Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ismail Yassin in the House of Ghosts (1952)

Original title: ‘إسماعيل يس في بيت الأشباح

You know the drill: a bunch of more or less peculiar relatives are gathered in the house of a far-flung uncle or some such living out in the boons for the reading of his will. In it, he bequeaths his money in equal share to everyone gathered as long as they stay together in the house for – in this particular case – a month. Since this is a horror comedy, there’s only a little murder involved in the following proceedings, but intrigue and many a scene of people being frightened by ghosts as well as the obligatory romance between two members of the younger generation ensues. There’s also a gorilla we see rather a lot of. And quite the gorilla it is, as played by some poor guy stuffed into a costume that I can only read as looking as absurdly un-gorilla-like as it does for comical effect, given that the rest of the production looks pretty spiffy. But then, you never know with gorillas costumes.

Fortunately, cousin Lionheart (Ismail Yassin) – apparently he legally changed his name into this more heroic/silly moniker – is a well-travelled parody of the Great White Hunter trope, arriving with his own tribe of racist caricature African tribespeople (who, to the film’s defence, will turn out to be caricatures because they are a fake African tribe, which alas still doesn’t make them funny). But hey, Lionheart should be able to do away with a single gorilla, right? Too bad that he isn’t actually a great hunter – the film never explains why he feels the need to fake it so your guess is as good as mine – and so spends too much of the film’s running time monkeying around with the ape.

Eventually, somewhat more interesting things happen, as ghosts appear, an actual murder occurs (hooray!), and…a Scooby Doo ending rears its ugly, misshapen head, the true horror of the age.

Reading this, one might think I wasn’t terribly keen on this outing of popular Egyptian comedian Ismail Yassin as directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab, but I was enjoying myself watching this more often than I was not. People who have seen more than this one Yassin movie tell me that this isn’t one of his better ones. Apparently, he doesn’t typically fulfil the bumbling fool comedy role this directly, and I can see myself watching more films with him if that’s the case. In any case, Yassin has impeccable comical timing even in the lamer jokes, getting laughs out of more of the monkey business than it actually deserves.

The film gets decidedly better once the gorilla becomes less important to its plot, too, evolving into your typical series of scenes of people running around screeching after encountering ghosts, people stumbling upon secret doors, some mild stripping, a musical number and a pretty fantastic dream sequence that works more by being comically surreal than via pratfalls. That’s not exactly deep or subversive entertainment, but it’s about what I expect to get out of an old dark house movie. It’s certainly miles above poverty row US ones, being always clearly made to entertain by whatever means possible.

The ghosts for their part are pretty effectively realized, the gentleman in the old-timey Arabian outfit walking around with his head in his hand being the obvious darling of the film. It’s never so much they’ll be even slightly scary to a modern audience, but they feel fun, funny, and imaginative enough I’d have loved to see a film in which they were real. But it’s an old dark house movie, so one expects to be attacked by Scooby Doo.

Rather typical for what I know of Egyptian commercial films of this era, the whole affair, even when it’s the tenth scene of Yassin versus Gorilla, looks wonderful, clearly flirting with classic pre-50s Hollywood cinema through a combination of technical chops and an obvious love of glamour; the non-gorilla effects are simple yet great, and the acting has the precise, stylized yet generally not awkward quality of pre-Method Hollywood.

It’s not a great movie, but it certainly turned out to be enough to entertain me on a rainy October night shortly before Halloween.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Dark Waters (1994)

Following the death of her father, Elizabeth (Louise Salter) travels to a convent situated on a remote island somewhere in what I assume to be Eastern Europe. The film was at least shot in the Ukraine, and the rural folk our protagonist encounters are dressed in what looks to me like rural Eastern European garb, or rather the movie shorthand version thereof. It’s never quite clear to this viewer why Elizabeth is going there. In a curious coincidence, she is friends with one of the place’s nuns (as it happens the one we witness getting murdered by a robed figure before we meet Elizabeth) and wants to visit her; on the other hand, when she speaks to the blind abbess of the place, she talks how she found out that her father secretly financed the convent and wants to check it out. Or she has been called there and just doesn’t know it. She is, after all, born on the island, but doesn’t remember her living there or her family’s leaving anymore.

Elizabeth’s investigation of the cloister does uncover various strange things, like some books that tell a curious, occult version of Christianity, a system of tunnels below the place that’s basically a labyrinth full of nuns who seem to partake in rituals that don’t look properly Catholic to me. The labyrinth also harbours a blind monk doing rather good wall-paintings for someone who can’t see, featuring strange creatures as well as lots of blind people on them. And that’s only the strangeness before the nuns begin to turn aggressive, trying to kill Elizabeth for she doesn’t know what reason. She does attempt to leave at several points in time, but there’s always bad luck or malevolence keeping her on the island, pressing her into a confrontation with her childhood and the things she’s meant to do and be.

Mariano Baino’s Dark Waters is a wonderful late example of great Italian horror cinema, made at a time when the commercial bubble for Italian genre films had popped nearly completely, and most of the surviving filmmakers connected to the genre had long since made their way into TV careers or general oblivion. To make more out of what probably was a tiny budget, the film was shot in the Ukraine, with many technical positions as well as smaller roles in the cast filled by local professionals. On the production side, this made things rather difficult, it appears, but for the look of the films, the opportunity to shoot on sets and locations highly above what this kind of production could typically afford paid off wonderfully, providing the film with a distinctive look and a sense of place very much its own.

In mood and style, the film does feature quite a few nods to the greats of Italian supernatural horror, with coloured lighting sometimes hinting at Bava or Argento, and all the wetness and white, blind eyes of a Fulci film. However, Baino uses the elements and techniques of the tradition he is working in for a film with a quality all of its own, telling a story the big three wouldn’t have told exactly this way.

Of course, the film does have the dream-like quality of much of the best European supernatural horror films, but Baino does more gradually develop this than is typical of the form, showing Elizabeth increasingly stepping out of the world as we know it through her travels, first finding herself surrounded by ever stranger people who seem to share secrets she doesn’t know about, then becoming physically isolated on the island, finding herself dressed in a sack-like nun habit, encountering strange books and finally finding the labyrinth, the world becoming stranger and more threatening the closer she steps to the knowledge of her own past. All of this is portrayed by Baino in deeply atmospheric shots of decay, with lots of brackish water dripping everywhere loudly, disturbingly and inexorably, metaphorically standing in for all the inexorable and destructive forces we humans can’t really do much about. The camera is always suggesting someone or something watching Elizabeth, things happening just outside of her view or earshot, threatening her in ways more than just physical.

There is quite a bit of Lovecraft in the film too, the central supernatural conceit really feeling like one of HPL’s alien godlike creatures interpreted by nuns and superstitious locals through a lens of Christianity that doesn’t just distort what they are looking at but gets itself distorted by the thing seen through it. Furthermore, there’s a strong connection to Lovecraft’s recurring theme of biological and familial inheritance as doom (which is connected to but separate from his racist views, in my opinion), Elizabeth going back to roots she had probably better avoided.

Dark Waters is an absolutely fantastic film, taking everything I love about European/Italian horror, adding some Lovecraft and a smidgen of occultism, and presenting them in a visual language that’s as distinct as it is compelling. The only thing here that’s disappointing is the fact that Baino has barely had a career as a director after this; or rather, maddening and frustrating more than just disappointing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In short: Monster on the Campus (1958)

aka Monster in the Night

aka Stranger on Campus

University professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is very happy to have acquired a coelacanth for the business of doing science on it. Alas, the fish brings trouble: when a friendly Alsatian drinks from its condensation, it becomes aggressive, growing large canines for a time. Blake himself cuts his hand on one of the coelacanth’s teeth and accidentally also gives that hand a good dab in the fish’s condensation water. So when a series of brutal murders shakes the campus, it’ll come as no surprise to anyone in the audience (at least of today) that the nice professor is regressing into some pre-human form and doing the killing.

Blake does eventually figure out what’s going on, but convincing anyone else of the ridiculous truth is near impossible.

The nice bit of 50s science fiction horror that is Monster on Campus is certainly not its director Jack Arnold’s best film, but particularly in the 50s, Arnold made such a great string of b-movies, a film that’s in that period’s lower third of his output is still pretty wonderful.

As is generally typical for him, Arnold has a much tighter reign on the film’s pacing than usual in 50s science fiction and horror, understanding that drama and excitement isn’t typically created by people spouting exposition. That’s not to say that Monster is an action heavy film. Its script by David Duncan is full of scenes of characters discussing evolution, the concept of civilization and so on, but unlike in many another film of the period, this is actually the film defining its main theme of civilization as the thin membrane that divides humanity, even a pretty bright and civilized guy like Blake, from utter barbarity, of which becoming an ape man is only the outward symptom. It’s a very pessimistic view of humanity the film consciously and subtly undercuts repeatedly, particularly in an ending that finds Blake turning himself into the apeman again on purpose to commit suicide by cop and convince university president Howard (Alexander Lockwood) - who is also the father of his girlfriend - of the truth of his rambling. Which is a very civilized act.

For a 50s genre movie, Monster is also rather sceptical of authority figures – sure the cops are not of the keystone variety, but when they need to make the mental jump that could save lives, they fail; and Howard can’t see how his own passive-aggressiveness towards his daughter’s girlfriend and his general conservatism blinds him to possibilities.

Also of interest are the – again very Jack Arnold – hints at the caveman’s murders as the dark side of Blake’s sexuality; at least the first one suggests an element of sexual – off-screen of course – violence, particularly since the victim was flirting with Blake beforehand.

This thematic richness does not get in the way of Monster on the Campus being a fun 50s monster movie, though, so we get all the expected thrills, just with a bit more going on under the hood of the film and minus a lot of the woodenness in acting and writing you can get in the genre.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Blind Woman’s Curse (1970)

Original title: 怪談昇り竜

A short word on definitions up front: ninkyo eiga is the old-fashioned often more than slightly sentimental sort of yakuza film about yakuza clans who are honourable, decent, protecting the down-trodden and providing a home for those people left out in the cold by a highly hierarchical and caste-based society. Given the actual history of the yakuza and their involvement in the film business, this is of course more than a bit of a self-serving affair. But that Robin Hood didn’t exist and steal from the rich and give to the poor doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make and enjoy movies about him, at least in my book.

Having spent some time in jail thanks to a gang fight that my ninkyo eiga sense tells me was probably some kind of revenge killing for her parents, Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji) has taken over the role as leader of the Tachibana clan of yakuza. She is, of course, one of those yakuza leaders who would never truck in dangerous drugs, press women into prostitution or act in any way, shape, or form dishonourably. Being as perfect as she is, she does command a huge amount of respect from her men, as well as the women who followed her from her jail cell into the gang life, tattooing the rest of the dragon whose head marks Akemi’s back on their own.

However, someone seems set on acquiring her territory, probably encouraged by her being a woman (the yakuza of the early 20th/late 19th Century being known for being rather backwards in their sexual politics), and the toll her absence must have taken on the Tachibana as a whole. It’s an indirect attack, too, trying to manoeuvre her into a fight with other yakuza operations to weaken or destroy her. Things are exacerbated by an honourless traitor in the Tachibana’s midst.

This perfectly standard ninkyo eiga style plot isn’t at all the only thing going on here, though. During the fight that got her into jail, Akemi accidentally slashed the face of the non-combatant daughter of one of her enemies, blinding her. At once, a cat appeared and started licking the blood from the girl’s wound. Akemi still has nightmares about this, and believes to be cursed for what she did to the woman, so that the problems her clan is beginning to have seem like a kind of supernatural punishment to her. That’s a rather unsurprising interpretation of what is going on around her too, for again and again, elements of the horror movie are encroaching on the yakuza business. Some of Akemi’s girls and men disappear or are killed, their back tattoos cut off and presented in various gruesome ways, and what looks very much like the cat from the beginning does like to lick at or run away with the damned things. Then there’s the very strange hunchback (Tatsumi Hijikata) capering about, usually bathed in green or blue gel lighting, his behaviour suggesting something of the ogre from Japanese folk tales about him. Adding to that, there’s also a mysterious blind swordswoman (Hoki Tokuda) with a highly honourable streak offering her services to Akemi’s enemies.

Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse is a fantastic genre mix of ninkyo eiga and horror movie, made with a very clear eye towards which of the thematic elements of both genres are compatible and how to shift from one to the other. Ishii did of course have copious experience doing both, having directed masses of yakuza movies particularly in the earlier parts of this career – including the immensely popular Abashiri Prison films – as well as turning his talents to films of the grotesque and the horrific afterwards. The ninkyo eiga base of the film is pretty great, full of stylized shots of the great Meiko Kaji glancing at the camera with great dignity, or anger, as well as that great sense of determination the actress projects like few other of her contemporaries. Even before everything else, Kaji, the as usual fantastic cast of Nikkatsu contract players and Ishii’s always atmospheric and meaningful direction produce a wonderful example of how and why a very constrained, nearly ritualized genre like the ninkyo eiga can work something akin to magic, selling what could be simple sentimentality as an archetypal drama about the responsibility a woman has to live following her own values even when those make her life dangerous.

It is mainly in the form of the grotesque that horror enters the realm of the ninkyo eiga here, too, with wonderfully artificially lit scenes showing the gruesome tattoos, the hunchback dancing into scenes that were looking like what the – always very stylized - ninkyo eiga defines as naturalistic just moments before. It is as if the relatively straightforward world of the yakuza film has been infected by something otherworldly through Akemi’s accidental sin, something not uncommon in the world of Japanese horror. Ishii films these sequences in ways at once eerie and breathtakingly beautiful, suggesting a very different, horrifying yet fascinating world sitting right beside the one where people fight over territory and honour.

The movie has another trick up its sleeve, too. In her way, the blind swordswoman Aiko turns out to be just as honourable as Akemi is, really following the same kind of code Akemi does, not just mirroring her in ability and determination. They are so much of a kind that she as well as the hunchback help Akemi in certain moments because they are too disgusted by their actual allies to do otherwise. Their grudge, after all, is about vengeance as a form of justice, not about greed.

In their duel in the final scene, with Akemi accepting her probable death as the proper consequence of her actions, Aiko recognizes how much of a mirror of herself Akemi is, and, instead of killing her when she has the chance, making a cut on Akemi’s dragon tattoo that symbolically blinds it. Which, obviously, is not at all how ninkyo eiga or horror movies about curses are supposed to end, Ishii rejecting the fatalistic streak (some might say one bordering on nihilism) of both genres for something very different: forgiveness and the hope of a new day when things and people can change.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Welcome to the Witching Hour

Aval aka Gruham aka The House Next Door (2017): Apparently shot in three of the big Indian languages in parallel, Milind Rau’s tale of ghosts, possession and eventually vengeful reincarnation is a nice example of how world pop cinema can be able to take genre elements from a popular Hollywood genre (in this case The Conjuring style horror) and at first seem to reproduce that pretty closely, only to eventually add highly specific elements from its own cultural frame that change things up considerably. This sort of thing is always at least great fun to me; in Aval’s specific case, that fun is further increased by the director’s genuine ability at creating a proper mood of the contemporary Indian gothic – with a bit of help of some genuinely beautiful locations and often wonderful set design that also finds the point where western horror and Indian horror meet (with a bit of dubious Chinese horror thrown in the mix, too). Plus, possession is always better when no Christian demons are involved.

The Craft (1996): For some, Andrew Fleming’s tale of four high school teen witches getting up to increasingly dark shenanigans, or of four girls trying to survive growing up weird (as portrayed by ridiculously attractive young actresses, of course), is at least a minor classic and an important step in the development of mainstream feminist horror. For others, it’s a camp fest that’s basically made to be incorporated into some crappy talking head TV show about the 90os. As the first, I find the film to be a sometimes frustrating experience, often getting to a point where it looks like it is going to face some shitty thing young women have to go through but then steps back from it at least a half-step again. In the second thing, I simply have no interest, and frankly think a film as genuinely trying to do something interesting while still keeping its contemporary teenage audience entertained deserves better than to be treated as camp.

As a horror movie, I find The Craft a bit harmless but also pleasantly imaginative and graced with the kind of all-out performance by Fairuza Balk as what amounts to its villainess that seems fearless in its total abandon.

Bring Back the Dead (2015): And finally for today, there’s this Singaporean horror movie about a grieving (yet also abusive when her child was still alive, which the rest of the characters comment with sad-eyed tuts) mother (Jesseca Liu) using her former nanny’s (Liu Ling Ling) contacts to a Buddhist priest of dubious morals to conjure the spirit of her dead child into her house. On a theoretical level, that plot is horror gold made for mining an abyss of grief and denial, but even though director Thean-jeen Lee is perfectly decent at the basics of Asian ghost movies, the film’s too glossy and too disinterested in exploring the depths it suggests very deeply.

It’s a fun little spook show, mind you, just one that wastes an excellent set-up on being only that.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Fatal Frame (2014)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Original title: Gekijô-ban: Zero

The peaceful life of the girls of a Catholic boarding school in a small Japanese town turns first strange, then rather too exciting, and finally tragic. It starts when one day, everyone’s favourite student Aya locks herself into her room. After a month, she’s still not coming out.

She does appear in the dreams of some of her friends, though, whispering into their ears to free her from “the curse that can only afflict women”. The dreams turn to frightening visions, and soon, some of the girls find themselves sleepwalking during these visions, waking up in front of a portrait photo of Aya, and just about to kiss that photo. There’s an urban legend about a love spell ritual and a curse connected to that sort of thing going around in school, but it’s disconcertingly vague, so it’s not much help in any attempt of the girls to understand what’s going on around them. What’s not vague is the fact that those of the girls who do end up kissing the photo disappear without a trace.

Has Aya really cursed the others – and if so, why – or is something rather different and quite a bit more complicated going on here?

Officially, Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame is some kind of adaptation of the fine (at least those I could play before they landed in the exclusivity-grabbing hands of Nintendo) series of survival horror videogames known as Project Zero here in Europe, but if you expect a film about girls and young women hunting ghosts with the help of a magical camera, you’ll not be too happy here, even though photos do play an important role in the plot. The main connections between the film and the games are certain thematic concerns: girls growing up, girls uncovering the dark secrets of the past, sometimes even their own, the societal and internal emotional pressures on the lives of young women, and the difficulties added to them by a Shinto and animist inspired supernatural world that, unlike in our world, actually exists. The rest are merely nods in the direction of fans of the games.

Fortunately, Fatal Frame the movie is much too well made a film to make this loose approach to adaptation annoying – even though I’d still like to see a film about young women photographing ghosts while uncovering the secrets of the past – telling a clever story with quite a bit of subtextual pull in an interesting and satisfying way. Going by the films I’ve seen by director Asato, she’s one of the rays of light among younger Japanese genre directors, the kind of woman who can turn on paper crappy sounding franchise work into pretty great low budget films which definitely show a personal handwriting and thematic concerns, in particular regarding female friendship, love between women, and growing up.

Obviously, these are some of the main themes of Fatal Frame, too, sometimes elegantly, sometimes somewhat bluntly expressed and intensified through the supernatural. At first, the film does threaten to be beholden to a bit of lesbian panic but the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes Asano (who is also responsible for the script) is playing a different game with different rules, and clearly isn’t out to preach against the (highly doubtful) evils of girl-love, though, this being a Japanese film where a gay happy end still seems rather unthinkable, it’s not really embracing it either. It’s not all that important to Asano, either way, I think, for the director seems more interested in how the sexual aspects of growing up add to the general confusion of girls right on the brink of becoming women, even before the threats of the supernatural come into it at all. While the film does have quite satisfying supernatural elements (and a bit of the Japanese gothic too), they are on the quiet side, the ghosts here being a pleasant antidote to the jump scares of contemporary US horror as well as to the fixation of some Japanese horror directors on repeating scenes from Ringu again and again. For some tastes, this approach might be too quiet and too little interested in the supernatural being scary, but I found myself quickly invested in a film that does use the supernatural from a different angle than we’re used to right now; it does of course help I’m rather fond of quiet ghost stories, and that “quiet” doesn’t have to mean “without emotional stakes” or “harmless”.

While the storytelling becomes a bit flabby towards the film’s end – the sort of thing that happens when you have to tie up plot threads of not just your main characters’ growing up but also of more than one haunting and more than one case of very human evil – most of the film is very focused, with Asato’s highly composed looking, always clear and calm direction anchoring the film in a world of naturalistic sensation that can still turn into the dream-like and the strange with apparent ease. There are quite a few moments here I find quietly wonderful from a filmmaking perspective, at their core very simple scenes and concepts realized with a quiet confidence, helping unite character, mood and themes, and making it easy to ignore the film’s handful of missteps. If you – as I do – sometimes like to admire the rhythm of a film, this might impress you as much as it does me.

On the technical side, Fatal Frame also impresses with a very Suspiria-like soundtrack (which certainly isn’t an accident given the film’s themes), mostly excellent photography and acting that is much better than I’ve become used to in Japanese low budget films. Unfortunately, the film having come to me without an official release in these parts, I have no idea which actress is playing which role, but they’re all good, so it’s fine in any case.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

In short: Nightwish (1989)

After a short intro sequence that sets the “it was all a dream, but whose?” plot twist at the end of the movie up so clearly, using the term “spoilers” talking about it seems absurd, four grad students (Elizabeth Kaitan, Alisha Das, Clayton Rohner and Artur Cybulski) are driven up to a house where they are supposed to help their psychology professor (Jack Starrett) – introduced to us with green horror movie light shining on his face so you know he’s a mad professor – to once and for all prove the reality of some supernatural bullshit or other.

These guys have clearly even less of an instinct for self-preservation than usual for horror movie characters, otherwise they would probably have second, third and fourth thoughts on encountering the guy who is driving them (Brian Thompson). He’s clearly just a week or so away from starting on his first night as a serial killer, what with his obsession with running over animals with the bus and his general air of violent craziness, but instead of running away screaming into the night, one of the girls is even flirting with him!

Things don’t improve in the old dilapidated mansion in the mountains the professor wants to test, and all kinds of Fortean stuff starts happening very quickly. So expect ghosts, demons, alien insects who nest in people’s brains, icky mineshafts, drawn ectoplasm tentacles that have watched The Entity, nightmare (spoiler) architecture, a really uncomfortable alien mind-control masturbation scene, and so on and so forth. It also turns out the Professor likes torturing his students for occult science, with help from his even crazier assistant in practical matters (Robert Tessier).

If you want to see a film that really goes all out with abusing stuff like logic, sense, very basic ideas of how to plot a movie and so on with the excuse that everything in it is just a dream and therefore doesn’t need to make sense, Bruce R. Cook’s NIghtwish is just the ticket, taking on a nearly Italian horror dimension of illogic without reaching the actual dream-like qualities these films can have without pretending to be a dream. But then, it’s not just about the lack of logic with these things, they also need to create a specific mood to work their particular magic, and while the film at hand certainly has quite a few moody scenes – invariably lit in the classic horror colours of green, red and blue – they never come together to create one singular kind of mood over the whole movie. Or really, over more than two scenes.

The script, also by Cook, is more of a list of ideas of what would make a cool special effects or fright scene turned into scenes that never come together into any kind of a whole, be it a narrative, a mood, or a theme. These stitched-together scenes are generally pretty to look at and, at least, realized with high technical competence. Apart from the ridiculous drawn ectoplasm tentacle, the effects, a KNB job, are great. Particularly the alien breeding stuff looks excellently icky, but the rest of the bodily fluids and mutations are very accomplished too. I just would have liked to see all these technical chops in service of something that at least tries to be an actual movie instead of a show reel, but Nightwish never gets boring, so who am I to complain?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Grip of the Strangler (1958)

aka The Haunted Strangler

England in the late 19th Century. Writer, social reformer, and kindly man of reason James Rankin (Boris Karloff) has a rather revolutionary idea: wouldn’t it be helpful to the cause of actual justice if poor people accused of a crime would have some kind of lawyer defending them? He believes the best way to reach this goal is to re-investigate the case of the Haymarket Strangler (who actually stabbed his victims after strangling them a bit because he only had one hand, yet still a “strangler” he is) and prove that the man committed and hanged for the case on the thinnest of evidence was in fact innocent of the deeds. He even has a candidate for the actual killer – the doctor who performed the autopsy on the hanged man and disappeared soon after. Proving his theory should give Rankin’s cause a very helpful bit of publicity.

However, there’s something more going on than meets the eye here. Rankin isn’t just more passionate about the case than a proper gentleman of his time was supposed to, he is growing downright obsessed, leaving politeness and even the law by the wayside to get at the information he needs, pulled by some internal need that clearly confuses himself in his calmer moments. He’s even going so far as to bribe a prison guard to let him have a crack at exhuming the condemned man’s body, or rather to get his hand on the murder weapon the true killer used he believes to be inside it. And it’s true, he does indeed find the weapon he seeks. But once Rankin touches it, he seems to become possessed by the spirit of the killer, his facial features stretching into those of a man after a very bad stroke, one of his arms becoming useless and his personality turning animalistic and murderous. Is he actually possessed by the spirit of the dead murderer, or will the film find a more polite, non-supernatural solution?

Of course Robert Day’s film will, as is sadly all too typical of a 50s horror film – and it is a horror film as much as it is a mystery, whatever certainly internet movie databases say. However, in this particular case, not going the supernatural route is simply the better choice, turning what could easily be a film about a man possessed by capital-E Evil into one about a good and decent man haunted not just by the parts of himself that are neither, but also by mental illness, also turning the film into something of a tragedy. As in any good ghost story, he is also haunted by the past, in this case a past he doesn’t know about yet feels drawn to uncover unconsciously.

While it certainly portrays Rankin’s mental illness as something monstrous, dangerous and evil, Grip of the Strangler’s treatment of what is actually going on with him, and the way his society deals with people suffering from a mental illness, is surprisingly progressive for a movie from the 50s. The film not only takes the psychoanalytical jargon it spouts seriously, it is also clearly wanting its audience to be horrified by what we see of the time’s mainstream idea of the treatment of the mentally ill. It is, however, enough of an exploitation film to clearly also find a ghoulish delight in portraying that treatment, but then, it wouldn’t be much of a horror film if it avoided horrifying us. Its sympathy is very clearly with Rankin despite him being a brutal murderer of women; there’s not misogynist enjoyment in the fact, thankfully, but the film sees Rankin’s murderous side as a sad thing as well as a horrible one, mourning the good man who wants to better the world as well as his victims.

Why this works as well is it does isn’t just on account of a script (by John Croydon and Jan Read) willing to add emotional complexity to the horror tropes it clearly also deeply enjoys using, but also thanks to a really wonderful performance by Karloff. Like quite a few of the classic horror actors of his generation and the one after, he is as believable playing the kind and good man Rankin as he is when he does a pretty spectacular piece of physical acting to show us his other side, making the man likable and intelligent, fully understanding and portraying the pathos of the situation as well as the menace. And menacing Karloff is of course, too, doing the strangler bit with wild abandon and an intensity that makes it perfectly reasonable that most people can’t even identify Rankin as the Strangler.

On the direction side, Day knows what Karloff and the script provide him with, putting every nuance Karloff gives him to great use, while at the same time also using all the cinematic techniques you could learn from the best of Universal as well as the productions of Val Lewton. So there’s much meaningful contrast between shadow and light, and a degree of intensity you not always get from 50s British genre cinema not made by Hammer. The film does show rather more than a Lewton film would have, is a bit less intelligent than the best works of Lewton, and can be more frank than you would have gotten from Universal.

It’s a really impressive mix of old-fashioned spookiness and at the time newer ideas about what could be done with cinematic horror.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

In short: Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

Original title: 5 bambole per la luna d’agost

Some rich businesspeople have invited a scientist (William Berger) for a bit of vacation time on an island. In truth, they don’t really want to give the guy a time of rest and relaxation, but wheedle, seduce, buy (the going price seems to be a million dollar – in 1970!) or threaten the formula for a revolutionary industrial resin out of him. Things start to go badly once the two only ways off the island disappear under strange circumstances, and someone starts murdering their way through the assembled horrible rich people. Well, at least they have a huge walk-in freezer and large see-through body bags for the body count.

When asked in interviews Mario Bava called the sardonic giallo Five Dolls for an August Moon one of his worst movies. It’s not much of a surprise he thought that way, really, for Bava was not at all involved in the pre-production of the film, only taking the directing reigns two days before shooting started, so he had little control over most of the cast and crew, and really couldn’t give the script by Mario di Nardo the rewrite he thought it needed. That sort of experience does tend to sour a director’s opinion of a movie.

However, as a viewer nearly fifty years later, I can’t say I agree with the great director at all here. Sure, the script is your typical giallo-riff of Christie’s “And Then There Were None” concerning a bunch of horrible rich people in an isolated location dying – or killing each other – in various ways, and the characters are so thin, they’re more like visual props, but Bava compensates – one might sometimes even say overcompensates – for all of this by turning this bog-standard plot about how horrible the upper classes are (you can certainly call it political subtext, if you’re of a mind) into a series of of shots and rhythmic sequences that seem to suggest meanings and double meanings not at all in the script, making internally very ugly yet outwardly beautiful people look even more beautiful in settings that present like something crazed interior decorators made up in their dreams, providing everything with a seductive sheen so intense it suggests the unhealthy and wrong with its sheer beauty. While he’s at it, Bava’s editing rhythms give what would be a slow and talky movie in the hand of most other directors a real kick in the behind, making the film feel fast and furious even when very little is actually happening.

Bava also has quite a bit of fun with how unlikeable all of his characters are, playfully suggesting some actual human feelings in some of the sociopaths only to gleefully reveal that whoever we thought might actually not deserve a horrible death is indeed even worse than the rest of the gang. Clearly, nobody innocent or even only half corrupt could make it onto this island. So it’s only consequent that the film treats their demise increasingly sardonically, its camera gliding through the freezer with a macabre chipperness.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Teketeke (2009)

aka Teke Teke

Original title: テケテケ

A rather nasty spirit (who is indeed the star of various real world urban legends in the country with the best urban legends) known by the onomatopoetic moniker of Teketeke after the skittering noises it makes when it comes after you, haunts an overpass in the city of Nagoya. The thing takes the form of the upper half of a woman’s body moving around on her hands with high speed, and has the habit of slicing anyone in half horizontally who looks at her after hearing the noises she makes, mirroring whatever happened to herself before she became a supernatural creature. Apparently, even when you manage to escape, Teketeke will come and finish the job exactly (jurei are nothing if not punctually) three days later.

After a bit of a row about a boy, high school student Kana’s (Yuko Oshima) best friend Ayaka (Mai Nishida) takes the unaccustomed way across the overpass and is promptly killed by Teketeke. The manner of Ayaka’s death, the way it fits the urban legend of Teketeke, and a quite a bit of guilt do leave Kana with more than a few questions and doubts about what happened to her friend. When she visits the overpass where Ayaka died to lay flowers on the little shrine put up in her memory there, she encounters Teketeke herself. Unlike Ayaka, Kana manages to escape the thing; but now that she’s seen Teketeke, she can’t disbelief the rest of the urban legend, so she has only three days left to find some way, any way, to get rid of it. Fortunately, she doesn’t only have the local library to help her out, but also an older cousin named Rie (Mami Yamasaki) who is a grad student in cultural anthropology, and will turn out to have a vested interest in this particular urban legend herself.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in my eyes Koji Shiraishi is one of the best Japanese horror directors of the post-Ringu generation. Like all of these guys (and at least one gal), Shiraishi has to fight against ever tinier budgets and a market that prefers its horror with idols instead of actual actresses in the lead. Shiraishi usually manages to squeeze good to astonishing things out of these production vagaries, getting decent and often much better performances out of the idol of the week, usually suggesting that many of them are only a bit of luck, a system change in the Japanese entertainment industry, and some acting lessons away from better ways to show their talents than bikini shots, variety shows and J-Pop.

Of course, this still  leaves a film like Teketeke with a budget that can only afford a couple of appearances of its titular creature and needs to fill the rest of its short 70 minute runtime with anything a filmmaker can come up with. It has to be said that the creature design when we get to see it is actually pretty creepy, and thanks to some excellent directorial framing choices, its absurd way of running around doesn’t feel as ridiculous as it might be but rather strange and otherworldly. Generally, the scenes where Teketeke scuttles and skitters and around work very well, Shiraishi using all the tricks in the low budget handbook to produce menace and excitement, never showing too much of the creature for too long.

This still leaves about fifty minutes of movie. About half of it Shiraishi fills with little character moments that don’t exactly pull these women away from being the obvious clichés you expect them to be but make them sympathetic and likeable and provide them at least with a bit of an inner and outer life beyond being horror movie characters, and give Oshima and Yamasaki some room to demonstrate decent basic acting chops. The other half is spent, like in any proper ghost story, following our heroines doing research about the whys and wherefores of Teketeke, trying to find a way to understand the thing and hopefully come up with a way to dispel it. I’m getting quite a bit out of scenes of characters hitting the books and interviewing people about the background of ghosts, so this sort of thing is nearly always enjoyable to me, as indeed is the case here as well.

All of this adds up to a somewhat lightweight horror movie without too much emotional heft. However the combination of a simple yet not brain-dead and effective script, the lovely urban legend it uses, Shiraishi’s directing chops as well as the chutzpa of a guy who can base a suspense sequence on a spelling mistake do make it a fun time. Sure, Shiraishi has made far more impressive movies than Teketeke, but given the constraints he’s working with, I’d still call this an artistic success.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: An All-New Chiller for Halloween!

La Influencia aka The Influence (2019): As you know, only Spanish filmmakers have the good taste to try and adapt Ramsey Campbell. Alas, Denis Rovira van Boekholt’s adaptation of a very fine novel isn’t as strong as it could be. The director is certainly great with the more technical aspects of creating a creepy mood and uses that bane of contemporary horror, the jump scare, sparingly, but he tends to overplay his hand increasingly the longer the film goes on, betting on the creepy and loud image where a calmer and softer touch would work much better, often ignoring perfectly obvious avenues for the kind of psychological horror asked for here and instead going for shouting “HORROR!” into the audience’s faces. The script has some curious weaknesses too, becoming unspecific in the most inopportune moments, and having some trouble organizing certain plot threads (watch who knows what and when about a certain medallion, for example). And while there is strong, horrific imagery in the film, van Boekholt isn’t quite the stylist yet to pull through on this alone.

The Monkey’s Paw (1948): Before I randomly stumbled upon this adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’s classic story directed by Norman Lee and “associate directed” by Barbara Toy, who also co-wrote (and would go on to become a Land Rover based exploration writer), I didn’t know it existed. Not that I missed much: this is a typical case of a film that takes a small, short gem of a story and tries to bring it up to film length (in this case only an hour, but still) by adding lots of uninteresting business that distracts from the core of the tale and more background material that’s no use either, as well as by making changes to the source material that lessen it. Only in a couple of scenes do the directors find a moment or two between thrilling in the rambling of an elderly Irish rogue and listening to drawn out scenes of people repeating things we already know when things become somewhat creepy – the final sequence is moody, if still worse than the one in the story.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981): And because this is clearly, Three Halloween-Ready Films Seen By A Grump, why not end on me being down on what for many a person with good taste and style is one of the great TV horror movies? And it’s not that I don’t see the craftsmanship in Frank De Felitta’s direction and J.D. Feigelson’s script, or can’t abstractly admire how much atmosphere they get out of little.

It’s just never been a film that grabbed me, and my recent re-watch didn’t change that fact. I think my main problem with the film is that I’m not that fond of the part of the horror genre that’s all about horrible people getting their comeuppance. That approach to horror just has too much of the old testament and fire and brimstone preachers to ever make me really happy. Not that Dark Night is all fire and brimstone, mind you, it’s really a focussed and calm film, all considered. It’s just not for me.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Bram Stoker’s Burial of the Rats (1995)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

The 19th Century. Young Bram Stoker (Kevin Alber – the less said about his performance the better) is travelling through France with his father (Eduard Plaxin), who isn’t too fond of his son’s plans of becoming a writer. We’re horrified to imagine what the old man would say if he knew Bram’ll actually make things worse and go to the theatre, possibly living a rather bohemian life (for his time and place). Things take a turn for the more exciting when their coach is attacked by three hooded figures. When Bram shoots one of his attackers, the remaining two pack him into a handy sack and take him to their headquarters.

There, it turns out our hero hasn’t been abducted by random robbers but by an all-female krypto-feminist thong wearing cult of women of varying craziness whose major goal in (cult) life is to make men pay for all the evils they committed. And then some. They are led by The Queen (an excellently scenery chewing Adrienne Barbeau), pipe player and commander of an absurdly tiny little horde of flesh-eating rats.

Things would look rather dire for Bram, if not for the fact that one of the Queen’s favourites, Madeleine (Maria Ford, to nobody’s surprise quite underdressed and as always at least passable as an actress), falls in love at first sight with him once his head loses the sack. Our hero’s situation further improves when a plan of Madeleine’s former girlfriend Hope (Olga Kabo, also doing a good bit of scenery chewing) to kill him during the raid on a monastery not just fails, but also quite accidentally finds the Queen learning of and appreciating his literary talents in the aftermath. Why, to have one’s own cult chronicler…

So all would be set for a very special kind of happy end, if not for the evil plans of Hope and the just as evil ways of the French police.

Roger Corman never was one to miss an opportunity for weird international cooperations, particularly when they could bring him more bang for his buck, so it’s not a complete surprise we find him here indulging in one of a handful of co-productions with Russia’s ailing Mosfilm. The project certainly was not a prestigious business for the Russian side, but for Corman - and Burial of the Rats – the Russian involvement brought quite a bit of production value with it. This includes an excellent and often very inappropriate – it’s sounding like it was made for some romantic high budget epic – music score by Tarkovsky regular Eduard Artemev as well as some real talent behind the camera, and much prettier locations than Corman usually could get his hands on at this point in his career.

Of course, Corman being Corman, he used the opportunity offered to have director Dan Golden create this sleazy weird-ass adventure movie with a bit of gothic horror, a smidgen of gore and some comparatively subtle moments of “so that’s how Stoker got his ideas!”. The last, we can probably ascribe to co-writer Somtow Sucharitkul (who had a bit more success as a horror writer than he did as a script writer, even though I’m not a fan). There’s more gratuitous nudity than you can shake a stick at (sorry, Siegmund) - some of it provided via the sort of naked jazz dance all strange female cults love so well be they satanist, feminist, or yuggothian –, moments of puzzling weirdness, and many a scene that I would be tempted to call “swashbuckling” if anyone involved in the film had only known how to actually do swashbuckling action scenes well. On the other hand, there’s a scene where a monk’s nether parts are eaten by rats, so there’s that.

This still being a Corman production before he completely jumped the shark(topus), the Burial of the Rats is silly, awkward, of dubious morals but also still trying to be an actual movie despite all the feminists with swords and thongs, so plot and characterization make a degree of sense – at least in a world where this whole rat women business is appropriate – and the film’s not as anti-feminist as most films of its type would be, though all the gratuitous nudity will still keep most fans of identity politics away.

Why, sleeping with Bram doesn’t seem to impede Madeleine’s ability to think or fence (much), and while every female character here dies the same lame death, and their revolution will not be televised (spoilers, I guess), the film does have way too much fun with showing nearly naked women kill deeply unpleasant men I’d think it pretty impossible to ever imagine it tries to convince you women fighting back is a bad thing, particularly not when these women are fighting authority figures as deeply unsympathetic as those shown here. Because seriously, what film would be sympathetic to rapist monks and purveyors of child prostitution? At worst, and I know some Internet feminists of a very specific type might be annoyed by this sort of thing, the film argues that acting against men as if they were a faceless mass not worthy of individual consideration isn’t any better than men oppressing women in various ways.

Of course, as luck will have it, this is also the ideal position from which to make an exploitation movie about thong-clad 19th century rat women fighting oppression. Go figure. And as luck will also have it, that’s a very enjoyable thing to watch.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

In short: Operation Pink Squad II (1989)

aka Thunder Cops (but not to be confused with another movie going by that title for better reasons)

Original title: 猛鬼大廈

As every fool, including me, knows, Hong Kong comedies could get completely crazy, particularly between 1983 and 1995, and not just because there are certain strains of Chinese humour based on things being surreal and random, but also because at that time, Hong Kong cinema wasn’t just willing to go there (and with “there”, I mean really anywhere) but jumped there while screaming some crazy stuff in half-parsable subtitles, possibly throwing centipedes in the process.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jeff Lau Chun-Wai’s (of the Haunted Cop Shop movies fame) Operation Pink Squad II starts as a high-octane comedy about an idiot policeman (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong) believing his new wife and co-cop (Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu) has an affair with their boss (the inevitable Wu Fung) when she is in truth doing undercover work together with four other women as hostesses trying to make contact with a gangster adorably named Maddy (Shing Fui-On), yet will later turn into a pretty typical Hong Kong ghost movie/horror comedy in the Mr Vampire style. Where “typical” really means as insane as possible, going through all types of humour known to mankind, half of which are alas lost in translation, leaving us with much – and often absolutely hilarious - slapstick and more jokes about bodily fluids than you can shake a stick at. Just that all of this is packaged into a tale also featuring a Buddhist Monk (Yuen Cheung-Yan) who has trouble keeping track of the little holy baggies he keeps ghost heads in, a hilariously intense – and rather cute - ghost (Cheung Choi-Mei) who will spend much time as a flying head chasing the cast up and down corridors, ghost hordes, and the unwillingness of men to become a special kind of virgin.

It’s a film so kinetic and so full of bad but usually very funny ideas a scene where our heroes whip out remote controls and start fighting the flying lady ghost head with model helicopters (complete in the colour yellow and with the appropriate Buddhist charms written on them, of course) isn’t the craziest thing you’ll see. When it comes to the gleefully (and this movie is nothing if not gleeful) bizarre, I’m particularly fond of the rescue through fairies in the climax where the film suddenly turns into something of a style at least fifteen years older, complete with appropriate changes in the music score, which also features some of the joys of lute-based fighting.

All of this may sound as if the “horror” part of the “horror comedy” description shouldn’t quite be big enough to qualify this for the sacred month of October around here, but if a film that features flying ghost heads and Billy Lau doesn’t qualify as horror, I don’t know what does.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Santo & Blue Demon vs. Doctor Frankenstein (1974)

Original title: Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein

There’s trouble in Mexico City! A mysterious madman kidnaps women, who are never seen again. That is, until he decides it’s better to let the corpses of his victims return as radio-controlled zombies who then proceed to kill their families. The police are clueless what this is all about, but the audience is quickly introduced to the bad guy, one Irving Frankenstein (Jorge Russek), owner of a pretty impressive beard, and the grandson of the original Doctor Frankenstein.

Apart from striking terror into the hearts of men, he’s kidnapping these poor women to perfect his brain transplantation technique. Sacrifices (preferably those of other people) need to be made for science, and for…love. For Frankenstein has the frozen body of his beloved tucked away in one of the many chambers of his silver corridor-heavy (okay, it’s one silver corridor filmed as if it were a labyrinth of corridors, but hey) lair, keeping her fresh so she doesn’t die from the brain cancer she has been diagnosed with. Once his brain transplantation technique is perfected, he’ll just pop the brain of another woman into his beloved’s body and…honestly, I have no idea how that’s going to help, but Frankenstein must. He’s the mad scientist after all.

Anyway, up until now, his only successful brain transplant has been moving the brain of a “South African giant” into the body of a very buff black gentleman - or, “a black giant from Africa”, as the totally not racist Frankenstein as a character in a film with not at all awkward racial politics calls him – whom he now controls via brain radio and who is his secret weapon when it comes to evil-doing, seeing as he’s super strong, impervious to bullets when Frankenstein tells him he’s wearing a bulletproof vest (he isn’t), and about as fast as a snail.

That’s not enough to fulfil the good doctor’s second goal, though, taking over the world with an army of brain radio controlled brain transplanted supermen. He has another super body lined up looking for a new brain, tentatively dubbed “Mortis” (which will turn out to be one of Frankenstein’s favourite names), and he has called dibs on a brain that would add enormous skill, intelligence and experience to the Mortis body. Of course, right now, that brain is still safely tucked away in the body of the idol of the masses, the great, the heroic, the singular Santo (Santo). And you don’t just go and try and steal El Santo’s brain directly.

Fortunately, Frankenstein has a plan for that too. He’s just going to kidnap young bacteriologist Alicia (Sasha Montenegro), and wait for Santo to come to him. Alicia, it turns out, isn’t just another younger woman Santo has a bit of an undisclosed romance with, she is a kind of non-legal ward to Santo and his fellow luchador, buddy and partner Blue Demon (Blue Demon), who apparently promised their mentor/her father to take care of her (not that kind of care, Santo!).

So once Frankenstein’s henchmen do indeed kidnap Alicia, he has two very motivated luchadores on his trail. Who, as it turns out, make better archenemies than brain donors.

In 1974, the movie adventures of Santo and his fellow luchadores weren’t exactly at their prime anymore. The budgets, never terribly impressive, had clearly sunken into the deepest depths, and quite a few of the lucha movies of this era seem to consist of more filler than movie. Veteran director (ending his career with 140 movies in his filmography!) Miguel M. Delgado’s vs Frankenstein is certainly no exception to the budget troubles (it is a Calderón production, after all), but Delgado does not torture his audience with days of comedy – there’s only some unfunny business about the doddering professor who is Alicia’s boss – nor are horrifying musical numbers rearing their ugly heads. There are two overlong, rather boringly staged in-ring wrestling sequences to get through, but that’s the sort of thing every movie about a luchador needs to include, so complaining about it would be churlish.

It’s not that the film does not include filler, mind you, it’s just that someone involved in the production must have realized that an audience going into a movie about Santo and Blue Demon fighting Doctor Frankenstein (and the good doctor is indeed fit enough to get beaten up by Blue Demon) will be more interested in spending some macabre good times with Frankenstein going about his day, seducing brain surgeons into working for him by giving them his de-aging elixir, letting his computer (with lots of blinking lights, so it must be excellent) compute the right cutting patterns for his brain surgeries, and ranting. These rants are presented by Russek with great gusto, quivering facial hair, and the air of crazy delight every good mad scientist in a very pulpy horror movie needs.

Of course, as is genre standard, we also get a couple of scenes of Santo and Blue going about their day, charming ladies, be it wards or – and I quote – “beautiful police women”, having a nice ride in Santo’s sports car and so on, when they are not hitting henchpeople and radio controlled African Americans in the face.

So really, as a late-ish period lucha movie, Santo & Blue Demon vs. Doctor Frankenstein is as good as you can reasonably expect, pitting our heroes against a proper madman and his crazy science experiments, presenting enough extra standard lucha horror tropes to keep anyone happy, and generally going about its business with a sense of delight not exactly typical of this phase of lucha cinema. And if you’ve seen enough of these films, you might just get an extra kick out of Blue saving Santo’s bacon for once this time around.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Tingler (1959)

Somewhat, okay, majorly obsessed pathologist Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) and his assistant David Morris (Darryl Hickman) are, when they aren’t just doing autopsies, hot on the heels of Chapin’s weird pet theory about something that grows along a person’s spine when they are in the grip of pure terror. In fact, Chapin is convinced that whatever this force - let’s call it “The Tingler”, why don’t we – may be, it can actually crack one’s spine quite easily.

We will soon enough learn the Tingler is some earworm-like thing that lives inside of every human body and grows to rather unpleasant size when a person is in terrible fear. The only thing that can loosen its grip around your spine is screaming. So, PSA: please scream a lot.

Complicating Chapin’s research and the plot is the William Castle typical hate/hate relationship between the scientist and his wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts), including the expected murder attempts, for in Castle movies marriage is the kind of hell that turns even the mild-mannered into wise-cracking murderers. Not helping anything is Chapin’s willingness to test his theories by dosing himself with that new-fangled drug known as LSD. Our protagonist’s acquaintance with a silent movie retro cinema owner named Ollie (Philip Coolidge) and his mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), the latter of which rather tempts the good Doctor with her horrible aversion to blood and her inability…to scream, keep things even more lively.

The Tingler is certainly the goofiest of William Castle’s sort-of adult oriented features. This is after all the film that sees Vincent Price injecting himself with LSD and mugging himself adorably and admirably (as always) through a very bad trip, and that features an underarm-long big rubber earworm as its monster (of course to be wrestled by Price at one point). On the Castle gimmick front, it’s the movie where Castle apparently (or not) did some electrifying things to some cinema seats and that features a couple of scenes where the screen turns black and Price and a bunch of screamers encourage the audience to do the same, for the Tingler is right in the cinema with them.

Like most Castle films, inside of these parameters, this is actually a very well done low budget movie that zips along wonderfully from one scene to the next, and where every single scene contains at least one fun thing. As usual with the director The Tingler also looks rather great. Castle, at this point already an experienced hand who had learned his craft making studio films like the Whistler movies, is just very good at staging theoretically preposterous scenes of the macabre, using all the tricks German expressionism via noir had taught him while adding a sense of sardonic humour to the proceedings. So a scene like the murder of Martha which should be patently ridiculous is just great fun to watch, feeling, as does Ollie’s final fate, a bit like an EC comic come to life without the ultra violence. Castle is often a genuinely imaginative and clever director too, in the finale creatively intercutting the silent movie Tol’able David (I have no idea) with the Tingler business going on in the cinema.

Plus, one has to admire the pure chutzpa with which Castle integrates a movie theatre into the plot so to be better able to sell his gimmick. But then, I cannot believe anyone could watch this and not love Castle at least a little bit for it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Exorcismo (1975)

England, as seen through the eyes of Spanish horror filmmakers and fans in the mid-1970s. Ever since upper-class daughter Leila’s (Mercedes Molina aka Grace Mills) boyfriend has returned from Africa (sigh) and started to go with her to proper Satanic orgies, she hasn’t been the same. Her family is flustered by her newly acquired cynicism and grumpiness, her recreational drug use as well as her tendency to be quite uppity. Though, seeing that the family seems to exclusively consist of what you find when you look in the dictionary under “hypocritical bourgeoisie”, her rebellion wouldn’t actually need Satan as a reason.

However, Leila’s behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged, including things that suggest something a little more unnatural than a young woman fed up with her family. Fortunately for that family, they have somehow acquired vicar Adrian Dunning (Paul Naschy) as a family friend, and call him in to take care of spiritual business. Dunning, being much more liberal towards youth culture and changing moral standards than you’d expect, does at first not believe there’s much of occult import going on with Leila at all. Only once a series of mysterious murders of her peers and family starts and the supernatural manifestations become rather more extreme does he start to invoke the powers of his Lord.

Yep, Paul Naschy is playing a – clearly fighting fit – good-natured and thoughtful vicar in Juan Bosch’s Exorcismo (and of course also co-wrote the script), not exactly the sort of thing he did very often. Even more surprising, he’s not playing a vicar who is also beloved by all women as the perfect specimen of manliness, Naschy the writer clearly this time around putting some of the things Naschy the star loved to the side to do the story he has in mind proper justice.

On paper, this is of course just another attempt at riding the coattails of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but really, for a film called “Exorcism”, there’s very little exorcism action going on here, with the sort of scenes that actual can remind one of the American film having been exiled to the last ten minutes or so. The possession stuff before the actual exorcism is rather more subdued than in the American film. For most of its running time, the Exorcismo plays out more like a giallo crossed with a handful of elements of the Dennis Wheatley style occult thriller (minus Wheatley’s politics), following Dunning’s – every giallo needs an amateur detective – investigation into the murders, Leila’s strange behaviour, and all the dirty secrets of her family. And because they are a bourgeois family in a giallo-alike, they have quite a few of them, and they do indeed fit into the exorcism angle quite well in the end. If this doesn’t sound terribly much like The Exorcist at all to you, you’re absolutely right. It’s not just that these are structurally very different films, either. Tonally, there’s little connecting the two films either, Bosch’s movie lacking the extremely reactionary spirit of the Friedkin film and instead focussing on a rather left-leaning critique of exactly those values the American film holds so dear, and with little genuine interest in religious doctrine. That’s obviously quite a bit more in my boathouse.

Quite a few Spanish horror films of this era, involving Naschy or not, can have a bit of a slapdash feel to it, with dubious pacing and moments where the film tells instead of shows what should be hugely important scenes. To my pleasant surprise, this is not at all the case here, and the narrative – as befits a film with a large mystery element – is actually rather well constructed, with everything the audience should see and hear actually happening in front of it, and a pace that’s perfect 70s mid-tempo. Of course, you can still see some of the film’s budgetary constraints, so some of the sets are cramped, leading to not terribly ideal framing, and some scenes really could have used another take. On the other hand, Bosch does display moments of fine creativity, staging various murders and Dunning’s final confrontation with Satan atmospherically, nodding to German expressionism and using all the colours we want from our 70s horror. It’s often surprisingly effective, which is certainly helped by a fine cast of Spanish actors playing sleazebags, Naschy showing a bit more of his sensitive side, and Molina doing fine work in the writhing, nasty screaming and screeching and evil looks departments.

A special mention should finally go to the satanic orgy sequences that up the sleaze factor a bit, feature nothing authentically occult whatsoever but do recommend themselves by their sheer absurdity as well as the surprising number of guys dressed like Zorro without the hat in them.

If that’s not enough to interest you in Exorcismo, dear imaginary reader, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Shocking beyond belief

La revanche des mortes vivantes aka The Revenge of the Living Dead Girls (1987): I do have a high tolerance for backyard-made horror nonsense, but this French attempt at a movie directed by Pierre B. Reinhard (who mostly had a career in porn, though you wouldn’t notice him actually having ten years of experience as a director of anything when this was shot if I didn’t tell you) does stretch my patience thin. Perhaps it’s the fault of its high concept of randomly mashing softcore porn and supposedly gory horror together, shifting genre codes badly and at the worst possible moment. Or it maybe the non-acting, or the usually static camera. Or how un-erotic the softcore sequences, and how bland and boring the horror bits are? Or maybe, it’s a combination of all these factors that turns the film into a joyless slog. In any case, this is so bad it’s bad.

El segundo nombre aka Second Name (2002): I have an equally high tolerance for slow movies, and do enjoy the investigative aspects of horror quite a bit, but Paco Plaza’s adaptation of one of the great Ramsey Campbell’s lesser novels does make a it desperately hard to connect to it. There’s slow movies, and then there’s needlessly static ones like this, seemingly hell-bent on slowing what is already a slow plot to a crawl for no good reason whatsoever. Certainly, there’s little mood-building going on in any of the many overlong scenes, and what’s of import for plot and characters could be much more economically told in about half the time. The characters have little dimension either, and – as if to make up for it – everyone insists on a particularly stiff and ponderous acting style, perhaps to slow things down even more. This does leave a viewer with copious time to find fault with the preposterous conspiracy theory at the film’s core; while there’s little here that carries any of the thematic dimensions of the novel.

Brightburn (2019): Director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn promises to tell an inversion of the origin story of Superman in which he doesn’t don a costume and becomes the best person on the planet, but where the onset of puberty awakens the evil psychopath in him. He does make himself a costume at least. The film keeps its promise admirably, featuring a good cast (Jackson A. Dunn does creepy very well indeed), good effects and a well-paced script, so it is an enjoyable film if you want a bit of evil kid supervillain action.

However, that’s really all there is to it, so if a viewer imagines the film to actually comment on superheroes or Superman in particular, or do anything at all but presenting its high concept with a high level of craftsmanship, they are a bit out of luck, for there’s really no ambition at all towards having any thoughts whatsoever in the film. In fact, most contemporary superhero movies have quite a bit more going on under their hoods than this riff on them.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Warning: spoilers will happen, yet little will make sense anyhow.

This write-up is based on the theatrical cut of the film, because it’s the one I’ve got. Given what I’ve read about the producer’s cut, it should actually improve heavily on some of the problems of the theatrical version when it comes to the whole cult/druid/whatever angle but seems to be cursed with an ending that would annoy the living crap out of me, and might drag considerably.

Apparently, not only was everyone’s favourite slasher movie killer Michael Myers freed by the mysterious man in black who shot up the police station where Mickey was being held in in the last film but he and his brethren – all belonging to some sort of cult seemingly only populated by people of the medical profession(?) that wants to help Michael finish his murder spree because druids or something - also kidnapped the Mickster’s niece Jamie. Six years later, Jamie (grown up to be J.C. Brandy because the production apparently couldn’t afford the 5000 dollars needed to get Danielle Harris back) escapes her captors together with a baby that is clearly supposed to be Michael’s child. Michael follows her and manages to kill his Jamie after a bit of stalking, but not before she can hide away her daughter.

Remember little Tommy Doyle from the first movie? He has grown up to be played by Paul Rudd, and has turned into quite the Michael Myers conspiracy theorist. Thanks to a call for help Jamie left in a Howard Stern style asshole radio personality show before she left the franchise forever, Tommy manages to find the child. Listening to the radio isn’t Tommy’s only hobby either. He lives right across the street from the old Myers house where now a bunch of Strodes (whose actual connection to Laurie Strode remains uncertain) make their home, and spies on them, or guards the family, or the house, or whatever. The only family members that need interest us (aka the only ones in the film to not just be killed off as soon as a kill scene is needed) are Kara Strode (Marianne Hagan) and her little son Danny (Devin Gardner), because both will soon – and rather improbably – fall in with Tommy and therefore become particularly interesting not just to Michael but also to the cult that is helping him. Nature and sense of this cult this version of the film never really explains. We learn their interest in Michael has something to do with seeing him as continuing an ancient Celtic tradition of blood sacrifices of one’s own family, but the film never makes clear why these people want to be involved in that sort of thing, what they get out of it, or why they are also dabbling in incest.

As if that wasn’t enough, Doctor Loomis (still Donald Pleasence, again sadly underused as well as cursed with the true curse of Michael Myers, a bad script) – now retired, friendly, without facial scars and not once pushing his burned hand into somebody’s face while explaining the horrible price he had to pay for hunting Michael – has also heard Jamie’s call for help and involves himself in the whole affair too. Oh, and certain young people in Haddonfield want to instate Halloween again, which was banned after the events of the last five minus one movies, and who could blame the authorities?

Now, reading over what I’ve just written, one might ask oneself what exactly Halloween number six is about, apart from Michael hunting a baby, and really, I haven’t mentioned abortive sub-plots like the one about Kara’s abusive father which, in classical slasher sequel fashion all end in deaths before anything about them is resolved on a dramatic level, and for whose inclusion there seems to be little reason. Sure, you could see these things as attempts to give Kara more character than just “the newest female lead” but if that was the plan, it doesn’t really work, and instead just adds another bit of ballast to a film that really could have used losing some.

A part of the reason for the confused state of plot and logic of this version of Curse of Michael Myers is one of those horrifying production histories that starts with a different script to the one the actors signed up for actually being shot and continues through various struggles between producers, director Joe Chappelle (who had a bright future in TV with shows like The Wire and Fringe before him) and who knows who else that seem to have left various people involved hating each other to this day, which does of course also make anything they say about each other utterly dubious. The push and pull behind the scenes resulted in a film that does not at all seem to know what it is about beyond Michael Myers looking for a baby and randomly killing off characters, be they actually involved in the plot or not. Even here, I still have no idea why Michael kills the shock jock, for example, a character he hasn’t met and who is only just planning to go to the Myers house, particularly since the film shows Michael to be somewhere else right before the murder. Or, as already mentioned, what the cult wants with “pure, uncorrupted [huh!?] evil”, or why anybody involved in the theatrical cut thought it was a good idea to neither think about these things nor to provide an actual ending to the proceedings. And let’s not even mention how the film does the typical slasher sequel thing of first hinting at something really interesting - like the way Tommy Doyle’s childhood encounter with Michael shaped his future - and then not doing anything interesting with it at all.

Having said all that, I now have to come to the point where I need to admit I enjoy (at least this version of) Curse of Michael Myers quite a bit, not as a dignified sequel to Halloween but as a pretty and illogical bit of 90s horror that seems closer related to Italian horror of the 80s in how it mixes bizarre randomness with violence, in its insistence of not using logic even when that might turn out well for it, in its generally highly moody photography, and in direction (or editing) that might not be able to stitch single scenes together to a coherent whole but that sure as hell can make these single non-cohering scenes work very well as a series of nightmare pictures about blood, murdering shapes, and threatened babies with a bit of nonsense about druids thrown in. Of course, the best of the Italian films also knew how to apply a degree of thematic coherence to their dream-like worlds, so a film as clueless about anything as Curse of Michael Myers isn’t quite on their level. However, for a production this troubled, managing to get this close to actual class is some sort of an achievement I believe.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

In short: Lost Place (2013)

Late teen Daniel (François Goeske), is going geocaching with Elli (Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen), a girl he knows from his favourite geocaching forum with whom he obviously shares a reciprocated crush, his best friend, the rather more outgoing Thomas (Pit Bukowski) and Elli’s best friend, the rather more outgoing Jessica (Josefine Preuß). Both best friends are also there as some kind of moral support rather than because they enjoy geocaching, so you just might see some mild parallels here.

The cache they are looking for is hidden somewhere in the Pfälzerwald (that’s apparently the “Palatine Forest” in English). As it will turn out, it’s hidden in a very unfortunate place, behind a badly locked fence and smack dab in the middle of an old experimental HAARP installation that doesn’t seem to be manned anymore but which is still running well enough, making the treasure hunt rather more adventurous and deadly than anyone would have expected.

So, apparently, Thorsten Klein’s Lost Place is “the first German mystery-thriller shot in 3D and mixed in Dolby Atmos”, which means it looks surprisingly good and is mixed way too loud for my taste. As a small aside, when the German pop cultural mainstream says “mystery”, it usually means horror/SF – often with a certain Fortean bent – in the tradition of the X-Files, thanks to German TV programmers in the 90s learning/imagining that you get more asses in front of the TV when you call horror by a misapplied English term. Which is about as German a thing as you will encounter.

At least, that term in its German meaning fits rather neatly with what’s actually going on in Lost Place which is all about treating electromagnetism and a bit of conspiracy lore in a pretty Fortean manner. For most of its running time, it’s a decently enjoyable film, looking really rather pretty and often managing to use that prettiness to create a pleasantly threatening mood of paranoia. The dialogue’s on the cringey side, it has to be said, and the bigger emotional beats all teeter on the brink of inadvertent comedy – though the young yet experienced cast do their best to sell weird melodrama about pacemakers (don’t ask, and I won’t have to explain) as Very Serious Stuff.

Obviously, the plot itself, with an antagonist that will turn out to be a (non-sentient) electromagnet, is of dubious scientific value and really rather silly, but then, when did I let that stop me from enjoying a movie? Plus, this is a still rare example of a contemporary German genre movie that’s not ashamed to be a bit silly and treat goofy ideas seriously, instead of doing the typical German cinema thing of trying to shove serious themes treated as po-faced as possible in to prove that this is not a mere entertainment (the horror!). And entertaining, as well as well-paced, I found Lost Place to be.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Shake, Rattle & Roll XV (2014)

This to date final, and – as the Internet tells me – most expensive entry into the long-running Filipino horror anthology series presents three tales of horror. This time around, the three segments are vaguely connected by a side character, one Iggy (John Lapus), who will look increasingly worse for wear.

The first segment, “Ahas”, concerns the rather curious things going on in a shopping mall on the cusp of its 25th anniversary. There are rumours about one of the owner’s twin daughters (both played by Erich Gonzales), the now dead Sarah, having been a snake lady. As it turns out, the rumours are all too true. You see, the owner has made a pact with evil forces, and Sarah was some kind of demonic good luck charm. Sarah’s not dead either, but has been kept by her parents in the dungeons below the mall (every mall has those), fed at first with animals but then on a regular diet of shop lifters and rude customers sent down via a fitting room that’s also a secret elevators downwards, growing in size as the mall grew in success. Sarah’s not just a man-eating snake lady, she also seems to have multiple, well, two, personalities, both of which are crazy. She’s also fallen in love from afar with her sister’s boyfriend, one Troy (JC de Vera), so things are bound to become problematic soon enough.

Directed by Dondon Santos, “Ahas” is pleasantly weird, containing a couple of perfectly sensible horror sequences, a bit of family melodrama, special effects that fluctuate between pretty wonderful and terrible in execution but are always wonderful in conception, a sneaky bit of capitalism criticism, and lots of scenes of a pretty snake lady with a humungous snake body getting up to shenanigans. What’s not to like?

Of course, the second segment, “Ulam”, directed by Jerrold Tarog does let the first one look a bit harmless. The not terribly happy couple of Henry (Dennis Trillo) and Aimee (Carla Abellana), and their little daughter Julie (Kryshee Frencheska Grengria) move from the city to a house that once belonged to Henry’s Chinese grandparents. There, they are welcomed by the old family servant Lina (Chanda Romero), who’s always happy to provide a warm meal. That’s the only plus of the place, though, for, as always happens when anyone moves to the country in horror films, strange stuff begins to happen: a deformed shadow sneaks around; the couple hear strange voices telling them to leave; and they begin to suffer from nightmares in which Henry turns into a dog man and Aimee into a lizard woman, both of whom do not like one another at all; the normal family bickering starts bordering on the violent.

What’s going on in what at first looks a bit like a traditional haunted house tale is much nastier stuff than I’m used to from Filipino horror, the protagonists paying the price for the sins of Henry’s family, being not just made to suffer but unmade as human beings for things they have no responsibility for at all, and in ways that turn the most quotidian of things deeply unpleasant.

I found myself – surprisingly enough given the sort of things I watch regularly – actually pretty upset by the segment’s final act, Tarog’s portrayal of the destruction of the couple’s basic humanity, love for each other and their daughter turns out to be very effective indeed, transcending the sometimes not terribly successful special effects easily. And while the segment doesn’t exactly end on a complete downer, it’s at least three fourths of one. Add to that a certain air of the modernized gothic to parts of the proceedings, and I found “Ulam” a very successful piece of horror indeed.

We go from the sublime to the goofy and ridiculous with the film’s final segment, “Flight 666”, directed by Perci Intalan, in which the small number of passengers on board of the titular – and not the least bit suspiciously named – flight 666 encounter the following problems: broad humour; a hijacker with a chip on his shoulder; a bomb whose red button nobody should ever press (cough); and a new-born tiyanak as portrayed by a very bad but also adorable CGI effect. The passengers are a broadly drawn bunch of clichés right out of the 2014 internet; the plotting is hasty and confused; the central monster looks patently ridiculous. However, the whole thing makes a wonderful contrast with the much more serious segment that came before, so ending on quite this goofy a note makes absolute sense for the film as a whole, suggesting there has been more thought put into the sequencing of the segments than in many an anthology movie (where no thought whatsoever seems to have been put in). It is also insanely fun, playing straight at the strangest moments and using its series of cliché airplane movie ideas – and the cute little tiyanak – to great effect. At least, if you’re willing to just go with the beautiful nonsense.

So, as a whole, this is a fine entry for the Shake, Rattle & Roll series to go out on, presenting very Filipino threats in perfectly delightful ways, at least if you ask this guy from Germany.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

In short: The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Centerville, an American small town populated by Jim Jarmusch characters played by Jim Jarmusch’s actor and musician friends (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Eszter Balint, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Zombie Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, Larry Fessenden, Selena Gomez and so on and so forth), suffers under the results of slight changes in the Earth’s axial rotation certainly not at all caused by polar cap fracking, no sir. Namely, some ever so slight troubles with electronic devices, the day night cycle, Sturgill Simpson’s theme song to the film, and the return of the deceased as flesh eating zombies. Needless to say, things are going to end badly.

Even among fans of the great Jim Jarmusch’s late-ish – the kind of late that makes a boy hope the director’s gonna live long enough this will actually turn out to be the mid-period of his career – period, this expedition into the realm of the horror comedy (or really, the realm of what a horror comedy would look like when made by Jarmusch), has a bit of a marmite effect. Also, there’s the “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson. It’s great.

It’s no surprise, really, for here, Jarmusch’s typical love for the laconic and the dead-pan turns even deader (which seems curiously appropriate for a zombie movie), exclusively featuring humour so dry, it’s situated in one of the world’s great deserts. This extra dry approach feels pretty hilarious in itself, like an attempt to really dance on the edge where something can actually still be called humour and not just the in-jokey product of a bunch of friends who somehow got paid for farting around in front of a camera. Me, I found myself amused by this approach more often than not, chuckling quite regularly about some of the running gags, even finding myself snorting about the many, many scenes of Murray and Driver trying to out-dead-pan each other (Murray’s winning, of course, because he’s not been moving his face or his voice much for a few more decades than driver), the throw-away side gags, and of course, Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die”.

Plus, how many other films do you know in which Tilda Swinton is playing a perhaps somewhat weird Scottish coroner with an old school samurai thing and turns out to be…something spoilerish? Or whose theme song is Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die”?

Seriously, I love the film dearly, but I can’t really blame anyone coming out of this with a puzzled and mildly annoyed expression on their face, because that’s just the kind of horror comedy The Dead Don’t Die is.