Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Blog Update: Putting 2016 to Rest

No matter how you slice it, 2016 has been one tumultuous stinker of a year, with the loss of so many beloved public figures and continued political upheaval. As much as I’d like to think that everything will be okay when the ball drops in Times Square and the year officially comes to a close, experience and cynicism suggest otherwise. I can’t shake the feeling it’s all merely a dress rehearsal for 2017.

From a personal standpoint, my 83-year-old mom became ill over the past several weeks. We still don’t have a definitive diagnosis or prognosis, so in the absence of facts, all we can do is hope for the best. I remain in constant contact, however, and look forward to seeing her soon. On a happier note, my family and I will be returning in late February back to the Pacific Northwest. After many months of soul searching and deliberation, we concluded that 11 years in Texas is enough. None of us could have anticipated we’d be here as long as we’ve been, but I’m grateful for the terrific things that have occurred here, including meeting some good friends, earning my master’s degree, finding a career in higher education and founding my blog. In unrelated news (Shameless Plug Alert), my wife also published her first novel in 2016, which you can purchase here. One painful lesson 2016 has taught us is that life is far too short to live in regret, so we’re following our dreams and convictions.

Despite all of life’s ups and downs, this blog continues to keep chugging along. Some 2016 highlights have been the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, participating in several other blogathons, various theme months, and a guest post on the amazing blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. So what does 2017 have in store? Due to the aforementioned uncertainties, some posts may be delayed or will have to be shifted around, but I’ll do my best to post regularly. I also hope to get back on track with my book project, a companion to Cinematic Catharsis. Some blog previews for 2017:

  • Japan-uary VI returns with a fresh crop of films, featuring something for everyone (maybe).
  • Nothing is officially scheduled for February and March, due to the move.
  • April, May and June will feature new theme months, to be announced soon.
  • In July, I’ll unveil my latest experiment, which is absolutely, definitely not, I repeat, not a blogathon, but something new (new to me, at least). It will be a month-long event, and everyone’s invited to participate. But I’ve already said too much. More on this in the months ahead.
  • Silent September and Noir-vember will also return.

Here’s wishing everyone all the best in 2017. With good health, a little bit of luck and a lot of determination, I sincerely hope we’ll all be here to celebrate 2018. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog, as well as my Twitter pals who help promote this site. I can’t possibly express how much I appreciate your support. As always, stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Demonic December Quick Picks and Pans

Viy (1967) Based on a Russian folk tale, Viy is filled with visual surprises, getting crazier as it goes along. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), a young layabout monk, spends the night in the house of an old woman. When she attempts to fly away with him in tow, she reveals her true nature as a witch. He reacts violently, leaving her dying in a field. But she has one more trick before she expires, appearing as a young woman (Natalya Varley). When Khoma returns to his rectory, he’s called upon to hold a three-day prayer vigil over the same woman, who turns out to be a farmer’s daughter. Over the next few days, Khoma reluctantly endeavors to keep evil spirits at bay and contend with a corpse that won’t remain still. Despite its acclaim, Viy isn’t available in Region 1 DVD, but you can catch it on YouTube while it lasts.

Rating: ****. Available on YouTube and Region 2 DVD

Woochi: The Demon Slayer (2009) This charming Korean action fantasy with liberal doses of comedy overstays its welcome by about a half hour, but it’s still fun. The story jumps back and forth 500 years between the past and present, as the roguish Taoist monk Jeon Woo-chi (Dong-Won Gang) pursues a group of demons. He’s accompanied by a bumbling sidekick who sometimes appears as a dog or horse, while pursuing a magic flute and bronze sword. Of course, there’s still room for a time-spanning romance while battling the forces of darkness. Although the CGI effects might not be the most polished, they do the trick, and add a rough charm to the film. Worth a look.

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

Krampus (2015) Expectations were high, watching Michael Dougherty’s follow-up to his brilliant feature film debut, Trick ‘r Treat. While there are glimmers of that film in Krampus, it never quite reaches the heights of its spiritual cousin. A yuppie family hosts their redneck relatives for the holidays, with predictable results. After a snowstorm and subsequent blackout, they’re forced to band together in order to survive the night against the titular Christmas demon and his minions. Krampus starts out strong, with a fun opening sequence involving all sorts of Black Friday-type mayhem. The first half takes the time to establish the characters, with some amusing interplay, and there’s a cool animated sequence concerning Krampus, but the film loses its way by the second half. A string of action sequences overwhelm much of the dialogue, stunting any further character development. Krampus has its moments of terror and comedy, and certainly deserves a watch, but it had the potential to be so much better.

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

Mystics in Bali (1981) Don’t let the terrible dubbing and iffy acting dissuade you from checking out this little oddity from Indonesia, which examines the occult from a unique perspective. Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian), An American writer living in Indonesia, wants a taste of black magic, so she persuades her friend Mahendra (Yos Santo) to introduce her to a powerful witch with a thirst for blood. Before long the witch has Cathy under her spell, and employs the hapless writer to carry out her own nefarious plans. While under the evil shaman’s spell, Cathy’s head (with dangling internal organs) detaches from her body and floats around the countryside to wreak havoc. Mystics in Bali doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s interesting to see another culture’s take on the old “curiosity killed the cat” theme.

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

Phoonk (2008) After Rajiv (Sudeep), a manager of a construction firm, fires an employee and his wife (Kenny Desai and Ashwini Kalsekar) for shady business practices, odd things start to happen. The ex-employees vow revenge, targeting Rajiv’s daughter, who becomes possessed by evil forces. Now it’s a struggle between the unbelieving Rajiv and his devout wife, as they try to make sense out of the strange occurrences. Phoonk isn’t very scary, missing some obvious opportunities for chills, but works better as a family drama with some unique problems thrown in the mix.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Mother of Tears (2007) Dario Argento ends his Three Mothers trilogy, not with a bang but a whimper (with apologies to T.S. Eliot). Following the law of diminishing returns, the first film, Suspiria (1977), was a genre classic; the second, Inferno (1980), while a notch below its predecessor, was a stylish continuation of the story, and added to the mythos. The lackluster third entry throws out everything that worked so well in the previous two installments, substituting copious amounts of gore, jump scares and T&A for suspense and atmosphere. Set in Rome, the film stars Argento’s daughter, Asia, as Sarah Mandy, an art student. She does little to sell the gravity of her character’s situation with her wooden performance. By the time the film reached her climactic confrontation with the remaining witch, I didn’t care. You probably won’t either. For completists only.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Once Over Twice: Highway to Hell


Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“We on purpose didn’t make Hell an awful place for people to be, because we wanted to take it away from a religious feeling. We didn’t want to portray Hell as a Christian Hell. We wanted to portray Hell as an iconic Hell… a combination of the mythical and the moral...” – Ate de Jong (from DVD commentary)

“You can’t phone Hell. You can drive there, but you can’t phone Hell.” – Sam (Richard Farnsworth)

Note: A capsule review of this film originally appeared in the early days of this blog.

The first time I watched Highway to Hell (no relation to the AC/DC song) on late night cable TV, I wasn’t expecting much, but something about it intrigued me. Instead of changing the channel, I was compelled to keep watching, sucked in by its quirky charms. While the film never made a huge splash among the greater community of film fans, it continued to pop up on cable now and then, and gradually developed a bit of a following. My prerogative (no, scratch that), my public service with “The Once Over Twice” is to discuss the neglected, forgotten and unloved artifacts from our recent past, such as this film.

Dutch director Ate de Jong (Drop Dead Fred) described Highway to Hell as a “mythological action film.” Brian Helgeland’s (L.A. Confidential) script is full of odd comic bits, Mad Max-style road chases, and multiple references to classic mythology. Shot mainly in Arizona on a budget of approximately $6 million, Highway to Hell was completed in 1989, but it sat on the shelf due to its financially strapped distributor, Hemdale Film Corporation. It would be another two years (three years in the U.S.) before it saw a minimal theatrical release. The film’s distribution woes didn’t end there.  Although it wound up on VHS, the movie didn’t make it to DVD until 2016.  

Charlie Sykes (Chad Lowe) and Rachel Clark (Kristy Swanson) are an ordinary young couple, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. On their way to Las Vegas to elope, they end up on an isolated highway. After ignoring the dire warnings of a lonely gas station owner, their car is transported to a parallel stretch of road, and Rachel is abducted by the fearsome Hellcop* (C.J. Graham). Charlie must rise to the challenge, and embark on a quest to get her back. Lowe does a nice job in his approach to the role. He’s not awed or overwhelmed by the weird sights of hell, just focused on finding Rachel before the Hellcop takes her to Hell City.

* One of Hell’s most memorable denizens, the Hellcop drives a fire-spewing supercharged police car, and his face is covered in biblical passages etched into the skin. According to de Jong, the actor became claustrophobic in the makeup, designed by practical effects wizard Steve Johnson.

Patrick Bergin is suitably charming as the satanic mechanic Beezle, who’s secretly orchestrating Rachel’s abduction. Bergin illustrates how evil can be friendly and seductive, as he fixes more than cars. He can get you whatever your heart desires, for a steep price. Beezle pretends to be on Charlie’s side, while he has his designs on Rachel.

The real standout is Richard Farnsworth, with his quiet, understated performance as Sam, the gas station attendant. Decades after his sweetheart Clara (Pamela Gidley) succumbed to a similar fate as Rachel, Sam endeavors to assist Charlie with his quest. Farnsworth adds a level of depth and credibility to a small role that other, lesser actors might not have invested as much energy in.

Ate de Jong’s Hell is full of debauchery and petty torments, including a strip club run by Jimmy Hoffa, and a coffee shop frequented by cops, where coffee and donuts are kept just out of reach. The film features cameo appearances by the entire Stiller family (Jerry, Ben, Amy and Anne Meara) and Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler (in a master stroke of casting). There’s also a cool Cerberus (with stop-motion animation by Randall William Cook), and Kevin Peter Hall as Charon. But by far, my favorite gag is the road crew of multiple Andy Warhol clones, employed by the “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Why are they there? Why did Mr. Warhol deserve such a fate? The world may never know, but it’s an amazing sight to behold.

Was Highway to Hell simply a victim of bad timing and poor distribution? Yes and no. While the movie didn’t get a fair shake out of the gates, it didn’t exactly have “blockbuster” written all over it, with its twisted sense of humor and bizarre situations. It seemed destined for a second life on home video, where it could reach a more specific audience. When all’s said and done, the basic plot follows a rather predictable trajectory (… guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy drives into the hoary nether regions of hell to retrieve girl), but it’s the unique characters and  string of crazy hit and miss (mostly hit) gags that make Highway to Hell something special. Now that it’s finally available on DVD (and Blu-ray) after all this time, you have no excuse to miss it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Devil Rides Out

(1968) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by Richard Matheson; Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley; Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Niké Arrighi, Leon Greene and Patrick Mower; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2).

Rating: ****

“…all these names that came out, Adelaide, Osiris and various others, are all part and parcel of historical devil worship. There’s no fake. These were really the phrases that were used.” – Christopher Lee

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in July 2015.

The times were changing for Hammer in the late 1960s, and the film industry in general, but The Devil Rides Out had more in common with the movies that preceded it, rather than the movies that followed. While not bereft of lurid content, or Hammer’s emphasis on blood, the story takes a more leisurely pace, and maintains a veneer of decorum that would be eschewed with later productions such as The Vampire Lovers or To The Devil a Daughter (also based on a Wheatley novel). That’s not to say that everything’s all prim and proper in this Hammer production, but the film represents an era in filmmaking that was drawing to an end.

Christopher Lee* was a big fan of author Dennis Wheatley and his occult novels (including The Devil Rides Out), and convinced skeptical Hammer producer Anthony Hinds to purchase the film rights. After the first script was deemed “far too English” (The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes), Richard Matheson was hired to write a new screenplay. Although The Devil Rides Out was a moderate hit in its native England, it failed to raise a stir in the United States. Because the American distributors were concerned the film would somehow be misconstrued as a western, the original title was discarded in favor of The Devil’s Bride.

* In the DVD commentary, Lee frequently mentions a new Hammer version of the film, which he was in talks to appear in. Considering the track record of the new Hammer, perhaps it’s a good thing this remake never happened.

It’s refreshing to see Lee playing a good guy for once. He does a terrific job as the virtuous Duc de Richleau, fighting the encroaching forces of darkness* with a fanatical zeal. When de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) pay a visit to their mutual friend Simon (Patrick Mower) they find their reception is less than welcoming. While Simon does everything he can to shoo them out, de Richleau discovers his friend is in cahoots with an unseemly bunch, and that more than 13 is definitely a crowd for a satanic ceremony (Pro tip: when there’s chickens in the closet, you know someone’s up to no good). In comparison to Lee’s dynamic performance, his co-stars Greene and Mower are rather bland, but their characters exist mainly to move the plot along.

* Fun fact: Lee conducted extensive research in matters of the occult, which provided another level of credibility to his performance.  

Charles Gray fares much better as the chief bad guy, Mocata,* a formidable opponent for de Richleau. Mocata is a perfect example of an understated villain, at once refined and unspeakably malevolent. In one scene, he conveys menace as he casually warns de Richleau’s niece, “I shall not be back, but something will.” He doesn’t have to shout to get his message across; his mesmerizing stare is sufficient to make people bow to his every whim. In another memorable scene, Mocata summons an incarnation of Satan, the Goat of Mendes (played by Lee’s long-time stunt double, Eddie Powell). Niké Arrighi is also excellent in her supporting, but essential role as Tanith, born to be Mocata’s pawn. Arrighi conveys an enigmatic blend of sadness and vulnerability. Conflicted by her allegiance to Mocata and her attraction to Rex, there’s a sense of fatalism in everything that she does.

* Another fun fact: It’s hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role of Mocata, but Gray wasn’t Hammer’s first choice. Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger) was initially considered due to his portly physique, which more closely matched Wheatley’s description of the character.

Despite the film’s solid reputation among Hammer enthusiasts worldwide, The Devil Rides Out is relatively obscure in the U.S., where the DVD has been out of print for more than a decade. It’s classic Hammer in every sense of the way, with its steadfast theme of good versus evil, superior production values and a story that takes its time to unfold. There has been some controversy over the latest version of the film, available on Region B Blu-ray, due to some computer enhancements to the effects. To the credit of the restoration team, pains were taken to keep things in the spirit of the period when the film was released. While it’s nice to see these modern flourishes, used judiciously, they’re unnecessary for my enjoyment. Polished effects were never Hammer’s strong suit, and accepting the imperfections just added to the charm. Modern filmmakers could learn from the restraints of Hammer in their heyday, with an imaginary line in the sand, delineating where special effects end and imagination begins. In any case, The Devil Rides Out deserves its place in Hammer history as a solid piece of entertainment.