Tuesday, September 30, 2014

50 Horror Movies for Halloween (Part 5)

Katharine Isabelle in Ginger Snaps

Tomorrow is October, so here's the grand finale.

In a Glass Cage

In a Glass Cage (1986, directed by Agustí Villaronga)

Spanish horror is haunted by the long reign of General Franco and forty years of fascism, none moreseo than this film about the relationship between an old fascist officer, now confined to an iron lung, who used his position to rape and murder young boys and his new caretaker, a young man obsessed with the older man's crimes. They form a mutually parasitic relationship, with the younger man intent on recreating the older man's glory days within his own house. This is a cold, often clinical film, shot in steely blue colors and festooned with glass and metal surfaces. In A Glass Cage is a singularly perverse and unpleasant film that knows the uses of transgression--Spanish cinema after Franco often pushed the boundaries of transgression after such a long period of repression. It's some kind of masterpiece.

Joey Wong in A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987 directed by Ching Siu-Tung)

One of the glories of the Hong Kong New Wave, A Chinese Ghost Story is both deliriously romantic and cinematically deranged. Joey Wang's achingly beautiful ghost girl falls in love with a traveling scholar and, together with an itinerant monk, attempt to free her spirit from the demon who holds her in bondage. Like many of producer Tsui Hark's other films, this one seems to be inventing cinema anew right before your very eyes. It's as gonzo as anything Sam Raimi ever made, and willing to follow all of its ideas over the cliff. When this film moves its action to the (literal) underworld, it follows no laws of physics or of cinema but its own muse. This is a film that should be more famous than it is, but the Hong Kong explosion's force has dissipated in recent years as its influence has been subsumed into the broader cinematic ocean after China's takeover of the colony. A pity, because the great films from that period are as fun and energizing as the best things in cinema.

Massacre at Central High

Massacre at Central High (1976, directed by Rene Daalder)

A perverse examination of the power structures of high school, this film finds the new kid at school bumping off the in-crowd only to see the power vacuum filled by vying factions of the formerly down-trodden. On its surface, this is a by the numbers exploitation film, not too different from other exploitation films of its time. It has outrageous kill scenes and plenty of boobs. What sets it apart is its ideology. This is a fairly sober deconstruction of the origins of fascism. Horror films are good at holding up a mirror to the societies that produce them, and this nasty little throwaway exploitation film manages that trick quite nicely.

Longer review here.

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers (1972, directed by Ingmar Bergman)

The consensus in horror movie land is that Ingmar Bergman's closest dalliance with the horror movie proper is The Hour of the Wolf, which has lately begun to represent the director on "greatest horror movie" lists. I won't gainsay that, but Bergman knew the uses of horror, and The Hour of the Wolf is hardly the director's only horror movie. The films that Bergman made in the 1970s, particularly the ones he made in exile like From the Life of the Marionettes and The Serpent's Egg are horror movies of a type, too, as is The Hour of the Wolf's dark companion film, Persona. And so, too, is the director's 1972 masterpiece, Cries and Whispers, which is one of the hardest of Bergman's films to watch. It's such a raw, emotional film that its underlying structure is often swamped, but that structure is important. At its core, Cries and Whispers is a haunted house movie, with its cast of sisters dealing with the death of one of their own the ghosts. The film's famous blood-red production design and frequent use of fades to red provide a heightened and deranged set of reality for its tragedy to play against. Its insistence on watching one sister die of cancer is brutal enough, but watching the others tear each other apart is even harder. This is a shattering, haunting film.

The Demon

The Demon (1977, directed by Yoshitaro Nomura)

In which an economically distressed man in Tokyo contrives to rid himself of his children from his previous marriage at the behest of his new wife. Director Yoshitaro Nomura specialized in film noir, and you can totally see those fingerprints on this film. This is framed as a Hitchcockian suspense film, and as such, it puts the audience through the wringer, but it's also a classic fairy tale set-up, with innocent children falling afoul of an evil stepmother.  When, at this film's climax, the sea turns red in the light of the setting sun, this slips the leash of film noir into pure expressionism, though that scene is perhaps easier to take than the last look of his daughter as he maroons her alone in downtown Tokyo. Ken Ogata delivers a terrific performance as the father, a very different kind of monster than his famous role as the serial killer in Vengeance is Mine. This is a harsh social critique, filtered through genre as "entertainment." That doesn't make it hurt less.


Pumpkinhead (1988, directed by Stan Winston)

Essentially a monster movie, and a dead teenager movie, to boot, Pumpkinhead manages to wander into regionalist folklore traditions for its story. This is a movie that has more in common with the horror stories of Manly Wade Wellman than it does with Jason and his ilk, and that gives the film a kind of life that would elude a more conventional horror movie. Lance Henriksen plays a grieving father who summons a demon to take vengeance on the teenagers who accidentally killed his son, then suffers the consequences of vengeance. This has a moral backbone that most slasher films lack. This is all gravy, though, because, as I say, this is a monster movie. Director/special effects wizard Stan Winston delivers a humdinger of a monster.

John Cusack in Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999, directed by Spike Jonze)

Charlie Kaufman's "comedies" veer often and hard into horror. This may be an inescapable consequence of making epistemological mind-fucks in which identity if fluid and fragile. Being John Malkovich ends on such a note of disquiet and horror that I can't believe anyone really thinks it's a comedy. The annihilation of self involved in its body-switching plot is utterly horrifying, both for John Cusack's puppeteer protagonist and for Malkovich himself. It's a film in which the veil not only of reality, but of genre, is fundamentally deceitful.

Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins in Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps (1999, directed by John Fawcett)

I'm pretty sure that the thing that keeps Ginger Snaps out of the bright circle of the horror canon is its werewolf. Its werewolf is terribly designed. Director John Fawcett seems to be aware of this, given that he only ever films the thing in the dark, but he fails to disguise its shortcomings. Which is unfortunate. Ginger Snaps is otherwise one of the canniest uses of traditional horror iconography of the last twenty years. While it's true, that the theme of transformation linked to puberty and menarche has been used before--notably by Carrie--it has often been a side theme. Here, it's front and center. The Fitzgerald sisters, Ginger and Brigitte are close siblings who are separated during the course of the movie as much by Ginger's awakening sexuality as by her lycanthropy. It's a minor classic of the horror movie's female gaze. (It's two sequels, Ginger Snaps Unleashed and Ginger Snaps Back are also worth seeing, though both of them are very different from the original item and from each other; the third one has dramatically improved monsters).


Cure (1997, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one the masters of the slow burn horrors of the J-horror explosion, though his films are chillier and more intellectual than most of its contemporaries. Cure is his best horror movie, one that channels the randomness of violence into an unsettling examination of identity and meaning. It's a serial killer movie, true, and in the tradition of such films, it blurs the line between the murderer and the investigator. Murder, to this film, is a kind of ambient malaise, committed with identical methods by disparate people. The backdrop for the film is cold and vaguely dilapidated. The overall effect is of a society in collapse, but it doesn't shout this. It insinuates. It suggests. It's like the probing of the enigmatic drifter into the psyche of the watcher.

Dead and Buried

Dead and Buried (1981, directed by Gary Sherman)

But for the sex and violence, Dead and Buried is the kind of story that would have been at home on the Twilight Zone, in one of those odd little towns where reality has twisted sideways. It follows sherrif James Farentino as he investigates the gruesome murder of a visiting photographer. After his death, the photographer takes his place among the citizens of the town and everyone treats him as if he's been there all his life. Identity and its loss gets another good workout in this film, but this is also a film for the most sadistic gorehounds. It has an unrepentant mean streak, including one of the most indelible injury to the eye scenes ever filmed. Shudder....

That wraps things up for now, but there are plenty of other films that deserve some love. Some other films I considered for this project: Romasanta, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Sleep Tight, The Witch's Mirror, Short Night of Glass Dolls, R-Point, Matango, Kiss of the Vampire, I Vampiri, Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, and about a dozen other films. The horror film is a wide and flowing river. It's almost October. Almost time to go for a swim.

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