Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, October 31, 2014

Samhain Cocktails: Recommended Halloween Films/Lists: Slant, TCM, THE UNDEAD

I'm insane, indisposed, and in SLANT:

13 Obscure Horror Films You Should See This Halloween,
A few of them are on Amazon Instant (Prime, of course), if you need 'em:


Not only are these great films, they're all covered by top drawer female horror film bloggers, from Stacie Ponder, Heather Drain, and the great Lindbergs herself!
Women are the Fathers of Horror! 


(click on titles to go to my cogent, alacrity-encumbered praise, to see if they're right for you and your drugged ones):

6. DEAD OF WINTER (2007)

And the best sexy witch vs. good old witch vs. time-traveling hypnotist vs. the Devil movie EVER:

THE UNDEAD (review and video)

Lastly check out Steve Johnson's fascinating declaration of Bert I. Gordon's auteurness over at Bright Lights Film Journal!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mephisto from Missouri: THE RAVEN, COMEDY OF TERRORS, TOMB OF LIGEIA, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL... etc. (Blu-ray review)

Eyes and voice a purr of delight at his own ghoulishness, Vincent Price made the grim stare into the Poe-Lovecraftian void as cozy as a fireside flanked with sleeping wolfhounds, and last week the Shout Blu-ray set Vincent Price Collection II dropped... like the gallows' floor, like the guillotine blade, the axe on the neck of the turkey. Hear his legion of eternal fans gobble it up!

Forgive my gauche similes, for part of what makes Price such a treasure is his contagious sense of macabre humor, the obvious fun he has in playing evil rather merely just trying to appall. His luxuriant delight in every syllable spoken finds worthy material in the classy but sensationalist Poe-Matheson-Towne scripts for Roger Corman, for whom Price would become like what De Niro would become to Scorsese, or Monica Vitti to Antonioni, i.e. the alchemical miracle when an actor and director merge into one mind to form some magic third element, a form of lightning that could zap a film into life around a star like the earth around its molten core, building up a head of mood with little but candles, camera, and cobwebs.

This second Shout Factory volume of Price Blu-rays only has two examples of this lightning planet-building: The Raven and Tomb of Ligeia, add in the near-classic Jacques Tourneur-directed Comedy of Terrors, and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill  and the set is still an instant essential. Extras include Corman commentaries, interviews with screenwriter Richard Matheson, and--as with the first set--those lovely lyrical Price on a staircase introductions made by Iowa Public Television for a series of weekly Gothics from the 70s.

Shout's remastering of the AIP films for Blu-ray lengthens and deepens the image, saturating the palette with deep dark reds and greens, glowing amber and inky opaque blacks; firelight reflections glisten on maroon velvet drapery; every gossamer strand of the cobwebbed covered gates, every brush stroke of Bud Shonberg's twisted portraits, every shade of the psychedelic paint swirl credits, is now alive with new fire. Maybe it all adds up to little else but horror fan crack, but no matter how threadbare the situation, Price's aesthete air of mephistophelean delight never wavers. Pounce! Thy prey is here!

1963 - dir. Roger Corman
 **** (Transfer: A+)

A personal October perennial, this loose comedic 'adaptation' of Poe's poem has reluctant sorceress Vincent Price longing for his Lenore on a dark and stormy night, reading forgotten lore until Peter Lorre (bloated but hilarious) as the raven interrupts his moody brooding with a request for wizarding aid. A drunken sorcerer of lesser skill, Lorre tells Price he was turned into a raven by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff)--whose castle is right down the coast (Big Sur, naturally). It just so happens Scarabus killed Price's master sorcerer father in a duel years earlier. Price lost Lenore (Hazel Court) to him as well (a bit like Karloff stole Lugosi's wife in the 1934 Black Cat --another Poe "adaptation") but doesn't know she's still alive. Soon they're all packed away in a carriage, along with a young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford and Olive Sturgess as Price's cute daughter.

The Blu-ray remastering is jaw dropping --as different from the old MGM DVD as beautiful soothing night is from shitty gray-ass day. Corman's vast and impressive sets now shine and breath in their vastness (apparently he kept all the castle walls and furnishings from past Poe films and just built more as he went, so by the time of The Raven the castle is a vast sprawling Gothic maze). On the old MGM Midnight DVD, the distance between walls made the dark look always looked kind of brownish and washed out, but now every flicker of the big fire pit glows in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light and the blacks are oceans deep. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of Disney cartoonish (I'd love to be able to re-score these films, the way Corman re-scored his old Bava imports, only taking Baxter out instead of putting him in) but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so you might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid, as I was, catching this at the Student Union while a sophomore, and needing desperately at the time to return to the Gothic chambers and forgotten lore of childhood, wherein every fairy tale was grim. Coming to it in a riled state merely allows Price's melodiously evil purr to be all the more comforting.

In the land of the damned he is as the soothing balm of Ativan.

1964 Dir Roger Corman
*** 1/2 (Transfer - B)

Definitely one of the better and more unnerving in the cycle, this capstone to the Poe-Price-Corman series, and that's thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Chinatown Towne, who captures Poe's horrified eloquence via elaborate double-blind metaphors, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing--for example--about how he wishes his rotting mind could be wrest open as easily as the cabbage thrown at Ligeia's trickster spirit animal cat. "What else is madness but belief that inwards does not exist?" Now don't get me wrong, I love Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the earlier Poes for Corman--but over repeat viewings his dialogue tended towards repetitive arguments between a young man refusing to leave the castle until he gets the truth and Price withholding it as long as possible, as if waiting for the censor to go to bed before the torture devices and elaborate Poe musing might be brought forth. Towne, on the other hand lets the rich existential musing flow freely, with lots of off-camera dialogue flowing over dream-like images (Rowena climbing the abbey stairs while Price talks of madness to his barrister; tales of his father told to Rowena over long shots of their honeymoon wanderings), trusting the audience to get the metaphors even as they triple and quadruple back on themselves to obscure their tracks. The result is that Price's natural eloquence is finally unchained, which is good, because he's also sans mustache, as he was in the first in the series (Usher) which I find as unnerving as the dreary English countryside daytime exteriors. I do like his steampunk wraparound shades but Poe should never see natural light--especially not England's wretched gray skies. I prefer the setbound Poes, which never approach reality whatsoever. Proving my point, this is one of the worst color-graded HD transfers - with many scenes still uncorrected / bleached out and very light grey blacks, unusual for the deep deep dark the better transfers offer (like the gorgeous liquid blacks of Pit and the Pendulum in the first set). Maybe it's the cinematographer going for a kind of wan, washed look ala Huston's Moby Dick but I think the color restorers on the disc just ran out of energy when they saw those skies. Who wouldn't?

Meanwhile Price decides to go a different route too, and plays his mournful Heathcliff de Winter-Rochester without any of his usual velvet flourishes. But as a result we can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur. Rowena is such an awesome fully-awake British heroine that it's hard not to be mad at Price for treating her so evasively.

All that said, Price still runs the Poe gamut and has a great time despite his possessed air. Dig his excitement during the hypnosis scene, convincing Rowena she almost caught a butterfly! The old hamminess really comes through then. Shepherd also does a great audio commentary, though it's with scholar Constantin Nazir, who irks me in daring to suggest Poe wasn't as big an opium addict as legend says. (Nazir, I think, hasn't really either soaked up Poe's druggiest work OR done opiates, let alone read Poe ON opiates, which is to truly understand just how laudanum-soaked all Poe's most memorable work is, and I mean that as the highest of compliments). Meanwhile, Nazir interrupts Shepherd's inimitable on-the-moment observations by lumbering through some Price letter gushing over her. Dude, who cares? We can read it later. Oh if only she was with erudite raconteur David Del Valle instead! Instead the great DDV gets the FLY and LAST MAN ON EARTH films, and folks like Nazir and Stephen Haberman take the Poe films (perhaps to not overlap with the DDV interview with Price?).

Either way, Shepherd knows her shit- able to rattle off a vast list of Corman proteges, and to describe in detail her method, in that great resonant deep purr of lordly confidence only British women seem to have.

The whole film itself, in fact, even more than the story, makes a a grand metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism. I relate to the whole 'having a will beyond death' with Lady Whiskey as my Ligeia, feeling her call every time I walk past a liquor store window display, or the beer aisle at the grocery store. No mention is made of drugs in Ligeia, but the resemblance to Price's big breakthrough film, Dragonwyck, is as clear as the resemblance to Jane Eyre. The whole last act is like being a wife shut out of her husband's addiction, his weird nocturnal dalliances. When she finally breaks into his secret chamber and learns the vile truth, we see the cool pad we've been missing, and then all that's left is ye olde collection of Corman fire shots - that old familiar roof caving in and her agog horror.

Meanwhile, Towne and Corman leave it deliberately open-ended as to whether there really is a spirit of a willful real life woman floating around, or if he's just a paranoid opium addict trapped in his late wife's post-hypnotic suggestion--and then they take it to the logical conclusion, which so few other writers do--of getting us to the point where we understand finally that there is no difference, that reality is subjective, that Satanic panic, dreams, hypnosis, and reality are all just membranes away.

If the tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell, it's our alarm clock. A fitting final thought perhaps for this series that plays like one bizarre extended dream.

1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur 
*** (Transfer: A)

People aren't dying fast enough for poor Price to keep his Victorian era funeral parlor 'afloat' and he's nothing if not a man of enterprise, i.e. a true American, so he does what needs to be done: thin the herd of rich idiots clogging the streets, boosting his rep for prompt arrival time at their chamber door.

This film used to give me a massive headache with all the nasty bickering between Price and his buxom wife, her off-key caterwauling and his vicious drinking,  assistant Lorre's baggy eyes and bloated body, father-in-law Karloff's funeral-ashen pallor. Here was the the unnerving sight of three of my favorite stars decaying into elderly humans: Karloff can't even stand up--though he does give a great and memorable eulogy; Price, still relatively young, is stuck in his most unlikable role outside of the Witchfinder General (it would have been great if he was nice to at least one person); luckily Basil Rathbone--firing on all five of his ancient steam-punk Holmes-y pistons--is so over the top in his crazy semi-dead vengeance that even Les Baxter's hammy overbearing score has to catch up, and Price seems at last impressed.

Luckily this new Blu-ray compensates for the shrill farce aspects by making every image gorgeous--the deep maroons throb and the blacks now creep darker than any Stygian shore.  Price's evil funeral director now seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil. I've changed too, and now I've been married and divorced and I've had girlfriends who fancied themselves good singers, and many a pained look did I get from their audiences, as if it was my responsibility to stop them, yet I dared not, and when they glanced my way in a loving look I made every effort to smile in support, feeling my ire and shame swell up in a terrible Poe-like maelstrom, so I now get Price's pained revulsion towards his ever-wailing wife. And sure, Lorre's a mess but his drunken leering is just the surface of a real affection and sympathy he has for the buxom Jameson. And now I notice that despite his drunken bloat, Lorre is still as nimble as if he was Peter Kurtin-ing around Weimar Berlin. And since Price is killing people to support the lot of them, after all, they could be a little grateful! They do get drunk together, but that only worsens Price's mood.

For a comedy, then, it's odd there so many bad vibes. There's nary a bad vibe to be had in all The Raven, Spider Baby, or The Boogieman Will Get You! This isn't nearly as good as any of those, but it is better than The Trouble with Harry and, unless I'm in just the right mood, Arsenic and Old Lace. As they proved in The Raven, Price and Lorre make a great team, somewhere between Burke and Hare and Abbot and Costello and better than both put together. All that stops it from greatness in my regard now is director Tourneur's rigid slapstick regimen (he didn't go in for improvising, which Corman encouraged for The Raven and which led to its light wry air) and Les Baxter's overly jaunty score, which hovers over everything like a helicopter parent at the circus worried his son's not laughing enough at the clowns. Corman's last minute decision not to direct probably cost us a true horror-comedy classic.

But hey, it's still cool - with sparkling Matheson dialogue that's a sublime blend of Shakespeare and hipster, with the undead Rathbone thinking he's Macbeth brought back to life to sleep no more, and all sorts of wry lines from Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream deftly shuffled in amidst macabre humor dark enough to get a smile from even the sourest of marital demons.

1959 - Dir William Castle
***1/2 (Transfer: A)

A perennial public domain Halloween favorite, Shout's HD remastering has infused William Castle's first big ballyhoo masterpiece with a dark rich sense of inner space that don't really do the spare empty sets any favors. Deep shadows now go way back into the depths, evoking an eerie sense of cavernous modernism, like a carnival spook show moved into a vast, empty, unlit museum. Instead of looking like heavy oak paneling on the walls, the walls now look like wallpaper painted to look like wood by rushed studio craftsmen.

We classic horror fans too young to have seen it in the theater (with 'Emergo!') first fell in love with it likely when it appeared in a haze of local UHF antenna static on some afternoon Dr. Shock double feature. It's built for such ghostly travel, strong and sparse enough to blast its way through blurry dupes and fuzzy reception like a shot from a cathode ray gun out of a tiny party favor coffin, and to maintain its ghoulish gleeful spookiness even in a theater full of kids throwing popcorn at the screen and the skeleton on the string. The Robb White script is full of bitchy marital vitriol which of course the kiddies love as much as the blind caretaker being reeled through the hall and back like a 'scare' pop-up on a five-cent carnival ride.  Even if Castle's full empty ersatz fly-by-the-seat reckless effrontery is all the more apparent in the merciless clarity of HD, It's still the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and Price is on full throttle, riffing off a sly Carol Ohmart and a doomsaying Elisha Cook Jr. while rolling his eyes at progressively hysterical Carolyn Craig.

1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona

Price's neo-realist Italian film, the long public domain adaptation of Matheson's I am Legend now has its black-and-white widescreen photography restored, and its depiction of a post-apocalyptic Rome would make a great double feature with Antonioni's L'Ecilisse which came out the previous year, which uses some of the same juxtaposition of ancient ruins, post-war ruins, modern architecture and post-modern futuristic locales. The script is intelligent and faithful to Richard Matheson's novel, even though it's mostly just read as a voiceover, a trick that gets real old real fast. If the film has any real lasting power it's mainly because of the (admitted by Romero) clear debt owed this film by the first Night of the Living Dead: masses of pale dead hands come grabbing through the boarded windows; shambling figures are illuminated in the glare of headlights; one guy even looks like the mangy Italian cousin of the very first zombie we see in Night, the one who palms Barbara's car. Romero wisely got rid of the zombie's monotone echo-drenched drunken slur, though: "Vargas, come out, Vargas..." Having the zombies be mute is a much scarier tactic.

Alas, I find a lot of this film dispiriting. Like the next film it's just isn't the same Price when he's not moving his lips to his own voice. Price seems to feel it, too. The weight of the world seems on not just his character but himself as well, though the climax--once we get free of "the monster's" house--is pretty exciting, camera whipping all around a big deserted church and then office building. And David Del Valle provides a great commentary track.

1972 - Dir Robert Quarry

One thing I never understood about the Dr. Phibes films is why they waste Price's beautiful voice with pre-recorded monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie, a cheap way to patch up loose ends and shoot silently without having to worry about dubbing later. Here its more of the same, i.e. one campy tableaux after another, peppered with English character actors dying in weird ways followed by Phibes and Vulnavia (Vali Kemp) wafting around the sets in breezy solemnity, pantomiming to Price's pre-recorded monologue like they're doing interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading.

The plot this time has to do with recovering some strange amulet and/or getting to Egypt to find some tomb, with the result that a few matinee serial cliffhanger traps are set on both sides, and Phibes almost drowns between the paws of the sphinx. Lots of elaborate, pointless murders make it hard to know who set what trap and if it worked as one's attention inevitably drifts.

Strangely, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with an eerie array of purple and pink hies, all a-glowing in a 3D depth of space. The problem is that this that this lovely clarity reveals clapboard TV-show-style sets that were made with the not-unreasonable assumption most people would be seeing this cropped on TV or at a drive-in through a dense English fog. I'm sure we were never meant to see so so clearly we can almost touch the grains flaking up on Price's whiteface make-up and powdery Beatle wig. Now he seems like some sad gay diva wafting through half-torn down sets of a 70s Fellini movie in the middle of the night while the crew is home asleep. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots, in fact I dislike British exteriors immensely (see my above condemnation of the British sky), but this is almost like a West Village off-off-off-off Broadway pantomime play. Even when the whole shebang allegedly moves onto a yacht or then onto the deserts of Egypt, there's never any doubt they're on sets, which I love, usually, and I like the giant stone feet entrance to the Tomb of Whatever, but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop, can trace the brush strokes on every gold pillar.

That said, composition and blocking are sublime, like Kubrick on poppers at a gay ball. It would be great with the sound off at a party or projected behind my old acid rock band if we played Abba covers and had a bubble machine. As a narrative, though, it's infuriating. Phibes and his Vulnavia's self-congratulatory champagne toasting and dancing seems the height of self-aware camp, which is the worst kind. And don't believe the poster or credits, which suggest Peter Cushing has anything more than the teensiest cameo as a yacht captain, as if he's there just so they could add his name to the bill. The mechanical jazz band is cool, as is Phibes' Phantom of the Cinecatta disco organ, but then again, why? You can see why Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have their eye on this character, though. Like Burton, as a director Robert Fuest is a great set designer. It's in narrative pacing and sense of audience connection that he falters.

1959 - Dir Edward Bernds 
Released in 1959 and capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success, Price reprises his role from the original, and finally gets to help restore a human headed fly back to normal, undoing the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, this time on Andre's on Phillipe, rather than just looking askance with blanched horror and then tossing a rock. But, otherwise, he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves grown-up Phillipe (just a boy in the first film) with a giant bulbous fly head tracking and killing a pair of industrial spies who've made off with his patents. As 'monster on a vengeance-based killing spree' films go, it's okay (he's bumping his giant head on chandeliers a lot, which is a nice touch) but aside from abundant gay subtext and nice lighting, it's pretty familiar stuff, the same concerned upstairs maid or wife, the same basement whirligigs that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s.

Not to spoil the end, but when Price restores Phillipe to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scot free for his two murders since that was the fly head and not his (why the fly head didn't spend its time pursuing sugary snacks instead of vengeance makes no sense of course, either - shhh). And what about the detective left with guinea pig hands? I don't know why you would kill an enemy by teleporting him and then re-teleporting him back to the world. Leave him in the ether - along with that poor cat from the first film! What a way to dispose of bodies! Zzzzitt!


FINAL (TOTAL) GRADE: A - It would have been nice to see The Tingler and/or Tales of Terror instead of some of these last three lesser works, but it hardly matters when the films look this good and the extras are abundant. (even if the film isn't that great, if it has a Del Valle commentary, it's gold). Even at the set's high cost, it's worth getting just for The Raven!! Sorry to be such a fan! Price rulez!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bitches' Sabbath: Alex de la Iglesia's WITCHING AND BITCHING

FX's AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW so far has been mawkish and cliche, with harrowing brutality thrown in for 'edginess' that's as trite as it is upsetting. But if you have Netflix and need a ballsy, no-holds barred, vaguely family-friendly but brutally honest alternative, a funny slice of gonzo madness, because you can't abide any more meekly apologetic madonna-and-son worshipping /  daughter-abducting dreck, seek out the unfortunately titled WITCHING AND BITCHING (the far better Spanish title is Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi - but it's hard to spell). This ballsy 'comedy of the sexes' film bursts with mucho original ideas, carnal energy, wit, acumen, and Jungian archetypal initiatory mysticism. It's like THE MAGIC FLUTE if Mozart smoked meth and was married to a hot-tempered girl from Seville, and so knew that a hispanic woman's love is more terrifying than a dozen dragons.

The opening credits should give you enough of an idea: amid Satanic symbols in red on black background images are images of Venus of Willendorf, Marlene Dietrich, Margaret Thatcher, Garbo as Mata Hari, Medusa, Elizabeth I, Theda Bara, Morganna le Fey, strong women that devour men and do it with cinematic panache.  Having been married to a hot-tempered Argentine I can vouch that they love almost to the point of ripping their beloved to pieces and devouring their man in a maenad-style frenzy/ecstasy. And if you say that's sexist then I'd add retort: "what's stolen the balls from today's American man is people like youla puta madre!" As the great Willard once shouted, "Tear 'em up!!" 

Here's a test to see if you'd be on board with Alex de la Iglesia's vision: if you see this image below, of a pair of crooks fleeing the cops with son in tow covering their escape with his two guns blasting, and don't think it's awesome and don't think American cinema is woefully timid as far as depicting cherub-faced children as armed and dangerous felons, then this film isn't for you, flaca

I've been an Alex de la Iglesia fan since the amazing DANCE WITH THE DEVIL (another unfortunate English title, though the original PERDITA DURANGO isn't so hot neither - Alex, e-mail me first next time you need an English title, soy muy intelligente!), and I've been trying to find his DAY OF THE BEAST with English subtitles for years. His THE LAST CIRCUS which is also on Netflix Streaming, has more gonzo scary clown balls than all of AHS' FREAK SHOW and all without needing to beat a single pinhead to death. That's what you call trying to do more than shock and cloy and make excuses for anachronistic music numbers, los putos del Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk!

LAS BRUJAS' story is perhaps better experienced without any knowledge of anything coming, just roll with Hugo Silva's veering between hardened criminal and dad driven past sanity by his hyper-intense and angry nurse ex-wife (Macarena Gómez). Demonstrating a sublime antithetical deadpan comedy, he takes his son on the run following a pawn shop robbery, chased by the angry mom and two closeted gay detectives, all eventually caught up in a bizarre witches sabbath overseen by a three-generational female enclave: the older slightly senile, but always ready with her sharpened steel dentures, Maritxtu (Terele Pávez); the grand dame of the coven Graciana (Almodovar regular Carmen Maura); and the hot younger daughter Eva (Carolina Bang who, with her wild Kate McKinnon-style eyes and punk haircut, is a scary-sexy dynamo). These witches leap through the air, crawl on the ceiling, and live on a steady diet of psychoactive toad secretions and cooked children. In short, they make the WITCHES OF EASTWICK seem like a bunch of pre-toughened Robin Tunneys in THE CRAFT. Halfway between the Almodovar assortment in his best 80s work (i.e. WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN) and the Merrye Family (SPIDER BABY).

I could cite BRUJAS' similarity on some level to HANSEL AND GRETEL, WITCH HUNTERS but worlds more sophisticated and modern (and less misogynist); Bang's wild witch might be compared maybe to Sherri Moon Zombie in DEVIL'S REJECTS but that film didn't know where to go so just relied, like FREAK SHOW, on the usual grim sadism, sordid sex crimes, classic rock, and Gooble Gobble solidarity. Simply put, like his countryman Almodovar, Alex de la Iglesia doesn't need to try and be edgy or subversive, he's just calling it like it is, acknowledging that that there is nothing remotely as violent, terrifying, or devouring as a Spanish mother's love, nor as controversial as saying so. All he has to do is show how thin the veneer on reality really is, and subversion hits like a ton of bricks through a stained glass window.

I may have already talked it up too much. Maybe it helps to have some experience with this breed of women, las fuertas pelligrinas and not be from a nation where each gender tries to outdo the other in passive aggressive pussyfooting rather than fighting with open fangs and making up with crazy passion in perennial fired up yin-yang rotation. And the movie has another problem: Americans--unless they're film snobs-- tend to have a red state hatred of subtitles. But even if Alex de la Iglesia isn't as big a name here in the U.S. as Guillermo del Toro (with whom he's often compared), even if he doesn't dub his work or shoot in English (often) he should be. To see de la Iglesia's films is to see how del Toro's work suffers from John Ford-like sentiment, which Iglesia avoids, and Del Toro's first season of FX's THE STRAIN suffers from having to stop every five minutes for these soapy family moments, and the kind of dad who kneels down when talking to his kid, like he's trying to make a slightly mentally-challenged first grader stop crying, instead of talking to him man-to-man and giving him a set of loaded revolvers, like Hugo Silva does here.

I wait for the day de la Iglesia does finally break as big here as he deserves, as big as del Toro or bigger, bigger than your American Spielberg. Maybe he will, once he gets better at movie titles, and once American dads stand up to the ball-crunching tyranny of the madonna-son coalition (1). America, aren't you ready to stop growing down? Give that boy some guns and take him to the zoo! Libertad para todos los animales! 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

24-hours of Netflix Streaming Horror--A Curated List of 16 Weird, Spooky Wonders

The all-night horror marathon --a long-standing tradition wherever Halloween traditions are solidly entombed in the crypt of cinematic history. The idea behind it is simple: the longer you stay up, the more films you watch, the deeper into late night / early morning you go, the creepier it gets as more people fall asleep and the night gradually becomes yours and yours alone and consensual reality fades and you move inside the screen, and your date follows a creepy bunny out of the theater down the sleep arson rabbit hole, no wait, that's you, a half-dreamer / half-watcher and the movie and your unconscious merge and characters in the film look right at you, talk to you, freak you out. You turn around and when you look again you just see an empty couch onscreen, and you're holding a candelabra and walking down a dark hall. And there's no one awake to hear you scream, because you put the volume down low to not wake them.

At college they had one of these festivals every year and after the first few hours they stopped taking tickets at the door and half the crowd went home, weary and irritable. By dawn it was only the hardcore, and the people working the projector. Then I'd sneak in, armed with flask and dilated pupils. There was nothing quite as satisfying as creeping across a deserted campus at the first crack of dawn, coming into the darkened theater to find THE TINGLER had just begun... If you have Netflix though, you can skip having to out your boots on to slog across campus. All you have to do is clear your que and line them up: each film is hand-selected for each particular time of evening, night and morning and afternoon, and to follow one another organically, like a good mix tape. Because if you have a sizable DVD collection as I do, then you know it can become paralyzing to choose the next film, fumbling through your bookshelves, scrolling endlessly through your instant libraries.

It's also annoying when you stumble on a cool list of weird movies online, read about one you never heard of and want to see, but can't find it. So you put it in your Netflix que and by the time it comes you forgot why you wanted to see it! Well, with this list you can forget about the options, the Acidemic Horror festival has you covered (Presuming all or any of these films are still up on streaming by the time you get this) 

And special Note: there's NO torture porn or sexual assault or slapstick, or animal abuse,  just the spine-tingling spookiness (and occasional lesbian cannibalism) that carries the tingling electric current along the soul's angsty wires. So dig, trust, and stay up so late you're up early --and with a little clean-up (exchange the empty whiskey bottles for cereal bowls) no one will be the wiser. Heh.

(2010) Dir. Mike Flanagan

Start with this one, right as the sun is going down-- and don't worry about it's deceptively slow pace at first. Flanagan's film takes it's time getting started but it lures you in via the lived-in natural rapport between Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as two sisters who've moved back in together since one of whom is pregnant, and in the final stages of declaring her first husband dead (after seven long years in the titular legal limbo). The younger one (Parker), recently off drugs, is there to help with the pregnancy; she also jogs every morning and her route goes through a mysterious tunnel that recalls Billy Goats Gruff in a deceptively innocuous way.  Turns out, well, I shan't spoil it, since the terror comes from the anxiety of not knowing entirely what we're dealing with. Special highlights include Bell seeing her dead husband everywhere but being conditioned by her therapist to just ignore him (which reminded me of my past delirium tremens). I saw it alone on Saturday as it just happened to be on Showtime while I was writing the first part of this post in the other room; overhearing the great rapport between the sisters, I was soon lured me in. I was alone in the house and it was getting dark faster than I was prepared for, and the film ingeniously dug deep into my ancient fears, the way only BLAIR WITCH and Val Lewton have ever done before. And Parker is so good, warm, intelligent, and gutsy that you just might fall in love, in a sisterly way (more).

And the scary, ambiguous ending will make the next film hit even harder:

(2009) Dir. Ti West

Ingeniously retro and unspooling in practically in real time across one overcast grey late afternoon into the late evening, it's Ti West's best film so far, and maybe one day he'll make something as good (if he remembers the value of tick-tock momentum) and trusts his instincts. The cast is mixed but Jocelin Donahue as cash-strapped college student Samantha is beautiful, believable, and courageous in her doomed grab for a babysitting dollar, and Greta Gerwig sports some great feathered hair and a cozy college sweatshirt; their late afternoon fast food scene brought the ache of an upstate New York fall winter back to my shoulder muscles after a 20 year hiatus. I could feel myself taking a nap with Gerwig afterwards on some crappy dorm twin bed as the sun went down at five 5 PM (before getting up at 8 or so for the evening's inevitable festivities). I could feel the sense of desolation creeping up like tendrils of cold around her broke buddy Samantha. The evenings upstate are so oppressive they don't need Satan lingering in the edges to be mega ominous, and while the film's not perfect (the men are kind of anachronistically miscast--one's too quiet and wussy; the other too Williamsburg hipster snotty) but cult icons Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace smash through to make up the difference in minor roles. The perfect film to watch in the early autumn evening, still recovering from the last film's chill. By the end it's too dark to go out and you'll be too rattled to break away, so just click the Netflix right on into our next selection:

(1963) Dir. Mario Bava

It's the only one of Bava's films, and the only trilogy, I find truly scary - the good, shivery spine tingle kind, especially the Wurdulak segment, which taps into the way family ties can become nooses you don't notice are strangling you 'til you're too oxygen-deprived to even struggle. Strongly suspecting their father (Boris Karloff) has been turned vampire, the family are too conditioned by their rigid social structure to rebel; and the mama can't resist running out in the cold to comfort her pale dead bambino, even stabbing her husband when he tries to restrain her. Did I spoil it? No man, I didn't. PS: The American version presented here is different from the Italian most fans know by heart from the DVD, in a different order, dubbed into English, missing a lesbian undercurrent, but providing instead Karloff's real voice (not in the Italian version) and "Sdenka" (Susy Anderson) is still sexy; so is Rosie (Michèle Mercier, above), gorgeously lit as she prowls the red telephone sequence. The lighting is so gorgeous it's all in a class by itself.

 (1976) Dir. John Carpenter

It's the HD version and it sure looks good. There's no supernatural element, but just seeing the cop (the brilliantly named Austin Stoker) driving alone through the deserted eerie battle zone of East L.A as the big red sun sets and Carpenter's simple, brilliant theme make it all ominous enough to qualify. Not to mention a gang member shoots a kid through the eye for asking for sprinkles during an ice cream truck hold-up. There was some real concern in the late 70s that gang violence was going to destroy America, so groove on the scariness of the film's moment and how we never hear any of the gang members say a single word. Even here, before HALLOWEEN, Carpenter knew that once a monster talks, smiles, or even laughs, it's over. The small but perfect cast includes Laurie Zimmer as the last truly Hawksian heroine, and Darwin Joston as the cigarette-strapped Hawksian outlaw Napolean Wilson; Carpenter would revisit the concept and reverse the gender/races in in GHOSTS OF MARS, which would make a great choice on this list, too, so be lookin' out for it. 

(1968) Dir. George Romero

Two horror films in a row starring a black man? Are we dreaming? No, just lucky--and is it a coincidence both films are classics worth endless repeat viewings? In fact, I got the whole idea for this post while spending the weekend in Harrisburg, PA (a stone's throw from where NIGHT was filmed) and turning to NIGHT via their cable's 'free on demand' channel as a last resort after everyone else was asleep, and even wrongly formatted and badly digitized, and having seen it countless times, on the big screen and in better formats, it blew my mind. From the start it's been the kind of movie that can reach a viewer right through any televisual limitation, surviving in potency even through a million second generation public domain VHS dupes. Aside from a rather wearying stretch of road with a bald uptight dad going on and on about how "the cellar is the safest place" there's nary a dull moment. Even if you just saw it for the 100th time; see it again, Karras, in here... with us.

(1973) Dir. John Hough

Dark, thick atmosphere, decadent art design; red bathed 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; the throbbing echo-industrial drone breathing, the score like one long auditory hallucination, sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--it's ideal for the midnight hour of any festival (see more here) when you might be getting as surly as the characters here (the leader starts bickering, belittling and bullying from the get-go).

Or if, like me, you just saw it.. go for (also in HD) and full of crabby yelling...

12: 30 AM (alternate) DAY OF THE DEAD
(1984) Dir. George Romero

1985 was a year of great zombie contention, according to a hazily remembered source, between Romero and co-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD screenwriter John A. Russo. The result was two different zombie movies coming out at the same time, back when there were NO other zombie movies, outside of Italy, of course, certainly none that would make it a first run cineplex instead of a decaying drive-in. My punk crew and I saw both in one weekend; we loved THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which really jibed with our then lifestyle (the whole thing with zombies going "Braaainnsss!" is from RETURN). But we found DAY a downer. Half the film is spent in irritable bickering between gonzo scientists (demanding more test subjects; trying to isolate what makes zombies tick) and a bunch of crazed military guys getting understandably tired of being bossed around by civilians. The pissy yelling and soldier Gary Howard Klar's evil snicker-giggling get annoying, but the idea of Bub (Sherman Howard) the first sympathetic zombie, being trained by one of the lead scientist (Richard Liberty) is tellingly Romero, who's always gone more for the social critique underlying the zombie menace and less the comedic self-awareness and suspense generation of most of his imitators. And perhaps the split from Russo hurts them both equally--the humor and speed could help with the social message stuff and vice versa-- the military and the scientists need each other after all. Meanwhile, a cool Jamaican chopper pilot (Terry Alexander) and and an amiable Irish drunk (Jarlath Conroy) have the right idea: set up some inflatable palm trees around a camper at the edge of the mine shaft and grow ganja. Humanity is saved.

(1970) Dir. Roy Ward Baker

Not only does it open on one of the worst matte painting castle exteriors in history, it also stands as a great British horror crossroad, straddling the decades with unrepentant 70s sapphic nudity right alongside all the typical 60s Hammer vampire Gothic trappings: florid dialogue, gorgeous Brit actresses, Peter Cushing, all that. Especially if you have a good HD TV, it's worth its precious 2 AM time slot because the colors are sublime. Once you see Peter Cushing's blazing red tunic in the post-credits dance scene, you're like DAMN. That ballroom looks 3-D, and then in comes Ingrid Pitt as Marcela Karnstein, and then two gorgeous fertile looking virgins just waiting to get knocked over like bloodless ten pins. You can float for days. And the time slot is just right for such 'ahem' moments, as guards are beginning to come down.

(2007) Dir. Nick Murphy

So now it's late, and all that's left after VAMPIRE LOVERS is a yen to see and hear more British women--so effortlessly smart, confident, commanding (yet not bitchy), sexual (yet not slutty or self-hating) and relaxed compared with American actresses-- as they engage in candle lit supernatural hallway walking and weird noise investigating. Rebecca Hall--as a professional ghost-debunker lured to her existential Waterloo-- fits the bill. The movie around her aims in the direction of THE OTHERS, THE INNOCENTS, DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and she aims for the stalwart company of Olivia Williams, Rhona Mitra, Kate Beckinsale, and Kierra Knightley. Bullseye on both counts. The setting and photography are evocative: a real old mansion of marble and crumbling plaster, greenish blue hues make it seem forever a cloudy dawn. Dominic West is suitably Rochester-esque as the superintendent. There's a kid with a distractingly awful haircut and a creepy dollhouse. You'll guess the twists a mile off, but that doesn't mean you don't like guessing. Just means you're good at it. So drink deep!

5:00 AM - PONTYPOOL (2008)
Dir. Bruce McDonald

It might not be as cold where you are as up in Pontypool, Canada (for the film's set in the dead of winter over one crazy-early morning local news radio time slot) but otherwise there's a lot of eerie meta sameness if you watch this film as the sun comes up outside: the special feeling when you and maybe none or two of your mates and only a few early risers and very very late-to-bedders are up and about in your time zone. You can at five AM spread you auric tentacles out and bask in the collapse of concrete consensual reality, which is like a whole alternate dimension, neither an asleep dream nor a conscious consensual reality. What really makes PONTYPOOL work so well in this mindset/time is the comfortable sense of being in a warm radio booth in a frozen Ontario small town in the ver early early morning --still dark out, and no one else on the street, for the most part... Disgruntled talk radio host Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) begins to think the locals are all fucking with him as the calls coming in from early risers, each new call being more and more panicked, incoherent, and violent. Mazzy is a bit of a crusty handful and his producer (Lisa Houle) shows the wear and tear of humoring such a charismatic, witty but bitter and paranoid dude on a regular basis. The unfolding morning events are so organic it all unfolds in real time for long stretches without the viewer (me at least) noticing any lapse. As the influx of news and shaky narration causes a breakdown in our perception of reality. Since we never leave the basement station, we're left to imagine most of the carnage in a kind of WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast in reverse.

In other words, while not being specifically super-duper scary, and always kind of funny (even romantic), at other times nearing almost over the line into full-on literary pretension, there's a sense that something meta is always at stake, something that might leak out and affect even your seeing it. It's like you could call in to Mazzy's show and maybe he'd answer onscreen, and tell you to turn down your TV, and you'd both realize you'd probably fallen asleep. It's okay... it's okay... itsooo kayyyy (more)

Dir. William Castle

William Castle prided himself on being the dime store spooky matinee knockoff Hitchcock, and his palpable love of his audience, spookiness and a good time for all help his films endure, like hazy childhood memories of parking lot haunted carnival rides --cheap and loud, but innocuous, fun, and capable of delivering the perfect aftershock of spooky-nostalgia. This his masterwork, as subtle as a skeleton on a string zooming over the heads of the popcorn tossing kiddies (a process called "Emergo" pronounced "emer-joe") and six degrees of terrific. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD it has a punchy energy that endures past any amount of public domain dupe streaking. Netflix's copy is adequate (you don't really want it to look too good) and, take it from me, six in the morning is the best time to see it, ideally with a ten year-old kid who just woke up and is sitting on the floor because you've been asleep, taking up his whole couch. Dude, where are you? What happened?

Elijah Cook Jr. gets drunk and babbles the grisly exposition; Vincent Price plays deadly games with his scheming wife (Carol Ohmart); the elderly caretakers, frozen in papier mache poses of carny ride menace, roam around in the dark on wheels; pistols in little coffins are handed out as party favors; there's two severed heads, and an animated noose. (see my first ever site, Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood, which includes this as part of its 50s Canon)

Dir. Gordon Hessler

The Grand Guignol meta effect is pronounced here, as it was in PENNY DREADFUL after it, and MAD LOVE before it. A movie about people performing dastardly deeds onstage is bound to echo. Here the troupe is re-imagining Poe's classic story: Now the ape is the hero and Herbert Lom gets acid thrown on his face (again?) but the audience of semi-bemused royals presume it's part of the show. If the ape looks familiar, it's because it smashed bones for Kubrick in 1968, spooked Joan Crawford as TROG in 1970, and now here it is, much the worse for moths and wear but still the only sympathetic face in the film (Did England have only one gorilla suit? Was it because Hop Toad burned the other one in 1964?).

Either way, it's a great mask, and it's director Gordon Hessler's finest hour, which doesn't say a lot. Unless you like fake mutton chops, ratty period costumes, a script that's just a few dull eps of THE AVENGERS taped together (without the actual Avengers - just the bad guys and their victims) juiced up with lurid tortures, and boozy British actors pretending they remember their lines and marks. Well, the Demoiselles are stunning and dressed in dusky reds and black lace chokers which radiate lovely haunting power in this HD print (making their acid scarring all the more painful); and even at low wattage, sleepy star Jason Robards is better than most; and the period mise en scene is at least at Hammer level toasty; and the budget relatively big (were they poaching other films' sets?) and there's galore post-modern leakage, which is why it's after PONTYPOOL. And if you fall asleep, well dream your way right in.... into the cage, that is, with Erich, the gorilla!

9:30 AM - BLACK SUNDAY (1965)
Dir. Mario Bava

I could do without the schmaltzy concert piano score or the misogynist torture of the opener, but the rest is great, and it's perfect Halloween fare. Lots of long pans and dollies across acres of ancient castle griffins and Barbara Steele standing or lying with eerie alien stillness and holes in her face. Even the 'good' Steele is spooky looking, like a reverse Rondo Hatton! This was Bava's big American calling card, and it's a perfect breakfast movie once the ugly taste of Catholic metal spikes is out of your mouth. The print used here is just so so, but it might inspire you to get the Blu-ray, to better savor the tactile, brilliant cinematography and dreamy dark fairy tale poeticism.

11:00 AM -HELLRAISER  (1987)
Dir. Clive Barker

This was just an innocent list but it's become about the actresses of Great Britain, more cigarette resonant and unabashedly sexual than most American girls depicted in films. this chick Julia (Clare Higgins) has the balls to ask for a brandy from her husband when she's sick, rather than refusing one with a dainty little 'eh' of a sneeze like a Yank bird; and it's pretty great the way she plays with a sadistic smile after her first kill, traumatized but hardly succumbing to the American tendency to play the glum martyr --though even now she says she's afraid of thunder, and worthless husband Larry is like, "I'll protect you!" not realizing she's already done and seen things that would turn him ashen. To bring his brother (her lover) back from the Cenobiteverse, for example, Julia gamely lures a string of grotty 70s-looking British business men on their three martini lunch hour up to the attic, where she bashes their heads in with a hammer so her love can slowly absorb their blood and put some meat on his bones, as it were. Her stepdaughter meanwhile (Ashley Laurence) is getting wise, and endangered by angler fish-esque demons and shit. She's cool too but with her beyond-morality pursuit of pleasure, unapologetic wit and intelligence, and her mature handling her body, Julia's exhibit A in what's lacking in so many similar American ladies, who tend to be youth-worshipping baby doll types until it's too late to dodge the Baby Jane mirror headlights (click this searing yet lovingly indulgent list that tracks them from Lolita to cougar). Think Julia gives a fuck her man's got no lips or skin? She'll shag him anyway just as he wouldn't care if she was in the thick of her period. Fookin' A. Oh yeah, the Cenobites themselves: not my bag, but I respect the analogy towards the masochism of the horror marathon viewer! If you've seen it lately, HELLRAISER 2 is pretty good too, even #3 is watchable, but it's a steep slope, human!

Dir. Ken Russell

Keep the British lady thing going with this gem from Ken Russell, the colors on the Netflix are gorgeous. Amanda Donohoe is a tour de force, never camping or vamping but nailing, in every possible permutation that verb can be permuted, the most intoxicating upper crust broad since Stanwyck as the Lady Eve. Her snake goddess is what Auntie Mame always aspired to be but could never shake her ostentatious Americana baggahge. Familiar Scottish face Peter Capaldi is a summering archeologist who unearths a dragon skull; Hugh Grant, in his film debut, is great as the local lord-inherit who inherits too the burden of a giant white worm; the two local blonde sisters at the inn (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) are fetching, smart, and crafty; and even the hallucination scene has a disturbing potency-- "she had a bad trip" -- notes Grant, after one of the sisters accidentally touches some of hallucinatory snake venom. No one ever says no to a drink anywhere in the film, thank god. Between this and his Chopin opposite Judy Davis in IMPROMPTU, Grant was melting hearts like only Cary Grant used to before him. There's also the hottest older woman-on-paralyzed younger boy seduction in film since Creedence Leonore Gielgud's in TROLL 2. So forgive the occasional silliness, such as the absurd fangs and charmed dancing of Paul Brooke, be charmed yourself.

(1977) Dir. Phillip Kaufman

Let's face it, you're never going to make it this far in this bizarro festival -- the 'you' who began doesn't even exist anymore. A slough of cells, a weariness, probably passing out, falling asleep, and when you wake up, the you back in the cool raro moments at the crack of dawn with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL are long gone. It's cool. I get it. Move on if you must, but make sure it's still you and there's not a shell of a being that was once or will be you under your pool table or cooling in your sauna, or in your garden, or in the crawlspace, or under your bed. And then put this on the 'stream and join the flow of ditrates and bata. And then read Poe's William Wilson. And weep...

And let's just say the HD print on Netflix looks damned good, which is important as Michael Chapman's photography is of that great 70s urban texture dilapidated period (he also did TAXI DRIVER), filled with great moments of alienation. San Francisco makes an ideal crucible for the dehumanization of 20th century society, the urban disconnect from your closest neighbors, and the cast includes: Leonard Nimoy as a pop psychologist; Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as health inspectors on the run; Jeff Goldblum and a pre-ALIENS / post-BIRDS Veronica Cartwright as their mud bath-slangin' friends; and even Kevin McCarthy and Robert Duvall in moments of cameo stunt casting. See it with someone you love and then wonder...

4:00 PM - YOU'RE NEXT (2013)
Dir. Adam Wingard

Let's end on a cheerful, non-supernatural note... Scrappy Sharni Vinson is a great final-ish girl, full of wily Australian gumption in this tale of a besieged family reunion in the woods; it works because it recalls not just classics of the 70s and 80s, but classics of the 30s, i.e. the old dark house full of secret panels, greedy relatives gathered for the will, lightning storms, scary masks, strong female leads, no one who they seem, ironic karma, sudden twisting violence, moody Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack, and a refreshing lack of any moral compass. (MORE)

If you've recently seen any of the above, do substitute GRABBERS, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, SCREAM, SCREAM 2, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, RE-ANIMATOR, JOHN DIES AT THE END, EVIL DEAD 2 (though it's got some slapstick, fair warning) and/or CABIN IN THE WOODS, CANDYMAN, or WITCHING AND BITCHING, or see them all later. And for God's sake, stay alert, lock your doors, keep watching the knobs and clutching the butcher knife or fire poker, and turn on a white noise machine or Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast to block the spooky noises of trees against the window, because they're not trees....

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