Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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
OUT OF THE DARK
"Wui wan yeh" (1995) Dir. Stephen Chow
***1/2

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 (an upscale lunatic asylum) dressed like Natalie Portman in The Professional.  He 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 while at a carnival as a child with what he actually saw (where he was clearly remembering 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, with an extended lunatic climax that wipes away old dreads with one hand even as it's wiping new ones in with the other. (In Cantonese w/ English subtitles) 


New Zealand 
HOUSEBOUND
(2014) Dir Gerard Johnstone
***

Morgana O'Reilly does a wild, sneering 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)- must I learn all I can about her? I must, for her wild chutzpah reflects what's missing in American womanhood? 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), a mostly-absentee stepdad, and a house that--though bordered within and without by maniacs, ghostly visitors, and a squirrel-skinning neighbor--still suffocates with twee folksiness?  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 win you over to its weird sense of humor, and scary enough to keep you watching past the occasional ODs of kiwi quirkiness. Just keep your big red 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. Sweet as! Her mom might be a bit much, but Kylie'll fuck you right up. (See also: The Babadook)




Spain
BITCHES' SABBATH
(aka Witching and Bitching)
"Las brujas de Zugarramurdi" (2014) - Dir. Alex de la Iglesia
***1/2

This wild, 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: there's 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 (the electric Carolina Bang - who rocks wild Kate McKinnon-style crazy 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 male 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 an afternoon robbery to a midnight monstrous Willendorf ceremony that must be seen but still not believed to a chase all the way through the dawn.

Too bad about the tacky American title, though (Witching and Bitching? Yeesh)... and the poster art that makes it seem like a Disney movie. It ain't... no Disney movie, man. One one hand, the CGI is nowhere near as good as Disney, but in another more important, 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, and muy sexy. (more)  (In Spanish with English subtitles)


Ireland
 GRABBERS 
 (2012) Dir Jon Wright
***

It's an Irish horror-monster-comedy hybrid that's part of the lineage of solid indie horror films set in 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 every BBC miniseries. Here the outsider is a by-the-book but-fetching Holly Hunter-ish cop (Ruth Bradley) who winds up saddled with a curly-haired drunkard for a partner, a cop 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! In other words, every sober alcoholic's secret fantasy (I joined the club!)

I've never been one for curly haired men and this film's got more than one, but Bradley's charming enough to carry the film over the rough spots, and when her character gets drunk for the first time, she becomes like a little two-fisted Gallic faerie, and when she 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 near Rene Clair-style fantasy-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 trying to hide their HDV origins) but the whole third act goes down over one long night, filters gone, so 'tis no burden. And like all the best horror 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 get up early that is.

I've said too much.


South Korea
THE HOST
"Gwoemul" (2006) Dir. Bong Joon-Ho
***1/2

A solid storyteller, able to inject more satiric deadpan comedy into more horrific circumstances than Shakespeare, Howard Hawks and Chaplin combined, rolled up, dipped in a sewer, "smokin'"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 its rotting corpse larder 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 single 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, yet somehow finding time to love both even as they devour the middle class between them. (In Korean with English subtitles; see also: Snowpiercer)


Chinatown (SF, California)
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
(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 of initially bewildered, half-asleep kids watching HBO on Saturday afternoons. Slowly, one at a time, we snapped out of their stupors in awe. Over the decades, through word of mouth mainly, the film became the beloved cult item it is today. I watch it at least once a year. Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a blustery trucker (a rugged type of hero that was, believe it or not, a thing in the 70s, i.e, Convoy, White Line Fever, Every Which Way But Loose, High-Ballin', etc.) who winds up embroiled in mystery, monsters, and magic (!) in, around, behind, and most importantly under the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown. 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. There's also a gorgeous green-eyed young creature, then a total unknown, named Kim Cattrall as intrepid reporter Gracie Law. Wang (Dennis Dun) who's the one who actually does the fighting and has the romance, and so forth. Russell is hilarious, his chemistry with Cattral riveting (back during those sleepy HBO afternoons, we kids all first 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. 






Norway
DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD
"Dod Sno" (2014) Dir. Tommy Wirkola
***

The Bride of Frankenstein of Nazi zombie pictures, it starts immediately after 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 send 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 (she's every Star Wars fanboy's dream girl [2] mine, too - sigh). 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 though clearly not their first language, they speak it very well, creating an odd juxtaposition if you watch this back-to-back with the Norwegian language original.


Southern France
ZOMBIE LAKE 
"Le lac des morts vivants" (1981) 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 (above) if you're watching these in order. In fact, it gives a big French shoulder shrug to zombie horror movie conventions on the whole, as if they were nothing more to pay heed to than an annoying American tourist asking directions. Instead, as with most Jean Rollin films, it prefers to loll and gambols in the natural stillness of a rural France with a handful of beautiful young women. 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 of village streets. There's very little dialogue, but lots of silence, nature sounds (running water, a few bugs, a scream or two), and Daniel White's macabrely contrapuntal piano, lounge themes. There's nothing to stop us, in short, from turning off and tuning in to the ambience of the pastoral countryside, a locale where Nazi occupation is still fresh in collective memory. The cast and crew have a lot of Franco regulars but Jean Rollin (posing as J.A. Lasar) is the director and you'll know right away by his usual mix of 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 dragging each other off to be killed.

Special mention: Dredged up from the lake along with the rest of his dead Wermacht unit is a sensitive zombie private who was on his way 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). When he finds his daughter, he protects her from the rest of his outfit, all done without any speaking of mime, which makes it eerily touching rather than merely maudlin. 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 --that's 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: GENESIS 
"[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 the loved ones turned rabid. I was right! But there's other stuff I didn't expect, too. 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 gate-enclsied wedding-hosting estate in Barcelona is genius. The freedom from the constraints of found footage (after the first 20 minutes or so) without losing its advantages (they just kind of slowly expand from it, not unlike Olivier with the proscenium arch in Henry V) thanks to leaps forward in digital technology, 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 (but still in focus), and the menacing figures emerging from the dark are all sans music cues, making for great jolts and laughs without cheap shocks and mickey-mousing. The intentionally grand all white frills wedding set-up, the disco party lights, white tablecloths, tuxedoes, sexy dresses, grand fixtures and the DJ booth offer uncanny frisson to anyone who's spent a significant amount of their weekends going to other people's weddings, secretly wishing some disaster would strike so you could leave early. 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 muy Barthelona(In Spanish with English subtitles).


Hollywood, USA
INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS
(1973) Dir. Denis Sanders
**1/2

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
WOLFCOP
(2014) Dir Lowell Dean
***
Shot in the woolly wilderness of Saskatchewan, this weird fusion of woodsy lupine elements includes lumberjackin', copious whiskey drinking, cop car ride-pimping/weaponizing, and a prison visit from a hot bitch bartender wearing a sexy red riding hood cape and bearing a basket of candles, erotic lotions, and fine hooch. Old lady Satanists, a good lady cop, and duplicitous heshers round out the pack. Is Wolfcop kind of rough around the edges? Does the lead have unsightly curly hair even in 'human' form? Sure. But how many films are set and shot wayyy up in the provinces, and of those, how many really capture the woodsy small town sense of boozy depressed/isolation only those of us who've lived through unreasonably harsh and brutal winters in nowhere towns by staying totally drunk 24/7 can know (1). I like it cuz it's aboot more than just dumb Troma snark, crap CGI, or Japanese arterial spray. It's mean, wry and got its nose low to the ground. It may get so drunk it can't remember its own name, but it never forgets to rock. (See also: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil)

Iran (Bakersfield, CA)
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
2014 Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
***1/2

This unique crowd-pleaser isn't funny haha, but funny in that it's like something Tom Waits might make if he were an Iranian vampire girl drinking the oil derrick border town dry in Touch of Evil. A Persian language film rich with a deadpan mastery of Jarmusch-brand motion-in-stillness (though it's way livelier than Jarmusch's misleadingly titled Only Lovers Left Alive), it connects indirectly with two druggy black and white NYC art movies from the 90s, Almeredya's 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 and Skooly D.; Girl makes great use of 80s pop group White Lines' song "Death," which if you didn't know of it before, will make you quietly shuffle it onto your 80s Spotify list quick-as-ya-like.

As "The Girl," Sheila Vand--her black hijab like Dracula's cape--consumes both a coke-dealing thug and a junky dad who lets his son support his habit, and we cheer their gruesome demise by this specter of Muslim feminist vengeance,  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, 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, Vand's 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)

----
NOTES
1. I was an English Lit major up in Syracuse NY from 1985-1989 
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. Jocelyn! Call me! I'm ever-so smart! 

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