Sunday, October 30, 2011

Assignment Naschy: El Retorno De Walpurgis (1974)

aka Curse of the Devil

aka Return of the Werewolf

aka The Return of Walpurgis

In ye olden tymes of the middle ages, when everything was tinted quite yellow, the rather smug knight Irineus Daninsky (Paul Naschy) crushes the witch cult of the Bathorys. Daninsky probably shouldn't have announced his plans of evil smiting beforehand, for Elizabeth Bathory and her co-witches had more than enough time to curse his line before they die. It doesn't save the witches from getting hanged or burned at the stake, but Irineus' descendant of a few generations removed, Waldemar (of course also Paul Naschy), will encounter a whole bunch of problems because of it.

Waldemar lives in ye olden times of the not-19th century, when people dressed funny but - unless they are superstitious peasants - never acted any differently from the 70s; not even pre-marital sex seems to be much of a problem.

Anyway, on a hunt Waldemar shoots a wolf that looks remarkably like a dog but finds himself facing the dead body of a naked gypsy. Oops. Despite Waldemar's attempts at paying them off, the gypsies - probably fuelled by Bathory's curse, or not - decide to teach the guy a lesson with the help of good old Satan. Said lesson consists of first letting gypsy Ilona (Ines Morales) seduce the virginal Waldemar, only to then infect him with the curse of the werewolf.

From then on every full moon night sees Waldemar growing a very hairy face and going around killing off members of the local peasantry. Fortunately for him, there's also an axe murderer running free, so everyone - there's no difference between the wounds an axe or a wolfman leave, it seems - thinks the poor madmen is the guilty party.

When he's not growing more hair in his face than he has on his head, Waldemar spends his time romancing Kinga Wilowa (Fabiola Falcon), the daughter of an engineer newly arrived in town. The romance business is a good thing, too, for as we all know, it's the job of a loving woman to kill a wolfman, especially since Waldemar sure likes to whine about his cursed state once he realizes it, but just as surely doesn't do anything to stop himself from killing further. Too bad for the peasantry and Kinga's family.

This third film in my small, somewhat frightening Assignment Naschy project finds our actor/writer and sometimes director hero producing the up to now most coherent script I've seen by him. Gone are the wastelands of scenes that have no importance at all for the film's plot, gone too is most of the "tell, don't show important things" style, and if you're generous you may even be able to argue the script's pacing is somewhat less slow, even though it still isn't anything for the impatient.

These improvements in Naschy's writing certainly do result in a more coherent film, film a film even that actually seems to know what kind of story it wants to tell: the classic Universal wolfman tale with a bit more blood and breasts and a bit more backstory. Unfortunately, what the film wins in coherence and clarity it loses in dream-like mood and craziness. Where Naschy's other Daninsky films are balancing certain po-faced tendencies with the merry silliness of their slow-motion vampires or yeti-induced lycanthropy, El Retorno wants to be a serious, moody horror melodrama in the gothic mood. On one hand, that's an ambition I respect a lot, but on the other hand, it opens El Retorno up to comparisons with films like Universal's Wolfman and Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf, it just can't stand up to, even though it is trying its best.

While the acting is pretty decent this time around, Naschy sure is neither an Oliver Reed nor a Lon Chaney Junior (against whose acting much can be said, but who was a hell of a human face for a werewolf), and while El Retorno's script sure is slicker than those of many Naschy films, it is still pretty awkward in comparison to the films it has set its eyes on.

El Retorno's visual side deserves some praise, though. Director Carlos Aured has a fine eye for creating mood through the play of light and shadows, and some rather nifty framing tricks. Aured is certainly helped here by access to some spooky looking locations, as well as a few effective sets. I assume he'd have been able to make quite a nice piece of gothic horror under more fortunate circumstances.

It is a bit ironic that I enjoyed El Retorno De Walpurgis the least of the three movies I've watched as a part of Assignment Naschy until now, even though it's the technically most accomplished of the films, as well as the least idiosyncratic one. It's the old problem with merely competent films being much less interesting than films that are batshit insane, I suspect.

 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

In short: Leviathan (1989)

The crew (played by an ensemble consisting of Peter Weller, Amanda Pays, Richard Crenna, Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Michael Carmine, Lisa Eilbacher and Daniel Stern that isn't exactly challenged by the material) of an experimental deep sea mining project is looking forward to the end of their stay underwater in just three days; it's probably just early enough to keep people from kicking the shit out of each other.

Things take a turn for the unpleasant when the dumbest, most unpleasant and least long-lived of the crew stumbles upon a sunken Russian military vessel, the "Leviathan". Finding a ship and stealing its safe are one, of course. The safe doesn't contain much of value: there are the personal effects of quite a few dead Russians, a videotape speaking of some kind of plague on board, and a bottle of vodka. Personally, I'd abstain from drinking that particular stuff, even if I were into harder drinks, what with it coming from a plague ship and all, but then I'm not a character in a horror movie. It won't come as much of a surprise when the fittingly named Sixpack and his female buddy Bowman show fewer inhibitions toward suicide and soon come down with a lethal case of severe genetic mutations.

The dead crewmen don't stay dead, though, or rather, after some time their bodies transform into a single monster with too many mouths, tentacles and other fun appendages that then proceeds to go on a rampage. As if a deadly monster on board of a deep sea station weren't enough, the surviving crew members take their dear time before they decide to evacuate. Once they do, they learn why one shouldn't work for a company with Meg Foster in a leading position.

Leviathan is another film belonging to the small yet fun late 80s SF horror movie sub-genre that - probably trying to borrow some of the fire of James Cameron's Abyss (aka "be nice, or we'll kill you all, for we are space Americans") - puts either Alien or Aliens from space into the deep sea. While this isn't the height of creativity, I always do respect the willingness of certain producers to rip off more than one successful movie at once; it sure is more interesting than ripping off only one film.

In George Pan Cosmatos' (a director without a directorial personality if ever I saw one) Leviathan, the producers decided to borrow from the first Alien movie (and a bit of The Thing, too, for good measure), just without everything that could be read as feminist, and in general without much of that "subtext" stuff the eggheads are always talking about. That Cosmatos isn't as great at building a mood of dread even before the monsters appear as Ridley Scott was will come as no surprise. However, to be fair to the movie at hand, it's perfectly entertaining if you don't compare it with the film it's ripping off, and instead just roll with its ambition of being a decent monster flick taking place underwater.

Cosmatos is certainly competent competent enough when it comes to staging gory (and pleasantly rubbery) effects scenes. The effects themselves aren't works of genius but certainly do suggest that someone on the effects team liked his shape-changing anime creatures with heads and mouths at the wrong places well enough. Which does come in handy for me, as I do too.

I'm also bound to like a competently made traditional monster movie, no matter if it takes place in New York, in space or underwater, so Leviathan is fine by me.

 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In short: The Night Flier (1997)

A very peculiar serial killer using the pseudonym Dwight H. Renfield (Michael H. Moss) is striking at small airfields all over the USA. He's flying a black Cessna Skymaster, only flies by night, and likes to rip people to pieces and/or drain all their blood. Why, you might think he's a vampire!

With some reluctance, the tabloid reporter and amateur pilot Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) who is even more of a cynical jerk than his job description suggests, starts to investigate the killings. He finds out some pretty weird things. Firstly, the killers victims all have died from bite wounds of a rather impressive size that have little to do with the pithy little holes a sparkly vampire or Bela Lugosi leave but have more in common with the bites of a large animal. Secondly, the killer seems to be able to put some kind of mental hold on his victims, hypnotizing them into housing him for a day or two, and giving themselves up willingly. Renfield's not always using that ability, though. Sometimes, he just goes in for a bit of slaughter.

Dees gets close enough to the killer whom he dubs "the Night Flier" that the vampire starts to take notice. He's trying to warn the reporter off for large parts of the movie's running time, but messages written in blood only cause Dees to become increasingly obsessed with finding and most of all seeing the Night Flier. It's doubtful this will end well for him.

Generally, neither 90s horror nor Stephen King adaptations have much of a reputation among cult movie fans, so watching a Stephen King adaptation made in the 90s is not a project one should take upon oneself lightly.

In a surprising turn of events, The Night Flier isn't all that bad of a film. Sure, it has large, vampire-jaw shaped problems, yet there's also quite a bit to like about it.

But let's talk about the film's problems first. Chief among them is how weak most of the supporting acting is, with everyone going for broadness where subtlety would have been asked for, and some ill-fitting scenery chewing in exactly those places where it is least called for. The film's script likes to draw things out a bit too much, presumably to get to feature length somehow, leading to a lot of scenes that just go on a little too long, and some whose inclusion seems dubious at best.

On the positive side, director Mark Pavia does achieve some pretty atmospheric shots on what obviously was a low budget and tries his best to make the confrontation between Dees and the vampire (who for some reason wears an utterly ridiculous cape, but I'll just let that one slide) thematically resonant by casting Dees as a bitter cynic who has begun to seek death in more than one way.

Miguel Ferrer's performance is the other big positive the film has got going for it. It comes as no surprise that the actor is good at playing an unrepentant asshole, but he also manages to give the character a degree of charm and a suggestion of doubts that make him an unrepentant asshole who is interesting to watch for an hour and a half instead of just an unrepentant asshole.

While these positives aren't enough to turn The Night Flier into a completely satisfying film, they are enough to make it worth watching.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In short: The Hypnotic Eye (1960)

A wave of peculiar facial self-mutilations of beautiful women hits an American city. The victims seem to have trouble realizing how bad acid is for the skin, or that you shouldn't poke your face into a fan, and only remember having done something quite harmless afterwards. Steve Kennedy (Joe Patridge), the cop investigating the affair, is understandably confused by what's happening.

Thing only start to become clearer - if not necessarily to Steve - when he, his girlfriend Marcia (Marcia Henderson) and her friend Dodie (Merry Anders) visit the stage show of hypnotist Desmond (Jacques Bergerac) and his assistant Justine (Allison Hayes). Desmond (and please, imagine the name spoken with a French accent) practices some exciting hypnotizing on Dodie, and shortly afterwards, she decides that there's not much difference between acid and soap. Marcia, obviously the brains in the relationship with Steve, thinks that there's something fishy about Desmond. Why, he might even have hypnotized poor Dodie into washing off her face! Steve reacts to that theory with huffy scepticism, so Marcia waltzes off to get herself hypnotized on stage for science. She resists getting the mind whammy, even though Desmond enhances his hypnotic powers with a blinking electronic gadget in the form of an eye, and so remembers the hypnotist's suggestion that she should visit him in his dressing room at midnight. And the 50s are barely over!

When Marcia tells Steve about it, he finally admits that something is going on with Desmond, and yes, it would be a great idea for Marcia to pretend the hypnosis had actually worked on her and visit the hypnotist in his dressing room, just as he wanted. Would you believe that this turns out to be A Very Bad Idea?

If you think the great William Castle was the only one doing gimmick driven horror films and thrillers during the 50s and early 60s, you will be quite surprised to encounter directorial hired gun George Blair's The Hypnotic Eye. The film's gimmick is twofold: firstly, in the sort of fourth wall breaking manoeuvre I suspect Castle would have approved of, the audience in cinemas was provided with the same balloons carrying the same drawings of "the hypnotic eye" as the audience of Desmond's show in the movie; admittedly, that's not as good the The Tingler's fourth wall breaking, but it's creative in a friendly and huckster approved way that doesn't disturb the enjoyment of the movie as a movie.

Which is - unfortunately - not what you can say about gimmick number two: taking the ten minutes directly before the movie's supposed climax to let poor Jacques Bergerac perform a hypnotism number on the film's audience that is not just much less interesting than his first number, but also takes away all possible tension the film might have developed for a viewer until then, deflating the movie like a needle-stuck balloon (with or without hypnotic eye).

It's a bit of a shame too, for up to that point, The Hypnotic Eye is a very serviceable little matinee thriller with some pleasantly gruesome moments and even some hints at a certain psychological complexity. The film's frankness about Desmond using his hypnotic powers as a sort of date rape drug isn't exactly pleasant, but quite effective, for example, while the hypnotist's relationship to Justine has quite an unexpected power dynamic I wish the film had explored a bit more instead of showing us a scene of a supposedly hypnotized studio audience jiggling their arms while Desmond blathers on.

But even with its total break-down right when it is supposed to get exciting, The Hypnotic Eye is a solid example of the huckster horror/thriller right at the point when it began to turn into what we now know would become a part of true exploitation cinema just a bit later.

 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

1916. A German submarine commanded by a Captain Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery, about as German as his character name) sinks a British passenger ship. While it's surfacing to recharge the batteries, the submarine meets a force it can't resist - a lifeboat full of the British ship's crew, biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon) and two-fisted American Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure). As we all know, nobody can resist the fist of Doug McClure, and so it takes only a short fight until the submarine's new commander is named Tyler. The American promptly decides that the best direction to point his shiny new submarine in is New England. Or so Tyler thinks, for the German first officer and professional jerk Dietz (Anthony Ainley) is clever enough to sabotage the boat's compass.

When Tyler and his British friends realize this small problem days later, they get so distracted the Germans have no particular trouble taking their submarine back. At least for a time, because the Fist of the McClure punches its way back into command again after a time.

Now truly lost somewhere in Antarctic waters, and lacking in supplies and oil, the submarine eventually travels through an underwater cave into the lost continent/island/place on a volcano crater Caprona, where it is warm and cosy, and food will surely be plentiful.

As it is with places like this, Caprona is full of dinosaurs, cavemen and everything nice. These dangers convince the rather gentlemanly Von Schoenvorts, Tyler and the British that it would be best to just forget about the war at home and work together to find a way to first survive and then escape the continent. The longer the men and woman stay, the clearer it becomes that Caprona isn't your typical lost world - for some reason, the further north the group travels, the more highly developed the cavemen and creatures they meet become (which mostly means the cavemen getting better at guerrilla tactics and getting the knowledge to build shields). There must be a mystery behind it, but - quite disappointingly - the film never explores it pretty well.

Of course, expecting an Amicus adventure movie with Doug McClure that's based on the first Caprona novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs to thoroughly explore the pretty interesting SF-nal concept at its core would be asking too much, even though it credits great yet curmudgeonly SF and fantasy writer and editor Michael Moorcock as its co-writer in Moorcock's only screenwriting credit. After all, Amicus's The Land That Time Forgot isn't really a film out to explore ideas, but one out to show Doug McClure punching out cavemen and shooting dinosaurs while Susan Penhaligon makes slight screeching noises.

Once the film actually arrives at that point of natural awesomeness, it becomes not exactly overwhelming - it's not mad enough for that - but at least pretty damn entertaining, entertaining enough to let me just ignore the film's wasted potential for becoming a fantasy adventure movie with a brain. The Land's problem is how much time it takes to get its characters to Caprona. The film's first forty minutes feature more than just a moment of feet-dragging to get to the appointed running time without having to put much money on screen. Director Kevin Connor (who started a short phase of being Amicus's go-to guy for this kind of adventure movie with the film) really isn't too great at letting his filler look like anything else, and is never able to hide there's no need at all for some of the script's early long-windedness. For example, instead of putting McClure, Penhaligon and the British sailors into one lifeboat from the start, the civilians and the sailors are in different boats only so that the film can spend five minutes it could have used for showing us something interesting on their meet-up. And let's not even start with the weird back and forth in submarine ownership, which is - again - neither interesting nor necessary.

Fortunately, once our heroes have arrived on Caprona, things get quite a bit more interesting, the pace increases and the script stops letting its characters do everything three times.

Connor has, after all, dinosaurs of highly variable quality to put on screen. Worst in show here is certainly the wire-driven pterodactyl McClure encounters late in the movie: it's stiff, it's badly detailed, and its appearance is marred by the fact that Connor doesn't even seem to try disguising the wires it's hanging from; Tsuburaya, dinosaur effect guy Roger Dicken definitely isn't. Some of Dicken's other dinosaurs are a bit more effective, but really, I'm pretty much satisfied with any kind of prehistoric monster as long as it is fighting Doug McClure doing his patented two-fisted kinda-sorta everyman American bit. In that regard, The Land That Time Forgot's only disappointment is that McClure doesn't punch a dinosaur, but only a lot of cavemen of various stages in their development.

 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet: Im Banne des Unheimlichen (1968)

aka The Zombie Walks

In the first themed month of many, the members and agents of M.O.S.S. point their eyes/eye-stalks/tentacles/augmentations towards all things skeletal and skull-shaped. You can find our ever growing (at least throughout October) list of fleshless knowledge here.

 

The rich philanthropist Sir Oliver Ramsay has been killed in a plane crash, leaving his brother Sir Cecil (Wolfgang Kieling) as his inheritor. Sir Cecil isn't quite convinced that his brother is really dead, though, for the badly burned corpse supposedly belonging to Oliver was missing his scorpion ring. Something definitely is up with Oliver's death: during his burial, a terrible laughter fills the church, seemingly coming from Oliver's coffin.

Following this rather disturbing event, Cecil repeatedly sees a stylish skull-faced form wearing a broad-rimmed hat, skeleton gloves and a scorpion ring. That's enough to convince that his brother has turned into a zombie and is out for revenge for some undisclosed misdeed. Once the skeleton-faced form begins to kill the people - starting with Cecil's lawyer - around Sir Cecil with a rare poison hidden in the scorpion's tail of his scorpion ring, Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) of Scotland Yard gets on the case.

Poor Higgins will not only have to cope with a murderous zombie (if he is one)/skull-masked villain of impeccable style, the charming roving reporter Peggy Ward (Siw Mattson) who knows it's '68, and the "comedic" shenanigans of his boss Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck). Our hero will also have to sort through a whole bunch of suspects including a shady physician (Siegfried Rauch), a shady mortician (Wolfgang Spier), a shady and very ill green-faced white guy who is supposed to be a creole from the West Indies (Peter Mosbacher), a shady stranger (Pinkas Braun), a shady nurse (Claude Farell), a shady chauffeur (Jimmy Powell), a shady priest (Hans Krull) and his shady wife (Renate Grosser), and a shady expert (Ilse Pagé) on poisons who lives and works in the most preposterous home ever to be filled with prepared animals. Some of these people would be financially quite better off if something happened to Sir Cecil, which - this being an Edgar Wallace adaptation - of course means many of them will end up quite dead while Higgins is still trying to get his act together.

I'm not an expert on statistics, and therefore can't be quite sure, but I suspect Alfred Vohrer's Edgar Wallace krimi Im Banne des Unheimlichen (which translates to "under the spell of the uncanny" - or "under the spell of the uncanny one", rather than the more pedestrian "the zombie walks") might be the Rialto Wallace movie featuring at once the highest number of suspects and the highest number of corpses; as you know, there's only a thin line dividing suspect and corpse in these films.

Im Banne is a Wallace krimi far on the pop side of the tracks, a film whose stiffly conservative side is permanently subverted by Vohrer's playing up of the script's inherent silliness, as the stiffer and more conservative elements in Vohrer's directorial style are drowned out by his obvious enjoyment of finally being able to play around with colour now that the Wallace films had given up on black and white. It's 1968, after all, and even though Vohrer's idea of pop is pretty far from hippie dreams, it is one that has room for moments of utter psychedelic delight like his frequent use (some will say overuse) of red and green light, a very swank nightclub sequence, and lovingly hideous interior decorations that culminate in the nearly Bollywood-ripe place Professor Bound works in that looks as if a bunch of dead animals had invaded a 60s ethno kitsch bachelor pad.

There are also some very peculiar ideas about the West Indies on display throughout the film. The West Indies, you see, are filled with creole people, some of them very white guys with green faces, who spend their time making zombies with the help of Aztec poison when they're not creating shrunken heads or mixing a drink known as "the zombie". Culturally, the film further suggests, the West Indies are at once part of the Caribbean and of Mexico. Some people will probably find enough material in here to be insulted for life, but for that, you'll have to be able to take this stuff seriously - I certainly don't, nor does the film itself.

The camp quotient pretty much goes through the roof, yet Vohrer does also use the more typical accoutrements of the earnest side of the krimi: rather drab churches, cobwebbed crypts, a swank castle, and a creepy hospital are all there, accounted for and created with a loving look for detail as well, providing the film with as much contact with the style of 1948 as with that of 1968. This contrast works well for the film, since it underlines its slightly surreal streak and pushes its mood into the dream-like and artificial, which is the only way I personally can stand a film this camp. In fact, this works out so well for the film (and for me) that I found myself utterly enthralled by the silly nonsense happening on screen while watching it.

My enjoyment was heightened even further when realizing that Vohrer (or script writer Ladislas Fodor) for once in a Wallace film actually includes a semi-competent woman on the side of the good. Sure, Siw Mattson's Peggy Ward isn't above getting kidnapped and threatened repeatedly, but she's also shown to shrug these meaningless little issues off like a good heroine and do something useful again afterwards; she's also pretty aggressively (and sillily) flirting with Higgins, which is as far from the regular passive female leads of the series as is possible. We probably have to thank the pervading popularity of The Avengers and Emma Peel (who is even mentioned in the dialogue) in Germany for this particular change to the accustomed formula of these films; I give my thanks daily.

Also worth mentioning (what with this being part of Skeletons in the Closet and all), is the excellent, excellent Laughing Corpse/Skull-Faced Gentleman. This particular masked evildoer is one of my absolute favourites in the whole Wallace cycle because he manages to be at once campy and somewhat creepy in concept, and is realized with a fine sense for the importance of little details. There aren't many skull masks with a moveable jaw after all, and not many villains wearing a skull mask, a cloak and gloves would sew themselves actual skeleton gloves. (Am I the only one hoping for a costume sewing scene in one these films?). It's that sort of enthusiasm that makes the true villain as much as the ability to speak of oneself in the third person and build death traps.

The very same enthusiasm that created this wonderful villain get-up is running through the whole film, making it one of the most outrageous as well as one of the most entertaining films in the Wallace cycle.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In short: She Waits (1972)

Warning: semi-twist spoiling follows.

When freshly married Laura Wilson (Patty Duke) accompanies her husband Mark (David McCallum) to finally meet his mother Sarah (Dorothy McGuire), things turn out rather more problematic than in your typical meet the parents situation. Mother, you see, has been on the edge of a breakdown ever since Mark's first wife Elaine died. She is convinced that Elaine's ghost is haunting the family villa, and that the coming of Laura will lead to terrible consequences if the couple should stay in the family mansion. Obviously, there's a terrible secret surrounding Elaine's death that, like all horrible secrets, must have repercussions sometime.

Mrs Wilson is absolutely right, too, for soon Laura begins to hear Elaine's favourite melody and even the dead woman's voice. It seems as if Elaine not just wants to tell her successor something, but as if she's trying to possess her. Or maybe the family doctor (Lew Ayres), that jerk, is right, and it's all a case of easily impressed wimmin being easily impressed. Be that as it may, the truth about Elaine's death will come out in the end.

Delbert Mann's She Waits is one of those pleasant early 70s US TV movies that take a classic horror movie/thriller set-up with underlying anxieties that are as applicable to the 1970s as they were to the 1940s, and makes a very serviceable, at times even pretty creepy, little movie out of them.

Mann (who should know his stuff, having once won an Oscar) turns out to be excellent at building up the a slightly gothically inclined - even though the film takes place in the 70s -  mood at the beginning of the film, and seems at his best in those scenes and moments where no dialogue is spoken, even though Morton Stevens's overtly melodramatic music does its best to sabotage his efforts.

Mann's greater success in the movie's more silent minutes may have something to do with the fact that Patty Duke is somewhat overtaxed with her role. She's all well and good as long as she's just Laura, but her Laura possessed by Elaine (or thinking to be possessed by Elaine) is not very convincing at all; one imagines there must be a reason why as many of those scenes as possible seem to be filmed with Duke's back to the camera.

The script has its moments whenever it is playing with its characters psychological troubles - Laura's insecurity about Mark's past, Mark's unwillingness to confront said past leading to shutting himself off emotionally - coming in contact with what might be supernatural agency, but falls down flat in some other aspects. The film's big secret is quite obvious from the start, and I can't say I found the slight twist surrounding it all that exciting: so David McCallum didn't kill his first wife, but a character only introduced right at the end is responsible? Whoa.

Then there's the problem with the film's attempts at keeping the supernatural agency ambiguous without being all that good at that whole ambiguity thing, leaving us with either a heroine who is so suggestible it's difficult to imagine how she can resist believing in every advert she sees, or a ghost who is so dumb she doesn't even know who killed her. Both versions are not exactly satisfying to me.

But here I go again talking about an early 70s TV movie as if it were not at all worth watching, even though it is. The problem, which certainly has reasons connected with the way TV movies were produced, is that everything that's good about She Waits is a product of solid, professional craftsmanship, and there's not much that can be said about solid and professional craftsmanship, besides it being solid and professional.

 

Friday, October 21, 2011

On WTF: Heroic Trio (1993)

If you have even the smallest place in your heart for wire fu, superhero movies or female-lead action movies, you'll be pleased by this week's column on WTF-Film, I hope.

Directed by a mercenary era Johnnie To, and action directed by Ching Siu-Tung, Heroic Trio tells of the baby-kidnapping, child-killing adventures of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung. To see me go on about the film a bit longer, just click on through.

 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In short: Page Eight (2011)

MI5 analyst Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is among the last of a dying breed. Despite certainly being the public school bred upperclass type you'd expect in his position and age group, he's also not really part of any old boy's network. Johnny has too large of a moral streak for that, and still lives by the conviction that the ultimate goal of intelligence work is finding the truth, something that doesn't make him too popular among his more modern colleagues.

One would expect a man like that to have grown quite cynical over the years, but what the life of a spy has made Johnny, is lonely. Four ex-wives - one of whom (Alice Krige) is now married to his best friend and boss Benedict Baron (Michael Baron) - and an alienated daughter (Felicity Jones) are a pretty good demonstration of the spy's difficulties in opening up emotionally.

Johnny's life gets more exciting again when his decidedly younger neighbour Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz) begins to show an interest in him. Not surprisingly, Johnny's a bit sceptical about Nancy; he does know a lot about ulterior motives, after all.

That feeling of something not being  quite alright around Johnny is not exactly decreasing when Benedict dies of a heart attack shortly after he revealed a file containing proof of the Prime Minister's (Ralph Fiennes) undisclosed knowledge about US torture camps to the Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves).

As if Ben's death weren't bad enough, someone in MI5 seems to want to use the opportunity to get rid of a fossil like Johnny. The spy is convinced that his dead friend wanted him to do the right thing with the information about the PM, but finding out what "the right thing" actually entails and surviving the politics surrounding it is quite a different thing. Ironically, Johnny might even need to begin to trust people again to survive.

If you've seen Red, you know that a (kinda-sorta) spy movie about an aging intelligence officer can be generic action crap like any other blockbuster. If you watch David Hare's BBC production Page Eight, you'll realize that a semi-realist spy movie about an aging intelligence officer can also still be thoughtful, quietly funny, and working inside the borders of its genre without wallowing in the obvious.

Hare - who also directed - is responsible for a tight script that prefers to be sly and seemingly unassuming, even though it is thematically quite rich. It's probably as good a film about an aging spy as I've seen, using the spy genre tropes of a man alienated from his surroundings and emotionally distant (though Johnny is neither in a spectacular way - this is not the sort of film that tries to lay anything on thick), to explore how growing old and lonely might feel to someone who is too intelligent not to know that he's wasted many of his chances and new ones might not come along anymore.

At the same time, neither its main character nor Page Eight are as dark or bitter as they could be: although it shows a lot of scorn for people playing politics and the hypocrisy of that particular game, there's also an honest strain of hope running through it that avoids kitsch and too easy ways out as much as it avoids cheap cynicism.

As a director, Hare is never flashy, but is pretty good at just stepping back and letting his script and his actors carry the weight of the story and the characters; that's what the film's brilliant cast, lead by an especially brilliant Nighy, is there for after all.

 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: A Blood Chilling-Gut Spilling Challenge To The Death

The Strange And Deadly Occurrence (1974): Totally solid mid-70s TV thriller by totally solid TV (and otherwise) director John Llewellyn Moxey. Lawyer Robert Stack (still using his Eliot Ness voice like in the old days), Vera Miles and her teenage daughter move into their dream home in the country. Strange (and later deadly) things occur that suggest the family's house may be haunted. Or is human interference behind everything?

Despite using one of my least favourite tropes in all of cinema as if it were an Old Dark House movie made in the late 30s, Moxey's film is still pretty entertaining, if not particularly exciting. You can see how it could have been much more effective if it hadn't gone all Scooby Doo on its audience, for the seemingly supernatural moments are clearly playing to Moxey's strength the most, but it's a nice enough way to waste 70 minutes of one's life.

I, Desire aka Desire, the Vampire (1982): Ironically, this later attempt at being all-out supernatural by Moxey is less successful than the older movie. A female vampire working as a hooker and as a nurse (and how's that for mixed signals and/or fetishism?) collides with overly nosy law student and morgue attendant David Naughton. It might be the fact that the script is often rather clumsy and obvious where it seems to think that it's clever and subtle, or that Moxey makes more than one directorial decision that hints at self sabotage (wildcat noises for the vampire? Really?), or that the whole affair just drags a bit too much; in any case, while it's certainly not a horrible effort, the film is nothing to write home about in its inoffensive TV movie way.

The film does, however, contain a bit of choice scenery chewing by good old Brad Dourif, so Dourif completists (I know you're out there) will need to have a look anyhow.

The Attic Expeditions (2001): I can see why and how this film has gained a certain amount of cult traction over the years, what with it playing like a homemade horror film version of David Lynch adapting Philip K. Dick with eternal fan favourites like Jeffrey Combs, Ted Raimi and Wendy Robie in the cast. Unfortunately, the whole affair never really gels for me and seems to assume that being weird for weirdness' sake while pretending to be clever and profound is enough to make me overlook less than elegant direction, an atrocious lead performance by Andras Jones, and the fact that the film really isn't as clever and profound as it would like to be. Of course, even in its state of not being very good at all, The Attic Expeditions is at least trying to be different and clever instead of - say - going the ultra-generic gore route, which makes it difficult to be all that annoyed about it.

 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Assignment Naschy: La Noche De Walpurgis (1971)

aka The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman

aka Werewolf Shadow

Students Elvira (Gaby Fuchs) and Genevieve (Barbara Capell) are travelling rural France in search of traces of Countess Wandessa de Nadasdy (Patty Shepard), of whom legend tells she was a vampire keeping herself young with the blood of female victims until one of her lovers staked her with a very special silver cross.

Near the rumoured resting place of Wandessa, the girls' car runs out of fuel. Fortunately, dapper wolfman Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy) has been revived at the beginning of the movie and is now at just the right place to play helpful gentleman for our heroines. Waldemar is inviting the ladies to spend the weekend at his place, where he lives alone with the mad sister (Yelena Samarina) he fails to mention. What woman can resist the barrel-chested charmer?

The weekend at casa Daninsky is pretty interesting. Though Daninsky's sister repeatedly tries to throttle the girls or just warn them away (she's not very consistent), Elvira falls for the irresistible piece of manliness known as Wally to his friends (a fact I may or may not have made up) even though she has her own piece of manliness, policeman Marcel (Andres Resino), waiting for her at home. But oh well.

Waldemar has been searching for Wandessa, or rather the cross she was killed with, himself, for it is the only weapon that can kill him for good, an ending he very much craves. With the girls' help, he is finally able to locate Wandessa's grave. Including a body with a silver cross poked into her chest and all. Would you believe that pulling out the cross is a rather bad idea, especially when Genevieve then proceeds to accidentally bleed on the corpse?

Before you can say "uh-oh", Genevieve gets vamped up herself. Even worse, soon will be Walpurgis Night and terrible things™ will happen then. Looks like Waldemar has to add the "fearless vampire killer" title to that of werewolf and stud.

After I successfully enjoyed Paul Naschy's first Waldemar Daninsky movie, I turned towards La Noche De Walpurgis, which is supposed to be one of the best of the Daninsky films and definitely was the most commercially successful in the series.

The film is directed by Naschy's long time collaborator Leon Klimovsky, who made quite a few genre films with and without Naschy, some of them pretty great, some of them pretty horrible. On which side of that divide La Noche falls will depend largely on a given viewer's tolerance for a script that is weirdly paced even for a European horror movie from the 70s.

Naschy and/or his co-writer Hans Munkel don't seem to have much of a clue how to pace a narrative properly at all. Scenes without much of a function in the narrative go on way too long, other scenes that would actually be helpful to build a proper narrative are left out completely and are later related in static dialogue scenes (suggesting some budget trouble, too), stuff happens in stops and starts without any sense of rhythm, and often with complete randomness. Time, too, seems to run quite differently in Naschy-land, the full moon seemingly shining whenever it is convenient. Seen in the wrong state of mind, all this could be enough to make one despair.

But between the tedious, the boring, and the draggy, the film sandwiches pearls of wrong-headed beauty and peculiar ideas no director or writer in his right mind would attempt to put on screen, presenting them with an earnestness that is at once utterly silly and admirable. The film's interpretation of the female (slightly lesbian) vampires alone would be worth the time spent watching. Vampires in this film, you see, have some of the powers movie vampires usually don't take from Stoker's Dracula, like the ability to just squeeze themselves through the slightest openings (never shown here, but clearly happening), but they are also fit with ridiculously fake fangs that permanently dig into their lower lips (must become pretty uncomfortable over the years), and only move in slow-motion. The latter is an idea demonstrating the genius and horror of La Noche at its most typical. Slow motion is certainly a way to make one's vampires look and feel more otherworldly and dream-like than the more animalesque or glittering versions most filmmakers seem to prefer do, but as it is realized here, it's also - and at the same time - just a very silly thing to watch.

"Just a very silly thing to watch" is a description that fits large swathes of the movie, at least those parts of it that aren't painfully boring. However, it is a silliness that carries with it moments of great artistic success when Klimovsky suddenly manages to stage a scene that's just as atmospheric as it is silly (for example Waldemar's fight against the undead Genevieve, gravity be damned). Furthermore, as confused and technically problematic as Naschy's script is, it is confused and technically problematic in a very individual way, as if Naschy had decided to give his audience a look into his unfiltered unconscious, logic, structure and narrative technique be damned. If there's another explanation for a film that is supposed to be a pulp horror movie about a werewolf squaring off against a female vampire turning out as strange as La Noche De Walpurgis does, I don't have it. In any case, I did enjoy this second film in my reacquaintance with Naschy's body of work a lot, at least when I wasn't bored by it.

 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet: The Living Skeleton (1968)

Original title: Kyuketsu dokuro sen

In the first themed month of many, the members and agents of M.O.S.S. point their eyes/eye-stalks/tentacles/augmentations towards all things skeletal and skull-shaped. You can find our ever growing (at least throughout October) list of fleshless knowledge here.

 

A group of pirates lead by a man with impressive facial scarring attacks the Japanese freighter Dragon King, killing crew and passengers, among them a woman named Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka) and her doctor husband (Ko Nishimura), alike. As later occurrences suggest, the pirates then sink some of the dead bodies and leave the ship adrift and supposedly lost in a storm, never to be found again.

Three years later, the film finds Yoriko's twin sister Saeko (also Kikko Matsuoka) living with and working for the Catholic priest Father Akashi (Masumi Okada), somewhere in the vicinity of Yokohama. Akashi has taken care of Saeko for these last few years, clearly helping here through more than one phase of depression. But Saeko's depressions are a bit different from what you or I may have experienced. As the young woman tells her boyfriend, the restaurant owner Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa), Saeko has always had the proverbial mental connection to her twin, feeling her pains and emotions and vice versa. Ever since Yoriko died, Saeko has only felt an unending sadness coming from her sister that surely hints at Yoriko not resting peacefully.

Things go from disquieting to terrifying when Saeko and Mochizuki go diving while on a boating trip and find a gaggle of chained skeletons floating under water in a clear suggestion of doom. For some reason, our young couple doesn't even think of going to the police with what they've found.

Only a little later, the Dragon King appears in a thick fog bank. Leaving Mochizuki behind, Saeko enters the ship and descends into its depths, following a woman's laughter, all the while encountering more skeletons, until she finds herself finally face to face with her sister - or is it her sister's ghost?

Shortly after this encounter - cut short by some understandable fainting on Saeko's side - the young woman, determined to act on something her sister must have told or impressed on her about the way she died, disappears from Father Akashi's place without a trace or a word.

The pirates who slaughtered the people of the Dragon King have been living in the region around Yokohama these last few years, too, leading normal civilian lives as bar owners, alcoholics, divers and others. After Saeko's encounter with her sister, their lives begin to change. Glimpses of Saeko (or her sister's ghost - like much in the film, this point is foggy), adorable rubber bats or the Dragon King itself precede strange deaths of the pirates, deaths that could mostly be explained as suicide or accidents if not for the portents of doom surrounding them, or their fitting circumstances. The diver among the men, for example, dies under water wrapped up in the chained skeletons of his victims.

This continues until only two of the men - the pirate boss and the bar owner Suetsugu (Nobuo Kaneko) - are alive. When the Dragon King appears to them, the men descend into its cavernous belly like Saeko did, but instead of the expected explanations and exposition, they encounter the inexplicable and confusing, and finally their deaths.

First off, as this is part of a skeleton-oriented month, let's get The Living Skeleton's second biggest problem out of the way right at the start: despite its title, the film does not contain any living skeletons at all. In fact, the only skeletons on display are the very artificial looking ones floating under water and the few Saeko encounters on board the Dragon King. The internet tells me the literal translation of the film's title would be "Vampire Skeleton Ship", which is even more peculiar, seeing as it doesn't seem to contain any vampires either.

However, it would be churlish to complain about the absence of living skeletons in a film this full of other elements that should delight every right-thinking movie-goer's heart. There are, after all, the cute un-living skeletons, many non-vampiric rubber bats, a ghost, an evil catholic priests, a perhaps undead/perhaps mad scientist doctor with an appetite for human flesh and an improbable collection of acid flasks, a random plate mail armour used to hide a dead body, and a bit of necrophilia to enjoy. Even better, all these things are presented with a complete lack of irony and are taken as seriously by the film that contains them as humanly possible.

As a late 60s Shochiku horror movie, The Living Skeleton, is part of a small cycle of films as pessimistic and grim in their outlook as films can be (see also Goke and Genocide), films where the guilty may be punished, but in which the innocent lose their lives just as easily, or stop being innocents by becoming involved with powers utterly out of their control. This (slightly Lovecraftian) pessimism bordering on nihilism, as well as a brutal, luridly presented ruthlessness in its outlook, demonstrates (again) that not only US horror was changing in 1968 (the year that brought us Night of the Living Dead), but that international exploitation cinema was going in a similar, politicized direction that saw directors treating genre films as an area where it was easy to tackle what was happening in the world around it while still making commercial cinema.

It is a bit difficult to make out what The Living Skeleton is exactly trying to say about the world around it, though, for the film's biggest problem raises its ugly head in form of a script that often goes out of its way to be impenetrable. While certain of the film's views are clear - authority is not to be trusted (shown through the absence of worldly authorities and the corruption of spiritual ones), innocence ends once one has opened one's eyes to reality and can not be regained - it is anyone's guess what it precisely thinks it is saying. The film's first hour is comparatively clear, but the finale becomes so feverishly strange that even the seemingly simple plot just dissolves into unexplained complexities and unanswerable questions. Which may or may not be the point of the whole affair.

On the other hand, it's exactly these failings of the script that give The Living Skeleton some of its punch. I am a great admirer of movies that make the supernatural feel inexplicable and truly strange, and that's exactly what The Living Skeleton is willing to do even to the detriment of thematic clarity or the communicability of what's really going on in it.

Stylistically, the film's director Hiroshi Matsuno (whose only IMDB credit this is, alas), achieves a highly individual mix of elements and moments that feel pop (just watch the Jess-Franco-minded night club sequence), others that look like attempts to adapt the gothic stylings of Italian cinema to Japanese sensibilities, and others (getting ever more frequent the longer the film runs) that have the feverish, logic-defying intensity we tend to imagine all pulp literature and serials had (even though that's only true for half of them). On paper, these disparate elements (also furthered by a soundtrack Noboru Nishiyama that often seems to channel Ennio Morricone or perhaps John Barry, but dives into quite different directions too) should clash quite horribly with each other, yet in practice they do come together to give the film a weird (both capital and lower case) mood, a subconscious nervousness that could quickly turn into terror that is all too fitting for a film whose characters are as guilty and doomed as The Living Skeleton's.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

In short: The Cat (2011)

Not to be confused with all those other films called The Cat.

So-yeon (Park Min-yeong, who is certainly the most sympathetic element of this movie) works in a pet shop with an emphasis on pet grooming (yes, let's dye the poor kitten's face pink!). She's a bit lonely, and a traumatic experience in her childhood (that might have something to do with her estranged father she isn't ever visiting in his home for the elderly) has left her with a severe case of claustrophobia.

When one of the shop's customers dies a strange and unnatural death, a local cop So-yeon has a crush on asks her to take care of the woman's cat for a time. Our heroine obviously agrees.

As soon as So-yeon has taken the animal - called Silky - in, she is confronted with regular appearances by the ghost of a bob-haired little girl, and is stared at by a lot of cats. Apart from being somewhat disturbing and causing So-yeon nightmares, the ghost doesn't harm the woman any. People around her are not so lucky, though, especially those with a tendency to not be very nice to cats. Soon enough, the ghost kills So-yeon's best - one might even assume only - friend Bo-hee (Sin Da-eun).

So-yeon is quite clear about what happened to her friend. Once she stops freaking out completely, she tries to get rid of the cat, but that might be exactly the wrong thing for her to do, for it makes a certain ghost pretty angry. If So-yeon wants to survive, she'll have to find out who the dead girl is and try to lay her to rest.

Byeon Seung-wook's The Cat is pretty much a South Korean horror movie by numbers, competently enough done but mostly lacking in surprises, depth or actual creepiness. As we all know, the road to mediocrity is plastered with solid scripts that are keeping so close to all the rules of supposed good scriptwriting that anyone who has seen more than half a dozen movies in their lives will be able to predict each and every dramatic beat in them without even having to try.

But it's not only the film's structure that goes from the obvious to the mandatory, the nature of the shocks along the way is just as obvious too. So there is of course a scene in which the ghost catapults itself out from under So-yeon's bed, and another one that finds our heroine inadvertently sharing her bed with the ghost, and so on, scenes that feel like they have been in every other Asian horror film made in the last fifteen years. I'm sure a more enthusiastic or convicted director than Byeon could still have used these old hats to good effect, but in The Cat's case, conviction and enthusiasm seem to have been replaced by bland professionalism.

Apart from being slick but just not being very exciting, the film also suffers from the strange decision to not use any opportunity to really suck So-yeon psychologically into what is happening around her, or to explore the parallels between her and the ghost it hints at at more than the most perfunctory level. There are clear opportunities to create thematic resonance the film infuriatingly just isn't taking, probably because it prefers to be one of those films where the supernatural's job is to teach the main character a valuable lesson about life without actually daring to touch the things that might hurt or disturb an audience; and no, just having a dead kid and a father that didn't care about her isn't enough if a film isn't exploring their situation deeper.

All in all, The Cat is another proof for my theory that competent mediocrity is much less interesting than incompetence or ambition.

 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In short: Pocong Kamar Sebelah (2009)

Little does college student Felisia (Rahma Azhari) expect the boarding house she's just moved into to be this troublesome. Trouble number one (though she doesn't know it), is one of her neighbours who also happens to be the son of the establishment's owner. Among this charming guy's hobbies can be found poking a camera through the hole he's made in Felisia's wall, and staring creepily while masturbating (as much as an Indonesian film can show such a thing). Then there's the disturbing fact that the house's interior is only ever filmed from weird and slightly disturbing angles, suggesting a certain atmosphere of dread.

Might the latter problem have something to do with the sounds of a crying woman coming from the room next door to Felisia every night, behind a door the owner is warning her not to open, a door that has not just been locked for two years but chained closed?

Our heroine will eventually find out, for she - not being particularly bright - decides to open the room anyway for no good reason. It will not exactly come as a surprise that Felisia's action sets free a ghost, a pocong (shrouded female ghost) to be precise. As is the habit of pocongs, the dead woman then proceeds to appear creepily to Felisia and the other inhabitants of the boarding house, tap people on the shoulders from behind and make a frightening nuisance out of herself, until she finally works herself up to a bit of killing.

Will our rock dumb heroine survive the ghost's attention?

Pocong Kamar Sebelah (which translates to "the pocong next door", the Internet tells me) is another cheap and dirty horror movie from Indonesia, featuring the Indonesian version of a Paris Hilton-like celebrity in the lead role.

Fortunately, this isn't the sort of film in need of a real actress, but only someone more or less attractive who is willing to squeeze into various tight outfits, act in the sort of sex scene the Indonesian censors allow, and poke her (clothed) breasts in the direction of the camera while staring panic-y. Azhari is surely able to perform these functions well enough, so there's no need for me to complain.

Director Ian Jacobs seems to generally know what he's doing. While he's probably putting a bit too much visual emphasis on Dutch angles and likes the usual jump scares a bit too much, he is at least visibly trying to deliver the goods expected from another one among the endless number of Indonesian horror movies of these last few years from the film's first minute on. Jacobs tries to make up for what the film's script lacks in complexity by a not original, yet well-timed series of mild shocks and simple spook effects that is only ever disrupted for what goes for sleaze in contemporary Indonesian cinema (and lacks the comedy stylings that make many of these movies pretty difficult to get through for me).

The resulting film surely isn't something anybody would ever rave about, but it fulfils its function as a mildly exploitative diversion well enough.

 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In short: Spriggan (1998)

Turns out all those crackpots were right and the Ancients™ really had technology we can only dream of, but buried it and hid it away once they realized it was even more dangerous than it was useful. Contemporary governments (especially that of the USA, obviously), are not quite as conscientious as our forefathers and are trying to acquire this ancient technology to do evil with it.

Fortunately, the secret international organization known as Arkham (or ARCAM, as the translation calls it in ignorance of all that is right and proper) is out there to protect the world's sanity and continued existence from military pipe dreams. Arkham's top operatives are called Spriggan (or, in parts of Viz' crappy and fragmentary translation of the manga, "Striker"). The the best of the best is Yu Ominae, high school boy by day, awesome fighting machine whenever it is needed.

All is well in Yu's world - or as well as it can be when you're the product of an experimental child soldier project of the USA - when one of his class mates try to kill himself and Yu with a homemade bomb. This attempt on our hero's life comes courtesy of the US Machine Corps, which obviously is the part of the military where they put all of their cyborgs.

Clearly, the bad guys really don't want Yu to stick his nose in their business, even before he knows what business that is supposed to be. Yu will learn soon enough that Arkham has discovered the resting place of Noah's Ark and that the USMC in form of AkiraColonel McDougall - an insane child with telekinetic powers who surely won't develop a god complex and try to use Noah's Ark to wipe out humanity and create a better race in his own image - and two old enemies of Yu's, Fat Man and Little Boy, will do everything to get their hands on it.

Fortunately, Yu is pretty great at killing people (but with heart).

Spriggan is an anime based on a manga by Hiroshi Takashige and Ryoji Minagawa that just may be the answer to the question how the Indiana Jones movies would have looked if their serial trappings had been replaced by some of the typical pre-occupations of a rather violent, slightly cyberpunk-y shonen manga. The answer, clearly, is "still pretty damn great".

Of course, there's nothing original about Spriggan - characters and plot consist of clichés and archetypes that are blatantly ripped-off from somewhere else (it's not difficult to imagine that Katsuhiro Otomo got his producer credit not for any actual work he did on the project, but to convince him not to sue anyone for the parts of Spriggan "borrowed" from Akira). Just as clearly, an anime like this doesn't need to be original if and when it puts all its ill-gotten loot together in entertaining ways.

And entertaining Spriggan is, at least for people who like cyborgs, mad telekinetic children, a bit of the old ultra-violence, crackpot theories about the ancients, semi-psychedelic moments, and very big explosions - and if you don't like those, what ever is wrong with you?

Director, scriptwriter and storyboard artist Hirotsugu Kawasaki (whose best known work was as key animator on Akira, Ninja Scrolls and Ghost in the Shell, which should not come as a surprise to anyone looking at Spriggan) sure knows how to pull all the awesome pieces he got from somewhere else together, putting his trust in his ability to numb an audience's critical faculties by just dragging it from one fast-paced, exciting set piece to the next. That plan results in the anime version of a good blockbuster movie: Spriggan is pleasant to look at, exciting, a bit weird, not completely dumb, and not completely without a heart.

 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Assignment Naschy: La Marca Del Hombre Lobo (1968)

aka Frankenstein's Bloody Terror

aka The Mark of the Wolfman

aka Hell's Creatures

(This is based on the Spanish version of the movie that differs quite a bit from the US cut, or so the Internet tells me).

After some years in more civilized areas Jassin/Janice (Dyanik Zurakowska) has returned to the village where her father, the Count of Aarenberg (or Alen, played by Jose Nieto), lives. The young woman has fun re-exploring her old digs and has fallen in love with the mayor's son Rudolph (Manuel Manzaneque). Things get rather more interesting when Jassin meets Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), whose awesome power of having written the scriptpure manliness is enough to make the girl fall for him on first sight.

Things threaten to descend into a lot of manly posturing between Rudolph and Waldemar, but fortunately, two wandering "gypsies" accidentally awaken the local werewolf who at once starts slaughtering people. Only Waldemar realizes the nature of the killer, though, while the rest of the village makes wolves responsible for the deaths. In the ensuing hunt, Waldemar saves Rudolph's life from the werewolf's attentions, even manages to kill the thing - as far as it can be killed, at least -, but is bitten by the creature.

This being the sort of werewolf movie where people have already heard of werewolves, Waldemar understands at once that he is now cursed to transform and kill every full moon night if he can't find a cure for his state. Rudolph, thankful for his life, from now on helps Waldemar as good as he's able. Still, the duo's attempt keeping Waldemar from killing during his first transformation fails, and so the werewolf decides to move into some rather convenient crypts where he can be better controlled during the nights. Of course, this is only a stop gap measure for the problem.

There is hope among the records the first werewolf left behind though. A letter from a scientist suggests that the man knew a cure for lycanthropy. Even better - the scientist's son is more than willing to travel to Waldemar's place and help.

Alas, Dr. Mikhelov (Julian Ugarte) and his wife Wandessa (Aurora de Alba) aren't quite as helpful as they appear to be. The couple prefers to sleep by day and work by night and really enjoys taking care of nice young people like Rudolph and Jassin; one might suspect they aren't drinking…wine.

Among my biggest failures as a cult movie fan has always been that I couldn't get into the films of Paul Naschy at all. There's something about the man's films that has always rubbed me the wrong way. It may be the stiff, melodramatic acting style he prefers, or the monkey on speed way his wolfmen move, or the fact that he writes roles for himself that show him as absolutely irresistible to all women and tragic and super awesome like the worst Mary Sue ever to be found in fan fiction, or just that I don't really care that much for the whiny werewolf archetype, or, in fact, all of these things together. Be that as it may, I've tried to avoid Naschy in the last few years.

But because several people whose opinions about these matters I trust are more than just a little appreciative of Naschy's body of work, I have decided to try and get into the man's work again by watching a bunch of his films during the next few weeks in a project that called "Assignment Naschy". What better place to start than the first of the man's films about the werewolf/wolfman/super stud Waldemar Daninsky?

To my delight (and slight surprise) I did enjoy La Marca quite a bit this time around. It's not that the film doesn't have all the flaws I just mentioned. They are all there and accounted for, and add further problems to a film with a script that leaves out important exposition and transitional scenes, but keeps transitions that are completely superfluous, a script that stops and starts and drags its feet in a peculiar and decidedly unprofessional manner giving the film a ramshackle feeling, as if it were a house just about to be blown over by the big bad wolf.

Ironically, it is this ramshackle feel that is responsible for large parts of the film's charms. Though the La Marca's mood for most of its running time isn't as dreamlike as one is used to from the best European horror films of this era, it feels individual and personal to a degree a film keeping more to the actual rules of filmmaking could only dream of. The film is clearly the result of a personal vision; that said vision seems to be to pulp up the classic Universal horror monsters with everything its writer and lead actor's inner thirteen-year old (obviously never conquered and never tamed) thinks to be awesome may not be in good taste, but is certainly good fun if a viewer is willing to have fun with it.

El Marca is also unabashedly artificial. Director Enrique Lopez Eguiluz (assisted by Naschy, I suspect) has never seen natural light that couldn't be improved with more red, and has certainly never asked an actor to be anything less than stiff and melodramatic. From time to time, El Marca grows a thick fur of mood thanks to Eguiluz' efforts; most of the time, it is just pretty darn strange.

Especially the film's final third - once the vampire couple has arrived - goes from one weird moment to the next: the climactic chase and fight scene between Waldemar, Jassin and the male vampire is a thing improbably awkward to behold yet also as consciously choreographed as any mad piece of ballet you can imagine.

All this results in exactly the sort of film I'm bound to enjoy, not a "good movie" but one so full of personality and plain weirdness that the question of "good movie" or "bad movie" just seems to be utterly useless to get at its core.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: DOLL DWARFS versus the CRUSHING GIANT BEASTS!

Amer (2009): Amer is a film I suspect I should admire quite a bit more than I do, seeing as it works as a visual and (in part) thematic homage to the style of Dario Argento in his prime, with a bit of Mario Bava and the giallo at large thrown in. Alas, the film is so heavily metaphorical and so incessantly technically perfect that it becomes tiresome to watch pretty fast.

All its visual beauty and technical accomplishment is put to work to overwhelm the audience with as many symbols for sexual awakening and repression as the directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani could squeeze into ninety minutes of running time, but an unrelenting barrage of pretty symbols is all their film ever is. There's really no good reason for this to be any longer than thirty minutes, which - incidentally - was about the point in the proceedings when my interest turned into impatience, because I had already understood what the film was trying to say and didn't need any further repetitions.

Vampire (1979): Speaking of tiresome, this US TV movie written by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll (both better known for their cop shows, and not showing much of a feel for horror here) does come to mind, too. Half mumbling cop character actors spitting out mock-naturalistic dialogue of the type beloved by professional TV critics and no one else, half a series of melodramatic declamations, the film goes through a lot of the suspected vampire movie motions without ever finding an original or just entertaining angle. I'm also a bit confused by its attempt to cast Richard Lynch of all people as a seductive vampire, but what do I know?

Garo: Kiba The Dark Knight Gaiden (2011): Finishing the trilogy of films I didn't much care for is this spin-off detailing the background of the big bad of the generally excellent tokusatu show Garo. Kiba suffers from the usual problem of gaiden (side-story) films in that it details things that were left vague in the show its spinning off from for a reason and doesn't do anything else of interest.

It's the sort of thing that only exists so that fans of the show can watch it, nod sagely and later start a message board flame war over some of its minor details, but isn't out to provide any actual entertainment, insight or a narrative that's interesting in itself.

 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pontypool (2008)

Formerly popular talk radio host Grant Mazzy (the brilliant Stephen McHattie for once in a film that's as good as he deserves) has a new job quite low on the media food chain in the small Ontario town of Pontypool. Little does Grant suspect that another snowy night of dreary small town news and his rather desperate attempts to still play the big talk radio guy in surroundings where that just won't work will turn into something quite different. An outbreak of strange yet murderous behaviour strikes the small community and Grant, his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) will the spend the night trying to correlate the contents of the catastrophe, and possibly, just possibly, to survive it.

See how I tried not to spoil even the slightest thing about Pontypool here, even though the 'net's full of all details about the film, and everyone in the market for it should already have seen it? It's not part of my new spoiler-free review philosophy - that I don't have - but a result of my conviction that some films need and deserve to be watched without too much foreknowledge.

It is hardly a spoiler, though, when I tell you that Canadian indie director (and improbable TV hired gun) Bruce McDonald's trip into the world of the horror movie - based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess who is also responsible for the film's script - is a pretty singular variation on the zombie outbreak movie as seen through the lens of somebody who doesn't feel the need to make the same movie every other director working in the same sub-genre has already made (some of them, like that guy named George, repeatedly) again. Instead, McDonald aims a bit higher and to the left, and produces a film that works fantastically as a thriller, yet maintains a sense of the playful and of the skewed philosophical you don't get to see on screen - zombie cinema or not -  all that often.

Pontypool is a film that finds the fine line where the horrifying and the absurd meet and dances on it for most of its running time, never stumbling, never faltering.

That McDonald manages this on a budget that probably wouldn't be enough to pay for your average Hollywood star's hairdresser is more than just a bit impressive, too. Most of what the director achieves he does through the fine art of reduction. The whole film basically takes place in one and a half rooms, features only a handful of actors and very little outward action for most of its running time - in fact, large parts of it consist of the most dreaded of things, people talking - yet where this would be reduction born out of need with other films, Pontypool lets it look like the best, or the only, way this particular story could be told.

Much of the film's effect (in this viewer: giddiness, excitement, and the pressing need to convince other people to watch Pontypool, too) is based on everyone involved in it doing everything right: Burgess' intelligent and complex script eschews simple answers to everything and can do ironic distancing without sacrificing its characters' humanity. McDonald keeps everything tight, uses the visually unexpected (and some great editing magic) without ever falling into the trap of pointing out his own efforts in a self-congratulatory way. The director clearly trusts his actors to do their jobs as well as he does his own. The actors - not only in the obvious case of McHattie but just as much those of Houle and Reilly - are rewarding this trust by doing a perfect job as well, bringing the intimated complexities of their characters to live and letting their jobs look effortless once they have to sell the weirder (and the last act can get pretty damn weird) elements of the story. And did I mention the sound design? I don't want to use the word "perfect" again, but what can you do?

Pontypool is just a great film, the kind of film that does everything right, so it's a bit frustrating when you're talking to people who are absolutely in the market for its type of intelligence, its type of weirdness, and its kinda-sorta zombies, and still haven't seen it. So, if you're reading this, and haven't found time for Pontypool until now, please do. It might just change everything.

 

Friday, October 7, 2011

On WTF: The Colossus of New York (1958)

What pretends to be a giant monster film is actually an updated reworking of elements from Frankenstein - the Universal movies as well as the novel - featuring male characters who are even larger jerks than was the custom in 50s cinema.

If you're like me, and you like your monster movies weird and clever at the same time, you should really take a look at my write-up of The Colossus of New York over at WTF-Film.