Thursday, November 20, 2014

samhainfest 2014: scarecrows



(1988. dir: William Wesley) We enter in media res: a band of toy-Rambos have stolen a metal box full of money from an army base, kidnapped a pilot and his nubile daughter, and are bound for the good life in Mexico. Somewhere over the badassed Confederate region of this fine country, however, one greedy bastard chucks the money out and bails after it. Before long, the lot of them are holed up in a house apparently protected by the ghosts of the three Confederate duckhunters whose photograph we keep seeing on the wall, but I don't know how anyone really knows that, other than that it's in the script. The place is lousy with scarecrows, and, one by one, each of our anti-heroes becomes one of the walking, hay-stuffed dead.

By no stretch of anyone's imagination does Messengers 2 need to worry about losing its championship title to this turkey. It looks bad, sounds bad, and the acting is largely mediocre, although Ted Vernon, whose vanity project it is, gives himself a low-key, strong-guy-in-the-background role, which is a nice surprise, and Michael David Simms does rather well with his breakdown scene. The scarecrows look pretty impressive when they're passive, but the effects are ho-hum. You could call it a gewissengeist venture, since at least one of the party feels badly enough about the dead MPs back on the airfield to freak out and give the are-we-really-dead-is-this-really-hell? speech, but there's no reason to give any of it too much thought.

That said, there are sufficient touches of interest to make it watchable. One of the revenants, Jack, has a great rictus-grin-under-the-night-vision-goggles look, and there's a "hey, whassup?" quality to his banter reminiscent of those immortal Undead Griffin Dunne scenes in American Werewolf in London. The exposition at beginning and end are carried by radio newscasts, which is efficient, provides a pleasant book-ended format, and evokes memories of past classics. The atmosphere, although clunkily low-budget, carries a continuing sense that something interesting MIGHT still happen, but, alas, it never does.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

samhainfest 2014: bad-night-at-the-mansion double feature



Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye: (1973. dir: Antonio Margheriti) The cat who witnesses the murders is one of those big, bored, Garfield cats; about halfway in it occurred to me that the killer was only continuing his slaughter to try and impress the feline, an impossible task. Sometimes it looked a little discomfited, but only inasmuch as if you'd put bass instead of salmon in its supper-dish.

It's a romping giallo with Jane Birkin scampering terrified in her nightie through the hidden passageways of a Scottish castle, a castle filled with a family called MacGrieff, who are all unabashedly Italian. The fun of these giallos is that you have a finite number of humans stuck in a bounded space together, and one by one they will all get picked off until there are only the killer, the innocent, and maybe her lover left. Can you guess who the killer is before the population falls below, say, seven? I guessed, but I didn't know why, which doesn't exactly count.

This one also has Serge Gainsbourg (he and Birkin are Charlotte Gainsbourg's parents) as an unflappable Scottish (!) detective, an ancient family vampire curse, a rat-eaten corpse in the basement, an accidentally burned Bible, and a man in a gorilla suit, which adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi. The sounds the rats make are indescribable, but will make you giggle.



*SPOILER ALERT*

Night of the Demons: (2009. dir: Adam Gierasch) Not to be mistaken for the b&w classic Night of the Demon with Dana Andrews, one of the best horror films ever made. This, rather, is a surprisingly endearing remake of the '80s B-schlock-fave starring scream-queen Linnea Quigley about a Halloween party gone terribly awry. This new, doomed cadre of kids is well acted, the film boasts a very convincing New Orleans vibe, and no aging Goth from my generation can resist its soundtrack (45 Grave and Type O Neg, among others). It's all about the grue, oceans and oceans of it, so not for the squeamish, but if you can live with that, if you can live with some macabre and disturbing sexual situations, and if you have no problem bonding with twenty-year-olds who say "fuck" every other word, then you just might enjoy it.

The laughs come genuinely, not via camp effects, but from the ridiculous things that panicking teenagers say to each other. Behold:

After a horrific attack by the first demon who has possessed their dead friend: "That wasn't Suzanne! Suzanne has a fucking face!"

When they find a gun: "Do you think it works?"
"You're a drug-dealer! Aren't you supposed to know about that shit?"

And, at a dead end: "We're stuck in a fucking closet!"
"It's not a closet! It's a fucking pantry!"

Alright, I'll be straight with you. It's possible that if you have no fondness for New Orleans, and you have no fondness for the old Gothic Rock catalogue, there may not be much in it to tempt, outside of some major, super-charged cleavage. The demons look a little bit like KISS in their make-up, and although the ending is kind of a rip-off, it's accomplished with sufficient insouciance that you don't really mind. The poor girl, by that time, deserves a break.

Monday, November 17, 2014

samhainfest 2014: the fourth kind



*SPOILER ALERT*

(2009. dir: Olatunde Osunsanmi) We all know about alien abductions, right? the night-terrors, the unexplained lights and paralysis, the lost time, and, eventually, with courage, working through the memory-lapses to find salvation in truth. Right?

Well, forget your slanty-eyed greys and the lab-coat examinations, your antiseptic, minor implants and radiation burns. What if that false screen-memory of the owl outside your bedroom window is NOT there to block out a scientific, invasive but basically even-keeled little smooth-headed alien dude who wants to know more about your anatomical makeup? what if it's there to preserve your sanity against repeated molestations by ancient Sumerian demigods who are both insane and running rampant in a tiny, isolated community? always during the three o'clock hour, the hour of late-night anxieties, of hagridden nightmares, the "hour of the wolf"?

A movie compiled, sometimes simultaneously in split-screen, of dramatizations and "actual footage" (in the sense that old World Wrestling Federation matches can be generously called "actual footage"), it manages to deliver some creepy discomfort, largely through admirable underplaying from Milla Jovovich and Elias Koteas as Alaskan psychologists trying to make sense of a widespread sleeping disorder which involves shared hallucinations of a barn owl. If the most effective thing a horror film can do is to convince us, if only for a moment, that this world of mundanities in which we spend our days exists alongside and hard up against a Lovecraftian world of madness, horror and tentacles, and only our rhino-skin-solid walls of psychological denial, no doubt evolved from sheer necessity, allow us to continue living in it, then this movie achieves some measure of success.

As in much of the most effective horror, the bulk of the fear leaps up from suggestion, as the video footage is mostly obscured by static when the entities are present. The rest of it comes with the hypnosis sessions, in which puzzled victims are led back into lost memories and wake screaming, hyperventilating, real Arthur Machen type terror, the kind where a person is ready to claw their eyes out rather than look again on what they've just seen. Let's hand it to these actors, then, particularly to Corey Johnson and Enzo Cilenti, for some really convincingly Grand Guignol, hair-whitening panic, in the old, relentless, Dionysian sense. They had me fully creeped out. I had a hard time walking into the darkest corner of my bedroom after watching it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

samhainfest 2014: the quiet ones



(2014. dir: John Pogue) It's a new Hammer Film, and it's "inspired by true events." In fact, accompanying the end credits, we are shown old photographs of what we are to assume are the original players in the real-life game. Very crafty.

The incident by which this was purportedly "inspired" is famous in Fortean circles, known as "the Philip Experiment". A group of Canadian intellectuals gathered in Toronto in the mid-70s with the aim of creating a ghost, or, more exactly, a tulpa, or collective thought-form, which would behave in the manner of a ghost. They began by creating a fictional character, an old Elizabethan named Philip Aylesford, gave him a life-story with details, even a portrait. Once they knew him very well, they began "table-tipping", trying to rouse him into communication. After a good year of very little happening, Philip came to life with a vengeance: not only rapping answers to questions on the table, but making it dance and levitate, lowering lights and temperatures at request.

Such stuff, although interesting in context of real life, is not particularly cinematic. The movie gives us something more traditional: a troubled girl locked in a room and tortured "for her own good" so that she will psychically manifest apparently supernatural phenomena. A professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford sequesters a small group of students in a spooky mansion to monitor the girl using the latest technology, bombarding her with loud music (Slade's version of "Cum on Feel the Noize", which had to sound just dreadfully vulgar in 1973), pulling her out of her cage now and then to strap her up with wires and berate her until she contacted "Evie", the evil alternate personality they were hoping to conjure. (The philanthropic idea was to get her to project the malignant personality into a foreign object, a doll, then destroy it along with its container, thereby freeing the girl from her madness. Brilliant, right? What could go wrong?)

In short, none of the movie bears any resemblance to anything that's probably ever happened outside of a horror film studio. It's well done, though, with Jared Harris leading the pack, a few shocks and chills along the way, a disappointing end, but a brilliant feel for the time and place.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

samhainfest 2014: the house of dark shadows



(1970. dir: Dan Curtis) The movie was cashing in on the TV series, which had been a monster hit (sorry) since 1966. The genius of the franchise was that it was the first time soap opera was melded with Gothic, or with the supernatural at all, now a staple combination on cable channels everywhere, from Grimm to Penny Dreadful to Sleepy Hollow. Not only did it bring the supernatural elements of the Gothic novel, it brought to the forefront that dreadful and steadfast Gothic law that, to some extent, the victim willingly submits. Possibly against his (her) conscious will, possibly in spite of the ego and the left brain, but, comes the moonlight, the Gothic victim is like an addict and cannot explain in the light of day what he (she) has gotten up to in the night. Crucially, the one intended victim in this movie who does NOT submit has yet to approach sexual maturity, and so, it is implied, is still thinking straight, and runs away to safety instead of relaxing into ecstasy and death.

Dark Shadows, Barnabas Collins and his whole dysfunctional clan, are so deeply imbedded in my underconscious that the tendrils could not possibly be weeded out of my psyche: the incomparable theremin music floating over waves crashing in Collinsport Harbor, the shiver-inducing sight of Collinwood Mansion, hunkered over, watching and simultaneously embodying all manner of malignancy and evil from beyond the reach and ken of mankind. If you scroll down through the "full cast" listing on IMDB, you see roles listed like "Ghost of One-Armed Man", "Figure Holding a Knife", "Zombie", "The Werewolf", and "Bat". It inspired the one and only time I ever switched off a television set out of sheer fright. I remember, vaguely, a dead man's head in a glass tank sitting in the parlor, and much concerned talk over it, and the camera lingering far too long and suggestively on it, until I was certain its eyes would open, and it would be a moment of Lovecraftian revelation too horrible to be withstood, it would have transported me beyond the Despair Event Horizon, and I would never have found my way back into the innocence of childhood. So I switched it off. Amazingly, my left-brain, science-only, no-nonsense brother concurred with the decision. To this day I don't know what happened with that head, but in my under-psyche, it's something unspeakably, unsurvivably dreadful.

This two-hour introduction incorporates many of the accepted vampire tropes: the beast is unchained from his bondage by a treasure-seeking Renfield (John Karlen), feeds himself back into strength, reintegrates with his family, where he finds the spittin' image of his long-lost love is employed as governess, and becomes obsessed with sharing eternity with her as his undead bride. Meanwhile, there is a whole ton of barely-suppressed lust and dark ecstasy brought to light by the introduction of the beast, and death is so fully and successfully associated with sexual satiation as to reach a certain level of shamelessness, which in no way curtails its enjoyment. It is lurid, unabashed, bodice-ripping, penny-dreadful, pulpy, potboiler greatness, done with a small budget and wildly divergent levels of talent in both acting and writing.

My favorite character is Dr. Julia Hoffman, indelibly played by Grayson Hall, she of the magnificent cheekbones. Although in reboots her character was played by the great Barbara Steele and then again by Helena Bonham-Carter, a general favorite of mine, nobody can touch the original. Her role in the initial plot is to isolate the "vampire cell" and offer to "cure" Barnabas of his affliction, but, on the brink of success, as is fitting in a Gothic story, the empirical is overwhelmed, utterly submersed, by the interfering demands of human emotion, and the beast remains, thank all the eldritch gods, incontrovertibly bestial.

samhainfest 2014: dwight frye double feature



*SPOILER ALERT, BOTH FILMS*

the Vampire Bat: (1933. dir: Frank R. Strayer) Blue-tinted like a silent film, written and acted like an old play, it's a vampire movie without anything supernatural, and in that sense it resembles a Val Lewton movie: supernature permeates it, and yet it cannot be pinned down, and, in the end, is dismissed with a sigh of relief. Melvyn Douglas is a policeman (although we never really see him at work), Fay Wray some sort of scientific assistant (although we only see her sort of dawdling amidst beakers and Bunsen burners in a fetching white lab-coat), and they are both ridiculously American to be running around in a lugubrious castle plagued by bats and howling wolves.

Dwight Frye, who made a career of playing The Renfield Character in horror films, including in the original Dracula, plays Herman, a crazy-eyed half-wit who is scapegoated when the village decides the mysterious deaths plaguing them are the work of a vampire, just because the victims all have fang-punctures in their necks and their bodies are drained of blood. Melvyn Douglas, the rationalist, naturally scoffs at the notion, but poor Herman has a fondness for raising bats to keep as pets, so he's done for. In the end, it turns out there is a mad scientist at the back of it all, and the town's bat-infestation is merely synchronicitous.

There are a few rather lovely visuals which are reminiscent of the old, beautiful vampire classics (Dreyer's Vampyr, Murnau's Nosferatu, Browning's Dracula): a torch-bearing mob pouring every which way, bat-like, into a cave in pursuit of Herman. A disembodied, nebulous bodily organ pulsating in a tank in front of a splayed, unconscious victim. The "vampire" creeping up on his sleeping prey while dressed in an opera cloak and slouch hat, as if he stepped out of a Toulouse-Lautrec print. On the whole, it's slow, the humor plods, and only the piercing gazes of Frye and Lionel Atwill inspire any chills, but it's an interesting oddity.



Dead Men Walk: (1943. dir: Sam Newfield) It begins with a challenge: "How can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell within the limitless ocean of the night?" and, later: "We're all quick to call insane any mentality that deviates from the conventional."

We open at a funeral. The casket is open, the minister invites anyone who cares to view the deceased to come forward. After an uncomfortable moment, an older man (George Zucco) rises reluctantly and looks into the coffin at his own face, the face of his twin.

The dead twin was evil; the living is a doctor, a kind man, a paragon of virtue. This is both a vampire and a Jekyll & Hyde story. When the doctor sees the leeringly malicious face of his dead brother out the second-floor window of a dying woman's bedchamber, we cannot help but imagine for a moment that it is his own reflection he sees, himself as he truly is. And when the end-battle comes, we know that if the evil brother is to be destroyed, it will be the good one who does it, and he must sacrifice himself in the doing.

The vampirism itself comes not from the traditional curse passed on from another, but is conjured purposefully by the Crowleyesque brother through black magics in his relentless hunger for a powerful immortality. Moonlight is repeatedly associated in the script with lovers, and it is only beneath the lover's moon when the monster can walk. Once again, as in the most effective vampire stories, a virgin on the brink of matrimony is the slowly fading victim, as if her own opening to sexuality invokes the demonic energy. Her fiancee, a young doctor, is woefully misplayed by Nedrick Young, who in profile looks very much like Leonard Cohen and communicates all the emotions of a garden vegetable, but who was primarily a screenwriter (the Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Jailhouse Rock) blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and so can grudgingly be forgiven his stiffness in front of the camera. Dwight Frye again plays the Renfield character, and does it with his usual, eerie, wild-eyed flair.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

samhainfest 2014: tormented


(1960. dir: Bert I. Gordon) ...or, as the poster reads, "Tormented by the She-Ghost of Haunted Island!" Crazy, dad! Director Gordon, responsible for such classics as Attack of the Puppet People and War of the Colossal Beast, ramps the action down a few notches but doesn't let up on the camp, making for a truly strange, Ed-Woodian evening of ghost story. Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) plays jazz piano for a living but lives on a tiny, secluded island full of wealthy vacationers in the northern Atlantic. He's about to marry a rich broad, Meg, who wears Doris Day's wardrobe and walks like her, too, and is utterly clueless, and happy to remain so, as to the dark depths lurking within her purported beloved's psyche.

We see his darkness straight off because we are introduced to him as he fights with an ex-girlfriend, a sultry, faux-Marilyn chanteuse (Juli Reding) who will destroy his life before she lets anyone else have him. The introduction is a good one: we begin with waves crashing violently and continually against rocks under the credits, then Stewart narrates, Sunset Boulevard-like, as we travel across the picturesque beach to a decrepit lighthouse, then up the stairs toward the bickering voices. It allows us to relax into the beauty of the place without fully trusting it before we are thrown in with the more wooden, two-dimensional human inhabitants. Right away we watch the incident which jump-starts the whole shebang: Stewart doesn't exactly KILL his evil chanteuse, he just ALLOWS her to fall to her death. And, almost immediately, his guilt starts to drive him nuts.

There's a slightly agitated, not quite histrionic, jazz score splashing up near constantly against the action, and it helps, rather than hinders, keeping the tension alive. Unfortunately, the supernatural occurrences (footsteps in the sand, a hand crawling across the floor, a head without a body conversing naturally from atop a table until Stewart wraps it in a cloth and tosses it down the stairs, where he finds it is only a bouquet of flowers, an incriminating phonograph record switching itself repeatedly on) are so clumsily done as to elicit only laughter, and the film lacks any semblance of the Polanski-touch, that dark, awful sense of slow-encroaching madness and the strange behaviors it inspires in its victims (see the Tenant, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, the Ghost Writer, Macbeth, and no doubt a hundred other examples from his body of work) which it sorely needs.

You can't write it off entirely, though. A young Joe Turkel (the genius robot-maker in Blade Runner, that cadaverous, spooky-assed barman in the Shining), looking wonderfully Stephen McHattie-ish, is assured and ominous as a hep-cat ferry-man with an attitude who susses out the situation and tries to wrangle money from the knowledge. The wedding, when it finally comes, has an organ-played processional which sounds like a funeral march and all the flowers decay beneath a breath of maledictory wind. Stewart's true love, interestingly enough, turns out to be Meg's nine-year-old sister, Sally (played by the director's daughter, Susan, who had a long and successful television career until she grew up). Sally is forthright from the beginning about her devotion to him, telling Stewart plainly that he is marrying the wrong sister. And, indeed, whereas the older girl willfully blinds herself to necessary truths, Sally sees her beloved clearly, sees his increasingly erratic behavior, even watches him do murder, and still fights through her fears to stand by her man.

The MST3K crew has already done a job on this movie, which I'm guessing is probably very funny. Meanwhile, the sheer strangeness of it makes it a good time on its own.