Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The October Ordeal III 02: Daughters of Satan (1972)

While the title Daughters of Satan seems fit for a Jean Rollin or Jess Franco production, Daughters is an American film, notable for featuring Tom Selleck’s first lead performance, and also for being one of the only films directed by veteran Television director Hollingsworth Morse. Selleck plays Jim Robinson, a buyer for a New York art museum, hunting down paintings and other artifacts in the Philippines, where the film was actually shot. While this casting now would be labeled “off-type,” it’s not unusual for 1972, the year Daughters of Satan was first released. While Cassavetes, Ashby, the American Zoetrope crowd and others were changing the way American film-goers thought about leading men, genre cinema was still catching up, and Selleck, with his classical Hollywood image, is a typical lead man for this era of horror cinema.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with casting a handsome man as the lead, but there is something strange about the consistent casting of hunks as nerds, a confusing institution which creates its own particular archetype in horror and science fiction. Elsewhere on Dreamscape, this phenomenon is discussed in my review of Brian Yuzna’s Society. In the 70s, it wasn’t uncommon to throw a pair of glasses on Selleck or McQueen for a few scenes and hope that this would be enough to sell the character as an academic.

While Selleck gets the most screen time, and Jim Robinson is clearly marked as protagonist, the crucial character in the film is his wife Christina (or Chris, as she’s most often called), played as temperate and ethereal by Barra Grant. While Robinson’s life in the Philippines is all-business, Chris spends her time as if on a lazy, extended vacation. Perhaps apologetically, Jim buys her a painting of a witch burning, specifically because the central woman in the painting bears a striking resemblance to Chris herself. Thinking her reaction will be amusement, Selleck gives it to her—wrapped even—as a gift. Instead of being amused, she’s disturbed on a deep, spiritual level by the painting, feeling more than a bond of resemblance to the figure in the painting. Her reaction is so sympathetic that she believes she can recall specifics about the place and time of the burning.

While the basic plot of the film has something to do with destiny and reincarnation, the film is more about the relationship between Chris and Jim. Occult 70s relationship drama is an interesting horror sub-genre, which includes such moody films as Burnt Offerings (1976), The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and the later The House Where Evil Dwells (1982), which also deals with concepts of time and destiny. Unlike those films, however, the relationship here is underdeveloped. While she is beautiful, and an appropriate gothic presence, Grant’s performance is tranced-out and disinterested, in a fog of confusion and uncertainty. While Selleck is workmanlike, his performance at least adequately conveys that of the arrogant Western predatory academic—whether or not this is intentional.

As the mystery deepens, Nicodemus, a dog similar to one seen in the painting, appears at the Robinson home, heralding the arrival of a maid whom looks suspiciously like one of the Daughters in the painting (this is four years before the Satanic guard dog/nanny pairing found in The Omen, mind). As characters come into the film, and facts about the actual burning are revealed, the painting changes. Incremental changes keep the film from swinging too heavily in any direction, a move designed to build tension gradually. Daughters of Satan’s narrative plays out in the deliberate style of an Ace Gothic or Avon novel from the 70s (novels which also blend Occult intrigue with relationship drama).

While the genre of supernatural romance is often bloodless, Daughters of Satan is surprisingly gory and transgressive. The film opens with a mean-spirited scene of a nude Filipino woman being whipped at a Black Mass—a scene which will be replayed—and features gratuitous extras nudity and gleefully blasphemous lines such as “Deny Christ… Spit on him!” (A full year before The Exorcist).

Despite his consistent presence, Selleck as Robinson is a clueless bystander in the story. The character himself a weakness, because due to his imposed screen dominance, Chris is never properly characterized, thus her character’s esoteric stress and transformation lack weight and impact. With material so flimsy, the best Grant can do is play the part of the beautiful, wounded, confused and passive wife, which is a major misstep, not only because of obvious sexism, but because it’s Chris’ story, really, and a more active character would have improved the film. Because Selleck effectively steals her rightful screen-time, the film betrays both halves of the relationship. If this were a Giallo, Robinson would be a minor character, serving only as a reactive force, necessary to move certain scenes, while Chris would at the center, an active instigator of her occult dilemma.

While the film’s emotional core is anemic, Daughters of Satan is at least powerful visually. The film is beautifully shot, with diffuse lighting typical of the genre, psychedelic and eerie music, location sets, and creative shot compositions, with the usual amount of Dutch angles and impulsive camera movement in the ritual scenes. While Morse cut his teeth on economic television-making, this film doesn’t feel at all like TV. Its vibrant imagery, elaborate set-pieces and languid pacing hardly reflect Television convention.

The esoteric narrative kernel of the film is interesting at least: a second chance for some preordained demonic process to complete itself. The mystery of the film is neither rewarding nor engaging, nor is Robinson’s quest to solve the mystery of the magic painting. The detective scenes of Jim wandering about town are totally devoid of tension. There are incidental characters, including the shop keeper from whom Jim buys the witch-burning portrait, the Robinsons’ psychiatrist, and the third witch from the painting, Kitty (Tani Guthrie), who, in one scene, attempts to seduce Jim by casually disrobing in front of him, an act which neither party comment or act upon. The plot movies slowly, however there is neither a feeling of despair nor the impending danger that should accompany such an occult transformation or realization as presented. Instead, the film is merely dull; this is a middling, indecisive, if nicely shot and composed film.

The final scenes of Daughters of Satan feature Chris in the exact position as the woman from the beginning of the film, nude, being whipped by Satanists, dedicated to fulfilling the recreation of the Coven burnt at the stake years ago. Why exactly this must happen is unclear. Ultimately, it’s hard for the audience to sympathize with Chris, as her character is so slight.

This clumsiness also renders the final reveal impotent, as a twist ending can only shock through earned viewer investment. While visually the film is strong, it is only recommended for those whom are interested in horror that is both domestic and supernatural.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The October Ordeal III 01: Pinocchio's Revenge (1996)

In the wasteland of straight-to-video and small-run 1990s genre cinema, “horror versions” of classic folk tales and fairy stories proliferated. In the 90s, shelves were crowded with titles like Leprechaun, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White: a Tale of Terror, Jack Frost, and Grim Prairie Tales. These films either slot a folk creature into slasher frame-work, or play up strange and vicious elements of classic myths—an act, in this context, both transgressive and traditional. This reaction likely has to do with the last great era of hand-drawn Disney animation. While there is a point to be made that folk tales from around the world have been Christianized generally, and diluted even further by Disney, the films are often uninspired, supplying only gore and cheap laughs in place of what could have been cultural reclamation of the genuine creepiness of Grimm’s fairy tales or various Slavic myths. Interestingly enough, there were many live action iterations of classic tales during the decade as well, even a Jonathan Taylor Thomas/ Martin Landau vehicle simply titled Pinocchio, which remarkably came out the very same year as Pinocchio’s Revenge, in 1996.

Kevin S. Tenney’s Pinocchio’s Revenge appears, from box art, title and trailer, to fit the Leprechaun formula—with a Child’s Play twist—it’s wholly different film. This uniqueness is thanks to writer/director Tenney, creator of the underrated Witchboard series, and director of Night of the Demons and The Cellar.

Pinocchio’s Revenge opens with the caption, “Tampa, Florida, five years ago”. In an economical opening sequence, a Patrolman finds a car on the side of the road, with a child’s lifeless body inside, and a man in the forest, digging a grave. While examining the area later, Police discover that the man, Vincent Gatto, was burying a large wooden Pinocchio puppet. After this short intro tag, a generic news reporter explains that Gatto worked as a wood carver before his arrest, implying that he built the doll, and brings us into the present day, outside the court room where Gatto’s appeal is being heard.

While the sullen Gatto (Lewis Van Bergen) refuses to explain himself at all, his attorney Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen) is convinced of his innocence. Her attempts are unsuccessful (partly due to Gatto’s uncooperative attitude), even though she believes he is lying, to protect a greater, perhaps stranger, truth. Before much can be discovered, Gatto is executed, although Jennifer is haunted by the case. She even takes the Pinocchio doll home to her daughter Zoe.

If this scenario brings to mind a generic episode of Law & Order, that’s not far off. While Pinocchio’s Revenge is an interesting film in many respects, visually it’s rather uninspired, looking and sounding like a TV-movie. While this is somewhat fitting, as the film features many such procedural scenes set in offices and court rooms, the difference between the visual integrity of Tenney’s Witchboard (photographed by Dream Warriors’ Roy H. Wagner) and this film is immense. Cinematography here is by Eric Anderson, an experienced TV DP, who delivers a simple, serviceable image, rather than the rich atmosphere of Tenney’s earlier films.

The relationship between Zoe and the wooden Pinocchio seems at first like a subplot, or a Child’s Play-inspired position for a killer doll to inhabit, it becomes much more. Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith) is a disturbed child, dealing with not only the separation of her parents, but bullying at school. The crucial weakness of the film is Smith’s performance; however the TV-movie Mise en scène forgives this problem somewhat. Acting is generally poor, with Allen’s performance being the best, even if just above serviceable.

Zoe’s therapy scenes are important to the film, and serve as place-markers throughout, as Zoe becomes further unhinged. While her mother and psychiatrist initially see the Pinocchio marionette as a coping mechanism, it soon becomes clear that the presence of the doll is a negative force in Zoe’s recovery. If I’m being obscure about the doll, this is because the film is obscure about Pinocchio by design. His true nature is never really explained, and it makes as much sense here to assume Zoe is talking to a hunk of wood as it is to guess that Pinocchio is container of some sort of possessing demon. It is never suggested that this is Pinocchio the literary figure, as the character is only tangentially related to the film, and is never linked thematically. Whether he can actually talk and move, or we are privy to Zoe’s delusions, is mysterious. While he is silent for the first forty or so minutes of the film, when he does eventually speak, Pinocchio is voiced by veteran voice actor Dick Beals (best known as Davey from Davey & Goliath). In the few scenes where Pinocchio is seen to move, he is played by a young Verne Troyer in his first role.

While the mother-daughter relationship is the focus of the film, there are many peripheral characters, whom really only exist as victims or potential victims. Most important to the film's central mother-daughter-doll core is Sophia (Candace McKenzie), the Garrick’s Italian nanny. Also in the mix are Jennifer’s co-worker Barry (veteran television face Ron Canada)--who serves only to gift the doll to Zoe in the first place--and Jennifer’s boyfriend David (Todd Allen), whom is hardly developed at all. Sophia however, has many scenes, including the only real moment of humor in the film: after Sophia finds Zoe and Pinocchio waiting for her outside the shower, Zoe tells her mother, referring to Pinocchio: “He’s curious about ladies’ bodies.”

Two characters in the film serve to define the central ambiguity of the film. First is the aforementioned Psychiatrist, Dr. Edwards (Aaron Lustig, character actor whose resume is stuffed with similar roles), and an unnamed priest (Michael Connors) who outlines (by his very presence) one possible Pinocchio theory, whereas the counter is presented by the scientific authority of Dr. Edwards. Clearly this device serves to condone differing audience reactions. This becomes undeniable considering the film’s conclusion.

Whether or not Pinocchio is possessed or alive, it’s clear that Zoe needs him to deal with abandonment issues. From here the film makes a connection between Gatto’s son and Zoe, which leads Jennifer to think that Gatto may have been protecting his disturbed son, whom she thinks had committing murders of his own. She fears Zoe is enacting a sympathetic duplication of Gatto’s son’s ordeal. At this point three interpretations are possible, and the audience is invited to decide. A frustratingly ambiguous ending endorses this ambivalence.

There is no doubt that D.S. Tenney is saying something here; what this is however is somewhat mysterious. So much care is expended structuring the film that room for thematic resonance is small and specific. Regardless, the relationship between mother and daughter is believable and tragic, as is Zoe’s elementary school experience. This is in keeping with Tenney’s oeuvre, as Witchboard is essentially character-study and relationship-drama disguised as supernatural chiller.

While this central question mark works structurally, its impact is lessened by the confounding choice of Pinocchio as a character. There is no great reason for the doll to be anything more than an original character, as this is not a retelling of the Pinocchio story, and the Pinocchio of this film is not the classic Pinocchio. Also, the title is nonsensical. The working title is a little better, The Pinocchio Syndrome. Better still is the UK title, simply, Pinocchio. The low budget (and low profile) of the film leads to believe that Tenney is to blame for this, especially considering that he wrote the film. It is possible that Tenney saw a market, and used a gimmicky premise to tell a personal and uncommon story.

In the final third of Pinocchio’s Revenge, Jennifer asks her priest, “Do you believe in evil?” She asks because she thinks Gatto killed his son to save his soul. She wonders if demonic forces are speaking through Pinocchio, which in many ways is a more acceptable theory than simply believing her child is mentally unstable. The film’s final tag suggests some cyclical link to the “five years ago” intro, but this is never substantiated. Both the psychiatrist and priest survive the film, as if to preventing either theory from achieving dominance.

Eventually the film reaches the climax of its slow-burn escalation, and a final confrontation is put in place. There is no denouement to speak of, and questions are never satisfactorily answered. The conclusion, interpretive elements notwithstanding, is nonetheless tragic, earned by the care with witch Tenney builds the central relationships of the film.

Pinocchio’s Revenge is a unique, genre-mashing film, almost to fault. By keeping so much about itself obscure, the film risks locking viewers out rather than inviting their interpretation and debate. As an exercise, it narrowly fails in this respect. By making the conclusion of the film obliquely frustrating, critical tension is low, because any and all wild interpretations become valid. Despite this flaw in execution, Pinocchio’s Revenge is still strangely interesting, if dated and low-rent, with an emotional and spiritual core, allowing it to transcend the sub-genre in which it masquerades.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Death Warmed Up (1984)

(Spoilers throughout)

David Blyth’s 1984 film Death Warmed Up has achieved some degree of notoriety for being one of the New Zealand’s first slasher films, if not the first. This is debatable—and not merely because such claims are always dubious—but because Death Warmed Up resists any sort of neat categorization. On paper, the film has a typical horror set-up, and contains all the constituent elements of a slasher, but somehow these elements never seem to come together in a meaningful way, and what is instead presented is a confusing and uncomfortable—although in many ways interesting—mess of a movie.

Confusion should be the operative term here. The film opens in-media-res after some beautiful pop-art design-y titles (a bizarre through-line), wherein precocious sixteen year old Michael Tucker (Dangerous Orphans’ Michael Hurst) barges into some strange facility, where a woman shouts at him “Wonderful news about your father’s promotion!” as he rushes absurdly fast down a hallway. He stops at the door to some sort of operating room and peeks in. Mike’s spying is indicative of the absurd amount of voyeurism found in this film, and the first hint at the bizarre sexual undertones lurking behind practically every scene in the film. An unknown man (who turns out to be Mike’s father’s research partner Archer Howell) claps a hand down on Mike’s shoulder and leers “You’re all sweaty… let’s get you cleaned up.” Before Michael can respond, the scene cuts to a highly eroticized shot of him luxuriating in the middle of a large locker-room shower. This low-lit, steamy scene is the first of many which heavily sexualize Michael Hurst’s nude or semi-nude body. Dr. Howell (Gary Day) enters silently and sticks Mike in the ass with a needle, cradling him in his arms as he passes out, whispering “trust me”. The lighting in this scene is of a sickly yellow hue. Most of the lighting in this film is monochromatic, the color palette mostly consisting of reds, greens and yellows.

Death Warmed Up is full of smash-cuts, and the first one comes directly after this scene of penetration. Michael is on the same operating table he spied earlier, thrashing about while the camera hovers around his crotch as he turns into some sort of mind-controlled zombie soldier. Following another smash-cut, the locale switches abruptly to Mike’s home, as his scientist father and mother return from some sort of awards banquet. In another heavily sexualized scene, Mike’s mother (Tina Grenville) is seen hanging out in a see-through nighty while his father (David Weatherley) scoffs at a television interview with his partner Howell, who raves “We are the generation of the end!” while detailing his theories about immortality. What follows then is a very uncomfortable sex scene, similarly lit by pallid yellow light (note that it’s light, and not lens gels, which goes farther to create the film’s diseased verisimilitude than stylistic gel shading could).

Just when it seems the film has abandoned Michael, he appears in the bushes outside his folks’ house with dead eyes and a shot-gun. Piling on more scenes of voyeurism, compounded by explicit Freudian theory, Michael pauses to observe his nude mother, before—in what can be read as Oedipal rage—blowing his parents away with Howell’s shot gun, held at crotch level. His father he even blasts below the waist. The grimiest part of this coitus-interuptus is the way the camera seems to sympathize with Michael, lingering outside the house with him and presenting him as a bystander, an innocent pawn, although certain choices he makes seem representative of psychological impulses rather than efficient drone tactics. The shot-gun blasts are presented in agonizing slo-mo, with extended blood-spray and time-stretched screaming.

Amidst more smash-cuts, Michael is taken to an abusive mental ward by Howell, where he is kept in a padded cell lit with blue lamps. The color palette in Death Warmed Up seems at odds with the typical cinematic color wheel, because colors usually associated with warm and positive emotion—yellow, blue—are used to indicate sickness, decay and abuse. I can’t imagine this was an intentional bit of unsettling bait-and-switch, but such counter-intuitiveness works nonetheless. After Mike’s institutional abuse is adequately represented, unassuming text awkwardly explains that “…on an isolated island Doctor Archer Howell is now operating on human patients a trans-cranial application. His first patient was Mr. Tex Monro.” (Whom is played by the great Bruno Lawrence from The Quiet Earth and Jack Be Nimble). As awkward as this bit of exposition is, it’s welcome, because despite the prior detailed synopsis of only the first ten minutes of the film found here, exactly what’s happening can only be realized upon multiple viewings. So much is unstated; characters names aren’t necessarily provided; relationships are unclear; motivations are mysterious. Questions which viewers would naturally ask are never answered. Everything that has just happened could provide the complete narrative for an entirely different film, but here it is squashed down to preamble.

NOW”, appears on the screen (more 1980’s pop-art advertising-type design, with the same sharp lettering, jagged marks and bright colors from the opening credits), and it’s seven years later, and Michael is traveling to “an isolated island” (coastal Australia) to confront Howell. Yet, for some unknown reason, he’s brought his girlfriend Sandy and two of his dopy friends along. There is of course no great reason to bring pals along on a quest for vengeance; this is simply the transparent and non-diagetic supplying of murder victims.

Michael’s quest for revenge/closure could begin on the island, but instead we meet Mike & Co. on a ferry en route to the island. While the film’s prologue moves at break-neck pace, the rest is disproportionately slow, meandering and frustrating. Unimportant scenes drag and drag, while significant plot points come and go with neither care nor attention. There is no reason to include a ferry-ride to the island if not to introduce and set up characters. However, Mike’s pals are so thinly characterized that the opportunity is wasted. Most of the characters in the film are at least shown on camera in this sequence, as it seems the ferry is sailing into the remainder of the film, rather than to an actual island, because all the henchmen and human guinea pigs Mike will confront later are also on the boat. A severely fucked up and decomposing Bruno Lawrence in sequestered in captain’s quarters, while Howell’s lap dogs Jannings and Spider wait in a black van watching Michael’s friends Jeannie and Lucas having sex; “I love the smell of blonde pussy in the morning”, one quips.

These are the patients who’ve undergone Howell’s immortality treatments. The greasy, strung-out lowlifes Howell is experimenting on look like they walked off the set of a post-apocalypse film. Lawrence’s Tex is a creepy hunchbacked retard who’s practically rotting. Presumably Michael underwent a similar treatment, which somehow failed to have the same effect on him. Before the close of the sequence, Tex sprays some neon vomit on the deck and Lucas (William Upjohn) starts a fight with Spider after pissing on his van. Spider is the movie’s most interesting character, really, played with sadistic relish by David Letch (“Ratbag” in Nate & Hayes).

Over the course of this scene (which feels like prologue number two) Michael is revealed to be a rather unlikable character, a hick with a faux-punk attitude. This seems a strange choice, as Michael is a sympathetic character from the start, and, in such an unambitious revenge film, it seems in the film’s best interest to position Mike as a justified protagonist, not a reject from the Future Kill fraternity.

What’s interesting about Death Warmed Up has to do with how the fractured narrative allows for interesting mistakes and flaws. For example, instead of building up to the final confrontation between Howell and Michael, Michael sees Howell walking across the street the moment he arrives on the island. Instead of getting to work at collecting information and planning some sort of attack, Mike takes his friends to the beach or to explore some weird tunnel. The film takes unnecessary diversions into embarrassing comedy, including a truly offensive scene were a white guy plays an obnoxious Indian convenience store clerk.

And while we spend a lot of time with Mike’s pals, we know nothing about them. Lucas is an annoying jock, Jeannie his horny leopard-print wearing girlfriend. Mike’s girlfriend Sandy is largely underdeveloped, although some tics and idiosyncrasies serve to flesh out her character somewhat. In the beach scene, Mike’s ass and boner (!?) are center-frame, as he struts around in his underwear. When he is dressed, he’s wearing a Roy Lichtenstein-esque print shirt and cut-offs, complimenting the film’s specific design scheme. While there’s a lot of slack creatively here, at least the costume department and title company seem to be in sync. All the fashions here are fetishistic, from the tight pants and muscle tees to the post-apocalyptic leather to the revealing nurses’ outfits Howell’s supermodel-assistants wear.

The tunnel-exploration scene at least moves the film forward, as the crew are ambushed by Spider and his pal, who chase the kids on motorbikes. As they ride they pass through orange, red, yellow and blue lights. By this point, any interpretation of color-specific thematic resonance breaks down. In a rapid-fire succession of events reminiscent of the opening scenes, Spider’s partner is killed and Jeannie is nearly killed. What exactly is wrong with her isn’t clear, aside from perhaps a vague head injury. Sandy flips, and demands that Mike take her to the psychiatric hospital, and gets so heated that she strangles Michael while yelling at him. Of course, asking the same people who are responsible for one’s injury for help is ridiculous, but, the narrative needs to get the kids to get to the hospital somehow. Of course, this could have been solved by simply giving Mike a plan in the script, instead of sending him off to the beach without any sort of concrete plan.

As Michael and his friends make their way to the hospital, all hell is breaking lose, as Spider—heartbroken—has decided to free all of Howell’s patients, essentially turning the film into a zombie flick. This scene features a Doctor yelling, “We got an outbreak of psychos!” which is particularly offensive. The zombies mob the island, while Mike and the rest finally arrive at the hospital. In a succession of clunky set-piece action scenes, most everybody dies, including Jeannie. In a satisfying moment, Spider kills Lucas. The subtext here is that Michael is directly responsible, as he’s risked his friends’ lives, and doesn’t seem to feel any guilt or even make the connection.

If it seems like I’ve barely mentioned Dr. Howell, this is because he’s barely a presence in the film. His motivations are broad and clichéd. His part is mysterious. In fact, he’s only really on screen at the beginning and end of the film, serving only to motivate changes in Michael’s personality and priorities. Their confrontation is a role reversal from the early shower scene, and is just as intimate. Howell again wields a phallic weapon under sickly yellow lighting, only this time Michael does the penetration, thrusting a scalpel into Howell’s body as he says “trust me”, mocking Howell earlier line. While this should be the film’s denouement, it seems merely to be another inconsequential moment in a fractured narrative full of confusingly isolated moments.

The real climax comes while Sandy and Mike attempt to flee the island (Spider and hundreds of zombies presumably nearby). They come upon some debris in the road, and are unable to pass. Sandy sobs “Why!?!?” while banging Michael’s head violently while they sit in the defeated getaway-car. Her impulsive violent outbursts are bizarre, but at least serve as some kind of characterization. “It’s over,” he says, then “It hasn’t even begun.”, as if the film is actually the prelude to an epic zombie apocalypse.

(Major spoiler here).

After this, this histrionic and weird film wraps up with a histrionic and weird ending. Michael walks stiffly to the side of the road—recalling his zombified movements from the film’s opening—and is killed by falling power lines. This seems to suggest that Mike is paying for his earlier sins, and that he accepts this, as something about the action of the power lines seems supernaturally predetermined. That said, this is a film which stubbornly resists psychoanalysis. Attempts to pin ideas onto certain moments seem futile.

After Michael dies, Sandy clutches his lifeless body and wails in agony, which is a suitably depressing end for a rather misanthropic film. After the end credits (in the same style of the opening, set to a minimal Eno-esque score), there is one final tag, Spider’s catch-phrase “I’ll get you all!” which seems directed at the audience. This is actually a nice touch, in keeping with this film’s strongest attribute: its assured, cutting edge style, which seems more in line with European art-house cinema, which actually became a hallmark of NZ genre cinema. There isn’t much in Blyth’s resume to indicate this, however. In fact, I don’t know much about Blyth, as his filmography is obscure. Apparently he was fired off the set of House III and directed a childrens film called Grampire. Aside from Bruno Lawrence’s extended cameo, there’s not much here to attract the average genre fan. And while Death Warmed Up is a minor cult film, it hasn’t achieved nearly the notoriety it demands; it would be interesting to see some sort of special edition DVD release.

What’s most unique about Death Warmed Up is how its flaws actually work in its favor. Instead of being a typical slasher film, it is instead a dense and curious mess of a movie which demands repeat viewings. The counter-intuitive workings of the film ask questions that are hard to answer. Why does the film focus its attention of the trivial yet gloss over important events, creating a confusing and elliptical narrative. Why the elevation of typically uninteresting minutia and irrelevant characters driving, waiting and hanging around, while presumable more interesting plot developments take place elsewhere. The film is seriously flawed, yes—these interesting elements never gel as a cohesive whole—but it’s strangeness and ineptitude seem almost experimental in light of the deliberate, assured stylistic choices made. This internal juxtaposition works to cook up a film which has many problems, yet still stands as an intriguing and dreamlike cinematic mutation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shaun Luu Horror Fest 2009

Last weekend most of the Samurai Dreams writers and I drove to Syracuse, NY for the fifth annual Shaun Luu Horror Fest. Held as a fund-raiser in memory of Syracuse-based hardcore singer and horror-nut Luu (who died of brain cancer), the fest is a two day marathon of genre flicks and hardcore music. We were there for the films only, eight 35mm prints* shown in a row at the Palace Theatre. While they showed some pretty strong stuff this year, none of it can compare to what they've shown in the past. Can you imagine the 2008 fest, which featured Salo, Holy Mountain, Re-Animator and Cannibal Holocaust!? Insane!

Never in my life have I sat through so many movies in a row. While it was a great experience, by the end I was tired and my eyes were totally wrecked. Check the lineup: Ghostbusters 2, Monster Squad, Black Devil Doll, City of the Living Dead, Deep Red, Cannibal Ferox, The Warriors and The Thing! I thought I'd post a play-by-play of the marathon.

Ghostbusters 2. I hadn't seen this in probably ten years, so it was interesting to revisit it on the big screen. This was the "family friendly" portion of the fest, and GB2 began at about 1pm after some introductions from fest organizers. As much fun as I had, my enjoyment was blunted slightly by my anticipation for seeing Monster Squad. Not surprisingly, this was probably the best-looking print of the night aside from Grindhouse Releasing's restored print of Cannibal Ferox.

Monster Squad. Yes! This was the flick I was looking forward most to seeing on the big screen. I would have loved to have seen this one as a kid, so this was major wish fulfillment. I noticed so much I hadn't before (the complete matte painting of the town seen from Sean's roof at the beginning, the Being poster in the clubhouse, etc). And the print was in great shape too, which I wasn't expecting.

After Monster Squad there was a two hour break, and we went to a cool vegan restaurant in the area. Drinking a bottle of Kombucha boosted my stamina levels.

Black Devil Doll. The only contemporary film of the fest, this is the debut feature from Rotton Cotton's Jon Lewis. Billed as a cross between Child's Play and Dolemite, the titular villain is an executed black serial killer reincarnated in the body of a wooden ventriloquist dummy. He spends the rest of the film killing women and raping their corpses, shitting on people and quoting Chapelle's Show. As tasteless and offensive as this low budget flick tries to be, it's more dull than anything, and I actually dozed off at one point. While I admire Lewis for making this small movie and promoting the hell out of it--and for releasing those awesome VHS-company logo shirts at RC--this really just isn't my kind of thing.

City of the Living Dead. The second in Fulci's trilogy of zombie films, I was really excited to see this one for the first time. A rare uncut print with dutch subtitles was used, and it took me about fifteen minutes to stop instinctively looking at them, even though the dialog was spoken in english. Of all the films, this felt the most unique to me, because when do you get a chance to see something like this in the theatre? The maggot-shower scene was particularly gross on such a huge screen. By this point the theatre was pretty packed, and I really felt that the audience was in synch. A totally respectful and enthusiastic crowd.

Deep Red. While it was still great to see, this was probably the most damaged and faded print of the night. But man, it ruled to hear that music at such volume. I think I may have dozed off for a few minutes here and there, but by the end I had caught my second wind.

The Warriors. Since I saw a midnight showing of this at the Hadley Cinemark last year I was thinking of taking a walk or something during this, but the audience's hype level was infectious, and I had to stay. Each gang introduction drew applause, and I was grinning through the whole thing. Really keyed into the homoerotic subtext of the film, amazed I never really noticed it before. Before the film began, the main organizer of the event (whose name escapes me) warned that Paramount was so worried about the condition of the one print they could find that they sent it over for free with warnings of extreme damage. Who knows why, because the print was absolutely beautiful, and one of the best of the night. Weird.

Cannibal Ferox. Of all the films, this was the only one I was kind of afraid to watch. While I've seen Cannibal Holocaust, Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Mountain of the Cannibal God and Porno Holocaust, the jungle adventure genre of Italian sleaze usually makes me queasy, especially the nasty animal-slaughter bits. And in Ferox, the scenes of animal torture and slaughter are relentless. Apart from this unfortunate business, Lenzi's film is equal parts camp and sleaze, and even at its bleakest there's humor and disarming weirdless to laugh nervously at for most of the film. The humor slowly drains out of the film however, and the last third is relentlessly dismal and depressing. And that ending! While I can't condone the animal bits, this film, like Cannibal Holocaust, is at least loaded with social commentary as well as gore and exploitation (which makes it kind of hard to deal with critically, as it makes itself impossible to dismiss, as much as one might like to do so). The audience groaned and squirmed practically in unison at every turn, and while this is an unpleasant film, viewing it with a huge audience on a large screen was a singular experience.

The Thing. It was about 2:30 am by this point, and I had to keep moving around the theatre just to stay awake. Only the most hardcore of film freaks were still in attendance by this point, and I saw more than a few people totally cached out and napping. While I wasn't at my sharpest, and I had to take my glasses off to soothe my eyes, it still ruled to see one of my all time favorite films up there. Tried to pay really close attention to where all the characters were at all times, and noticed that MacCready's shack is still standing at the end. Awesome.

Fun to notice: Mary Ellen Trainor in both Ghostbusters 2 and Monster Squad and Thomas Waites in Warriors and The Thing. Also, James and I got pretty excited when we realized that the protagonist in Cannibal Ferox is played by Lorraine De Selle, the warden from Women's Prison Massacre.

The End!

*Aside from Black Devil Doll, which must have been a DVD.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Women's Prison Massacre (1983)

While Bruno Mattei's Women’s Prison Massacre (Emanuelle Fuga Dall'Inferno, literally Emanuelle Escapes from Hell in Italian) is technically a Black Emanuelle film (Gemser actually stars as the character Emanuelle, and not just in re-dubbed and re-titled international cuts), it’s pointedly different than the original Black Emanuelle films made infamous by Joe D’amato. Despite directing films like Porno Holocaust and the fake Caligula sequels, Mattei’s films are much tamer than D’Amato’s (but, really, that isn’t saying much). While Emanuelle is still a head-strong, free-spirited reporter here, her character is quite different than the Emanuelle found in D’Amato’s classic exploitation films.

In films like Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Gemser plays the photo-journalist Emanuelle as a carefree, precocious nymphomaniac, following illicit thrills around the globe. So, it’s strange to find her locked in a prison here, robbed of D’Amato’s defining cosmopolitan characteristic. Consensus being that Gemser can’t act, one would assume that her performance here would lack the nuanced performance potentially afforded by this alteration. Granted, Gemser is wooden, but that may have more to do with her icy, impassable beauty, a disposition that can occasionally convey only aloof boredom. However, Gemser’s performance here is actually quite good, and certainly among the best of her career (the Russian Roulette scene is particular evidence of this).

The film begins with a perplexing bit of performance art that barely serves as exposition and fails to set the proper tone of the film. Emanuelle and two compatriots are seen on a make-shift prison stage, slathered in harlequin face-paint and flatly presenting a three-hander monologue, the type of “I’m a whore/ I’m a woman” pseudo-feminist hot-air found in many exploitation scripts. Workman Italian stalwarts Claudio Fragasso (notorious director of the D'Amato-produced Troll 2, which Gemser had a hand in) and Olivier Lefait (first A.D. to Mattei on Rats: Night of Terror and writer of the lesser Violence in a Women’s Prison, which this film is a sort-of sequel to) really outdid themselves with this bizarre trio of monologues.

While at odds tonally, this strange and off-putting opening scene in Women’s Prison Massacre seems added as some sort of notification (or warning) to the audience that this is not a typical women-in-prison film. In fact, nods in the film to genre convention (lesbianism, rape, riot, escape) feel compulsory and tangential; in the average by-the-books WiP picture, these moments would be highlighted and heavily presented, as the execution of lurid subject matter is the raison d’etre of most exploitation genre films. Chalk it up to characterization perhaps, but it’s rather unsuccessful in that regard. The inmates find this bit of theatre so offensive they begin to riot and throw fruit (where the hell did they get it?), at the urging of Emanuelle’s rival Albina (Ursula Flores, for some reason playing a different character than she played in ViaWP).

While Emanuelle is at the film’s core, Women’s Prison Massacre is in many ways an ensemble piece. Albina and at least two other inmates are adequately developed. And midway through the film, a half dozen new characters are introduced in an inspired run of scenes. The prison’s warden (Carlo De Mejo as Harrison) is for some reason tasked with housing a gang of vicious male killers in an unused portion of the prison (as to why they would be brought to a women’s prison is a question you’re going to have to ask the gods of exploitation cinema). Italian character actor Gabrielle Tinti provides the film’s best performance as the gleefully sadistic Crazy Boy Henderson (He and Gemser would reunite the following year in D’Amato’s post-apocalyptic sleeper Endgame).

With the introduction of these characters, the film nearly shifts into Poliziesco thriller territory, as the gang manages to take control of a police van en-route to the prison, enlisting police-impersonating thugs as blockade and taking the warden captive. The crew hole up in the prison, locking the inmates and guards away as they negotiate with the cops gathering outside the compound (including the corrupt D.A. who put Emanuelle in prison). These action scenes are incredibly visceral and lively, and perfectly complimented by Luigi Ceccarelli’s Simonetti-esque score. This is a welcome twist on the formula and a fully functional and successful genre-mash-up.

While up to this point the violence in the film is of a prisoner-catfight type nature (aside from a blackly-comic scene where Emanuelle takes a brutal baton-hit to the face from Cannibal Ferox's Lorraine De Selle), the sadistic nature of Crazy Boy’s gang pushes the film into new mean-spirited directions. While directors like Sergio Martino and D’Amato craft films with a pervasive tone of sleaze, Mattei’s WPM contains only isolated moments of shocking violence and sexual depravity, which makes these scenes more powerful than they would be alongside the non-stop cavalcade of shock formula of the D’Amato Black Emanuelle films or Martino‘s cannibal pictures. While Crazy Boy taking a mouthful of gore is a high-note, the film’s most gruesome scene has to be the sequence where a broken and abused prisoner fatally wounds a thug by inserting a razor blade into her vagina and seducing him (luckily this isn‘t a D‘Amato film, as Gianetto De Rossi would have actually figured out some way to film the appendage/razor contact).

Despite a predictable climax, Emanuelle’s fate at the end of the film is somewhat ambiguous. Presumably this device is a bit of insurance, material to fuel the start of more Emanuelle WiP films. However unless I’m mistaken, this and ViaWP are the only such major pictures. While the triumphant tone of the film’s dénouement is depleted by this bit of business, this film is still jam-packed and engaging, and certainly a high-point for both the women-in-prison genre and the sub-genre of Black Emanuelle films starring Laura Gemser. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year End of Films in Life 2008

Every film I saw in theatres in 2008:

Aliens vs. Predator Requiem

Some friends wanted to see this. Worse than I could ever imagine.

Black Orpheus

One of my favorite films. A nice print at Amherst Cinema.

Hellboy II the Golden Army

Better than the first. I liked this in an uncomplicated way. Liked.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Oppressive CGI, lame-brained story peppered with 2012/Mayan fad hokum, phoned-in performances, over the top yet boring action scenes. No thanks.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall/ Pineapple Express

Fine and funny comedies both!

Iron Man/ The Incredible Hulk

I didn't care for either of these. There's a lot I'd like to say about this new era of Marvel Universe films, so I'll save it.

Zabriskie Point

Amherst Cinema again. Terrible acting, inane dialog, a pointless, unearned finale. Yet somehow it's still a great film.

The Dark Knight

Fantastic. Deserves the extreme hype. Mainstream to the core, yet somehow still truly dismal, nihilistic and ambiguous. A nice deconstruction of something like Iron Man, I think.

The Punisher

My buddy and I saw this opening day in an empty theater. I actually enjoyed this, it's stupid, bizarre, nasty and offensive in the finest 80s exploitation tradition. A kind of update of something like The Exterminator. A review should follow the DVD release.

The Happening

I absolutely loved this film, it's probably my pick for film of the year. I may be the only person who totally liked this movie. Me and Ebert. It's everything a mainstream film isn't supposed to be: weird, idiosyncratic, hermetic, unapologetically hammy, political, singular, perplexingly cast. If you watch the bonus footage on the DVD, it becomes apparent that Shyamalan did exactly what he wanted to do, and he's seen acting strange and purposefully unnerving his actors, conciously creating an otherwordly vibe on set. Reading reviews of this film after I saw it, I was shocked at how closely they all resembled each other. The same narrative is trotted out: Shyamalan makes three good movies and two bad ones, this time it's three strikes you're out with his third unsuccessful film. I liked The Village and Lady in the Water quite a bit. It's fine if the majority of critics disliked this film, but does everyone have to hit it from the same angle?

DVD times: Diary of the Dead, Christmas on Mars, Sukiyaki Western Django, Cloverfield, Doomsday, Tropic Thunder, X-Files: I Want to Believe, King of Kong.

I spent most of 2008 watching older films, but I would have liked to have seen the following, overlong list of films: The Wrestler, Man on Wire, Wall-E, Speed Racer, Funny Games, Drillbit Taylor, Burn after Reading, Synecdoche NY, Transsiberian, Gammorrah, Red Cliff, Rachel Getting Married, Wendy & Lucy, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Paranoid Park, Tell No One, Eden Lake, The Orphanage, Hunger, Taxi to the Dark Side, Nothing like the Holidays, The Strangers, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pleasant and Enjoyable

Back in the day I used to write short, nearly pointless reviews for films on IMDb... The Rankin-Bass Hobbit, Mafia vs. Ninja, The Brain that Wouldn't Die... some of the cult films I was digging in high school. I should delete them really. Today I was checking out my neglected IMDb profile when I noticed that I had posted a review which I have no recollection of writing. Strange, because it was posted about a year ago, so Samurai Dreams was in full effect, so it makes little sense I would write a review that wouldn't make it's way to this blog or the pages of SD. It's a little longer than a capsule, but provides little substantive information about the film, Crimezone. The film couldn't have been fresh in my mind, because I think the last time I watched Crimezone was as a junior in college, several years ago. The "my friend fell asleep watching this" part is mysterious as well, and must have been college-era. The jazzy style and complete lack of punctuation, capitalization and proper sentence structure by the end might point to inebriation, but I recall consistant clean-living from that period.

Did I let somebody write a review on my account? I think I would remember that. Most likely I did write it, and possibly after a few beers... strange all the same.

Check it out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

The October Ordeal II 04: The Monster Club (1980)

Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club is a typical anthology horror film, unique only for its retro style. While the film horror genre had gotten quite nasty by 1980, The Monster Club reminds of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in its style, tone and attention. In fact, its wrap-around interstitial segments and source (a single author, here a more contemporary figure than Poe or Hawthorne), are taken directly from older, classical fright films. Production house Amicus had produced several such anthology films, of which this is the last.

Price, in fact, is present here in the role as host, as Count Eramus, an ancient vampire and member of “The Monster Club”, a clandestine joint where monsters can hang out and catch some tunes (the film is based on this “monster underground” concept). The tales he tells are based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, acclaimed British writer. Confusingly, Chetwynd-Hayes is present in the film as a character, played by John Carradine. Chetwynd-Hayes meets—I presume—a character of his own creation in Eramus, who introduces himself by biting Chetwynd-Hayes on the neck. Not enough to turn or kill him, of course, just enough for a taste (“You’re my favorite author” Eramus says, and “It was the finest blood I have ever tasted”). Eramus brings Chetwynd-Hayes to a Halloween party at the club, with promise of inspiring tales. This is strange, as he’ll be telling Chetwynd-Hayes his own stories.

The scenes in the club are light and humorous, and each features a full musical performance. The music is a mix of new-wave and Thin Lizzy-style pub-rock, featuring such bands as Night, The Viewers, the Expressos and a reunited Pretty Things (one of the greatest psychedelic bands ever, here shilling a bland reggae-influenced style). In fact, music is practically oppressive in this film, present throughout. When a band isn’t performing in the interstitial bits, a UB40 song is playing. During the segments, the music of a single composer is featured, including John Williams in the first.

Each segment is in some way based on a hierarchy of creatures which Eramus outlines early in the film. For example: if a werewolf mates with a ghoul, it produces a “were-ghoul”. This idea may have seemed clever in the script, but is confusing on-screen, despite the handy chart Price keeps pointing at. The subject of the first story is a “Shadmock”, creatures which look like gaunt humans and have the ability to melt people with a deafening whistle (this odd concept is typical of the film). The well-off Shadmock we meet here is looking for love, which he finds with his house-keeper, who is working for a con-man, who plans to rob his mansion. Inevitably, he catches her in the act, and shows the audience what happens when he whistles. This segment is competent if a little dull, and ultimately the least successful of the three.

In the second section, Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes turn to hear a man on stage tell a humorous story from his youth, in what is the most overtly comic of the three tales. The boy in the film is the son of a human woman (the gorgeous and talented Britt Ekland) and a vampire, “Count Manfred”. His family has moved from Transylvania to England, but have been followed by vamp-hunter Pickering, played by Donald Pleasance, who approaches the boy as a priest and delivers the creepiest line in the film: “I’m not a stranger, I’m a clergyman! Would you like a caramel?” Pleasance and his cronies follow the boy back to his house, in an attempt to assassinate the Count, with the stakes they carry (“Beware men who carry violin cases,” Manfred tells the young Viscount). The music in this section is fantastic, traditional Transylvanian folk music performed by John Georgiadis. This is the most likable segment in the film, and the type of story that really fits the format. Pleasance is great here, high-energy and committed to the story’s inherent camp.

Between this and the final tale is the film’s most awkward moment. A rock band called Night performs while a woman strips down to her (animated!) skeleton. “Magnificent!” and “Beautiful bones!” are a few of Eramus’ remarks. This scene feels inappropriate, as the film feels decidedly PG otherwise. This moment is more in keeping with dismal grime-fests like Night Train to Terror, another horror anthology (which also features a gimmicky premise—God and Satan telling tales on a moving train—and live musical performances). The tone otherwise is carefree and sentimental, almost melancholic in its nostalgia (palpable but vague). The animated skeletal frame reveals the budget for these wrap-arounds, and feels more movie-of-the-week than feature film in its tackiness. This criticism aside, the dark turn of this act sets the mood for the final third of this film, its heaviest and scariest.

In this tale (told partly in illustrations by John Bolton, the still-active British comic artist), a horror director is out scouting locations when he finds himself marooned in an anachronistic village of ghouls, who want to eat him. With help from Luna, a hilariously naïve “Humghoul” (“They not go in there, fall down if go in there!”), he manages to escape, (spoiler) only to be picked up by police and driven right back to the village square. The police are escorting the mysterious “Elders” to the town for—what? Some kind of inspection maybe. This is the creepiest, most depressing moment in what is otherwise an light-hearted, inoffensive horror film. This segment also features fine music, by electronic composer Alan Hawkshaw.

After this story is over, the film fits in one final set-piece joke as its conclusion. Eramus officially inducts Chetwynd-Hayes into the club, reasoning that humans have committed more atrocities than any monster. It’s hard to see any political dimension to this, as the film is—for the most part—very silly and slight, without significant depth (I haven’t read any of the source stories, so I can’t comment on their richness). This is simply the final tag in a series of goofy moments, cheesy jokes and “Gotcha!” gags. Price is the perfect presider, as he’s in enthusiastic ham mode throughout. While I enjoy Price in anything, ultimately I prefer his toned-down, less-theatrical performances in such films as Last Man on Earth and The Conqueror Worm.

After Eramus’ induction ceremony, he and Chetwynd-Hayes throw up their hands and head to the ballroom floor to dance (with fat women!) as the Pretty Things (whom the audience has been waiting for) play the film’s theme, “Welcome to the Monster Club” over the credits. While this film’s length is typical of the anthology, it could have been tidier, especially in the wraparound segments. While the three stories are pretty clearly defined and ordered-by-tone (melancholic, humorous, frightening), they are all equally as successful. Which an audience member prefers will ultimately reflect personal taste. That said, its doubtful any one person will entirely enjoy the entire film. Well, the good with the bad, I suppose. As horror anthologies go, The Monster Club isn’t essential by any means, but it is still entertaining as an unpretentious (and un-ambitious) entry in the form.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The October Ordeal II 03: Virgin Witch (1972)

(Spoilers throughout)

Although Virgin Witch (also known as “Lesbian Twins”, which I’m sure sells more DVDs) came at the height of the European horror-sleaze boom, in many ways it’s an isolated and singular film. Partly this is because of narrative—which I’ll get to later—but moreso because it seems to lack specific time and place. It feels like an Italian film, but it’s British. It’s director, Ray Austin, has otherwise worked only for television. It’s writer, Beryl Vertue, is an accomplished producer, but has only this one writing credit on her resume. It promises a swinging mod-London setting, but takes place mostly inside a single house. It looks on the surface like exploitation—which it is—but offers little in the way of eroticism, really. For these reasons, Virgin Witch is rather obscure, and while it isn’t essential, its still an above average and unique genre entry.

Virgin Witch starts off with out-of-focus stills of nude torsos, a montage of nudity to come, with the actors’ names pasted on, much like the opening of an average porno. Then—suddenly—creepy psych rock blasts and a woman is seen being burned alive, screaming, with no explanation. All of this happens in about two minutes, leading an informed genre fan to expect a brain-melt along the lines of Black Candles or any Jess Franco picture. Well, forget this strange opening, because it will never be explained or revisited. The eternal question when viewing Giallo is this: is it better to exhaust oneself attempting to keep the narrative strands in order, or is it appropriate to just give in to sound and image, and hope that by the end something makes sense? I was prepared to ask myself this same question, until I realized that Virgin Witch isn’t a Gialli slasher, it’s a British vampire film. Aside from this first section, Virgin Witch makes sense, and can easily be followed, processed and understood.

After the surreal first minutes, Virgin Witch begins in earnest, with its central characters, Christina and Betty, played by Ann and Vicki Michelle—who are twin sisters, although I didn’t pick that up until researching the film, as they are by no means identical, and never explicitly referred to as sisters in the film. Outgoing Christina and demure Betty have escaped their boring country lives to slum it in London, and they’re living with the middle-aged Johnny (Keith Buckley), a stylish guy who is really just that; it’s a mystery what he does for a living (he exists because later on the film will need a third party to intervene later). This in-media-res opening finds Christina looking for modeling work and finding it with the icy Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a character defined solely by the fact that she’s a businesswoman and a lesbian, usually shorthand for villain in a film like this (hold that thought). Christina is willing to go nude and Sybil needs a model on short notice, so she instantly gets the job, and is immediately on her way to an ornate mansion in the countryside, with Betty along for the ride as her chaperone.

This all happens in the first ten minutes or so. By the time Betty and Christina make it to the secluded mystery house, most characters are established, a mystery is developing, and all gears are in motion. Virgin Witch wastes no time establishing itself, making for a breezy and digestible narrative, a feature rare for the genre.

There are two major characters left to introduce, both waiting at the foreboding manor. The owner of the house—and prime-mover of action—effete charmer Gerald Amberly (Neil Hallett), and horny photographer Peter (James Chase), who seems as in-over-his-head as Christina and Betty are about to be. These two are introduced first as voyeurs, preying on the two women in that way; while Peter is an innocuous character, Gerald will soon be preying on Betty and Christina in a more real and serious way. Peter’s voyeurism is work, and more for the benefit of the audience, as his camera’s lens records Christina in progressive states of undress. Gerald is more sinister, as he watches Betty in the tub through a Norman Bates hole in the wall.

While Christina poses outside, Betty explores the interior of the mansion, coming upon an altar in a sub-basement room lined with red curtains, decorated with demonic masks, daggers and other magickal ephemera. When she’s confronted by Gerald, she’s shocked to learn that Gerald and Sybil are open about their esoteric practices, and are happy to reveal to the women that they are the two pillars of a witch’s coven. Gerald brings Christina down to see the room, and is pleased to discover that she’s into it, and wants to join the circle. In fact, this is what the coven needs exactly, a virgin to simultaneously complete a complex ritual and to join as an initiate. According to Gerald, the group practices white magick only (as opposed to the black magick of most films, I presume).

Lest the audience forget, there’s a guy named Johnny in this film, which Virgin Witch points out mid-way through with a London call-back. Johnny is hanging out with a cool Jazz singer chick in a swank club, where news somehow reaches him of Betty and Christina’s predicament. Since he has Sybil’s business card (for some reason or other), he rushes off to the mansion to see what’s up. This scene is an unnecessary one, just a bit of exposition that could have been handled with a phone call, but it’s a nice diversion which really adds a bit of levity to the film, right before one of it’s most intense moments, the first ritual, which is like a watered down version of Behind the Green Door.

During the night-time initiation, a group of new characters gather with Gerald and Sybil around Christina, the ritual’s focus. Some robed minions strip Christina, Sybil rubs oil on her nude torso, and Gerald drops robe and deflowers Christina to jazzy psych-rock akin to Angus MacLise’s score for Invasion at Thunderbolt Pagoda. She wakes up the next morning in bed with Sybil, who apparently demanded Christina sleep with her as well as Gerald. During this scene, which occurs two-thirds of the way in, one wonders where the horror was. Sure, the focus is on typical horror material, but the film isn’t scary, and doesn’t create any sort of foreboding atmosphere. More accurately, Virgin Witch would be called a drama about magicians and models, if not for some strange supernatural elements introduced in the final reel. Up ‘til this point, Virgin Witch is an atypical genre film, a laid-back, unhurried unspooling of events over a long weekend.

The supernatural element I’m referring to is Christina’s burgeoning—and unwarranted—telekinetic abilities, which develop seemingly only out of her desire to force Sybil from the coven and take her place in the circle. This is a strange development, as its abrupt and severe tone betrays the preceding tone of the film. Complaints aside, I did enjoy this final section on its own, Christina drunk with dark power, nastily betraying both Betty (by passive-aggressively forcing her into the second part of the ritual against her will) and Johnny (by applying newfound mind control techniques to bring him into the ritual as well), and by psychically assaulting Sybil, forcing her out of the circle, and (spoiler!) later killing her, turning their white magick coven into a black magick group in a single night.

This final ritual (and the climax of the film) is more intense than the first. Christina rubs oil on Betty’s breasts (fulfilling the explicit promise of the film’s alternate title, and the implicit promise of lesbianism any film of this kind seems to offer by default), and Johnny has sex with her, entering the ceremony in a black robe and Onibaba mask. This scene is the creepiest and most uncomfortable in the film. The music in this scene is even wilder than before, a mix of Comus and Jade warrior, wailing away while a full-blown orgy takes place, bringing in all the characters of the film, including Peter. (Major spoiler for rest of paragraph) Mid-coitus, Johnny snaps out of it, but instead of fleeing with Betty, he moves her to a more private spot, and continues to deflower her! I suppose because they’ve moved outside the circle they’ve decided to have sex on their own terms, simultaneously ruining the ritual. Meanwhile, Christina kills Sybil by stabbing the dirt, somehow.

This is a strange and confusing ending, its signification obscure. At the same time, it’s satisfying, because it’s a pitch-black, weird, atypical, dark and desperate off-type ending, and totally morally ambiguous, ending the film without clear heroes and villains. There may not be any major thematic point delivered; this is simply how this story ends. As to what happens next is anyone’s guess. The one reason this ending is offensive is because it betrays the earlier good-natured tone of the film; if the entire film were as strange as its conclusion, it wouldn’t be impacting, it would just be a bummer, as nasty as the grimiest English and Italian horror (Evil Eye, House with Laughing Windows, Girly, et al).

While I’m not going to seriously suggest that a film I’ve already compared to mainstream porn is feminist in nature, this is one possible long-shot interpretation: to Gerald and Sybil, Christina and Betty are another set of pretty-girl acquisitions, necessary for their power rituals and important only in that way. The women have subverted their positions in both the film and the genre to steal back control of their own destinies. By upsetting the balance of power in the coven, Christina has asserted herself in a surprising and unique way, even if her strategic tools are sex, subjugation, manipulation and murder. Keep in mind a woman wrote the screenplay, so its not surprising that power would be wrestled back by Christina at the end, who as a character also satisfies the sexist demands of the genre for the majority of the picture.

Despite major problems, Virgin Witch is unique enough to warrant attention. It’s a well paced and easy to watch film, without major breaks and confusing jump cuts, usually inherent to the genre. The actors in the film are uniformly good. The music is fantastic. The photography and idiosyncratic and atmospheric, without being as cavalier and bold as in other similar films of the era. This may even make it appropriate for non-genre fans, as it fails to make mistakes many similar pictures do. For genre fans, Virgin Witch may be somewhat disappointing, as its not as weird, profane, perverse and pornographic as Vampyros Lesbos, for example. It’s also British, which has a lot to do with why its markedly different from the Giallo films it nevertheless takes inspiration from. In translation, the genre has both lost and gained in Virgin Witch, an obscure entry, but nevertheless an interesting film.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The October Ordeal II 02: Cutting Class (1989)

(Spoilers throughout)

The low-budget psycho-killer whodunit Cutting Class can be considered part of the final wave of non-franchise 80s teen slashers. While the proceeding decade would produce films riffing on the genre and deconstructing it, Cutting Class settles comfortably into the parameters of the form. While its plot and narrative arc are rote, there are many bizarre—and unfortunate—idiosyncratic moments which make Cutting Class interesting—if not enjoyable.

First time director Rospo Pallenberg (writer of Exorcist II, and the John Boorman films Excalibur and The Emerald Forest) helms an ensemble cast of high-school students and faculty: Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch, Jr.), Paula Carson (Jill Shoelen of Popcorn, Chiller and The Stepfather) and Dwight Ingalls (Brad Pitt!) on one side, with veteran character actors in the “adult” roles, including Martin Mull as Paula’s father, and Roddy McDowall as the lecherous school Principal. Once the murders start, Cutting Class goes out of its way to provide about a dozen possible suspects, including several clear Red Herring throwaway false-leads.

Basketball hero Dwight, his girlfriend Paula, and their old friend Brian are simultaneously suspects and potential victims throughout. Brian seems the too-obvious choice, as he’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital for causing his abusive father’s death. He’s erratic, secretive and dresses all in black. In most films, he would be the secret hero, noble yet misunderstood. (Spoiler!) Not here, as Woods is in fact the killer. Cutting Class did have me guessing throughout, but not in the kind of way where, through deduction, the mystery could be solved—it could have been anyone, really. For example, we discover that Dwight taught Brian how to cut brake lines, which is the method he used to do in his dad, and that Paula has feelings for Brian, and that her father acted as a lawyer during Brian’s trial. I never believed for a second that the pervy Principal, the creepy night janitor (quote: “I am the custodian of your fucking destiny!”) or the tough gym teacher were serious contenders. By making the young “psycho” the villain, Cutting Class merely becomes yet another film in the horror genre perpetuating negative stereotypes about those suffering from mental health conditions or those who have spent time in psychiatric facilities. Great.

Cutting Class is best remembered for featuring a “young” (26) Pitt. It isn’t difficult, however, to forget about the media superstar Brad Pitt of today when viewing this film, as he isn’t given any more screen time or space than Leitch or Shoelen. In fact, there isn’t a thing remarkable about Pitt’s performance as the homophobic, racist, slick and arrogant Dwight. Dwight is relentlessly hard on Brian, his former friend. He tells Brian he went to the hospital with “a broken mind”—as in, not a leg. In one brazenly offensive scene—played for laughs—he convinces an entire classroom full of kids to fake electrocution, mocking Brian by reminding him of the electro-shock therapy he was subjected to. Pitt’s performance is broad: he plays Dwight the jock as dopy, jiving and erratic, in what is surely an attempt to cast Dwight as a reasonable suspect, but which instead comes off as uneven and bizarre.

Shoelen’s Paula is a jumbled and confused character. On the surface she’s a squeaky-clean good-girl cheerleader and straight-A student (who’s actually withholding sex from Dwight until he brings his grades up). Yet, at the same time, she is made the object of lust for nearly every male character in the film (yes, including her father). The advances of these men and boys are obvious and sneering, yet she seems completely oblivious, which ultimately amounts to subconscious compliance here. Never have I seen the classic media “whore/virgin” binary contained so completely in a single character. This point is really the film’s most blatant and baffling stumbling block, which demands further attention here.

The universe of Cutting Class is an exploitative, mean-spirited and libidinous place, with Paula at its center. In the first scene of the film, Paula goes outside to talk to Mull in her underwear, while he loads up his truck for a hunting expedition (this “city boy goes to the country” thread runs throughout as comic relief). She seems always in the act of presenting herself as a sex object, as if the film acts as a medium connecting her directly with the wishes of masturbating 14-year old viewers. Later on, she fingers a photo of her and her father, and then makes out with Dwight—who’s wearing her dad’s suit—on her parents’ bed. Sheesh!

While Roddy McDowall is a welcome presence in a sea of bland performances (he’s clearly having fun playing a sleazy authority figure), his Mr. Dante is a truly despicable character (who is of course comic relief). He drinks booze in his office in one scene, and makes Paula bend down in front of him, exposing her panties, and suggests she try on her new cheerleading outfit right there in his office. Inexplicably, later in the film Dante is seen hanging out in the theatre, trying on ladies’ clothing and make-up. Even worse than Dante is Paula’s art teacher, who presents a scantily-clad Paula as a figure model for his students to sketch. This seems not only creepy and inappropriate, but nearly illegal as well. Dwight says to the teacher “You like boys don’t you?” to which the teacher sneers “No!” while eyeing Paula to prove it. Is the audience really supposed to think Paula is such a naïf? Or is she into it? She’s a chaste character in the script, but as directed, she becomes merely an object, as framed by the film’s unapologetic male gaze. The teacher is later placed in a giant kiln by Brian and killed.

During each of these scenes, Brian is in the background somewhere, out of sight, spying. Whether he’s “protector” or killer, this is still serious, obsessive voyeurism, which I guess is supposed to be romantic. Dwight usually isn’t far off either. Is this a typical day at school for these kids? While totally different in tone, the presentation of these characters reminds of contemporary Troma, in that not a single principle is likable. And while Shoelen is an interesting actor (with a unique gravelly off-type voice), Pitt and Leitch are dull and thin in their performances. A bit more intensity from Leitch would have helped, and a lot less of what Pitt clearly thought was intensity.

When Cutting Class finally gets around to its conclusion, it is without much satisfaction. In some ways the film never really gets started, as it never achieves any sort of appropriate tension or dramatic rhythm. Dwight and Paula are final boy and final girl, and the two manage to kill Brian in a shop-class brawl, where Brian and Dwight fight each other with various power-tools. For most of the battle, Paula merely screams. When it looks like Dwight is going to lose, she distracts Brian by taking her shirt of. She then hits him in the head with a hammer and yells “I’m sick of people playing with my emotions!” This is almost the single clear statement in the film, only if framed in the context of her position here as both a character and an actor. Whatever is gained with this declaration is promptly lost in the next scene (a final “Gotcha!” where Dwight and Paula nearly crash Dwight’s Jeep, of which Brian sabotaged earlier), when Paula tells Dwight and her father “I likes Brian… so much for feminine intuition!” Mull answers a few questions for the audience (still leaving a few plot holes), and ends the film with both a titular line and a final tag” “You kids aren’t cutting class are you?” Freeze-frame, and we’re done.

Scores of slashers work similar plots into fine films that work on any number of levels. Cutting Class however opts to highlight the negative and essentialist assumptions which are often implicit in the form. That said, the film could have used itself as a commentary, a kind of genre expose, or at least as a template for black humor and transgression. Instead, it merely wallows joylessly in it’s own grime, content. Most slashers have an established set of leads, but Cutting Class goes out of its way to present the worst aspects of these stereotypes, simultaneously congratulating its jock-hero asshole boyfriend and objectifying its naïve teenage girlfriend—for laughs. Cutting Class is a historical and genre curiosity; it is recommended only in this way.