon, I probably spoiled the twist ending.
The action is accompanied by a quality bluegrass score credited to the fictional band The Pleasant Valley Boys. In addition to the Lester Flatt covers, the score also includes some songs written and performed by Lewis himself, "Rebel Yell (The South's Gonna Rise Again)" of particular note. Lewis might have made a career for himself as a musician if he hadn't been too busy pushing the envelope of cinematic violence. Besides the score, the film's virtues are inseparable from its flaws. The awesome and terrible intermingle to such an extent that they become a single, lovably disgusting entity. This is a weird-ass movie, truly deserving of its cult-classic, midnight-movie status. It's Lewis' favorite of his own pictures, beating out such contenders as Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore, and The Gore-Gore Girls.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#93: Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)

Whew. This has been quite a week. I saw two great shows by two of my favorite reunited '90s bands, Pavement and Guided By Voices. I'm in the second week of preparing materials for a major life and possible career plan for next year. My wife and two friends were on lockdown at their jobs for three hours because a masked gunman opened fire on the University of Texas campus, fortunately killing or injuring no one, and killed himself in the main campus library. My wife and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and our eleventh anniversary as a couple. Most importantly of all for me personally, my maternal grandfather died peacefully in his sleep after a long life. It's been a strange cocktail of mixed emotions all week long, and when life hits you with everything it has, good and bad, it's important to take a few hours to watch some Italians get murdered horribly. It centers your chi, I hear.

Mario Bava directed several films that horror fans generally consider classics, he is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of the slasher film, and he was a major influence on Dario Argento. For whatever reason, I'd never seen any of his movies until last night. Peculiar. Unfortunately, this particular DVD copy of the film contained the single worst sound quality I've ever encountered. I had to turn the sound on my television to Spinal Tap 11, and even at that level, the sound fluctuated from piercingly loud to normal to so quiet one-third of the dialogue was unintelligible within the space of each single line of dialogue. Come on, Image Entertainment, get your shit together. For some reason, the sound problems disappeared during the film's final 30 minutes, which is when everything gets explained anyway. A string of kick-ass murder scenes is the primary reason for this film existing, so you don't really need the dialogue until that final 30 minutes.
Let's get the dumb stuff out of the way first. This movie is either woodenly acted or overacted, stupidly written (by four people, from an idea by two other people!), and occasionally clumsy. None of that really matters, though, because the actors giving those wooden line readings have strikingly visual faces and facial expressions, the murder setpieces are clever, unexpected, and blackly hilarious, some of Bava's shot compositions are beautiful (others are sloppy, but there's more of the beautiful than the sloppy), and the film's influence on the slasher genre is pretty all-encompassing. If you've seen this movie and the original Halloween, you've seen every slasher movie. Friday the 13th, Part 2 even lifted two murders from this movie, shot for shot. (If you're interested, those murders are an axe to the face and a couple speared in flagrante delicto. I finally got a chance to use my favorite Latin term.)

Bava's film opens with a dialogue-free eight-minute scene that includes two murders and a hilarious fly's point-of-view shot that includes the fly's accidental death in the bay. This is a great scene. I won't spoil any of it for you if you plan on renting this one. (Just avoid that Image Entertainment disc if you can.) After these murders, we're introduced to several characters. There's an entomologist, a Tarot card reader, four randy teens, a developer, his secretary, a fisherman, and so on. We don't know their relationships to each other, in most cases, or what their angle is. Several murders occur, from your basic stabbings and stranglings to your axes to the face and elaborate beheadings. We don't know why people keep getting killed, though it has some vague something to do with development of the bay, a countess, and an illegitimate son. (The vagueness may be deliberate or just a byproduct of the DVD's atrocious sound quality.) We know there are multiple killers, because some of these killers are killed by other killers. And that's basically it. One murder after another, until the final thirty minutes explains, in flashback, who these people really are and why they are killing each other. Then we get a darkly comic ending that's expected in event but not in detail.

There's not much to say about this film without spoiling any of the fun, but I think any fan of Italian giallo, slasher movies, and creative death will enjoy at least part of this movie. Just find a DVD with better sound quality, if you can.
Claims are made that this film has more titles than any other. These claims may be right. Twitch of the Death Nerve is my favorite. It's just fun to say. The original Italian title translates as Chain Reaction, but the film has been released under many others, including:
A Bay of Blood
The Last House on the Left, Part II
(though it has nothing to do with Craven's film and was shot a year before)
Ecology of a Crime
The Antecedent
O Sexo na Sua Forma Mais Violenta

New House on the Left
A Smell of Flesh
the fabulously redundant Bloodbath Bay of Blood.

UPDATE - 10:01 p.m.
We're drinking with some friends right now, and one of them just reminded me that I have seen another Mario Bava film, and on the big screen, no less. Bava's 1965 science fiction epic, Planet of the Vampires, in brilliant color, is recommended to any living thing. It would make a great double feature with Forbidden Planet.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

#92: Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)

Tombs of the Blind Dead is commonly regarded as Spain's answer to Night of the Living Dead. Regarded by whom? I don't know, but this statement appears several times on the DVD case and is repeated in every review of the movie I scanned, so I might as well join the crowd. Both movies feature an army of undead killers crawling out of their graves and inspired several sequels, but the similarities generally end there. Night of the Living Dead is a far better movie, but I don't want to sell Tombs of the Blind Dead short. Ossorio's film is a Eurotrash mini-classic, lovable in its shabby ineptitude, genuinely unsettling fright scenes, hazy lesbian flashbacks, beyond stupid screenplay, unintentional and intentional comedy, and bikini- and hot-pants-clad Eurobabes. Also, lots of lovely on-location Spanish countryside and ultra-macho smuggler Pedro. Quien es mas macho? Pedro es mas macho!

The film opens at the swimming pool of a luxury hotel/resort in Madrid. Two bikini babes run into each other and start conversing. They were roommates and friends in boarding school, but they haven't seen each other since. One of the women, Betty, has just moved back to town, opening a mannequin shop next door to ... the morgue! The other woman, Virginia, is there with a man who she thinks she's dating. The man, Roger, thinks he's still single. He hops out of the pool and is immediately smitten with Betty. He starts hitting on her and invites her along on a trip to the countryside the next day. Betty immediately says yes. No one finds this odd. In fact, most of the characters in this movie make nonsensical split decisions. On the train trip, Virginia starts feeling like a third wheel, but is she jealous of Betty or Roger or some sexy combination? Cut to hazy boarding school flashback, where we discover that Betty and Virginia were more than friends ... they were lovers! Whatever the sexual case, Virginia jumps off the train near a spooky abandoned monastery.

Instead of following the tracks back home, which most of us would do even if we were dumb enough to jump off a train in the middle of nowhere, Virginia settles in for the night at the creepy monastery. She unrolls her sleeping bag, takes off her short shorts, gets naked, smokes some cigarettes, finds some beach party music on her transistor radio, reads a trashy paperback, and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, she gets a visit from the dead. The blind dead!
These are no ordinary zombies, however. This group is a bunch of undead Knights Templar from the 13th century who turned to the dark side. They started worshiping Satan, sacrificing virgins, and drinking their blood. They were finally caught and hanged in the town square. Birds pecked out their eyes. Because of their Satanic blood rites, however, these knights get out of their graves every night and go hunting for humans. Because their eyes have been pecked out of their sockets, these knights are blind and hunt their victims through sound. They drink their victims' blood, ensuring continued immortality. These victims become blood-drinking zombies. Got all that? Did I mention these knights ride through the countryside in slow motion on zombie horses? I didn't? Well, they do.

The rest of the film involves Roger and Betty's search for Virginia and whether all this spooky activity is the work of undead knights or area smugglers. They enlist the help of a professor specializing in the knights and his son, head smuggler Pedro. Pedro is the personification of assholish Spanish machismo. He likes to drink rum, bed the ladies, immediately accept insane challenges, participate in date rape, slap ladies in the face, walk around shirtless, tell people what to do, and take cigarettes from his girlfriend's mouth and place them in his own. Another notable character is a lecherous, creepy morgue attendant who provides some solid black humor.
This film is almost avant-garde in its lack of dialogue and abundance of stupidity, but there are some truly thrilling scenes, particularly a run-in with a zombie in the mannequin shop that involves melting mannequin heads, blinking red lights, and a near-Argento mise-en-scene. The knights themselves are pretty sweet horror villains, and the ending provides some nifty nihilistic abandoning of all hope.

This is the kind of movie that's hard to recommend to general movie buffs, but if you appreciate Eurotrash horror and can ride out some rough patches, there is much to enjoy here.

Fun trivia tidbit: Some U.S. distributors of this film drastically re-edited it and gave it the zippy new title Revenge of Planet Ape. Hoping to capitalize on the Planet of the Apes craze, they filmed a new prologue in which a race of super-apes controlled Earth 3,000 years ago. Unfortunately, man killed them, burning out their eyes with pokers, but not before the head of the apes vowed undead revenge 3,000 years in the future. This prologue required editing out all the Knights Templar talk, so we could pretend these skeletal killers were actually super-apes. God bless this stupid world of ours.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

#91: Ticks (Tony Randel, 1993)

I'm fortunate to live in a city with two of the greatest video stores in the country, with two locations each, that continue to thrive in the era of Netflix. Occasionally, however, something falls through the cracks. And that, my friends, is how I came to own a second-hand VHS copy of the straight-to-video shitsterpiece Ticks. Ticks is not a good movie. Director Tony Randel (not to be confused with Tony Randall) has no discernible directorial style and the screenwriter's knowledge of human behavior seems to have been gleaned entirely from after-school specials and 1980s sitcoms. Having said all that, Ticks brought me great joy. This is a fun movie, with the most bizarre casting this side of Skidoo.

Ticks stars Peter Scolari (Tom Hanks' co-star on Bosom Buddies), Seth Green, Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Ami Dolenz (daughter of The Monkees' Mickey Dolenz), veteran character actor Michael Medeiros, Ron Howard's more talented brother Clint Howard, and their father Rance Howard. This cast is nuts in theory and in practice, particularly Clint Howard and Alfonso Ribeiro.

Ticks opens with teenager Tyler (Seth Green) getting dropped off in inner-city Los Angeles by his drunk father. He encounters menacing street thug Panic ("They call me Panic, 'cause I never do!") (Alfonso Ribeiro), screenwriter Brent V. Friedman's bizarre idea of a typical black inner-city teenager. Soon, a van pulls up to pick up both teens. Turns out, Panic's street thug persona was mostly an act. Driving the van is Holly (Rosalind Allen), who runs a program for troubled inner-city teens. She takes them camping in the wilderness to broaden their horizons. She's joined by the oddly named Charles Danson (Peter Scolari) (rejected names for this character: Ted Dundy and John Wayne Dacy) and his surly teenage daughter Melissa (Virginya Keehne). The rest of this rag-tag group of troubled teens includes spoiled rich girl Dee Dee (Ami Dolenz), her vaguely Hispanic steroid-loving boyfriend Rome (Ray Oriel), and vaguely Asian selective mute Kelly (Dina Dayrit).

I'm not even done setting this shit up yet. Next, we meet marijuana farmer Clint Howard. It seems the steroid he and many other pot farmers in the region are using to embiggen their weed is also embiggening and mutating the region's wood tick population. These ticks are now about the size of a small hubcap, and their venom has hallucinogenic properties. Howard, whose small but memorable role contains a couple of great line readings, is the first to encounter the killer ticks. (Great line: After his gerbil gets shredded by a tick, he pulls the mangled corpse out of its cage and says "Dude, you're all messed up.") The troubled teens have a few run-ins with the ticks, as well as a couple of evil marijuana farmers: inbred hick Jerry (Michael Medeiros) and the vaguely British Sir (Barry Lynch) (yes, his character's only name is Sir) who likes to take out a comb and run it through his hair while talking about his evil plans. As if killer ticks, evil marijuana farmers, and the surly vagaries of troubled youth weren't enough to contend with, the region is prone to forest fires. Shit is about to get fucked up. (Bonus great line: After Panic's dog is butchered by a killer tick, the teary Panic says, "I always thought I would go in a drive-by shooting, but my dog ... MY DOG WOULD MAKE IT THROUGH ALIVE!" I'm paraphrasing from memory. The actual line is even funnier.)

There's not much to say about the filmmaking side of Ticks, though the special effects are surprisingly good. Director Tony Randel is most famous for Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and his other credits include a live-action version of Fist of the North Star, Assignment Berlin, a hair-growth infomercial, and the television series Power Rangers in Space and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. Screenwriter Brent V. Friedman has written two other films on our list, The Resurrected and Necronomicon. His other credits include Hollywood Hot Tubs 2: Educating Crystal, American Cyborg: Steel Warrior, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and Foodfight!. As you can see, he specializes in films with a colon in the title.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

#90: Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982)

I'm not a big Wes Craven fan. That might be an understatement, considering I find The Last House on the Left and Scream two of the most insulting, repugnant films ever made, but I have to give the guy a little credit. He's directed a lot of iconic horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow), his visual style complements the tone of the particular projects he directs, and he's certainly had staying power in an industry that tends to discard older directors. And he made this campy piece of fun.

Swamp Thing is often misunderstood by film writers, bloggers, and fans who have no appreciation for the sources of its visual style. It's supposed to look cheap. The rubber suits, comically exaggerated pratfalls, and Wilhelm screams are there on purpose. This film is paying homage to both the DC comic book it's derived from and cheapo 1950s monster movies and their low-rent rubber-suited beasts. Craven gets this mood just right. Swamp Thing looks like a late-1970s/early-1980s comic book brought to life, and the creatures and mad scientist super-villain are old-fashioned monster movie staples.
Craven could have buried this movie in too many layers of camp and self-referential, condescending winkery (wankery?), but he achieves a surprising amount of empathy and warmth by assembling a wonderful, offbeat cast and shooting on location in the swamps outside of Charleston, South Carolina. There's just something visually magical about a Southern swamp, am I right? That unusual cast does a fine job of playing it straight enough to make an audience feel something for the characters, but silly enough to let you know they're aware of acting in a film about an avenging plantman who lives in a swamp and fights an evil genius named Dr. Arcane.

Adrienne Barbeau stars as government scientist Alice Cable, who is dispatched to the South Carolina swamps to replace a predecessor who became alligator food. She joins a team working on a secret government project attempting to end world hunger by genetically engineering super-plants that will grow quickly and abundantly in hostile conditions. Barbeau, besides being a likable actress and crush object for genre fanboys of a certain age (mine), was the go-to female lead for early 1980s horror and sci-fi. In addition to Swamp Thing, she appeared in her then-husband John Carpenter's early classics The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing (in an uncredited, vocal-only role as the voice of the computer), as well as George Romero's Creepshow. Her fellow government agents and scientists include Ray Wise (best known for playing Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks), Al Ruban in a rare acting role (he was the producer and cinematographer for most of John Cassavetes' films), and television veteran Don Knight. The government workers are being targeted by evil mad scientist super-villain Dr. Arcane, played by international movie veteran Louis Jourdan, who wants to kill them all and steal their scientific secrets. The scientists and the world at large think he's dead, but he's secretly living in an enormous, super-villain mansion deep in the swamps. He's enlisted an army of thugs and mercenaries, led by Last House on the Left sleazebag David Hess, to carry out his dirty work. When they finally make their move, something goes awry with the super-plant formula, and Swamp Thing is born! He's played by veteran stuntman Dick Durock. Soon, Barbeau is on the run in the swamps, aided by teen-aged, Coke-bottle-glassed, deadpan-voiced, convenience store clerk Jude, played by the thoroughly enjoyable Reggie Batts in his only film role.

What follows is 90 minutes of silly, inviting, horror/sci-fi/action fun. For once, Craven decides to depict warm, likable, human characters, and he has a lot of fun with his comic-book panel transitions between scenes. This is a rare horror film that's kid-friendly, and it was marketed that way when it first hit theaters in 1982. I remember wanting to see this movie so badly as a child and being fascinated by an article about it in a sci-fi magazine my mother bought for me at the grocery store. By the time we got a VCR three or four years later, I had transferred my fascination to R-rated horror films (even though my mother never let me watch any), and no longer cared to see the PG-rated Swamp Thing. That was kid stuff. I should have seen it then. I would have enjoyed it.

Speaking of kid stuff, the European prints of Swamp Thing were a bit less kid-friendly. In the non-Puritanical half of the Western world, the film featured a couple of nude scenes, including the amply bosomed Ms. Barbeau bathing in a less grungy part of the swamp. When Swamp Thing was first released on DVD in the U.S., the European version was mistakenly pressed instead. Even though the case showed the PG rating, American kids got an eyeful of boobage. After getting several complaints from a bunch of prudes who think the key to a well-adjusted adulthood is to never catch a glimpse of the opposite sex's anatomy until you're 18, the studio recalled the DVDs and replaced them with the PG version. That version still shows a brief shot of sideboob and much emphasis on Barbeau's cleavage, but I guess the prudes are okay with that. As we all remember from the recent Janet Jackson Super Bowl debacle, this country is full of people with serious, bizarre, and inconsistent hangups about body parts that exist on half the adult population.
Unrelated note: I think Craven missed an opportunity to convince The Troggs to reform and record the theme song to this film. Just imagine it. "Swamp Thing, you make my heart sing. You make everything...swampy. Ohh, Swamp Thing."