Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Festival of Samhain

At one point in the first act of Livid (which I wrote about a couple of days ago), there's a scene where the main characters are accosted by a trio of trick or treaters wearing, respectively, a pumpkin mask, a skull mask, and a witch mask. Most of us (I saw that film in a kind of party atmosphere) sat up and took notice of the fact that this was a reference to Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace), the redheaded stepchild of the Halloween franchise. Halloween III has been reviled by horror fans for three decades now, and I understand it. I do. Horror fans, like most movie fans, are essentially conservative. They like seeing the same thing they saw last time when they shell out for a sequel, and filmmakers make fundamental changes at their peril. It doesn't help that the film isn't particularly good--though I'd stack it up against any of the other Halloween sequels in terms of the quality of the filmmaking. It IS daring though, and I love, LOVE the thinking behind it. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill conceived of this film as being akin to an edition of a magazine. Every year, their reasoning went, they would come up with a different story on the theme of Halloween, kind of like a yearly anthology. Have you seen 2007's Trick 'r Treat? That film is Halloween III's spiritual descendent, unencumbered by the expectations of franchise.

Matter Over Mind

The Boxer's Omen (1983, directed by Chih-hung Kuei) is a late-period Shaw Brothers production that sees the studio trying to adapt to the changing film landscape of Hong Kong in the 1980s. The Hong Kong New Wave was in full bloom when it was made and the Shaws were struggling to break from their hidebound formulae and keep up with the rockets being sent up by the suddenly competitive rival companies. The results were often oddities, and none are as odd as this film, an exercise in goo and spew that aims to disgust as much as it aims to entertain (perhaps conflating disgust and entertainment as the aim of horror filmmaking).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rats in the Walls

The zombie apocalypse finds a different wrinkle in Mulberry Street (2006, directed by Jim Mickle). Instead of the walking dead, this film posits a plague of rats and people who have been turned into rat monsters. It's not quite as silly as it sounds, though some of the creature make-up is risible. In all other respects this is a standard zombie film, though it gets points for an urban setting that most zombie filmmakers avoid.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Break a Leg

Michele Soavi's Deliria (aka Stagefright, 1987) is of its time and place. It's a slasher, of course, but it's a slasher film that exists at the confluence of that subgenre and the Italian giallo. It's not exactly a giallo. It doesn't have the perverse investigative plot of most giallo films, but it borrows the giallo's style, in which massacre is lovingly mounted as slick entertainment. This is the descendent of Dario Argento, of course, for whom director Michele Soavi once worked as a second-unit director. Take out the director's credit, and you might mistake this for Argento's work. It's certainly cruel enough.

Death Becomes Her

While I was in the moment, I had a grand old time watching The Dead Inside (2011, directed by Travis Betz). It starts as a sly comedy send-up of the zombie genre, mutates into a domestic drama, and turns into something entirely different in the end. When it's in each of these moods, it's always watchable and often compelling. Whether it fully integrates all of these moods into a cohesive whole is another question entirely. Did I mention that this is also a musical? It's that kind of film.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dream Logic

While a certain amount of the sensibility that made Inside such a relentless horror experience is present in Livid (2011), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's long awaited follow-up, those expecting the same kind of bete noir will be disappointed. Livid is less concerned with linear narrative. Rather, it pursues its ghastly images through the looking glass into a bleak, poetic fantasy, while refusing to bend it to some rigid plot construction. The result is a dream fugue of a movie.

Hungry Like the Wolf

Lobos de Arga (2011, directed by Juan Martinez Moreno) has been burdened with a couple of international titles. I prefer "Game of Werewolves," myself, but the version I saw was stuck with the boring "Attack of the Werewolves." Either way, it's a fun little horror comedy that doesn't forget to paint the walls red.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fish Out of Water

For the last several years, I've traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan to attend a big horror movie party. My friend who throws this party is a true horror fan, who studies the genre like some kind of Talmudic scholar. She finds real obscurities. This year, she and her partner in crime went out of their way to get movies that weren't in release anywhere. Such a film is Weaverfish, which kicked off her party. It's a first film still looking for a distributor.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Hollywood Option

Ben Affleck's Argo (2012) takes on the Iranian hostage crisis from a clever and engaging point of view. In January of 1980, the CIA conceived of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie that would be scouting locations in the middle east. The movie would never be made, because the aim of the production was to get into Tehran and escape with six American foreign service workers who had escaped the seizure of the American embassy and who had hidden in the house of the Canadian ambassador. The Iranians, for their part, know that six people escaped the embassy and are on a constant watch for them. The film itself is simultaneously an espionage thriller and a droll send-up of the movie business.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Scream and Scream Again

Entire cycles of self-referential horror movies have risen and crumbled in the years since Scream briefly revived the slasher film as critique of the slasher film. Like it or not (I generally don't, but that's neither her nor there), Scream is a touchstone film, one that must be referenced when one examines whole swaths of the horror genre. Scream's sequels have the additional burden of trying to expand on the first film's big idea. Scream 2 (1997, directed by Wes Craven), finds this burden to be too much. It rehashes the first film, true, and it introduces "rules" for sequels and dutifully follows them even as it comments on them. But when you get right down to it, Scream 2 is a dead end. The only reason I revisited it was because I'm planning to watch the third film later this week (I've never seen it) and I thought the continuity would be nice. I was mistaken. I remember now why I never bothered with the third film.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Has there ever been a more drastic and perverse evolution of a horror movie franchise than the Child's Play movies? When most movie franchises reach their fourth or fifth entry, the well has been poisoned and the concept has entered an unpleasant kind of unlife. But not the Chucky movies. This is a franchise that doesn't really come to any kind of life until its fourth, much belated entry. And the fifth entry, 2004's Seed of Chucky (directed by Don Mancini), veers so far away from its origins that it seems to exist in an entirely different universe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Watch and Wait

There's a fine line between an exploitation movie and an art movie. Walking that line is a tightrope act. Sometimes, it seems to me that the Japanese walk that line better than anyone else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unique genres of erotica that grew up as the studio systems collapsed during the 1970s. Toei's "pinky violence" films and Nikkatsu's "roman porno" movies have no equivalents elsewhere, really, and showcase the dance between art and exploitation as a matter of course. On balance, Nikkatsu's films were probably more geared toward art, whatever you might want to use that word to mean. 1976's The Watcher in the Attic (directed by Noboru Tanaka) is a case in point. It has a deliberate, artfully composed visual image paired with an erotic impulse that slowly evolves into a death wish. It's certainly perverse.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walk Like An Egyptian

Mummy movies, if you'll pardon the expression, seem like they're cursed. Is there a horror sub-genre with a worse ratio of good movies to misfires? I can't think of one. Hammer films was victimized more than most by this. They made a conditional success with their first mummy movie, and then made a complete hash of it with subsequent entries. The last of these was Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971, directed by Seth Holt), which seems like it was cursed (if you'll pardon the expression) from the start. It was originally set to star Peter Cushing, who bowed out when his wife died, and then its director, Seth Holt, died before finishing the film. The film was finished by an uncredited Michael Carreras with Andrew Keir in the role intended for Cushing. For all that, it could have been a lot worse. Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, it turns out, is a mummy movie without a mummy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Wolf in the Fold

I was discussing the new DTV movie, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012, directed by Louis Morneau) with a friend of mine while I was watching it and I noted that I couldn't tell when or where it was set. Late 19th century, I suppose, but where? Eventually, I decided that it was set in Horror Movie Land, which I take to be somewhere in Eastern Europe based on the number of Romanian names in the credits. But I could be wrong. There's a babel of accents among the characters in this movie, so I guess Horror Movie Land could be like one of those magic shops in fantasy/horror short fiction where it appears where it's needed and vanishes again. Regardless, it's nowhere real. More a theme park than a setting.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shrine On You Crazy Diamond

It's not without a certain amount of affection that I suggest that The Shrine (2010, directed by Jon Knautz) reminds me of something that Charles Band's Full Moon might have made circa 1990 or so. It has that same feel of something cobbled together from spare parts lying around on the floor of the genre factory, along with shocks that are no deeper than the monsters on the surface. This isn't a movie with deep wells of subtext. In former years, it would have been a staple on the back shelves of the horror section at your local video store. In this post-video store era, it languishes on Netflix. It's not bad at disguising its plot twist, though it's a familiar plot twist (at least one other movie I've seen this year has used it), and it's not bad at creating a certain amount of dread during its long build-up, but when it starts to let the freakshow take over, it turns into pure schlock. As I say, it's not without a certain amount of affection that I say so.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Couple's Therapy

Tales from the zombie apocalypse are coming from every corner of the globe these days. In truth, I'm a little bit worn out by zombies, so numerous are the movies. The movies seem like the zombie hoard itself: eventually you'll be pulled under. Still, there remain interesting stories being told in the idiom, so I put up with it. (I wish the same think could be said about vampires, but that's another conversation). In any event, Germany provides us with the brief, heartfelt Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010, directed by Marvin Kren), in which the zombie apocalypse is the backdrop for a bittersweet story of a relationship that's falling apart. It narrows its focus such that the end of the world is distilled down to a more personalized apocalypse.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Monsters and Mazes

When Pan's Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro) was first in theaters, I remember thinking that I really needed to wait a while before writing about it. Here it is nearly six years later and I'm finally getting back to it. Waiting was probably wise. Pan's Labyrinth is a film that needed to sit in my consciousness for a while because my initial viewing of it was overwhelming. I was aware of the fact that it was a legitimately great movie, but I wasn't prepared to deal with it. I'm not sure I'm up to it even now.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shadows Out of Time

"Novel. n. A short story, padded." -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for The Valdemar Legacy: The Forbidden Shadow (2010, directed by José Luis Alemán) last year, it had me rabid to see the movie. Paul Naschy's last film has The Great Cthulhu in it? You couldn't design a movie more tailored to my baser horror appetites. It's too bad the movie couldn't possibly live up to that expectation, and this movie doesn't. Little did I know that it's absolutely essential to see the first film to have any hope of following along (particularly if you're watching without subtitles, as I was, and if your Spanish is functional at best, which mine is). Really, they're one movie split into two, though you can make an argument that each of them has a na7rrative unto themselves. These were two movies I wanted to target for the challenge and the internet obliged me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Into the Woods

YellowBrickRoad (2010, directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Milton) is another horror movie in which a group of researchers follows the footsteps of some mysterious disappearance. In this film, it's a New Hampshire town that up and walked into the great north woods in 1939. Basically, the premise is an excuse to maroon a group of diverse personalities in a kind of microcosm and watch them tear each other to pieces. These kinds of films are often POV found footage films. This one, mercifully, is not.

This is a slow-burn kind of movie. It has a deliberate pace and it withholds its secrets. There's some violence, but the violence isn't the aim here. The aim here is to disorient, to discombobulate, to knock the planks of reason out from under the feet of its characters (and, by proxy, the audience). It's a more polished descendent of The Blair Witch Project and it uses most of that film's toolbox: wrong geographies, sounds in the woods (in this film, an incessant distant music), stupid decisions on the part of characters with diminished capacity for reason. There aren't any monsters in this film, or, rather, the monsters are always on screen. They are the people who wander into the woods. The woods themselves are a kind of crucible that brings out the worst in them. Until the end, that is.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

I Like the Dark. It's Friendly.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) is one of those movies that's so interwoven with my love of movies that I hardly know where to start with it anymore. Maybe with this:  my mother introduced me to Cat People on one of those late nights when my dad worked very late. As such, it's a movie that I treasure not only because it's a legitimately great movie (which it is), but because it has an intensely personal association in my mind. I probably can't be objective about it. Fortunately, Cat People's place in the canon of great horror movies is secure enough without my imprimatur.

The thing that strikes me every time I've watched Cat People as an adult is how much it looks like film noir, and not just because of the shadows with which Tourneur and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca have woven this movie. It also reminds me of film noir because it's a film about night in the city. It's set in after hours offices, late night cafes, and stylish apartments. It's a modern movie (in 1942), one that I imagine had a real immediacy when it was released, given that the audience of its day was used to horror movies set in some theme park version of Eastern or Middle Europe. Over time, its association with film noir has lent the film a kind of timelessness. Film noir is an idiom of nightmare logic and a poetry of shadows, both of which were pioneered by Cat People and the other noir-ish horror movies made by Val Lewton's b-movie unit.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Blood in the Water

It's kind of refreshing to see exploitation as shameless and in your face as what one finds in Alexandre Aja's remake of Piranha (2010). It's vicious little film that indulges in the basest pleasure of the genre: tits and blood. Tits and blood in copious amounts. It's kind of a throwback to the bad old days of exploitation. I don't know that it makes the movie particularly good, but it's a nice purity of purpose, and it occasionally shocked a laugh out of me with its sheer nastiness.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A Tall Tale

I'm not entirely sure of what to do with Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man (2012). It's some variety of genre film, but it's a confounding one. It has the trappings of a horror movie. It has the mindfuck qualities of a puzzle movie. It ultimately resolves itself with a moral question that I don't know that it is equipped to deal with through the instrument of genre, particularly because the way it frames its entire problem reeks of privilege--a fact of which I'm not sure its makers are aware. A word of warning, this is a movie that relies on sleight of hand for its effects and I want to talk a bit about the plot turns on which the film's legerdemain relies. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Past Imperfect

There aren't any new ideas in the horror genre, usually, but sometimes, someone will take an existing idea and give it a new twist. I was thinking of this, as I watched The Caller (2011, directed by Matthew Parkhill). I'd seen this before, and not in the horror genre.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Blood and Brocade

The Erzsébet Báthory legend is one of the most persistent stories in the horror myth pool, partially because it's so utterly ghastly and partially because it's a so-called "true story." I mean, I certainly remember being riveted by it when I first discovered it as a teen horror geek, particularly as a queer teen horror geek. It goes something like this: In 1610, Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1616) was tried and convicted of murdering peasant women with the aid of her servants. For this crime, she was walled up in her castle for the last five years of her life. The tally of her victims ranges anywhere from 36 to 650, though no one knows for sure. There is some evidence that the whole thing was a frame-up either by the Catholic Church and the Hapsburgs, who wanted to turn the Holy Roman Empire Catholic and turn back the reformation, or by King Mattias of Hungary, who owed the Bathorys a huge amount of money after they financed his war against the Ottoman Turks. Is the Bathory story propaganda? Maybe, but even so, Elizabeth Bathory is still listed in the record books as a the most voracious female serial killer in history. As if her story weren't ghastly enough, somewhere along the line, someone appended the notion that Bathory was a lesbian who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. This is unsupported by the historical record, but the myth pool doesn't care about history, it cares about stories. So like Lizzie Borden and the forty whacks, Erzsébet Báthory has been convicted of crimes of dubious or even fictional veracity in the popular imagination. She is forever "The Blood Countess," and the font from which the lesbian vampire archetype flows.* I'm sure she burns in hell this very day, deserved or not.

Bathory (2008, directed by Juraj Jakubisko) attempts to rehabilitate Erzsébet with indifferent results. It restores to the myth the notion that Erzsébet was the victim of the machinations of her enemies, but it falls under the sway of the myth even as it does this. It can't help itself. It presents the image of Bathory bathing in blood (later revealed to be water colored red with herbs--yeah, whatever) and it presents Bathory as a murderess, who kills while under the influence of hallucinogens and in fits of pique. Basically, Bathory wants to have it both ways and makes a muddle of the whole thing.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Splendor in the Grass

The Reeds (2010, directed by Nick Cohen) uses two of the more metaphysical tropes associated with ghost stories to great effect. First, there's the idea that ghosts and those who are haunted by them are trapped re-enacting some horrible trauma and, second, that ghosts are often reflections of ourselves. Used in combination, these lend the film a kind of nightmare logic that feeds off some of the more disorienting narrative structures in film. The Reeds is essentially circular, though its circles of story are concentric within one another. It also embraces the conventions of the horror genre as pulp while using the familiar formal tricks of the genre. It's kind of a perfect post modern horror movie, though whether that makes it a good movie or not is another matter entirely.