Wednesday, December 3, 2014

samhainfest 2014: allison hayes triple feature

Disembodied: (1957. dir: Walter Grauman) You could call Allison Hayes the poor man's Jane Russell and you wouldn't be too far off-base. She suffered bad luck under the studio system, but that's to our advantage, because she wound up one of the original scream-queens, one of the greats.

In this ill-conceived and badly-written supernatural melodrama, Hayes is the Great White Voodoo Queen, leading the necromantic rituals of an unnamed native tribe in an unnamed jungle in deepest Africa. (One of my favorite lines is when the white men are awakened by drums and Paul Burke says, "It sounds like it's coming from the jungle," as if there's a second choice, as if in the jungle hut's back yard there's a nice rolling savannah they just never show us.) She's got the sex appeal and charisma to carry this femme fatale, but it's so badly written, incorporating so many unmotivated actions and crazy choices, that it's no great success. Also, and more damningly, her dances during the voodoo rituals are absurdly choreographed, and she winds up looking pretty silly doing them. The action never really gets rolling, the pace constantly derailed by the archenemies pausing to have a nice talk over tea cosies, some of it a lot of nonsense touching on Pythagoreans and metempsychosis, which makes no sense except to prepare us for one nice effect, when one of the natives switches personalities with one of the white men (ala "Turnabout Intruder" from the third season of Star Trek).

Still, she looks great, and when she hears her prey approaching the house and hikes up her skirt to show off the gams, you know the poor sod hasn't got a chance.


Zombies of Mora Tau: (1957. dir: Edward L. Cahn) These zombies walk underwater out into the sea; you can tell them from a distance because they're often adorned with seaweed. They have the 100-yard gaze, but otherwise look like men, and somehow their sailors' clothes from fifty years prior are still pretty neat and well-darned. They're guarding a chest of diamonds which was stolen from a local temple (this, also, is in darkest Africa, of course). Every so often a new expedition of white men come seeking the diamonds, and the old white lady of the island, widow of one of the zombies, shows the newest group the graveyard of all the men who've come, tried, failed, and either been buried or, if you don't get them into the ground fast enough, resurrected as the walking dead.

Sound like Pirates of the Caribbean? Well, it is, except without the charm or skill of execution. There are some chills, as when the ingenue is stolen by one of the zombies and dumped on the floor in the sort of bomb-shelter where the undead bunk down. The zombies all silently rise from their coffins (now, why do they sleep in coffins, again?) and gaze at her in utter silence before beginning, slowly, to encroach. (Don't worry. She gets saved.) Mostly it's pretty silly, but fun to watch. The diamonds are in a safe in the hold of a sunken ship, and the men diving have to fight off zombies underwater, which is not, I assure you, the makings of an exciting fight-scene.

Because she's an obvious slut, Hayes' character gets hers early on and becomes the only she-zombie amongst 'em. It's nice to see her man hit her with all his clout and the force of it bounce off her as if she's made of stone. In the end, the Old Widow "destroys" the diamonds (by tossing them out of a boat into water about a foot deep, where anyone could just reach down and grab them up again), and the zombies all vanish, their clothes fall into neat piles on the ground, and their souls, at last, are at rest. It's completely, entirely absurd, and a lot of fun to watch.

the Hypnotic Eye: (1960. dir: George Blair) I remember this one from when I was a kid, although I didn't remember it until the climactic, rather shocking moment. Beautiful girls are maiming themselves after they see a stage hypnotist at work. The early part about the girls and their auto-mutilations has almost a Sam Fuller feel to it, the perverse shock of it, but there are great hunks of the film devoted to Jacques Bergerac and his pretty dull mesmerism act (although, I'm here to tell you, when somebody keeps describing the taste of a lemon, your mouth really does react as if you're tasting it) and to a dull policeman (Joe Patridge) bumbling around trying to solve the crime. He patronizes his girlfriend (Marcia Henderson) when she gets the idea that the hypnotist is involved, letting her take all the risks, following her petulantly, almost letting his jealousy get her killed. He's patronizing to her friend, too, who defaces herself with sulfuric acid (which she just had sitting around the house. The fifties were a crazy time), disbelieving her when she claims that she really was hypnotized.

Hayes has the strong woman role here, and she's far more interesting than the suave, French magician himself. Even while she's lurking in the background her presence is powerful, and when she steps to the fore, she does it with a vengeance. To the film's credit, it doesn't pause to explain her motivations; it doesn't have to. If it weren't for the protracted clumsiness of the "let's hypnotize the cinema audience" scenes, this would have been a small but intriguing success.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

samhainfest 2014: snippets

the House that Dripped Blood: (1971. dir: Peter Duffel) An anthology of horror stories, lackadaisically encased within an unconvincing "the house gives people what they deserve" framework, and ranging in quality from the engaging (Christopher Lee moves in with his daughter and is less than forthright with the new governess about his sweet little girl's true nature) to the downright silly (Jon Pertwee is a movie star who buys an "authentic" vampire cloak, which turns out to bestow the actual curse and powers of the vampire upon the wearer). Good acting by the likes of Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott lift it above its under-par effects (a wax figure whose siren-like charms supposedly draw men to their deaths is heavy-featured, frumpy and petulant-faced, tossing a farce-like wrench into the works, and when Ingrid Pitt "flies" then "turns into a bat", the clumsy mechanisms involved bring the words "Ed Wood" to mind).

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch: (1982. dir: Tommy Lee Wallace) The infamous "but wait! where's Michael?" episode in the very long Halloween sequence, it's really a decent watch. It has an interesting story, Tom Atkins is always a stalwart lead, and Dan O'Herlihy as the evil mask-maker is fantastic.

Oculus: (2013. dir: Mike Flanagan) Effective and inventive psychological/supernatural thriller, about a mirror which is either an evil mastermind which devours life around it and lures its prey by planting illusions in the mind, or else a scapegoat which two grown siblings target to excuse the bloody demise of their parents. The acting is good, Katee Sakhoff will be my favorite scream-queen if she keeps going with it, and by the end, you'll be questioning yourself what is illusion and what is not. The scene in which the brother and sister stand outside safely in the yard, watching themselves standing in peril inside in front of the mirror and wondering if they are the real humans or if the other two are is mind-twistingly suspenseful.

the Reeds: (2010. dir: Nick Cohen) Small-cast English horror venture going for something along the lines of Christopher Smith's Triangle. It's got some decent acting, and the locale, a chartered boat lost in a landscape of narrowing canals pushing through desolate reeds, is low-budget effective. It's a power-place: something about the reeds "captures" those who die there, in effectively haunting variance of levels, sometimes mere breaths and suggestions, sometimes as corporeal as you and me. Some time-displacement gets woven into the mix, and it very nearly approaches success, but not quite. In the end, it reaches for one too many clever turns, goes one earth-shaking coincidence too far, and leaves us behind.

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.


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


(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.