Saturday, October 31, 2009

19 days of nite - THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (Hooper, 1974)

There's no reason at all for me to watch this again, but my brother had never seen it, so I figured this would be a good way to experience it again. Because this is my favorite movie of all time, hands down, and I cannot watch it enough. I watch it maybe once a year, if that, but every time I feel like it gets weirder and stranger and more disturbing than the last time. It's an incredible black comedy with one of the best sound designs of all film ever. Watching it brings back memories of the first time I viewed it, in October of my first year of college. I had just been dumped by my first serious girlfriend. I was working at a gas station and feeling pretty much like I wanted to shoot myself in the fucking face. But this movie changed things and I walked through a cemetary after I watched it and thought about my dead grandfather, the only dead person I have in my life and I never even met him, and my perspective on death changed and it was an epiphany, and it was all because of this movie.

20 days of nite - JUST BEFORE DAWN (Leiberman, 1981)

Yet another stupid, stupid movie I've watched this month. I watched this on the recommendation of the Exhumed Films guys (more on them in a bit), as it was something they showed this summer. But it's pretty awful. I guess people love the cinematography in this or something, but I was blackout drunk when I watched it and I don't remember anything. Maybe the alcohol is the problem. Maybe the problem is the problem. MAYBE THE PROBLEM IS TRAVIS. Guys, my Halloween costume this year is so rad. I'm going as a zombie for the first time in a few years, but it's a special zombie, the most special zombie costume I've ever made. I am writing these mainly out of spite at this point, and because I am a man of ritual who no longer has any rituals. But each October, I watch 31 horror films, or I get close to it. Because I am, after all, a lapsed man of ritual.

21 days of nite - FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (Crabtre, 1958)

I don't know, this was somewhat underwhelming for me. Movies before 1960 are all kind of stupid, right? The stop motion animation in this was really pretty, actually, and things weren't really all SCIENCE IS EVIL! or whatever. And the sound design was pretty cool, but the performances just sort of ruined it for me. It's strange, because I can watch awful splatter movies and not care at all that the dialogue is wooden and completely mechanical, but if it's a black and white 50s sci-fi flick? I grit my teeth the whole time. I have a lot of these to write over the next couple hours, and I need to make my costume, so I'm going to be brief. The b&w white gore in this was great.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

22 days of nite - INSIDE (Bustillo and Maury, 2007)

Well, pregnancy scare flicks are my favorites (so much so that I've started writing my own contribution to the sub-genre) and INSIDE is one of the absolute best. Eerie and atmospheric and all French and shit, this is really just a slasher flick turned on its ear. The Last Girl is really the Only Girl, and the Last Girl doesn't live anyway (oh, uh, spoilers!) The slasher is another girl, and the object of the slashing is not misguided sexual rage, but overpowering maternal jealousy. The filmmakers are sure to place all of the mayhem firmly in the context of social unrest and civil disobedience, and in this way it is comparable to Heneke's CACHE. It is also tonally linked to CACHE, which drew terror and fear out of urban dream dwellings and upper class intellectuals. But the films differ in the way that INSIDE is totally prepared to get as dark and gory as possible. This film is totally blood-soaked and everyone fucking dies. Great mix of low and high culture; it's difficult to tell where the filmmakers' ambitions essentially lie.

23 days of nite - OBSERVE AND REPORT (Hill, 2009)

Jody Hill is quickly creating a body of work that is bleak and utterly unconcerned with you liking his characters or not. Like its spiritual predecessor, TAXI DRIVER, OBSERVE AND REPORT is a horror film with very little violence throughout the course of its running time. While not as totally debased as EASTBOUND & DOWN, OBSERVE AND REPORT is not afraid to stare into human isolation and man's search for meaning. The problem comes from the fact that life has no inherent meaning; it's up to us to write all that meaning and definition into things. And some people write all kinds of negative shit into their life narratives: anger and bitterness and jealousy and rage and disappointment and arrogance. OBSERVE AND REPORT is a psychological horror film that examines the attitudes and values of the typical American male, and it hurts to watch at times, but it's all OK because it's all a joke. You have to accept all of Hill's work on its own terms and just expect amoral characters and unlikeable situations. But if you're willing to commit, there's plenty to laugh at. You either laugh or you cry; the essence of the horror film, I think, is that it laughs at death, brings death to light and shows us what it looks and sounds like, and, in the best of cases, what death feels like. OBSERVE AND REPORT shows us what the death of the American dream feels like - malls and bullshit jock cops and hideous violence bubbling just beneath the surface.

24 days of night - BEYOND THE DOOR (Assonitis, 1974)

Strange, apparently little-known Eyetalian horror flick that starts off all ROSEMARY'S BABY and then turns all EXORCIST. But there is some seriously beautiful camerawork here, and the editing and technical prowess on display is quite interesting. There are some strange, surreal sequences, and the use of sound in particular is unsettling and jarring. This is perfect for Philly at this time of year; it's been raining for weeks, and Temple University is warning its students that they're taking a 'zero tolerance' approach to any post-World Series riots like there were last year, and the public transit is going on strike maybe as soon as Saturday and how am I gonna get to class and I just got my hours cut at work so what are you gonna do, man. The apocolypse has been happening for years, anyway. BEYOND THE DOOR is pretty hilariously bad and sort of stupid, but while I was watching it, I was also convinced that it had moments of pure brilliance.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

As I mentioned in my review of [REC] a while back, I'm a huge fan of the faux documentary style horror movies. The forced acceptance of what you see as evidence of actual happenings, the candid yet simple performances, and the simplicity of story all add up to a terrifying experience when all of these elements mesh well.

As for Paranormal Activity..... Holy shit....

The movie follows the harrowing trial of a young couple, Kate and Michah (Kate Featherstone and Michah Sloat), as they struggle to understand and combat the demonic force that threatens their happiness.

The action picks up on a day when Michah buys a video camera in order to document the strange goings on. We find out that this is no ordinary haunting, as the paranormal activity has occurred off and on since Kate was a child and seems to be focused on her.

No matter where she goes, the weirdness follows.

At first, Michah acts out of a mixture of intrigue and amusement. Kate, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified. Out of desperation, Kate contacts a psychic (Mark Frederichs) to ask him to divine the truth of what's going on in the house. The plot then takes an obvious shift towards the sinister when the psychic informs Kate and Michah that what they are experiencing is no mere haunting; it is demonic activity.

Over the next few nights, the malevolent spirit makes its presence felt in a gradual wave of building tension and the mental and physical effects on the hapless couple is downright devastating.

I was pleased to see that the production staff and the director had done their Occult 101 homework, as it is common in folklore (see also Drag Me To Hell) for an incubus (a nocturnal demonic being) to repeatedly visit its victim and wear him or her down in order to make them more vulnerable to its influence.

When the final moments hit, they will smash your nerves like a ton of bricks.

The subtle effects, the honest performances of the cast, and attention to small detail all work to make Paranormal Activity a blood chilling affair that is worth your cash this Halloween season.

I don't think it is quite the instant classic that the hype makes it out to be, but it follows in the admirable spirit of The Haunting and [REC] by doing more with less and making your senses pay for it

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)


In a recent Onion AV Club article dealing with the Friday The 13th re-imagining/re-make, the author - who was an unabashed fan of the series despite clearly recognizing its shortcomings - stated that the joy in re-visting the 11(!) official films in the series comes from a very psychoglogically interesting place that I found myself immediately relating to. As a child, even the idea of watching "entertainment" focusing on a psychopath in a hockey mask butchering teenagers was something beyond my grasp. I was legitimately scared to watch such films (I remember the video box for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 really freaking me out). That I can now recognize the cobbled together, exploitive nature of the series as a whole, and laugh at the ridiculous gore effects and plot contrivances which comprise most of the entries, represents something psychologically very satisfying. I not only have conquered a fear of my youth, but I have actively turned it into something I can enjoy in laughter. The films are predictable, repetitive, and - strangely - comforting.

That is, until the ninth film in the Friday The 13th series: Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. Having newly acquired the Friday brand, New Line Cinema decided to try something a bit different with their first entry in the series, while also attempting to set up the inevitable crossover with their homegrown Nightmare on Elm Street series (which managed to take another eight years to hit the screens). Sean S. Cunningham, the director of the first film, was brought back as producer and he promptly settled on the young Adam Marcus as director. Marcus, along with screenwriter Dean Lorey, crafted a very different sort of tale - obviously strongly influenced by the body swapping sci-fi film The Hidden - with which they hoped to reinvigorate the series. The choice proved to be a controversial one for those who were comfortable with the series' predictable pattern, and the entry remains strictly in the "love it or hate it" category.


We begin as expected, with a young woman stopping at Camp Crystal Lake, and eventually disrobing before the lights go out unexpectedly. She goes to check it out and is confronted by Jason Vorhees; who proceeds to chase her through the woods, seemingly always able to pop out from any corner. The two reach a clearing and then.. Flood lights reveal a SWAT team in position, who proceed to blow the living hell out of Jason until he is literally left in pieces on the ground. A rather shocking and original opening scene, and one that lets on immediately that this will be a different sort of horror film. A gooey autopsy leads to the coroner being hypnotized into eating Jason's heart and, filled with the spirit of Jason, he then proceeds to hop from body to body in an attempt to find a Voorhees woman through which to be reborn. Meanwhile he is being pursued by bounty hunter Creighton Duke, as well as the geeky Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay from the Friday The 13th TV series) who thinks Jason is after his estranged girlfriend. Eventually all roads lead to the Voorhees' home, where he gets his just desserts.

Making a case for a Friday The 13th film is a bit of a difficult proposition. Even at its best the series never provided the special-effects assisted skill of the Nightmare On Elm Street series, or even the erratic boogeyman tension of the Halloween films. Even the best Friday entry (likely the fourth, which saw the return of Tom Savini's make-up effects as well as starring Crispin Glover and a young Corey Feldman) is really only an average, artless slasher film with a particularly attractive and appealling killer. But WHAT a killer. Jason is essentially a silent, brutal frankenstein's monster with a mommy complex, and the audiences enjoyment comes simply from watching him do what he does best. The series formula has been hugely profitable, and has inspired some devoted fandom.


So I suppose that fans of the series can be excused for getting a little upset that Jason is all but missing from the ninth entry. After the rather postmodern opening scene Jason appears only in reflections until the film's finale where he's reborn before being finally (temporarily) dispatched. Since the previous appeal has been almost strictly because of the incredible look of the killer - the big twist of a previous entry is that the killer is merely dressing as Jason - things really do take a hit with him out of the picture. Of course, his body-hopping spirit is plenty violent in its own right. In fact, this might very well be the most bloody entry in the entire series, particularly in the unrated version thanks to the always impressive FX work from KNB. But this is cold comfort for those expecting an epic send-off for their favorite horror antagonist.

Also controversial was the decision to add a more overt supernatural element to the series, though there had always been something otherwordly about Jason's ability to return from the grave. The rules for killing Jason that are presented by Creighton Duke - that only a Voorhees can kill a Voorhees, and that Jason can be reborn through one of his female family members - are new to the series and can feel like a bit of a cheat to longtime fans. Even the filmmakers joke at these new rules in the special features, but their motivations to give Jason a more elaborate mythology are worthwhile even if they are not totally successful.


One welcome addition to the series was an element of light satire which preceded the jokey Scream series by several years. The local greasy spoon making hockey mask-shaped burgers; a television news show (think Inside Edition) planting a body in the Voorhees house for ratings; and just the general noteriety of Crystal Lake because of Jason's killing spree which leads to the SWAT team opening. While many thought it sacrilige to add laughs to the series, there has always been an element of black humor to the Friday films, and Marcus keeps things from getting too silly. Appearances by the Evil Dead Necromicon, the crate from Creepshow and other horror movie references add to the kitchen sink approach.

Perhaps i'm giving the director too much credit for simply trying to stir up the formula a bit, but even the requisite camper slaughter scene, forced upon Marcus during re-shoots, feels a little more fresh and ends in one of the most memorable kills in the entire series. Marcus doesn't get many chances to build actual suspense, but shows himself to be capable in a few early scenes. Unfortunately, the Harry Manfredini score is particularly intrusive and is distractingly bad throughout - particularly compared to some of his other work in the series.


While the Friday series has suffered rough treatment on DVD, New Line has gone above and beyond with their DVD release of Jason Goes To Hell. Including both the R-rated and Unrated cut of the film (which runs about four minutes longer), the image quality is light years better than the dingy VHS release with which I was first introduced to the film. While nothing can help the lame soundtrack, the audio quality is a whole is perfectly fine and the "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" sounds come through loud and clear.

Thankfully we also get some welcome bonus features. First are a number of "television insert" scenes which contain little character development, but are a neat addition. But it's the commentary with Marcus and co-screenwriter Dean Lorey that makes this release particularly worthwhile. Refreshingly honest and entertaining, the two men provide plenty of anecdotes about the production while providing plenty of laughs at the rather obvious shortcomings. They explain their motivations for changing the series' formula, but don't apologize for the film they made. I wish they had gone a little deeper into the rather obvious similarities to The Hidden (which is briefly acknowledged) but this is a superior commentary track in every way. The short theatrical trailer rounds things off nicely.


I'm not sure I would go as far as saying that Jason Goes To Hell is a "good" film, and since it borrows much of its plot elements I can't even call it unique, but it's certainly interesting. Attempting to jump-start the mythology with a lot of supernatural nonsense might have been a mistake, but those involved (including original Friday director Sean S. Cunningham) were obviously passionate about the material and I respect their attempts to try something a little different. Not all of it succeeds, but when it does it makes this a superior entry in the series and one that is unfairly maligned by its fans.

Monday, October 12, 2009

25 days of nite - TROUBLE EVERY DAY (Denis, 2001)

Well, this was certainly strange. Vincent Gallo was really well-suited for this part; his slimeball shtick (made even better by the addition of a thin mustache) is perfect for the doctor/possible vampire thingy that jacks off in the bathroom of a hotel room while his new wife stands outside listening. I'll be honest; I don't know what the fuck happened in this one. Some scientists create a virus that makes Vincent Gallo eat a woman's vagina? Or something? There is some truly beautiful, haunting imagery, though, and the emotional content of the film is rich, disturbing. The plot is vague, and scenes are mostly comprised of short snapshots of conversations, or people staring at puppies through store windows, or lying in bed smoking cigarettes. But there is something happening here, something below the surface. The film mostly works on a subconscious level, tapping into memories and just-barely-there feelings and color and transcendent, bloody truth. The ending seems unsatisfying at first, but I think that it ended in the best way possible. No resolution, no cures, no salvation, and no answers. There are two particularly disturbing scenes of sex that turn to violence, and almost no dialogue. The long spaces of silence allow for contemplation, a sort of wondering about the world that the film shows you. Clair Denis allows time for the viewer to think about what's going on, and then does absolutely nothing to confirm or deny your suspicions. This one demands re-watching; perhaps repeated viewings will reveal more insight. Or maybe they'll just make me more confused. Or maybe insight and confusion are the exact same thing. Maybe I'm a vampire, too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Entrails Of A Virgin (1986)


As a dissatisfied youth growing up in Newfoundland in the mid-1990s I used to scour over the film listings in the Video Search of Miami guides, or other similar rare movie collections, astounded at the idea of so many strange and fascinating international films that I may never get the chance to actually see. One title that always jumped out at me was Kazuo 'Gaira' Komizu's notorious Entrails of a Virgin, which seemed to hold an almost pornographic vileness in its title alone. Of course my knowledge of the film beyond the lurid title was limited, so that Synapse has gone to the trouble to release the film on DVD certainly caught my attention. Could it possibly live up to the images that floated about my teenage head?

Well of course not. I was a twisted teen. And the truth is that this combination of sex and violence (“one candy, twice the fun” as Komizu says in the special features) makes an uneasy mix, particularly the former which is expressed in endless soft-core sex scenes featuring copious amounts of dry humping and the usual Japanese digital blurring. The extremes of violence seem to imply an over-the-top, humorous attitude, but the characters are so unpleasant and thinly drawn that what could have been a lot of sleazy fun just left me cold.


The barely existent plot certainly isn't going to win points for originality. A group of female models and photographers are headed to their next shooting location when, because of some overwhelming fog, they run into what they believe is an animal. It's actually a bizarre (and unexplained) mud-man who decides to take revenge on the group when they take refuge in an abandoned cabin. That night the photographers show themselves to be truly reprehensible, humiliating one of the girls in a wrestling match before forcing themselves on the other two. Soon the mud-monster-man gets in on the action, gruesomely killing the men and raping the women -including the psychotic Kei (Megumi Kawashima) who has been driven insane by her humiliation - before targeting the virginal Rei (Saeko Kizuki).

Komizu actually fills the early scenes with some amount of style, inter-cutting shots of the women modeling with some intense, near-pornographic sex scenes. And the early scenes of forest covered in fog brings to mind The Evil Dead and similar “cabin in the woods” horror movies. These early modest pleasures are soon replaced with repetitive, tiresome scenes of the women being man-handled, along with the monster sulking around and occasionally murdering one of the cast. These murders are cartoonish, involving rubber heads and unconvincing effects, and serve only to momentarily break up the sex.


Things do start to pick up slightly in the last act, with Kei's madness adding to the proceedings – culminating in the film's most notorious scene where she uses a severed arm to masturbate with. This is one of the few scenes which are able to capitalize on the bad-taste promise of the title, but nothing else really comes close to matching it, despite some truly unpleasant shots of various bodily fluids. Komizu sometimes throws in a few interesting shots, particularly during the murders which are occasionally punctuated with a random clip of meat being pulverized, but these interesting moments are few and far between and there's little evidence that the director is trying to say anything interesting.

It's a little hard to judge acting skill in a film like this, particularly when it's subtitled, but the models are all attractive, though creepily young looking. The scummy photographers are reprehensible from the first frame, and never come close to redeeming themselves. The mud-man is exactly that, an actor with mud and grass packed over parts of his body. Special effects are weak, but it's this cartoonishness which actually keeps the film from being a total waste of time.


Despite my reservations on the quality of the film itself, Synapse has again done a wonderful job bringing it to DVD, along with its spiritual sequels Entrails Of A Beautiful Woman (1986) and Female Inquisitor (1987). The image quality is a bit dark, but that's likely a fault of the filmmakers, and subtitles are clear and easy to read. There is very little incidental music in the film, and what is there - composed by Hideki Furusawa - isn't very impressive.

The only included special feature is an interview with director Kazuo 'Gaira' Komizu, who proves to be truly obnoxious in the brief conversation. More interested in babbling on about nonsense than talking about his film, the whole thing becomes irritating rather quickly. Quite a dissapointment.


Perhaps if I had seen Entrails Of A Virgin as a teen it would have been as shocking as its title would imply, but while there are still a few loathsome moments throughout the final product is very difficult to trudge through - despite the mercifully short running time. The sex is almost wholly unpleasant, and the violence is too silly and short-lived to appeal to fans of gore. Synapse has done a good job of bringing this title to North America, but in the end it's simply too boring and repetitive to enjoy as anything but a slight bad-taste curiosity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

26 days of nite - THEY LIVE (Carpenter, 1988)

This was great. Why did I wait 26 years to see this? My favorite scene is the extended fight sequence between Piper and Keith David, where Piper's trying to get him to put on the glasses and he refuses, violently. This push-pull situation, where the answer is so simple (put on the frames!) seems to refer to man's insistence on illusion over truth. We avoid the simple facts of reality, preferring to clothe ourselves with religion and govt., god and country, divisions which divert our attention from what is really going on. And what's really going on is, we're killing each other. We're not helping each other, we're hurting each other, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The solution is acceptance of reality as it truly is, but we don't want that. Humanity isn't ready for enlightenment; not yet, anyway, and so we keep killing each other. My major problem with the film is the idea that man's inhumanity to man is caused by an outside source; that, at a basic level, humans do want connection and love, and there's just an external factor which keeps us divided. I think that the truth of humanity (namely, that we create these divisions ourselves, and, at a certain point, we enjoy them) is much bleaker. Man's problem is man, not aliens, and this is the scariest aspect of humanity itself.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

27 days of nite - THE WICKER MAN (Hardy, 1973)

I don't mean to turn this into a humanistic rant, but this is really an atheist horror film, right? Maybe that's just my culturally-influenced reading of it, but when the sergeant is begging for his life at the end, crying out, "Think!" I have to sort of chuckle. It's easy for him to tell the primitive people to "think" but how often does he think about his own religion? Why is it to easy for religious people to write off an entire other group of people's thoughts? Those people arrived at their religious beliefs the same way you did. They believe them just as intensely as you believe yours (and, in the case of the inhabitants of Summerisle, they believe them more). Again, this is just my interpretation of the film, but I can't help thinking how if every person in the world decided to stop believing in god, there would be no god to kill in the name of. THE WICKER MAN is an extraordinary film, a horror movie that is almost entirely devoid of violence. It's got wonderful, surreal visuals and tons of nudity and the shots at the end of the film are utterly gorgeous. I love the climax of the film, as well, when the flames do rise, and the camera cuts away from the sergeant and zooms in on the sun and it's wonderful. This one is a landmark film about cultural collision and the need for, yes, thinking, when two divergent sets of values come into contact with one another.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

28 days of nite - MARTIN (Romero, 1977)

Now this is something I can sink my teeth into! *rimshot* Sorry. I'm sorry. You guys, I've let you down. But what won't let you down is MARTIN! Is this Romero's best picture? I've just seen it for the first time, and so I might have a tendency to overrate it right now, but I think it's really dense and weird and great. I appreciated the skeptical tone of everything; the legend of the vampire is examined and the archetypes are toyed with. It seems to have a deep affection for the cinematic legacy of the vampire, but at the same time, it's humanizing the themes and making them more relevant. Romero also seems more willing to explore characters. I love his work, but its political and social conscience often sacrifice character for plot and symbolism. This one, though, delves into the family context surrounding vampirism, and, to a greater extent, mental illness, and wonders about the nature of reality and perception. Romero is commenting on the creation of modern folklore, the invention of yet another illusionary framework through which humans can view the world. Magic isn't real, but Martin is, and, to me, that's far more interesting than magic, anyway.

29 days of nite - HAUNTED POE (Distefano, 2009)

OH MAN THIS WAS AWESOME. Unfortunately, you can't see it unless you're in the Philadelphia area, but if you are, you should stop by sometime in October. It's a haunted house thingy, but it's in this old warehouse in South Philly and it's billed as "interactive theater". A cast of preformers acts out several Poe works, incorporating elements of musical theater, puppetry, greek tragedy, film, dance, and magic/illusions, and the result is really cool. It's been produced by Brat, a Philly-based theater production company, and this base in actual art, rather than commerce, helps to set it apart from most other Haunted Attractions. HAUNTED POE is not traditionally scary, but it operates on a deeper level. It should be reviewed in the context of a haunted house, because that's really what it is, and when viewed in the context of a haunted house, it's the best I've been to, and I've been to a bunch. It draws together the various spaces and performers into a connecting story about the deterioriating mental state of the author of the works that you're seeing acted out. The performers never jump out and yell boo; they burst out of the ground and lay the violin and stare into your eyes while they're singing. The effect hits somewhere closer to the subliminal level of consciousness than the usual haunted house, which just throws random scary things at you and waits for you to jump. HAUNTED POE is, at times, strangely beautiful, and it touches upon emotions other than fear, and it's well-acted, and entertaining, and it's creepy. 38 Jackson St, Phila, PA. and it runs through Nov. 1.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Beyond (1981)


It's no secret to informed movie viewers that Lucio Fulci's The Beyond is both adored and reviled in almost equal measure. Beautiful, surreal and revoltingly grotesque the film retains the ability to shock with its series of nasty set pieces, while remaining consistently frustrating for its incoherent plotting and inconsistent performances. For patient viewers in the right state of mind, however, The Beyond is the ultimate haunted house nightmare, crafted by a master of the genre working at the height of his powers.

We begin at the Seven Doors Hotel in Louisiana way back in 1927, where an accused warlock named Schweick is captured and crucified in the basement by an angry mob which, oops, happens to open one of the seven gates to hell. After the opening credits we flash to the present (aka 1981) where the young Liza (Catriona MacColl) has inherited and begun to renovate the crumbling hotel. Soon, however, strange accidents begin to occur around the property, including a painter falling off a scaffolding after witnessing some ghostly eyes inside. But it's when Schweick's body is uncovered by an unfortunate plumber that hell begins to (literally) break loose. Liza is helped by the blind, mysterious Martha (Veronica Lazar) and by the skeptical doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck), but things begin to rapidly spin out of control as hell starts to spill out of the gate.


Got that? Good. Now ignore it. Because if you're looking for this film to make a lot of narrative sense you're going to be sorely disappointed. What Fulci has on the menu is a series of surreal visions of hell on earth served up in no particular order, but with a very simple goal: keep the audience in a constant state of uneasiness. Eyeballs are mangled, faces are melted, and brains are splattered everywhere. Scares of spiders? Heights? Darkness? Zombies? Ghosts? Hospitals? It's all grist for Fulci's mill, and attempting to enjoy it on this level - as something designed to tap into your basest fears - is really the only way to understand its devoted cult following.

Anyone even peripherally familiar with Fulci's oeuvre won't be surprised to hear that the level of violence on display is truly astounding, even by modern standards. But this is no simple exercise in grand guignol. Fulci constructs his scenes with a master's touch, doing the very least necessary to create sympathetic characters before immediately thrusting them into the worst imaginable situations. When the plumber's wife visits the hospital to dress his corpse, it's only minutes till her face is being melted horrifically (and confusingly) by acid, her skin popping and bubbling in a revolting rainbow of colour. In many ways these are the cheapest kind of thrills, but they are thrills nonetheless.


Which isn't meant to discount the actual suspense that Fulci and his collaborators bring to individual scenes. Fabio Frizzi's creeping, Goblin-like score wring operatic tension throughout, and Fulci makes great use of his New Orleans locations. Certain images linger in the brain long after watching, particularly the shows after Liza and John mistakingly open the gates of hell and rush out the hotel, the camera lingering as the silhouetted zombies rise up in the windows. Much has also been made of the film's final shocking minutes which build wonderful and effectively without the use of gory effects. With Fulci the destination is rarely in doubt, but his obvious skill makes the journey one well worth travelling.

Previously better known as 7 Doors Of Death (in a severely cut form), in the 90s The Beyond was restored and enjoyed a brief theatrical release thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures and Grindhouse Releasing. The Anchor Bay release of The Beyond is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a clean and colorful print featuring only minor print damage, and this uncut presentation will be a revelation to those used to the shoddy VHS versions. The sound options are extensive, with English tracks available in Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 and the original mono English, as well as an Italian language track. Like with most Italian films of the time, The Beyond was filmed silent with a mixture of English speaking and Italian actors who then dubbed their voices in post-production. In this case, where even many of the Italian actors are mouthing broken English, the English options are likely the best.


Available previously in a limited edition tun (which included lobby cards and a booklet on Fulci and his films), Anchor Bay has included some extensive special features which shed a little light on the film's worldwide fandom. Most substantial is a feature length commentary which features stars David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl. Recorder shortly before Warbeck's death from cancer - he references his sickness several times throughout - the two are nonetheless humourous and relaxed, relating anecdotes about working with Fulci (who could apparently be a bit of a terror on set) while poking fun at the film's shortcomings. It's a refreshingly honest commentary and very entertaining.

Images From The Beyond is a 16 minute grab bag of special features, including a collection of posters and marketing art, behind the scenes photos, and some short interview segments with Warbeck, MacColl and Fulci himself. Three trailers for the film, including the U.S. re-release, International and German trailers, are available but all of them contain significant spoilers so viewers should be aware going in. There's also a forgettable video for the song And You Will Live In Terror by the thrash band Necrophagia (directed by Deadbeat At Dawn's Jim Van Bebber) which features gory clips from the movie interspersed with lousy shot-on-video footage of the band performing.


Also interesting is a full color version of the film's pre-credit sequence taken from its German release. Stripped of the sepia tone used in the standard version, the scenes of Schweick getting whipped with chains and melted with lime are even more unpleasantly gruesome. With a little bit of digging there are also two neat easter eggs: a trailer for Fulci's film Cat In The Brain, and the alternate opening credits from the 7 Doors Of Death version of the film.

As expected, chapter selections and optional subtitles round everything off. I should also mention the wonderful menus which take great advantage of Frizzi's score.


Those new to The Beyond often end up wondering what all the fuss is about, and it would be unfair to pretend that the film doesn't have some serious flaws. What makes the film work is a willingness to go to some seriously dark places and the increasing sense of dread which connects it. It's certainly not as stylish as the works of Bava or Argento, but there are truly stirring images here which trump both. Not a masterpiece, but as close as Fulci ever came.

30 days of nite - [REC] (Balaguero & Plaza, 2007)

Zombie movies, for whatever reason, remain the horror sub-genre most easily applied to political satire. It's the George Romero legacy, I suppose. But while [REC] is indebted to Romero's DEAD films, it trades his overt political statements for a sense of urgent, violent depictions of how quickly order breaks down. The zombie film has always explored themes of societal breakdown and the incompetence of government. And while [REC] definitely has characters fill in as symbols for Law and Order, it never gets heavy-handed. It doesn't have to, because [REC] is just a bleak portrayal of the end. It's shot hand-held, and on digital, and it looks fucking great. A few sequences are truly stupdendous examples of suspenseful filmmaking. The plot is simple: a young TV reporter follows a crew of firemen into an apartment building. The reporter works on a TV show and is filming a night's work as a fireman. The apartmet is infected with something, and that something soon has everyone in the motherfucking building running and biting and screaming and reanimating. This is seriously a really well-made picture. The pacing is slow and playful at first, but by the end, it's bracing and unrelenting, and you're gripping your seat. Well, not literally. Only movie to actually make me grip my seat? CITY OF GOD. But this came close. It plays like the first twenty or so minutes of the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, captured on handheld video with all the desperation and mayhem that that implies. It's a (probably accurate) portrayal of how quickly humans resort to violence. Violence is, to be sure, an automatic behavior which is naturally selected for. At the blink of an eye, the body interprets threats and responds accordingly, as best it is capable. This means that, given certain circumstances, human beings devolve, step backwards in time, and utilize ancient instincts. At a certain point, the human species is competing against the universe. We are trying to convince ourselves that the universe gives a shit about us. But the universe doesn't, and at the blink of an eye, it introduces things that destroy our institutions and frameworks. Well. Something tells me that I'm reading too much into [REC] but it made me think of these things, and that's important.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Vampire Circus (1972)

Quite a few scholars of the filmography of the vampire give credit to Universal Film's 1931 monster epic, Dracula, as the movie that made vampires sexy.

Personally, I give sole credit to Hammer Films for not only successfully linking eroticism with the vampire legend, but also turning the vampire into one of the most reliable marketing vehicles in the history of motion pictures.

Between 1958 and 1974, Hammer produced no less than eight feature length films featuring Dracula as the primary nemesis as portrayed by the legendary Christopher Lee. However, two Hammer films arguably did more to give shape to the vampire as sex symbol than any other.

One is Vampire Circus from 1972.

In the early seventies, Hammer Films experienced the proverbial sea change old guard Hammer executives slowly left the business and were replaced by a crop new producers who not only had a finger on the pulse of new audiences, but also were eager to take daring risks if it resulted in more profitable films.

Vampire Circus really is the blueprint of the 1970's Hammer horror movie. It tried its best to break every convention possible not only with the traditional trappings of vampire folklore, but it additionally charged the material with a sense of sexuality rarely seen in the medium before now.

And it does this in the first twenty minutes of the film.

In the opening scenes we discover that a remote village sometime in 17th century Austria serves as the hunting ground for a sadistic, undead scourge named Count Mittenhaus (Robert Tayman). Mittenhaus's dashing good looks and supernatural charisma have allowed him to make a thrall of the wife of the local school teacher.

Anna Miller (Domini Blythe) then serves her count by luring women and young girls alike to Mittenhaus's castle, where he then feasts on the blood of his prey.

Eventually, the villagers led by Anna's husband, Professor Albert Miller (Laurence Payne) catch onto Mittenhaus's plot and band together to put an end to the count. They manage to put a stake through his heart and then burn down the castle, but not until after Mittenhaus swears to eventually take his vengeance.

The action then picks up a few years later and we see that the village has been isolated due to a growing epidemic that most of the townsfolk blame on Mittenhaus's dying curse.

Shortly thereafter, a wandering band of gypsies arrive to entertain and ease the suffering of the locals with song and acts of acrobatic excellence, but unbeknownst to them, the seemingly benevolent troupe of performers is in actuality a group of vampires led by the undead cousin of Count Mittenhaus; the dangerous and enigmatic, Emil (a very young Anthony Higgins performing under the name, Anthony Corlan).

Their mission? To bring Count Mittenhaus back to life so that he may avenge himself against the people that dared to defy him.

As I mentioned before, Vampire Circus does a lot of things differently than previous Hammer vampire films.

For starters, it abandons almost all of the usual vampire folklore as Emil and his fellow vampire conspirators can function in sunlight so long as they are in a different form. In Emil's case, he takes the rather odd form of a black panther during the daytime and hides in plain sight with the other jungle cats kept by the traveling circus.

Vampire Circus also retains the Hammer introduced concept of blood serving as a catalyst to reincarnate a vampire that hasn't been utterly destroyed by sunlight. This plot device served Hammer Films well in subsequent films in the Dracula catalogue.

Secondly was the erotically combustable screenplay. There is no better way to show just how seductive a vampire is than to have some nubile young thing stare at him with that vacant, come hither look on her face while peeling off every stitch of clothing that she has on. If vampires and attractive naked women are your things then fella, this is the movie for you.

Thirdly is the fact that for a vampire movie, Vampire Circus is a lot gorier than you'd expect it to be. In some scenes Emil rips people to shreds while in panther form, while in the climactic scene where Mittenhaus pays the price for his evil, his demise occurs in a not so tidy manner.

The final thing is that this movie accomplishes all of this with a list of relative unknowns, as a whopping zero members of the usual Hammer standards have a presence in this movie. Some may recognize Anthony Higgins from his later portrayals of both Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty and of course, David Prowse aka the body behind Darth Vader is cast in the role of the circus's silent strongman. It is very odd to see a Hammer vampire movie with no mention of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but here it is and it is a damn fine piece of work.

In line with Hammer tradition, director Robert Young does everything in his power to make Emil and the other vampires as alluring as possible, while also making sure that the audience remembers that they are evil incarnate and not creatures to be sympathized with. The vampires in Hammer films use their seductive wiles on humans the way scorpions use their stingers: it is the mechanism by which a hunter secures his meal.

Although I found it somewhat uncomfortable to watch, Young continually reinforces the malevolently predatory nature of his vampires by having them prey on the younger villagers, especially the children. Watching the powerful and statuesque Count Mittenhaus gaze longingly in hunger on the pale throat of a small, defenseless girl and knowing that his only desire is to take her life to sustain his own really does bring Young's concept to terrifying clarity.

These creatures are far different than the Ricean versions we find in cinema or literature today; individuals bordering on emo that are "misunderstood" and view their condition as both blessing and curse. Although these "vampires are people, too" works such as Twilight kinda bother me phillosophically, they do serve the noble purpose of preserving the vampire for future generations.

Suffice to say that if you're looking for a retrospective feel to your Halloween movie viewing this season, then track this movie down with the swiftness.

31 days of nite - WIZARD OF GORE (Lewis, 1970)

My first Lewis picture, believe it or not! I wanted something super gory for the first day of my favorite month of the year, and this was nothing if not gory. Lots of deep, red, goupy stuff that looks sort of sweet and edible. But the violence has a strange, detached vibe. The cuts from extreme violence to the deadpan audience were jarring, and the audience members' blank looks granted everything a sort of clinical distance. I think I looked a lot like the audience, staring straight into the screen, not really sure what to make of everything. If you haven't seen the film, I can't say I'd really recommend it. Lewis kicks around some vague ideas here, some of which are interesting, but everything is just sort of hokey. Maybe I'm just too old for this type of stuff anymore, you guys. I turned 26 last week. 26! What the fuck is going on. The old me would've loved WIZARD OF GORE. Or maybe even then I would've just found it sort of stupid. Fulci always seemed pretty silly to me; Argento, too. A lot of horror is goofy, and that's part of the appeal, I suppose. Lewis hints at some interesting ideas, including the possible non-existence of reality (or am I just writing that into it? Do I hear these questions in the film because these are the questions I ask in my head? But Montag's monologue in the opening sequence seems to ask questions about the way human beings interpret reality, and suggests that dreams are just as valid as reality, that illusion and truth are the same thing because there's nothing happening, at all.) Ray Sager as Montag the Magician is pretty much hysterical. OK, fuck it, this was awesome, actually. Loved it. Has anyone seen the remake with Crispin Glover? If so, is it terrible?