Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Mortuary Collection (2019)

Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown, very much made up as an elderly Angus Scrimm), the somewhat creepy owner of the mortuary of one of those horror movie typical US small towns – in the 80s, I believe – looks somewhat surprised when a young woman named Sam (Caitlin Custer) enters his mansion/mortuary to answer the “help wanted” sign hanging outside. While introducing Sam to the innards of the house and the peculiarities of the – highly peculiar – business, he tells her that he is also a collector of the stories of the dead he is taking care of. The house is indeed full of books of these stories, suggesting that Dark is even older than he looks. Because this is a horror anthology movie, Sam wants to hear some of these stories. Each one is going to take place in a different decade.

The first one is a short ditty about a female thief, a bathroom, and why you shouldn’t open every door you see, unless you’re really into tentacles. A rather nonplussed Sam is then told segment number two, about a frat boy (Jacob Elordi) with dubious ideas about consent experiencing the joys of pregnancy in form of some spectacularly icky effects.

This is followed by the sad tale of one Wendell Owens (Barak Hardley) who is slowly despairing at taking care of his comatose wife Carol (Sarah Hay). She’s never going to come to, apparently, so Wendell’s compassionate doctor prescribes some medication for Carol that is very easily overdosed and apparently not leaving any traces in the body. What starts as an attempt to end a loved one’s suffering turns into a bloody series of darkly humorous events.

The final segment concerns Sam herself. It’s the age old tale of a babysitter, an escaped mental patient with a history of murdering baby sitters and the sitted, and a slasher movie named “The Babysitter Murders” playing on TV.

Having barely made it through the flabby and blandly directed nonsense of that new Books of Blood anthology movie, one could despair at the sad fate of US-style horror anthologies (British style ones have been dead for decades, so). Fortunately, along comes The Mortuary Collection as directed and written by Ryan Spindell, a film that isn’t only a very convincing anthology movie in the American style, but a loving homage to all things horror (the slasher in the final segment being named after the initial version of Carpenter’s Halloween script is most certainly not a fluke), as well as a playful commentary on genre tropes and audience expectations.

Unlike other meta horror projects, this one actually does something more interesting than just point and laugh at tropes and clichés. Indeed, while there’s a large streak of often very gory humour running through the film, pointing and laughing at genre isn’t at all its game. Instead, the film embraces genre conventions to then give them wonderful little twists that satisfy any horror lover’s joy at tradition well repeated but also changes and enhances these conventions to give them new life and breath, criticising implicitly but using this criticism to achieve the same effects the traditional tropes had in more contemporary ways, embracing the tradition while changing it. The best example of this is the way the final segment plays without our expectations about how the babysitter versus killer game has to play out, but that’s so cleverly made and well-timed, I can’t bring myself to spoil it here.

There’s so much that is clever in the best possible meaning of the word here, like the way the stories increase in complexity (on a plot as well as an emotional and thematic level) and length as the film goes on, the film completely avoiding the flabby middle of many anthology movies by escalating like you’d do in a film with a single story. Or take the way how the framing story here is actually a worthwhile and important part of the movie, really not just introducing the tales but turning them into parts of a whole.

Turning meta commentary into actual tales is only one of the film’s virtues. Spindell’s simply great at playing things straightforward, too, making the film a fun horror film as well as a fiendishly clever one. Spindell’s wonderful at timing, be it of suspense and the gorier moments, or of the sometimes broad, sometimes subtle dark humour. The actors are playing Spindell’s game wonderfully, too. Brown (always a well-liked guy around these parts) in particular recommends himself for all kinds of future horror roles of the sort I haven’t seen him do before through a lovely combination of traditional horror overacting, and wry humour. But everyone else really seems to be fully on the film’s wavelength too, in the quiet as well as in the loud moments.

Just as praiseworthy are the technical aspects of the production, all of them fully in the spirit of horror traditions but never ending up just copying for no good reason. Indeed, many of the myriad of little nods and homages to horror of all kinds and all ages in the production design, the colour scheme, even the camera angles turn out to be surprisingly meaningful for the film at hand once one thinks about them, the film doing the same on the visual level it does in its script, all the while also just working as a deeply satisfying, and very, very fun, horror film.

In my book (tee-hee), The Mortuary Collection is one for the pantheon.

Friday, October 30, 2020

The Mask of Satan (1990)

aka Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil

Original title: La maschera del demonio

Virginal (that’s going to be important later on) Davide (Giovanni Guidelli) and Sabina (Debora Caprioglio aka Debora Kinski) are on a ski vacation with a group of their decidedly non-virginal and deeply assholish friends. How assholish? These people don’t even stop clowning around like damn fools when the whole group falls into a crevasse in the mountains, leaving Sabina with a broken leg.

Down in their new hole, they also stumble upon the dead body of the witch Anibas (Eva Grimaldi), wearing the titular mask until one of the idiots removes it. Just after that things become really unstable and one of their own is stabbed by a piece of ice. On the plus side, Sabina is suddenly healed of her injury and the movements of the ice open up the way into a half-buried monastery, that is, curiously enough, still inhabited by a – rather creepy – priest and his dog.

Having no way out (and, being Italian horror movie characters, never asking themselves how the priest gets his food), the group moves into the monastery for now. Soon, everyone but the two virgins is starting to act even worse than before, falling into increasing amounts of creepy laughter, violence, as well as a bit of orgying and witchy dancing. This is just he beginning of a very bad time for our two virgins, though.

In 1990, when Lamberto Bava made this movie kinda-sorta based on Gogol’s “Viy” (at least if you squint a little and only watch its climax), and supposedly also loosely based on Bava senior’s Black Sunday, Italian horror as we loved it was pretty much over. Only a few stalwarts like the younger Bava managed to get tiny budgets together to still make films like it. And really, given what Bava had to work with, this is a surprisingly great late example of the genre as it was practiced in Italy, plotted loosely as is tradition, with quite a few scenes of a wonderfully macabre and dreamlike mood and a lot of wild and woolly ideas.

When it comes to the film’s crazier side, my personal favourite is actually the implied death of the priest’s dog, who, having survived quite some crap already at that point in the movie, wanders into a room full of probably demonic cats, who are clearly licking their chops hungrily. Cats, we have never seen before and never will again, obviously. On the less silly-crazy side is a rather wonderful scene that finds the priest holed up in a free standing confessional, that becomes surrounded by the possessed who dance, howl and crash against the thing, until the good old invisible force of evil appears via steadicam and slowly crushes the thing. On a logical level, this sort of thing does of course make little sense, but Bava’s not out for logic here; and on the level of mood and style, scenes like it are pretty brilliant.

Thematically, the film is clearly out to do something with ideas about the problem with male sexual desire or the fear of commitment, as seen in the pretty incredibly made scene in which an attempt at a first sexual encounter with the increasingly deranged Sabina finds her turn into the most frightful looking rubbery witch (with chicken feet), the special effects team could come up with while she’s lying on top of Davide. It’s not clear what the film actually wants to say about male sexuality, mind you, for this more intellectually modern business comes up hard against the parts of the film that are about demonically possessed trying to press a virginal guy into a sexual encounter that may or may not be a way to free their demon witch boss. Which may be thematically related but is not really the same.

However, given how enthusiastically the film mixes the freakish side of Italian horror with the younger Bava’s effective sense for lighting and mood (the monastery makes no sense as a real place but quite a bit of it as a visual representation of a feeling of things buried, for example), and quite a bit of genuine weirdness, I’m not too bothered that The Mask of Satan makes more sense as a mood put into moving pictures than anything else.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

In short: And Soon the Darkness (1970)

Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice), two young British nurses, are on a cycling trip through France. Not the big tourist spots, mind you, but the more desolate, or at least mostly tourist-free, parts of the countryside. It seems to be more Jane’s kind of trip, really, and the two eventually get into a big row about their itinerary, which feels like work rather than fun to Cathy, clearly to Jane’s complete surprise. The argument becomes so big, Jane cycles off in anger, leaving Cathy so sunbathe alone in some idyllic patch of woods.

That’s the last Jane sees of her, for, as we the audience know, Cathy is attacked and probably raped and murdered by someone. Once she has cooled off and Cathy simply doesn’t reappear, Jane starts to worry about her friend something fierce. Her various attempts to get someone to help her never quite reach their goal, what with her French being horrible, and she starts to fall into a state somewhere between paranoia and simple panicked worry. Which is no wonder, seeing as everyone in this part of France seems to be a proper creep, and those people actually offering their help may do this only to get rid of her too. Or worse.

Scripted by The Avengers’ Brian Clemens and Terry Nation, and produced by the same people as the show (of course again including Clemens), this intense thriller directed by Robert Fuest has very little to do with that much (and rightly so) beloved British TV show, but rather feels as if it were only one step away from descending into a proper, proto-Texas Chainsaw Massacre style piece of early backwoods horror.

While the plot never quite leaves relatively traditional thriller structures behind until the end (though it is also really good at using these structures), the cast of characters populating this part of the French countryside are just the right kind of weird to suggest a whole history of all the unpleasant stuff of movies to come. There’s certainly quite a lot of mental illness and poverty involved, suggesting a nasty underbelly below the closed rural communities here. Everyone seems to have some sort of terrible secret; everyone seems to be obsessed with something or someone.

To Jane, in her panicked state, these surroundings and the increasingly eccentric people around her can’t feel anything but threatening, particularly since her attempts at getting help only ever seem to point into directions that will endanger herself, or put her fate into the hands of suspicious strangers, instead of her finding Cathy.

The film is wonderfully paced and constructed, and manages to achieve its obvious goal of feeling somehow grubby and unpleasant as well as thrilling usually by showing something bordering on the threatening or the truly weird and only suggesting more to it. Until the climax, that is, when Jane finds herself in surroundings where things truly become concretely nasty.

Unlike many of the “tourist in danger by evil foreigners” films of later years, And Soon never feels xenophobic somehow. It seems more a film playing into other prejudices by looking askance at the countryside, France coming into the equation so Jane can be easier isolated from proper help, and because there’s little better than the contrast between a sunny countryside and the unpleasant things happening there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

Eighteen years ago, archaeologist Fuchs (Andrew Keir) and his associates apparently found the grave of the Egyptian queen Tera (Valerie Leon), killed and mutilated by priests for their fear of the huge magical powers she had developed, and perhaps her evil. Let’s not get into what “evil” might have meant to an ancient Egyptian priest. Since her hacked-off hands murdered a bunch of jackals who were trying to eat them, they can’t have been too wrong about her having powers, at least.

In any case, when Fuchs and company found Tera’s tomb, they made the startling discovery that her body was untouched by any kind of decay. Something the film never makes quite clear happened in the tomb, and eventually, Keir and associates scattered to the winds, each one taking one artefact belonging to Tera with them to protect it for – or perhaps against – her, while Fuchs secretly built a replica of the tomb in the cellar of his mansion, also taking Tera’s body there.

Now, nearly eighteen years later, the powers connected with Tera seem to awaken. This shouldn’t be too surprising to Fuchs, either, for his daughter Margaret looks exactly like Tera (and is obviously also played by Valerie Leon). In fact, Margaret was born dead and suddenly came back to live the very same moment the expedition found Tera’s body, so there’s a connection that’s pretty difficult to deny, try as Fuchs might. Though, really, Fuchs doesn’t seem to know his on mind on the situation, if he believes in any mystical connection between Tera and Margaret at all, or if he wants Tera to use Margaret for her own goals, whatever those may be exactly or if he wants to protect his daughter from Tera’s influence. He does not become more decisive now that Margaret begins to display strange powers and curious personality shifts.

Corbeck (James Villiers), one of Fuchs’s former colleagues, on the other hand, has very much made up his mind about things: he wants to shove Tera’s spirits into Margaret’s body by force, so he can then control her and use her for his own lust for power. He’s trying to manipulate Margaret into that direction, but really, he is much further out of his depth than his mock-decadent left-hand magus demeanour suggests, looking rather a lot like an ant pretending it is controlling where the woman on whose shoulder it sits goes.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, a film not containing a single mummy, is one of the lesser loved films from Hammer’s risk-taking phase in the early 70s when they tried to shake off the image of stuffiness they had developed over the course of the last decade and reach the increasingly elusive younger audiences again. I get why people don’t love the film as much as others from this stage. Director Seth Holt (a man with a small but excellent filmography, and apparently a rather intense personality) died four fifths through the production, which was finished by Michael Carreras without a clear idea where the whole of the film was supposed to go. So there’s a sense of something, maybe some explanations or some connective tissue, perhaps even important scenes, missing from what is nominally an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Jewel of the Seven Stars” (but is really inspired by motives from it more than anything). It can be a bit like watching a second draft of something that probably needed a third or a fourth, and this feeling of the film not being quite finished or quite whole tends to stand between a movie and the status of a classic for most people.

For me, Blood works as a fascinating artefact more because of this great flaw than despite of it. There’s clearly meant to be a lot of ambiguity surrounding Tera’s nature anyway, and this mystery and ambiguity is only strengthened by the film’s state. As it stands, it’s difficult to understand what Tera actually wants, the audience only ever seeing her through Fuchs’s or Corbeck’s interpretation, and the psychic pressure she puts on Margaret. But how much of Margaret’s actions under Tera’s influence are Tera’s decisions, Margaret’s own psychological torment caused by the various men in her life trying to dominate her in one way or the other is unclear. As it stands – certainly also helped by Tera never speaking – the Egyptian queen feels more like a force of nature, something much bigger than any of the human characters can comprehend, everyone, well, every man deciding what she is or wants on the basis of very little actual evidence.

Which of course also does the curious trick of putting this as close to Lovecraftian cosmsicism as well as to feminism as Hammer movies get. The latter aspect of the movie is additionally strengthened by Valerie Leon’s wonderful performance that should have recommended her to Hammer for a whole load of other substantial roles. Of course, they never did try very hard to develop any of their actresses with obvious staying power and charisma, while wasting a surprising amount of energy on some obvious male failures.

Anyway, all of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb’s flaws, its ambiguities purposeful and not, some fine horror scenes, as well as the cosmsicism and feminist readings it suggests combine for my taste into a very enticing whole, the sort of film I come to Hammer in this phase of their existence to.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

In short: The Lost Case (2017)

aka Ghost Doctor: The Lost Case

Original title: Mue Prab Samphawesi

Itt (Pradanai Nateprasertkul) and Por (Sirapakorn Sereedonprasert) are junior members of the production team of a Thai paranormal reality TV show in which “Ghost Doctor” Master Pla (Jeerapan Pachrkaw) helps people out with their supernatural problems. Quite a bit of smashing of spirit houses and termite hills generally seem to be involved in his technique, as does something that looks a bit more like traditional South East Asian shamanist spirit-exorcism.

Por and Itt have been sent alone to a small village to explore the case of farmer Chai (Wanlop Saengjoy) whose house may or may not be haunted by the ghost of his daughter, hanging around after a suicide. The whole ordeal has bent something in the mind of Chai’s wife Aueng (Panjai Sirisuwan) – she believes her daughter is alive and well, and just happens to not be around, ever.

Because the arrival of Master Pla is delayed for several days, the TV guys have quite a bit of time to research the haunting, snoop around, and get themselves possessed. The last of which Master Pla, in the tradition of all contemporary occult experts in western movies (Asian films do use this particular trope rather more sparingly) in the last fifteen years, will not actually notice.

I believe The Lost Case (directed by Chayan Itthijatuporn) is the first Thai entry into the annals of the POV horror style I’ve seen, but movies nominally shot by guys and gals shaking their handheld cameras around are quite obviously an international language, so I’m not exactly surprised to encounter one; rather more that it’s taken so long for me to do it.

This particular film is on the more professional side of POV filmmaking, where clearly a degree of thought has been put into the staging and framing of scenes, and where the camera is never shaking, wavering or shimmying so much we can’t actually see what’s freaking out the characters. The filmmakers did hit on the dubious idea of not using the traditional green night vision camera, though, so things get rather to greyish dark a little too often, leading to at least a couple of scenes where the true horror lies in squinting hard enough to see what’s going on.

What is going on is rather traditional POV horror fodder, the ghost in question not really doing much that varies from your generic movie ghost business. Still, there are two, perhaps three, pretty effective scare scenes in here (the hanging scene is particularly creepy), so there are worse ways to spend one’s time than the film’s seventy minutes run time. Plus, at least nobody’s running through the woods or through a ruined industrial building, but rather the sort of Thai village you don’t really get to see in any kind of movie very often, lending The Lost Case a pleasant degree of local colour.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Vengeance of the Vampire Women (1970)

Original title: El Santo en La venganza de las mujeres vampiro

Dangerous times in Mexico city. Mad scientist Doctor Igor Brancov (Victor Junco) and his henchmen have discovered the coffin of former vampire queen/high priestess Countess Mayra (Gina Romand). Brancov wants to revive her so she can donate some of her precious vampire blood to him, with which he could finally finish his project of creating a perfect man. Apart from removing a stake, all it needs to turn Marya from her current state of an unmoving prune-like corpse is the blood of young women. And those are easily kidnapped.

Indeed, Marya is back on her feet again sooner than you’d believe, ready to start creating as many new vampires as possible to eventually rule the world. She is thankful to Brancov, but before she’s going to help him, she has just a tiny favour to ask of him: she really needs a hand in killing the descendant of the man responsible for her staking before she’s willing to do much else. Of course, said descendant is no other than El Santo (El Santo), everybody’s favourite luchador, monster hunter, and crime buster. He is rather difficult to kill too, and perhaps not the ideal man to disclose one’s existence to when you’re a mad scientist or a vampire. Plus, Santo says he’s bored with all those normal crime cases, so he is all too willing to team up with Inspector Robles (Aldo Monti) of the police and Robles’s spunky yet kidnapping-prone reporter girlfriend Paty (Norma Lazareno) to do something against Mexico City’s newly arising bloodsucker and mad science problems.

Despite regularly showing its budget, this entry into the manifold adventures of dear Santo is a particularly fun one, really leaning into being a proper pulpy horror movie of the kind Paul Naschy would have made in Europe, just featuring a masked luchador. The latter element does of course make everything even better than it already is, always.

Directed by Alfredo Curiel, this shows little of the more annoying flaws lucha cinema could be cursed with: there’s very little filler, the plot moves merrily along and the comic relief is next to non-existent. Why, even the mandatory ring-side wrestling sequences are part of the plot and are rather more dynamically edited together from the usual wrestling audience set, and an actual match, lending them rather more of an air of excitement than is typical for these parts of lucha movies. Curiel – in a move really uncommon in these films – shoots the wrestling matches rather dynamically too, with a lot of handheld camera to add to the feeling of being very close to Santo.

In fact, Curiel seems to have been rather enamoured of handheld shots throughout the film, using them in the tiny but properly gothic vampire lair with its symmetrically placed coffins, grubby backlot streets and Brancov’s mad science lair, making the most out of what must be rather cramped sets by getting really close to the action more often than not.

And while these sets do show their budgetary limitations, they are also full of those tiny details that turn a cheap set into pure joy. Brancov’s lab with its mysterious multi-coloured fluids, for example, is further enhanced by early 70s pulp technological wonders of the bleeping and blooping kind, as they all should be. This sort of thing is sure to make one’s inner twelve year old rejoice. As do scenes of vampire women flapping their see-through (but with underwear underneath, this still being a Mexican movie for an all-ages audience) gowns before jumping into their coffins, or ineffectually flapping around our heroes during a fight, the Countess hypnotising Santo’s adversaries in the ring into trying to kill our hero, as well as trying to mind-whammy said hero into losing. And who doesn’t want to see a proper montage of vampires creating more vampires?

The film also seems to particularly delight in showing Santo as a very early 70s kind of badass, lounging around in mask and swimming trunks and complaining that all he ever encounters these days are boring, common criminals like a very strange version of Sherlock Holmes, or remarking that something’s not right when a beautiful woman sneaks into his bedroom at night to murder instead of seduce him. It’s self-conscious about the silliness of the lucha movie genre without going the camp route. Speaking of Santo’s bedroom, the place does look very 70s bachelor, and also includes a big painting of Santo’s masked face on one of its walls, as well it, and every other bedroom, should.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: A severed hand beckons from an open grave!

Books of Blood (2020): Why anyone would go to the effort of licensing Clive Barker’s seminal series of short story collections to then go on and excise everything about the stories that actually feels like Clive Barker is anyone’s guess. Perhaps director Brannon Braga knows? Anyway, if you ever wanted to watch Clive Barker adapted as blandly, passionlessly and plain boringly as possible, this made-for-Hulu anthology movie is for you. Braga’s direction is competent but completely lacking in style, the script turns everything that’s specific and personal about Barker’s work generic, adding some tedious pacing all of its own and calls it a day, and the actors act like actors act in bad made for TV movies. In the days of ambitious TV and streaming horror, this sort of non-effort is just baffling to me.

Unheimliche Geschichten (1932): Why, I’d honestly call this old German connected anthology movie very loosely based on stories by Poe and Stevenson as directed by Richard Oswald more exciting. At least, Oswald did use the some of the visual themes and methods of German expressionist horror here where today’s Braga effort doesn’t seem to have put a iota of thought into visual presentation as an important way to create mood in horror. And while Oswald certainly stumbles in adapting the psychological tension of the stories he’s using here, he does at least clearly identify their main set pieces and proceeds accordingly.

Of course, while that’s better as Braga-style Barker, it’s still wasting all the complexities of the fiction it adapts without finding much to replace it; but then 1932 was really the tail end of the cinema of the fantastic in Germany, before the Nazis put their boots to it, too, Oswald, being Jewish, soon emigrating to places where he wasn’t going to be murdered.

Vampires vs. The Bronx (2020): But let’s end this on a positive note, with this nice modern variation on Fright Night directed for Netflix by Osmany Rodriguez. It’s a film about Puerto-Rican American kids on bikes versus vampires and gentrification, told with palpable love for the Bronx neighbourhood it takes place in, and while it’s neither deep not terribly stylish (though not ugly to look at either), it’s a fun and likeable movie that manages to integrate actual social concerns and light horror well enough to entertain well, also. The climax could have been a bit more dramatic, mind you, but this one’s really aiming for charm and a sense of community more than that sort of excitement.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Lord of Tears (2013)

When Scottish teacher James Findlay’s (Euan Douglas) estranged mother (Nancy Joy Page) dies, she leaves him her first communication for decades. She writes him that she doesn’t want him to ever return to his childhood home because it was there where he had some kind of break-down as a child, and it is because of this break-down their estrangement happened.

Not surprisingly, this kind of ambiguous message only makes James curious about the parts of his own past he doesn’t remember, not to speak of finding the reasons for his breakdown; he also has dreams that might be fragments of memories, or something calling to him. So James decides to move into the huge, beautiful and creepy house in the highlands for a while, to jumpstart his memory, explain the things about himself he doesn’t understand, and perhaps come to terms with his broken down relationship to his parents.

Once he’s at the house, James’s dreams become stronger, stranger, and more disturbing, and what’s worse, the borders between dreams and reality begin to shift, until James can’t quite be sure anymore about what’s real and what’s not. Still, he keeps on investigating the house. James’s only help is the eccentric American Evie (Lexy Hulme) who is living in the refurbished barn. The very lonely man falls for Evie very quickly, leaving him with reasons to stay at the house even once his dreams – visions? – and parts of his reality become dominated by something that looks like an owl-headed man with peculiarly long arms, something that clearly doesn’t have anything good for James in mind.

Lawrie Brewster’s Scottish indie horror film Lord of Tears is really quite the thing, mixing elements of Celtic and biblical myth, folkloric horror (the urban legends/creepypasta this might be influenced by are folklore too), cosmic horror, and psychological horror into something very much its own, and doing so with style, imagination and vision.

From time to time, but only very seldom, you can see the film straining against what must have been a miniscule budget. Two or three dialogue scenes – particularly those between James and his best friend Allen (Jamie Gordon Scott) – are a bit awkward in direction and acting (despite the acting quality in general being quite high), the ghost make-up isn’t very convincing, and the film’s final twist just doesn’t work at all, but these things, even the botched ending, don’t really matter compared to the very many things Brewster – as well as Sarah Daly’s script – does right.

As everyone who knows me knows, I’m a sucker for new imaginary mythologies, and I generally find the films using them much more interesting than those recycling ye old vampire and zombie stuff (unless those films make these classics/clichés truly their own, which does happen) and the same old rules. Lord of Tears’s mythology is particularly fine, lovingly fitted in the cracks between real world myths, just detailed enough to make it feel believable yet not so much it loses the frisson of the weird and the virtues of ambiguity.

This kind of horror is often not the sort that makes much use of gore and instead puts all its efforts into creating mood, the feeling of dread, and dream-like ambiguity, and the film at hand is no exception to this. Brewster makes spectacular use of his locations, doing that nearly proverbial thing where landscape turns into one of the most important characters of a film. The bleak beauty of the Scottish highlands and the incredible building that is supposed to be James’s childhood home establish the protagonists’ experiences as taking place at the border of reality and dream.

Brewster further emphasises this mood of the unreal with some rather spectacular editing of a kind you seldom see in indie horror at all, with a use of montage that often borders on the avantgarde. This way, the audience can be sure about the reality of anything that happens as little as James can, a – it turns out – rather disquieting state of mind. Obviously, Lord of Tears is a film utterly unafraid of making mental states visible by breaking the sense of realism cinema is often so careful to build, even risking losing its audience by going into directions that only later in the film will turn out to be meaningful and important for the film instead of the whimsical indulgences they at first appear to be. This sort of thing is difficult to do well, yet Lord of Tears does it in more ways than one and with a fearlessness I found particularly impressing. Under normal circumstances, you just don’t do a scene like Lexy’s dance in a horror film, yet Lord of Tears does, making a frightening scene much later that much more effective and meaningful. Which is, of course, another quite remarkable thing – that the film’s weirdness does at all times connect very directly with the story it tells and the characters living through it, beyond the vague connections of mood many of my beloved continental horror films from the 70s settled for.

Lord of Tears really is a lovely film all around, and while it’s not perfect, I think everyone with a heart for everything capital-w weird, or horror films going their own, very individual, ways, should see it.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

In short: Followed (2018)

The Vlogger – and probably most obnoxious man alive - working under the name of DropTheMike (Matthew Solomon) has gone missing some time ago. A mysterious someone clicks through the not-YouTube clips of Mike’s final big project: a Halloween weekend live stream from the Lenox Hotel, which is a very thinly veiled version of the Cecil Hotel in LA with most of its mythology and bad history intact, only a couple of names changed to make things not too tasteless (and avoid getting sued, one can’t help but think).

Mike has recruited, with measures direct as well as manipulative, his friends Chris (Tim Drier), Danni (Sam Valentine) and Nic (Caitlin Grace) for the project, because he’s really hoping to hit it big and get a lucrative sponsorship contract out of the whole affair, the fact that he’s physically painful to watch whenever he mugs into the camera, and that they are shooting guerrilla style because the hotel really doesn’t want this kind of publicity notwithstanding.

Obviously, Mike and his poor friends will get rather haunting from the hotel than they hoped for.

Some people seem to have seen some sort of incisive movie about “millennials” (whatever the hell that is) and the culture of YouTube celebrities in Antoine Le’s Followed. I, on the other hand, found myself watching a POV horror style ghost train ride that uses its contemporary internet age techniques and ideas to give its scares a greater feeling of authenticity. In fact, if there’s one thing I could really criticize about the film, it’s that it is nothing but horror as a thrill ride, without much depth apart from what it needs to function as an effective bit of showmanship, even the character arcs (and there are indeed some) standing more in service of the horror than the horror being used to explore characters or themes. However, if it works, I’m perfectly fine with horror movies that just want to be a fun, spooky, time for people like me who like that sort of thing; they don’t all have to be Hereditary (which I really should gush about one of these days) or The Witch; it would be a pretty monotonous genre otherwise.

The film’s other problem in my eyes is rather less ambiguous: it takes a little too much time to get Mike to drop (sorry) his authentically obnoxious “content creator” personality, leaving a little too much time for old ass viewers like myself to want to punch the guy in the face so he shuts up. Which is nothing said against Solomon’s performance, for he does obnoxious incredibly well, but also shifts well when the film finally, finally, allows him to act like a human being.

Despite this problem in timing, Followed is one hell of a thrill ride, cleverly constructed and staged, using the modern urban mythology surrounding the Cecil, creepypasta, and all kinds of modern quotidian fears and anxieties to find something, anything, to creep any given viewer out. It’s got ghosts, serial killers, creepy men in masks, strange changes in physical space, mental breakdowns, and so on, and so forth. Add to that the film’s ability to make even somewhat implausible plot twists fun in a properly macabre way, and you have one highly entertaining horror movie.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Carpenter (1988)

Alice (Lynne Adams) has just been released from psychiatric care following a break-down that saw her doing stuff like cutting her husband Martin’s (Pierre Lenoir) suits to pieces with scissors. Though, given that he cheats on her, doesn’t trust or believe anything she says and is the quiet version of a total prick in any other regard, too, one can have some doubts about her mental illness being anything more than her unwillingness to conform.

Well, in the beginning of the film at least. Later on, we’ll find Alice having difficulty discerning between dreams and reality, and having quite a few hallucinations as well, so she’s clearly not the most stable woman you’ll find even if you’re not a prick. Of course, given that everyone she meets during the course of the film apart from her sister is some kind of weirdo or horrible person, her mental state seems to be the world’s least problem.

To make her return to so-called normality easier (or to get her out of the way) her husband has decided to buy a small town house (it’s pretty cheap, too, for good reasons), and leave her there alone for most days and many nights, while a bunch of cheap hired hands are still busy finishing renovations. Most of them are obviously goons, would-be rapists and general assholes, which could become something of a problem for Alice, if not for the titular Carpenter. Said Carpenter (Wings Hauser) only comes out at night, only ever renovates when nobody but Alice is around, carrying a creepy smile and many a protestant work ethics speech on his lips. And he’s really handy when the casual rapist or robber comes around, just as casually cutting off body parts with a smile. Something which Alice witnesses with a shrug, a nod, and a smile.

At first, the Carpenter is a pleasant influence on Alice’s life, fighting off low-lives and strengthening her confidence. And really, he’s rather dreamy, too, isn’t he? Of course, he’s also the kind of guy who doesn’t take kindly to anything or anyone going against his ideas about propriety and correct human behaviour, so he might very well be just another asshole guy in Alice’s life. Though perhaps not exactly a living one, as will turn out.

So yes, quite obviously, there’s really no way not to read David Wellington’s The Carpenter as anything but an unequivocally feminist movie about a woman bedraggled by all kinds of shitty men finding the inner strength to become her own person. At first, one might believe the Carpenter to be an expression of her inner strengths expressed in a pretty socially conservative way. Give Alice’s difficulty with understanding the difference between dreams and reality and the general surreal air of her surroundings, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if the film had gone the route of turning the rogue handyman in a pure hallucination, with Alice herself committing or just imagining all the very brutal acts of self-defence.

Instead, the film goes for something all-out supernatural, turning the Carpenter into murderous ghost (revenant) who is just another shitty man for Alice to get away from. Well, okay, she does commit one little murder herself, but what’s a girl to do?

All of this does sound like a somewhat strange yet generally serious film, but Wellington’s execution is just plain weird, with actors chewing the scenery in ways reaching from the amateurish to the consciously, somewhat cleverly, surreal, while Alice, played with a wonderful mixture of strangeness and bright-eyed acceptance of the most horrible happenings by Adams, sleepwalks through a world that feels like a caricature of our own where every interaction is overblown in some way. weird or consciously awkward. From time to time, carpentry tools are used as weapons; blood spatters; Wings Hauser’s face does…things.

And while I’m all for a good feminist fable with a bit of light mutilation, it’s really the continuous mood of the strange I find remarkable about the film, as if all of it could just be a hallucination or a dream, or the sort of Americana fantasy one gets after digesting bad apple pie. Even better that Wellington and the script by Doug Taylor never actually go the “it was all a dream” route.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

In short: The Psychic (1977)

Original title: Sette notte in nero

Ever since she saw the death of her mother in a vision when she was a child, Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill) has had powers of clairvoyance. For a time, she had been working with parapsychologist Luca (Marc Porel) to understand her gift, but that project fizzled out when she married rich Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko).

While her husband is away on business in London – the couple live in Italy – Virginia has another vision, concerning a murdered woman bricked in behind a wall. She realizes that the place where the body is hidden is a country house belonging to her husband that’s pretty much abandoned and dilapidated. Pretending to go on a bit of redecoration spree, she breaks down the wall from her vision. Behind it is indeed the corpse of a woman. As the police quickly find out, the dead is a former girlfriend of Francesco’s, making him a rather hot suspect in what is quite obviously a murder case. He quickly lands behind bars, and it is up to Virginia to follow other clues from her vision to save him.

Quite a few people – I’m not an always an exception - tend to reduce the body of work of Lucio Fulci to a couple of masterpieces and a load of crap that is supposed to have come after, but if you do that, you tend to ignore quite a few good to great movies, like this supernatural giallo and its sibling in Poe-nods made around the same time, The Black Cat.

The Psychic is a particularly interesting film because it shows that Fulci could work inside the realms of logic if he wanted too, here presenting a mystery that, if you’re willing to accept the psychic angle, makes rather a lot of sense. Despite the script like most of the things Fulci did at this time being co-written by Fulci’s brother in dislike of logic, Dardano Sacchetti, there’s a clear throughline to everything going on here, with discernible human motivations and reactions. Why, you might call this a traditionally well-plotted movie without blushing.

Unlike Fulci’s earlier giallos, this one seems particularly inspired by Hitchcock and his ideas about suspense, following that kind of structure very well, leaving this a film that still feels surprisingly exciting even once you’ve figured out where it is going. It also goes to show that you can make a suspenseful film that still has a murky, dream-like atmosphere; it also demonstrates that you can create such an atmosphere even in a film whose plot is comparatively (this is still a giallo about a psychic) down to earth.

For modern thriller tastes, this is probably still a somewhat slow film, but to my eyes, the film’s slow-ish pace is a perfect fit for a tale of the slow unravelling of a horrible truth, and of someone unwittingly becoming an accomplice in their own destruction.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Intruder Within (1981)

aka The Lucifer Rig

Jake Nevins (Chad Everett) is nominally heading up the drilling operations on an oil rig somewhere close to Antarctica. In truth, his company has sent in young geologist Scott (Joseph Bottoms) a couple of weeks after drilling started with instructions for Nevins to basically do whatever the guy says. What he says, while mostly locked away in cabin and makeshift lab, is to keep on drilling, as fast and as deep as possible.

That insistence on doing things the fastest way has turned out to be rather dangerous, obviously, making the roughnecks tired and accident-prone. Why, one of them even has prophetic (spoiler?) nightmares how they are all going to die. Things become even less great after a couple of replacement crew members – among them Colette Beaudroux (Jennifer Warren) who will be our co-lead of the day – have arrived. Some peculiar animal looking a lot like a low budget version of an Alien chestburster is coming up through the drilling, killing the guy with the death dreams, only to be dispatched by the quick-thinking Colette with a flare gun. There are also some small, egg-like objects coming up Scott is rather interested in, and before you can say, “uh oh”, the first member of the crew is infected with something nasty and begins to act rather aggressively and inhuman.

We all know where this is going, but at least, we do have a trio of competent working class people in form of Colette, Scott and roughneck Mark (Rockne Tarkington) to take care of business.

As far as “Alien, but on/in someplace else” movies go, Peter Carter’s (the director of the wonderful backwoods survival horror Rituals) ABC TV movie is a surprisingly fine film. Sure, the monster suit is a bit cheap, though it does still look rather creepy thanks to the well applied teachings of the skinned animal school of monster design, and the film does tend to cut away from things a non-TV movie would linger on for a bit, but it is a great example of how to get around these kinds of constrictions and get to the meat of the sub-genre one is working in.

If the effects budget doesn’t reach further than two rubber monsters and a suit neatly designed but still best seen from afar, then why not use a couple of actors looking pale and creepy and moving faster yet still stiffer than anybody else around them once they are biologically taken over? If you can’t show as much as a movie not made for TV, why not use the old route of shadows on the wall and implications, and make the handful of scenes when it’s affordable to show something count? Plus, in some moments, like the implied rape scene, the less is more approach does do the film a world of good, showing exactly as much as is necessary without leaving the borders of good taste behind. And even though one might argue that leaving the borders of good taste behind is one of the points of certain kinds of horror, it really isn’t one here. Rather, there’s the shadow of the aesthetic values (though not the complex thematic concerns) of something like a Val Lewton production at work here, which is a great aesthetic direction to take in a TV movie of the time this was made.

These more shadowy scenes (one of ‘em, the shadows on the wall birth scene, enhanced with Bava colours) work particularly well because they stand in direct contrast to Carter’s otherwise very naturalistic style. The outside scenes seem to be shot on a real oil rig, and the director is particularly apt at making this feel like a real, living workplace under rather extreme conditions, making the encroachment of the threat that will increasingly come by night particularly effective through contrast.

The Intruder Within really is a surprisingly effective little film that makes virtues out of all of its nominal weaknesses.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: They Hunt...They Feed...They Kill...You're Next!

Contamination .7 aka The Crawlers aka Troll 3 (1993): Illegally dumped nuclear waste has turned the flora in some podunk town carnivorous, and now our leafy ex-friends use their prehensile roots to get at those nice mammal juices; the nuclear plant responsible obviously does everything in their power to hush things up. That description is pretty much the most fun you’ll get out of this late period Joe D’Amato epic.

It’s no surprise that this doesn’t work as a proper movie on account of a total lack of tension, a tedious script and horrible dialogue – that’s what you expect from this phase of D’Amato’s work after all - but it’s also no fun at all, lacking the craziness, weirdness and crassness you hope for from D’Amato. There’s simply little of interest going on here. The only thing which might cause a smile is how little D’Amato (or whoever truly did the final cut) seems to have cared if an actor flubbed a line, or two actors lines in the same damn scene, leading to an amount of stammering of mumblecore-like dimensions.

Devil Rider! (1991): On the other hand, I still found the D’Amato film mildly more watchable than this regionally produced direct to video slasher about an undead(?) cowboy terrorising what he defines as his own private territory. He’s also laughing a lot, in the sort of manner a three year old kid wouldn’t buy as “evil”, likes to talk nonsense, dresses in light colours and doesn’t even ride a black horse, making for one of the least impressive looking killers in a slasher I’ve seen. And really, there’s a reason the killers in slashers generally don’t use guns.

Apart from the crap killer, there’s terrible acting of the sort that still manages to be boring, terrible dialogue that only seldom becomes funny, and zero suspense – and all of it presented with all the gusto of a lame horse.

Demon Warrior (1988): Which actually leaves yet another regionally produced slasher, this one made in Texas by Frank Patterson, with the crown of the most watchable movie in this entry. Here, it’s not an undead/immortal cowboy doing the killings, but a Native American demon warrior returning every ten years to some patch of woods stolen by white people, following a curse. But don’t worry, there’s also a good Native American around who wants to end the curse and just might help some of the cabin spam walking around to survive.

This one wins most of its reasonable entertainment value from basic competent characterisation and dialogue, vaguely atmospheric direction and a decent control of pacing, all things you can’t expect from slashers from the late 80s. Hell, even the acting is serviceable, and while nobody’s death will break an audience’s heart, there’s at least as visible attempt made to have discernible characters slaughtered by the killer. The film’s also proof that while guns don’t work with the slasher formula, bow and arrow do reasonably well.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Warning: there are one or two rather mild spoilers ahead

Eddie Brewer (Ian Brooker, an actor whose screen credits only seem to consist of a few bit parts, which looks preposterously unfair in context of his performance here) is a rather old-fashioned kind of paranormal investigator. He works alone, mistrusts the whole EXTREME Ghost Hunters approach as much as he does the professional sceptics, and clearly abhors mediums; in fact, even though he has encountered strange phenomena quite often, he doesn’t necessarily even believe in spirits as such.

Despite his friendly curmudgeonly nature (with an edge of sadness connected to the burning death of his wife decades ago), Eddie has agreed to be accompanied by the documentary crew of a culture TV channel for a bit. The investigator clearly thinks they are doing some friendly puff piece, so it will come as a bit of surprise to him when he’ll learn that their plans also involve a group of modern style ghost hunters and capital-s sceptic Susan Kovac (Louise Paris) with whom he has clashed before.

Mainly, Eddie is concerned with two cases right now. One involves some poltergeist type occurrences surrounding a young girl named Lucy Blakewell (Erin Connolly), phenomena which started out harmlessly enough but that by the time Eddie appears at the scene have become quite disturbing to Lucy’s mother (Bella Hamblin). And after all, how unthreatening can a phenomenon be that is connected to Lucy’s imaginary friend, when said friend calls itself after the clown Grimaldi?

Eddie’s second case concerns some odd happenings in Rookery House, a historical yet run-down building owned by the local council that’s being - rather haphazardly it seems - renovated. Particularly the building’s cellar appears to be a veritable hotbed of weird occurrences. In fact, Eddie will have encounters there that will be closer than any he’d ever expected.

During the course of the cases, Eddie will also learn that there just might be a connection between them, that if you look into an abyss, the abyss just might look back at you, and that you really don’t want to waltz into certain cellars with a horde of people in tow.

Expectations are a wonderful thing, particularly if you go into a film like Andrew Spencer’s The Casebook of Eddie Brewer expecting another paranormal investigation POV horror film (I still can’t believe this is now an actual horror sub-sub-genre with more films in it than the Nazi zombie film) as I did, only to be delighted by what the film then turns out to be.

Formally, The Casebook isn’t a pure POV/found footage film at all. Most of the film does consist of the material the fictional TV crew is shooting but whenever things happen when and where having a camera around would be improbable, or when the paranormal activity is playing around with the camera while Eddie experiences something horrifying - which just happen to be scenes much more effectively staged without the POV camera style – it changes to a more traditional filmmaking language, with many a well-composed (and moodily-lit) shot. Trained against acknowledging the improbabilities of the POV conceit as I - and probably other viewers of the type who haven’t grown to loathe it - now am, I would have expected to find this changing approach jarring, but Spencer uses it so effectively, naturally, and logically, the shifts in viewpoint seem to be organic parts of the film that wouldn’t make any sense done differently.

That’s not the only highly impressive aspect of a film clearly made on the tightest of budgets, the kind of production where half of the people involved take on three or four roles behind the camera. The sound design is particularly worth mentioning, with various creepy noises taking the place of visible special effects, though the latter do come into play when appropriate, generally to good effect, unless you just need to see something explode, or want very explicit gore. In that case, however, this won’t be a film to make you happy anyway.

It’s not as if The Casebook were coy about the supernatural, though. There’s no dragging of feet in the script, and an absolute willingness to show the audience creepy and disturbing things, unless – and I love it when a film has the brains to know the difference – it is more creepy not to show something, and instead to suggest it. The film also does right by some other pretty difficult elements of horror, namely the so often tedious and annoying battle between believers and sceptics. The film is always clear that its sympathies (at least in the context of the plot) lie with Eddie’s approach to the supernatural, but it anchors these sympathies in Eddie’s characterisation instead of trying to convert the audience or preach at it, or even worse annoy with the bizarre holier than thou attitude of something like The Conjuring (a film as inferior to this one, by the way, as its budget is higher). In fact, professional sceptic Kovac doesn’t seem to be looked down upon because she doesn’t believe but because she’s an asshole about it, which goes for the Extreme Ghost Hunters! from the other side as well.

What impresses me most about Spencer’s film aren’t any of these fine and indeed impressive elements, though, but rather how well it builds up a feeling of dread, beginning in a wry, friendly and even comedic tone that slowly shifts as the more disturbing parts of the plot unfold. At first, the hints of things to come only break the film’s seemingly laid back flow a little, but like Eddie’s nerves, the tone becomes increasingly brittle until even what starts out as a scene making fun of a broadly acted medium can turn frightening at a moment’s notice. Brooker, as the actor who is in most of the film’s scenes, sells this change of mood and his character very well. In his performance, there’s a certain edge to Eddie’s character from the beginning, yet the edge is counteracted by a feeling of basic, no-nonsense (in the polite British way, not the American one) decency. Until, that is, one of the film’s central horrors occurs, and the wonder and calm that are part of Eddie’s character shift into fear and utter horror. It’s quite the thing to watch.

Not coincidentally, as the whole of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

In short: The Ninth (2019)

Original title: Devyataya

The late 19th Century, Petersburg. A serial killer murders women, using occult symbols in his bloody practice, seemingly working some kind of ritual. Policeman Sergey Rostov (Evgeniy Tsyganov), a man characterised by the improbable combination of a deep sense of responsibility and a death wish, investigates with the help of his underling Ganin (Dmitriy Lysenkov). A pentagram painted on an egg (hard-boiled, if you need to know) the killer has replaced the newest victim’s heart with sees Rostov looking for an occult expert. The occult researcher Golitsyn (Yuri Kolokolnikov), not really purposefully, points Rostov in the direction of British spirit medium Olivia Reed (Daisy Head, doing some pretty fun scenery-chewing), who has a successful Petersburg run with her very showy and theatrical spiritist revue, including an awesome/absurd costume.

At first, Rostov isn’t at all impressed with Olivia. She’s clearly faking a lot of her supposed powers, but she does indeed have visions that just might point Rostov in the direction of the killer. There’s a closer connection to the case, too, for the masked mystery maniac does use a ritual taken from a grimoire he has stolen from Olivia.

Nikolai Khomeriki’s The Ninth fits snugly into the realm of those high budget movies mixing traditional mystery, adventure movie tropes and a smaller or larger degree of supernatural business that makes these films nice fits for the Halloween season; it’s the same sort of thing you find in Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes or Tsui Hark’s version of Detective Dee, just with less genius thinker and martial arts.

I do have a large place in my heart for this sort of film, seeing as it mixes some of the bits of popular cultures the world round I enjoy the most. The Ninth isn’t as fun as the first Ritchie Holmes, nor as breathtaking as Hark’s Dee films, but Khomeriki and his scriptwriters (apparently this is based on a comic written by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko, who are rather wonderful novelists) are pretty good at transplanting the genre tropes into Russia. Petersburg in the late 19th Century is an excellent place to set this kind of tale, too, with its extreme contrasts between the rich and the poor, its imperial grandeur, and some damn fine architecture for a film to use. Sense of place, even if it is not a naturalistic portrayal of a place, goes a long way with me.

On the level of plotting and direction, the film is competent but not spectacular. The characters are moved through the set pieces well enough, and Khomeriki certainly makes things look slick, so it’s difficult not to feel entertained by the mix of light horror and action. From time to time, I would have wished for the film to do something a little bit cleverer than it strictly needed to or something more off-beat, but it always stays good popcorn cinema.

Which is never meant as any kind of damning criticism from me. As experience shows, even if some people can’t seem to see that because they are distracted holding their noses at something meant only to entertain, it’s not actually terribly easy to make this sort of film well, just ask DC. The Ninth, on the other hand, entertains me just fine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Ghost of the Hunchback (1965)

aka Devil’s Pit

Original title: 怪談せむし男

Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) finds that a nightmare about the death of her husband comes true on her awakening. Of course, he has been spending the last years as an incurably insane patient of his own father (Takeshi Kato, I believe, which is the best I can do with the credits situation of the film), and by older horror movie rules, this means he’s physically less than fit, too. The situation doesn’t improve for Yoshie in any case: during the funeral service, she hears a terrible creaking noise from her husband’s coffin, and on opening it, finds his teeth gnashed around the stem of a chrysanthemum; during the cremation, she believes to hear him scream. And right afterwards, a lawyer (Kazuo Kato) gives her the key to a villa her husband owned she never knew about. Apparently, he started on his way to screaming insanity while staying there, she is informed.

On what appears to be the same or at leas the very next day, Yoshie visits the “villa”, a place that turns out to be an improbably creepy western-style mansion in the middle of nowhere, whose only inhabitant now is a hunchbacked keeper (Ko Nishimura) with various disquieting habits, of which a tendency to appear and disappear without a sound is only the beginning. Soon, the hunchback tells Yoshie that the last time he saw her husband, he was grasping the naked corpse of a woman, but all attempts by her to get some straight, sensible information beyond creepy insinuations out of the man go nowhere. She is soon enough distracted by various frightening phenomena anyway: doors open and close without reason, an improbable wind seems to blow through parts of the building, and disembodied voices scream.

Yoshie has invited reinforcements for her stay in the house, but things only become more intense once her husband’s sleazy father – whose first step right after the cremation of his soon will be to try and bully Yoshie into a marriage with himself –, the husband’s niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama) – apart from Yoshie the only innocent here – and the father’s younger subordinate doctor arrive. Rather a lot of murder and madness are waiting for absolutely everyone, innocent and guilty alike.

For quite some time, the Japanese version of Hajime Sato’s (also the director of Golden Bat and Goke, so clearly getting my vote) was supposed to have been lost, with only an Italian dub of the film floating around. By now, there’s a decent version of the Japanese original available to those interested, with – rather difficult – subtitles based on the Italian dub. So now there’s hope to perhaps sometimes get some sort of true Blu-ray version of what I believe to be a true classic.

The film was clearly inspired by Italian gothic horror (and given the Italian dub version, gave the favour right back) but sometimes also seems to prefigure that arm of the giallo influenced by the crueller arm of classic land house mysteries. At least, this is most certainly a film full of perfectly abhorrent bourgeois and upper class people who seem to have no morals whatsoever. The dead husband’s father is the most obvious example of the type, with his early designs on his daughter-in-law (whom he spied on having sex with his son through a peephole when she visited him in the hospital, too), the character of a rapist sleaze, and a background as Japanese medical war criminal.

While he might be the worst of the bunch, only Yoshie and Kazuko are innocent – or at the very least likeable – while everyone else is a grasping schemer who really deserves to be ripped apart by the film’s supernatural forces. Of course, this being a film about the Japanese kind of curse, the innocents aren’t going to be spared, either, the film ending on a series of pretty astonishing scenes that aren’t just ruthless but utterly without mercy towards any of the characters. Even the one whose body is the tool through which the film’s central curse does its work is a victim, of course, caught up and used by forces he has no defence against whatsoever. So expect a very early version of the most depressing 70s downer ending you can imagine going in.

The early parts of the film are pure gothic, Sato creating a dense mood of the macabre out of deep contrasts between light and darkness, so many Dutch angles the mansion might actually be situated in the Netherlands, a couple of scenes borrowed (cough) from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and some many noises and screams. On the way to the finale we’ll also encounter an intense séance by an actual wandering shamanistic medium (which ends very badly for the medium, but why should she have it better than anyone else here?), encounter scenes that turn the sexual subtext running through much of gothic horror into text in a way only a Japanese movie could get away with quite this extremely in the mid-60s, and find characters dying in horrible ways again and again.

Sato’s as great at the more explicit moments of the film as he his at the subtle mood building, the ero guro, and the subtly macabre, so the last act of the film turns into an incredibly intense series of horrible events, the mood becoming outright hysterical before things end very badly indeed for everyone. It’s really fantastic, and suggests itself as a hidden connection between the Gothic and the more nihilistic and brutal horror that would come to dominate the 70s the world around.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

In short: #ALIVE (2020)

Original title: #살아있다 (#sal-a-iss-da)

I think I’ve already mentioned that I’ve grown a bit tired of zombie/infected outbreak movies. Why, things have gotten so bad, I didn’t even like the much praised Train to Busan. Though my problem with that one was all that rather embarrassing and hilariously ineffective emotional manipulation that had me in tears of laughter come the climax.

So I wasn’t terribly interest in this South Korean Netflix production directed and written by Cho Il-hyeong with Yoo Ah-in as a survivor whose videogaming shut in tendencies are pretty helpful for once. Turns out I was wrong again, for the film’s actually well-made (okay, that’s basically a given in a movie from South Korea), effective and fun. It also doesn’t desperately try to milk one’s tear ducts as if they were cow udders, coming by its actual emotional beats the honest way, through careful characterisation, and an intimate presentation of our protagonist’s desperate situation. While the zombie and action sequences are fun and well done, the film’s core is in its presentation of loneliness and quiet desperation, the way it feels when the world around you slowly falls apart, and a few too many of your hopes are crushed. But the film’s also great at the more positive things, the sudden large importance of small hopes and achievements, and the life-saving heft of human companionship, as seen when the film introduces its other protagonist, as played by Park Shin-hye.

I also admire the film’s willingness to underplay its more tragic elements, treating them with dignity instead as a way to make its audience feel something (damn it!). Which of course is the best way to actually make an audience feel something.

Really, by now, basically everyone can film a generic zombie movie sequence or ten and call them a movie. The difficulty is in getting the human elements of such a story right, and that’s what #ALIVE does best.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Blood Symbol (1992)

College student Tracy (Micheline Richard) is having a bit of a bad time. As if being plagued by nightmares about robed figures and sacrifice, and being the girlfriend of the incredibly boring Steve (co-director Maurice Devereaux) weren’t bad enough, there’s also a creepy guy (Richard Labelle) in black who looks a lot like a giallo killer stalking her, disappearing mysteriously whenever she tries to point him out to anyone. Let’s not even talk about the disembodied voices speaking or shouting her name, the invisible powers drawn to her for poltergeist-style shenanigans or the fact that there’s already one girl from her school missing, and we the audience know the disappearing girl has been ritually sacrificed.

Eventually, Tracy will figure out that all of this has to do with something called the Cult of the Blood Symbol, a century old cult looking for “chosen ones” born with an invisible mark of Satan to sacrifice so they can gain immortality by drinking their blood. The cult is supposed to be long gone, but one member does indeed remain – immortality can be pretty useful there - and she’s clearly one of the chosen.

Shot over the course of more than half a decade, losing its lead actress to the old artistic differences after half of the film was in the can so that she had to be replaced by a stand-in that was only shot from afar, and being awkwardly dubbed with barely synched voices, this film by pretty wonderful indie director Michael Devereaux and Tony Morello should by all rights not work at all. In practice, it’s as great a film as could possibly have been made under these circumstances, finding the French-Canadian version of that spot of stylish irrationality and irreality the supernatural arm of the giallo and other European horror films from the 70s and the 80s (and yes, some American films too) liked to inhabit. Though there’s also time for some visual homages to Carpenter’s Halloween - which in its turn is unthinkable without the giallo even if its visual stylisation was of a different kind from the Italian school.

Of course, given the production situation, some of the film is awkward. The dialogue is stiff enough as it is without the non-performances in the pretty horrible dubbing (which is the sort of thing that can happen when you have to shoot without sound) but for every moment of awkwardness, there are three of wonderful visual imagination, from self-made dolly shots to surreal dream sequences in black and white, editing (also by Devereaux) that slips between montage and pure, controlled weirdness, and a camera that races and glides whenever possible. The directors have a great eye for the creepy side moment, too: my particular favourite are the swings on a playground starting to asynchronously swing by themselves when Tracy passes by, our heroine seeing but ignoring them. All of this may be derivative, but it’s derivative of a specific aesthetic and mood of – mostly – European horror filmmaking instead of being a commercial rip-off, and as such more like a love letter to style of horror filmmaking than an attempt to cash-in on one’s budgetary betters.

Which works wonderfully on me as someone who loves 70s European horror and its predecessors and successors; Blood Symbol’s rough edges and its near absence of a traditional narrative really seem to be unimportant or even simply beside the point. The point is to recreate an aesthetic and the moods that come with it through whatever methods the filmmakers can come up with, and as such, the film’s a complete success.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: A family like no other

Spookers (2017): Florian Habicht’s documentary about what is apparently “the most successful scare park in the Southern hemisphere”, family run and populated by performers who have become a wonderful family by choice themselves, is in large parts a love letter to the concept of the family of choice that is so important to most of the broken and the bent among us; it’s also a love letter to strangeness, to people letting out those parts of themselves they have to hide in real life, and being accepted as they are. As a horror fan, I also can’t help but love the film’s many shots of visitors of the place being joyfully scared, glowing with freed emotions.

The filmmakers have a lot of fun of engaging with their subjects in a playful and human way, sharing into their outlet and companionship in a way that seems particular lovely right now and right here, giving a film about a group of people scaring the bejeezus out of others an air of the humane and the hopeful.

Blood of Dracula (1957): This AIP production about the resident (female!) mad scientist at a boarding school turning the new girl into a were-vampire to somehow end the nuclear arms race (I use the word “mad” for a reason) as directed by Herbert L. “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” Strock is one of the more enjoyable ones from the 50s not touched by the hands of Corman. At least, Strock knows how to pace things properly, structuring things economically.

The script has a decent grip on how a teenage girl after the loss of her mother, and cursed with a father who marries a gold digger only six weeks later, might act and feel, the vampire bit really expressing the return of the things 50s society wants a girl to repress, which is more than you can expect of a late 50s monster movie.

See No Evil (1971): Directed by Richard Fleischer and written by the great Brian Clemens, this is an excellent early 70s thriller about a recently blinded (in a riding accident) character played by Mia Farrow returning to her family’s country home for a spell, only to find herself beset by someone who will turn out to be much worse than your typical stalker. Farrow’s performance adds some spine to her patented victim shtick, so it’s a bit of disappointment she isn’t really saving herself in the end, but the film’s so tightly made, this sort of theoretical problem only comes to mind afterwards. While actually watching the film, I found myself far too involved in excellently built suspense sequences – some of which are truly horrifying in conception, like the one in which Farrow discovers she has been sleeping in a house full of the corpses of her loved ones – to bother about this sort of thing.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Masks (2011)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Young would-be actress Stella (Susen Ermich) seems to have gotten as far as natural talent and looks can bring her in her dreamt-of career, which is to say, not very far. So when she is pointed in the direction of the Matteusz Gdula School for Acting, she decides to give it a try.

What Stella doesn't know about the school and its now-dead founder is that Gdula's very own acting Method led to a number of violent deaths in the 70s. Officially, the school doesn't teach Gdula's Method anymore, and is now only the usual shark tank of bitchy young actors and actresses.

However, something weird is going on in the school's supposedly closed-down annex, the place where Gdula once held his cultish acting classes. Stella's classmate Cecile (Julita Witt), to whom she finds herself drawn, likes to hint at private lessons taking place in the annex, lessons still following Gdula's esoteric Method. These lessons leave Cecile a much better actress but also with traces of bodily and mental abuse, until she one day just disappears.

Afterwards, Stella is invited to take Cecile's place and be taught Gdula's Method. All she needs to do is take the risk and let herself be isolated in the annex for weeks at a time. Madness and violence, but perhaps also the truth about what happened to Cecile, await her.

I wasn't much of a fan of Andreas Marschall's Tears of Kali but had quite a bit of hope for his future projects, because most of what I disliked about that movie had to do with elements caused by the problems of seat-of-your-pants filmmaking rather than lack of talent in the people involved. As far as I've read, Masks budgetary situation wasn't all that much better (making genre films in Germany is difficult, and making a horror movie that isn't exclusively a gore fest even more so, it seems), but this time around, the result of Marschall's struggles turned out to be much more convincing.

Masks is a film aesthetically highly indebted to 70s giallos, particularly Dario Argento's Suspiria, using cheaper modern digital technology to create a similar look and feel of photography, as well as sharing concepts of narrative structure, and music highly reminiscent of that era.In fact, at times Masks' ability to emulate the look and feel of a 70s giallo becomes downright creepy.

There is, of course, always a risk turning your movie into a pure retro effort when you keep as close to the style of a different era as Masks does. Certainly, the film at hand doesn't do itself much of a service by having a first act with a structure, down to the composition of some scenes, just too identical to that of Suspiria. However, the longer Marschall's film goes on, the more it becomes one of these films that use the style of an earlier era in a way belonging very much to themselves and the era they were made in - an approach comparable to Beyond the Black Rainbow and Berberian Sound Studio, though not quite on the same level as those films.

Like Argento's best, Masks is a film saying all it has to say via its visual aesthetics - subtext (in this case circling the way early abuse of young girls can put them on the road of helping self-perpetuate that abuse, the dangers of looking too deeply into oneself, and the way older men might prey on younger women's weaknesses), narrative, and plot all are part of the film's visible surfaces. They are not so much subservient to the film's looks as so deeply entwined with them it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see any element here standing separate from the next. It's a rather wonderful example of what we could dub "style as substance" filmmaking.

The solution to Masks' plot is one that might look rather silly on paper, and which in practice has little to do with the way the real world works but it is also one that befits the fever dream/fairy-tale/weird psychology mood of the film. It certainly makes complete sense as part of Stella's character arc, as well as the rules the film has established about itself. This insistence on following an internal logic that treats the movie as a world of its own with rules of its own that may or may not have anything in common with logic as we generally understand it rather than as a surface reproduction of the world we live in, is of course exactly the thing that drives a certain type of viewer away from the giallo and assorted, predominantly European - though some local horror movies from the US certainly share the concept - film genres. This (ill)logic of symbols and the unreal is, of course, exactly what draws me to the genre and films like Masks standing in this different tradition of what a horror film is supposed to be and do, or rather, of what a horror film can be and do apart from showing us interesting ways for young attractive people to die in. Not that Masks, or other films of its type, have anything against being creative in the latter regard, of course; killing off young characters for fun and aesthetic profit is part of their style too, and Masks has its own share of aestheticized carnage to present.

It is very impressive how consequently Marschall is able to keep the mood of Masks so continuously strange, with only a handful of moments where the film's state as a self-contained world breaks down a little. From time to time, one actor in a minor role (the main cast is very impressive for a group of actors with mostly only single credit in their filmographies) isn't quite good enough to keep the mood up, the soundtrack by Sebastian Levermann and Nils Weise sounds a bit too much like Goblin, or the fake 70s hair in the documentary about Gdula's class of 1973 looks only like fake movie hair, but for the most part, there are no seams showing in Masks at all.

This leaves Masks as a wonderful example of its style, as well as one of the handful of German horror films made in the last decades that actually give me hope for genre films coming from my native country.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

In short: Alone (2020)

Warning: there are mild spoilers ahead!

After her husband has committed suicide, Jessica (Jules Willcox) has decided to escape her feelings of guilt and grief by moving to the other side of the USA. She’s making the move on her own, carting a U-Haul trailer around country roads and lonely streets.

Apart from the emotional pain, things start out okay enough on her travels, but a strange and dangerous encounter with another car does leave her a bit insecure and understandably nervous. Something that’s not going to get better once she starts meeting the driver (Marc Menchaca) of this car again and again, as if he were stalking her. Which he will indeed turn out to do, eventually kidnapping Jessica for a bit of emotional torture in his cabin in the wilderness, with the promise of eventual death.

Jessica manages to escape though, and now has to find her way to safety through forest wilderness, with little but the clothes on her back, followed by her kidnapper.

I was a bit disappointed by the last eight years or so of director Jack Hyams’s output, when he left behind low budget movies for the greener pastures of TV and particularly streaming series work. It’s not his fault I really don’t need another (or two) zombie apocalypse shows in my life, obviously.

Alone isn’t a return to highly weird and awesome action movies like the fourth Universal Soldier film, but a thriller working from a script (by Mattias Olsson) that is built from very well-known blocks. However, despite certainly not being in the market for originality prices, this is still a very strong film. The script’s sequence of chases and escapes is very tightly arranged, written with sharp focus on what makes a situation threatening as well as an eye for the telling quotidian detail that makes a thriller situation feel less constructed than it by rights should feel. The characterisation of Jessica as a woman burdened by grief and a feeling of terrible guilt is sharp and tight too. Hyams’s careful direction, Willcox’s wonderfully emotionally controlled performance and the script’s attention to the right details, really come together to make Jessica believable as well as easy to root for.

Menchaca’s performance, on the other hand, is wonderfully creepy without turning his character into some mythological being. The film treats its serial killer as a human being, as terrible a one as he is, actually making him more threatening through his fallibility than many a movie about the superhumanly competent variation of the serial killer manages.

Hyams, it turns out, is as great a director of this sort of horror thriller as he is of crazier action stuff, using his experience with action scenes whenever it is appropriate, but spending just as much of his energy on creating a threatening – and generally unpleasantly wet – mood through landscape, and on assisting his performers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Notturno con grida (1981)

Ten years ago, rich guy Christian (Franco Molè) disappeared from his home under very mysterious circumstances. Everyone else in the household suffering some sort of physical damage as well as memory loss, so nobody knows what happened to him or if he is indeed still alive. The household members got the opportunity for a lot of bitter lawsuits out of it, so there was a silver lining to the affair.

The day after the film takes place will be the day when Christian can finally be declared dead, and his family commemorates the day that’ll leave his widow Eileen (Martine Brochard) stinking rich by a séance to clear up what happened to Christian, mirroring the night just before whatever happened to him took place. Brigitte (Mara Maryl), the wife of Christian’s brother Paul (house favourite Luciano Pigozzi aka Alan Collins), repeats her role as a medium she also had ten years ago. The séance is dramatic but rather inconclusive, Christian breaking off speaking through Brigitte exactly at the moment when he’s going to name the killer. Oh well.

So, everyone make their way to an excursion into the woods where they plan to build some bungalows. In the party are Eileen, Brigitte (who is either the dumbest woman alive or very good at pretending, something the other characters seem to ponder a lot, often loudly and in her presence), Paul (a former priest with some proper former priest secrets), the surveyor Sheena (Gioia Scola) and Eileen’s bodyguard and fiancée Gerard (Gerardo Amato). Of course, there are a bunch of secrets and lies between these characters, which come out sooner or later: for example, Paul once “took advantage” (as the film has it) of Eileen in the confessional when she was just fifteen, also talking her into marrying his brother in the hopes she would murder Christian and split the money with him; Gerard plans to murder Eileen once they are married for a while and take up with Sheena; Brigitte may or may not have been raped or have had an affair with Christian, and so on, and so forth. Really, it’s your typical rich family in a giallo.

As if all of these secrets, lies, and dubious moral backbones weren’t enough to motivate a bloodbath, the group is also beset by curious phenomena: a seemingly invisible early bird owl attacks, visions are had, memories relived, and so on. Eventually, their car disappears and the group can’t find their way out of the woods anymore, running in circles even if they clearly aren’t. And then there’s the invisible force that attacks them…

Ernesto Gastaldi was one of the more important writers of Italian genre movies during the 60s and 70s, writing giallos, peplums, Gothic horror films, or whatever else the market wanted. He only had a handful of stints in the director’s chair, though, this being one of them, the directing duties here shared with Vittorio Salerno, who isn’t as omnipresent or interesting as Gastaldi was.

As it stands, Notturno con grida is nearly a lost film, with a pretty drenched looking VHS source and fan made subtitles – which I am very thankful for – the best version of the film available right now, which is a bit of a shame, really, though not exactly surprising. After all, the film was clearly shot on the very cheap, even for the Italian movie industry of the early 80s, with only a handful of actors, a cheap “living room of the rich” set for the séance as well as the handful of flashbacks, a patch of woods and basically no special effects you can’t produce by moving your camera suggestively standing in for production values.

All of which to me suggests the kind of project someone working in the movie business could make on the side beside paying projects, asking some acquaintances (or in the case of Mara Maryl, his wife) to help out. So a bit of a labour of love. To me, at least, it truly feels like a labour of love, too, like a very experienced filmmaker using some of the ideas he couldn’t quite sell anyone with money on. There are some stand-bys from typical Gastaldi scripts on screen, of course. Especially the group of nasty but very fun rich people that make up the cast are a dime a dozen in his scripts as well as many another giallos, though they would more typically bump each other off than encounter the supernatural that’ll punish them for their sins as happens here. However, the dialogue for these dicks and dickettes in other movies doesn’t usually show off Gastaldi’s classical education as well these here do. Particularly our former priest is full of quotations and philosophical musings quite befitting a film that is beholden to the conventions of traditional tales of the supernatural. Something that, needless to say, is bound to endear a film to me.

But I also simply enjoy how much Gastaldi and Salerno make out of the little they’ve got here, getting fun and interesting performances out of their actors, and creating an effective eerie mood out of basically nothing – and mostly in daylight to boot. There’s just such a fine sense of the strange running through the film as a whole that it’s an easy recommendation for anyone who likes Italian genre cinema of Gastaldi’s period, or simply appreciates a good tale of people getting lost in the woods, pursued by something worse than a bear.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

In short: The Monster Club (1981)

Horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes (disappointingly not Chetwynd-Hayes himself, but at least he’s played by John Carradine) offers a an ailing stranger (Vincent Price) whatever he may need. Turns out the guy’s a vampire called Eramus, who is very thankful for the spontaneous blood donation. He does leave the man alive, though. Because Eramus is a big fan of the writer and feels he owes him something, he takes him to a club visited exclusively by monsters. Between bouts of painful comedy and full musical New Wave-y numbers, the writer gets told three stories.

But, unlike with other horror anthology movies, I’m not going to talk about them in any detail, for if you inflict these lame ducks of stories on yourself, you do at least deserve to get a pained surprise out of them. Which is pretty much the best you can hope for, for the film wastes the considerable talents of many of the people involved in it very efficiently.

The Monster Club is sometimes treated as the last of the Amicus horror anthologies but since it isn’t an actual Amicus production, I find it better to treat it as some sort of sad epilogue made after the fact that pretty clearly suggests the time of the somewhat gentle horror anthology in the Amicus style was over when this was made. That it had to be some of the old Amicus talent – producer Milton Subotsky, director Roy Ward Baker, various actors – doing another Chetwynd-Hayes anthology to deliver this unwanted proof is rather sad.

In this context, I can’t even bring myself to make jokes about the film’s numerous failings – which still makes me funnier than the film’s jokes are – but let’s at least list some of them. There’s the terrible inclusion of the musical numbers in what feels like a desperate attempt at selling a soundtrack album nobody asked for that has no point, fits Ward Baker’s generally old-fashioned direction style not at all, and sucks the bits of interest out of the film the tediously told stories themselves couldn’t quite destroy. The film also shows a terrible fascination with the worst part of Chetwynd-Hayes as a writer: charting the various ways in which monsters might mate and giving the products idiotic names, categorizing things that can only suffer from too much categorization, as if the man were his own August Derleth. Even for someone like me who does enjoy a bit of hokeyness in his horror, this is just too much.

The actors are mostly wasted; the mugging contest between Carradine and Price is theoretically the film’s best feature, but the writing’s so terrible (script by Edward and Valeria Abraham), even the indefatigable Price seems to barely contain embarrassed giggles.

Well, at least somebody got some laughs out of this.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Appointment (1981)

After an intro sequence in which a twelve year old girl hears strange, mocking voices in the woods and is suddenly dragged away, never to be seen again, the film comes to a point in time three years later.

The family of Ian (Edward Woodward), Dianna (Jane Merrow) and their fourteen year old daughter Joanne (Samantha Weysom) seem in a happy place. They are rich and apparently happy, Joanne going to a private/public (please delete the appropriate word depending on the country you live in) school where she is groomed as a budding star violinist.

There’s something not quite typical in the relationship between Ian and Joanne, though, for there’s some very Freudian thing going on concerning Joanne’s budding womanhood, the closeness between the two, and Ian’s clear inability, perhaps unwillingness, to build useful emotional borders. So it is not a complete surprise that Joanne takes news that Ian won’t be able to come to a concert that is inordinately important to her the next day because he has to drive a day or so to an important judicial hearing, very badly indeed.

Joanne’s mood – or is it perhaps something else? - seems to infect the house’s other inhabitants that night. Both Ian and Dianne have strange dreams about cars and travels, and some rather more symbolic things, all of which are imbued with an air of dread. Alas, they do not meet in the morning before Ian has to go on his road trip, so they can’t realize the most disturbing thing about these dreams: that they have both been dreaming the same dreams.

Needless to say, Ian’s trip is not going to go terribly well.

If ever I saw a horror movie not made for every horror fan, this one, directed as well as written by the mysterious Lindsey C. Vickers, is it. It’s not just that The Appointment is a slow film, very fond of visual symbolism, it’s how much it insists on staying ambiguous and letting the audience figure out their own version of what’s going on by interpretation and an act (well, rather a lot of acts) of filling in the blanks, while still having a clear idea of its own what’s going on in it. Seen in the wrong mood, or by someone who just doesn’t like films working exclusively via hints and moods – really, it’s as if this were a case of Slow Horror come thirty years too early – this would be properly infuriating stuff, as obnoxious and annoying as a YouTube personality to me (I’m showing my age here, sorry, YouTube personalities).

If you have a general appreciation for this sort of thing, though, The Appointment might very well be your new favourite secret gem. At first, the film is built to keep even a sympathetic viewer pretty unsure about what they are actually watching here: the Freudian family business is certainly easily enough parsable, but what does that have to do with the film’s intro, or with the camera’s tendency to linger unnervingly on certain quotidian details, either loading them with meaning in the process or hinting on some hidden or future importance. Yet slowly, things come together, the film’s stylistic choices, be they visually, on the acting side (well, Weysom isn’t actually good at all, but her approach is so weird it fits the film perfectly), or a score that wavers between dramatic somewhat modernist classical and sporadic synth noises, not exactly explaining the film but giving the impression of the viewer being in the hand of filmmakers who know what they are doing very well indeed.

For me, the film reaches a near magical intensity in the long scenes of Ian’s and Dianne’s very bad night, full of shots of the camera slowly gliding over sleeping faces while nothing outwardly happens, intercut with dreams full of symbols and things that could be symbols but feel like premonitions of the most dreadful kind. After this night, the film keeps up its quiet intensity without ever letting up. Simple sentences, movements and gestures seem – and indeed are – loaded with hidden, second meanings, and there’s a feeling of doom and dread running through proceedings until the end. An end that also shows how good Vickers is at portraying things that aren’t metaphorically loaded anymore but have actual physical impact.

The final scenes also suggest that we have indeed been watching something of folk horror film, the black dog motive (and some of its folkloric meaning), the suggested idea of terrible kind of sympathetic magic, and the importance of a patch of woods all resonating with that particular genre. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

In short: A Game of Death (1945)

Famous hunter and writer Don Rainsford (John Loder) finds himself stranded on an island belonging to passionate hunter and fan Erich Kreiger (Edgar Barrier). Curiously enough, there are a couple of other survivors from a different shipwreck there, too, the Trowbridge siblings Ellen (Audrey Long) and Robert (Russell Wade). The former seems to harbour some terrible suspicions about what their host is up to; the latter is too drunk to notice, one supposes.

Indeed, there’s something very wrong going on here, for Kreiger has prepared his island for maximum shipwreck efficiency in the classic wreckers tradition, so he can later hunt the survivors (who must by his logic be the fittest, following his very badly mangled understanding of Darwin) down for sport.

If you’re an innocent soul and believe the pointless remake to be a product of out times, you will be surprised to hear that this is RKO’s pointless remake (or second adaptation of the story that film was based on) of The Most Dangerous Game. Though it was at least made at a time when not nearly every film ever made that didn’t go up in smoke was available somewhere, somehow for anyone to see.

Despite having been directed by the great Robert Wise, this is certainly not at all on the level of his best work, nor of the original film. Too often, the film lacks in visual imagination, apart from a couple of the kind of moody shots Wise probably couldn’t not include in anything he filmed. Why, even his terrible Star Trek movie at the end of his career has its moments. But I digress.

In the good old tradition of the pointless remake as a genre, there’s very little here that actually changes the older film for the better or the more interesting. A couple of nuances shift to better fit the politics of the time, so the mad hunter isn’t a Russian but a German anymore (which would probably have played even better two or three years earlier), Ellen has slightly more to do, and so on. But mostly, this is a film that seems to be tailor-made to have its audience wish for the earlier, better movie with its much larger spirit and focus.