Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October Quick Picks and Pans – Halloween 2012

Dead of Night (1945) Two decades before Amicus ushered in the era of the portmanteau horror film, Ealing studios produced this wonderful anthology of five creepy stories.  In the framing narrative, an architect visits a country home, and encounters five individuals that are manifestations of his dreams.  Fans of The Twilight Zone will instantly recognize similarities between the TV series’ episode “Twenty Two” and the first segment, titled “Hearse Driver.”  In fact, both stemmed from the same E.F. Benson tale.  The weakest segment of the bunch, concerning a bet between two golfers, strikes a more whimsical tone, which seems out of step with the other stories.  The filmmakers saved the best for last, however, with “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti).  Is it the man who controls the dummy, or vice versa?  It’s a chilling excursion into madness that has been copied countless times since, but rarely to such great effect.  Not currently available through Netflix, it’s well worth a look if you can find it.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video

Stake Land (2010) Director/co-writer Jim Mickle’s bleak, engrossing post-apocalyptic vampire story recalls I Am Legend and The Road.  The film follows Mister (played by co-writer Nick Damici) and his young protégé Martin (Connor Paolo) as they make their way north across a plague-ravaged United States, towards a semi-mythical place known as New Eden.  The vampires are decidedly animalistic and savage, in stark contrast to the more benign variety found in a certain popular series of films.  Vampires are not the only terrors that they face along the road, however, as they contend with bands of religious zealots and cannibals.  Stake Land is more than a bit derivative (It’s a little too easy to play spot-the-reference), but it possesses its own unique energy.  Stake Land was never given a proper theatrical release, and was unceremoniously released to home video, but it deserved better.  I suspect that the distributors considered it too downbeat for mainstream audiences weaned on sparkly or erudite vampires, but for those who prefer darkness over fluff, it’s a welcome respite.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Church (1989) (aka: La Chiesa) This curiosity from Director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) about a gothic cathedral with a dirty little secret never fails to entertain, even when it’s not making sense (which is most of the time).  In the prologue, set during the dark ages, the denizens of an entire village are accused of witchcraft by a group of Knights Templar, and summarily sentenced to death.   A huge cathedral is built atop their buried remains, presumably sealing the evil within.  About midway through the film, when a modern-day interloper unleashes the ancient evil, it runs completely off the rails.  The second half of the film contains more random dialogue and craziness per minute than ten other movies.  We’re introduced to one of the strangest assortments of characters assembled under one roof, including a group of schoolchildren, a crotchety old man and his amorous wife, and a narcissistic bride.  It must be seen to be believed.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Castle Freak (1995) This mediocre direct-to-video effort from director/co-writer Stuart Gordon stars Gordon stalwarts Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton as husband and wife, John and Susan Reilly.  In a flashback sequence, we witness the automobile accident that claimed the life of their young son, and blinded their daughter.  When John inherits an Italian castle, he moves with his family to start a new life, but Susan is unable to forgive him for the accident.  To complicate matters, the castle is not quite as empty as it initially appeared.  With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, and its themes of guilt and family secrets, Castle Freak has its moments.  Considering the low budget origins, the titular freak makeup is also quite good.  Unfortunately, it’s never particularly scary, and its deadpan tone lacks the sardonic wit found in Gordon’s better films (such as Re-Animator and From Beyond).  While the film is probably better than most of the fare that falls under the Full Moon Entertainment banner, that’s not really saying much.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD

Red Eye (2005) (aka: Redeu-ai) What could have been a truly unique and thrilling horror film becomes a confusing mess from director Dong-bin Kim.  Red Eye (not to be confused with the Wes Craven film from the same year) takes place on a train during its last run from Seoul to the coast.  Some of the train cars were salvaged from a deadly train accident that occurred years before, resulting in the current bout of ghostly incidents.  Oh Mi-sun (Shin-yeong Jang), on her first trip as an attendant, is inextricably linked to the train’s past and present.  Red Eye isn’t very scary, and it’s hard to tell what’s going on from one scene to the next.   Another nitpick: Modern movie soundtracks can sometimes overwhelm the dialogue, but in this case, the telltale click-clack sound of the wheels on the tracks was noticeably absent.  While I was willing to forgive many of the aforementioned trespasses, to a point, Red Eye’s biggest offense is that it’s often boring.  Maybe it should have been called Shut Eye, instead.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD

Dark Tower (1987) Okay, this one hurt.  I heard nothing about this film before it became available for viewing through Netflix Instant, and now I know why.  Dark Tower was directed by Freddie Francis (his last feature film), who replaced the original director, Ken Wiederhorn.  The presence of Jenny Agutter, Michael Moriarty and Kevin McCarthy (in a brief, thankless role) does nothing to mitigate the pain of watching this snoozefest about a haunted high-rise building in Barcelona.  We’re treated to interminable scenes of workaholic architect Carolyn Page (Agutter) sitting at her desk, and American detective Dennis Randall (Moriarty) looking befuddled.  What’s causing the deaths of people who enter the building?  Will Dennis and Carolyn strike up a romantic relationship that’s hinted at throughout the film?  Why Barcelona?  Who knows?  I kept waiting for more to happen, and was consistently disappointed.  If you manage to stay awake long enough to witness the smidgen of action at the conclusion, you’ll be rewarded (I’m using the term loosely) with a lame twist ending.  Don’t bother.

Rating: * ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Demons (aka: Dèmoni)

(1985) Directed by  Lamberto Bava; Written by Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Ferrini; Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny and Fiore Argento; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

I wanted to start off by expressing my sincerest thanks to Kevin J. Olson at  Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies for hosting this third annual Italian Horror Blogathon.  This is my second go-round, after  last year’s review of Cemetery Man, and I don’t feel that I’m any closer to cracking the enigma of Italian horror cinema, but I’m enjoying the ride.  This beguiling, often frustrating category keeps me returning for more like some virtual Stockholm Syndrome.  This year, I chose to discuss the seminal 1980s gorefest, Demons, from director/co-writer Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava. 

Demons doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It plays more like a fever dream than a coherent narrative, with everything rushing by in a sort of hazy blur.  I practically hurt my brain, straining to find the subversive social commentary before coming to the realization that there was none to be found.  There, I said it.  I feel better getting that off my chest.  Let’s move on, shall we?  

The opening scene takes place in the Berlin subway, where a mute man in a silver mask (Michele Soavi*) hands out passes to a free screening at the Metropole movie theater.  Most of the film takes place in the theater, as we observe the patrons clambering for a way out, wishing that they’d stayed at home.  There’s something instantly compelling about watching people in a cinema watching another movie, like staring into one of those trick mirrors that show an endless series of mirrors within.  The movie-within-a-movie concept has been done before, but never to such gory effect.  The audience members derive vicarious thrills by watching a movie (the title is never mentioned)  about demons and an ancient prophecy by Nostradamus, until everything gets a little too real on the other side of the screen.  Everything quickly devolves into chaos as the action in the theater mimics the atrocities in the film.

* Mr. Soavi (who coincidentally directed Cemetery Man) really earned his paycheck with this movie, by playing two roles in the film, and serving as the assistant director.

Bava commented that he wanted to set his demons apart from the zombies in George Romero’s Living Dead films.  Indeed, Demons is faster paced and more frenetic than most other zombie flicks, with the titular creatures possessing a sort of rabid energy.  While short on logic or believability, many of the scenes convey a certain manic je ne sais quoi, where absurdity rules supreme.  You can’t predict what’s coming next.  Some highlights include a fully grown demon emerging from the back of one of the unfortunate theater patrons, and film’s nominal hero, George (Urbano Barberini), riding a motorcycle down the theater aisle while slicing demons apart with a katana.  We also witness a group of coke-fueled punks * stumble into the theater, despite the fact that none of the theater-goers seem to be able to find an exit.  In another mind-numbingly inexplicable scene, a helicopter suddenly crashes through the theater’s ceiling (asked why, Bava simply replied that he liked the idea). 

* In this case, it’s not mere hyperbole.  No, really.  We witness four punks snorting cocaine from a can of coke.  Frankly, I’m surprised the Coca-Cola Company didn’t sue because of that scene.  Ahh.. but those were the 80s.

 (Spoiler alert: If you want to remain spoiler free, I recommend skipping ahead to the last paragraph.)

In the film’s climax, it’s revealed that the demons are not confined to the theater, but outside (presumably everywhere) as well.  This seems to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between the demon infestation inside and outside the theater, with the movie within a movie being the common link. Is it art imitating life, or life imitating art?  Or was everything predestined to happen this way from the start?  Demons is short on answers, and doesn’t provide any solace for those who are accustomed to a clear resolution.  The only thing that appears certain, by the film’s conclusion, is that there’s nowhere safe to run to.

There’s not a lot to be said about the characters, but that’s probably not the point.  The story is told in broad strokes, in which the frenzied audience could be seen as a single character.  They react to the demons as one large organism would react to an infectious disease. 

Demons works on a primal level, achieving its modest goals successfully.  Audiences didn’t go to this for nuanced performances or insightful social commentary.  They wanted to see lots of goopy monsters run amok, and their victims meet horrible ends.  In this respect it succeeds admirably.  It won’t likely change your views about Italian horror and its excesses, but you probably know where you stood with this genre already.  Gorehounds and fans of 80s horror will find much to love here; all others need not apply.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The Devil’s Backbone

(2001) Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz; Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve and Federico Luppi; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

“What is a ghost?  A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?  An instant of pain, perhaps.  Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time.  Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” – Dr. Casares

An effective ghost story is more about what is unseen and unheard, rather than the limited information that our senses can gather.  With The Devil’s Backbone, director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro spins a paradoxically beautiful, horrible and affecting tale.  Del Toro understands that feeling on a visceral level is just as important as being shown unsettling imagery.  The spiritual and tangible worlds establish an uneasy co-existence, bridging a tenuous link between the living and the dead.  It’s the living, however, that we must be wary of.   

The film is set in the late 1930s, amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.  Del Toro would visit a similar milieu, and continue his exploration of themes about the deleterious effects of fascism, for his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (set several years after the conclusion of the civil war). The title The Devil’s Backbone (aka: El Espinazo del Diablo) refers to a specimen of Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), a fetus in a jar with spina bifida (referred to, in more superstitious, less enlightened times, as “the devil’s backbone.”).  Del Toro commented that this also served as a metaphor for the residents of the film’s secluded orphanage.  They are “children of no one,” shunned by the rest of society, and doomed to life on the fringe.  A bomb, still ticking, in the orphanage courtyard, serves as a grim reminder of the knife’s edge between life and death that the children face.

We are introduced to the central character Carlos (Fernando Tielve), as he’s abandoned by his tutor, and left at the orphanage.  His relationship* with an older boy, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) is initially contentious, but an uneasy friendship is cultivated over time.  Although the orphanage’s headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) describes him as “meek,” he quickly proves to be brave, generous and loyal.  He stands as a polar opposite to the film’s antagonist, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who possesses none of these traits. 

* Guillermo del Toro infused the film with autobiographical elements from his childhood, and his experiences attending a boarding school in Mexico, based on the sometimes cutthroat behavior between his classmates.

Described as a “prince without a kingdom,” the hateful caretaker Jacinto (himself a product of the orphanage), lashes out at everyone around him.  Robbed of what he perceives his birthright, he takes what he can and discards the rest.  He’s primarily motivated by the prospect of getting his hands on the gold that was hidden in the orphanage to help finance the war effort.  Jacinto responds to everything with fear and hate.  He fears what he does not understand, such as connecting with another human being, and his natural reaction is to respond with violence.  In many respects, he’s the most pathetic character in the film because of his limited range of interacting and reacting with the world.  He’s animalistic and primal, motivated by self-preservation and incapable of empathizing with others.   His relationships are endemic of his disregard for everyone else.  He maintains an empty sexual relationship with the one-legged Carmen (in an effort to get closer to the gold), while keeping a callous attitude toward his girlfriend, the selfless and gentle Conchita (Irene Visedo).  Although his behavior is reprehensible, Jacinto never comes across as two-dimensional, but a lost soul, as worthy of our pity as our scorn.  His years in the orphanage produced a bitter young adult with an impenetrable shell. 

The other key player in The Devil’s Backbone is Dr. Casares, who serves as a parental figure for Carlos.  He stays at Carmen’s side, running the orphanage, while suppressing his unrequited love for her.  Unable to express his love for her physically, he endures her transgressions with Jacinto and bides his time.  He is the island of calm and reason in a sea of war and chaos.  Casares is a man of science, with no time for flights of fancy (or so it seems) or considering the veracity of rumors of a ghost roaming the halls of the orphanage.  

So what’s a ghost story without a ghost?  The ghost takes on a decidedly supporting role, since the interaction of the living characters is as integral to the story.   We’re aware of Santi’s (Junio Valverde) presence from the very beginning, as he watches over the orphanage.  He’s not there to frighten, but to provide a warning to Carlos and the other children.  Spawned out of violence, he’s doomed to replay his tragic circumstances for all time.

In the film’s engrossing, informative DVD commentary del Toro remarked that, “…horror is exclusively about context.”  Our minds fill in the blanks, occupying the vacuum left by what we cannot comprehend. The Devil’s Backbone generates an enduring feeling of dread and uneasiness that’s not quickly ameliorated.  In a lesser horror film, a quick scare panders to an immediate reaction, but vanishes quickly in the ether.  The scares in del Toro’s film are far more enduring.  Witnessing the cruelties that humans inflict on one another is one of the greatest horrors of all.

Guillermo del Toro has crafted a classic story of sadness, despair, love, devotion and sacrifice, where each character is uniquely damaged in his or her own way.  The Devil’s Backbone is also one of the finest ghost films, in good company with such supernatural tales as The Others and The Haunting.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Classics Revisited: Dr. Phibes Double Feature

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) Directed by Robert Fuest; Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein; Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Hugh Griffith and Virginia North; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“Nine killed her; nine shall die!” – Dr. Anton Phibes

So far, during Horror Month, I’ve gone from the sublime (Eyes Without a Face) to the ridiculous (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter), and now the sublimely ridiculous. There’s nothing quite like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, except perhaps its sequel (more on that in a moment).  With its unique art deco look and tongue-in-cheek horror approach, it left an indelible mark on horror film history.  Vincent Price contributed one of his most memorable roles as the vengeful Dr. Anton Phibes.  Robert Fuest (who passed away earlier this year, at the age of 84) capably directed this fresh take on the mad scientist film.

Following the death of his wife Victoria on the operating table, Dr. Phibes (presumed dead after a fiery automobile crash) vows revenge against the team of eight doctors and one nurse who supervised her doomed operation.  His punishments are based on the 10 biblical plagues of Egypt, and are as ingenious as they’re gruesome.  Some highlights include death by a skull-crushing frog mask, a lethal brass unicorn and face-eating locusts.  He’s flanked by his silent assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), who helps carry out his elaborate schemes, although it’s never established what her stake is in the proceedings, or why she would help Phibes commit multiple murders.

Price seems to be enjoying every minute of his take on Phibes, with his flair for making a grand entrance and maintaining a sense of style.  His character pauses briefly from his killing spree to enjoy the finer things in life (such as dancing with Vulnavia, with musical accompaniment by his clockwork band).  He’s the embodiment of obsessive love, unable to sever his attachment to his dead wife.  An uncredited Caroline Munro (in the most thankless of thankless roles) spends the entire duration of the movie as Dr. Phibes’ deceased wife Victoria, stored in a glass case.  Her ubiquitous image (in picture frames and even on a phone dial) reminds him of what has been lost.  I can’t help but wonder, however, if she would have approved of his single-minded retribution.

One of the film’s unique touches is that the end credits refer to Phibes and his archenemy Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) as “The Protagonists.”  It’s one of the movie’s conceits that either character could serve as the protagonist, depending on your point of view.  We’re reluctant to cast Phibes exclusively in the bad guy role, due to the element of tragedy that contributed to his madness.  We feel strangely sympathetic for Phibes and the loss of his soulmate, alternately fascinated to see his plans come to fruition, yet horrified by the prospect that he will succeed at the expense of others.  The film plays to our sense of vicarious pleasure, watching someone commit morally bankrupt actions from the safety of our armchairs.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes consistently strikes the right dark comic tone.  It never gets too silly, yet we never take the characters too seriously.  The character death sequences have an episodic feel, as if lifted from the panels of a comic book, while the set pieces are purposely stagey.  Genuinely captivating and darkly humorous, it remains one of my all-time favorite Vincent Price films

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) Directed by Robert Fuest; Written by Robert Fuest and Robert Blees; Starring: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry and Valli Kemp; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“You cannot threaten the dead with death, my friend. Only with life, eternal life!”
– Dr. Anton Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a tough act to follow.  Its successor could never be quite as fresh or surprising, but it’s still an enjoyable romp.  The original’s director, Robert Fuest, returns to the helm.  The opening recaps the events of the last film with a montage of scenes and unnecessary narration (by Gary Owens), before setting the action three years later.  Unlike the revenge-filled plot of the last movie, Dr. Phibes Rises Again focuses on Dr. Anton Phibes’ (once again, played by the inimitable Vincent Price) quest for the Elixir of Life in Egypt.  Of course, anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of Phibes and his single-minded obsession will meet a series of clever and ghastly ends. 

One of the dubious charms of the Dr. Phibes films is witnessing the innovative and diabolical methods that the title character has devised for dispatching his enemies.  There’s no shortage of new torments that Dr. Phibes has in store for his victims this time around, including being trapped by a giant golden scorpion (while being attacked by real scorpions), a man being crushed in his own cot, while another is skewered by a spike through a telephone receiver.  Phibes’ trusty assistant Vulnavia (this time played by Valli Kemp) accompanies him on his trip to Egypt to revive his dead wife and achieve immortality for himself.  Instead of a mansion in England, Phibes has set up shop inside a mountain, along with his clockwork band, while his deceased wife (Munro again) rests in a glass and chrome Rolls Royce coffin. 

This time, it’s a battle of wits between Phibes and explorer Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) as they race to possess the secrets of eternal life.  Biederbeck is nearly as ruthless as Phibes in his pursuit, seemingly unaffected when several close associates meet horrible ends.  He’s a worthy adversary; as a closer match to his nemesis’ intellect than the bumbling London policemen who are pursuing Phibes (always one step behind).  It’s a little baffling to see Biederbeck take a turn that seems out of character towards the film’s climax, when he appears genuinely concerned when his girlfriend Diana’s (Fiona Lewis) life is threatened by Phibes. 

Although a third Dr. Phibes film was proposed but never made, the underrated Dr. Phibes Rises Again serves as a fitting capper to the saga.  Both films end on a twisted positive note with renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” suggesting that there’s a better place and time for the antihero.   We’re left with the prospect that the further adventures of Dr. Phibes are yet to be revealed.  While I don’t exactly relish the prospect of a remake, it poses a formidable, intriguing challenge for a suitable director, writer and star.