Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Deadpan Comic Horror International: 13 Wild Oddities worth Streaming

"Take any fire, any earthquake, any major disaster, then wonder." - Plan Nine from Outer Space
Summer's in its last dying gasp and thank God. I was working on a list here of something else... something more serious and sociologically important, like lesbianism, or 'The Incredible Dissolving Father' which is, as you know, my unfinished thesis capstonezzzzz for the course not taken. But instead... doesn't anyone remember laughter? And horror? Death's too short for lofty theses and lifestyles from which I am twicefold excluded and therefore fascinated by.

The horror-comedy hybrid on the other hand, is all-inclusive. Fear leavened with laughs is like whiskey and ginger ale, like campfires and a leavening quip after a scary urban legend. After all, by day we joke about the monsters that scare us at night. At least I do. Whatever the reason, it's global - and as old as time - and we deserve better than Haunted House 2 and Scary Movie III and V (I won't allow myself to see 'em - but you can on Netflix).

Luckily, an array of options exists from all around the world, each with a mixture all its own of both elements. Some might be unintentionally funny, some are just 'witty' or 'stoner' horror/sci fi movies, not comedies John Dies at the End, Iron Sky, or Cabin in the Woods aren't included here because you just saw them or should. See them! Then wonder.

Hong Kong
"Wui wan yeh" (1995) Dir. Stephen Chow

Lucky for America, we have most of the Stephen Chow oeuvre on Netflix Streaming (still need the great and hilarious Forbidden City Cop). Here's one I'd never seen before. A huge star in HK and Mainland China, here he's mostly unknown, partly because he's not Jackie Chan or Jet Li and his satire skewers a pop culture partially different than ours but if you've seen any Asian horror movies in the last ten years -- Ringu, Ju-On, Pulse, Dark Water, Suicide Club, Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, A Chinese Ghost Story, etc. --and western films beloved of China, like The Professional and Evil Dead, you should get at least 80% of the jokes (though amazingly, this 1995 film prefigures the entire J-Horror crossover boom here in the states). Chow stars as a crazy ghost hunter called to a towering HK apartment complex to exorcise the vengeful spirit of a couple's recently deceased mother. The daughter (the great Karen Mok) is cute and restless and finds Chow's ghost chaser--with his long black coat, sunglasses and mysterious Chow Yun Fatty ways--intriguing. Soon she's showing up where he lives (a lunatic asylum) dressed like Natalie Portman in The Professional.  He even lets her carry his houseplant, with its flower that acts as a diving rod. On the other hand, he's crazy. Like legit.

There's too much going on to name, but I particularly loved the juxtaposition of Chow's memories of his initial encounters with the supernatural as a child while we see images from a local carnival, where he was clearly misinterpreting all the papier mache monsters as real (left); and a weird scene where he tries to train the security guards to conquer their fears via games of lit dynamite hot potato. It's raucous but so fast you're afraid to laugh lest you miss something. It's also relentlessly scary and intense, it can wipe away old dreads even as it's causing new ones. (In Cantonese w/ English subtitles) See also: God of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer

New Zealand 
(2014) Dir Gerard Johnstone

Who is Morgana O'Reilly, where did she come from and why do I have an enormous crush on her after seeing her sneer her way through a bravura turn as Kylie Bucknell, an under-house-arrest punk partier cross between DEAD FILES' physical medium Amy Allan and Nicky Marotta from TIMES SQUARE (1980)? Kyle is a bit of a self-absorbed bitch, but hey, who wouldn't be a bitch if stuck, ankle bracelet monitor-first, in a haunted house presided over by a sweet but nonstop babbling mum (Rima Te Wiata), mostly absentee stepdad, and bordered within and without by maniacs, ghostly visitors, and a squirrel-skinning neighbor?  I can't reveal more about the plot, especially once it veers towards a rainy rooftop climax, but I will suggest you just relax and let go as your genre expectations are fucked with but in a way that's just deadpan enough to keep you taking it seriously, just funny enough to win you over to its weird style, and weird/scary enough to keep you watching past any residual kiwi quirkiness. Keep your eyes on the cool, fearless Kylie who, among other things, isn't afraid to sneak into the suspected killer's house while he's asleep in order to steal the bridgework right out of his mouth. Twee as or no, she'll fuck you right up. (See also: The Babadook)

(aka Witching and Bitching)
"Las brujas de Zugarramurdi" (2014) - Dir. Alex de la Iglesia

The great (like Chow, unjustly off the American mainstream radar), Alex de la Iglesia's ballsy 'comedy of the sexes' film bursts with mucho original ideas, carnal energy, wit, acumen, and Jungian archetypal initiation ritual mysticism. It's like a gender-reversed Magic Flute if Mozart smoked meth and was married to a hot-tempered harridan from Seville while he wrote it. Hugo Silva stars as a struggling divorced dad, driven past the point of his insanity by his hyper-intense and bitter nurse ex-wife (Macarena Gómez). Beginning with a gone-awry pawn shop robbery and culminating at a bizarre witches' sabbath, the action never lets up. The coven is a great three-generational female enclave worth indexing: the older, slightly senile--but always ready to rend a man's flesh 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 electric with wild Kate McKinnon-style eyes and punk haircut). They all leap through the air, crawl on the ceiling, and live on a steady diet of psychoactive toad secretions and cooked children. In short, they're so evil they make the witches in Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem seem like the ones in Bewitched... And yet... they're jubilant and fun- there's no time to be traumatized as it all enfolds like one mad chase from a robbery to a monstrous Willendorf ceremony that must be seen but still not believed.

Too bad about the tacky American title, though... and the poster art that makes it seem like a Disney movie. It ain't. The CGI is nowhere near as good, but it's way more subversive. Going worlds beyond where most battle-of-the-sexes movies dare go, it's cogency in the face of insane chthonic maenad rendering makes it not just hilarious, but truly liberating. (more)  (In Spanish with English subtitles)

 (2012) Dir Jon Wright

It's an Irish horror-monster-comedy hybrid that's part of the lineage of solid drinking films from the more remote and storm-swept parts of the Emerald Isles, loosely following the 'fish-out-of-water cop relocates to quirky remote town, solves string of murders' structure so common to BBC miniseries'. Here the outsider is a by-the-book but fetching young lassie cop (Ruth Bradley) assigned to a remote island town and saddled with a curly-haired drunkard partner who's a local long gone careless and morose from the sameness of his misty life (join the club). The murders turn out to be done by giant tentacled monsters who besiege the island but can't process alcohol (join the club), and the whole town gathers to arm themselves at the pub, i.e. get hammered, for their own safety! 

I've never been one for curly haired men, but Bradley's charming enough to carry the film over the rough spots, and when her character gets drunk for the first time, like a little two-fisted Gallic faerie, and starts falling for the drunken officer, well she's a wet-eyed mussy-haired miracle. They have a delirious extended stake-out in the rain scene, craftily lit to make every rain drop in the deluge glisten with pregnant menace and/or romance. Director Wright ably captures the lovely sunsets and the stark treeless beauty of the coastline, though there's a few too many green and azure filters, as in most Irish films of the moment, like we're watching the film through emerald-tinted sunglasses, but the whole third act goes down over one long night, filters gone, so 'tis no burden. And like all my favorite films, it ends as dawn breaks... my favorite time of the day, presuming I've been up all night for it (rather than getting up early)... not that I ever do. I've said too much.

South Korea
"Gwoemul" (2006) Dir. Bong Joon-Ho

A solid storyteller, able to inject more satiric deadpan comedy into more horrific circumstances than Shakespeare, Howard Hawks and Chaplin, Bong Joon-Ho is no stranger to big issue pathos fusing with doe-eyed bloody cool: here his HOST encompasses a broad satire against America's containment policies, blind-eye pollution, and hypocritical politics, all while providing a nail-biting endurance test as one bravely dysfunctional family tries to escape a military cover-up quarantine to rescue their young daughter/granddaughter before she dies of consumption, or is consumed by the weird mutant plesiosaurus-frog monster that's spat her out amidst the rotting corpses deep inside the Seoul sewer system. It can be a rough viewing experience, undergoing the constant transition between this shivering girl's dwindling optimism and the futile strivings of her extended family to escape through rain, gangsters, and security checkpoints to rescue her. There's the bronze medalist Olympic archery sister (who gets one last chance to hit the mark); the kindly bumpkin grandfather who presumes bribes and a hangdog look will get him through any scrape; the brother who's 'been to college' so his constant criticism of everyone else's decisions leaves him too busy to actually do anything; and the girl's dimwitted dad (Bong's blonde-mopped regular leading man Kang-ho Song).

Bong loves setting up our expectations for a 'giant monster' film and then skewing them, but he has a vision for mankind so dark and disturbing it almost rings true as stealth optimism. Time and again his heroes destroy themselves on the altar of a better future for their children, which of course can't ever happen. In the process, Bong satirizes SK's national mindset, that of a split personality nation, burdened by both America and itself. (In Korean with English subtitles; see also: Snowpiercer)

Chinatown (SF, California)
(1986) Dir. John Carpenter

Released towards the end of sci fi's golden era, it took the small screen for Carpenter's satirical badass answer to Indiana Jones to find an audience. Initially bewildered, half-asleep kids watching HBO on Saturday afternoons snapped out of their stupors in awe. Slowly, through word of mouth mainly, an initial bomb became the beloved cult hit it is todayKurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a blustery trucker who winds up embroiled in mystery, monsters, and magic in, around, behind, and under the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown with his buddy Wang (Dennis Dun). Carpenter packs the film with an array of welcome familiar Asian-American faces like John Lone as the tittering evil Lo Pan and the Victor Wong as a white magic wizard herb expert who's been waiting for the big showdown a long time. There's also a gorgeous green-eyed young creature, then a total unknown, named Kim Cattrall as intrepid reporter Gracie Law. Russell is hilarious, his chemistry with Cattral riveting (back on HBO as kids we all fell in love with her). Unmissable and beyond classic, Big Trouble doesn't even reveal its full glory until around the 12th viewing. I can't wait to see it again, when the tide is high. 

"Dod Sno" (2014) Dir. Tommy Wirkola

The Bride of Frankenstein of Nazi zombie pictures, it starts in the climax of the last one: Martin (Vegar Hoel), sole surviving camper of the last film, wakes up from a crash with the dreaded Colonel Herzog's (Ørjan Gamst) arm sewed onto him. Side effect: he can raise a bunch of Russian POWs executed by the Nazis and buried in a mass grave 70 years ago (but frozen in the Norwegian mountains), to go up against Herzog's own undead crew, who've liberated an old Panzer tank from a nearby museum and are marching to the nearest slaughter-able Norwegian town. Aided by three badass American nerds, 'the Zombie Squad' --Martin Starr (Party Down, Burning Love), Ingrid Haas, and the lovely Jocelyn DeBoer as every Star Wars fanboy's dream girl (2). Everyone plays it dead straight, as nature, science and Nordic tradition demands, but it's still a blood-and-guts-drenched riot. Miss it at your own risk. It's in English (not dubbed), and they speak it very well, creating an odd juxtaposition if you watch this back-to-back with the Norwegian language original.

"Le lac des morts vivants" (198) Dir. Jean Rollin
This film gets a bad rap within the Nazi zombie community, but it's a great melancholy chablis blanc after the steak tartare and whiskey meal of Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead. In fact, it gives a big French shoulder shrug to zombie horror movie conventions on the whole, as if they were an annoying American tourist asking directions, and instead lolls and gambols in the natural stillness of the rural lifestyle. And now, thanks to a nice HD restoration, the full pastorale lyricism of Max Monteillet's photography comes out and we can see inside the deep stark shadows of the narrow ancient architecture streets. There's very little dialogue, but lots of Daniel White's macabrely contrapuntal piano, lounge themes, and silent passages, where we can tune into the ambience of the pastoral countryside, a locale where Nazi occupation is still fresh in collective memory.  Jean Rollin (posing as J.A. Lasar) is the director and you'll know right away by his usual mix of figures in a landscape tranquility, real ruins, terrible fake blood, pretty young girls finding time to bathe and disrobe even when in immediate peril, ennui-crippled actors, and a vibe so French everyone seems to be lolling in the sun even when allegedly dragging each other off to be killed.

Dredged up from the lake along with the rest of his dead Wermacht unit is a sensitive zombie private hoping to visit the offspring of his verboten romance with a local girl (before his unit was killed by French resistance fighters and thrown in the le lac). Conveniently, nearly early every woman in the village is young, gorgeous, and caught completely off guard when a zombie comes shambling into her backyard though every one in town knows the zombies are around --very French! Very French, too, in that the harder it tries to be serious and horrific the more amusing and gently life-affirming it all becomes.  (In French with English subtitles.) 

Barcelona, Spain
"[Rec]³: Génesis" 2012 Dir. Paco Plaza

I don't really like, or haven't seen enough of to keep watching, the first two [Rec] films but I knew a wedding video would be an ideal zombie subject, since it would basically be all your friends and family in one contained place, making their subsequent transformation from well-wishing loved ones to monsters like a wedding cake in reverse. And as the Spanish are a people in whom romantic love runs so strong it trumps self-preservation, I knew there'd be comical twists when they turned rabid. I was right! There's other stuff I didn't expect too that makes this film quite worthwhile: with her popping Clara Bow eyes, tattered wedding gown and chainsaw, Leticia Dolera makes a terrific romantic heroine and Diego Martin (the sheriff in the recommended Dusk to Dawn series on El Rey) struggles gamely inside his medieval helmet and armor as the new husband. Having it all take place within one big gated wedding-hosting mansion estate in Barcelona is genius. The freedom from the constraints of found footage (after the first 20 minutes or so), and the flowery architecture of the manor itself enables a vast depth of HD field, with all sorts of nifty stunts, like figures falling off balconies and fighting off in the distance far behind the foregrounded actors, and the menacing figures emerging from the dark are all sans music cues, making for great jolts and laughs. The intentionally grand set-up, the disco party lights, white tablecloths, nice clothes, grand fixtures and DJ booth offer uncanny frisson to anyone who's spent a significant amount of their weekends going to other people's weddings. Favorite comic moments: the girl who admits she almost didn't come, the rifle-wielding SpongeJohn (not SpongeBob, for "trademark reasons"), and the pair of young revelers who miss the whole first half of the outbreak because they're off in the billiard room hooking up... that's so Barcelona. (In Spanish with English subtitles).

Hollywood, USA
(1973) Dir. Denis Sanders

Displaying kind of the reverse problem of Zombie Lake, Bee Girls' (AKA Graveyard Tramps) only real issue is its dreadful Gary Graver cinematography. He cannot block shots correctly, light anything beyond a bad student movie, or do much more than keep things in focus 80% of the time. He was a busy man, though, working on six other exploitation films in 1973 alone, including Bummer, and The Clones. It could be there's a better negative or restoration somewhere that would prove I'm wrong about old Graver, but I doubt it. Who cares? I do. Fuckin' Love Anitra Ford as a sexy etymologist, the Cronenberg-esque scientific research setting (where scientists are all dying from sexual exhaustion), the lucky break caught temporarily by the gay scientist and the investigating federal agent's relatively enlightened reaction to it, the great buzzing soundtrack and the jet black eyes.

Saskatchewan, Canada
(2014) Dir Lowell Dean
Shot in the wild woolly wilderness towns of Saskatchewan, this weird fusion of woodsy lupine elements includes copious whiskey drinking, cop car ride-pimping/weaponizing, and a hot bitch bartender who visits Wolfcop in his full moon holding cell wearing a sexy red riding hood cape and bearing a basket of candles, erotic lotions, and fine hooch (and a transformation perhaps more startling). There are old lady Satanists, a good lady cop, and duplicitous heshers. Is it kind of tawdry around the edges? Does the lead have unsightly curly hair? Sure. But how many films are set and shot way up in the provinces, and of those, how many really capture the woodsy small town sense of boozy depressed/isolation? I like it cuz it's aboot more than just dumb Troma snark, crap CGI, or Japanese arterial spray. It's mean, wry and low to the ground and though it may get so drunk it can't remember its own name, it never forgets to rock. (See also: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil)

Iran (Bakersfield, CA)
2014 Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

This unique crowd-pleaser isn't funny haha, but funny in that it's like something Tom Waits might make if they were an Iranian girl drinking the Bakersfield oil derrick border town dry in Touch of Evil. A Persian language film rich with Jarmusch stillness in motion (though it's way better than his same-year Only Lovers Left Alive), it connects indirectly with two druggy black and white NYC art movies from the 90s, Nadja and Ferrara's The Addiction. (See: Druggie Vampire Women of B&W City) and despite the cultural differences (different coast, decade, language) the similarities to those two films are striking, especially in the importance of alternative music on the soundtrack. Nadja made fine atmospheric use of 90s trip-hop like Portishead; Addiction found urgent West Village grit via Cypress Hill; Girl makes great use of 80s pop group White Lines,

As "The Girl," Sheila Vand guzzles a coke-dealing thug and a junky dad who lets his sons support his habit, and we cheer their gruesome demise by this specter of feminist vengeance, her black hijab like Dracula's cape. I love that she waits until they've shot up heroin or done some lines of coke before making her move, all the better to get high off their blood (though this is never spelled out, she barely speaks, but it recalls the druggy blood-harvesting of Dark Angel AKA I Come in Peace). Gauging their response to her silent staring and seemingly everywhere at once, her playfulness as she stalks and mirrors carries itself a long way, especially into her touching romance with the semi-cool lead boy.  (In Persian with English subtitles)

2. Though based on all her UCB videos, every little (male) nerd comic in the world feels the same way and casts her as his wide-eyed girlfriend, which makes me hate said comics for wasting our time with their wishful Napoleonic ego tripping. Unlike them, Wirkola clearly knows better: boyfriends never enter into Red Vs. Dead, which is just one of its great strengths. 

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