Saturday, October 31, 2015

#218: The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

Happy Halloween, people. This is my first time delivering a movie review post on Halloween, and I'm pleased the film in question turned out to be a great one. I planned on writing it last week, but a houseful of my wife's relatives in town for a wedding led to this spookily appropriate postponement.
The first of many film adaptations of Maurice Renard's novel, The Hands of Orlac is a lesser-known triumph from Robert Wiene, the German director most famous for the 1920 German Expressionist horror masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari deserves all the accolades thrown its way and is a true creative blend of set design, cinematography, direction, and performance, but I might like The Hands of Orlac even more. This is just a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the lighter, subtler touch and the burrowing, methodical accumulation of paranoia and fear of Orlac to the more overt and hyper-stylized all-encompassing nightmare world of Caligari. Each film is great and widely available, though, so why pick one when you can have both?
Reunited with Caligari star Conrad Veidt, Wiene uses the gifted actor as the title character here. Orlac is a famous concert pianist away on tour. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) anxiously awaits his return and pines for him to run his famous hands all over her body. This hand fetish continues throughout the film, which caused American and German censors some discomfort and led to the film's delayed and disruptively edited release in the United States four years after its release in Europe. There are no double entendres or sly winks and hints here. Yvonne has a strong sexual desire for her husband's hands, and she can barely control herself even when discussing it with her maid and confidante Regine (Carmen Cartellieri). Fortunately, her husband played his last show of the tour and is returning home on the train that night. Unfortunately, a careless railroad employee makes a terrible error, causing Orlac's train to hit another train head-on just a few miles from the station.
Yvonne rushes to the scene of the accident and finds her husband badly injured but still alive. At the hospital, Orlac's surgeon Dr. Serral (Hans Homma) informs a grateful Yvonne that Orlac's head injuries are serious but not life-threatening and that he will recover. Then he gives her the worst news of all. Orlac's hands are so badly damaged he may not be able to save them. Yvonne goes into near-breakdown mode and demands that Dr. Serral save her husband's beautiful, sexy hands at any cost. The good news here is that Dr. Serral has been doing some freaky but successful secret hand transplants. The bad news is that Orlac gets the hands of notorious and recently executed robber/murderer Vasseur. Oh shiiiiiiiit!
When Orlac recovers and learns the source of his new hands, he freaks out. He feels murderous urges, which he suppresses at great psychological cost. Is he losing his marbles or is there some essence of the murderous man contained in his hands that is taking hold of Orlac? Or is something even more sinister going on? Surprisingly, world's biggest hand fetishist Yvonne never even notices that her husband has a completely different pair of hands, but she does notice that he won't touch her with them since the surgery and is pretty distraught about that. I won't reveal the rest, but I will say that many great scenes, images, and twists and turns in the story follow.
Wiene dials down Caligari's extreme stylization in this more earthbound tale of terror, but there is nothing routine or perfunctory about the visual world he creates here. The Hands of Orlac is filled with expressively beautiful and/or nightmarish images and shot compositions and a masterful use of shadows and light. Wiene used harsh, exaggerated, abstract angles in Caligari to let you know from the outset that you were in a world permeated by madness, while the exaggerated, expressionist touches in Orlac slowly accumulate as our character moves from a world he understands to a world filled with darkness, doubt, suppression, and fear.
I loved so many shots and scenes in Orlac, especially the dark taverns and bars, the most visually expressive newsstand in the world, the oversized doors and couches and their exaggeratedly rounded shapes, the expressive faces in closeup and medium shots, the darkly perverse humor and sexual content, the masterful control of a bizarre and difficult tone. I could go on.
This is a great movie, full of great moments, a silent gem that needs a bigger audience. Check it out.    

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The SLIFR Halloween Quiz

The highly enjoyable film blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule presents a film buff quiz a few times a year. I posted my answers to the most recent one on my general film blog We Can't Stop the Dancing Chicken. SLIFR has just unleashed a Halloween-themed horror quiz an unprecedented handful of days after the last quiz, so I thought I'd post my answers here instead, since this is a horror, cult, and midnight movie-themed blog.

1) Edwige Fenech or Barbara Bouchet?
Bouchet by default. I haven't seen any Fenech movies, which I should probably rectify soon.

2) The horror movie you will stand up for when no one else will:
Amityville II: The Possession has a reputation as just another terrible cash-in sequel, but I think it's a pretty solid horror movie with an enjoyably perverse streak, a kinetic style, and an expressive depiction of '80s teenage rebellion. It's much better than the first film, and much, much better than any other film with Amityville in the title.

3) Your favorite horror novel: 
It's technically a novella, so maybe I'm cheating, but The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

4) Lionel Atwill or George Zucco?
George Zucco, because he was in After the Thin Man and because of this still:

5) Name a horror film which you feel either goes "too far" or conversely might have been better had it been bolder.
I hate horror films that linger on rape and torture and the worst one for me is the original I Spit on Your Grave. (Haven't seen the remake. Won't see the remake.) I don't want to know anyone who enjoys watching a woman being tortured and raped repeatedly for 45 minutes. Conversely, any of the recent bland Hollywood remakes of classic '60s, '70s, and '80s horror movies would be improved by some boldness, perversity, and personality.

6) Let the Right One In or Let Me In?
I haven't seen Let Me In, but I loved every minute of Let the Right One In except for the ridiculous CGI cat scene.

7) Favorite horror film released by American International Pictures:
So many favorites and so much fierce competition here, but I'll go with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with honorable mention shout-outs to Black Sunday, The Masque of the Red Death, Witchfinder General, Sisters, Death Line (aka Raw Meat), and Deranged. And about 35 others.

8) Veronica Carlson or Barbara Shelley?
I haven't seen much from either actor, but Barbara Shelley gets the nod just for being in a few films and TV series I've seen.

9) Name the pinnacle of slasher movie kills, based on gore quotient, level of cleverness, or shock value. 
Leaving out Psycho and Halloween for being too obvious and too influential (the Beatles and Stones of slasher movies, or maybe the Elvis and Beatles of slasher movies) and any of Dario Argento's '70s and '80s kills (don't know if these are technically slasher films), I'm going to pick Margot Kidder's death by crystal unicorn while children sing Christmas carols outside her window in Black Christmas (the original, of course, not the remake) with honorable mentions for Wendy's long chase scene and death in the original Prom Night and Brooke Shields' death in Alice, Sweet Alice. These deaths aren't particularly gory, just shocking, tense, and atmospheric. I also can't overlook this scene from The House on Sorority Row, in which Jodie Draigie totally kills spoken English dead with much shock value in this insane line reading of a completely banal line of dialogue.

10) Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Dracula (1931, George Melford)?
I regrettably have not seen Melford's Spanish-language version, but I love Browning's Dracula, despite some clunky scenes when Lugosi's not around.  

11) Name a movie which may not strictly be thought of as a horror film which you think qualifies for inclusion in the category.
Most David Lynch movies and Todd Haynes' Safe, which is considered an indie drama but is a psychological horror classic on par with Repulsion.

12) The last horror movie you saw in a theater? On home video?
Theater: Yakuza Apocalypse has vampires in it, so that may count, but I don't think of it as a horror film. In that case, probably The Babadook.
Home video: Bad Taste

13) Can you think of a horror movie that works better as a home video experience than as a theatrical one?
I think horror movies are generally creepier at home, especially if you're watching them by yourself or with a small group of people, but Ringu (and probably its American remake, though I haven't seen that one) is particularly great in this setting, since it's about a curse that gets you if you watch a bootleg video on your TV.

14) Brad Dourif or Robert Englund?
I like Robert Englund, but he doesn't stand a chance against Brad Dourif's body of work. Dourif by a huge lead.  

15) At what moment did you realize you were a horror fan? Or what caused you to realize that you weren't?
I came out of the womb a fan of horror and rock and roll and have no memories of discovering either. It was always just a part of who I am. There must have been a moment when it clicked, but I suspect that happened on a subconscious level.

16) The Thing with Two Heads or The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant?
I have vague memories of seeing both films on television as a child, and though I'm a big Bruce Dern fan now, I probably liked The Thing with Two Heads better because Rosey Grier was in it and I knew him from Free to Be You and Me. It also taught us important lessons about overcoming racism and how to safely operate a motorcycle if you have two heads. We probably need another mini-wave of two-headed transplant movies. Summer movies have become too self-important.

17) Favorite giallo or giallo moment:
Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

18) Name a horror remake, either a character or an entire film, that you prefer over its original or more iconic incarnation.
I like the 1988 version of The Blob more than the 1958 original. A remake that I like just as much as the original is Herzog's Nosferatu, which most critics find inferior to Murnau's silent masterpiece, but I find just as beautiful, atmospheric, and disturbing.

19) Your favorite director of horror films:
Excluding some favorites who also work in other genres (David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Brian de Palma, Larry Cohen), my choice is George A. Romero. Martin and the first three Dead movies are classics, and even his weakest movies have moments of greatness, invention, and humor. I love his stuff.

20) Caroline Munro or Stephanie Beacham?
Caroline Munro. Like question 14, it's not even close.

21) Best horror moment created specifically for TV:
I love several Tales from the Darkside episodes and was pretty freaked out by "The Cutty Black Sow" episode as a kid (also, it's just fun to say "cutty black sow"), but the show's scariest moment was its freaky-ass intro, which never failed to creep me out every Saturday night.

22) The Stephen King adaptation that works better as a movie than a book:
I'm not the biggest fan of Stephen King as a writer, though I loved his books when I was a kid, so I tend to prefer any King movie with a great director to a King book. Let's go with a tie between Carrie and The Shining, with honorable mentions to The Dead Zone and Christine.

23) Name the horror movie you most want to see but to this point never have.
The few scenes from Tourist Trap and its creepy score that I managed to see and hear have me anticipating the moment I finally see the whole thing.

24) Andre Morell or Laurence Naismith?
I can't say I spend much time thinking about either man, but I prefer Andre Morell.

25) Second favorite horror film made in the 1980s:
This is an impossible question to answer, but let's go with Michael Laughlin's criminally underseen, wildly inventive slasher/mad scientist hybrid Strange Behavior from 1981. I have no idea if this really is my second favorite 1980s horror film, but it's the first one I thought of that I couldn't call my favorite but that I love with every part of me that loves movies.

26) Tell us about your favorite TV horror host and the program showcasing horror classics over which he/she presided/presides.
As a child of the '80s, I remember watching a lot of Elvira and enjoying her look, her (genuine?) love of horror, her goofy jokes, and the fun she always seemed to be having, but I also spent hours and hours watching a VHS tape called Horrible Horror that collected clips from old horror and science fiction films that was hosted by Zacherley,  the Cool Ghoul, with interstitial skits from him as well. Everything I said about Elvira above also applies to Zacherley, though Elvira is much easier on the eyes. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

#217: Bad Taste (Peter Jackson, 1987)

Oh, Peter Jackson. I'll probably catch up to the Hobbit movies and The Lovely Bones someday, mostly because I tend to be a completist about film directors I like, but my enthusiasm for the task is fairly low. I liked the Lord of the Rings well enough, as far as long and expensive CGI blockbusters go, and there were enjoyable moments in all three movies, especially the first one. I felt much the same about King Kong, particularly some of those beautiful shots of Kong and Naomi Watts in fantasy-movie Old New York before all hell broke loose, though there were some troublingly racist elements early in the film. He makes a pretty good CGI blockbuster, but any of you who have read more than two posts of mine know how I feel about CGI blockbusters.
I miss the old, varied, weird Peter Jackson, the guy who made low-budget splatter horror-comedies Bad Taste and Dead Alive, the behind-the-showbiz curtain expose of sex and drugs and crime and violence except they're all puppets Meet the Feebles, the sensitive character study/true-crime indie drama Heavenly Creatures, and the dryly funny film history mockumentary Forgotten Silver. This was an unpredictable, independent-minded guy with a great sense of humor taking his own weird path. Even The Frighteners, his first major-studio release that looks overstuffed with CGI and undercooked in terms of character development in retrospect, is pretty odd and endearing and human, with a story about small-time con artists that turns into a Ghostbusters homage and then morphs into a slasher movie, with a likable performance from Michael J. Fox in one of his last leading roles before his Parkinson's forced him to reduce his acting schedule. I'm happy Peter Jackson is successful and doing what he wants and has won some Oscars and continues to film in New Zealand, but I miss the weird and I don't think the weird is coming back. I hope I'm wrong.
Bad Taste, Jackson's first feature film, is weird and funny and disgusting and full of handmade effects and imagination. There's no real attempt at storytelling or character development, but that would only get in the way of the crazed, goofball fun here. This is a real nerdy young man's movie with no female characters, though it doesn't come off like malicious exclusion. Instead, this is a good-natured sausage party made by dorks who probably hadn't met many girls yet. Jackson would get better at including women very soon.
The film opens with a shadowy figure using a severed finger to call in a small government team to the fictional New Zealand village of Kaihoro. The humans have disappeared. In their stead are murderous aliens inhabiting human bodies. This is part of a larger conspiracy orchestrated by an intergalactic fast food conglomerate trying to regain their spot as the most popular fast food chain on their home planet. Humans are apparently delicious, so the aliens are using isolated New Zealand as the initial test batch of people meat. They plan to bring the slaughtered New Zealanders back to their planet in boxes and feed them to their stockholders. If all goes well, the aliens can then return and harvest the billions of other humans for their menu.
The aliens underestimated how resourceful a handful of goofy New Zealanders can be. The team includes Ozzy (Terry Potter), Barry (Pete O'Herne), Frank (Mike Minett), and Derek (Jackson himself), as well as a rescued public health and welfare worker named Giles (Craig Smith), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and almost became the main ingredient in a stew. The team battles the aliens, who morph back into their original pig/ape/old man hybrid form, and much blood, guts, brains, spit, vomit, and slime ensues. In addition to the alien bodies, seagulls are smashed and sheep are exploded. This is not a film to be enjoyed while eating. God, I miss the days of handmade guts and slime (stares wistfully in the distance).
Bad Taste is a film where the action starts from the very beginning and continues until the crazed, Rocky Horror-nodding end. This nonstop action is exhausting and uninspired in CGI films, but not in handmade horror and action movies. Bad Taste is immature, gross-out fun, an innovative labor of love from a young guy who would one day become a powerful Hollywood producer and director. It's probably the only movie made by an Oscar winner where an alien eats the brains of another alien directly from the blown-apart skull of the latter alien with a spoon. Can anyone check on that? There may be a few others.
Peter Jackson made this movie with his own money on weekends over the course of four years, using whatever friends were available. (One friend was fired and rehired because his religious wife wouldn't let him work on the Sabbath day, and his eventual divorce allowed him to come back to Sunday work duty.) Most of the leading actors played dual roles, and the alien costumes were created in Jackson's mother's kitchen. The alien heads tilt back because the latex had to be pushed in that direction to fit in the oven. Jackson eventually received a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission toward the end of production that allowed him to finish the movie and find distribution. The film ran into some censorship in Australia, but became a cult hit at home, and a video favorite in the United States. I enjoy it a great deal, and I hope you do, too.