Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 31: Halloween III

October 31st: Halloween III (1982)

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Halloween III is because it’s so damn weird. Some of its strangeness comes from observation (how strange it is to see kids running around in gross masks once a year), but most of it is inspired. This is a kitchen sink film and then some: a doctor investigating a vast conspiracy, robot henchmen, witchcraft… Stonehenge? Some aspects of Halloween III simply make no logical sense at all. Writer and director Tommy Lee Wallace made one of horror cinema's true historical curiosities, and decorated it extensively with carved pumpkins. Halloween III is a favorite of mine, and I’ve chosen it as the cap to The October Ordeal.

While Halloween III is generally well-remembered by genre fans now, it failed to excite at the box office. John Carpenter intended to kick-start a yearly series of diverse films under the “Halloween” banner. Unfortunately, fans simply didn’t want a Halloween without Michael Myers. Pity, as this film has more life than the sequels that followed it. The back of the original VHS release spends half the synopsis on the back cover explaining that Michael Myers in not in fact in Halloween III. Halloween IV is even apologetically sub-titled “The Return of Michael Myers.” It's hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. While this film is a self-contained story outside the Michael Myers continuity, it contains enough fun references and in-jokes to at least place it in the same universe.

There are of course differences. John Carpenter’s music—for instance—is considerably more upbeat, at times approaching disco. Many aspects of this film feel strangely familiar yet also displaced. At times it feels like an odd riff on the horror genre altogether. Truth be told, Halloween III is more of a Sci-Fi mystery than a fright film. While it may not be a typically "scary" horror film, Halloween III finds its inspiration in the American holiday itself, way more so than the first two films. While the first Halloween makes great use of the season, its concern is not the particulars of Halloween itself. Not only are the aesthetics of the holiday amplified here, but the ancient origins of Halloween as well, specifically its roots in pagan Samhain and Hallowe’en.

Tom Atkins is right at home as an alcoholic absentee dad cracking an occult conspiracy. I have no idea why he’s playing a doctor (Dr. Dan Challis); he plays it the same way he’d play a cop or detective. He's casually drawn into the pulp plot when a dying man in his ward exclaims “They’re going to kill us all” while clutching a pumpkin. Challis then sets out to find the killer, perhaps out of boredom. Dan O’ Herlihy is characteristically professional as the witch CEO of Silver Shamrock, a mask-making corporation based in sleepy Santa Mira, CA (the location of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Kids nationwide can’t seem to get enough of Silver Shamrock’s colorful masks, despite the fact they come in only about three varieties.

Silver Shamrock’s masks, unfortunately, are deadly. Each mask contains a coin chipped off of Stonehenge (?) which, when triggered, will lazer a kid’s face off and release bugs and snakes from the skull (??). Staging it as a media event, at nine PM on Halloween, Silver Shamrock plans to broadcast the image of a blinking Jack O’ Lantern to trigger the deadly masks (???). Conal Cochran (O’ Herlihy) plans to use the event as a way to punish ignorant kids. As a pagan wizard, Cochran is disgusted by Trick or Treats; he still sees Samhain as a time to honor the dead and confront mortality. Out of desire to “Control [the] environment” and appease an angry universe, Cochran has planned this mass sacrifice via TV and Toys, turning Halloween’s commerciality against itself. Television itself features in the film; a set is on anywhere Challis goes. Halloween III actually manages to exploits Halloween clichés in an interesting way, more so than Halloween. John Carpenter’s original film may be the masterpiece, but Halloween III is truer to its namesake.

Instead of the other Halloween films, the obvious reference point is Larry Cohen. There’s a playfulness here that reminds of The Stuff and Q. From the noncommittal Hitchcockisms to the hard-boiled characters and action, there’s a lot in common between Wallace and Cohen, throwing all ingredients into a blender so unapologetically being the most striking similarity.

Halloween III features a great (and reflexive) ending, ambiguous in one sense yet also definitive. Far too many horror franchise endings seem only to facilitate the next sequel. While it may be a good distance from the first film in quality, I argue that this is the second best film in the series, perhaps because it's the most unorthodox entry. The October Ordeal has been an ordeal, and this is the best film I could have chosen to end it with. Halloween III rocks, and belongs on the Halloween-party marathon list of any rowdy crew of drunken pagans.

The October Ordeal Day 30: Deathdream

October 30th: Deathdream (1974)

(While Deathdream is an evocative title, Bob Clark’s chosen title, Dead of Night actually makes more sense. However, since Blue Underground has released the film as Deathdream, this is how it shall be referred to here.)

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is a generally well-remembered cult film I rather dislike. I find Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s script arch and theatrical. Rather that criticize Clark and Ormsby’s earlier film I can instead confidently say it’s a film that I just don’t get. The Clark-directed Deathdream on the other hand, is not at all the mannered and decidedly-hammy horror-comedy CSPWDT is. While a few moments of witty banter remind of Ormsby’s comic impulse, this is a sober and straight-faced affair.

In a set-up which recalls Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, soldier Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is killed in battle in Vietnam. With this knowledge, the audience follows Andy on his journey home, looking very much alive. As to how Andy made it to North America is a mystery; we meet him hitchhiking. Andy’s folks are quite shocked to see their son, whom they believed to be dead. When Andy shows up in the middle of the night, the entire family wakes to greet him: father Charlie (veteran actor John Marley), mother Christine (Lynn Carlin), and sister Cathy (Alan’s then-wife Anya Ormsby). When Charlie exclaims “We thought you were dead” Andy coldly responds “I was.” Thinking this a joke, the family laughs nervously. Respecting Andy’s wishes, the family keeps his return a secret, and accommodates his every wish. As happy as they are to see him, they soon realize he isn’t the same old Andy; he’s changed.

Considering horror’s broad scope, the family melodrama is a relatively unexplored avenue. It’s practically novel to find a horror film in which a family is given full attention (or at least a horror film in which the family is not comprised of cannibals). While Deathdream is a film with various attentions, the potential for fracture in any family’s stability is a strong theme. Charlie finds out early on that Andy killed the truck driver who drove him home, yet can’t bring himself to notify the police. Charlie, an alcoholic, is accused by Christine of being a bullying, inattentive father. While there is little evidence of this, there may be a reason that Charlie turns against Andy while his wife is still in denial about Andy’s crime. For an unknown reason, Andy needs living blood to survive. Besides this, he seems completely emotionless, aside from a black sense of humor and a sick feeling of pity for those around him. In one disturbing scene, Andy strangles the family dog Butchy to death in front of neighborhood kids. From here mother and father become divided not only because of Andy, but against each other as well. While her character is never fully developed, sister Cathy seems to be the only character with any sense, the family member most unaffected by sham reasoning and willful ignorance. After Andy kills several more family acquaintances, Christine still stands by his side, even though Andy cares nothing for her.

The acting is uniformly great here. Both Marley and Carlin are Oscar-nominated actors, and all the supporting roles are great. Even Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark appear as extended cast, and both do a fine job. Backus isn’t asked to do much, but he does it well. Originally a theater actor, it seems Backus has spent the last 30 years acting in soap operas and soft-core porn. I’m quite surprised his career went in this direction, as he is a commanding lead presence.

In a final sequence potent with dread, Cathy tries to normalize Andy by bringing him on a double date with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Mazes) and Andy’s ex-girlfriend Joanne (Jane Daly). A disastrous trip to the drive-in seems to surpass even the final act in Bogdanovich’s Targets. Andy by this point seems to be decomposing, and fresh blood will no longer sustain him. Tom Savini worked make-up for the first time on Deathdream, and while the gore effects are minimal, they are convincing. Savini would later claim that he identified with the film, as he himself had been in Vietnam as a photographer.

Setting a scene at a blacked drive-in is in keeping with the dark, moody composition found throughout. “Dead of night” refers not only to a specific moment (Andy’s return), but the emotional and existential tone of the film as well. This is a dark film compositionally because it’s a dark film thematically. Bob Clark kept things dark in Black Christmas, but allowed strategic lighting as well; Deathdream is a film where Andy spends most of his time literally sitting in a darkened room. Also fully dark is Carl Zittrer’s fantastic score. The musique-concrete Zittrer would perfect on Black Christmas he tests here: layered voice, dense clouds of reverb, treated piano. In fact, Zittrer remained the go-to guy for both Ormsby and Clark on many of their later films.

While Deathdream may be dark, its darkness doesn’t come from a strong ontological position, it comes from an era-specific political ideology. The anti-war message of the film is unstated but read loud-and-clear. While it stands as a competent thriller, Deathdream is really an examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Andy sits alone, hides behind an affected macho mask, keeps his family and friends at a safe distance, and often acts recklessly and violently. As it was in ‘72 (the year Deathdream was filmed), it is in '08. By taking a non-partisan stance on a measurable consequence, Ormsby effectively presents the breakdown of one family unit, via the destruction of one man’s soul, as a real consequence of war. With his sure hand, Clark masterfully gives style to Ormsby’s substance. A genre masterpiece.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 29: Skinner

October 29th: Skinner (1995)

In one of his few starring roles, Ted Raimi plays the eponymous Dennis Skinner, the mild-mannered serial killer. We join a cross-country spree in process as Skinner boards at the home of Geoff (David Warshofsky) and Kerry Tate (Ricky Lake). Viewers may note the plot of Skinner is similar to that of contemporary sleeper The Minus Man. Geoff is a trucker constantly on the road, so Kerry is happy to have the company. Though they needed the money, Kerry’s real motivation for posting the room ad is to find companionship. Callous Geoff dislikes Skinner, but isn’t around often enough to really care. Skinner recognizes Kerry’s loneliness, and exploits it as part of a cruel game. While Skinner only uses Kerry to amuse himself, at night he stalks the streets with his duffel bag full of “tools,” scouting unsuspecting prostitutes. To pay the rent Skinner takes a job as janitor at a nearby factory.

Ted Raimi is perfectly cast. Skinner himself is nearly a cipher, his personality largely unknown. What we do know about his past is vague at best; he drifts comfortably, his crimes unnoticed because of not only his preferred targets but also his unassuming demeanor. His politeness and quirky sense are humor are totally affected however, a strategic act. Whoever the “real” Dennis Skinner is, the audience never knows. Following Skinner is Traci Lords as Heidi, a prostitute who survived Skinner’s blade. Heidi’s skin is disfigured, horribly scarred, and she hides half her face behind a blonde wig. Lords’ performance is typically bad here, her vocal and physical handicaps poorly played; she can’t even limp convincingly. Heidi stays in a rundown hotel near the Tate home, spied on by creep hotel owner Eddie (Richard Schiff, an actor this film is lucky to have in a supporting role).

The camera, music and pacing of Skinner remind of Cemetery Man, and like that film, Skinner revels in moments of awkwardness. The dialog in Skinner has an eerie, subtle layer of echo. The score--by third-wave industrial band Contagion--is dated but nevertheless effective. Stylistically this film is better than it ought to be, considering that besides Skinner, director Ivan Nagy has only directed soft-core porn and bad television. Skinner almost looks like a Skinemax movie sometimes, except that there’s no sex, only bad vibes. Considering the script (by Paul Hart-Wilden), it’s ironic that Ivan Nagy dated Heidi Fleiss, and was suspected of being a former pimp himself. Wow!

The awkwardness of Skinner comes mainly from its characters and their interactions. This has something to do with the three principle performers. Lake, Raimi and Lords were perhaps chosen for that very reason. Its strange to see three character actors known for supporting roles play leads. Scenes concerning Skinner and Kerry Tate’s relationship are especially unsettling. Its hard to believe that Kerry is in danger around Skinner, as Raimi is so convincingly harmless. Of course, she is in danger. Skinner eventually seduces Kerry, and plans her murder as a sort of step-up from his usual prey.

Most of the violence here is elliptical, or at least happens off-screen. Skinner will lead a woman into an alley, a quick flash of violence will be seen, and then Skinner will emerge from the alley alone. While the torture and violence is left to the viewer’s imagination, Skinner contains much gore, courtesy of KNB EFX Group. In one disturbing sequence, Skinner is harassed by his coworkers at the factory. An ex-boxer named Earl (Dewayne Williams) slams Skinner against a locker, calling him a “loon.” In the next scene we see Skinner exiting the building at night, wearing Earl’s skin. Skinner begins to mock Earl, punching the air and repeating his catch-phrase: “I could’a’ knocked Tyson out!”

(Spoilers here)

The factory is host to the film’s final sequence, the showdown between Heidi and Skinner. Geoff leads Heidi to the factory, where Skinner is holding Kerry hostage. Ineffectual because of her bum leg, Heidi is overpowered by Skinner. Hearing the commotion, an ancient night-watchman (Time Winters) feebly fires his gun in dumb desperation, fatally wounding Heidi and nearly hitting Kerry. He only manages to shoot Skinner in the leg. In the film’s final, frightening moment, Skinner—his arm around the dying Heidi—chuckles, “They love people like me.” He may be referring to the media, to his unsuspecting victims, or just to people in general. The construct he hides behind enables his brutal lifestyle; Skinner is conscious of this, and seems to find it hilarious. While this would have been a fine ending, Skinner perplexes with its final line (this is becoming an October Ordeal trend): “Doesn’t it just make you wanna scream, doesn’t it make you wanna rip a good one out!?” With this, Heidi screams her last scream and Skinner fades to credits.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 28: The Carpenter

The Carpenter (1987)

While the Republic Pictures box art suggests an entry in the Slumber Party Massacre series, The Carpenter is of a unique knit. Owing nothing to slash cinema or Cronenberg (Canada’s genre overlord in the 80s), this film brings to mind the slow menace of Skinner or Parents. Shot in Montreal, The Carpenter features Lynn Adams as Alice Jarett, Pierre Lenior as her unfaithful husband Martin, and Wings Hauser as “The Carpenter.”

The Carpenter begins with a slow-motion shot of a board running through a table-saw, releasing torrents of suspended-in-air sawdust particles. In fact, the entire film seems to run in slo-mo; this is a slow, slow film. After the titles we meet Alice, introduced in the first of many silent montages: first Alice is seen doing simple household chores, then lying around depressed, and finally leaned over a bed, cutting up her husband’s suits. Nearly every cut in the film is a dissolve or a fade. Combined with frequent disorienting montage, The Carpenter creates a kind of narcotic, out-of-time diegesis.

These three tasks outline Alice: she stays at home while her professor husband works days and has an affair with a female student; she is severely depressed and suffering from other mental-health conditions; she despises Martin, and desires to in some way hurt him. After this there is yet another montage, of Alice being treated in a psychiatric hospital, the consequence of destroying Martin’s suits. Here she is plagued with psychotic visions and night terrors, imagining her doctor a cruel sadist. While Martin is a rather unlikable character, he isn’t a villain. Martin is presented as simply a flawed person. Since he does still in some ways care for his wife, he’s decided to move to an old country home, and hires a crew to renovate the aging farmhouse.

While Martin is at work, Alice is harassed by the laborers, who are all misogynist creeps. Late one night (Martin out with his student), Alice hears someone working in the basement. Roused from sleep, she finds a mysterious man working alone. Wings and Adams have a good chemistry throughout, which is as it should be; the film wouldn’t work if their relationship wasn’t believable. To escape the menacing workers during the day, Alice finds work at a paint-store near the estate. This plan doesn’t work however, as the men begin to show up at Alice’s home at night, with her husband still away. Wings begins gruesomely killing the imposing workers, beginning with one who tries to rape Alice. The question at the center of the film becomes is he real, or is he simply a figment of Alice’s imagination? Or (long shot), is The Carpenter some sort of externalized thought-Golem, a guardian spirit?

Barring some clichéd final reveal, the audience assumes The Carpenter is real in some capacity, as the crew’s diplomatic yet ineffectual foreman Farnsworth (Bob Pot) begins to notice that not only is his crew disappearing, but that someone is indeed working through the night. Yet there is still something unreal about The Carpenter’s presence. Alice usually encounters him after waking, so these scenes potentially could be a sort of subjective dream-like interpretation. When Wings casually saws off the rapist’s arms without breaking a sweat, it seems reality has become quite unstable.

The Carpenter is an intelligent film, yet it presents a contrived plot with clichéd characters, especially the mulleted workers. Their one-dimensional personalities may be a fantasy of Alice’s as well, or at least a subjective view, as I have suggested. If The Carpenter is not a fantasy, he at least plays to Alice’s desires. This appealing vagueness is reined in as a lecture from Martin is used as a device to spell out the film’s themes. This is a film trope of course, and the horror genre is rife with examples. Martin lectures on the archetype of Paul Bunyan, describing also The Carpenter, a man whose qualities embody everything Martin is not: strong, honest, attentive, loyal, protective. When we learn Alice has gone off her medication, this scenario seems even more plausible. The Carpenter could have done without this obvious piece of convenient explanation.

While the film raises many questions about its narrative, the answers are not always forthcoming. Most are only inferred. Also it must be said that for a thriller, The Carpenter has almost no tension (by design). There are no scares, and each kill is methodical and measured, and an inevitability seen from a mile away. In The Carpenter, events simply play out. Somehow the murders become mundane. This is strange considering The Carpenter’s weapons: power sander, nail gun, power saw, stapler, battery drill. If there’s one guy who can pull off nonchalantly slaying someone with a power-tool, its Wings.

When a police cruiser pulls up to The Jarett home, we assume the Sheriff is investigating the disappearances. However, the creep sheriff has only appeared to give Alice (and the audience) a bit of crucial information: it seems a murderous carpenter named Ed once lived in the house, until he was put to death. Now there is a third possibility: Wings is Ed the ghost. The Sheriff’s arch over-acting is so out of place that his reality is suspect as well.

In turn, Martin discovers a shocking bit of information himself: his student-plaything is pregnant. This sets off a chain of events which will lead to the film’s denouement; a series of events, in which the events are primarily murders. Around this point in the film Ed the ghost’s motives become as suspect as Martin’s: Alice wakes from a dream (?) in which Ed, in a white suit, unzips his fly and says (with a hideous grin) “There’s always this” to the sound of a power-saw.

This saw, like most of the film’s foley track, is practically inaudible. The sound mix is so low that most of the film is totally silent. The visual integrity of the film is of the same muted tone: specific lighting gives The Carpenter an oil-pastel look, everything has a dull golden glow. Natural light is often used as well, and nearly every surface is white. The slowly panning camera seems stuck in a glacial drift. Complimenting this hazy look is the aforementioned use of dissolves and fades. Although most of the film is empty of music, the score is rather ambient, as low in the mix as the dialog or foley track.

I won’t discuss the film’s conclusion here, but I will say it is somewhat unsatisfying. It is a pronounced, conclusive end, but rather hard to swallow. Yet another promising genre film stumbles at the goal. Despite the wonky ending, The Carpenter is nevertheless a subtly compelling and intelligent psychological study disguised as a thriller.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 27: Warlock Moon

October 27th: Warlock Moon (1975)

The first shot in Warlock Moon looks like the coverage to a scene that belongs in the final reel of some other horror film. A young woman walks around a creepy old house with a candle, looking for her boyfriend. Suddenly, a man with an axe appears, and the title card comes up. The nameless, identity-less "First Girl" is a slasher staple, but not enough is done to indicate that this is what's going on until the end of this sequence.

Our real heroine is Jenny (played by future TV star Laurie Walters), a college student with the world's worst fashion sense (absurd red bell-bottoms, floral ponchos). Her new friend John (Joe Spano, one of the ugliest leading men ever) convinces her to leave her studies for a late-afternoon drive into the country. After the two get lost, they come upon what looks like an abandoned old spa, and decide to check it out. Of course, the spa is not abandoned, and a crew of Texas Chainsaw-lite Satan worshipping cannibals live there, with a creepy old crone of a matriarch as their leader (Edna MacAfee as Agnes Abercrombi). This initial visit goes on far too long. Most scenes in Warlock Moon last too long, in fact. There are too few set-pieces, and what the filmmakers had to work with, they overworked.

It becomes obvious that John is in fact a member of Mama Abercrombi's clan. The bringing-in of an outsider is of course a classic horror trope, from Horror Hotel to Wicker Man (both Christopher Lee films, come to think of it). The luring here takes up the entire arc of the film. This is a slow paced film; an hour of build up in an hour and twenty minute film is far too much.

The film's real saving grace is its quite interesting finish. In a sequence I haven't seen, the end credits run over the film as its still cooking. In fact, the climax comes after the credits have scrolled, and for several more minutes the film runs past this traditional end cap. If only the rest of the film was so daring. Very slight, Warlock Moon, but still watchable. In a genre of low, low lows, sometimes "just average" will make for a pleasurable viewing. Warlock Moon actually went into production before Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the plots are quite similar. Yet, there's a good reason that Chainsaw is still talked about, and this film is all but forgotten. Joe Bob Briggs and Media Blasters haven't forgotten however, and the recent DVD re-release is a nicely packaged and presented product, with some interesting bonus materials. Completists only.

The October Ordeal Day 26: Terror in the Aisles

October 26th: Terror in the Aisles (1984)

Andrew J. Kuehn's Terror in the Aisles is a collection of clips from (mostly) horror movies. While this has becomes a sort of cottage industry now (Something Weird Samplers; Synapse's excellent 42nd Street Forever series) with the advent of DVD, there were plenty of themed trailer collections in the days of VHS as well. Often, these tapes are simply commercials for a distribution company's back catalog. Terror in the Aisles is neither a nostalgic gimmick nor a marketing strategy, Kuehn seems to really love film. The objective here isn't to sell you on lesser-known fright films, its to remind you why the ones you already know about are still relevant. This is the intent anyway. The films on display are the bright lights of the genre: The Thing, Carrie, Scanners, Jaws, An American Werewolf in London, Exorcist, and Chainsaw Massacre.

Oh yeah, and Halloween. Lots and lots of clips from Halloween. This may have something to do with one of the hosts of the anthology: Loomis himself. Donald Pleasence hosts Terror in the Aisles along with Nancy Allen as his counterpoint. Pleasence, basically playing Loomis, roams a dark theater, where a room full of actors respond to unseen images on the big screen. Allen appears mostly in voice only, but occasionally the roaming camera will find her in one of the rows. Despite Pleasence's typical theatrics, Allen's calm, controlled demeanor is the real commanding presence in the film. Pleasence is grim, cryptic, teacherly; Allen is more inviting, inclusive in her earnestness (she's clearly having a blast). The typical Pleasence line goes something like: "There's something delicious about fear," or: "Perhaps we invent artificial horrors to help us cope with the real ones." Not limited to these wrap-around scenes, Allen and Pleasence are heard throughout, often speaking over clips.

The clips are divided into thematic clusters. One for Hitchcock features archival interviews with Hitch, and is the only section to feature a filmmaker speaking on his or her work. One section weighs the merits of suspense building over sudden shocks (Alien is used, as well as Jaws). A bizarre section on villains introduces clips from films which aren't in the horror genre (Nighthawks?), including clips from Vice Squad featuring Wings Hauser. At this point Nancy Allen takes over to host the bulk of the final segments.

Allen introduces a segment on women in horror with "And, unfortunately, in these movies, the victim is almost always... a woman.", and later adds "We are all born... totally vulnerable... slowly but surely, we learn to be afraid. We're taught the difference between right and wrong... and yet we're only human." This is in sharp contrast to Pleasence's constant talk of "evil" and "the Devil". I can't say whether Kuehn intended for their to be a difference in viewpoint, but it sure seems that way. Kuehn introduced the segment this way in order to examine closely the genre, to criticise it if necessary. Alas, the message only seems to be that this is unfortunate for the female characters themselves, which is obvious. Allen: "What the one thing these films have in common? People in trouble! [extreme playfulness here] And what gets people in trouble? Sex!" This is a totally irrelevant and tasteless section serving only to get some tits into the film, including revealing shots of Allen herself in Dressed to Kill. Yet, Allen also recites, with a sincere critical tone, "In terror films, sex rarely ends in pleasure; it ends in violence." If Kuehn meant only to point to abusers on screen, Allen seems to question certain filmmaker's motives via the power of her delivery.

A short section on science fiction is also included. Pleasence: "Malevolent life forms from other planets may jeopardize our position as supreme beings on this planet." Clips from the Body Snatchers remake are then shown. At the end Pleasence comes back to talk about horror's evolution from the Famous Monsters to slashers, and a truly awful song, "They're not very nice," by Larry Weiss, plays over some recap clips. After this, an unhinged Pleasence sits in the vacated theater: "It's only a movie... it's only a movie... but sooner or later, you must leave the theater and go home, perhaps alone!" This is all great fun. The interstitial bits are actually the best part of the film. Light on insightful commentary, it's a bit of a bore to sit through too-long scenes from movies best viewed as a whole, even if they are occasionally edited together in interesting ways (example: dialog from Rosemary's Baby and The Omen spliced: "God help me!" "God is dead!"). If someone makes a comp clip of just these theater scenes, definitely watch it. In the meantime, just watch the films themselves.

(This is kind of a cop-out review. Gimme a break I was busy today.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 25: Ghostwatch

October 25th: Ghostwatch (1992)

(Whole review is a big spoiler)

In 1992, Leslie Manning put together a live BBC expose concerning the paranormal. The special aired Halloween night, with English personality Michael Parkinson as host. While supplemental interviews with skeptics and believers alike are included, the special focused mainly on one particularly haunted house: the home of Pamela Early and her two daughters Suzanne and Kim. A camera crew had agreed to spend the entire night in the Early homestead, to see if a malevolent poltergeist young Kim has named "Pipes" will show his presence. In studio with Parkinson was paranormal investigator Dr. Lin Pascoe, and--via satellite feed--skeptic Alan Demescu. Operators stood by to answer phone calls from viewers. As the special progressed, it became apparent that something was indeed haunting the Early home, and was somehow affecting not only the studio crew but also viewers. A caller with some shocking information about the house set events in motion which cut through the stuffy BBC presentation to create uncontrollable chaos. By the end, it seemed all involved were in extreme psychic danger, and "Pipes" seemed an irrefutable reality. The rub: none of it was real. Besides the known television personalities, the characters in the film are played by actors.

I had the benefit of starting this film believing it was in fact a documentary; while I figured out it was a hoax less than fifteen minutes in, I can imagine many viewing the film wouldn't catch on, especially children. Indeed, Ghostwatch supposedly makes the British Medical Journal as the first television show to have caused Post-Traumatic Stress in young viewers. If you read the IMDb message boards, it becomes obvious that this film had a major impact in the UK when it first aired, and that many believed it the entire way through. Parkinson and the other British reporters in Ghostwatch are all household names in the UK, which lent the film a special believability.

The opening scene in the film is a bit of archival footage from the Early girls' bedroom. This sequence is the film's most frightening. For several minutes the audience is forced to scan a pitch-black room, which remains distressingly still, until eventually the girls begin to scream, as the room shakes its contents until a lamp crashes to the ground. At this point I began to suspect I was being had. Watching the shape of the film solidify, this fact becomes rather obvious. The editing is too tight to be live, and some of the actors give it away, especially mother Early. All of the newscasters, however, are fully believable. After all, these are professional fakers. Also by the end, subtle musical cues are audible. The filmmakers perhaps thought viewers would be too terrified to notice.

Pipes, while never the subject of a filmic reveal, is hidden throughout, flattened in dark crevices of the frame. Many viewers have attempted to make lists of his many appearances. Pipes is even supposedly standing in the crowd of rubberneckers gathered outside the Early home. I must admit, I didn't see him once, and I was looking too. I'll definitely be revisiting the picture with this in mind.

While the reality of the film might have been better handled (style would need to be sacrificed), this is still incredibly bold, riveting television. A DVD is available from bfi which contains an informative commentary track. Ghostwatch, after all, is more than TV, its a historical event. While on this side of the ocean it may not be as effective, and time is not on its side, this is still a tight, brave, and yes, scary film.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 24: Warning Sign

October 24th: Warning Sign (1985)

Warning Sign begins with an old-fashioned establishing main titles-montage. In a procedural sequence, we meet our Hazmat-suit clad subjects, average-looking scientists occupied with mundane yet dangerous work: the sequencing of airborne bio-chemical weapons. In a rather Spielbergian manner, a series of random events result in the infection of the team, which they unknowingly carry to the rest of the industrial plant where they work (Director Hal Barwood actually worked under Spielberg on Close Encounters). A stray test tube, a piece of electrical tape and a Polaroid camera all play their part. As a result of this random—yet totally logical—mistake, the film is absent any specific villains; accidents can happen. While the virus—synthesized by living breathing humans—is a serious threat, it is a blind, uncaring nemesis, motivated not by anything like human emotion.

Noting early the contamination, chief of security Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan, perfectly cast) follows her own pre-scripted procedure and initiates the plant’s contamination protocols, shutting the plant down and sealing its workers inside. Lockdown. The agitation the workers feel is compounded by the fact that it’s mere minutes before closing time. While there are plenty of upset people inside, there are just as many gathered outside, unable to reach their quarantined family members. While Joanie Morse is in-charge inside the plant, maintaining order outside of it is the task of her husband, Sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston, another fine choice).

Arriving almost instantaneously is the “U.S. Accident Containment Team,” led by Yaphet Kotto as the deliberately hard to read Major Connelly. “USACT” lies to the community (and gathering media), claiming an experimental yeast has been loosed in the lab, and may damage area crops if allowed to escape. Turns out no one in town (somewhere in Utah) actually knows what really goes on inside the walls of this typically banal industrial building. For—what I assume to be—narrative reasons, Connelly is honest with Sheriff Morse, describing genetic engineering as a “new technology,” with “certain risks.” While Warning Sign may ultimately be an apolitical film with a topical source of dramatic material, Sheriff Morse is a germaphobe skeptic cast as Connelly’s counterpoint. Connelly sees chemical warfare as the appropriate response to a perceived arms-race. “Deterrence in kind” he reasons.

While Morse’s intellectual argument with Connelly on the outside may be mere banter, if there is any argument made against chemical weaponry it is articulated inside the sealed compound. The scientists first infected (including G.W. Bailey in a dramatic role) pass out from fatigue, only to awaken agitated and irrational. While still capable of reason, they are gripped by an uncontrollable “rage” (shorthand for the effects of the virus) which eventually crosses over into remorseless savagery. As the infected become murderous, the film turns sharply to horror, whereas prior to this point it has more in common with politically-motivated thrillers such as The Andromeda Strain and The China Syndrome. Since the film has been watertight and provocative thus far, the audience is willing to follow the film into horror territory. Connelly explains that the virus is “…designed for tactical confusion”; the effects seem manageable at first, but steady escalate.

Escalation is central to Warning Sign. A level of intensity is difficult to maintain in any film, let alone to control. Remarkable then, that a film with such a low budget manages to ramp up so expertly action, tension, conflict, and audience excitement.

At this point in the film knowledge becomes a fractured force. Those on the inside need information about action outside, and those outside not only need to know the inside status, but maintain order among the increasingly agitated community members by feeding them disinformation. While Warning Sign is a serious—almost grave—film, two bits of comic relief are allowed: the few workers who made it out before the doors sealed are forced to walk around in bubble-boy type apparatus, and are the obsession of the sensationalist media; and while the plant is becoming a living hell for the other quadrants, one group of scientists and laborers hole up in a break room playing Atari and eating snacks, largely ignorant as to what’s going on outside the locked door. As a kind gesture, these characters actually manage to survive.

(Spoilers ahead—watch out!)

After losing radio contact with Joanie, Sheriff Morse decides to break into the facility. With the help of a former employee, Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn, an actor with an incredibly expressive face), Morse enters in through an air-intake at the back. While it is slightly far-fetched, an acceptable Deus Ex-Machina allows The Morses and Fairchild to synthesize an anti-virus, which they use to save many of the infected. In an often fatalistic genre, its interesting to see such a roundly optimistic ending. By the film’s end, all zones of the facility are completely clear. At least, “for a while” as Fairchild says, making for at least a bittersweet conclusion. Sheriff Morse replies “Worry about it tomorrow.” As a “Hollywood” ending, its somewhat cheap, but still a fitting end to a highly successful formalist thriller. Warning Sign proves that despite a micro-budget, a trio of great character actors and an accomplished sense of mood and pacing can be all the necessary ingredients in the recipe for a fine film.

(The Anchor Bay DVD looks great by the way)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 23: Lifespan

October 23rd: Lifespan (1974)

Elysian Fields released in May of this year a pair of lost Terry Riley soundtracks on one disc, songs composed by Riley for both Joel Santoni’s 1972 film Les Yeux Fermes and Alexander Whitlaw’s Lifespan. This bit of excavation put me on the lookout for both films, and only days after learning of Riley’s film collaborations, Lifespan appeared to me during my last visit to the now on-hiatus Astro Video. However, it became clear almost immediately that Riley’s music operates in the film as a phantom, an empty substance. Riley’s music here is barely noticeable: it’s chopped up, lost under dialog and low in the mix, present for no more than 30 seconds at any time. While an Erik Satie piece is also used, Riley’s contribution is slight, with original pieces but also a repeating snip from Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the companion piece to Riley’s landmark “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” While Whitelaw may have good taste, he has wasted the contribution of a true master, the genius of minimalism who is now over 70.

The story: American doctor Ben Land is determined to find the genetic fountain of youth, to develop a serum to “cure” death, which Land terms “a disease.” While Land may claim altruistic motives, he himself is terrified of dying. As one of his colleagues points out, its odd such a young doctor has chosen to devote his life to the eradication of natural death. Land is called in Lifespan’s early moments to Amsterdam, to dialog with the world’s leader in the field, Dr. Linden (Eric Schneider). Before Land can meet with Linden, he is found dead in his apartment, an apparent suicide. Land agrees to continue Linden’s work, and is assigned a personal assistant in grad student Pim (Frans Mulder), the nephew of Linden’s friend Professor Van Arp (Fons Rademakers). In what appears to Land to be a serendipitous encounter, he also meets Linden’s mistress Anna (Tina Aumont, delivering one of the film’s best performances), whom he stalks around Amsterdam after he is blatantly used by Anna to satisfy her kinky sexual desires. Anna is somehow involved with a mystery man from Switzerland, the enigmatic millionaire Nicholas Ulrich (Klaus Kinski, who manages to infuse this stock character with depth and nuance).

The major reason there is no room for Riley’s music to breathe is that it becomes muted by an incessant and unnecessary narration. While the film is Dutch, the protagonist, Dr. Ben Land (American actor Hiram Keller) is an American, and his dialog and narration do not appear to be a feature only of the English-language release. Lifespan’s unending voice-over nearly sinks the film; Land’s narration recounts the events of every scene and outlines the film’s obvious themes. Every scene transition is smeared with this unwelcome insurance. Lifespan is a lesson in how first-person narration can become a heavy blunt object, smashing the film’s integrity as it barges blindly forth.

The narration may be a late addition to the final cut, an attempt to flesh out a main character, who should have allowed to simply be a cipher. Ben Land is a shallow character, driven by his obsessive nature. Keller is a dull leading man, an actor playing it cool but obviously clueless. This would be an example of mindful casting if the narration were removed; throughout Lifespan Land is positioned as a powerless pawn in a game larger than himself. The empty vessel of Ben Land eventually becomes Linden, as Land finds himself inhabiting Linden’s life, examining his notes, inheriting his position at the university, dating his girlfriend, and living in his apartment. Since his ambition was also Linden’s, his fall is orchestrated in a similar manner and Kinski is there to recruit the technician he needs to give his mad scientist dreams shape and structure.

What Ben calls “the horrors of the aging process” are being experienced by Ulrich, who realizes immortality is within his reach as long as he acts. Ulrich and his disciples Land and Linden represent the arrogance of science without ethics or reflection, and while Ulrich may be a more cautious Deadalus, Icarus is played by both Linden and Land, younger seekers flying too close to the sun.

While Lifespan squanders its score, the cinematography is of a specific and well-conveyed mood. Black and white are used to represent life and death, and whomever is in search of immortality (or whomever has found it) surrounds themselves with white; in many scenes, sheets of white linen hang inexplicably. From the white walls of the psychiatric hospital, to the long-lived mice to the reverently photographed Swiss Alps of Kinski’s Fortress of Solitude.

Late into the film, what seems like a traditional narrative essentially crumbles. Ulrich and Anna reveal to Land that Linden was studying the secret notes of a Russian scientist named Rashinski, who discovered the genetic secret to immortality before his death. This revelation breaks into the film uninvited; it is convenient, yet brings the film into a hallucinatory and bendable place. All story up to this fracture is cast into doubt as the crust of a massive conspiracy is exposed. An old man granted immortality by Linden has died, Pim has sold Land out to his uncle, lab notes concerning Linden’s immortal test mice have been doctored and Land is committed to a psych-ward for digging up the dead. This may be the proof of a campus-wide cover-up, it may also be Land’s delusion. Land is a fool no matter the case, led along by all parties, blind in his single-mindedness.

Land breaks from the University and Van Arp to join Kinski in Switzerland as his Igor. After the film’s only piece of inspired narration, Lifespan abruptly ends on a note of appropriate ambiguity. This conclusion is highly satisfying and even the film’s flawed elements crystallize into a cohesive and cooperative whole. While editing could have made Lifespan a classic, it is nevertheless a dreamlike, hallucinatory film about the collective mad quest for immortality.

The October Ordeal Day 22: Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors

October 22nd: Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors (1986)

From the beginning of The October Ordeal I intended to review Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors at some point. This is one of my all-time great Astro Video finds. As you can see, it features a fine painted cover, complete with the two greats of slasher cinema, Freddy, and... Troll? This perplexing coupling indicates the schizophrenic nature of this one hour documentary (if it can be called that), which appeals to the lowest common denominator yet also yearns for legitimacy and respectability for the horror genre. This is why a typical (and unacknowledged) irony underlines the entire film (film?). Example: Robert Englund sincerely relates, "They're very intelligent... [the] fans" after we've seen a montage of fan chatter where a mustachioed stoner enthuses "Some movies have tasteless blood and guts… and the other ones where you see girls getting hacked up in bed… those are OK." What the hell? Moments later a kid who must be ten gushes “I like the blood coming out of the eyes, the mouth.”

These days, the convention circuit is of course a really big deal. Cable television channels report from the floors of Comicon and E3, which have both in many ways become live commercials for Hollywood properties. This is all supposedly in the name of "giving back" to the fan community, but this is rather transparent in its falsity. Comicon especially seems merely a cheap way to generate buzz, particularly the Internet-based kind. It's interesting here to see a con the old fashioned way. It's 1986, and there are no PR suits anywhere in sight.

While I doubt the fans in 1986 would approve of the corporatisation of the con, because of their perceived marginalization, the filmmakers here (including Fango editor-in-chief Kerry O'Quinn) seem above all committed to proving that horror fans are regular folks. While the mullets and stone-washed jeans are quite frightening, I doubt most people hold real prejudice against horror fans. Just to prove these people aren't dope fiends or gutter-punks, the filmmakers ask every attendee interviewed what they do for a living and--can you believe it--it turns out they have normal jobs like everyone else. They even have families and live in houses! Who knew?

That said, the fans do seem overwhelmingly nerdy, the vendors especially. They are asked to explain how they got into the business, and most relate the rather boring (and sometimes sad) stories of their lives. But there is something genuine about these gore-hounds; I'll take these denim-clad stoners any day over smug guys with Eli Roth haircuts who smell like Axe body-spray.

While an overwhelming percentage of the running length is spent with the fans, a fair amount of time goes to creator interviews as well. Englund's articulate, erudite, almost fey presence is by contrast quite interesting. He and Craven both have a lot to say about the horror genre, and elucidate certain concepts and theories in ways no fan present seems to be able to. Craven's riff on "rubber reality" (he compares the first Nightmare to Cocteau) is particularly good. Dan O’Bannon gets in-depth, positing the universal fear of death as the beginning of all art. Not all the guests are so serious, and its great to see Elvira, Dick Miller and Clu Gallager just having a good time. Effects-men are particularly idolized (this is Fangoria), and Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Tom Savini are given plenty of face-time.

While the on-the-floor stuff is fantastic, the center of the film collapses into a black hole of boring fan-films, culled from Fango's annual short film competition. As far as the technical aspect, while I'm sure that documentation by any means was the goal, the image and sound are fine, from what I can tell. I say this because the tape is completely degraded and fucked-up. Waves of rolling fuzz began to engulf the VHS at about the ten minute mark and never let up. The sound eventually became a garbled crunch and my VCR began to literally wince in pain, emitting a high-pitched squeal. Its a miracle I made it all the way to the end. Better retire this Media tape to the cabinet.

Despite a terrible Casio score, overlong clips from Nightmare and Return of the Living Dead, the dreadful fan-film showcase and its incredibly scarcity, this film--which is essentially a promo item--is a prime pic for a Halloween party; its a time capsule sure to please any horror crowd. And don't worry about exploitation, the filmmakers themselves are totally geeked-out and enthusiastic. Enthusiasm seems to be the theme of the piece, coupled with a plea for mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, if these hardcore gore-heads could see where "fandom" would go in the future, they might choose to retreat back into their solitary dungeons (and dragons).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 21: Body Bags

October 21st: Body Bags (1993)

Like the Romero/Argento effort Two Evil Eyes, Body Bags is an early 90s horror anthology largely forgotten by genre fans. John Carpenter directs the first two segments ("The Gas Station", "Hair"), while Tobe Hooper takes care of the final section, "Eye." Body Bags was originally conceived as a Showtime original series. When the network bailed, a longer edit of the pilot was released as Body Bags the feature film. More than ten years later, Showtime gave the fright anthology a chance with Mick Garris' Masters of Horror/Fear Itself series, which failed to live up to its potential in three seasons.

Carpenter is featured here also as an actor, playing a kind of zombie coroner who introduces each segment. In these brief wrap-around moments, Carpenter lazily plays the Crypt-keeperesque "Coroner" while Tom Arnold and Hooper appear as assistants. The gags in these scenes fall flat; it's hard to imagine this set-up working in an ongoing television series.

The look of Body Bags is similar to every workmanlike, homogenized Stephen King television adaptation or Sci-Fi channel original movie. I have nothing against this stock style; actually there's something nostalgic and disorienting about the look of this type of television. The uniform and dressed-down sets and camera set-ups wouldn't be out of place in a sitcom or Lifetime movie, and perhaps that's why this style is inexplicably frightening in its seeming displacement.

This lends a lonely, depopulated feel to the segments, particularly the first, "The Gas Station." College student Anne (Alex Datcher) faces a serial killer while working her first-ever shift at an all-night pay-and-pump. While accomplished in mood and pacing, this segment suffers from a poor performance by Datcher and a distracting series of cameos. In a row Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Carpenter favorite "Buck" Flower drop by. The entire film is full of cameos, in fact, from Arnold to Roger Corman to Debbie Harry and beyond. While the comedic second half benefits from its crowd-pleasing cameos, here they serve only to take the audience out of a segment which relies on the immersive rhythm of a taut thriller narrative.

Stacy Keach chews it up as Richard Coberts in "Hair", the film's best section. Coberts is a balding man who'll do anything to grow his hair back, equating his receding hair with receding vitality. Coberts, desperate to gain his self-confidence back, signs up for an experimental program in which intelligent hair follicle-monsters are grafted onto his scalp. In what plays like an adult version of The Peanut Butter Solution, Coberts wakes up the next morning with a ridiculously long, flowing mane of Fabio hair. The hair won't stop growing, and the killer micro-organisms seem to be eating him alive. While gruesome, "Hair" takes full advantage of its comic premise. Many of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. By allowing the segment to play for laughs at the expense of scares, Carpenter makes the film's smartest decision.

In the section which is the closest to the EC Comics/Creepshow aesthetic, Hooper directs "Eye" as a gory shocker, only subtracting the black comedy altogether. "Eye" is the weakest of the three segments, especially due to Mark Hamill's typically awful performance as Brent Matthews, a rising major league baseball star who loses his right eye in an auto accident. You guessed it-- the eye is cursed, transplanted from the dead body of a serial murderer (Ala yesterday's flick Body Parts). Hamill is just terrible, and sports a gnarly 'stache I found difficult to look at. Twiggy plays his wife. Weird.

While Body Bags may have been something of a throwaway gig for many involved, it actually remains interesting, despite the obvious and dated elements. I much prefer Body Bags to Masters of Horror, honestly. Who doesn't dig a good anthology film? While this may not be a classic, at least Carpenter's contributions are fully worthwhile. With Halloween fast approaching, now would be the best time to check this one out.

The October Ordeal Day 20: Body Parts

October 20th: Body Parts (1991)

(This is the final cop-out, I swear. Here's an old review. It isn't very well written. I'm running out of reserves, so this should be the last time I'll have to mine old SD material. There was simply too much going on today for me to watch a flick)

Body Parts is directed by Eric Red (writer of The Hitcher and Near Dark, and also potential murderer- Google it), and stars Jeff Fahey as Bill Chrushank, a psychology professor who loses his arm in a freak accident. As part of a new experimental program supervised by Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan), he receives a new arm, cut from a recently deceased serial killer (naturally). It takes Bill a while to get used to his newly grafted-on arm, especially since it seems to have retained some homicidal tendencies!

After alienating his family and freaking out his students, Bill decides to do a little P.I. work and figure out what’s up. He manages to find the names and addresses of the other participants, including unstable artist Remo Lacey (played by Brad Dourif!), who received the other arm and is now famous for his gruesome paintings, which are actually the killer’s murderous visions. He also locates the legs, which went to basketball player Mark Draper (Peter Murnik), an all-around nice guy who now runs incredibly fast, and hilariously drop-kicks people left and right. When Bill finds him, he’s just narrowly avoided crashing his car, when his foot slams unexpectedly on the gas at an intersection.

The three go to a bar to hash things out, but are so messed up from the killer parts they instigate a massive bar-brawl, fighting the patrons and each other. But things get even worse, when the killer returns- his head on a new body- and starts killing our protagonists to get his limbs back.

From then on the twists and turns never stop, with questionable science, schizoid performances, flying dropkicks, amazing basketball skills, evil doctors, suspicious cops, and Fahey shooting a gun at living body parts, suspended in a holding tank.

The film’s most inventive scene comes towards the end, when the resurrected killer (whom we learn is Dr. Webb’s son) pulls up alongside a police cruiser which Bill is sitting shotgun in, handcuffs Bill’s hand to his own, and speeds off, while the Jamaican cop in the driver's seat has no choice but to follow! Body Parts is one of the most inventive and enjoyable horror flicks I’ve seen in a while, thanks to real-life madman Eric Red.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 19: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly

October 19th: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1969)

While the décor of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (simply Girly in the States) is unmistakably upper-class, it makes no attempt to be anything other than trashy English sleaze. I can dig on sleaze. While being sleazy in an obvious manner, MNSaG is also surprisingly cruel and sadistic a film, delighting in its own transgressions.

The film’s title names the four surviving members of an old-money clan, essentially closed off from the outside world. Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Par Heywood) don’t seem to leave the estate, and have created a sick game to occupy their days. Siblings Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (why didn’t Vanessa Howard’s career take off?) venture into town and round up drunks and club-hoppers, bringing them back to the house where they are drugged and imprisoned. The family subject their “new friends” to strange and complex games involving obscure rules and rituals. If a “friend” breaks too many rules—or becomes tiresome—they are chopped up and buried.

While we meet several unlucky drifters, in order to explain the family’s ongoing game, the only “friend” we spend any time with is Michael Bryant, playing “New Friend #2.” Bryant is a sort of non-entity in the film even though he’s given an excess of screen-time. He smartly realizes that he’s dead if he doesn’t play the game at least for a while. As he grows accustomed to the family dynamic, he discovers ways to upset the balance of power, turning Nanny against the family matron Mumsy, and Sonny against his sister--the object of his repressed desire--Girly. Bryant as New Friend #2 goes about bedding the women of the clan one by one—even ancient Nanny. These scenes aren’t played for titillation. In fact, there isn’t any nudity in the film. He simply sees several lonely women behind their whimsical/malevolent front, and takes an opportunity which he also finds pleasurable and natural, being a hip socialite. These scenes are played believably, and create the domino effect that may topped the house and allow “New Friend #2” to escape.

While Bryant may play the supposed antagonist, Howard and Trevor are the real life of the film—their dialog is a maze of snappy routines, children’s rhymes, extended riffs and spontaneous song. Its all very English, and very theatrical. No surprise then, MNSaG is based on a play. While over-the-top acting can kill the mood integral to this type of picture, here it really works. The structure of the film also points towards theater. The usual art of a typical horror film is nowhere to be seen. We spend almost the entire film with the villains, yet are never asked to like them.

The reason theatrical acting is appropriate is that the attitude of these characters is studied affect—they’re faking it. Being precious is part of the family put-on: they pretend to be a terribly average old-fashioned family as a sort of sick joke. Girly, for instance, has clearly been instructed to play the Lolita role, complete with short, short skirts and piles of porcelain dolls in her bedroom. When New Friend #2 seduces her, she reveals she is a virgin; this is the only scene in the entire film where one of the family lets their guard down. Whether or not this signifies anything is anyone’s guess. In a sense New Friend #2 is taking advantage of her the same way she has taken advantage of him. Every move in this film can be considered part of a grand strategy. There may be no lesson to learn here at all. New Friend #2 may play the game better than the makers of the rules themselves, but I’m not sure if any knowledge is gained from this observation. At no moment did I sympathize with his (intentionally) empty, playboy character. The film desires not to impart anything other than cheap thrills and a superficially cruel good time. Yet, there is a strange substance in its commitment and boldness.

Director Freddie Francis has had an interesting career. He began his directing career with Sci-Fi Horror film Day of the Triffids, then directed large handfuls of 60s and 70s English fright films, authored many an anthology-show segment, and topped off his career as David Lynch’s frequent D.P. After seeing this truly twisted piece of Euro-trash cinema, I’m quite interested in this era of his diverse career. Love the jazzy-psych soundtrack as well. While I have good things overall to say about this film, I doubt I’ll ever revisit it. So here it is, the classic cop-out in the face of indecision: this one is recommended for genre fans only.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 18: Scarecrows

October 18th: Scarecrows (1988)

Every now and again I'll read about a film and think to myself "Why the hell haven't I heard of this?", especially if the film is of a genre and era I have some familiarity with. While Scarecrows is a very minor cult classic, I'm convinced that if the film had a name or two it would be a much better known horror picture. It certainly is deserving: Scarecrows is really quite good.

Scarecrows takes place over the course of a single night. The premise is simple: a group of ex-military theft a big bag of cash from the Army and escape with a hijacked plane and two hostages. A guy named Bert decides not to share the money and jumps from the plane over an old farm house. The gang land the craft and make chase, only to find an abandoned old farm and some seriously creepy scarecrows staked next to a family graveyard. The folks who used to run the farm--the Fowlers--seem to have migrated from the grave to the rotting scarecrows, and aren't too happy about being invaded. This is what we know, the rest is unexplained.

Thus Scarecrows is extremely short, barely 80 minutes in length. There is no central character, instead an ensemble cast, the actors of mixed ability. While there is barely any back story, there is a lot of set-up. The scarecrows don't even move until about 50 minutes in. While this may be a sure sign of a limited budget, it actually creates a real mood of fear. Each time the camera closes in on a scarecrow, The audience wonder if this will finally be the scene in which one comes to life.

Besides being legitimately frightening, the film gracefully maintains a bleak and moody atmosphere. And while there is some obvious day-for-night shooting, the darkness surrounding the action is quite effective. Interestingly there is almost a total lack of music in Scarecrows; often the airplane's radio or the group's walkie-talkies will stand in for a score. The film looks great, and the camera work is admirable. In most scenes the camera is constantly in motion, panning around, shooting through windows, suggesting the point-of-view of an unwanted prowler.

The film is also admirable for the mistakes it doesn't make. The cast is kept to a minimum, the running length is just right, there is no cumbersome and unnecessary back story, there is no stock nudity, there's no excessive gore, there's no romance, and--thankfully--there is no twist ending. The ending, in fact is great. While a NotLD style stand-off seems inevitable, the film actually takes the climax out of the Fowler's home and through the woods into the getaway plane.

One reason I'm surprised this film isn't better known is that it seems very much of its time. Like Pumpkinhead, this is essentially a morality play. While the thieves become likable as the film progresses, they ultimately must pay for their actions (they have in fact killed many Policemen since the robbery). This aspect also lends the film the quality of a good anthology segment, perhaps as a choice episode of Night Gallery. If I've made my points rather quickly, its because this is a brief, breezy film. No masterpiece, yet fully accomplished. If you have an empty slot on your Halloween-night marathon list, add this one. Your friends will all ask, "How come I haven't heard of this?"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 17: Race with the Devil

October 17th: Race with the Devil (1975)

Jack Starrett's Race with the Devil is a trim, confident road-thriller. RwtD simmers for the first two thirds (the way good thrillers often do), establishing rhythm between characters and creating tension, simply by not alluding to any terror to come. This provides necessary context for an extended series of scares in the final act (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This model may be named "endurance cinema": the payoff is going to be big, going to be great, only patience is required. And the payoff in this film is fantastic; Race with the Devil really cooks in the final third.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as two old friends on a skiing trip with their wives in a brand new RV, whom stop over in a small Midwestern (I presume) town for some shut eye. Putting a few beers away outside the RV, Roger (Fonda) and Frank (Oates) notice something a bit strange just over the hill. It seems a black magic ceremony is underway, robes and all. Frank and Roger have a great time checking the action out with binoculars, until things get ugly: it seems a human sacrifice is needed to complete the ritual. From here the Satanists pursue the men across the film, on and off the road.

While Starrett claims he cast real Satanists for this early scene, the film is not concerned with the supernatural. Its not really even about the practice of Satanism. We never see these specific people again; there is no villain, there is no mastermind. The threat in the film comes in the form of the automobile, as anonymous trucks pursue the RV Ala Duel.

Oates and Fonda play the only real characters in the film. Loretta Swit and Lara Parker play their wives, yet are completely decorative in function. While many chase movies mythologize the male speedster at the expense of any strong female characters, Race with the Devil is really remarkable in its blatant sexism. The wives here are constantly weeping, and utterly unable to defend themselves or even think rationally in the face of any obstacle. Wives Alice and Kelly are in constant need of consoling from their heroic husbands, and only require that they assert themselves, rather than include them in any strategising or defensive action. In this capacity women are presented merely as cinematic trope, as necessary props.

In fact, male assertion is the theme of the film. In one scene, Fonda stands reluctant with a shotgun before a Satanist climbing through the RV's rear window. Oates, driving, barks, "Do it!" and Fonda fires. The idea, I suppose, is that post-hippie city-boys must regain their manhood via a test, a quest through the unknown wilds of uncivilised America. It always struck me as odd in films like Deliverance that the "city-folk" presented acted pretty much exactly like the hicks they faced off against (except with better teeth, of course).

Alas, this stuff comes with the territory. I'm willing to overlook this particular nastiness out of respect for the excellently choreographed final chase. This sequence is plainly the film's raison d'etre, and it must have been great on the big screen. While the "gotcha!" final reveal I saw coming a country mile away, I was left quite satisfied by this well-dressed, expertly-paced bit of genre filmmaking. Liked Death Proof? Give this one a queue.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 16: Black Roses

October 16th: Black Roses (1988)

The micro-genre of “metal horror” is made even smaller considering that its two best examples are directed by the same guy. John Fasano struck b-movie gold with Rock and Roll Nightmare, a perfect example of the “so bad its good” genus. The fact that Black Roses is of a considerably higher budget actually creates a new challenge for Fasano; Rock and Roll Nightmare is a blast partly because its so unbelievably cheap (that and the fact that it stars metal-warrior Jon Mikl-Thor). Black Roses does not immediately signify “B” the same way RNRN does from its first frames. Its harder to like, in other words.

The plot of RaRN is strategically confined to one central shooting location and a half-dozen characters. In contrast, Black Roses’ narrative arc involves an entire town, lending what is practically an ensemble cast. The story in Black Roses is something Stephen King could have dreamt up: an upcoming metal band (the Black Roses) book several shows in a small town (somewhere in Canada, from the look of things) to test out new material before launching a national tour, much to the dismay of the town’s adults. Their kids, of course, are thrilled, and Black Roses-mania sweeps through the high school. John Martin plays Mr. Moorhouse, a progressive English teacher who notes a change in his students as soon as the Black Roses flyers start showing up all over town. The Roses’ glam-metal stylings turn out to be so bitchingly bad-ass that they cause average kids to turn into gothed-out murderers. It’s up to Mr. Moorhouse to put an end to the Roses, who may or may not feature Satan himself as lead singer.

Concerns over the PMRC by guys with goatees is a pretty widespread (and rather uncontroversial) cause in art from the 80s and 90s. From Twisted Sister to G’n’R, the impression is that butt-rock and hair-metal are the final warriors in an epic battle in the name of free speech. Figures like Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman hardly make dynamic villains, so in films like Black Roses demons and killer stereo speakers stand in. This makes for some silly self-mythologizing on the part of metallers and their sympathizers; the idea that drug-fiend womanizers are really standing up for anything is a strange one indeed. However, I do dig the tunes, and like RaRN, the score here offers some stoopid thrills at every turn.

Besides a presentation of the Fear of a Metal Planet, this film offers plenty of cheap-thrill effects scenes, a monumental improvement upon the sock-puppet monsters of Fasano’s previous metal masterwork. The performances are pretty bad, but this only adds to the charm. The personalities are stock, and that’s fine by me. The film visually is interesting, with a large amount of camera variation, from shaky hand-held to neighborhood-surveilling crane shots. Fasano has gone on to direct high-profile television since, but some scenes here point to music-video potential. The concert scenes in both this film and RaRN stand alone as dynamic sequences. I imagine the coveted VHS copies floating around out there look grainy and faded, the recent Synapse DVD looks fantastic.

Aside from its obvious flaws, Black Roses is a fun, fast-moving film. The politics aren’t heavy-handed, and underpin the story in a natural way that allows for Black Roses to exist first and foremost as an old-fashioned gothic horror film. A cheesy gothic horror-film, yes, but a highly enjoyable one at that. While my fellows at Samurai Dreams are divided on this film (Andy digs is considerably more than I; Kevin, Max and James loathe it), I can recommend it with clear conscience. Just don’t get your hopes up for a Thor cameo.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The October Ordeal day 15: The Incredible Melting Man

October 15th: The Incredible Melting Man (1978)

(Spoilers, but who cares?)

The Incredible Melting Man may be a drive-in sci-fi/horror film from the 70s, but it feels more like a cheap 50's monster flick (Hideous Sun Demon specifically). A guy (Alex Rebar as Steve West) goes into space (to Saturn, actually) and comes back as a melting maniac compelled to kill.

Like Octaman, this film boasts early Rick Baker makeup effects. The melt-fx look fine, but rather average for the era. This is an extremely average film, fitting all the stereotypes of the worst in an already maligned genre (The Clones is similar in its uniform dullness). A pattern develops early on: the local sheriff and some doctors run around looking for Melt-face while he murders whoever happens to be wandering the country side. Featured is Burr DeBenning as Ted Nelson, former friend of Steve's.

Each of these scenes last so long they nearly morph Incredible Melting Man into an anthology film; this makes sense, each attack necessarily pads out the film. Melt-face attacks a group of kids, some fishermen, young lovers and tramps hanging out by the tracks. In fact, the entire film feels padded: it even seems to wait for its own end impatiently. Even though TIMM is less than 85 minutes long, it feels like dull, lifeless eternity.

The tone of this film is strange. While a guy melting to death might lend a seriocomic element to any horror film, at times Melting Man feels downright slapstick. In one nonsensical sequence, Nelson's mother-in-law wanders around trying to pick wild lemons... to circus music. The dialog in this scene is beyond inane.

From the Vestron cover art, I assumed The Incredible Melting Man would have something in common with Frankenhooker or Slime City. While this film and Slime City share a similar plot, they could be no different in tone. The only interesting thing in this film is the ultra-bleak ending: some cops shoot Nelson in a moment of confusion, Melting Man regains his identity momentarily, kills the cops and then melts to death. If this isn't depressing enough, the credits roll to a radio message announcing further trips to Saturn (think the final moments of Mutant or Rabid). A quiet moment belies the fact that the world is about to fall apart. If only the entirety of the film could have mined this one scene for its dark potential.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The October Ordeal day 14: Slime City

October 14th: Slime City (1988)

Of all the low-budget trash horror flicks (and I’m talking low) of the 80s, the cheapo gore fests filmed in New York City seem to have the most life. When you watch a film shot in who-knows-where with a cast of eight and only two or three sets, it seems fake, the budget limitations obvious. Something about this same strategy works if the film is set in a big city however; it’s somehow believable that in a city so large and dense a gruesome scenario could play out behind closed doors without anybody noticing. We get that it’s a big city, so instead of wondering where everybody is, we are simply unsettled by the fact that a character in a place so packed could be so isolated. Yesterday I reviewed Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker, a gory flick placed in NYC. His earlier picture Brain Damage benefits further from this quality. The director of Slime City, Greg Lamberson, is credited as first AD of Brain Damage, so these two films share more than just the same aesthetic, they share the same DNA.

Shameless sleaze-merchants Camp Video can actually count Slime City as one of their higher-budget releases, if you can believe that. Camp’s recent DVD releases (mostly of SOV obscurities) claim “The Awesome 80s are Back!” Well, back in the VHS days, their logo read “Your Ticket to the Future.” Whether Camp looks forward or backward depends on the market I guess. Whatever the case, Camp knew their target in ‘88: the box boasts “A horror film with guts!”

The guts in question belong to our man Alex (Robert C. Sabin, fresh off the no-budget I Was a Teenage Zombie), a starving artist who works at a video store (see also: Night Vision, Remote Control, Video Violence). Alex may be an underground painter, but he acts like a typical frat boy. This is the type of character you only find in horror and soft-core porn. Alex’s major dilemma in life is that his square girlfriend Nichole (Mary Huner) won’t have sex with him. T.J. Merrick plays his stock best friend Jerry, a creep who drools over Alex’s goth neighbor Lori (arbitrarily also played by Huner).

Alex has just moved into a new apartment, a decent room in a decaying building. Roman (Dennis Embry), an unhinged guy from the floor just below, initiates him into a black magick cult by feeding him green yogurt and putrid wine, which all the tenants consume. The confusing origin of the cult involves alchemy, suicide pacts, murder and reincarnation. Soon after, Alex becomes addicted to the slime, and unless he murders bums and prostitutes, his face will melt. Doesn’t make sense, but allows for some interesting sequences. Alex goes through the same sort of bodily ordeal seen in Henenlotter’s films, or Cronenberg’s, a clear influence on the entire gore crowd (there’s even a handful of obligatory bathroom mirror scenes). As Alex becomes more and more addicted to the slime and the subsequent killing, he feels alienated from his friends, even though he’s reluctant to commit fully to the cult living all around him.

In the final scene, it’s a face-off (can I say it? Literally) between Alex in full-on melt mode and Nichole, who causes all kinds of harm to Alex using various kitchen appliances. This effects-heavy scene is what has gained Slime City its minor notoriety. Yet, as with Henenlotter’s films, the gore here is not what interests me. This is a fun, trashy flick which confidently allows its aesthetics to be the substance. The riff-raff populating the film create an idealized NYC; this is a love letter to scum. The crumbling buildings, drug addicts and prostitutes here seem to represent an era that maybe shouldn’t have been idealized, but nevertheless was and is. In such a cinematic environment, a mobile brain escaping from a severed head seems slightly less weird.
Special attention must be paid to Slime City’s fantastic score. Robert Tomaro’s original songs sound like something from a Messthetics compilation, and remind me specifically of the L.A. synth-punk bands, especially Nervous Gender and the Screamers. Synth and piano dominate, but jagged edges of surf, dub, jazz and minimalism jut out as well. While New York’s rich underground history has been well-mined, the trash-synth soundtracks to many NY underground gore flicks have yet to be revisited.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 13: Frankenhooker

October 13th: Frankenhooker (1990)

Once in elementary school a kid told me that he and his cousin had cut up a Playboy magazine in order to construct the “perfect woman.” This seemed really strange to me at the time, as I imagined attractive parts actually looking rather nightmarish when combined. Well, perhaps Henenlotter once did the same thing; if he didn’t, he gets to do it here. Protagonist Jeffrey Franken (get it?) is a failed surgeon who works at a power plant in New Jersey. When his fiancée dies in a freak lawn-mower accident, he gets to construct a new and improved version of Elizabeth Shelley (get that one too?) from scratch, utilizing his unique skill-set. Since most of Liz (Patty Mullen) is chewed to bits, he has only her severed head to work with. Jeff’s problem (and—in his mind—an opportunity) is that he needs to find replacement parts somewhere.

One thing that’s always struck me about Henenlotter is that his films are extremely economical. Here, you know all you need to know before the title card, and the rest of Frankenhooker is open for gags, gore, and plenty of stray ideas. Henenlotter here seems concerned with the same themes present in Brain Damage and Basket Case, and elaborates these ideas further and with greater clarity. Also, the tone of this film is quite different. The laughs are more genuine here, as the bleak tone of Basket Case is completely absent. This is a wild and thrilling film, well-paced and bursting with gross-out humor. The budget is also considerably higher, thanks to the investment of producer James Glickenhaus, the director of Exterminator, who brought much of his regular crew along.

The point is clearly made here that while Jeff wants his girlfriend back, he also sees her accident as a perverse opportunity to construct his own super-model fantasy. Jeffrey is a flawed character, but Henenlotter still clearly wants us to like him in spite of this. As Dr. Franken, James Lorinz isn’t a great actor, but he’s well cast here. Henenlotter’s protagonists are never played by the most talented performers, he seems to cast for some schlubbish quality rather than chops, which is fine. It works. While Jeffrey is quite average in many ways, there’s a heightened strangeness about him that Lorinz conveys nicely. How many mild-mannered med-school drop-outs regularly drill holes in their cranium to stimulate creative thought? This trepidation motif is nicely carried over from Brain Damage.

Come to think of it, Henenlotter’s protagonists are all well-meaning but totally selfish obsessives, dedicated to one strange goal: Duane in Basket Case is wholly devoted to the well-being of his brother Bilal; Brian in Brain Damage needs the parasite Aylmer to get high. Jeffrey’s quest to bring Liz back from the dead is both pathetic and touching. In his single-mindedness he never pauses to question his true motives. In one hilarious scene Jeff asks Liz’s severed head: “Honey can’t you picture yourself in this body, kneeling on ma’s couch in the basement?”, while pointing to a centerfold model. His world-view, like much in Henenlotter’s world, is candidly low-rent.

Where does Jeff go to find the “spare parts” he needs? Across the bridge to NYC of course, Henenlotter’s home and creative inspiration. Jeffrey sets out to find a half dozen prostitutes, whom together have the different body parts he needs. Jeff is conflicted in that he isn’t a murderer, but his stubborn determination forces him to rationalize and justify any wrong-doing on his part as an unfortunate necessity. “I can’t feel guilty now. I just wanna make life” He tells himself. In order to feel that he is not responsible, Jeff sets up a scenario so that he himself does not have to perform the act himself, he merely has to create the ideal circumstances. He finds an ally in the bane of the film’s prostitutes: crack cocaine. Jeff synthesizes a “super-crack” which causes the smoker to explode into a heap of junk limbs. Carrying a bag full of eviscerated bodies to his trunk, he promises he’ll bring them all back once he’s got Liz among the living.

With the introduction of crack into the film, a clear line is traced from the anti-drug themes of Brain Damage. While Brain Damage feels a bit short-sighted and reactionary, Henenlotter adds layers of complexity to what it still essentially the same argument here. While in Brain Damage avoiding Aylmer’s addictive juice is simply an act of initial will power, here the message is matured. Henenlotter admits the solution to the problem of addiction is much bigger than “Just Say No.” Jeffrey even, in a moment of intentional ignorance, even recites the slogan. Jeffrey himself, however, is an addict: he’s addicted to his power drill. He also uses drugs to manipulate others, and is mirrored by the pimps who populate the film.

Once he has the raw material, Jeff assembles Elizabeth and sends her on a raised platform into a raging storm. In a technically impressive scene, bolts of lightning bring the patchwork Liz back into the living world. She looks quite monstrous of course, her skin a mosaic of different color tones and textures, stitched together with huge medical staples. He hair is also bright purple, somehow changed by the bolt. Patty Mullen as zombie-Liz is both attractive and repulsive, much like Elsa Lanchester as the original Bride of Frankenstein.

Unfortunately for Jeffrey, she’s not the Liz he once knew, as all the women he murdered to recreate her have lent her pieces of their psyches as well as their bodies. She becomes a kind of ur-prostitute, bent only on drugs and money. Her mad mission is parallel to Jeff’s, in fact. Her mantra: “Got any money?” All of her lines are actually cribbed dialog from earlier in the film. As there is an unusual amount of characterization for a genre film, its even possible to notice individual personalities bubbling to the surface. Re-animated Liz leaves Jeff baffled and heads for New York, her clunking Frankenstein pumps a nice touch. The following scenes are great: sleazy, neon and wonderfully time-stamped (the Batman logo is everywhere).

(spoilers in this section)

After Jeff finds Liz he re-zaps her and manages to momentarily bring back the woman he knows and loves. In the film’s smartest scene, she chides Jeff for his mad quest, and realizes that his selective reconstruction has afforded him certain chauvinistic luxuries, granted without her consent or approval. This moment is short-lived however, as what follows is not only the film’s climax but its goriest moment. Sadistic pimp “Zorro” has followed Jeffrey home, and has finally figured out what happened to his “employees.” Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez from Brain Damage), in a surprising moment, cuts Jeff’s head clean off. After this, Jeff’s storage tank flips over, and the reconfigured prostitutes from earlier in the film spill into frame. Don’t ask how, but the parts have assembled themselves into monstrosities Brian Yuzna may have taken note of. Here the effects come courtesy of Henenlotter collaborator Gabe Bartoloz. The flesh-beasts drag Zorro into the tank and close the lid, leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

(major spoiler here)

In the film’s final moment (which is also the final gag), Liz reconstructs Jeff. But since his mystery serum is estrogen-based (did I forget to mention that?), she needs the leftover parts of women to bring him back to life. Jeff’s lesson is learned here via his castration; it’s a great gag, yes, but it also sums up the entire film in a really smart way. Jeffrey’s quest to create the perfect woman at the expense of all others is reversed; he himself must become that ideal woman. Roles here are also reversed. While I don’t think Henenlotter is that deep, this scene brings into question the validity of essentialist ideas about men and women, at least implicitly. So much of 80s horror is informed by Reagan’s mad rule. While Frankenhooker was filmed in ‘89, as Reagan had left office, he feels present here. While Henenlotter has intelligent things to say here about the failed war on drugs, his strongest move is to cut the predatory yuppie male’s dick off.

It’s clear from the relatively few films Henenlotter directed that he knows his craft. If things had gone a different route, he could have parlayed his low-budget, less-is-more visionary talents to mainstream success, like Raimi or Jackson. He stayed true to his roots instead, putting his time into Something Weird, unearthing lost cult films for DVD. While I find much of Something Weird to leave a sour taste, I admire his commitment. A look on IMDb reveals he’s completed work on a curious new picture, one co-written by shock-rapper R.A. the Rugged Man and featuring many underground-rap stalwarts. While I now find Vinnie Paz and Reef’s faux-underground gun rap unbearable, I would have been hyped up if this film came out five years ago, when I couldn’t get enough of underground “horror-core” hip-hop. We’ll see.

Slime City tomorrow! Black Roses soon!