Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Misterioso Blu Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."                                                                                    --- Nietzsche
LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
(1973) Dir. John Hough
 ***
Like a serious-minded, less campy, grumpier, more sexually experienced ground level update of House on Haunted Hill, Legend of Hell House (based on a Richard Matheson novel) was once just a solid little spook film, seen mainly by kids like me in the 70s on the late show after creeping each other out with the Ouija board and with sound on low to not wake parents. We seldom made it to the end before falling asleep or losing our UHF reception, but now, with Shout's new Blu-ray, Hell has taken over the adult wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for close inspection. With its dark (in both senses) atmosphere, decadent art design and red bathed color scheme, cinematographer Alan Hume's almost Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly light, the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper women-- sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--all the problems with narrative are easily forgiven. While the plot seems kid stuff--a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--it's not just for 70s slumber parties anymore.

Since the principle cast is only four people, they need to carry a lot of dramatic weight on their shoulders to make this work, and they do: Pamela Franklin proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence, the psychic (is this a sequel to her role as the child "Flora" in The Innocents (1961). Am I the first to make that connection? Hell, it might even be the same house); Gale Hunnicutt (very hot and dangerous) is Ann, the prim (and therefore open to sexual possession) wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill), a self-righteous prig, buzzkill dickweed parapsychologist who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse generator, which he's bringing over later; and--in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last such party, who spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks)--Roddy McDowall. They've all been hired by a dying millionaire to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester-ish estate of sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate Earnest Belasco. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000.? To determine once and for all if there's life after death to some dying old bastard, they figure a week in a haunted house will answer it once and for all? Hilarious, if it wasn't played so grouchy-dead straight.


Fans who hate when a movie wastes time getting to the good stuff will rejoice over Hell House, for--like Castle's Haunted Hill--the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very fog-bound manor, which looms above them via very low upward camera angles. It's plenty ominous, instantly establishing itself as ideal for the aforementioned late night post-Ouija slumber parties and drive-ins, where once you settle in and/or stop making out or adjusting the speakerbox you can step right into it and get rightly scared, and not have to wade through piddly-ass subplots or those cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster in your room disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you were only dreaming. Or what about those tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, to see stodgy vicars in terrible bowl haircuts? Or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds, peering around corners while holding pick axes? Not this house, sisters. And it's all based on what might one day be real life paranormal events. In a forward blurb, Tom Corbett, 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes: “Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” Or as Criswell says in Plan Nine, "Can you prove it didn't happen!?"


As the allotted week of investigation goes on, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, approaching and passing Dec. 25th, though no one mentions Xmas. The randomness of the dates and times adds to a feeling of authenticity and also enhances the sense of endless night and gloom; it might only be 3 PM or 9 AM breakfast, but it all feels like night in this mostly windowless, dark strange mansion, which they mostly never leave. Kubrick was undoubtedly inspired by this sense of time's irrelevance for his sporadic use of of similar 'time stamps' in The Shining. 


Another thing I love in a ghost film is when it totally doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or just figments of a suggestible mind, which is usually a big problem in American and British films. Here the supernatural is a given-- even Dr. Barett believes something's happening,-- so the argument can finally move from an 'if' to a question of whether actual personalities survive beyond death or just a form of psychic residue which we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy and accuses Florence of creating it, unconsciously or not. Florence thinks the activity is being generated by the spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. Meanwhile Mrs. Barett sleepwalks as a possessed nymphomaniac. When she glides down the stairs or makes sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame, in flowing hair and nightgown she generates an autonomous sultry frisson. Sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband while conscious (why did he even bring her?) asleep she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin, modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending maenad cannibal. McDowall just stands frozen in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie, waiting patiently until she's at maximum pitched intensity to slap her. You're barking up the wrong tree, honey, again! No wonder British women are so sexually assertive, with such men as these for pickings. And why is Roddy even here? Mainly he stands around and waits until most everyone else is dead before he steps up and shouts whole pages of denouement at the ghost of Belasco. Wind howls, doors rattle, and finally you can sense the phantom residue of Vincent Price rouse from its chewed-scenery nest.

Too bad Revill's smarmy know-it-all doctor makes sure up until then no one gets along, bonds, or laughs. You could offer him a coffee and he'd snarl at you for your stupidity in believing caffeine is the answer when it's merely a placebo for the feeble minded. He curtails all attempts at camaraderie and as a result the cast all keep to themselves, reacting to each other's presence only with shouts and slaps, demeaning disbelief, and worried condescension. It's enough to make one long for the cozy lesbian flirtations between Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson in The Haunting remake. In fact, I know it's heresy, but I'll see that movie again any time, while this this film forgets to be 'fun' as if forgetting scariness and comedy work well together; hungover bitchiness never helps anyone.


The Shout Blu-ray helps allay the damage by bringing out the full gorgeous eerie textures and depths of the film. Extras include a genial 'talking shop'-style interview with John Hough, wherein he notes that Disney hired him to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work in Hell House, and there's a repetitive if interesting commentary track with Franklin. She mainly says that Hunnicutt and McDowall kept to themselves while, surprisingly, she and Revill got on famously and that the cinematographer took forever with his lighting, using every single light he had in every single shot, to the point the crew would start hiding lights from him in the cupboards. Though the time spent was clearly worth it, as every shot is suitable for framing.

The other great aspect is the throbbing echo-drenched diegetic distortion score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hogdson of 'Electrophon Ltd.' It's somewhere between Forbidden Planet's 'electronic tonalities' and the avant garde echo-cussions of 70s thriller-period Ennio Morricone. In short, sublime.

PUMPKINHEAD
1988 - dir. Stan Winston
***
Lance Henrisken is (unsurprisingly) strange, muted, a tad poetic and A-gaming through this EC comics-esque B-backwoods monster tale. As the woodsy general store/gas station owner and bereaved single parent Ed Harley he's the type of character we usually only see in the beginning of a horror film, cryptically warning the teenage weekend campers not to go too far from the highway, before spitting tobacco at their feet and wiping his hands on a filthy oil rag. This time the equation's reversed: the visiting teens are the bad guys, kind of, killing his son (by accident) and spurring old Ed to backwoods vengeance. Surprisingly complex for a monster film, director Winston lets us see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even-keeled look at the rural-vs.-suburb/city divide in horror until Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. 

The down-ramp of all that though is the usual 'get to the monster already' agitation, that is, unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray. Now we can see the full breadth of magic hour brilliance of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors, makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace the way Dean Cundey did to the suburban streets in the original Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets, with its orange light shining through the windows and the uncanny stillness in the air-- as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting--is a small masterpiece of dream state mood. Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins for orange flame light flickers, Bajelli conjures a very Halloween-ready mood that's never really carried over to the small screen before this edition. Now we can savor how how the poetic-realist folktale touch is gradually applied, luring the story from rural revenge saga afternoon to dark setting sun fairy tale to nighttime blue-filter monster action, a kind of slow steady momentum past the point of no return. I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch can be pored over like we're right there in it, and the withered old crone with the demon-raising mojo glowing in the firelight in a makeup that makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932).


The casting is pretty interesting too, now that some of the actors have become minor stars: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik are barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant and; as final girl Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals and even the lesser mortal sheen of her teen co-stars. The pastel 80s fashions and terrible headbands are a nice contrast to the timeless hick earth tones around them. I well remember how we 80s punks hated those damned Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans but now I rejoice to see them, signifiers as they are of pre-CGI monsters to come. Fx legend Stan Winston doesn't disappoint on that front either: the seven foot-plus tall demon with its long weird arms and expressive face (and several different incarnations) makes any cross-cutting confusion forgivable.

But even then, the real reason to see the film is Henriksen, with his ever-strange otherworldly air working in full step with Bazelli's color filters to make the overly familiar backcountry milieu neither hostile nor friendly in conventional ways, but as uncanny as an alien landscape. That his character's southern accent comes out strongest when he's really angry or upset is the mark of a truly subtle actor, as if the rest of the time his Ed Harley is trying to mask his mountain man roots.

That said, if the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced. As with Hell House, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads us to demand sequels (though they sure came). If the film stuck with the teenagers and they were kind of cool and nice and trying to do the right thing and the demon was loosed on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us far more more. And the idea that a backroads boy wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those motorbikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least keeping his eyes peeled, watching in awe as they jump (it's not like they're quiet or he was wearing headphones) is just hard to believe. (It would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice). And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, or the local boy bar contingent of his, especially him being a small business owner where success depends on being sociable and developing repeat customers, or wouldn't first try confronting the kids directly, taking revenge himself, or at the very least find some other recourse to be exhausted first. Not to make light of losing your kid, but that demon conjuring would be the first choice and only logical option to deal with the issue courts imbecility. Even worse is Harley's second guessing himself, trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, and running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him, this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place and they tried not to. I don't blame them a bit for keeping their doors barred. You made your bed now lie in it, Ed Harley!

Though the script seems a little under-cooked, my qualms tend to melt away once one sees the film a few more times and learns to just appreciate the folktale aspect: the devotion to minute atmospheric detail, the sparingly ominous synth music and the myriad facial expressions and unique movements of the monster. Using the lifeless bodies of victims to smash in doors and windows, pausing to destroy a crude wooden cross and traveling with his own Evil Dead x Fulci's City of the Living Dead-style whirlwind of leaves, fog, and crackling lightning, Pumpkinhead is a pre-CGI master class in  himself. Extras include a lively fun commentary track with the special effects guys, and you can tell they had a blast making the film and love pointing out all the strangely-placed puppeteer eye holes, mechanisms and dummies used, and that the guy wearing the monster suit in some of the walking scenes was trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir (i.e. aping stop motion animation!) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out. There's also a dozen or so talking head interviews, including one with a moist-eyed, breathless, possibly insane Richard Weinman, some great VHS tape monster suit test runs, and a tribute to the late, great Winston.
---------

All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help make these two minor horror films into 1080 HD works of art. Maybe in the end all the needless killing has been worth it, for we are living the dream of every movie lover who died before the advent of this format. I know I dreamt of such things as a monster lover kid. I even wrote a paper in junior high school advocating the importance of creating a widescreen TV, dreaming of perfect vivid picture and giant screens while reading Famous Monsters of Filmland instead of playing kickball out back. I wonder if I'll have to pay some hellish price for my wishes coming true... Whatever it is, I'll lay in it, Ed Harley! 

3 comments:

  1. eddie lydecker12 September, 2014

    The date captions in "The Legend of Hell House" make it a perfect and cosy movie to watch over the Yuletide period. By the way, its a pity the movie completely falls apart in the last 20 or 25 minutes otherwise it would`ve been one the greatest horror/ghost films ever made.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love both of these films.
    One small but important correction, The Legend of Hell House is based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, not Robert Bloch.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Anonymous! Damn my dyslexic author memory... and eddie, you're pretty damn right, and what a bizarre underutilization of the great Michael Gough!

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