Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Spooky Behaviors: 15 Cool Horror Films Streaming on Amazon Prime

It's that time of year, a curated list of bizarro cage-free horror films casual classic horror fans may not know of, by me, Erich - and where to find them (they're all currently streaming free on Amazon Prime... for now). Sure it might be harder to get on your Fire stick or Apple TV or whatever, but if you love horror, the classic kind, ya gotta git Prime, man. While Netflix sheds almost all its older movies Amazon Prime has been, year after year, amassing a giant catalogue of weird old shit fin to make Kim's Video rise from its grave. Sure, come Halloween we'll all be watching STRANGER THINGS 2 on Netflix. But until then... am I right?

(Post Script 11/17- We watched it already, and here we still are - am I right?)

If the boxes of strange old crap look even fuller lately, it's because some rerelease outfit called 'Sprockets' has added countless lurid, cheaply made 50s-70s softcore sleaze-o-thons, usually barely an hour long, the type that probably packed onto marquees back in the days before hardcore but would barely get a PG-13 nowadays.  They all suck but in the process can help show why Joe Sarno, John Waters, and Russ Meyer are such comparative genius poets. Check a few out and wonder just how girls ever blinked with all that eyelash mascara back in the day. Then promptly exit that theater and come into mine, choose from this weird curated collection and be assured good times. To get the grindhouse effect (the 'three movies in continual rotation, open 24 hours'  malaise) I suggest slotting out three of these films in advance and then starting the first one in the middle, because--if you're old enough to remember--grindhouse marquees seldom had feature 'start' times. They just played continuously, so you'd walk into the theater in pitch dark, feeling your way to a seat, and never knowing which movie was playing when you came in, until the end (which is why so many horror films of the era end with the title, i.e. "You have been watching SUSPIRIA!"). Not knowing what film you were seeing, or what was happening onscreen, allowed for a sense of anything-can-happen danger that's missing when you know what film it is, and what it's about, and what it's rated, in advance. After one film is done, start the next right away, before you can second guess yourself or read what it's about.

Then, when you finish your third movie of the night, start the first one up from the beginning, and when you get to where you 'came in,' you whisper to your asleep viewing partner (or cat): "this is where we came in" and turn the TV off and sashay away (i.e. pass out). Lo! A longstanding grindhouse tradition!

As always with Prime, the image quality ranges from sublime to fourth generation VHS messed, so I rate both the film and the quality of Amazon's streaming print. Some of these reviews have been posted before on this site, they're presented here re-edited (and with new thoughts) but since some of the films discussed on older posts aren't always still avail. I wanted to regroup those that are, all the better to ensnare you. I'm not being lazy, just obsessive! And lazy!

1.  TORSO 
(1973) Dir. Sergio Martino 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Looking at this now it's hard to believe just how thoroughly the commercial for Torso--which popped up a few times on local afternoon TV in 1973--chilled my six year-old blood. Its key image--of a sexy girl in her underwear crawling pathetically through the mud in the woods while a figure in a ski mask slowly approached,relentlessly---her legs twisting in the undergrowth like she was grinding up against the mud in pathetic but aroused abandon; the killer's immobile face behind the orange ski mask approaching, pulling out (as I remember, incorrectly) a chainsaw--opened up my six year-old psyche like an electric razor ripping through a Playboy centerfold and into the base of my spine. That image has imprinted on me my whole life, and was probably the dawning of my nascent feminism (forced to contemplate the rancid idea that adults somehow found this all 'entertaining'), a 'locking the barn door after the horse ran off' kind of approach to my sensitive prepubescent psyche.

Since growing up, and finally getting over my preformed prejudice, I found to some shock that Torso plays more like a giallo whodunnit with: hacksaw dismembership (off-camera), suspicious male suspects staring at each other staring; a gang of snickering locals who seem like they could need someone to spit on their grave very soon; beautiful coeds posing on tractors and piazzas; disposable Italian boys zipping around on scooters; pot parties when no filmmaker smoked pot so they all gave it this weird sleazy cachet, etc. Still, once it gets down to the final girl hiding in a bedroom, Torso gets pretty intense and it looks good, with lots of old Rome architecture, and the lovely lips of Tina Aumont (above). Look at that deep burnished wood stain and deep red, her lipstick corresponding to the wall color, her haunted heavy lidded eyes and rich auburn hair, the elephant statue trying vainly to trumpet of impending danger. The music gets schmaltzy and there's some terrible wallpaper and you have to imagine a world where everyone agrees not to lift even one hand to defend themselves against scarf strangulation, or why someone with a huge knife would waste time strangling at all, but I digress. No chainsaws but a thin line between outright leering objectification (lots of exposed breasts, lesbian posturing, short skirts) and a concurrent critique of said objectification, as rural Italian males all gather in the street and stare openly, hostilely, as if any minute a gang rape might break out --in the light of Harvey Weinstein, this shit's got a whole new level of repugnancy about it: chainsaws don't even have to factor to get the blood up, this time boiling over.

(1982) Dir. Amy Holden Jones
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B
It's directed by a woman (Amy Holden Jones) written by a woman (Rita Mae Brown) for distribution via Corman's New World, so even if the seams of the frame are fraying at the edges, this stripped-down no frills affair turns out to be solidly constructed, with enough of Halloween's less imitated-to-death elements to make it really hum when it gets going, which is right away: there's the single night time frame, the mute killer, the gradual self-reliance of the plucky female survivor/s (female-written dialogue makes a big difference in this regard as it did in Halloween [via Debra Hill] --it all makes Slumber Party a model of its low-low budget class --it keeps its head low and--in grand Corman style--is over before you know it. The lurid poster offers the suggestive shots of the drill dangling between the killers legs while girls scream in negligees, but that's just the poster - there is a drill but locker room puerility is kept to a (relative) minimum (all three of the snickering horny boys who drop by are with due haste dispatched) and the murders are never sadistic or overly deviant-- rather the focus is on the girl's reactions and resolve, the way they tangle with not just fear but paranoia; and the terrible cost wrought by crying wolf. A real young Brinke Stevens appears in an early bit, not all the hairdos are totally 80s awful, and there's an effective (if not quite Carpenter-carpet cool) old radio show-style organ score help put it over. Next to the legions of terrible VHS rental rack delinquents hanging around it, Slumber endures as a goddamned miracle: a movie that delivers on exactly what you expect or want out of such a film, and not a penny more, but who wants more? It would be too much.

Like the film, the Amazon print is just about serviceable.

(1982) Dir Tom McLoughlin
*** / Amazon Image - B-

Meg Tilly sobs to stardom as a sensitive high school (or college?) kid whose initiation into a pretty lame girl gang involves a night alone at a mausoleum. The mean girls mount spooky pranks but the corpse of a vengeful Russian psychic rises after they blow weed into his crypt, and he's not playing. It came to theaters during the height of the slasher era--and was incorrectly marketed as one, which kept me from seeing it--but One Dark compares more to Phantasm or Carpenter's The Fog than Friday the 13th --which is only part of why it rocks. The way it builds up from the sorority prank scares to the actual ones is pretty seamless, and there's no sex or idiot snickering. Indeed, the dialogue is surprisingly complex! The bitchy gang leader (Robin Evans) is grating on the nerves (you'd rise from the dead to smite her too) but her long dirty blonde hair's terrific! Too bad her sidekick (Leslie Speights) won't stop chewing on a yellow toothbrush - Demerit!

As the dark night plays on, the psychic's estranged daughter, (Melissa Evans) listens to a tape left by a researcher of her late father's telekinetic talents and gets her own 'shining'-style flashes of Meg Tilly in danger. Her husband (Adam West) doesn't do much to help, so she eventually has to go face her evil father and let loose her own inherited telekinetic skills in a gleefully over-the-top special effects climax!

More than anything though, it's Meg Tilly who stands out. As ethereal as Helen Chandler in 1931's Dracula, she's a whole step above the rest of the cast. You'll understand why every filmmaker in town who saw this had to cast her, leading to significant roles in The Big Chill and Psycho 2 the following year. Prime's print is fairly washed out but in HD.

(1987) Dir. Michele Soavi
**** / Amazon Image - A

It's a terrible shame that the great Michele Soavi made so few horror films while working with Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava in the 80s-90s, for he brought out the metatextual in-joke deadpan of their combined style to the point his work compares favorably with that of Antonioni and Godard, layering termite in-jokes so subtly maybe even he didn't know they were there. Even more of a shame is that of his three best films, Cemetery Man, The Devil's Daughter (see Shrouds of Soavi), and Stagefright, only the latter is readily available. I mention this all as it fits - in grand meta style -for this is the behind the scenes tale of a tawdry sex and violence theatrical performance, something clearly meant for off Broadway at the height of the mayor Koch 80s, when sex and sleaze and dance were all of a piece (Bob Fosse meets Abel Ferrara); it's a dark and stormy night, the show opens in a week, an insane killer broke out of the institution down the road, and hid in the back of the lead ingenue's car when she stopped by there to get a sprained ankle mended. She had to sneak out with the caretaker's key, which factors in later. But hey, they can tie in the murder of their wardrobe mistress with the show content and get a million in free publicity. The show must go on! The killer agrees ans is soon offing the cast, who make all the right moves (they stick together, stock up on the set designer's power tools for defense) but still can't compete with this kind of owl-headed madnman. Soon it's down to the cat and mouse between him (still in the owl head) and Barbra Cuspiti, who missed the main slaughter by being conked on the head on the way up to the rafter. Outside in the rain, the cops wait inside their squad car, presuming they can somehow help, but they can't even get inside. So the meta and Hitchockian elements beswirl: the only door key out begins to loom like a giant sculpture mirage, planted between the stage floor boards below the (now napping) killer's feet; weird mannequins gawk idly in the foreground stage right; we see the sax-playing Marilyn load a cassette with her solo into the bowl; the ingenue takes off giant fake bubble breasts; the killer plays his own leitmotif and works the effects (he's a former actor); the idea of being locked in all night with the killer has a goofball old school charm; the male leads follow a ogical course of self-defense; the fat guy tries to buy the killer off with a wad of cash; and you don't put it past Soavi to substitute real actresses in mannequin poses in some shots and not even call attention to it, or having someone below camera level slowly moving them side to side, too slow for the human eye to register; when Barbara Cuispi's shirt is the exact same light green as the backstage dressing room hallway, like; a big no-no in non-camouflage wardrobe that its broken rule aspect is both funny, reassuring and gently tension alleviating, maybe in ways I can't explain; Peter--the Byronic director-- toots blow but does it on the sly so we barely notice.

Soavi buries gems all over; a reel-to-reel tape of the Wagnerian musical score blasted (by the killer) at inopportune times makes Peter's determined vengeance seem like a Roman opera; a broken bottle of stage blood crashes to the ground right when a guy gets drilled through the door, so the two red run together. We don't just see the cops oblivious in the rain but Soavi plays with trying to get us to care or be scared for them as they delve merrily into cop cliche. Wry shit like that just piles up and though plenty tense and scary, the laughs are earned, the acting sublimely exaggerated (except for Cuspiti, who zombies out for the last 1/4, which is preferable anyway as it's suspenseful enough without hammy histrionics), and the layers of meta so interwoven that even after death the killer might manage one last smile at the camera. Amazon image, in full rich HD has such lush rich Italian blue-red palette color it's to swoon for, to the point most of the other films on this list are unbearable by contrast afterwards. (full)

(1982) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***/ Amazon Image - B

Fulci fans come in all shapes and degrees: Some love the attention to gore and gross-outs but some of us fancy folks dig the discordant dream logic, the way his work only makes sense if you let go of all your usual narrative expectations and surrender to the moment- just admire the framing, the mood, and the raucously ironic Fabio Frizzi synths, the strange way he plays on the rhythm of other movies as if a jazz counterpoint (in this case, the other movies would be both the original Exorcist and the sequel) as well as the narrative tricks of our own nightmares. Franco and Rollin make films that flow like idylls dipped in the brush of nightmare, but Fulci does the reverse, he's the quicksand that lets you appreciate the beauty of the flowers even as a shambling corpse filled with maggots pulls your eyes out of their sockets. That's why firm supporters of his House by the Cemetery (see 'Nightmare Logic') should seek out Manhattan Baby, for the cast is largely the same and--hey--it's even less coherent!

The plot involves a mysterious amulet given by a mysterious old lady to a little girl who's visiting Egypt with her parents and brother. At night it opens up a stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and the little girl and her brother's bedroom in the family's uptown Manhattan apartment (this leads to lots of sand on their bedroom floor the next morning - mom's pissed). The dad meanwhile was temporarily blinded back in Egypt by the gem's twin --it shot him with blue lasers when he looked at it too long in a mysterious cave/tomb wall carving. As his eyesight slowly returns, a psychic tosses the famly a note from a window that lets them know they're not out of the woods: the amulet is a gateway to evil that gets off on possessing children and trapping their souls within its sinister facets. Anyone who gets in its way, including a taxidermist, a louche family friend, and the psychic herself--all wind up either attacked by stuffed birds, real cats, or an interdimensional doorway that dumps them in Egypt and leaves lots of sand on the carpet after it closes again.

The parents' initial skepticism soon gives way to concern and once the amulet is found - well, it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real, what's a dream (the kids call it 'voyaging') and what's supposed to be happening in real time; if there's a difference between being actually in modern Egypt, ancient Egypt, inside the jewel, or a collective dream, don't expect to find it out - just savor the eerie sense of timelessness Fulci culls from his location shooting. If you can do that, and if it doesn't bother you that when the wife sees the sand on the floor of the bedroom we can't tell if she's in Egypt looking down from a mountain or New York looking down at the carpet, then this is your movie. And if you like catching odd little details, like when the dad catches a scorpion to give to his daughter as a souvenir (says his guide: "be sure to tell her it's a symbol of death!") then this is your movie, too. It's maybe because you 'get' Antonioni and the rise of psychedelic post-structuralism in Italian cinema or maybe you can just shrug and think, hey 'in dreams, I'll find you there.' As long as you're open to surreal 'you are there/not there' duality, and as long as you stop trying to understand and just think, hey  - the taxidermist psychic is named Adrian Mercata, a reference to ROSEMARY'S BABY (Adrian Marcata), then suddenly the weird title makes sense at last. (Pair w/ Argento's Inferno for an Italian film shot-in-NYC nightmare logic not-that-great-but-still-OK extravaganza)

(2013) Dir. John V. Knowles
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

This low budget attempt at a candy-colored smart girl Scream meets Heathers / Mean Girls divided by The Faculty horror comedy suggests that any suspiciously well-preserved female school teacher who drifts into your small upscale American town advocating celibacy and 'promise rings' may in fact be the ever-young Countess Elizabeth Bathory, working to ensure the local female blood supply stays virgin. Louise Griffiths plays the gorgeous, eternally young blood bather, posing under the name 'Liz Batho' she effortlessly seduces insecure female (virgin) students, vain parents, and wide-eyed audience members alike with her mix of smart Brit poise, seductive coded-lesbian magnetism, and cheerful disregard for her screaming victims. Sorting it all out are two smart, intimate qua-lesbian best buddies played Alison Scaglioti and Francesca Raisa, one of whom has her eyes on a college journalism scholarship so is always pitching news to "HuffPo" and the other draws flowers on her face to co-opt her terrible acne, pines for love, and, well, is easy prey for Liz, who soon lures her away from her bestie and into the promise ring circle. Meanwhile, all the 'Hiltons' (the popular girls) are planning to lose their virginity in one fell swoop before prom. They better hurry, for harvest time approaches. And our intrepid reporter better sort out whether she's being jealous or legitimately concerned as she snoops out the shocking truth.

While it does suffer from low budget relative to its ambitions, and the excessively 'smart' dialogue doesn't quite seem natural, just remember it's no less mannered than, say, a Diablo Cody-scripted quirkfest like Jennifer's Body and is actually more disturbingly violent and far less coy, especially once the girls start being bled over the sacrificial blood bird bath altar (and there's no guys in tacky eyeliner). Plus gotta love when the cast list is 90% female and losing virginity is no cause for snickering and guilt, but a matter of life and death. The final showdown is all women, with men barely an afterthought. Sure it never seems like there's more than six kids in the whole school, and the contingent of desperate housewife-ish botox-ed up moms are ten shades over-the-top, but taken with a half-asleep grain of salt (for blood thickenr), it's a lovely, surprisingly dark little Angela Carter-meets-Buffy episode-style sleeper, stolen by Louise Griffiths with a nurturing, sapphic wink that makes her later casual bloodletting all the darker.

(1971) Dir. Harry Kümel
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

If the Countess Bathory themes from Chastity Bites still got you fidgeting under the collar then you may want to cool down with this slice of elegant European 'art sleaze' perversion, a real feminist horror film school lover favorite, perhaps the most sophisticated and poetic of the vast quantity of lesbian vampire movies that flooded screens in 1971. It's easily the best acted--thanks to a first-rate Dietrich-esque performance from Delphine Seyrig--and one of the most atmospheric--thanks to its off-season old world Belgian seaside moodiness and the beauty of Danielle Ouimet, as a young blonde innocent on her European honeymoon with shifty-eyed Stefan (John Karlen), who might be in love now, abut started the romance as a rent boy on holiday from his rich fey sponsor. As the only other guests in a nearly-closed off-season hotel (ala one of its clear inspirations, Don't Look Now), the ever-hungry Bathory (Seyrig) and her young full-lipped consort (Andrea Rau) spot the lovers checking in and before you can say 'the aging doorman who remembers her from before the second world war is beginning to become suspicious that she hasn't aged in all this time,' are playing kinky head games (Karlen and Ouimet seem clearly cast to subliminally resemble Polanski and recently-murderd wife Sharon Tate) luring Stefan into orgiastic discussions of sadistic cruelty in order to drive his naive bride into her arms. The enigmatic ending and celebratory climactic murder are both pretty cool and the whole thing has a washed-in-the-tide kind of sly magic that does what Marienbad was trying to do ((see: Last Year at Marien... something something), but with way more charm, old world ennui-soaked sophisticated menage-a-whatever decadence, and captures the 'out mit ze old' languid aging-lover Euro love-junky sapphic weirdness of Fassbinder's Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant with far more subtlety. Seyrig imbues her role with such heavy-lidded old world Teutonic charm and menace she could probably scare Lotte Lenya. When she dons that spangly disco ball Ziggy Stardust sheathe gown you're powerless before her glam rock gravitas; you'd jump off a cliff for her, even in that ratty blonde wig.

ASIDE: Standing tall with Dracula's Daughter and Xena in the annals of beloved lesbian fantasy texts, there's an interesting gay-sploitation moment or two in Daughters of Darkness when Stefan calls his gay sugar daddy, who we see wearing garish make-up while lounging by his indoor pool. Though freakishly presented, we identify with his heartbreak when he learns Stefan is now married, the way he tries to keep a stoic face even over the phone, and we're left to imagine the fight between them that led to current state of events, all while the bride playfully unwittingly tries to get at the phone thinking he's trying to talk to his mom to tell her 'the good news.' When you consider the way gay directors could express their own lifestyle only under the promise that they, in a sense, camp it up and mince around, make a freak show out of it as it were, one gets at a terrible truth in the core of the post-vs.-pre-Stonewall struggle: the gay lifestyle can be shown as stylish only in high shock-value camp, only be sympathetic provided it undercuts with tragic self-loathing and 'foreign'-ness as transgression (i.e. Fassbinder). At the same time we're encouraged to fall under Countess's lesbian sway and to see Stefan's sense of what's right (the man gives the orders and instigates the sex - the wife feebly submits) as a bullying child's feeble attempt to counter the subtler sapphic machinations of the the female orgasm, which is seen as an invigorating 'sickness'.  Hot, quietly insightful and very stylish stuff, served cold as Belgian fog. Kümel made Malpertius the same year. Just don't watch The Hunger afterwards, for it's sad just how lame that movie is by comparison - and it's clear Tony Scott's main and sole inspiration is this film. Instead, I recommend Xan Cassavettes' Kiss of the Damned (2013).

(1986) Dir. Jim Wynorski
*** / Amazon Image - A

Big Jim Wynorski often churns out silicone cleavage-and-snickering dillweed-choked tripe, but in the early days at New World he could still let his better instincts prevail, as in this fun post-Terminator / Dawn of the Dead mall culture New World blast --originally called Killbots--about what happens after hourss at the local mall when a sextet of young mattress store workers and their dates hold an in-store sleepover during the same night a freak lighting storm imbues a pack of newly-installed security robots with Gort-style lasers and evil intelligence (they make fine ironic use of an array of Robocop-style civic duty platitudes). Their pouffy 80s haircuts have dated badly, but the cast includes incumbent scream queen Barbara Crampton, Deathstalker 2's John Terlesky, Night of the Comet's Kelli Maroney, etc. and--best of all--the robots are actually life-size remote controlled little devils zipping around the real mall on fast-moving tank treads, zapping lasers, cutting off limbs, ripping out intestines, and making pity Robocop-style quips. With its in-jokes to scares ratio is almost Joe Dante-level perfect, there's some irritating Wynorski-snark from the dudes early on, but at least they can quote the 1951 Thing with ease and the nerd shows Attack of the Crab Monster to his blind date (a  move I've used myself, so I can vouch that it works); alpha male Terlesky radiates good-natured Bruce Campbell-style wry charisma. As in Night of the Comet, Maroney turns out to be a crack shot; and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic, so women come off strong and capable here. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with gear looted from the hardware store, crawl through the vents, raid "Peckinpah's" gun store and protect each other best they can. Only sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton whines, but in the earlier scenes, doing the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role, she shows why she's so long held a hallowed place in horror fan's hearts. The sight of those 'bots zipping down the real carpeted mall promenade in real time-space chasing a fleeing Crampton past the rows of closed-up stores and booths --is this not straight from the unconscious of any flyover state depressed Space Port-addicted 80s mall rat? I was that mall rat! Were you? The Amazon Image--taken from the recent Vestron HD upgrade--is killer, and for the icing on the cake, ye old New World in-joke appearances by Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and even Dick Miller as--what else?--hipster janitor Walter Paisley. Might as well jump - JUMP! (See also: The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya).

(1986) Dir. Ted Nicolau
*** / Amazon Image - A

This would make good New Wave 1986 double feature with CHOPPING MALL (above), it's a MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci-fi story of a gross but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via the newly installed satellite TV of a looney upscale Malibu family (satellite TV must have been the latest thing). What a great 'All American' Family too for a giant ravenous blob from space to invade: Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham are the swinger parents; Diane Franklin is their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen is her little brother, a tow-headed young gun nut under the tutelage of his crackpot survivalist war vet grandfather (Bert Remsen), who lives in the adjacent bomb shelter. TV horror hostess Madame Medusa (Jennifer Richards) looks down from above on TV (the family at first confuses the flickering image of the monster with the film she's showing). A swinger couple (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks [above]) are brought home for some hot tub action but all doesn't go as planned; Jonathan Gries is the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!") who thinks the monster could make them all famous;  a 'good' alien appears on TV later, trying to convince the family he's talking to them directly and not in some old monster movie. Everyone has the perfect oversize tenor in their sitcom-from-Hell overacting style, and the house, with its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor (it's all filmed on indoor sets with psychedelic skies outside the windows) beautifully conveys a loving spirit that triangulates TERRORVISION's signal perfectly in the center of 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman.. (Full)


(2016) Dir. Anna Biller
****/ Amazon Image - B+

Anna Biller's fond ode to the early-70s (women's lib-inspired) 'suburban housewife joins witch coven' American cinematic subgenre (and its Eurosleaze erotic black widow variation), LOVE WITCH blazes with pagan Thoth Tarot Deck-inspired color palette and a sense of real danger, diligently spinnereted to Jacques Demy fairy tale renaissance faire pageantry, with a 'Satan's School for Gifted Youngsters' annual solstice pageant primitivism that keeps it from being either too campy or realistic. Instead, comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between power of suggestion paranoia and mythic fantasy, we can't really tell for sure where real magic, power of suggestion, and delusional madness divide, which--if you want your movie to resonate with uncanny frisson--is how it must be. As the vintage Morricone passages patch pastiche, Biller ointments up her broomstick and flies herself up ahead to act as point guard for a whole coven of new filmmakers, (whom I've written lovingly about) who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny 'new' vistas. Bringing a whole other level of filmmaking cohesion, Biller makes any further separation between experimental/narrative, real/imagined, present/past impossible. The cauldron bubbles, now and forever stirred by the capable hands of this quintuple threat (Biller also did the costumes). Even the terrible hyper-mannered acting is so uncanny it resonates in the mind long after viewing is done. (full)

(PS, if you dare, pair w/ Blood Orgy of the She-Devils)

(1977) Dir. William Girdler
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

The perfect product of a nation that--in 1977--was at the height of its post-Jaws eco-horror and ensemble cast disaster movie fever, this Lalo Schifrin-scored gem (by the man who gave you Grizzly) follows the old Poseidon Adventure playbook in telling the tale of a big camping tour group of disparately aged and stereotyped hikers who find themselves adrift in the High Sierras when the hole in the ozone layer causes all animals to go insane and, periodically, attack humans. Sometimes in staged attacks organized, apparently, by hawks calling shot from above, everything from bears to dogs to flying mice show up, both up in the mountain and down in the town as its overrun by Hazmat suits and the military. The big climax involves the survivors of the expedition finally making it back down the mountain, taking shelter in the now-evacuated town as a pack of wild dogs tries to get at them through cracks in the doors of a crumbling shack (a separated hiker falls prey to a carload of snakes while trying to save a little THEM! girl). Leslie Nielsen is the only human who, too, succumbs to the ozone effect on his animal brain (he's the Borgnine naysayer, challenging the Christopher George/Gene Hackman's leadership, if you know your Poseidon playbook parlance). The film really takes off when he rants about Melville's god once he rips off his shirt in the pouring rain, makes an old Bronx character actress cry with the realization she shouldn't have followed him when the gang split up, kills the young boyfriend of a sexy young thing, tries to rape her and then fights a grizzly, bare-chested like a white-haired Putin. Director Girdler may have no gift for momentum or suspense (or--Melville's god help us--casting) but he feels his way along in real mountain man time, in real manly mountains, with a cast that includes a very small adult male stuntman trying to pass as a small boy (always good for weird frisson), and real animals. The scene where a gaggle of hawks and vultures maul the group's requisite One Bitchy Girl is truly terrifying because we can tell those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and her unease is palpable - how would anyone know if she was really being torn to shreds, rather than acting, during take after take? Unlike Hitchcock though, we can be fairly sure Girdler only did one or two attempts. He's a mountain man, not a sadist or, lord help us, a perfectionist. Schifrin's amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion fills in all the dead spots in between the laughs and the discomfort, so the absence of perfection is barely noticed.  (Full

(1953) Dir. Ron Ormond 
**** / Amazon Image - C
(see: "So Close to Heaven")
I'm mighty glad that Prime has so many of my favorite late night spider woman films--the ones that get me through everything from panic attacks to the DTs to boredom to not being able to choose anything else to watch and being too lazy to rummage. A PD title for decades, quality's always been poor for old Mesa, but thats part of its dog-eared charm. I used to have this on a 6-hour tape with Cat Women of the Moon and Spider Baby, bro, how cool is that? All three are on Prime. Watch 'em back-to-back and imagine you're me, circa 1990 Seattle, watching that tape over-and-over, pounding Old Grand-Dad under the relentless Pacific NW rain (we had a flat roof and it echoed most pleasingly above me) while my lovely soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend galavanted around in some other neighborhood with a bunch of pretentiously open-hearted hippies, courted by some smitten open mike guy in a long black braind (he ran the OK Hotel Open Mike at the time - where I often performed). Yeah, the one who laughed like startled mare? Dude, you remember him? He was terrified of me! Always ran in the other direction in a florid, dancey kind of way - you know, where their feet start running and then, trailing last, their head, the pony tail still fluttering in the air after they've already cleared the first block? I'm fishtailing here. Let's get back to what counts in this simple narrative: Old Grand-Dad (fresh from the U-District State Store), Spider Women movies, good weed, pounding rain, the girlfriend feeling guilty about the other guy so staying away as much as possible and no longer making me feel bad about my drinking = what could be finer? Is it sick that I can't think of a single thing?

Well, family - the whiskey's long gone for me, so is the girl, so is Seattle, but Mesa is still the same - and that 6-hour spider and Cat girl tape? Well, I still keep 'er around, in case. All the other tapes are long gone but that that one's still on the shelf. Why? Because spider women on a mesa in the Los Muertos Desert. Just knowing they're up there on that 'table land', is what's important. And that music, that clanging cacophony of piano mashes and flamenco guitar. Ooh ooh! Shall we see it again... right now? Tell ya one thing, thanks to Prime, it's handy. 

(1953) Dir. Al Zimbalist
**** / Amazon Image - A

Al Zimbalist's 'finest' hour is a moody trash heap that manages to create a strangely poetic vibe thanks to the cool beatnik coffee house improv dance troupe vibe of the cat women aliens (who live in a telepathic all-female clique on the moon) and a beguilingly low-key flute score by--who else?--Elmer Bernstein. In short, this 'moon' seems very groovy indeed. The astronaut's ship might consist of genuine quonset hut sheet metal but the cots and hammocks all look relaxing. One of the astronauts throws in plugs for various products on the off-chance they'll send him free samples (working hard to make you aware that, like Russ Tamblyn in The Haunting, his character only cares about money). Sonny Tufts is the dimwit leader who's dating Marie Windsor but shouldn't be in charge as he's a moron; Victor Jory is the buzzkill petulant (he should be in charge and dating Windsor but he's not as tall or blonde). The young innocent human radio operator and the young innocent cat girl Lambda fall in love (she wants to go to America and have, what did you call it? 'a Coke.') And there's a giant spider. No, two giant spiders. In short, it's the kind of film that, once seen, must be immediately forgotten, and/or re-watched ten more times, with Mesa of Lost Women, Spider Baby and/or Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! on in between. I had them all on a 6-hour tape compiled from video rentals from a nearby Kim-ish record store near my chosen Seattle state store in 1990 and watched it over and over in an amniotic blissful bourbon fog (more), I know I mentioned that above, and it's clear I still can't move on, mentally, from that, and now, thanks to Prime, I don't have to. (Even Kill Kill is on here, though you have to get 'Fandor' for an extra $3-4 a month) As for you, mi hombre, your mileage may vary but you'll still find this Moon trip with plenty of goose up and gas-s-s left, whatever that means, baby. Whatever that means....

PS - They've uploaded a really nice print of this film to the Prime site, it looks better than e'er I've seen it. Don't miss it - whatever the personal damage it may cause long-term. Whiskey!

"Wui wan yeh" (1995) 
Dir. Stephen Chow
*** / Amazon Image - A

A huge star in Hong Kong and Mainland China, deadpan meta-comic Stephen Chow is mostly unknown in the west, largely I think because he's not Jackie Chan or Jet Li (less martial arts flair) and his satire skewers a pop culture different than ours, but if you've seen any Asian horror movies in the last 25 years -- Ringu, Ju-On, Pulse, Dark Water, Suicide Club, Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, A Chinese Ghost Story, etc.--or even English language films beloved of Hong Kong, like The Evil Dead and The Professional--you should get at least 80% of this zippy horror spoof's in-jokes, and they all fly by so fast it won't matter about the others. Chow stars as a crazy ghost hunter Leo, called to a towering HK apartment complex to exorcise the vengeful spirit of a squabbling couple's recently deceased mother.  The couple's cute neighbor (Karen Mok) finds Chow's ghost chaser--with his long black coat, sunglasses and mysterious Chow Yun Fatty ways--intriguing (he has unique sets of skills, such as the art of performing CPR with a hammer and catching ghosts with saran wrap and a bullhorn). The next night she shows up where he lives (a lunatic asylum) and starts following him around. He lets her carry his houseplant (its stamen acts as a spirit diving rod), and trains her--and the now-thoroughly-haunted apartment complex's bumbling security guards--in ghost detection via a hilarious sequence of tests to remove their fear (as in a game lit-dynamite hot potato). Soon they're all facing off against the evil mom spirit, who's now living in the TV, from which she can possess anyone at any time (and when the married neighbor couple die they become evil ghosts too).

The overall impression is fairly grimy thanks to the industrialized apartment complex setting, but the raucous laughs are served with genuinely dark relentless chills, faster and faster, until they stick in your throat, back up and shoot all over the floor like you-know-what. Fans of Gordon's Re-Animator and Raimi's Evil Dead II will be in heaven. Like those films it's hilarious but also relentlessly intense, especially the prolonged climax where the spirits keep possessing random members of the party, including even Leo himself, and coming at them with a chainsaw even while they're flying with paper hats that he's convinced everyone are magical. (In Cantonese w/ burnt-in English subtitles)

(1975) Dir. Shan Hua
**** / Amazon Image - A++

If you were a young kid in the early 70s, you might remember loving the live action Japanese kid/monster shows like Ultraman, Space Giants, Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot. I certainly do. I still lift a stylus up above my head every one in awhile on the off chance I turn silver and grow to three stories tall. Infra Man isn't Japanese - it's the Hong Kong knock-off, or rather - it's the Shaw Brothers outdoing their ancient foes with a baller balls-out super-strange, pop-art funhouse sets, Seals and Kroft gone homicidal monster sliced madness, and sheer sugar-addled moxy. 1977's Infra-Man makes up for in creativity in exuberance what it lacks in budget and though only a single movie, it zips along like a re-cap of three full seasons of a TV show- pausing only for breath and laser beam mind control tortureBest of all, the villain is a sexy woman with an evil, pitiless laugh named Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu)! With her crazy horned gold helmet, thigh-high boots, whip, and ability to morph at will into a flying reptile, she's the coolest supervillain since Julie Newmar's Cat-Woman. Ruling an assortment of goofball evil underlings: the sexy Demon Witch Eye (who has a dinosaur helmet, and eyes in the palms of her monster hands that shoot lasers); a monster with drill hands and a memorably deep laugh; a Banana Splits-style 6-armed bug monster who can--like Infra-Man--swell to gigantic size if the mood strikes him; an army of guys on dirt bikes wearing skull motorcycle helmets, and only hell knows what other horrors awaiting Infra-Man if he dares traverse her fortress! The fights include lots of jumping around and spinning and falling into lakes. No one just falls down, even if you hit them on top of the head they leap into the air like crazy modern dancers. There's also plenty of wire-work wuxia, crazy spinning high kicks, foam rocks flying, laser beams, motorcycle stunts, and professional wrestling. When something's this good it can access my inner child all over and this had me literally rolling on the floor in paroxysms of jubilation. A few years ago Prime had a shitty cropped dupe available and it was all but unwatchable, but now, as if by magic: an HD anamorphic widescreen with brilliant colors has discreetly replaced it... Paroxysms of jubilation! 

Demon Witch Eye fixin' to laser beam the nonbelievers


  1. and to think I was about to ask you for some recommendations... my luck :)

    "..cheaply made 50s-70s softcore sleaze-o-thons, usually barely an hour long, the type that probably packed onto marquees back in the days before hardcore,.."

    why does this line stick out to me so much? sleaze-a-thons??? fucking LOVE it.

    1. Thanks Martha - I think you'll especially love the last one, INFRA-MAN. It's beyond crazy


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