Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Parents (1989)

Little Michael (Bryan Madorsky) and his parents Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) and Nick (Randy Quaid) have just moved into a new suburb, in a new town, with a new job for Nick and a new school and new people for Michael to be afraid of. Ever since they’ve arrived, the family’s – already humungous – consumption of large masses of meat whose appearance suggests vegetarianism as the only healthy and sane reaction has increased even further. Apparently, they are eating the left-overs from their old freezer, but left-overs from what exactly, Michael is not told.

With a father who seems to boil with a kind of cold rage underneath aggressive 50s Dad manners and a mother whose face seems painted on in a perpetual fake smile, it’s not a surprise Michael’s behaviour is rather strange, and he quickly becomes the pet project of his school counsellor.

However, there’s more going on than rampant meat consumption and a kid confused and threatened by everything, even more than suggestions of animalistic sexuality between his parents to a child’s inability to always quite grasp what the adult world expects of him.

On paper, Bob Balaban’s suburban cannibal film as seen through the eyes of a child is a horror comedy, but most of the things here that are funny are also frightful, oppressive, and at best dominated not by the sort of humour that lightens one’s mood but by one based in the grotesque. Michael’s child’s eye view turns what goes by normality in his very white and very clean (both unhealthily so, and with a seething underbelly of rot, you won’t be surprised to hear) suburb and (so-called) home into a relentless attack of Lynchian strangeness. The grown-up world can already look like a confusing nightmare to any child, so Balaban’s very strict adherence to his kid protagonist’s perspective turns even the theoretically most innocuous parts of his world into sources of danger and all kinds of horror, even before we come to the whole bit about his family actually being cannibals acting out the roles their time and society expects of them with an added bit of extra wrongness.

Parents is an incredibly rich film. I’m not just impressed by the style, taste and intelligence Balaban uses to show the nightmarish aspects of childhood, but also by how far and complex he dares to go in every aspect, not stopping at picturing the idea of the dark underbelly of the most normal, instead emphasising that the upside of normality looks just as rotten to the right eyes. There are also parts of the film that can be read as a comment on a child’s inability to cope with his discovery of his parents’ sexuality; angry stabs at conformism and the brutal oppression through the concept of normality it enacts; and over all hovers the shadow of child abuse. It’s not the kind of comedy that’ll get many laughs out of anyone who isn’t like Michael’s father, I believe. That’s not a failing, mind you, it’s just the sort of film this is, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

This doesn’t mean the film is completely hopeless and dark, though. There are acts of actual humanity here as well, and while the ending suggests something that certainly isn’t closure, this seems to be a film more driven by a wish to artfully express anger and perhaps pain over the world and we who dwell in it than to cynically revel in it.
On the sheer visual, atmospheric and technical level, Parents is a straight-up masterpiece (and frequent readers will know how little I like that term), putting Madorsky’s incredible, fragile performance, Quaid’s creepy, nuanced seething (nobody does barely disguised scorn quite like Quaid here), and Hurt’s teetering at the edge of what might still be a rest of sanity and humanity into the context of a film where every moment looks and feels like the archetype of 50s style suburbia and a living nightmare of oppression and dread at once.

Parents is an incredibly film that doesn’t just stand a bit isolated in its director’s – really rather interesting – filmography, but that seems rather unique in anyone else’s too.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Black Death (2015)

Original title: Phi ha Ayothaya

In 1565, European and/or Iranian traders brought the plague to today’s Thailand (for once, not on purpose). That’s what the history books tell us, at least. The Black Death imagines what really happened. Turns out the plague was actually a zombie virus (zombie type: fast, loud, dead).

The film concerns the misadventures of your typical group of rag-tag survivors who are thrown together when the village they are in is attacked by the ravenous dead. Eventually, our protagonists – among them guilt-ridden, heroic swordsman Thep (Gandhi Wasuvitchayagit), star-struck lovers Mien (Sonya Singha) and Kong (Pongsakorn Mettarikanon), dual-hammer wielding female smith Bua (Veeree Ladapan), and deaf-mute prostitute Ploy (Apa Bhavilai) – barricade themselves in the local brothel, but we all know this won’t end too well for anyone involved.

Apparently, one way to end the druthers of the tiredness the zombie movie as a sub-genre has been in for a couple of years now at least is to set them in a different time and place than the usual contemporary USA. Though I do remember a pretty dire Vikings versus Zombies film, so it is no cure-all. At least, this works out nicely for Chalermchatri Yukol’s The Black Death, a film that takes us quite a few centuries into a past where everyone acted and looked suspiciously like people today but where the armaments to fight off zombies were a bit less evolved. The film makes this up to its characters by making nearly everyone some kind of badass or half-badass. Why, even the female half of the star-struck lovers is allowed to kill a couple of zombies between the mandatory bouts of simpering.

The film shows quite a few hallmarks of a low budget – the sets are a bit sparse, though Yukol makes nice use of the bad visibility in the jungle for a few suspenseful scenes, the actors aren’t too great, and not all of the costumes scream exactly 16th Century. It does however make good use of the opportunities that come with being a bit more under the radar, so there’s a bit more gore than you’ll find in more mainstream Thai cinema. While the film certainly has its melodramatic moments, it does feature the fine pessimism of every good zombie movie that argues that being a good person just might not save you; though it is not so cynical as to suggest that assholes will survive the zombie apocalypse all that longer. Clearly, no survivalists were involved in the production.

In general, the film’s script isn’t terribly deep, but it uses stock characters and standard situations with great aplomb, obviously going by the old adage that the most important thing about a film isn’t depth but that there’s never a boring minute; that’s a rule The Black Death manages to hold itself to quite nicely, racing from one cheap yet neat zombie set piece to the next, pausing for some very competent character moments, adding a bit of hopeless doom, some melodrama, and mixing it nicely. An added pleasure to all this is of course that the stock characters the film uses aren’t necessarily ones you get in many zombie films. Thep, for example, is a standard martial arts movie character, and I had a lot of fun watching what happens to the haunted swordsman type during a zombie apocalypse.

Even though the film isn’t particularly stylish, and the action scenes aren’t on the wild side of Thai action filmmaking, Yukol’s direction is generally fast and fun, with an eye for cheap, short, mildly gruesome bits, never lingering on anything so long you might realize quite how cheap it probably is, and always getting to the good stuff as early as possible. It also features some of the best “things hitting zombie heads” sounds I’ve heard in a long time. That’s probably not what a lot of people will call art. I, on the other hand, do believe there’s a lot of art (and craft) in turning out a neat, cheap and fast zombie/action movie like The Black Death. It’s just not the kind of art that’ll get you much praise outside of very specific circles.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: These aren't everyday people and this is no ordinary movie.

The Babysitter (2017): Kid (Judah Lewis) learns his beloved/lusted after babysitter (Samara Weaving) and her friends are satanists of the type really into human sacrifice and playing truth or dare to warm up; also, milking the blood of the innocent. A night of somewhat bloody mayhem ensues.

Given his usual predilections, this shallow horror comedy directed for Netflix by the name-disabled McG is downright un-annoying, keeping the pseudo-hip ad-man style the guy’s been using for a decade now somewhat in check enough to actually tell a straightforward tale in an effective, well-paced manner. The film generally manages to ignore all the best opportunities talking – or making decent jokes – about all kinds of interesting stuff connected to the meaning of being a grown-up, burgeoning sexuality and so on and so forth and trades it in for pretty young people, a lot of blood, and an okay rollercoaster-style time. It’s a perfectly okay way to spend (less than) ninety minutes with pretty, moving, mildly bloody pictures without much behind them.

Kwaidan aka Kaidan (1964): On the absolute opposite of the horror movie spectrum stands Masaki Kobayashi’s venerable classic of a horror anthology based on Lafcadio Hearn’s versions of Japanese ghost tales. It’s slow-moving, artfully stylized, mixing moments deeply informed by Japanese theatrical forms with techniques right out of the German expressionist handbook as well as others as state of the art of filmmaking in 1964 as you’d expect of a Japanese film. It’s a movie that manages to be at once deeply rooted in traditional Japanese culture and aim for the universal as it is expressed through ghost stories, filtered through a the work of a man who wasn’t Japanese by birth. Given its three hour running time and its calm and theatrical air, one might fear this is the kind of “classic” mostly feeling worthy and dead like certain museum pieces do, but in truth, the film’s still challenging and moving, at times creepy, at other times bizarre, and absolutely daring in the way Kobayashi expects his audience to follow him in seemingly peculiar directions. Of course, following him is extremely rewarding.

It Comes at Night (2017): Supposedly the straightforward horror follow-up to Shults’s incredible Krisha, this is actually a film that seems to very consciously – just look at the title and what doesn’t happen in the film! - evade explanations and exposition that would help an audience make sense of its in theory simple viral post-apocalypse tale. What exactly is the nature of the illness striking the world? Is it a metaphor for inner tensions and fractures of the film’s characters more than an actual disease? Are the nightmares of the film’s viewpoint character (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) only an expression of his anxiety and fear, an early symptom of the infection, or a hint at the supernatural? This and more the film’s not going to explain. What you get instead is a movie about a breaking and broken family unit during an ambiguous apocalypse, filmed with a mounting sense of dread and acted brilliantly by Harrison, Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough and Christopher Abbott, moving slowly but surely.

I’m not completely sure the film needs to be quite this ambiguous about so many things, but as a mood piece and a portrait of human self-destruction, the film’s very successful to my eyes.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Island of the Living Dead (2006)

Original title: L'isola Dei Morti Viventi

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After accidentally depositing the treasure they were trying to take from the bottom of the sea deeper on it, a hapless yet heavily armed gang of treasure hunters lead by a certain Captain Kirk (Gaetano Russo) gets into even more trouble. While piloting their ship through a thick fog, our heroes (cough) collide with rocks where there shouldn't be any, and will have to do a few repairs before they can get anywhere else again.

Fortunately there's an uncharted island nearby where the crew will try to scavenge provisions and do a bit of treasure hunting while one lone idiot stays behind to do the repairs. Little do they expect that the island has been populated by the undead for a long time now. Soon enough, our heroes by default find themselves under attack. Oh, and the treasure hunters' boat explodes when repair guy pushes its self destruct button once he is attacked and surrounded by zombies.

At first, our now well and truly stranded heroes have only minor problems surviving the attentions of the zombies who may have been running around since the 17th century but still look pretty good for their age. Later on, scriptwriter Antonio Tentori decides that normal zombies are boring, and so the undead start getting pretty darn talkative, trying to drive the characters to kill each other by playing dumb mind games. Or something. From your standard zombies we then go to skeleton monks, hallucinations, a curse, and what might be vampires, too. How will designated final girl Sharon (Yvette Yzon) survive?

After a pause of half a decade, Italian movie god Bruno Mattei resumed his work of blowing minds and keeping under budget with the beginning of the 21st century, shooting as many movies until his death in 2007 as the direct to DVD market would allow. Even though late period Mattei isn't quite as mind-blowingly crazy as he was when he was still working with Claudio Fragasso, Island of the Living Dead (shot in the Philippines like in the good old times of AIP) has much to recommend it, at least to an audience consciously seeking out Bruno Mattei films; in short, people like me.

Instead of ripping off plot, structure and dialogue of his movie wholesale from a single, artistically slightly more successful source - that technique will have to wait for the sequel - this ripe effort sees Mattei stealing bits and pieces from other movies in a way that could be construed as homages by an alien unsure of how homages work. Apart from a translation of the early graveyard scene from Night of the Living Dead into scenery-chewerish and dumb, there are scenes and set-ups lifted from Zombi and really everything else with a zombie in it, as well as the Demoni movies. John Carpenter's The Fog is the source for the backstory to the whole undead invasion, with the little difference that Carpenter's curse makes a certain degree of sense where Mattei's doesn't. Instead of making sense, Island's curse produces a tinted sea-to-land battle that I suspect to be stolen from a much older feature.

In his many years of experience as a director of crap, Mattei has mastered some impressive techniques. I especially admire the anti-dynamic editing that seems to be designed to create a structure for the film that consciously destroys any tension. Zombie attacks are intercut with hot Latin reading action, and scenes of "characterisation" are broken up by shots of zombies crawling around somewhere else for no good reason whatsoever, as if the whole affair had been directed by a highly distractible child.

The film's action scenes are nearly as great as the editing, seeing as they are clearly staged to suggest that most of the characters have the ability to teleport (which fits in nicely with the film's utterly random day and night cycle which for its parts suggests that the whole film takes place over either one day or five, possibly just four - it's difficult to say when day and night are this random). Alas, the characters are always teleporting towards the zombies instead of away from them, but usually only get killed once they've decided to sacrifice themselves for their friends in situations that don't afford this kind of suicide at all. But hey, somehow the ridiculous action movie one-liners need to get on screen, right? (It CAN be done). It's pretty awesome, really.

Equally awesome and/or awe-inspiring is the collective inability of the cast to emote even in the slightest like normal humans beings do. Dialogue is mangled as if the speakers were trying to fight off a man in a gorilla suit, and scenery is not chewed, but head-butted until it stops moving. I especially approve of the effort of Ydalia Suarez who plays Victoria. Never has she met a line she does not want to shout in an overenthusiastic fashion. Look Ma, she's in a real movie now! Sort of.

As if all this wasn't enough to kill the few brain cells that survived my encounters with other Mattei films, Island is filled to the brim with compellingly idiotic details. Early on, there's a random martial arts versus zombie scene that doesn't end well for the martial artist because he decides to sacrifice himself for no good reason while kicking one single zombie in the crotch. This is followed by scenes featuring zombie conquistadors wearing plastic conquistador helmets as probably found by the production team in a souvenir shop, zombies that take naps and growl into the camera, characters willing to drink wine from an open cup that must have been standing around thusly for a few centuries, that boat self-destruct button, an eye patch-wearing head rotating inside of a treasure chest, really religious undead skeleton monks, the all-important Lovecraft shout-outs, a zombie flamenco dancer, and music that often sounds as if somebody were just playing musical cues from other films (even Star Wars for a few seconds) on a cheap synthesizer, which is exactly what's happening.

Island of the Living Dead truly is everything one could hope for in a movie directed by Bruno Mattei: it's dumb, it's inept, it's utterly shameless, it makes no sense at all - it's like a bad photocopy of a crassly commercial movie that is just too stupid to actually know how commercial movies work and nearly becomes experimental filmmaking through sheer wrong-headedness. In any case, Mattei's film is entertaining in a crazy way Italian movies have seldom been in the last decades. It might be great for all the wrong reasons, but as Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham say: if loving a Mattei movie is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In short: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Thinking of slow movies, as I sometimes do, how about Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iran-set (or at least a dream/nightmare of Iran filtered through many things) film that’s publicized as “the first Iranian vampire western”? Of course it is not an Iranian film but rather a Persian language film made by Americans with exile Iranian roots and actually shot in California, and it is most certainly not a western, unless having some spaghetti western like moments on the soundtrack and some desert in it makes a film a western. But then, that’d make Lawrence of Arabia a western too.

I’d rather call it an arthouse vampire movie, probably. Unlike with some (some, mind you) films whose slowness seems based on the filmmakers’ inability to be precise or to pace their work properly, slowness is quite obviously an intrinsic part of A Girl’s view of its (night-time) world, a world which might be an Iran interpreted as an embodiment of loneliness and desolation in which the titular girl (a fascinating, enigmatic performance by Sheila Vand) being a vampire seems only the right and proper thing for the place.

Stylistically, there are certainly moments that remind of the dreamy moments of David Lynch, and I can’t help but feel there’s a bit of Jean Rollin in it also, at least in the sense that large parts of it look and feel like very personal and very poetic expression that just happens to come together as something that has elements of the horror film as well as of old-school (I’d say early Jim Jarmusch) US indie cinema and the nouvelle vague. The really great thing about A Girl though isn’t that it feels related to some rather great kinds of cinema but how much it still feels like a film completely Amirpour’s own – the parallels and influences are just that. In fact, there seems not an imitative or ironically quoting bone in this film’s body, so it’s not much of a surprise that I found myself spellbound by it, its black and white poetry, its social and political consciousness that feels utterly organic and natural, and a slowness that’s there so a viewer really looks at what the film is showing her.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

House in the Alley (2012)

Original title: Ngôi nhà trong hem

Thao (Thanh Van Ngo, now working as Veronica Ngo, apparently) suffers through a stillbirth. The film never actually thematises this directly, but one can’t help but think the death of the child might have been avoided if her husband Thanh (Son Bao Tran) hadn’t needed to call in a mid-wife to tell him that his wife bleeding out on the bed is reason to call a doctor. But then, Thanh will turn out to be the least assertive person imaginable, unable to stand up to his horrible shrew of a mother, unwilling to face the problems of the family factory, and completely inept when it comes to even trying to help Thao through a terrible time.

And a terrible the time is. Thao is hit so hard by depression she can’t even bring herself to let her child be properly buried, so the little coffin keeps a place of honour right in the couple’s bedroom. Even Thanh’s mother realizes that this is a horrible idea. It’s an even worse idea because we are in a horror film, of course, so Thao and Thanh slowly encounter the sort of supernatural trouble you’d expect. Thao is quickly losing it completely, developing phases of violent hatred for her husband (and who can blame her?), adding symptoms of ghostly possession to those of depression. For a long time, Thanh doesn’t acknowledge the problem, being really focussed on not doing anything about the strike in the family factory as he is; indeed, neither he nor his mother apparently attempt to find out why exactly their workers are striking. Even when a group of child ghosts pushes him down a roof, and Thao really starts to need professional help (or an exorcist, or the visit to her family she asked her husband for early on but never got) he’s wavering indecisively. Only the threat of being axed by his wife can catapult him to action, it seems.

It’s a bit of a shame that so few films from Vietnam make their way to our shores. That’s not just because the more countries the merrier, but also because the dearth of films makes it difficult to parse some of the cultural context of a film like Le-Van Kiet’s House in the Alley. It’s not so much the ghosts – those are in form and function very much comparable to spooks from other South-East Asian countries – that trouble me here. Rather, it’s my complete lack of understanding for the country’s cultural norms. So I don’t know if Thanh’s extreme wet blanket style (and I’m saying that as a rather cuddly-soft guy myself) is a particular type mocked or beloved in Vietnamese art; if it’s common in the country for bourgeois types not to call in the doctor when their wife is bleeding out on the bed (how are emergency services in the country?); if the film’s audience reads the characters in a comparable way I do; or even if most of the characters’ horrible ways to treat a woman who is obviously suffering is something that’s culturally expected or deplored. Given my lack of context, it’s rather difficult to parse more than the most basic of the psychological elements of the film. Clearly, it’s a film about a couple’s trouble moving on from a stillbirth as expressed through spookery but how the film actually judges their behaviour, I don’t feel in a proper position to understand.

What I can understand are the more direct horror elements. These are, unfortunately, not as interesting or exciting as I would have wished for. Ngo is certainly able to sell Thao’s depression and the changes brought on her by the supernatural influence on the couple’s home, but I never really found myself frightened or creeped out by her suffering for most to the time. Even when she starts to grab an axe and go after Thanh, the film’s much too polite about it, Kiet’s direction never really bringing out the tension or the emotional horror of the situation beyond the most obvious. The ghosts, for their part are not terribly impactful either. Again, the film seems rather reluctant to actually make them feel threatening or creepy; it’s just too polite for even a little jump scare here and there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

In short: The Sound (2017)

Warning: there will be spoilers!

Kelly Johansen (Rose McGowan) debunks supernatural occurrences for the pleasure of the Internet. Her pet theory explains those sightings of ghosts and ghoulies that aren’t hoaxes as hallucinations caused by low frequency sound waves. That’s what she expects to uncover when she visits an abandoned subway station in beautiful Toronto where the ghost of a woman is supposed to cause a bit of havoc to those daring to visit.

However, the place is worse than Kelly expected. It’s not just full of low frequency sound waves so extreme they could actually kill somebody – Kelly’s so stubborn when it comes to her debunking she still camps there even when headaches and nosebleeds start, mind you – our heroine experiences strange encounters and apparitions that seem closely connected to something terrible happening in her past concerning her sister.

I’ve not heard much good about Jenna Mattison’s The Sound, but I think it’s a perfectly decent little film. The acting – apart from McGowan, there’s also a smallish appearance by Christopher Lloyd who is really getting into his creepy elderly man persona – isn’t particularly loud or exciting, but quiet and generally competent. The script (also by Mattison) certainly manages to sell its big twist much better than many another low or high budget horror film, mainly because the twist here is actually important to establish the meaning of the story. And yes, the film actually has something to say about its main character. While I got what the film was going for there, I wasn’t quite as convinced of Kelly’s mandatory turn from sceptic to full-on believer. That turn is by now too much of a cliché, and it certainly doesn’t help the film’s case that Kelly in the end doesn’t just become more open-minded about supernatural things but turns into the kind of gal who bloviates about helpful spirits leading one to the light. Which doesn’t really fit what she went through: that was amateur trauma confrontation therapy made by ghosts.

As a horror film, The Sound does work okay – there are a handful of effective fright scenes beside another handful of much too obvious ones, while Mattison does establish the subway station as a frightening and strange place effectively enough to keep one’s interest up for the running time.

While all this isn’t exactly a high recommendation, I think The Sound does have enough enjoyable moments to certainly be worth a watch. How very Canadian of it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Son of Dracula (1943)

Warning: I’m going to spoil one major plot twist of this movie that’s not quite as old as my grandma!

Somewhere in the swampiest part of the US South. The Caldwell family is looking forward to a very special visitor, one Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.). Apparently, “morbid” (actual quote) daughter Kay (Louise Allbritton) met that fascinating man with the oh so clever name while following her occult interests on her European tour. Kay’s long-time fiancée, Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) does fear the worst, though. Might his sweetheart not love him anymore and go for the aristocratic set now? Her mysterious pronouncements that he should trust her “whatever happens” is not the sort of thing to put a guy’s heart at ease.

The arrival of the Count does – of course – mark a bit of doom for the family. Kay’s pet witch – whom she imported and set up in the local swamp – has a fatal encounter with a bat, and soon after, Kay’s dear old dad dies rather mysteriously. As it happens, and to everyone’s surprise but Kay’s, the old man changed his will just shortly before his death. Unlike before, when the run-down family plantation and the family money were to be shared between Kay and her bland good girl sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) equally, now the plantation goes to Kay alone and the rest of the fortune to Claire, who clearly has gotten the better deal, and reacts utterly confused by the whole affair. But Kay is surely going to marry Frank very soon now, and he’s got money, so things will be okay, right?

Family doctor Brewster (Frank Craven) is very suspicious about all that has happened these last few days, particularly since he actually figured out the good old Alucard/Dracula business right when he read the name, so he starts a campaign of sneaking around and various break-ins. And, boy, does he ever sneak around, probably because all that’s happening goes against every single one of his conservative ideas of propriety, whereas break-ins and attempts at breaking up romances that certainly are none of his business are a-okay as long as the guy committing them is a gentleman. He is, in a word, the Southern Patriarchy come to life. However, he doesn’t manage to hinder Kay from secretly marrying Dracula in the end.

The jilted ex-fiancée Frank for his part, never one to impress the viewer as a picture of mental stability, goes from whiny, to melodramatic, to creepy, to homicidal in very short order thanks to these events. When he tries to shoot Dracula, he seems to kill Kay instead. In truth, she is already one of the Undead.

The funny thing is, neither Dracula – who, by the way, isn’t the original Dracula but apparently really the titular son of or another relative - nor Frank have much of a clue about what’s actually going on. Kay, obviously a woman of strong opinions and a mind that can withstand the vampire mind whammy, has a plan of her own. Like a good femme fatale, she only marries Dracula Jr. for his immortality granting bite and plans to incite Frank to stake him for her, to then vampirize him and spend all eternity with the one guy less fit for such a thing than Dracula. I hope for her sake she’s lying about that last part to motivate Frank properly.

So yes, Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula is indeed a Southern Gothic noir movie about Dracula’s son finding his match in form of an awesome femme fatale. It is also actually as wonderful a film as that makes it sound. There’s nothing here on show of the jadedness Universal horror phase two very quickly succumbed too; this feels absolutely like a film made by people who wanted to make this specific movie, and for better reasons than just to cheaply satisfy an audience they didn’t particularly like.

I’ve read some internet grumbling about the casting of Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, which I do understand in theory. However, he is actually an excellent choice for the role and certainly is captured at a moment in his career when he could manage excellent performances when giving the right environment. One has to keep in mind, obviously, that he isn’t supposed to be Dracula, but another member of his line, and one, one can’t help but suspect who has his difficulties quite living up to his father’s particular talents while working the same job. Anyone seeing a parallel to anybody here? As a matter of fact, this Dracula is a bit of a fool in the end, but then, that’s the sort of thing Chaney was particularly good at portraying. He’s still a very dangerous and powerful fool, and while Chaney Jr.’s certainly not the picture of the suave vampire, there are a couple of scenes in which he presents a very convincing physical menace, using his height aggressively in a proto-Christopher Lee approach to vampirism that I found very effective.

The true and best villain of the piece is Allbritton’s Kay anyway, and the actress does some fine things presenting a woman with a plan in the body of an early born Southern goth, outmanoeuvring a guy who certainly is rather experienced at that sort of thing himself. It’s always refreshing to find a female character in a Universal horror film who is actually doing something. While it is a bit of a shame the main way for a woman to get into that sort of position was to become a villainess, yet Kay’s such a good villain – whose plan only fails because the man she chose as her helper is such an idiot – I wouldn’t want to exchange her for a heroine. It’s also not difficult to see why Kay turns to complicated masterplans and evil. The men around her are all absolutely horrible in a perfectly infuriating patriarchal way that more or less indirectly declares women like her who don’t fit into their picture of the world to be “morbid” or crazy, always think they know what’s best for them, and when in doubt, do whatever shitty thing they deem “necessary” to keep them down. It’s difficult, if not impossible to think that Siodmak didn’t construct the film this way on purpose, seeing that all male authority figures here are portrayed in ways that support this reading, while Frank is the archetype of the clingy, mentally unstable lover. Sure, things end with the patriarchal order restored, but I don’t think even a second that’s an ending the film would have had without the commercial and cultural pressures of its place and time.

However, even if a viewer isn’t interested in this sort of reading of the film, Son of Dracula is still something special. Siodmak, excellently assisted by the wonderfully creepy production design and sets and George Robinson’s camera that sits at the place where horror and noir intersect, makes a lot of the brilliant idea to set this Dracula movie (the first one after more than half a decade after the also very feminist Dracula’s Daughter) not in backlot Europe but a backlot South that’s just as creepily artificial as the European one, a macabre place of decay, dread and superstition. Southern gothic always shows parallels to the American idea of Europe being a comparable place, I believe, so it’s a perfect fit.

Siodmak holds the good-old-fashioned creepy atmosphere and sense of place throughout. Be it in the wonderful moment when Dracula glides upon the swamp waters to his lover, or in Kay’s visit to Frank in the prison, there’s a feel of the nightmare and the mythical to many scenes here.

Siodmak also avoids some typical Universal problems. The film is well-paced, without the too episodic feel that would dominate the monster mash phase of the studio’s horror output. There’s also no space wasted on comic relief. There’s some dark irony in certain of the situations on display, but otherwise, this is a film meant to make one shudder and think, not to make one laugh. Son of Dracula is very, very good at these things.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: When She Sings Nobody Can Touch Her!

The H-Man aka Bijo to ekitai ningen (1958): This might be my least favourite among the respectable percentage of films by the great Ishiro Honda for Toho I have seen. It’s not so much that the film treats much of its monster movie element as something to be hidden behind the ninety percent of it which are a crime movie that bugs me. The problem is that said crime movie is such a tepid one, without a compelling mystery or captivating characters. What we get is a bunch of smug know-it-all cops, some very polite yakuza, and a scientist and a fainting-prone nightclub singer who are trying to convince said cops there’s something more interesting going on than a very boring criminal investigation. This goes on for about an hour or so and includes of course the obligatory crap nightclub sequences all mediocre crime movies are bound by law to possess. Now, from time to time, Honda seems to remember his talents, and there’s a scene of human interaction that hints at more interesting things going on behind the flat surfaces of the characters, or a horror sequence pops in that’s actually as effective as one expects of the director. Mostly, though, this is a bit of a slog with only minor pay-off once the crime elements finally take a back seat.

Tank 432 aka Belly of the Bulldog (2015): Going from tepid to really just bad, there’s this thing directed by Nick Gillespie. A bunch of soldiers or something (do you smell a plot twist?) and their two captives manage to trap themselves in an armoured vehicle. Hilarity, that is to say, lots of dollar store surrealism, bad madness and awkward attempts at building suspense ensue; decent actors are wasted; then a plot twist that explains everything – or as a matter of fact nothing at all – happens, the end. There is, indeed, a difference between a film being confusing and it being confused. This one strictly comes down on the latter line, leaving sense behind for what goes by hallucinatory filmmaking only when you have a pretty stunted imagination. The ending is deeply dissatisfying (and honestly explains nothing at all about the random nonsense the film has inflicted on its audience before), but then, so is the rest of the movie, with nothing in it ever feeling like it has made the step from a vague idea to an actual film.

The Dark Mile (2017): Much less underwhelming than the other two films today is Gary Love’s British/Scottish film about a lesbian couple (Rebecca Calder and Deirdre Mullins) going on a riverboat vacation in the Highlands in an attempt to heal the wounds of something the film won’t explain too quickly. As it happens, the locals on the river are of the country hick type, starting with behaviour between deeply unpleasant and downright horrible to easily end up on criminal. Why, some of them might even be cultists!

This isn’t a film that’s exactly a thrill a minute, but rather one that carefully and slowly builds up its characters and their past, and just as carefully ratchets up the tension, making good use of the atmosphere the Scottish landscapes and a talented DP provide, as well as of a convincing cast. Once the more typical elements of this sub-genre really kick in, the film manages to stay tense and interesting despite not exactly being original in its basic plot or the way it develops. There’s a pleasure in an old story told anew, particularly since Love varies the old story with his obvious care for his characters and many scenes that evoke a nice, creepy sense of a place where not too many horror films take place.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Miami Golem (1985)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

War correspondent turned local TV reporter in Florida Craig Milford (David Warbeck) is sent to film the newest experiment of scientist Dr. Schweiker (Sergio Rossi), whom everyone calls - smiling as if it were the best of jokes - "that filthy Nazi". Schweiker has cloned and somehow genetically manipulated cells that were found inside of a meteorite. Schweiker's goal is to, um, you got me there.

A malfunction during Craig's highly scientific looking attempt at filming the alien cells nearly ends the film early by killing the poor dears. Fortunately, the cells miraculously revive and Craig is distracted from that particular strangeness by vague looking projections swirling around the lab, talking to him in a language he doesn't understand.

Our hero's not too fazed by stuff like this, shrugs the David Warbeck shrug, and goes home. Shortly after he's gone, Schweiker and his whole team are assassinated by the henchmen of evil rich guy Anderson (John Ireland), who also steal the cells while they’re at it. Anderson has a fiendish and absolutely sensible plan: to grow the cells into a monstrous creature completely under his control he will then use to blackmail governments into doing whatever he wants them to do, like giving him contractual work. I think bribery would be an easier way to achieve that particular goal, but then I'm not an evil capitalist. For some reason, Anderson thinks Craig - and not sanity - is a threat to these plans and commands further henchmen to kill the reporter too.

But Craig, once he's heard of the murders, gets himself a gun and demonstrates that shooting down helicopters with a revolver and being an all-around action hero are among the skills you learn as a war reporter.

When Craig's not involved in chases and shoot-outs, he tries to find out what the strange swirling things were trying to tell him. Fortunately, he meets Joanna Fitzgerald (Laura Trotter), a very helpful woman who recognizes the message as being in the language of sunken Atlantis. Or aliens. Or both.

In fact, Joanna is secretly working for a group of benevolent aliens who give her fantastic psychic abilities (none of which protect her from a gratuitous shower scene). The aliens have decided that Craig is The Chosen One™, destined to destroy the cells which of course belong to the most horrible and destructive creature ever to live. It's all in a day's work for David Warbeck, I suppose.

Quite at the end of his career, Italian director Alberto De Martino had to work from confusing scripts bizarrely unfit for someone who was always at his best when directing straight action material. Miami Golem's bizarre and generally random mix of Science Fiction, horror, action, and all kinds of 70s crackpottery (and all that in the mid 80s to boot) isn't as drugged up as that of De Martino's Pumaman was - but what is? - yet it's still pretty darn weird.

The film's first fifty minutes or so consist of cheap and silly but also pleasantly tightly realized action scenes, which are regularly broken up by long sequences of characters talking reams of ridiculous poppycock at each other. There's bad science, Atlantis, telepathy, telekinesis and people talking in that lovely Italian dub job manner that makes everyone sound as if they had learned cursing watching Ed Wood movies. It's enough to let anyone who has a heart and a brain cry tears of laughter and delight.

After those first fifty minutes are over, though, Miami Golem gets really weird. De Martino still shakes things up with decent action sequences, but most of the rest of the film is dedicated to melting its audience's brains with as much dead-pan ridiculousness as it can possibly offer.

Among the film's greatest moments belong a scene where an alien explains Craig's role as The Chosen One™ by stopping time and drawing our hero into a mirror dimension (or something) where it can take on Craig's appearance to talk to him, making the film's main expository scene one of (an obviously pretty amused) David Warbeck discussing THE END OF ALL CREATION with himself. No no no, I'm sure he's completely sane. Other high points of this phase of the film are many, many, many shots of actors and the embryo rubber doll in a jar that is the titular Miami Golem using mental powers at each other - leading to some lovely facial expressions and much VERY HARD STARING. And a blinking rubber embryo.

Even better are probably the scenes where the Golem/rubber embryo attacks Craig and Joanna with telekinesis, which is of course mostly demonstrated by the actors jumping around in the style of mildly excited St. Vitus's dance sufferers and stunt doubles looking nothing like the actors catapulting themselves against walls. This, dear friends and readers, is exactly what movies were invented for.

Miami Golem's air of heart-warming wonder is further strengthened by an acting ensemble willing and able to say the most ridiculous things with the straightest of faces and what looks like real enthusiasm to me. His enthusiasm is of course what made David Warbeck such a likeable leading man in most films of the Italian phase of his career. He clearly realized that he was usually acting in ridiculous nonsense, but didn't let that hinder him from putting as much energy into what he did on screen as possible, seemingly always having fun with his lot. If there's an ability ideally suited to letting a grown man upstage a rubber embryo in a jar, as Warbeck does here so beautifully, it is the man's gift of throwing himself into the job of having serious fun on screen.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

In short: The Monster Project (2017)

Professional asshole Devon (Justin Bruening) ropes in his buddy Jamal (Jamal Quezaire), recovering junkie Bryan (Toby Hemingway) and his own ex-girlfriend Murielle (Murielle Zuker) to help him out with his awesome/dumb new internet documentary project. “The Monster Project”, as Jamal dubs it, concerns itself with interviewing three people who say they are real monsters. There’s a faceless – in, the film is never showing his face - Navajo cop who is supposed to be a skinwalker, a tattoo artist slash vampire (Yvonne Zima), and a demon possessed teenager (Shiori Ideat and PeiPei Alena Yuan, because that’s how demons roll).

To heighten the creepiness factor, Devon and his gang are interviewing all of them in some creepy old house, on the same night, a night which also just happens to be the time of a lunar eclipse. Surely, nothing can go wrong there, and two thirds of the film won’t consist of the filmmakers running round and round and round the house, fleeing the monsters, striking back, fleeing the monsters, fleeing the monsters some more and stumbling upon a hilariously stupid yet also somewhat fun twist ending.

No, wait, that’s exactly what happens. Before that, director Victor Mathieu’s POV horror film actually seems to be a little more interested in characterisation as is the norm in this style. Not that the usual unrequited love business or Bryan’s drug problems are going to blow anyone’s minds with their originality and depth, but the film is at least putting some effort in, and the actors are convincing enough.The Monster Project also generally looks better than a lot of POV horror does, with framing and staging of scenes that suggest Mathieu put thought into constructing his cinematic funhouse ride. The special effects are sometimes effective, sometimes not terribly good but given the obviously limited budget and the film’s willingness to actually show its monsters doing things, complaining about the bad parts of the effects would be churlish.

I feel perfectly justified in criticizing how repetitive the characters’ circles through the evil, evil house are, though, scenes that start out fun enough to watch but end up seeming to never end. Others might also roll their eyes at the silly plot – particularly the villainous master plan even before one thinks through its theological implications – but I found its cartoonish air fitting enough for a film which is after all called The Monster Project, not A Very Serious Film About Some Monsters.

If only there were less footage of people running in circles through a not particularly large house, this would be an obvious recommendation for those times when the mood for lighter horror fare strikes. As it stands, The Monster Project does need some patience from its audience.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

The further and final adventures of Reggie (as always Reggie Bannister) in his fight against the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) make for a somewhat confusing film. Not only because Ravager’s narrative becomes increasingly disjointed and not exactly logical - quite effectively mirroring the plight of a main character who may or may not have fantasized the other four films in the saga in this directly in a viewer’s brain. Because it is indeed a Phantasm movie, “may or may not” isn’t exactly the correct term to describe what happens to and with our aging hero here. Rather, it’s both at once, the film never quite slipping into the crime of turning the rather beloved films that came before into the nightmares and fantasies of a guy suffering from dementia.

That really is the proper way to do something like this: otherwise, the long-time fan would have to live with a retcon that would be annoying even in a series of films that always preferred to keep their supernatural core strange and illogical – or one might as well just have made movies about the natural all along. This way, the dream-like events in the film turn into something that is at once a fantasy of empowerment (one somewhat 70s male one of dying on one’s feet fighting against actual evil while striking cheesy action hero poses and flirting with women who could be one’s granddaughters) and disempowerment, for at best, the heroes of the Phantasm films hold back darkness for another day, like the more competent Lovecraftian heroes, just applying much more violence; there’s no final defeat of evil possible, and the best you can hope for is apparently to die with early onset dementia, which is only proper for the horrors of dementia (early onset or not).

Unfortunately, even if you’re like me and perfectly happy with the film’s increasing loss of coherence (again, metaphorically a perfectly valid choice), you just might not be absolutely convinced of Don Coscarelli’s decision to not direct the film himself but put it in the hands of David Hartman, a guy with a lot of animated TV experience but little in his filmography that suggests him as a choice for a Weird, dream-like and sometimes apocalyptic horror film. Particularly not one that is so clearly lacking in the budget to realize the surreal apocalypse its final act asks for. While Hartman’s certainly not terrible, he does lack Coscarelli’s eye for making the bizarre and the illogical still look of a piece with the rest of a film, so the strange here tends to feel rather cartoonish, something certainly not helped by the reasonably bad CGI used way too on the nose in the film’s final act.

Having said that, I still found myself enjoying the final Phantasm film quite a bit. In part, it’s certainly a degree of melancholic nostalgia for a series whose approach to horror influenced my own ideas of what horror films can do, how they can feel, how personal their vision can be, and how close they can be to the stranger areas of literary horror. However, the film does have enough strengths that aren’t based on nostalgia alone. While its execution tends to suffer from sometimes shaky direction and the too low budget for its ambitions, there are still so many intelligent (instead of merely clever) ideas on display here, the film does much more than just put the word Phantasm in its title to work for its audience’s enjoyment.

So even though Ravager isn’t exactly how I would have wished the series to finish, it is an ending very much in the spirit of what came before.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In short: Nocturne (2016)

Obviously running away from something or someone she’d rather not face this night, Jo (Clare Niederpruem) goes to a small graduation party of people she isn’t exactly friends with (as played by Hailey Nebeker, Melanie Stone, Darien Willardson, Colton Tran, and Jake Stormoen). There are various strains of dysfunction among and between these people - suggestions of rather typical young adult problems from eating disorders to jealousy and general prickishness abound. But instead of just getting drunk, or stoned, and sleeping with the wrong people for the wrong reasons, our protagonists decide to pretend they’ve never seen a horror movie and hold a séance. Of course, what starts out as a game becomes rather disturbing when the entity they are talking to demonstrates a bit too much detailed knowledge of everyone’s darker secrets as well as a nasty streak. The thing frightens them so much, they do the big no-no in movie séances (as well as in polite society) and break it off without saying goodbye to the entity.

During the course of the night, everyone’s problems and secret sins come to the surface; people begin acting only on their worst impulses in ways that can only lead to pain for everyone involved. But that’s before the really bad stuff begins to happen, from the old standby of demonic possession to various pretty horrible deaths.

I didn’t go into Stephen Shimek’s indie horror Nocturne expecting much of it at all. There are, after all, countless films about séances gone wrong right now, most of them not worth the time watching them, and adding US style demons like they are  en vogue right now to the mix usually makes a film even less interesting. After all, how often can you watch some possessed girl float in the corner of some ceiling while sprouting bad theology before you become bored by it? I have certainly reached that point of saturation a year or two ago.

However, Nocturne is rather more interesting than the set-up or the demons suggest. It starts with a group of characters that seem much more convincing young adults than typical for this sort of production, with problems that ring truer than usual and whose escalation through the supernatural is effectively horrifying because it cuts to what feels like actual bone. For once, the more psychological aspects of the demonic activity here seem actually insidious because it’s not going through the demonic playbook but actually preying on the weaknesses of the characters. Weaknesses the script and some more than decent performances by the group of young actors have prepared well.

Once things turn physical, Shimek shows a fine macabre imagination that keeps the connections between the demise of the characters and their weaknesses open without going too far in the direction of ironic deaths. These deaths, the audience is supposed to feel, so ironic distance would be fatal for the film’s effect.

Speaking of effects, the film’s practical effects are more than decent too, never becoming the sole point of the film yet also keeping the proper unflinching pose. As an added bonus for friends of the Weird like me, Nocturne also features some rather cool parts where it plays with the nature of space and time, as well as that most rare of things – a twist ending that is actually an organic part of the film that came before.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Amityville: The Awakening (2017)

Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her daughters Belle (Bella Thorne) and Juliet (Mckenna Grace) and comatose son James (Cameron Monaghan) move into the Amityville House. In this parallel world, the “actual” Amityville hauntings happened, and the movies about it were made too. Still, Belle manages not to realize what the place is all about until she’s ostracized in school because of it.

That’s not the only thing that’ll make the girl’s life difficult, though: there’s clearly something wrong between her and her mother that goes beyond the kinds of tension that develop between mothers and daughters. Why, would you believe it might just have something to do with the state James is in (though not as much as the film hints at)? Then there are of course the expected variations of the usual Amityville shenanigans mostly concentrating on Belle and Juliet. Flies, the red room – you’ve seen it in another Amityville film, it’s in here in one form or the other. The most potentially frightening threat to Belle, though, is what happens to James. He should never be able to wake from his coma again, but after some time in the house, he clearly starts to regain a part of his consciousness, if not his mobility. Is it really James, though, or is his body…possessed? Well, what do you think.

Franck Khalfoun’s new film in the franchise that by now has spawned more unofficial sequels than official ones has graced studio shelves for a couple of years now, with various reports of cuts, recuts and lowered age ratings spicing up the tale. That suggests a complete train wreck of a movie, but for most of its running time, The Awakening not a bad movie so much as a painfully mediocre one that seems not to know at all what it wants to be: a generic modern mainstream ghost horror film like The Conjuring et al but with awkwardly timed jump scares and less ad space for dubious faith healers? A more interesting psychological horror film about the price a family has to pay for the poisonous mixture of love, guilt, desperation and a mother’s inability to let her son go? Some meta-horror film where characters in the Amityville house watch the original Amityville Horror (and where nothing of interest apart from a blunt scare and a half comes of that)? A film that puts teenage Bella Thorne in hot pants and bizarre skimpy outfits and leers at her as often as possible? Apart from that last one, I couldn’t help but get the impression that Khalfoun didn’t know either, which is a bit of a problem seeing he’s the director and writer of this thing.

Because the film can’t really decide what kind of movie it wants to be, or even what tone it is aiming for, the only thing it manages to achieve is to waste a lot of potential. It is not difficult at all to imagine an effective, perhaps even emotionally involving horror film with The Awakening’s basic plot, but this certainly isn’t that movie. There are so many bad decisions on display here, not just when it comes to the bland direction and the confused script. For example, why try and let as affectless an actress as Thorne carry most of the film while the usually wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh has to chew through a handful of scenes of bad dialogue and badly underwritten characterisation? And if you’re Hollywood-style afraid of middle-aged women in the lead of your film, why not at least hire a more competent actress for the lead? It’s not as if young, talented actresses were difficult to find.

Because all that’s still not quite enough to sink the film, someone involved in the production decided the best way to finish it is on a sequence that feels ripped out of a cheesy 80s Italian haunted house movie (one of the Ghosthouse films, say), and that there’s nothing that fits a bit of supernatural horror better than a finale that sees our protagonist running away from a guy with a shotgun in a scene that makes the shotgun sequence in the original Amityville Horror look subtle, exciting and clever. I have no idea what this thing is even trying to do..

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Dead Don't Die (1975)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

1934. On the night of Ralph Drake's (Jerry Douglas) execution on the electric chair for the murder of his wife during a break in a dance marathon, the supposed killer, who has no memory of what took place between him and his wife but is sure he would never have laid a hand on her, makes his brother Don (George Hamilton) promise to find out who is the true killer.

Initially, Don - who is in the Navy and not a detective anyhow - has nothing to go on in his investigation. A visit with Moss (Ray Milland), the dancehall promoter responsible for the dance marathon Ralph and his wife took part in, does not bring to light anything the sailor doesn't already know.

And that could be that already, making for a very short film, but strange things begin to happen all around Don. It starts when a mysterious woman (Linda Cristal) - later to be named Vera LaValle - tries to warn Don off the case completely, for a certain "he" knows what the sailor's up to and will do something terrible to him if he persists. Before he can question Vera further, Don sees his dead brother walking around outside the restaurant the scene's taking place in, and follows the dead man into a shop whose owner Perdido (Reggie Nalder) is not a fan of people just barging in on him. In the following scuffle, Don accidentally kills Perdido, or at least thinks he does, before the shop owner's assistant (Yvette Vickers) does her best to bash his head in.

When Don awakes, he finds himself in the tender care of Vera. The woman spouts more cryptic warnings, but at least she now gives the mysterious "him" a proper name - Varrick - and very reluctantly puts Don on his trail. That trail, not completely to the audience’s surprise, leads directly into a funeral parlour. Alas, there seems to be no Varrick at hand there. However, there's the body of a certain Mister Perdido laid out. Our hero is confused enough by everything that has happened to him to feel the need to take a good look at the dead man. Little does Don expect the corpse to speak to him with someone else's voice and try to strangle him.

After escaping the zombie, Don decides to go to the police with his rather wild story, because that's what you do when people you killed attack you. The patient cop on duty even agrees to accompany Don to Perdido's shop to clear things up. It's just that Perdido seems to be pretty much alive, and makes Don's story out to be an alcohol fuelled fantasy.

Obviously, Don can't count on the help of the police anymore, yet he can't bring himself to give up and ship out until he has discovered an explanation for what the hell is going on around him.

The excellently titled The Dead Don't Die belongs to the last interesting phase of director Curtis Harrington's career, before he became just another guy churning out episodes for any old TV show people paid him for, and that (very funny) film about the possessed dog.

The Dead is a TV production too, it can, however, count itself among the small yet potent group of US TV horror movies from the 70s that are just as individual and peculiar as anything made for the big screen. Unexpectedly for a TV movie in general, yet not all that surprising if you've seen some of the other TV movies directed by Harrington, the film has the feel of something more personal and individual than what you'll usually see produced for the small screen, and fits nicely into the cinematic body of work of its director.

As is typical of his films, Harrington fuses diametrically opposite elements into a whole that's dream-like and artificial. On one hand, the The Dead Don't Die is pervaded by a sense for and an interest in period detail that just screams - at least as much as the film's budget and short production time allow - "realism". Its visual style, on the other hand, is clearly influenced by the conscious artificiality of the film noir (and what, after all, is more noir than a story about a guy looking for the man who framed his brother for murder, a mysterious woman with a heavy accent, and a series of strange encounters?), the lush melodrama of Douglas Sirk (though with other social interests than Sirk had), and the hidden complexity of Val Lewton's RKO productions. In a sense, Harrington is about as retro a director as I could imagine (see also the near obsessive casting of old guard Hollywood actors in minor roles here and everywhere else in his career), but he's not interested in merely reproducing the past. Rather, Harrington is taking (his favourite) elements of the past to shape something new and very much his own. Which, again, isn't something you'd expect to find in a TV movie, where routine usually comes – has to come - before individual artistic expression.

As a whole, The Dead feels like a film noir's themes had stumbled into an RKO horror movie that for its part has found itself inexplicably entwined with the visual and emotional world of the melodrama.

Robert Bloch's (who you might know as the author of the novel Hitchcock's Psycho is based on, but who began his career as a pulp writer in the Lovecraft circle, wrote large amounts of SF, horror and mystery, and also worked quite a bit for TV too) script is an appropriately strange one, too, full of small but interesting diversions and peculiar little flourishes that just might let the members of The Dead Don't Die's audience put on the same utterly confused facial expression George Hamilton wears for much of the film's running time.

I'm not a great admirer of Hamilton, but his sleepwalker-ish body language here and his eternal wide-eyed look of surprise are just what the film and his role need of him. His character is, after all, walking through scenes and encounters as unreal and surreal as anything a man might dream up, never sure what's real and what's not, finding himself completely out of his depth.

Which all adds up to one of the best voodoo zombie movies of the 70s.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Jack Mason knows he's going to die someday. But today he's not in the mood.

R.I.P.D. (2013): Well, for what feels like a conscious attempt to recreate the old buddy cop action movie formula, but with undead cops working for the guys up top, Robert Schwentke’s film is certainly entertaining enough. It does try a bit too hard to catch the Men in Black magic in a bottle. So as not to be confused with Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges rolls out a humanly understandable version of his cowboy dialect again (which is inherently funny, though not as funny as in True Grit because that one isn’t a comedy) and Ryan Reynolds is a very pale Will Smith. Unfortunately, the film’s effects look too cartoony and weightless and its design sense is not terribly sharp. But about half of its jokes are funny, Bridges is Bridges, Kevin Bacon makes an acceptably slimy bad guy, and it isn’t generally boring, so for this type of fantasy/horror/cop/action comedy, it’s a perfectly acceptable film.

Trash Fire (2016): This one, about a dysfunctional couple (Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur) visiting the guy’s estranged grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) and disfigured sister (AnnaLynne McCord) so he can become less of a total asshole and get over his perfectly horrible childhood and encountering more than they bargained for, is one of those films I wish I liked more. Director/writer Richard Bates Jr. certainly has a sure hand when it comes to pacing, is able to make a film that mostly takes place in a single home always look interesting, and has a sharp ear for blackly humorous dialogue; the acting is top notch by everyone involved; and technically, there’s no flaw on screen (well, I’m sceptical anyone would not see there’s a rattlesnake hidden away in the toilet bowl). However, I never did find myself emotionally involved in these characters, which can come with the territory of a film in which everyone is a complete asshole (or worse). I’m not asking for people with a traumatic past to be easy audience stand-ins or anything that simple, but watching the film, I always found myself at a distance to everyone on screen, which becomes a problem once the film really wants me to care.

Spellcaster (1988): This Empire production directed by Rafal Zielinski is one of the lesser known Charles Band productions, and for once, it’s a well deserved obscurity, for despite a nice enough castle for what it laughingly calls its plot (a bunch of idiots are searching for a million dollar cheque in a castle belonging to Satan as non-performed by Adam Ant for five minutes) to take place in, and some neat John Buechler effects in the final twenty minutes or so, most of the film is boring and bland. Zielinski seems to never have encountered the concept we call atmosphere, the pacing is sluggish, the characters are bland, and for about an hour or so, little to keep one awake goes on on screen. While things pick up a little for the final act, at that point, I was already half lulled to sleep by scenes upon scenes dull people saying dull shit, and mildly confused by the film permanently hinting at doing something sleazy to keep its audience awake but always pulling back before anything can actually happen. That doesn’t just go for nudity but for all other kinds of excitement, too.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

In short: My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)

Teenager Johnny Dingle (Andrew Lowery) has been silently pining for Missy McCloud (Traci Lind) since they were little children, so when Johnny dies because he heroically jumps into a bullet for Missy but comes back as a zombie, he’s finally going to do what he never dared when he was alive. Missy did after all promise to go to the prom with him – when he was dying in her arms.

Turns out the whole saving her life business and coming back as a slowly rotting corpse is a bit of turn-on for Missy, so the prom situation does look indeed promising. However, being a zombie isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There’s a whole load of troubles coming with undeath: body parts that just might fall off during an even mildly heated make-out session, the special appetites of the living dead, mad science, jock boyfriends and torch-wearing mobs. Getting to prom with one’s beloved turns out to be rather on the difficult side.

As frequent (long-suffering) readers of this blog know, I’m not the greatest fan of horror comedies in general, and teen horror comedies are usually even more difficult for me to cope with. Bob Balaban’s My Boyfriend’s Back however, did charm me from the very start with its witty mix of the clever, the cynical, the sweet, the goofy and the heart-warming. Even better, it’s actually funny throughout, taking detours in all kinds of bizarre directions, suddenly pretending to turn into a kind of anti-prejudice afterschool special for five minutes, or spending valuable time on insane side-characters just because they are funny, or deciding to finish its plot very much like a supernatural screwball comedy. The male teenage wish fulfilment fantasy elements of the plot are more thoughtfully used than in many comedies of this type, too.Missy sometimes even feels like an actual character, if one of dubious mental health. Here specifically but also in general Balaban clearly prefers to give surprise twists to popular tropes until they become funny to not using or loudly decrying them, suggesting much more control over the material than the distractible nature of the plot would hint at.

Star spotters will be happy finding Matthew Fox as Missy’s jock boyfriend, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his hilariously angry (and very excitable and tasty) best friend, and Matthew McConaughey as “Guy #2”. Also, it’s really just a very funny movie.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Ghoul (2017)

Warning: this is another one of those films you can’t talk about at all without invoking at least a minor degree of spoilers!

Either, Chris (Tom Meeten) is a detective going undercover as a patient to acquire information about a murder from a psychotherapist, or he is the new patient of said psychotherapist who daydreams about being a detective. Either Chris is shadowing people during a murder investigation, or he is stalking them. Either Chris is the lover of Kathleen (Alice Lowe), or he has had an unspoken crush more than bordering on obsession on his best friend’s girlfriend Kathleen for years. Perhaps Chris is threatened by a fiendish magic(k)al conspiracy, or he starts to believe in the delusions of a very ill guy who goes to the same therapist

How’s that for a short outline of what Gareth Tunley’s, whom I knew more as an actor – particular in the films of Ben Wheatley who also co-produces here - than a director before, horror film (or is it?) The Ghoul is all about? It’s a film whose thoughts about identity and reality seem informed by writers like Philip K. Dick as approached by way of British magical traditions, with an idea of the city and the way people move through it that seems influenced by psychogeography. In other words, it isn’t exactly your straightforward horror film nor is it the sort of mind-fuck film that really needs to get its twist out. Surprisingly enough, given the film’s ambiguous tone, its ending is concrete, even precise, and provides the audience with a rather clear answer to the question what has been going on throughout the film while also being so well constructed the clear answer never feels too clear. It does of course help that the film’s explanation isn’t exactly a logical one, just one that fits and makes sense inside of the rules it has established throughout its running time.

As a director, Tunley is very adept at using comparatively simple (this is certainly made on a low budget) visual techniques to disquiet the viewer, setting his film in a London that is a palpable, real place, yet one whose solidity can shift and drift away at a moment’s notice. Chris’s movements through the city at times gives the subtle impression of everything around him being part of a ritual he – and with him the viewer – can’t quite comprehend.

In the beginning, while you are trying to understand the connection between the two realities of Chris The Ghoul shows, the film is certainly confusing, but as a whole, its comes about its strange (well, Weird) mood and its part-time trippiness through precision rather than vagueness. There’s ambiguity, but it is a very consciously constructed one, if that makes any sense.

Tom Meeten’s performance is particularly effective, really projecting the sadness and the pain of the unhappy version of Chris in a subtle portrayal of mental illness that suggests an actual understanding of the character as a human being instead of a doll stitched out of bits of symptoms, and not laying it on too thick with the “normality” of the other Chris. This aspect of the film is particularly well written, too, with compassion and insight and without feeling the night for pathetic gestures.

But then, the whole of The Ghoul is rather well written (also by Tunley), full of intelligent little touches, foreshadowing that actually works (and isn’t quite foreshadowing inside the logic of what’s going on here, but I digress into more spoilers), and the sort of unhurried pacing that might look slow but is actually just right.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

In short: Hide and Go Shriek (1988)

A bunch of teenagers (cough) – I’m not going to pretend their names or the actors are of any import though I have to admit that Bunky Jones is quite the name - decide to celebrate their high school graduation by an act of the wildest depravity their little minds can come up with: letting themselves be secretly locked in over the weekend in the large furniture store belonging to one of their dads to play hide and seek and have sex. Whatever happened to Lovers’ Lane?

Unfortunately for all involved – characters and audience – a cross-dressing gay killer (spoiler, I guess) is locked in with them too, and starts killing them off in frequently hilarious ways for no reason I could make out.

I could spend a paragraph or so bemoaning the homophobe text (subtext it certainly isn’t) of (future TV producer) Skip Schoolnik’s Hide and Go Shriek but that would mean I’d have to pretend to take this entry into the slasher cycle more serious than I do, and – one might argue – more seriously than it deserves. Still, if this sort of thing – understandably – bugs you, you might want to avoid this one in particular.

It’s not that anyone would miss much not watching Go Shriek. While I do approve of the film’s clear attempts to vary the slasher formula in a few elements – we don’t have a final girl, for example, but a final group of idiots – it’s not as if it makes much of these variations, because most of the film still consists of many scenes of the actors making out, deeply implausible murders, and a lot of walking, sneaking, and running to and fro through the bland and boring furniture store. It’s not exactly exciting.

At least the film’s title is pretty honest: there is indeed a drawn-out game of hide and seek going on in the film (or two – one among the teens and later one between the teens and the killer), and the last half hour or so does feature a lot of shrieking; for a change, the male characters are shrieking as much as the female ones, by the way. That last third also does suddenly see Schoolnik’s generally bland but not offensive direction try for some mood-building via semi-atmospheric red emergency lights and other not completely stupid little tricks. Unfortunately these attempts still don’t distract too well from the fact the characters have been running through the same handful of rooms for an hour now.

This is also the point when the actors – who were bad but not horrible before – seem to lose the plot completely, getting up to very funny hysterics that fit the slapstick feel the so-called fight for their lives takes on rather well. Note to directors: it’s never not funny when your characters are trying to defend themselves with the manikin arms and legs they have stolen, so you might to avoid it when you’re trying to make a horror film.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Daylight’s End (2016)

About three years ago, a (of course mysterious) plague struck the world, turning large parts of the population into rage zombie/vampire things that run around more or less mindlessly screaming, drink blood and dissolve when hit by too much sunlight. Now, we’re in Post-Apocalyptica again, the vampires and mindless raiders bothering the few enclaves of civilized humanity.

Rourke (Johnny Strong), our hero of the day, traumatized by the death of his wife at the start of the plague, is roaming the USA in his car, hunting vampires; he’s apparently good enough at it to have made it from New York to Texas. In the god-forsaken ruins of a small town, Rourke saves a woman named Sam (Chelsea Edmundson) from rape and murder by marauders. Sam is now – after the marauders slaughtered her friends – the sole member of an expedition sent out by a group of survivors lead by ex-policeman Frank (Lance Henriksen) holed up in Dallas. Sam and her friends were tasked with finding a cargo plane for the group large enough to get them all to Baja where there’s supposed to be a survivalist enclave. They did even manage to find a plane before the marauders attacked. She convinces the gruff and grumpy Rourke to get her to Dallas.

Once there, things should be easy enough, and not involve various brave/suicidal last stands to hold back any vampire hordes.

Obviously, William Kaufman’s Daylight’s End is mostly a recombination of various elements of zombie post-apocalypse movies, Mad Max style post-apocalypses, and the kind of action Kaufman and leading man (and composer of the movie’s score) Johnny Strong have teamed up for repeatedly, so originality isn’t really a concern. We all know the character types, we know the plot beats, and we know at least in loose terms how things will turn out for everyone.

In this case, however, that doesn’t mean the resulting film isn’t worth watching. Kaufman does manage to get a surprising amount of spectacle out of a clearly minor budget, the action is staged well, and the film flows surprisingly well even though large parts of it reveal it as a corridor runner, that is to say, a film that largely consists of people running up and down various ugly corridors while shooting and sometimes screaming, which isn’t generally a promise of fun. Indeed, the final third of the film does probably contain ten minutes or so too many of this particular stuff, but for most of the running time, Kaufman make all the running back and forth exciting via the magic of effective staging and editing that does its level best to not get things bogged down. There are a good handful of moments in the film that I found genuinely exciting, but just as importantly, Kaufman avoids any scenes that are boring.

Why, even Rourke’s mandatory trauma, and the scenes of minor – Kaufman’s characters generally have a feel of the sort of hard-bitten professionals Howard Hawks loved so much - in-fighting between the survivors make sense and never overstay their welcome. The script (by Chad Law) tends to underplay the possible melodrama, which makes perfect sense for a group of people who have survived for quite this long – if they’ve not gone insane fighting the zombie vampires, they’re probably too numb by now to have screaming matches for longer than five minutes. Characters are archetypes but drawn in short, sharp strokes and as a whole acted well (or at least well enough). There’s certainly never any of the awkwardness in speech or movement from the living you often encounter in low budget zombie apocalypse films. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie that seems to know Lance Henriksen is a treasure.

While this doesn’t add up to a deeply memorable film, or something new in its sub-genre, Daylight’s End’s general air of craftsmanship certainly makes it worth one’s time.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: There's a monster in all of u

Offerings (1989): At the tail end of the slasher cycle, one Christopher Reynolds apparently set out to make a film that contained all other slasher films. At least in so far as any given scene in his film is a more or less blatant rip-off of a scene from another, mostly better, slasher, shot with no sense of style and taste, and with actors who can’t – act, that is. While this may sound rather tiresome, the resulting film is a surprisingly entertaining concoction featuring nary a boring second. When you’re not gasping in disbelief at the film’s utter shamelessness in its borrowings (even Mattei/Fracasso would have balked at some of the stuff going on here, like the not-Halloween parts of the score), you’re giggling about dialogue that starts awkward and ends up really funny, or laughing about Sheriff “That Doesn’t Look Like Sausage To me” Chism, some sort of overweight Wil Wheaton who spends his on-screen time with things like stealing a kid’s porn magazine collection. This may sound as if I’m mostly laughing at the movie, but when a film brings – even unintentionally – so much joy, there’s only laughing with it.

Aaron’s Blood (2016): It’s certainly not a bad basic idea to connect vampirism and a father’s reaction to a child’s terrible illness, but in practice, Tommy Stovall’s treatment of the theme here just doesn’t work at all for me. Unfortunately, the film handles the situation with a sledgehammer, seemingly expecting that the whole “a father will do anything to protect his child” cliché can stand in for the rest of the characterisation needed to make the narrative actually work. Plot-wise, the film is full of improbable coincidences – like the kid’s school caretaker and a local barkeep just happening to be Fearless Vampire Hunters – and characters whose actions often feel highly improbable. The film is otherwise competently shot and decently acted, mind you, but it never did manage to convince me of the characters at its core at all.

68 Kill (2017): Trent Haaga’s adaptation of a Bryan Smith novel (probably one of his best, if you can stomach his stuff) as a dark comedy, on the other hand, managed to convince me of much more improbable characters doing much more improbable things rather well. It does help that leads Matthew Gray Gubler and AnnaLynne McCord are diving into absurdity and violence with the best of them.

Haaga softens Smith’s book a little in so far as he doesn’t show quite as much of the sex, the violence and the general depravity but he does so in a way that makes the film feel more focussed on its sad sack penis-piloted (like all men in Smith’s stuff, unless they are pure psychos) protagonist’s plight with various murderous, sexy, dominating, evil women (like all women in Smith’s stuff), like noir gone a bit explicit. The film doesn’t really critique Smith’s rather basic (and certainly problematic in more than just contemporary parlance) concept of humanity as a whole and women in particular, but as a caustic expression of it, it is pretty successful.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Maya (1989)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A small town in rural Mexico is predominantly inhabited by descendants of a Mayan tribe who are still holding to some old traditions. Once a year, the townsfolk celebrate a ritualistic, symbolic sacrifice of a child on top of the local pyramid to keep the ghost of the evil Xibalba (or Xibalbai - the voice actors are of more than one opinion), whom the townsfolk's ancestors murdered, at bay. Of course there's a prophecy saying the dead guy will some day return to cut out each tribe member's heart.

Some time before the newest celebration is supposed to take place, US expat Salomon Slivak (a very sweaty William Berger) stumbles onto the top of the pyramid after meeting a strange, big-haired girl child, while mumbling an off-screen monologue about crossing some sort of "border to the other side". Slivak sure seems to have crossed over to somewhere, for something or someone kills him up there by cutting out his heart.

A few days after the old man's death, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives in town. The more Lisa hears about the circumstances of her father's demise, the more disquieted she becomes, until she kinda-sorta begins to try and find his killer herself. This being the sort of film that it is, Lisa isn't actually doing much more than walking around, asking weird questions that are answered in even weirder ways, and doesn't appear for large parts of the plot (such as it is). She also kinda-sorta falls for another local US expat, restaurant owner, gambler, bum and all-around jerk Peter (Peter Phelps), whose best trait probably is his hatred of wearing shirts.

While Lisa and Peter aren't doing much, further killings hit the town. An invisible force murders people in various, creative ways, but never misses out on cutting out the heart of its victim afterwards.

The whole affair culminates (as far as a film told in a way as roundabout as this one can be said to culminate) on the night of the big ceremony. Will our protagonists actually do some protagging for a change?

Marcello Avallone's Maya is a pretty weird film that will grow on a certain, very specific and very small sub-set of fans of Italian horror like green fungus on bread, while the rest of the world will look at it - if it'll realize its existence at all - with a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Fortunately, it's quite easy to find out to which of the two groups you, dear reader, will belong. Just try and imagine a film indebted to the style and rhythm of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond, transplanted into Venezuela standing in for Mexico, tarted up with some barely understandable and badly explained bit of fictitious mythology, with less gore and more interrupted rape scenes (three, by my count), and made by a director who isn't as talented (or mad) as Fulci at his best, but is really trying to be. If that thought makes you happy, or at least a wee bit interested, than there's a good chance that you're either me or belonging to the group of Italian horror fans in need to watch out for fungus attacks. Otherwise, you better stay away from Maya, because it'll only bore you.

For us, the un-bored and un-boreable, Maya is a bit of a treat, especially since there aren't all that many films actually inspired by more than the gore of Fulci's best films. As I said, Avallone's movie is much more restrained in the gore department than Fulci's movies generally were, but the murder scenes share the a nearly arrogant apathy towards the laws of physics and logic with the maestro's work. The murders are very much at the heart of the movie, too, establishing the proper mood of the unreal, of the breaking-in of the illogical into the world as we know it, happening at a place where the borders between the quotidian world and the beyond have grown thin and weary.

The parts of the film's running time that aren't spent on the murders show the town (most of the time, it actually looks like a village, but some scenes seem to establish it as slightly larger with a slightly less rural feel - you could certainly put it down to sloppy direction, or you could see this imprecision as just another way Avallone uses to rattle the audience's securities) as a place whose inhabitants are generally closer to acts of madness, violence and irrationality than is typical. Interestingly enough, Avallone uses two (horribly acted) wandering rapist Texan punks on vacation to make it difficult to read the townsfolk's irrational tendencies as an expression of his film's racism (though it's clearly not a film without problematic ideas about race) but rather as a consequence of the place's closeness to the other side, as if a door had been standing open just a tiny bit for centuries, letting something unhealthy and destructive cross over that infects (perhaps calls to) anyone coming into contact with it, in small and large ways.

Maya's plot - as far as you can actually speak of a plot, which you probably can't - has the stop-and-start quality of the Fulci films it is so obviously inspired by, the same sense of rambling and meandering that is hypnotic to some, and just boring to others, but that seems to be just the logical way to plot a film that is in part about the absence of the sort of order "tight" or just technically competent plotting would suggest.

The movie's characters, all - as is tradition in Italian genre cinema - either chew scenery as if they'd never eaten anything better or seem passive and listless as if the only emotional reactions they have ever been able to show is sweating. And there's a lot of sweating done by the whole cast, adding to the air of heaviness and oppression. Maya's script includes some minor attempts at giving its characters something akin to development, but most of it is buried under the murder scenes and the sweating, and obstructed by the film's slow, slow rhythm.

I'll certainly always prefer Fulci's big three (and quite a few others) films of gory, dream-like horror to Maya, for Fulci's just a better, more daring director than Avallone. Maya, however, is still a minor pearl that puts such a heavy, honest emphasis on a mood of weirdness and slight alienation that it would be quit impossible for me not to love it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In short: Voice from the Stone (2017)

Eric D. Howell’s gothic romance about nurse Verena (Emilia Clarke) -  apparently specialised in nursing children with mental problems back to health only to leave them behind crying afterwards - and her misadventures with little Jakob (Edward Dring), his hot, dark and brooding sculptor father (Marton Csokas) and what may or may not be the ghost of Jakob’s dead mother communicating through the stone walls made from the material that made her family rich is if nothing else a very attractive looking film.

It is shot in appropriately moody colours and style and makes visually often arresting use of the setting in the Tuscany of 1950. The acting is on the good side, too, if rather melodramatic, even for a genre that by nature needs to go a bit bigger than life. Alas, the film really feels more “interesting” (in the negative connotation of that term) than artistically successful.

I think the largest part of Voice from the Stone’s problem is pacing. For a long time, it is very slow – even for me as a viewer who usually enjoys slow movies even if only as an opportunity to really take in the sights – but I don’t believe it actually needs to be quite this slow; as it stands, it seems a bit too much in love with showing us all the pretty sights it has than in using these sights for anything much. On the other hand, once the film decides it’s time for Verena to get to her operatic mad scene, it suddenly pulls her from being a bit frightened yet also drawn by the strangeness of her new surroundings and experiences into becoming raving mad in the classic gothic style without much of a transition between these states, which is the sort of thing it might have set up during the slow bits it didn’t do much at all in. I think the ending is pleasantly ambiguous – either it is quietly horrific or a real happy end – but I don’t think either of the two choices is as well prepared by the film as it should have been, again mostly because it has spent half of its running time dragging its feet looking pretty instead of using its prettiness in a meaningful way for its narrative.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Häxan (1922) and Exploitation Movies

aka Witchcraft Through the Ages

For its large middle part, Benjamin Christensen’s intensely strange peculiar silent documentary about witchcraft (through the ages, obviously) is very much the mother (or one of the mothers, if one is in a picky mood, or really into Dario Argento) of what would follow in the realm of exploitation films as well as in the sensationalist documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Talk about being a pioneering work. All irony aside, what takes Christensen so close to the idiom we know and love is really how dubious the film’s tone is at times. Sure, the film’s last chapter certainly convinces me that the director is a compassionate man who doesn’t want to see the poor, the destitute, the old and the mentally ill either in the thralls of the inquisition nor in a 1920s style asylum, but before that, he falls into the classic ambiguity of all exploitation cinema that shows horrible stuff in great detail and with great enthusiasm while loudly condemning it. That enthusiastic approach to depravity is generally what makes a viewer doubt the truthfulness of exploitation filmmakers; if you ask me, it’s also what makes (or can make, there’s always stuff made by arseholes for arseholes) exploitation films honest and fascinating, and nearly always adds to their entertainment value.

For, if we’re being honest to ourselves, we might as well admit it: most of us – me certainly included – really enjoy watching a bit of staged depravity, some simulation of good old-fashioned human cruelty, and a bit of fake torture too. But, like the movies in which we see that sort of stuff mostly do, we would not – at least I wouldn’t – participate in the charming activities of witch hunters or baby-eating witches, nor would we (at least those among us who aren’t arseholes) be sad about a world in which witch hunts and all kinds of atrocities don’t exist. When watching an exploitation film – and Häxan absolutely is one in this sense – we are actually confronted with these very different impulses much more so than in a worthy Spielberg movie about some historical stuff we are exclusively meant to be moved by and feel good about our own enlightenment. Exploitation movies don’t give us an easy out because they only ever very mildly pretend we don’t to a degree enjoy watching the ugly stuff; turns out they are a mirror.

But back to Christensen’s film for a couple of sentences or so, before I wrap this rambling piece up. And back to joyful depravity, for particularly for the friend of the macabre, there’s some great stuff to look at and let sink into one’s dreams. The witch’s Sabbath sequence is rightly famous, seeing as it is a fever dream of sexual imagery, the director himself as a tongue-waggling devil (in a costume so great, various modern films could learn from it), a thing with a skeletal horse head, baby murder, and all the joys medieval imagination brought us. But there’s also a short visit to a nunnery that should make Ken Russell’s The Devils obsolete (don’t ask me about Ken Russell), a couple of lurid sequences set in a witch coven’s lair, and some choice demonstrations of torture devices and psychological cruelty by the inquisition. Also there and accounted for are humanoid walking pigs that would have given William Hope Hodgson nightmares while also looking patently absurd, and bizarre cat costumes. Among the wonderful weirdness on display, there are also moments of the sort of great, dream-like poetry you only get from silent cinema. In Häxan’s case, much of it can be found in the least fantastic pieces of it, in the close-ups of women’s faces: the old victim of the inquisition and the young and beautiful one both suggest a hidden depth of suffering of women at the hands of men words – and certainly not words written in 1922 – can’t or won’t express. Which of course either turns Häxan into less of an exploitation film at all, or a particularly good one.