Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Analog Hacks, Italian-disguised-as-American-Style: GHOSTHOUSE & WITCHERY (aka LA CASA III and VI) Double Feature

Saw AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON or 'Robots smashing Robots in endless pixelated scrimmage II." Was it entertaining? Sure, but also spectacularly uninvolving.  Was there ever a time when we collectively dreaded the sight of a flashing knife going into a stomach, dreaded it in the same blood-chill, heart-in-the-throat way we get now only when we're at the tippy-top of a roller coaster or looking down from a high railing-less ledge? Hurling a spear or waving a sword took at least some muscle or dexterity back then, and both killer and victim were pressed right up against one another. By contrast, watching our amped-up immortal superheroes battle Ultron and his many digitally-encoded robot soldiers, everyone armored up and invulnerable--is to feel the same kind of strange 'watching someone else play a video game' boredom unique to modern CGI movies. No one can really die, or really get hurt, unless they're machines, so all investment is lost, like being a teenager who plays the same video game every day after school, repeating levels 1, 2, 3, 4, trying to climb to the next, but each lower level is now down to a science, not a move wasted, each opponent conquered in a few 'hack' moves practiced daily (the CGI robots never miss a punch or trip over a root jutting up from the concrete, they're painted up against Thor's fist mightily and with easily-fixable precision). When the stakes are no higher than getting your initials on the board, it's no longer thrilling, it's merely as compulsive as a rat pressing a lever over and over, all day and night, a lever that only once, long ago, dispensed a single unforgettable treat.

Low-investment pixel-bashing was not a problem in the 80s, though, especially not in the disreputable world of exploitation, and especially not in in Italy, where stuntmen trip over roots and miss their fake punches by a mile. Then you're about as far from ULTRON's problem as it's possible to get.

So far away, in fact, they're practically all the way around again.

I didn't come here to pixel-bash, though, I came to make a ridiculous claim, that Scream Factory's new GHOSTHOUSE / WITCHERY Blu-ray double feature is better than ULTRON. By virtue of its analog tactile 'hurt'-iness, pre-CGI Italian 80s horror goes deeper than pouffy hair and rotary phones might suggest. These films go back to the innocent time when we were still too young to not be horrified at the sight of intestines being pulled out of a screaming Tom Savini.  As a result, every slow walk through a darkened hallway was fraught with a gut-tingle anxiety. We needed to be able to sneer at the fakeness of the gore even as we needed to look away.

It's important to note, though, that by the late 80s, no one cared about Italian cheap gore horror films, except completist video stores and indiscriminate late night cable programmers. Kids catching these at 3 AM slumber parties on HBO may have been scared, and now they're older and these films remind them of being young when being scared meant actual fear rather than just a mile goose-flesh chill. I was all depressed in the 80s and felt that these sorts of movies were irredeemably vile, on principle. But now I'm a fan simply due to their non-CGI-dom, and anyway maestro di Mario Bava himself invented the formula long before even Jason's mom was the killer. No matter what kind of slasher fan or detractor you were (if like me you remember the Sneak Previews special 'dead teenager' episode in the early 80s), to see these films now is to appreciate the Italians' dogged attention to high weird style. Today this kind of crap has become cherished nostalgia and leaves only a vaguely nauseated after-taste when their nasty Italian Inquisitional sadism still surprises.

I hadn't seen either of these ever before getting this disc but I'm experiencing nostalgia anyway, just because of the look, the music, the vibe, the pre-CGI analog, the way 'body horror' and the so-bad-it's-good 'did a child write the script?' ineptitude rub up against American actors lured overseas by the promise of easy work, like Linda Blair and David Hasselhof. Sometimes you have to leave the States to find what State you're in.

There's no real connection between the two films on this disc, except that they both rode the sequel train in Italy by pretending to be sequels to Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD movies, there called LA CASA ("the House"). I guess that worked because they both have a house where evil comes in from other dimensions; both are produced by the "Sadist's Ed Wood", Joe D'Amato (under various 'American' pseudonyms); both glow with a quaint air of cheap ambivalence; both convey a certain ominous feeling the Italians do better than anyone, even if they're just imitating Fulci's imitations of American imitations of Argento's imitations of Bava's imitation, or imitating Sean Cunningham's imitation of John Carpenter.

And the cheaper the better, for this was also before HD video, and they were shot on film, and they were Italian and so had to go for drive-in dream logic distance and graphic violence. Shit like this was ideal for the post-midnight 'last' film on the drive-in bill after something like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET IV or WAXWORK before coming straight to video... then to complete obscurity... gone and unmissed, unwanted for over two decades, But now, restored on Blu-ray in a double set from Shout... GHOSTHOUSE and WITCHERY demand your agog disbelief! Did anyone ever love them? Many have tried. All so far have failed. Will you be the first, or wretch like the rest?  

"La Casa III" (1988)
Dir Umberto Lenzi (As Humphrey Humbert)

"Oh Paul... I saw death..."

Teenagers in 80s Italian films will be American kids from the 70s, so in 1988 they're still fiddling with ham radios, and picking up a signal of someone screaming for help. Naturally the ham radio enthusiasts--a young couple-- triangulate the signal so they can come to the rescue only a few scant days later! Said message is coming from a deserted house where long ago an evil kid--in league with her evil singing clown doll--killed her parents. Now her ghost is still down in the basement, killing anyone who ventures therein, including a diverse roster of good-natured hippie-punks who team up with our ham radio couple to hang around the house like a hybrid SUBURBIA squat and Scooby gang abandoned mine.

The pale girl ghost evokes Melissa Graps in KILL BABY KILL vibe, but has far less flair. Along the way, a fat token black kid hitchhikes, uses a corpse hand puppet for shocks and pick-pocketing (thus undoing any diversity props) and then shows up at the house later for no conceivable reason and meets his predictable fate. Were the Italians trying to adopt the half-assed equal opportunity color-blind casting so many horror movies equate with having a cardboard African American stereotype thrown to the ghouls like an appetizer? Later poor John Saxon shows up as the sheriff, to try and coax the kids to move on, without success.

While there's no sense of real menace, murders are accruing in the basement, set to the creepy clown song and the girl's "evil" stare; the kids squatting there--or hanging around in the driveway in or near their camper--wonder what to do--so many of them are dying and disappearing! I mean, they couldn't just leave... right? This isn't Bunuel's EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and yet... it never occurs to them to even walk next door. Even though trespassing on private property is a crime, and they arrived in a still-working RV, they could split out the drive-way, the cops who investigate the corpses don't even suggest that maybe this isn't a legal, safe and community-oriented way to spend their weekend.

Then there's the dubbing: Considering everyone is dubbed you'd think they could get at least good actors for the voices, but every character sounds like a semi-illiterate seventh grader doing a cold read at a junior high school audition while his lacrosse buddies snicker in the hallway.

One quibble, and this problem affects other Italian films from the period too, the clarity of the HD Blu-ray image drains the lighting of nuanced color (if there was any) so we can see the thin color differentiation where the pancake make up line is around the base of their necks and the thin brush stroke marks of every foundation application. The result is the impression the entire cast has been living in a basement for the past decade, or England, or clown college. I can't tell if its just the restoration, or part of a gambit to make Italian actors look more Nordic, along with their general obsession with red hair, the latter resulting in one little legitimate redhead, Satanic, snaggle-toothed moppet, Nicoletta Elmi, appearing in a slew of horror films in the late 70s-early 80s - and dozens of other clearly swarthy actors with terrible red hair dye (as in the grotesque McBain family wiped out by Fonda in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST). Either way the cumulative effect is... demoralizing.

But there's joy in GHOSTHOUSE's many little life-affirming accidental Brechtian details and mistakes as only Umberto Lenzi can provide: the way the shot of a hand swinging a hammer down on a guy's forehead lasts just a lazy frame too long, so we see the hammer slow to a stop an inch from the victim's forehead before the quick mismatched jimp cut to said hammer buried in his suddenly thicker (padded) and darker-hued (the padding skin color doesn't match his face) forehead. Undoubtedly the director presumed the editor would cut those frames out--a sensible assumption, but then, well, it would just be another lame murder with bad latex effects instead of a little Brechtian incident! I find these things very life-affirming -as if 'bad' deaths are double negatives that make a positive. 

And so as GHOSTHOUSE lumbers towards its required 90-95 minute mark, all the "best kills" come tumbling out: one kid drowns in a boiling lake of skull-sprinkled cream-of-wheat under the basement floor, as a cheap great din of 80s SUSPIRIA-ism howls in the bones of the soundtrack; the little sister is cut in half at the waist; a kid is diced up by a fan blade; blood comes out of the sink; the clown doll is too similar to the one in POLTERGEIST; the scenes of tombs recall all the touchstones of the Fulci and Argento canons (in the best of worst ways); for some reason there's a ghost doberman like in FACE OF MARBLE, probably because of THE OMEN. It's crap, it's priceless... it's affordable. 

"La Casa IV"
(1988) Dir Fabrizio Laurenti (as Martin Newlin)

WITCHERY is both much worse that GHOSTHOUSE as far as unrealistic yet nauseating prolonged gore / torture scenes, but better as far as cast, with several American names and a more understandable reason for hanging around LA CASA as your fellow travelers are picked off (they're stranded on an island due to an alleged off-camera storm). Linda Blair is a pregnant lady looking to buy or sell a very old seaside island hotel --its gray shingles flap in the ocean wind. Catherine Hickland plays a virgin grad student squatting there while writing her term paper on the 'witch light' that occasionally appears out of the window throughout early American history. Hickland's then-real life husband David Hasselhof plays her sexually frustrated boyfriend/photographer. He keeps pressuring her to have sex but her grimoire book says "virginity can be a virtue and not the barrier that separates innocence from knowledge." He can't argue with that, though he knows it's really her all-consuming fear of penetration, and he can't argue with that either.

I'd never seen Hickland before but I like her. She has a great slurred drowsy way with a line, like she spent the whole shoot on Valium, and who could blame her? Her page notes that after her acting career she found work as a hypnotist, which makes perfect sense. And as in the top shot, she's not afraid to show her dismay at the shitshow project she's involved in, and though we feel for the horny Hasselhof, he's a bit like the kids who could just leave but won't in GHOSTHOUSE. Dost he not know how Hof he art!?

If only we stayed with this pair the film might not be such a drag; if it cut the running time of its grotesque torture scenes it might even be watchable. As it is, WITCHERY is brilliantly summarized in Leonard Maltin's Film Guide as "uncomfortable." I don't mind a certain level of gross-outs, but the victims here get sucked into some kind of hell dimension, consisting of what looks like a row of horse stalls in an old barn that's been converted into a haunted house by doing... exactly... nothing to it, not even removing the straw. But who needs webs and chains when there's a mocking old pilgrim-cum-carny geek lady and Pagan looking dude ("Satan") who seemingly stepped straight out of a Bruegel painting, reaching out through the stall window slots as victims try to pass by and laughing like overbaked mental patients?

We learn that each victim stranded on the island is there for a special reason: zey are needed for a stern German witch's spell--each an invocation of one of the seven deadly sins, or something: For the pregnant Linda Blair, the Bruegel painting old lady and Satan (the old man - not even horns!) fight over and then eat a premature (very fake-looking) newborn baby; the bossy Jewish mother real estate mogul gets her nails broken off, her lips sewn together and then is hung upside down in the chimney as the rest of the survivors unwittingly start a fire right under her hanging head; Hickland the virgin is--in the most vile sequence--raped by a sickly youth with his own lips sewn shut, while the Bruegel twins hold her down -- Yeccch!! When the nympho real estate girl starts seducing the Matthew Broderick-ish dweeb real estate guy in a room with a big mounted swordfish on the wall, you start to gird your misogyny-dar loins for the swordfish skewer sex kabob, but instead they're thrown into the dimension of fire, crucified in ways Eli Roth might like but I do not. Thank god their suffering is nowhere near as well acted as in HOSTEL 2 but also lacking is the kinky equilibrium of Clive Barker, who would be too outrageous and creative to let the nausea sink in. What is real and what illusion? In the Barkerverse you understood both things as real while here both seem false. In Barker they're trippy and funny, here they're just 'uncomfortable.'

All that unpleasantness, plus Hildegard Knef as the modern-era witch lady--most unseemly with super pale thick bright white make-up over aging skin offset cruelly by tacky bright red lipstick and an abrasive Germanic manner-- made me ill for days after watching. Some things are never meant for HD. Her aged facial wrinkles caked in too much bright white make-up and the garish horror of her orange lipstick ---these are the real horrors of WITCHERY.  And while I never find fault with Shout's impeccable transfers, sometimes they do err on the side of washed-out skin tones, missing chances to go for bold or warmer colors in the interest of being as true to the source material as they can, regardless of its effect on my sensitive gorge.

But for all that, WITCHERY is fascinating --not least because the baffling ignorance of the script in how American real estate works, the yuppie-esque sales bro says: "I think in about a year you'll be living here rent free." Does anyone even know what they're talking about? Who invests and buys a place and then pays rent on something they bought and then 'earns' freedom from rent altogether? If Italian real estate works like that, the country would go broke in a matter of hours. Maybe it has.

In a lot of ways it's better than GHOSTHOUSE though. Despite the draggy effects it has a certain inexorable tick-tockality and foreboding sense of eerie isolation (though the gray shingle-based American bland architecture is dispiriting compared to the wild buildings of, say Escherstrasse in SUSPIRIA), with the eerie wind and dim lapping waves. No one dares take a boat out to rescue them, because the ocean is allegedly so choppy no one dares go, even though it's just slightly overcast, and I like that --like this is some kind of lost zone where everything seems tranquil but nothing is. Linda Blair's hair gets wild and she gets possessed by the devil (of course), and there's other elements that make it almost add up to something. I would say just get high or drunk to ease the nausea if you're going to make this jaunt, and let the slurring mellowness of Hickland guide you through.

Oh and Shout, if we're listening --keep up the good work, but for god's sake, add some merciful color to those poor complexions! Your super clear Blu rays are a terrible revealer of every last pore and blemish, every congealing spot of badly dried pancake make-up and error in coloring between neck and face of these actors. Sure, past versions were layered through what looked like sunglasses to get things right, but some slight color alterations will make it all work 100 times better. I'd feel safer anyway...more comfortable...

Maybe my reaction towards Knef, a German sex symbol from way back, reminds me of my stern and disapproving German grandfather who died decades ago. Old Germans, man, are the worst - somehow more decadent than any Aquarian yet as joyless as a Puritan at church. Their favorite thing is to torture their grandchildren with endless long lunches and dinners und Schwarzwaldkuchen, followed by criticism of how many spots you missed when you cleaned the bathtub followed by 30 minutes watching them scrub it with a bucket of water and regular soap and an old scrub brush, down to a shiny patina so dirt-free it's depressing. Hours and hours with nothing to do but try to understand their wearingly adult conversation, as the only book or magazine they have in their cottage is a Reader's Digest from 20 years ago. So one endures a full week of being bored near to death, minutes stretching like years, hushed constantly as children aren't heard, symbolic lips sewn-shut.. waiting as lunch turns to dinner and dinner turns to drinks und mehr kuchen. Being crucified upside down, stabbed with a swordfish and set on fire is an indulgent luxury by comparison... log azzits annalong.

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