Saturday, October 31, 2009
The following essay is my contribution to Kevin J. Olson's Italian Horror Blog-a-Thon, which features multiple links to all manner of fascinating and fun reading on this rich, Halloween-appropriate topic. Kevin writes the essential, and now eternally-Inglourious Basterds-linked blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Thanks for the invitation to participate in this gathering, Kevin. It has been all kinds of fun!
I come here not to bury Lucio Fulci (he died in 1996), but to praise him. At least this once. It’s time to admit that I’ve never much been one for the all-stops-pulled brand of zombie horror that gained Fulci his greatest degree of notoriety, at least here in the States among hard-core horror fans. I saw Zombie (originally known in Italy as Zombi 2) on its original run through America back in 1980 and have seen it a couple of times since, and I’ve never been able to key in on what his fans found to be so special about his work, beyond his coal-black take of humanity (a brand of nihilism that has always seemed to be too easy to come by and perhaps a little too fashionably adopted by some of his faithful) and his willingness to push the limits of the spectacle of gore. In the years since I’ve managed to see The House by the Cemetery and The New York Ripper, which both seemed pretty repellent to these eyes, and The Beyond, which was as visually spectacular as it was deeply silly. So while not particularly offended by the work of Fulci’s that I’ve seen (okay, there are moments in The New York Ripper I wouldn’t be too quick to try to defend), the word I would use to describe my feeling about his movies would probably be “indifferent,” which is why I thought, given his following, he might be a good candidate to write about for Kevin Olson’s Giallo Blog-a-thon.
But when I went to IMDb to begin my perfunctory research of the director I discovered that, before he became noted for the zombie pictures he had quite a career behind him already. Fulci’s first picture was released in 1959, and among those movies there are the requisite thrillers, of course, a comedy or two, a James Bond knockoff, even a couple of westerns. And more than any of his movies I’d seen so far, I really enjoyed discovering some of the titles for Fulci’s movies, their Italian names and especially the monikers with which they were dubbed in other countries. Some of the juicy nuggets I found include: Come inguaiammo l’esercito (known in the U.K. as How We Got Into Trouble With the Army), Colpo gobo all’italiana, a.k.a. Getting Away With It the Italian Way, which was translated literally in the U.K. as Hunchback Italian Style (!!!), Tempo di massacre (Massacre Time), The House of Clocks, The Ghosts of Sodom, A Cat in the Brain, a little morsel called The Senator Likes Women which, translated from its longer Italian title in the U.K. became The Senator Likes Women… Despite Appearances and Provided the Nation Doesn’t Know, Una sull’altra (a.k.a. One on Top of the Other which became in France Perversion Story), and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. These last two titles come highly recommended by Fulci enthusiasts who note their placement at the roots of the giallo genre, which were initially much more closely entangled with murder mystery than the onslaught of bloody guts which characterized the later zombie films.
The third giallo directed by Fulci, immediately following Una sull’altra (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), was the equally perversely titled Don’t Torture a Duckling (1971) which, in Italy, was known as Don’t Torture Donald Duck. (Undoubtedly fear of reprisals from the Mouse House was behind the adopting of the more generic water fowl featured in the U.S. release title.) And beyond my curiosity about a movie with such a weird name, I was very interested to see what a Fulci movie sans the living dead would look and feel like given that everything I’d seen of his to this point was all grime and nastiness and general ineptitude decorated with buckets full of grue and shock effects. And from the very first striking images, Don’t Torture a Duckling announced itself to this cynic as something very different from what I’d experienced before. In a series of gorgeous Panavision long shots over which the credits play, we see the rolling hills of a beautiful Italian countryside and how they have been interrupted, violated by a long, elevated highway (itself strangely beautiful) which snakes its way through the landscape announcing the impact of modern civilization on the tiny village over which it runs.
It’s a memorable way to introduce the movie’s overriding theme of a clash of cultural assumptions which reveal that the forces of modernity may be no more enlightened than the village’s superstitious, intolerant and relatively atavistic citizenry. The movie’s thematic strands are expanded when we witness an anguished woman unearth the skeleton of a tiny baby, perhaps stillborn, perhaps murdered, her hands bloodied by tearing at the earth as she carries it away. Later, a child is abducted from this rural Southern Italian village, and the carabinieri, a team of local police augmented by city officers, arrest Guiseppe, a local simpleton, when he is caught collecting the ransom money. But as it will become apparent in Fulci’s narrative, what appears to be true may not be, or may have hidden angles, truths within truths. Giuseppe admits the extortion but claims that the boy was already dead when he found him, and while he is in custody another child’s body is found.
The focus immediately shifts to two other suspects: Patrizia (the luscious Barbara Bouchet), a well-off, spoiled and decadent woman who has returned to the village where her father was born to wait out the heat from a drug scandal of some sort, and Maciara (Florinda Bolkan, superb and fearless), the woman we saw earlier digging up the bones of her baby. Already looked at with suspicion by the locals, Maciara has been driven to the brink of madness over grief at the loss of her own child, and on top of that she may be a witch. After a third body is discovered, she attempts to hide but is soon captured. It is here that Fulci drops his first narrative bomb: Maciara, already seen covering the corpse of one of the victims with earth, her hands bloodied in the same way we saw them earlier, confesses to killing all three boys with her black magic. But when it soon becomes apparent that she couldn’t have killed the third child she is released, an act of legal justice which nonetheless condemns her to a horrific death at the hands of outraged locals who have perhaps always hated or been frightened by her and who now have moral grounds (however specious) on which to unleash their rage.
One of the rural officers advises against releasing Maciara out of fear of just such a result, and it is from this reluctance of the urban-based officers to understand or fully comprehend the differences which operate within these two worlds that Fulci wrings the richest thematic juice out of his narrative. The observation of stereotypes streak straight through Don’t Torture a Duckling, whether they be the guttural behavior of a mob screaming for revenge, or the salacious tendencies of a slinky, somewhat perverse seductress as she torments a horny 10-year-old boy (who has been hypnotized by the sight of her nude body) with suggestions of a sexual initiation, or the superiority (or even simple functionality) of civilized morality in a setting where other mores and codes may more strongly apply. But Fulci gives more than a suggestion to their flip sides as well. Are the stereotypes justified, or do they reveal degrees of opposite truth? We’re asking the questions right up to the point where the movie forces us to face our own presumptions as audience members, and those of the characters, about the capacity of a mentally challenged girl to understand her situation, as well as our faith in figures of religious authority. (Rest assured, Fulci has none, and though his point of view got him and this movie into trouble in Italy in 1971, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that a large portion of the population—though perhaps still not in Italy—has caught up to his cynicism regarding men of the cloth.)
Don’t Torture a Duckling (the title refers to a doll purchased for the aforementioned mentally challenged girl by Patrizia) is a tight, fascinating, visually acute thriller which, for all of its relative sophistication in the Fulci oeuvre, reveals a filmmaker who was, in 1971, considerably more than the uninspired hack whose career devolved into ever more lurid and inept gross-outs. (Fulci’s zombie fests were apparently heavily tampered with, so it’s possible that I’ve never been exposed to a true representation of his genius in this field, but honestly, what’s left on screen that is clearly of his origin doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.) My most immediate frame of comparison, given my limited exposure to Fulci’s work, is to look at Duckling up next to The New York Ripper which, incredibly, features a psycho who disguises his voice by quacking and imitating Donald Duck. Ripper is grindhouse grimy and lumpy, and prone to extended episodes involving the lovingly observed evisceration and nipple-slicing of naked and bound female victims which make it hard to refute charges of misogyny against the director. Duckling, on the other hand, is brutal and visually elegant, sometimes even funny, and in it Fulci clearly harbors more sympathy for the women than the movie's often barbaric or self-righteous men. Duckling also highlights far more narrative sophistication than I would have ever thought possible of Fulci. The last half of this movie had me reevaluating characters and situations and processing visual clues and red herrings at a highly pleasurable rate.
And the evidence of Fulci’s visual mastery is everywhere—from the beautiful, corrupted landscapes (that elevated highway is inexplicably haunting), to the director’s frequently witty graphic continuity in the film’s visual connective tissue (imagery of fetuses and small babies abound), and the fluidity of his use of split-frame deep focus in which two impossible close-ups are married in wide-screen Panavision and given equal emotional and graphic weight. This last trope in particular recalls the heights to which Brian De Palma would eventually take the same technique, and as I prepared for this blog-a-thon by watching Duckling and also Giuilano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris, the influences on De Palma became fascinating to note. Carnimeo stages a couple of murderous set pieces, one in an elevator, that present evidence of his film’s influence on Dressed to Kill, and in Duckling Maciara’s horrific beating at the hands of a group of men led by the father of one victim, and her struggle to find help as she drags herself up a hillside and beside a road, has some of the same agonizing visceral power and emotional laceration one experiences witnessing the ordeal and eventual death of Oanh in Casualties of War. I can think of no higher praise for a director who has been accused of enjoying the tortures he has inflicted upon his female characters. Would that the evidence to refute such claims n Fulci’s work extended beyond Don’t Torture a Duckling. (That’s an invitation, Fulci fan, to write in and lead me to more evidence to the contrary, by the way!)
On the strength of Don’t Torture a Duckling I am confidently off to discover what else about Fulci I might be ignoring as others rush to celebrate the excesses of his tedious (to my eyes) late period. In particular, I cannot wait to see the two gialli that preceded Duckling-- A Lizard in a Woman Skin also stars the magnificent Florinda Bolkan—and I absolutely must know what a western by Lucio Fulci looks and feels like. But I also have to admit being kind of tickled thinking of what rabid fans of Fulci’s hard-core decayed flesh opuses might make of this movie. It definitely has its blood-splattered highlights (including what must be the funniest fall from a great height ever committed to film, Fulci’s official calling card re the gory standards to which the rest of his career would aspire), but it is so much more subdued, so much more concerned with what have to be considered classical cinematic values (as least in comparison to Zombi 2) that, Kevin J. Olson excepted, I wonder if the Fulci faithful would be as patient with this one. Don’t Torture a Duckling also features the best cast of any Fulci movie I’ve seen—in addition to the pulchritudinous delights afforded by Barbara Bouchet and the freaky, heart-wrenching performance of Florinda Bolkan, there’s Tomas Milian as a sympathetic reporter who initially suspects Patrizia of the crimes and then teams with her to seek out the real killer, Marc Porel as Don Alberto, the priest of the local parish who anguishes over several things, perhaps the least of which is the disappearance of the three boys, and revered Greek actress Irene Papas as the mother of the aforementioned duckling-bearing retarded child (as well as another of the cast of characters), whose own mental stability is shrouded in secrets and doubt. Best do as I did: put aside your distaste for the Lucio Fulci of Zombie and The New York Ripper and give this one a spin. The title may seem perverse and silly, but Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling turns out to be one of the crown jewels of the Italian giallo genre.
For further reading, I recommend essays by Tor at BloodyGoodHorror.com, Nik Allen at 70sFastRewind.com, Christian Sellers at RetroSlashers, and a rather brilliant visual exegesis of the movie’s visual motifs, including the rural vs. urban, pagan vs. Christian dichotomies, as well as a look at that fall from a great height I mentioned previously, from Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr at the wonderful (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) blog Destructible Man, devoted to "The Theory And Practice of Cinematic Prosthetic Demise (a.k.a. The Dummy-Death In Film)." DM is where I appropriated some of the great screen grabs featured in this post. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 9:45 AM
Friday, October 30, 2009
Plenty of other stuff to get to and no time to do it until after work tonight, but even so, this one was to good to pass up. Thanks for the tip on this one go to Andrew Blackwood, who in addition to being a good friend and one of this blog's original loyalists also directed a short film comedy called Kumar's Day at the Park (featuring my two lovely daughters in pivotal supporting roles) which is set to have its premiere this coming Sunday. Hopefully there will be an uploaded version I can share that will become available soon. Until then, pity poor Max, who can't get a rise out of these sullen bastards even dressed like a Wild Thing. ("Is that vintage, or is that faux designer chic?")
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 11:38 AM
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
There are a couple of restless spirits swirling about the turbulent emotional center of Golden Earrings, and though one in particular haunts the characters within the fabric of the film itself, it is the second that haunts the viewer long after the movie is over. Directed and written by actress Marion Kerr (who plays one of those spirits), the movie begins, as so many independently financed and produced movies that must make do with readily available settings seem to, as a group of friends gather in an apartment for a going-away party. Sara (Kerr) is off for a long weekend to visit her mother after a fight with her estranged boyfriend. Sara is somewhat distraught over the decision to take the trip and she tries to hide her nervous tension, but the five friends who are there to support —three men (John T. Woods, Teddy Goldsmith , Anthony Dimaano) and two women (Julia Marchese and Lauren Mora)—pick up on her ambivalence quickly. At first the gathering looks like it’s going to be yet another occasion for post-Tarantino slacker gab over pizza and beer, but the writer-director disarms this fear with relative ease. The rhythm of the group’s chatter may seem familiar at first, but as Kerr’s calm inquisitive attitude toward the dynamics of the relationships at the kitchen table begins to reveal itself it becomes clear she, thankfully, has something else up her sleeve.
Ronnie (Julia Marchese) is taking Sara’s departure with a heavier heart than the others, and her interaction with Sara as Sara prepares to leave reveal the bonds of a long, perhaps tense, but meaningful friendship that, at least as Ronnie sees it, may be being threatened by Sara’s decision to consider reuniting with her boyfriend. There’s a suggestion of sexual attraction on Ronnie’s part, but that element is part and parcel of the kind of intense relationship that often develops between women which often goes unspoken, unacknowledged, and is only a fraction of what forms the bond in the first place. Kerr and Marchese are comfortable with the suggestion, but it doesn’t overtake their conception of how the two women relate to each other. With a few short strokes in the film’s first 15 minutes they fulfill what Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox could not in the entirety of Jennifer’s Body-- that is, conveying to the audience the understanding of how two clearly different women—one confident, the other insecure-- could survive everyday adversity and interpersonal tension while remaining friends, as well as what would compel that friendship in the first place. (And there’s no need for the tease of hot girl-on-girl action to fill in the holes in the characters left by the writer and director in Golden Earrings.)
Sara leaves and the group is left to their own devices for the evening. Ronnie suggests they have a round on the Ouija board and they all jump in, save Goldsmith who abstains (his elucidation of his reasons why is an early highlight). The group apparently makes contact with a recently deceased spirit who, to their horror, reveals itself to be that of Sara. Attempts to contact their friend via phone are unsuccessful and the group begins to suspect the worst—that Sara may have had a fatal accident shortly after leaving the apartment. But no one fears more than Ronnie, the depth of whose attachment to Sara begins to reveal itself, along with even darker undercurrents, as her terror begins to intensify and it becomes apparent, after her other friends have departed and she waits in her apartment for news of Sara’s fate, that something else may be going on. That Ouija game box won’t stay put away. A record of an old jazz vocalist keeps cueing up and playing on its own. Ronnie may not be alone.
Golden Earrings is a bit of a revelation on two counts. This is Marion Kerr’s first effort as a feature director. It is astonishing in that regard for its confidence, for the assurance she expresses through her use of the camera and for her ability to construct solid, emotionally suggestive scenes without the requisite visual gimmickry that is the typical hallmark of a first-time filmmaker. Kerr’s patience here (and her appeal and ability as an actress to hint at the tremulous inner-life of the outwardly strong Sara) are strengths which inform the movie as a whole and allow the creepiness that moves in like a silent, insistent fog to settle into the viewer’s bones. As Golden Earrings begins to reveal its psychologically anchored horrors in a manner befitting a minor-key Repulsion, Kerr’s directorial nuances, and restraint, become even more critical and impressive. Kerr turns the screws, all right, but at a slightly different angle and speed than what we may be prepared for. Like a deceptively tossed breaking ball, her talent for chilling an audience’s spine is right in the groove. She has the sharp instincts of an old pro, the curiosity and openness of a youngster, and a bright future in which to hone her relatively raw talent into something resembling a veteran filmmaker’s unique vision.
But even more impressive is the performance Kerr gets from her lead actress, Julia Marchese. In reality the two women are old friends, and they are able to channel that sense of experience into a very believable connection between Sara, who we sense is struggling to gain footing in life outside the sphere of her relationship with her best pal, and Ronnie, who is perhaps more comfortable in the existing dynamic between them than is advisable. So when Sara leaves the limited parameter of the world according to Ronnie (as we experience it), it’s not too surprising when that world begins to unravel. The real pleasure in watching Marchese here is that the unraveling is never ostentatious, showy or theatrical. Quite the opposite, Marchese seduces us into accepting what Ronnie sees, as she sees it, by underplaying the creeping unease and disorientation, never projecting beyond what we already have experienced ourselves through Kerr’s patient design. In the process, she proves herself to be an actress who rewards patient observation with a richness of empathy, and she has a lovely physical screen presence that proves integral to getting the viewer on her side. There are moments during which all we are given to register the unmoored fear Ronnie feels over Sara’s disappearance and her apparent reappearances is the contrapuntal placidity of Marchese’s expressive face as she surveys a trashed, empty room or stares off into ostensibly unoccupied space from her bed. But when the fear begins to surface in ever-more disturbing fashion, Marchese proves up to the task as well, offering the audience a classically modulated template of terror over which plays the conflicting emotions of hallucination, the cold fear of visitation from a deceased spirit, and the even more complicated prospect of a mind coming undone. It’s really a superb piece of acting, no less so because it comes in such a modest production, and it matches the movie’s ability to conjure emotional power from apparently meager resources. If Golden Earrings is any indication, however, Marchese’s resources are far from meager. Her work as Ronnie is astounding in that she manages aggressive, lapel-grabbing desperation at the same time as she begins to recede and curl away into memories of a world that was probably never exactly as she imagined or needed it to be. At no time does Marchese aim for the rafters, yet what she does here has a personal power to hit you in the chest as if she felt even the rafters weren’t high enough. Hers is the spectral presence that stays with you after the movie’s final frame.
If and when this movie makes it to the festival circuit, don’t be surprised if Julia Marchese is a name you start hearing more often. This is the caliber of acting that independent films often strive for, but rarely achieve. And Golden Earrings is proof positive that independent films can still sidestep the traps that have made the shortcut term “indie” synonymous with myriad D.I.Y. mediocrity and clichés. It’s a solid, affecting thriller with a star-making performance (in a perfect world) at the eye of its hair-raising emotional storm, and I hope you get a chance to see it soon
The trailer for Golden Earrings
Go to the Golden Earrings site for more information.
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 2:36 PM
Saturday, October 24, 2009
There used to be a day when parents complained about the dearth of G-rated family fare suitable for kids and adults who wanted to go to the movies together. Nowadays the G rating is as much a stigma as ever, only slightly less so than the NC-17, consigned mostly for animated fare from Disney, the only studio that recognizes its asociation with the rating and seems least hesitant to embrace it. However unfairly, “G” has become synonymous with “toothless,” a warning to tweener mall rats who wouldn’t be seen swarming into anything less potent than a PG, itself a rating which suggests a higher level of sophistication, a promise of ever-so-slight naughtiness to viewers who may see themselves as too grown-up to march off to a G-rated movie with their entourage in tow. For most CGI comedies and other family-oriented movies, Disney included, PG is the new G, and PG-13 is, of course, the new PG-- which, as it is written, was begat of M, which in turn begat GP, which, of course begat PG. (Rimshot!) But whatever the rating—G, PG, PG-13— in today’s market, pitched as it is to an increasingly younger demographic whose parents have proven their willingness to turn everything from Wall-E to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs into huge must-see hits, there is no lack of movies to which parents might (relatively speaking) safely bring their children. Right now if you’re an adventurous parent you have Where the Wild Things Are and Astro Boy from which to choose, with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and A Christmas Carol (the last two products of the Disney factory) looming on the horizon. And if these don’t fill the bill, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is still in theaters, and you can always rent the DVDs or Blu-rays of movies like Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens, big hits from earlier in the year.
But with all these choices, it is, if not exactly ironic, then at least somewhat reassuring, that the best choice for family entertainment in theaters right now, the greatest bang for an economically beleagured parent's entertainment budget, is a double feature of two movies, 14 and 10 years old, respectively. When it was first released by Pixar in 1995, Toy Story was the first salvo in a new wave of feature-length computer animation which initially asserted that the key to great animated films for children and adults was not the technology, which was constantly evolving, becoming ever more sophisticated, but instead the passion that should be devoted to the art of storytelling. By the time Toy Story 2 arrived in 1999 the technology had already moved along enough to make its predecessor look the slightest bit visually stodgy, although still miles ahead of what other companies, like Dreamworks, would cook up later with the likes of Shrek in apparently bottomless attempts to duplicate Pixar’s formula for success. To take advantage of the current vogue for 3D, Pixar has retrofitted their two Toy pictures with the latest in depth simulation, and it is pretty cool to see Woody, Buzz and company jump off the screen to the degree that they do. Never ones to just repackage and let live, Pixar has stitched the two pictures together with a spiffy 10-minute intermission created especially for this re-release featuring a countdown clock, more wacky “outtakes,” trivia and other fun stuff to make the time between features pass more quickly, and to make it harder to tear yourself away and hit the little boy’s room. (Go ahead and stay for the intermission, then take a whiz during the opening credits of Toy Story 2-- you’ve seen ’em a million time s anyway.)
While watching the movies again, with giant plastic glasses attached to my face, I became fascinated by how unaware I was at times that I was watching a 3D movie. Initially I chalked this reaction up to the notion that the movies didn’t originally lend themselves to the kind of visual gimmickry that could be exploited by 3D. But later, in reflecting upon them afterward, it became clear that the reason I “forgot” I was watching a 3D movie was that the experience didn’t seem appreciably different from the one I remembered having seeing them flat in 1995 and 1999 (and on DVD countless times since). In other words, the movies had already been rendered so lifelike, with such attention to tactile detail and congruity, even with the limitations of the 14-year-old pioneering technology, that in my head they were already 3D—the addition of spiffy Real-3D wizardry to “upgrade” the experience seemed superfluous, unnecessary. However, 3D or not, you may be saying to yourself, “I’ve had it with Pixar and the ancillary Toy Story marketing created to part me from my dollar on behalf of my insatiable kids.” And it’s true—after seeing Buzz and Woody on everything from lunch pails to towels to shoes to phones and everywhere else, one could be forgiven for crying “Enough!” So then the best thing about seeing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on their current re-release (which was originally scheduled for two weeks only but has been, as the parlance used to proclaim, held over by popular demand) turns out to be the opportunity to be reminded, despite supersaturated exposure via DVD and every other pop cultural outlet for exploitation Disney and Pixar could brainstorm over the past 14 years, just how genuinely terrific these movies are as filmmaking, as beautifully modulated stories. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and yes, your appetite will be whetted for the upcoming Toy Story 3 (this one created with 3D in mind), which looks to keep mining the same vein of emotionally rewarding exploration of the relationship between a child and the artifacts of his or her childhood. The folks at Pixar are awfully smart. And it turns out they always were.
And both movies are still proudly rated "G."
See for yourself: the trailer for Pixar's Toy Story 3
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 8:47 PM
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
SINISTER SHADOWS OF LIGHT AND PRINT: Goose-pimply Halloween Reads and The Horrors of L.A. Repertory Cinema
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” Edgar Allan Poe
“What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me.” John Carpenter
“It's as much fun to scare as to be scared.” Vincent Price
Remember when you were a kid and Mother’s Day or Father’s Day would come around, and you decided to feign a little jealousy just to see what it’d get you and you asked your mom or dad, “You’ve got Mother’s/Father’s Day, so how come there’s no Kid’s Day,” and they would invariably reply, “Because every day is Kid’s Day”? Remember that? Well, that’s how I imagine movie genres get to feeling around this time of year. Poor old Westerns, poor, neglected Romantic Comedies, poor, sad dejected old Crime Thrillers and Glossy Hollywood Blockbusters, why, they have no one month they can call their own, where one of them is singled out for celebration, and that’s primarily because, in the world of Internet film sites every day is dedicated to the exploration of one or all of these staples of narrative film genre. The horror film, however, in addition to the plethora of sites and niche bloggers devoted solely to the celebration of horror, from its critically acclaimed aspects to the most corrosively underground and in-your-face, and all the various shades of red in between, even gets writers not usually indulgent in scream fare to sit up straight and dive into the spirit of the Halloween season. And so it is here at SLIFR as well. I’ve got a few scare-oriented posts planned between here and Halloween, but I really felt like I wanted to kick-start the hard-core last two weeks before the holiday with a gathering of goodies to read and see, especially if you’re here in Los Angeles, that will help open your movie-going soul to the massaging, manipulation and eventual mastication at the hands (and claws, and fangs) of all the movie monsters available this year. Let’s not delay any longer. Crypt-keeper, take us away.
As you will have probably figured out by now, there are plenty of places on the Internet to go should you have the jones to find out about just about any aspect of the horror genre. If you’re reading this, you probably already have 40 or 50 of them bookmarked on your browser. So I’d just like to recommend three places out of the thousands you could investigate that might lead you to hours of pleasure and/or conversation about Creepy Things.
First off, there is the annual 31 Days of Horror festival underway at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, a site devoted, as you might have already guessed, to the celebration of films that tend to fly under the radar of the usual star-maker machinery, films that, until the advent of DVD and Netflix, were largely unavailable not only in flyover country but also in the major urban areas, where lip service is often paid to independent, repertory and foreign cinema but spotty distribution and meager public awareness is still the plague of the day. The 31 Days of Horror feature extends that exploratory philosophy to the excavating of worthy horror treats that might not be foremost on most people’s minds as they trudge to Blockbuster to rent scary flicks for their Halloween parties. You will not find a list of “The Ten Scariest Horror Movies,” topped inevitably by The Exorcist, Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween on this site. Just a screen grab of their home page will lead you to sharp, quick, entertaining and thoughtful considerations of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two (a movie oft celebrated on this blog as well), Mexican director Rafael Baledón’s The Man and the Monster (El hombre y el monstruo), Italian exploitation director Alberto de Martino’s Omen knockoff, Holocaust 2000 (starring Kirk Douglas!), Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim, Fraser Clarke Heston’s Needful Things, Jon Fasano’s rock and roll nightmare Black Roses, Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond and Christopher Theis’s Winterbeast. You can backtrack to reviews posted from October 1-10 as well, with 14 more to come. One obscure horror movie for each of the 31 days of October, get it? And each well-written review also features some further credits on the featured production as well as what company has made the movie available on home video, if such a luxury has been afforded to it. Not Coming to a Theater Near You is an essential bookmark for the entire year, but The 31 Days of Horror is ground-zero required reading for the discriminating horror buff who is quite sure she/he has seen it all, because delights will surely lie waiting within even for the horror completist crowd.
Fellow bloggers/writers Greg Ferrara and Bill Ryan have made a month of it as well, and the treasures they offer during October are not be dismissed as so much hokey vampire lore either. Greg’s Cinema Styles blog has devoted itself entirely to horror for the month, which means the blogmeister is approaching the genre from all kinds of different angles, from his ongoing Creepy Moments series to worthy reconsiderations of less-respected titles like John Carpenter’s Christine and John Moxey’s City of the Dead, to fine essays on beloved icons of the genre like Peter Cushing. Greg’s writing style is energetic and self-reflexive, and Cinema Styles has an inviting home-grown atmosphere that makes it perfect for his remodeling of the manse into its haunted variety this month.
Toward a decidedly more literary bent ventures Bill Ryan, his The Kind of Face You Hate renamed, for his October exercise in horror literature criticism and commentary, The Kind of Face You SLASH!, brings his natural born wit, sliver of crankiness, incredible profligacy and sharp observational wit to bear on an entire month’s worth of horror reading. He profiles authors like the Elephant in the Room (a.k.a. Stephen King), as well as writers with whom you should be—and will be, after Bill is through with you—familiar, such as John Collier, David G. Hartwell, T.E.D. Klein and Joe Hill. It’s enough to not only inspire a self-described horror aficionado like myself, but to make me feel downright illiterate as well. What these two blogger/writers are doing this month seems to these tired, yet nourished eyes, excessively devoted, herculean and especially admirable amidst a sea of jokesters who are as afraid of writing fully fleshed-out pieces as they assume their readership is of reading them. These two blogs, along with Not Coming’s series, offer the kind of serious, yet never dry or pretentious, examination of horror that would tend to give the genre a good name in more intellectual circles if those in those circles would only take time off from condescending to monsters to pay attention and take a longer, deeper look.
Finally, from the world of blogging, comes Kevin J. Olson’s sure-to-be-excellent Italian Giallo Blog-a-Thon, underway now and running straight up through Halloween at Kevin’s superb and ever-so-timely-named blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Those of us who have always enjoyed the excesses of Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, et al are guaranteed to have a good time reading and writing pieces for what is sure to be a widespread and wide-eyed celebration of this gory subgenre. And if you’re unfamiliar with giallo films Kevin’s blog-a-thon will be a good place to get familiar with the basics and discover strange and barely-beaten paths on which to stray from the “mainstream.” I will be contributing some thoughts on Fulci’s early and well-regarded Don’t Torture a Duckling (yes, you read that correctly) and a terrific 1971 thriller called The Case of the Bloody Iris (a.k.a. What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body), directed by Anthony Ascott (Guiliano Carnimeo), in which the lines connecting early giallo pictures to the De Palma of Dressed to Kill may actually outweigh the incessant comparisons to Hitchcock. The movie is also a spectacular fashion show, an incomparable showcase for the slight-off-balance beauty of giallo icon Edwige Fenech, who probably never looked more beautiful (or had so many wardrobe changes) as she did in this movie. Kevin, grazie for the brilliant blog-a-thon idea. We are all looking forward to the great list of references and links and all the reading and recommendations that will surely be the result of it.
(And even though it won’t happen until late November, here’s word on an upcoming Boris Karloff Blog-a-Thon sponsored by the mind-boggling blog Frankensteinia.)
Finally, before we turn our attention away from the electronically printed word, I wanted to point the way to some further links that will undoubtedly provide the horror-minded readers with some great bathroom literature and more good ideas for what to rent (or scavenge from some back-alley DVD company) for the Halloween season.
First, it’s not exactly a horror site, but writer Toby Roan, on his keen site 50 Westerns turns our attention to a long-forgotten Universal-International oater-horror hybrid entitled Curse of the Undead. No doubt in the same vein (sorry, I actually didn’t mean to do that) as those William Beaudine-directed clunkers Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Toby claims Curse of the Undead, in which a vampire and a gunslinger go toe-to-toe, to be a favorite from his childhood, and I must say I’m intrigued. It’s never been available on anything but VHS, however it is available digitally (can’t vouch for the source materials) right here.
Boy-y-y-y-y-y! Those for whom the preceding shout raises hackles of fear, as it echoes through the halls of a particularly creepy metaphysically challenging mausoleum in Don Coscarelli’s happily low-rent Phantasm, will be interested in this round table discussion on the movie. Featured are the imposing Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, director Coscarelli and unlikely horror icon Reggie Bannister, who has appeared in all the subsequent Phantasm films with Scrimm, as they talk about the movie’s 30th anniversary this year.
And finally, if you’re in Los Angeles and want great links and details to all the areas Halloween celebrations, whether they film, book or party-related, you should familiarize yourself, as I did this afternoon, with Creepy L.A. Los Angelenos will never have to go wanting for things to do during this time of year ever again, not with this blog bookmarked and virtually dog-eared.
“I like to watch.” – Chauncey Gardener
The act of watching is by nature and definition a passive act. But there’s Last Year at Marienbad passive (I’m talking physical inertia, not alleged brain function, Resnais-heads) and then there’s horror movie passive which, even if you want to turn your brain off (and that’s a hell of a lot harder to do than the anti-intellectual lobby would like to believe it is), deals in the physicality of frayed nerves, goose bumps, hands tensed around an arm rest (or someone else’s arm) and the sudden need to jump out of your seat or hit the floor behind the seat in front of you. Even absent the theatrical experience which, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right audience at the right venue, is as important as the cinematography and editing and sound to a nerve-racking night out at a horror movie, a good scary picture absorbed at home can still deliver the chills and make you want to hide under the covers, or at least pace nervously in front of the big-screen TV.
And there is, during this great month of monsters, so much to watch, and the irreplaceable Turner Classic Movies is as great a place as always to start. If you’re planning on staying at home during the next two weeks and need your horror fix, avail yourself of TCM’s amazing lineup and crave no more. They have several horror-themed series in October from which to choose: Directed by William Castle, a tribute to the schlockmeister that airs October 20 featuring five of his most representative works, including The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, Strait-Jacket and Castle’s 1963 version of The Old Dark House. October 25 is Meteor Night, in which the phenomenon of deadly creatures from outer space delivered via meteors crashing onto farms throughout middle America is exhaustively examined via a schedule which includes The Blob, Die, Monster, Die! and Riders to the Stars. On October 27 TCM brings us a Psychic Powers marathon, featuring such classics of the genre as Poltergeist, The Power, The Haunting (1963), Village of the Damned and, um, Escape to Witch Mountain.
As TCM inches us closer to Halloween, the programming gets even better. October 30 is a day and night devoted entirely to The Films of Boris Karloff, during which you’ll see 11 Karloff thrillers including The Ghoul, Before I Hang, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Isle of the Dead and several others. If you know Karloff only from his incarnation as the Frankenstein monster, or even as the familiar old icon from Targets and scores of Roger Corman-A.I.P. pictures, oh, what a world is about to open up to you courtesy of TCM.
Then, on Halloween Day, beginning at 6:00 a.m. EST, a lineup of classic terror as only TCM could assemble it in their annual Halloween Marathon. Starting off with the gothic mystery The Woman in White starring Eleanor Parker and Gig Young, the schedule just gets better and better, with such titles as Dead of Night, The Haunting (1963), and two excellent Vincent price starrers, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Diary of a Madman. But that’s not all. The marathon continues with Kent Jones’ superb documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, followed, of course, by two of Lewton’s greatest achievements, Cat People and its subtly creepy fairy-tale sequel Curse of the Cat People. This is a lineup that truly embodies the essence of Halloween at its most unnerving and quietly imposing, well worth TiVo-ing or sitting straight through with bag after bag of popcorn and, preferably, a hand to hold onto, or crush in terror.
Another network worth paying attention to over the Halloween weekend is the MGM HD Channel, available on DirecTV and other satellite services. The channel, which frequently offers premieres of movies not previously available in high-definition incarnations (their screening of Convoy earlier this year was, for me, a revelation), has a real trick-or-treat bag of gory goodies and believe-it-or-not baddies in store during their Dying for the Weekend HD horrorfest, which will run all day Saturday, October 31 and Sunday, November 1. There’s a fair amount of dreck tossed together with the real treats, but some of the highlights include HD showings of notorious ‘80s shockers like The Burning, The Believers and The Video Dead; a nod to the ‘70s American grindhouse featuring Roberts Blossom in the Ed Gein-inspired Deranged, Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left and William Smith in Grave of the Vampire; a dip into classic-period terrors like John Carradine in Revenge of the Zombies and Vincent Price in the original adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, entitled The Last Man on Earth; a Hammer vampire mini-festival with good HD looks at Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, plus Ralph Bates in Twins of Evil and the rarely-seen Vampire Circus; and, for good measure, the A.I.P. sequel The Return of Count Yorga, featuring Robert Quarry and Mariette Hartley, never before seen in HD. For a full listing of the schedule and times for each movie, including many not mentioned here, check out the Dying for the Weekend page on the MGM HD web site.
If you’re looking for inspiration for some of your Halloween rental choices, don’t forget that Trailers from Hell features new cult and horror trailers every week, along with commentary by directors like Joe Dante, Allan Arkush and Stuart Gordon, screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Josh Olson, among scores of others, laid directly over the trailers themselves. (You can also opt to just watch the trailer sans commentary.) It’s a safe bet that many of the movies often discussed in posts like this one, as well as hundreds of others that aren’t, are covered in the ever-growing Trailers from Hell archive. You can spend hours in there clicking and laughing and taking notes.
Photos by Lisa Rose.
Dante, a key part of the Trailers from Hell brain trust, has a new 3D horror film called The Hole which played the Venice Film Festival, but will not be ready for harvesting goose flesh this coming Halloween. Another Dante project will, though. It’s a series of Internet webisodes in a decidedly horrific vein entitled Splatter, created in collaboration with Dante’s mentor Roger Corman, their first creative collaboration in several years. Splatter, produced by Netflix, stars Corey Feldman as a rock music genius, Johnny Splatter, who accumulated as many enemies as hit records on his meteoric rise to the top. When Splatter’s sudden death is ruled a suicide, a small circle of professional parasites and hangers-on drift to his Hollywood Hills mansion for the reading of his last will and testament, ready to pick clean the bones of their late colleague. But Johnny unexpectedly returns long after what should have been his final curtain for a very bloody encore.
Photos by Lisa Rose.
The decidedly EC Comics vibe that a simple plot synopsis of Splatter exudes should be no surprise to fans of either Dante or Corman. What makes Splatter even more interesting is its interactive aspect. The first episode, scheduled to debut on October 29, two days before Halloween, can be seen for free on Netflix, and after each episode viewers will be able to vote on how the storyline should unfold, which basically translates as-- which nasty bastard licking his chops over Splatter’s coffin (where the undead rocker spends very little time) should next die a horrific and protracted death at the hands of the title character? The second episode will be available on November 6, and the finale, fittingly enough, on Friday, November 13. (You can learn more about the series and how to vote from the official Splatter press release.)
Roger Corman discusses Splatter> and working with Joe Dante
On the set of Splatter with Joe Dante
Of course, if you’re anywhere near a first-run multiplex in the United States you’ll be able to celebrate Halloween in the company of .mainstream horror pictures like Saw 6 (!!!), Zombieland (which I still haven’t seen), the remake of The Stepfather (which I choose to avoid at this juncture), and, if you’re lucky Paranormal Activity, which I am dangerously close to having heard too much about for its much-talked-about freshness factor to be fully effective. It should be noted too that Lars Von Trier’s controversial psychological horror film Antichrist begins its two-week run at the Nuart on October 23, just in time for Halloween. And just in time for the holiday, Warners releases Orphan on DVD and Blu-ray on October 27.
But being in Los Angeles does have its advantages revival cinema-wise, and during the Halloween season can seem even more pronounced and exciting than they do during the rest of the year. For example, if you have cable TV you have a couple of opportunities to catch Robert Wise’s superbly unnerving 1963 thriller The Haunting on Turner Classic Movies. But if you’re in the Los Angeles area next weekend, you can see the unmatched creeps of Wise’s atmospheric classic in an authentic movie palace, the Alex Theater in downtown Glendale, a theater that is, according to the good and true folks at the Alex Film Society, perhaps itself haunted. So why tempt fate by showing a superb spook show like The Haunting there? Well, because it’s Halloween, dummy. The AFS has upped the ectoplasmic ante by inviting noted psychic medium Michael J. Kouri to not only introduce the film but also talk about his personal encounters with ghosts, “read” the audience, and talk specifically about who—or what—might be haunting the historic theater. The movie screens at both 2:00 and 8:00 p.m. on October 24.
Speaking of gorgeous venues and ghastly frights, the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles will feature a screening of F.W. Murnau’s seminal silent vampire classic Nosferatu, to be augmented by renowned accompanist Clark Wilson on the Disney Hall organ. Tickets are on sale now for the Halloween night performance.
Of course, if you’d rather trick or treat in the company of “real” movie monsters, there’s always Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. You can test your ability to withstand the fear factor of creepy mazes and in-your-face icons of fear inside four new mazes this year, built around the Saw franchise, the Rob Zombie-fied Halloween mythology, and My Bloody Valentine, whose ultra-dank and unnerving mine sets should prove to be daunting and scary as hell to navigate through. The fourth maze is devoted to Chucky, the cackling, profane and aggressively homicidal doll from Child’s Play and the subsequent sequels. Previously Chucky’s appearance at Halloween Horror Nights was as a master of scare-emonies of sorts—you could always find Chucky holding audiences’ attention in a central courtyard with a post-Don Rickles onslaught of insult comedy that always had terror-hungry audiences bowled over with laughter. But this year Chucky gets to jump off the stage and into your lap, where he will attempt to bury some sort of sharp cutting instrument as you make your way through his special circle of Universal Studios hell. Now, that’s what I call a promotion.
But if the idea of Chucky jumping into your lap is just a bit too interactive for your taste, yet you find the prospect of spending some time in the company of this killer doll and his creators attractive, then the option offered by the UCLA School of Film and Television may prove to be one for which you might readily trade the Halloween Horror Nights experience. Thursday, October 29, the school will play host to screenwriter and alumnus Don Mancini, producer David Kirschner, and Brad Dourif, the irreplaceable voice of Chucky, for a free 20th-anniversary screening of Child’s Play (1988), the original killer doll movie. The screening will be on a first come, first admitted basis and will likely fill the James Bridges Theater at Melnitz Hall quickly, so be sure to be there early on October 29 for the 7:30 pm. start time. Mssrs. Mancini, Kirschner and Dourif will conduct a Q&A as part of the evening as well.
As always, the good folks at the Cinefamily have provided an excellent menu of holiday Halloween fare, and they’ve been at it all month. I could talk about all the delights that have already passed us by, but that would be morbid and unproductive (and yet another reminder of how I should have had this post ready at least three weeks ago!). Instead, a glance at what is left to come in the two terror-filled weeks before Halloween at the Silent Movie Theater should be more than enough information to either fill your calendar or make you curse the laws of physics that prevent you from being in two or more places at one time. Here we go.
The Cinefamily has devoted Wednesdays in October to The Sounds of Horror, which in these programming hands doesn’t mean sound effects so much as how music can be used, as accompaniment to silent film imagery, or as text to make arguments for and against the soul-ensnaring qualities of Satanically-inspired rock. Coming up on October 21 is another screening of Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, which I saw last month at the New Beverly in a version narrated by William S. Burroughs and scored by Jean-Luc Ponty. Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s strange, visually arresting mish-mash of documentary footage, “re-enactments” and representations of Satan-obsessed wood carvings and other art, is actually quite a pliable work when it comes to soundtracks (several other than the Ponty score have been recorded for it). Thankfully, the Cinefamily will be taking full advantage of the films’ receptivity to aural interpretation when it invites experimental electronic musician Eddie Ruscha to perform the score he recently wrote for the film, which was performed at the Billy Wilder Theater when the film screened there earlier this year. This is a can’t-miss event.
The Sounds of Horror completes its journey on October 28 with a “Mondo Remix” of the Christian documentary Hell’s Bells which purports, in a rather convincing Craig Baldwin-esque manner, to lay out just how heavy metal squeezes, contaminates and otherwise corrupts the souls of the youth (and the aging rockers too, I suppose) under its evil spell. According to the Cinefamily’s liner notes, you will “witness how rock and roll mocks Christ, tempts the libido and promotes the worship of Satan, all through album covers, music videos, backwards messages and occult iconography.” Add to that a live performance by “hell’s houseband” Nilbog, rocking a set full of covers of favorite horror movies, and you’ve got yet another unforgettable night of fun at the Silent Movie Theater.
Thursday’s Slashers! series, co-presented by Arbogast On Film (which has its own very cool “31 Screams, 31 Films” series underway right now) and Bloody Disgusting.com, has a full head of steam rolling into Thursday night, October 21, with perhaps its best triple feature of the month. The evening begins with a rare screening of the uncut version of 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, with director George Mihalka in person for a Q&A and introduction to the film. I just got a look at this one myself last week, after vague memories of a VHS screening some 25 years ago and the memories of the 3D remake fresh in my head and I must say, as post-Jason kill movies go, this is a pickax above the usual fare. There’s something about the way the movie resides in the dead-end lives of its characters, stuck in a seaside mining town, and the way it exploits the atmosphere of dread in the town, and of course deep down in that mine shaft from whence the gas-mask-wearing Harry Warden rises to wreak havoc on those who would dare to celebrate Valentine’s Day, that is pretty effective. It’s silly, gory and, unlike so many of the movies that were cut from the cheap fabric of Camp Crystal Lake, it isn’t an inept cheat. For that, give thanks and have fun! It comes packaged at the Silent Movie Theater with yet another highlight/aberration from the ‘80s Jason era horror film, Fred Walton’s clever, self-aware, but never smart-assed horror comedy April Fool’s Day, which shares its good-natured spirit of fun amongst a terrific cast including Deborah foreman (Valley Girl), Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part II and Thomas G. Wilson (Back to the Future). This one is a real treat. The third part of the evening’s trilogy of terror is a VHS screening of an obscure British video nasty entitled Don’t Open Until Christmas, in which a busy London overcrowded with street Santas finds the holiday herd being thinned by a psycho who has no love for the jolly old fella in the red suit. The Cinefamily, Arbogast on Film and Bloody-Disgusting.com all assure us that this one is a hoot.
The Slashers! Series concludes on October 29 with another gore-soaked triple feature—Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, the notorious psycho primate thriller Shakma starring Christopher Atkins (“Two-time recipient of the National Association of Theater Owners’ Star of the Year Award”), and a brand-new HD transfer of Night of the Demon (1980), about which I will, as I often do when dealing with films showing at the Cinefamily, defer to their own calendar notes, which I could never surpass:
“Night Of The Demon breaks major slasher conventions by introducing one of the most unusual and allusive psycho killers of all time -- BIGFOOT! Who is Bigfoot, and why is he doing these terrible things? Our furry friend has gone completely homicidal, leaving a trail of dead girl scouts, castrated bikers and raped teenagers in his wake. This Z-grade doozy packs a bloody wallop-- one of the most absurd and comically gory movies we've ever seen. The audience reaction to this film is gonna be half the fun. DO NOT MISS IT. Director James C. Wasson and producer James B. Hall will be here in person!”
Due to my relative inexperience with The Strange World of Coffin Joe, the first career-spanning series devoted to Brazilian horror icon Jose Mojica Marins and his atheistic undertaker protagonist Coffin Joe (Ze do Caixao for our Portuguese speaking readership) that occupies Friday evenings at the Cinefamily, I will once again defer to the Cinefamily and their excellent notes on the filmmaker and his films:
“Like some kind of demented amalgamation of a Ghoulardi-esque horror host and a Sam Fuller self-styled total auteur, José Mojica Marins doesn't just write and direct his macabre cinematic poetry, but stars in it as well -- as Zé do Caixão, aka "Coffin Joe", a solipsistic Nietschze-spouting godless undertaker sporting a snazzy Dracula cape, top hat and the theatrically long fingernails of an unkempt corpse. Raised from childhood to adulthood in a movie theatre where he literally slept behind the screen as a child, Marins has an instinctive and natural filmic ability to manifest his own ghoulish obsessions; Cinema Novo director Glauber Rocha called him "a primitive artist...and pure filmmaker." An icon of horror in his native Brazil, Coffin Joe's far-reaching status as a pop culture folk hero manifested in movies, comics, television shows -- even his own brand of nail polish! At once surreal, psychedelic, spooky, and gruesome, the strange world of José Mojica Marins must be seen to be believed.”
Friday, October 23, see Awakening of the Beast and Finis Hominis (End of Man), and on Friday, October 30, do not miss Embodiment of Evil, the long–anticipated completion of the Coffin Joe trilogy coupled with Marins’ one-of-a-kind Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind, “a flat-out freak-out multi-movie montage of the most insane footage censored from Marins' entire career up to this film's release, and framed by a self-reflexive plot about a man driven to madness by the films, who's convinced that Coffin Joe will come to steal his wife” (Cinefamily Notes). Sounds strange, all right, but how it could be stranger than Embodiment of Evil, which I was lucky enough to see when it screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year, I cannot imagine, given that Embodiment features some of the most perverse and disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen in a film. I'm thinking of the moment when Coffin Joe finally finds a female sex slave weird and willing and soulless enough to meet his standard for the ideal woman to bear his demonic progeny-- we are then treated to the sight of Coffin Joe mounting and groping the unfortunate woman, the entire grotesque spectacle culminating in penetration by the filmmaker/star as seen from inside the violated vaginal canal. Believe me, it’s even creepier than what you’re imagining right now. It’s a genuinely bizarre film, and according to those in the Coffin Joe know it is entirely of a piece with his primitive prevailingly twisted vision.
For more information on these films, please check out the exhaustive and entertaining information provided by the Cinefamily, and also this excellent piece on Jose Mojica Marins by writer Christoph Huber recently published in L.A. Weekly.
Finally, Saturdays at the Silent Movie Theater in October are devoted to great double features of Technicolor Terror, another series programmed in collaboration with Arbogast On Film. Technicolor horror films were a rarity, the prevailing wisdom being not only that black-and-white was more traditionally associated with being more effective for atmospheric horror and science fiction films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but also the budgetary concerns of such films often precluded using the more expensive color photographic process. Enter the wildly popular Hammer Films horror series in the mid’ 50s, which proved almost instantly that color was well-suited to their more lurid-leaning take on horror classics—rich red blood, gray-green decaying flesh and the seductive dark tones of night and evil. Such a continuous palette of color would become the studios’ bread and butter and pave the way for two decades of building on a legacy of visually sumptuous horror that would become synonymous with the Hammer brand.
Unfortunately, by the time this article is posted all but one of the Technicolor terror series will have already passed. (Click here for a list of those titles.) But Arbogast and company have truly saved the best for last: an October 24 double bill of Terence Fisher-helmed Hammer classics that set the template for the blood-gushing seductive thrall that these films would cast over an entire generation raised on the relatively sedate Universal horror pictures. Horror of Dracula (1958) made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into both movie stars and indelible horror icons—Cushing as Van Helsing, the indefatigable vampire hunter, and Lee unforgettable as the virtually silent Count Dracula, his eternally bloodthirsty prey. The movie is coupled by Fisher’s The Revenge of Frankenstein, a follow-up to the studio’s wildly popular Frankenstein remake, The Curse of Frankenstein, in which Mary Shelley’s source material finally becomes irrelevant to the pursuit of Hammer’s exploration of the darkest corners of her literary creation. Cushing is probably even better as Baron Frankenstein, the obsessed creator of perverted life, than he is as Van Helsing (a relatively one-note role in comparison to the variations he was able to work on Frankenstein over his career). Revenge, however, features not Lee as the monster (as did Curse) but instead Michael Gwynne, who brings a fascinating pathos all his own to this accursed creation. This is a double feature to truly be grateful for, and of course an unmissable one.
Please refer to the Cinefamily website for all the pertinent information, including dates, tickets and show times, on these films and many more.
The Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood is probably not the first place you would think of when images of haunted houses and other Halloween tropes of terror begin coming to mind. But the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Hammer has a rare treat (and no tricks) planned for horror movie buffs on Halloween night. It’s a cobweb-laden evening devoted to Amicus Productions, Britain’s other studio/force of evil (founded by two Americans, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg), which existed successfully alongside Hammer Films for nearly 20 years. The studio produced a slew of terrific scare pictures, including a run of E.C. Comics-style anthology horror films (Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, Vault of Horror, The House That Dripped Blood) whose influence is still being felt today. And two of their finest will be screened at the Wilder. The first is John Moxey’s City of the Dead (1960) (a.k.a. Horror Hotel), revolves around a student researching a small town’s history of witch burning whose disappearance causes an ancient satanic conspiracy to come to light. Greg Ferrara has already offered some perceptive words about the movie’s low-budget creativity and agility with an atmosphere often so thick it seems tactile. City of the Dead is a rare treasure in any format, but since it can be seen here in a gorgeous 35mm print, the opportunity UCLA and the Wilder are affording really is one of which any serious horror aficionado really should avail themselves. Starring Patricia Bessel, Betta St, John and Christopher Lee, City of the Dead proves what an extensive filmography or simple geography cannot—that Hammer was not the only game in town creatively as well. Showing in 16mm is another Amicus gem, The Skull, this one boasting the acting acumen of Peter Cushing as a collector of occult objects who becomes possessed by the Marquis de Sade when he obtains the writer’s bone head. Lee pops up again as the collector’s colleague, who knows what his pal has gotten hold of and tries to warn him before the spirit of De Sade moves in full-time. The Skull was directed by my all-time favorite Hammer and Amicus director, Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt), the famous cinematographer who shot another great horror classic, Jack Clayton's The Innocents (based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw) and who gave up realizing other people’s films in favor of a directing career that flourished under the critical radar for nearly two decades, until David Lynch began hiring him in the early ‘80s again for the passion he brought to such visually sumptuous movies as The Elephant Man and Dune. The Skull amply displays how Francis was able to translate his facility with creating and realizing images into the pulp passion of the fearsome genre with which he was so closely associated.
For more information on the full schedule at the Hammer, click here.
The American Cinematheque is turning the Aero into a fine specimen of haunted house this Halloween as well with exceptionally good Halloween weekend programming. Friday October 30 is a double dip into “House”-era Universal monster classics, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Both movies do monster team-ups to great effect-- HoF features the same Dracula/Frankenstein’s monster/Wolfman triple-header that would be so effectively used for laughs with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein four years later and marks the last time Karloff would appear in a Universal Frankenstein film, albeit this time in the mad scientist role; House of Dracula focuses on John Carradine’s appearance as the legendary vampire (he also plays the count in HoF) alongside Lon Chaney Jr.’s iconic (and perpetually brow-furrowed) Larry Talbot. The late-period Universal horrors rarely get unveiled on the big-screen (I wish someone here or elsewhere had included my personal favorite, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), so this kind of opportunity really should be taken advantage of. This double bill makes for a much better horror outing than some of the cheesier triple and quadruple features lurking out there for your terrified approval.
But the Aero really has it all over the competition when it comes to Halloween night itself and its 4th annual Halloween Dusk-to-Dawn Horrorthon. It starts at 7:30 and God knows when it’ll actually end, what with the planned between film free food, giveaways, trailers, “crazy shorts” and lots of other surprises. Bringing your jammies and a pillow is probably not as frowned upon as you might think! But on top of all that fun, the schedule of films is actually much stronger than the cheesy ‘80s vault-diving that often characterizes these kinds of programs. The Aero has one masterpiece, three very interesting, if flawed, social satires, one notoriously grimy grindhouse “classic” and the obligatory unknown quantity, probably included more to make sure the house clears out early in the breaking hours of dawn than for any reasons of quality or notoriety. The night starts with Wes Craven’s weird and downright absurd Reagan-era satire The People Under the Stairs, and then moves on to probably the most grossly underrated chapter of George A. Romero’s apparently endless zombie saga, Day of the Dead. Then Brian Yuzna’s Society, which plays like the ultimate ‘80s artifact, actually has some pretty interesting things to say about Reagan-era class warfare—it’s kinda like Caddyshack with incest, cannibalism and surreal makeup effects replacing golf. And it stars Billy Warlock and his high hair.
Around 1:00 a.m., just when you’re starting to get a little delirious, the Aero hits you with David Cronenberg’s The Brood, a movie plenty frightening enough in the sober light of day—good luck in the middle of the night after three movies in a row and a stomach cavity bulging with free popcorn and diet soda. By the end of The Brood you’ll be ready for something completely disgusting and without redeeming value of any sort, and William Lustig’s Maniac! might be just what the nurse on duty ordered (you know, the hot Cathy Moriarty look-alike in the tight white uniform distributing the phony insurance policies and barf bags in the lobby). And I do hope someone videotapes the undoubtedly surreal 3:00 Q&A between director Lustig, who will be at the Aero in person, and the punch-drunk (and perhaps even drunk-drunk) audience. Finally, to make sure 5:00 a.m. doesn’t roll around fast enough, there’s the somewhat generically titled Crown International Pictures entry Terror to make sure this 4th annual Halloween Horrorthon ends with a whimper instead of scream. Admission is $20 ($15 for Cinematheque members), and remember, that price includes a dark night of gut-busting snacks. Who could resist?
For more details, including tickets, go straight to the Aero web site.
Finally, the vibe at the New Beverly this Halloween has a definite retro Universal/A.I.P. appeal running through it, but although movies from those two horror studio traditions are prominent, they are not the only courses being offered. Michael and the gang got the season off to an official start down at the New Bev this past weekend with a wonderful double feature of horror comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Don Knotts flailing through the terrific Universal comedy The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Both were perfect family fare, and judging by the throngs of parents bringing along their kids, myself included, that showed up Sunday afternoon, the double bill definitely reached its intended audience. (While the kids were laughing at Don Knotts, I was noticing his love interest and thinking, where have you been all my life, Joan Staley?)
And speaking of intended audiences, those of us seated for the trailers before the 3:55 show of A&CMF got a Tyler Durden-esque surprise to go along with our thrills and chills. Just after the charmingly cheesy trailer for 13 Ghosts, introduced by William Castle himself, had finished, up came another preview for a typical ‘80s-type horror flick with a bunch of hard-partying jock and cheerleader types being fattened for the kill when they break into a funeral parlor for some gnarly partyin’ and encounter a decidedly Dr. Frank-n-furter-esque prom queen demon in a low-cut dress and tiara. A smidgen or two of cheaply done gore effects in the preview went unnoticed. But then, about 30 seconds in, a two or three-second shot of some female frontal nudity! Whoa, gasped my leaping eyebrows, that was unexpected, as I became vaguely aware again that my nine and seven-year-old daughters were on either side of me taking all this in. A family of five seated near the front of the auditorium—father, mother and two or three young ‘uns—made a hasty exit to the lobby and did not return to their seats until the trailers were completely over and the feature was ready to commence. Which was fortunate on their part, because the trailer for Night of the Demons, one of three of the New Beverly’s Halloween night features, had one more shot of nubile nudity to offer up before it was finished. As it wrapped up, my oldest daughter turned to me and said, “Hey, I thought they weren’t supposed to show beeps” (her word for boobs) and I just told her that someone must have made a mistake. (Apparently it was an accidental holdover from the trailer reel for the previous night’s midnight screening of Dario Argento’s Inferno.) I’m not exactly sure who “they” were (The filmmakers? The New Beverly?) that my daughter was referring to, but since she didn’t seem overly concerned about the mammarian exposure I certainly wasn’t about to make a big deal out of it for her. (She was far more upset when we saw the Inferno trailer before an Indiana Jones double bill last month.) Most amusing, though, was the reaction of my seven-year-old. After the preview was finished I asked her if she thought there was anything odd or unusual about it, and her response was a deadpan classic: “The monster guy at the end looked kinda fake.”
In his typically concerned and considerate fashion, Michael Torgan, the New Beverly’s owner and chief programmer, caught up with us as we were making our way out into the evening after the show and was extremely apologetic about the trailer being shown during what was billed as a family-oriented affair. I have a feeling that the dad who hauled his kids up to the lobby may have read Michael the riot act, or at least made his displeasure and level of uncomfortableness clearly apparent. But really, was it such a big deal? No, not really. It’s the age-old choice of protective parents everywhere to get upset over their kids glimpsing a two-second shot of someone’s plasticized tits while thinking nothing of sitting through a gory trailer for a silly, gory thriller where dismembered arms and snarling, mutilated agents of Satan spewing black goo is the moment’s real emphasis. In the immortal words of Carrie White, “They’re not dirty pillows, Momma, they’re breasts, and every girl has them… and I don’t wanna talk about it anymore!”
But what of the rest of the schedule leading up to Halloween night? If I were to program a series of horror pictures taken directly from a list of my childhood favorites and early influences, it might look a lot like what the New Beverly has in store for this coming season. Here’s what’s coming up:
Brian Quinn and Eric Caidin kick off successive Tuesdays with the Grindhouse Film Festival; tonight, Tuesday, October 20, with a wonderful double bill of blaxploitation horror thrillers from the American International Pictures stable. First, J.D.’s Revenge stars Glynn Turman as a quarterback who becomes possessed by the spirit of a murderous mobster from 1940s New Orleans. Turman is scheduled to appear for the Grindhouse crowd to take part in a Q&A after the movie and lead straight into a wild and wooly screening of Blacula, a surprisingly scary picture due in no small measure to a terrific performance by William Marshall as the titular bloodsucker, a.k.a “Dracula’s soul brother.” This is a guaranteed good time at the movies with two of the loosest, funniest and most entertaining of blaxploitation horror films.
Then it’s on to October 21-22 and my dream double feature of the month, overriding just about any program referred to above for sheer happiness, nostalgia and wit, a Vincent Price two-fer of arguably his two greatest movies. The first, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, casts Price as Anton Phibes, a supposedly dead musicologist exacting biblically inspired revenge on the nine surgeons he holds responsible for the death of his wife, is a seminal movie for me in my developing appreciation of contemporary horror movies. My mother drove me and a good friend two hours to the neighboring town to see this first-run for my 11th birthday, and it remains a touchstone for me, not only for its elements of tragedy and horror, but also for my discovery, upon seeing it later in life, of its black humor. (Phibes was directed by Robert Fuest, who was instrumental in creating the sensibility of the TV classic The Avengers, which shares the same droll humor found in this feature.) Every time I hear the organ music heard in the trailer, or hear Price as Phibes intone, “You can’t… kill… me… Doctor… I am already...dead” the goose flesh comes up right on schedule.
It would be worth seeing all on its own, but the New Beverly has paired it with a movie that may be even better than Phibes, even as it shares the theme of spectacularly staged acts of vengeance. In Theater of Blood, Price plays a hammy theatrical actor who takes revenge on a guild of critics for a series of bad reviews by devising deaths derived from the plays of Shakespeare. (One corpulent reviewer is force-fed to the point of bursting a meat pie made from his beloved poodle, a la Titus Andronicus.) The connection to The Avengers here is the casting of Diana Rigg as the angry actor’s daughter and collaborator in murder, yet the tone is even blacker, more grisly, though by no means less fun. It’s simultaneously the acting out of what is surely a very common actor’s fantasy and a rude, bloody rumination on the often tense, synergistic relationship between the actor (or any creative artist) and the critic. Seeing these two top-notch Vincent Price classics together on one bill, on the big screen, will be bliss indeed and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
The empire of William Castle, one of the movie’s greatest, or at least most unembarrassed and unapologetic showmen, is the focus of the New Beverly’s program on October 25 and 26. First off is the keen and spunky documentary Spine Tingler! The William castle Story, featuring testimony about the producer/creator of Emergo! Illlusion-O and other old-fashioned interactive shock gimmicks from such luminaries as John Waters, Leonard Maltin and Forrest J. Ackerman. Then you get to see what all the fuss is about firsthand by way of one of Castle’s signature schlockers, 13 Ghosts and get a mainline shot of horror carny hucksterism from the man who embodied good-natured, money-grubbing exploitation like no one else in the history of the movies.
Grindhouse Night Part Deux for this Halloween season is another trip into the darkest corners of the American International Pictures catalog, this time for a real head trip—two heads, that is. The (very brief) vogue for two-headed A.I.P. creature features lasted for exactly two movies, and Brian and Eric have ‘em both for you on October 27 on “A.I.P. in the ‘70s: Two-Headed Horror Night.” First, the ultra-low-rent “thriller” The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant features Bruce Dern and Pat Priest chasing terror after the head of a murderous criminal is grafted onto the body of a backward 300-pound farm boy. Yes, it’s just about as good as the trailer makes it out to be. (Coincidentally, TITHT was the second feature when I first saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes back in 1971.) But the apex of the two-headed trend has to be the conjoining of good-natured giant Rosey Grier with the head of virulent millionaire bigot Ray Milland in A.I.P.’s pretty darned wonderful The Thing with Two Heads, a two-head-spinning restaging of The Defiant Ones that replaces handcuffs with biracial head transplant surgery and a distinctly Archie Bunker-esque sense of humor. Grier and Milland are game as hell, and the movie, though at times a tad sluggish, is over all a prime hoot. (I wrote about it fondly on New Year’s Eve nearly five years ago.)
One should never take for granted the appearance on the big screen of any of the Universal classics, and I’m not about to start now. October 28 and 29 meet me at the New Beverly to pay homage to the originals, Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s masterfully creepy Dracula (1931), and Boris Karloff in perhaps the genre’s pinnacle, James Whale’s brilliant and unexpectedly moving The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The New Beverly’s Halloween weekend fare, programmed by Julia Marchese and Phil Blankenship, highlights two distinctly different theme triple features. Julia’s baby, on October 30, is a festival of ‘80s horror in a comedy vein. The comedy starts deep black with Dennis Christopher as a movie-obsessed killer in Fade to Black, and then lightens up considerably with Jim Carrey and Lauren Hutton in Once Bitten, and Michael J. Fox in the hair-raising Teen Wolf. If you haven’t had enough synth-laden pop scoring and post-Huey Lewis rock after these last two, then you never will!
Then, on Halloween night, October 31, Phil brings a demonic triple bill to the New Bev—the aforementioned Night of the Demons, plus Lamberto Bava’s far more interesting Demons (1985), co-written by Dario Argento, and Bava’s ultra-bizarre follow-up Demons 2 (1986). These two are very well regarded giallo zombie pictures that aren’t often screened these days, especially together, and so if you have any fondness for the gooey, gory pleasures of this particular branch of horror cinema, you really should make your way out to the New Beverly on Halloween night. There might not be free candy and other treats, but you probably won’t feel much like eating during these movies anyway!
And don’t forget, Phil will also be ushering in a splashy new print of Conan the Destroyer (1984) to the New Beverly Midnight Movies on October 24. It’s the 25th anniversary of the unapologetically cheesy sequel to Oliver Stone and John Milius’s weight-of-the-world heavy (and heavily inept) Conan the Barbarian (1981), and I’ve always appreciated that cheesiness, and its evocation of the Italian Hercules/sword and sandal epics, as well as the rubber monster aesthetic of the A.I.P. Land That Time Forgot series, over Stone and Milius’s grim self-seriousness. Director Richard Fleischer knows how dumb it all is, but the movie never spends too much time winking at the audience or itself—it has the wide-eyed, go-for-broke attitude of Saturday afternoon fun that is very hard to fake. And any movie that gathers together the future destroyer of California alongside the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Grace Jones and Mako automatically gets me on its side. Conan the Destroyer is, of all things, a light, silly, rambunctious pseudo-epic, and I bet you it goes down just as easily at midnight in 2009 as it did, against all odds and good sense, when it made me giggle so happily during a Saturday matinee 25 years ago.
Get more details about show times and prices, and maybe even a sneak peek at some of the stuff coming in November, by visiting the web site for the New Beverly Cinema. And have a nerve-racking Halloween!
Posted by Dennis Cozzalio at 2:38 PM