America, Canada, the North, vast empty night skies, rows of dreary tract homes without trees or sidewalks. The Winter, the dwindling Fall, dying err it arrives. Can it be here at last, the chill, the leaves and the first day of school all at once; the bell of the end, the clicking wheel of life and death. And in film, dreams fill the void of the empty road, sky, and life.
And of course... autumnal Italy, art is older than America many centuries over - the orange hair of Nicoletta Elmi as she comes roaring at you with a hammer like a modern instance - and all on Prime...
(1988) Dir. Ed Hunt
*** / Amazon Image - B- (SD)
The Prime thumbnail image for this film might fool you into thinking it's another 50s black-and-white Donovan's Brain retread (there are over a half-dozen movies with the same ironic title) but accept no substitutes: your Brain of choice should be Canadian, from 1988, and bathed in wintry Ontario wanness. The titular brain is a giant fanged alien head floating head (less Donovan, more Arous), so don't worry about being gypped on the monster end. It's using TV signals to brainwash parents into believing their children are dangerous illegal drug addicts! If that brings you a shudder of recognition, maybe you were a teenager in the 80s (the decade of urine samples and 'surviving straight'-style rehabs). Also you might be thinking of the divine Carpenter's They Live from the same year, but that was less about suburban rebels and more about inner city homeless. Not as relatable!
|there's obviously no such thing as irony on this Brain's planet|
|"he was dead before he ate here, sir."|
Now we can watch a film like The Brain and--in addition to reveling in the great, over-the-tip but super slimy and welcomely analog latex monster, remember back to a time long before the internet, when cable and video was new and our current erosion of consensual reality only in its infancy, early enough that films like Videodrome and They Live seemed more speculative than historical. 1988--as evidenced by both The Brain and They Live coming out the same year--reflects a moment in time when parents were turned against their own children by hysteria-mongering TV pundits and first ladies urging everyone to just say no to drugs, even as every other facet of outlaw self expression was slowly rolled back on us. Our only quasi-legal 'fun' came in skipping school with one's girlfriend and maybe another couple to fool around a upstairs for hours while the parents were out working, then going to the mall and smoking cigarettes at the mall Spaceport. Too specific? For those of us living in this post-real America of the Now, where dueling 24/7 news channels turn political footballs into bombs and Russia crashes our future's hard drive with flag-pumpin' sock puppets fanning flames of the fires they faked us into fearing, this has never been more prescient, blah blah.
Forget all that relevance. Come back to when this was all just science fiction, when it was all just part of a mid-80s micro-wave that saw deep into the 'reality' that cable TV and video rental stores seemed doomed to propagate. The Brain never caught cult status like fellow Canadian Cronenberg's Videodrome or Carpenter's The Thing, but it's more fun than both put together, with the teen couple like a suburban version of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, running around the TV station chased by zombified guards and an ever scarier fanged beach ball. If you were a pot-smoking hippy or punk teenager in the 80s you may relate, as Nancy Reagan and hysteria-mongering news reports convinced your mom it was OK have you shanghaied by Christian extremist rehabs if she found a bag of oregano in your jeans.
Now that weed is practically legal, the real addiction is cell phones. There is no rehab for that ailment, and the world is already in the thrall of some ancient online Slavic monster that has no name... let us call him - Yogxander SoPutggi'noth- and his Necronomicon the Faciem-liber!
(2016) Dir. Monica Demes
*** / Amazon Image - A-
Brazilian director Monica Demes has clearly taken some points from other b&w womyn's rites vampire features, like Michael Almereyda's Nadja and, especially, Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone in her feature debut, filmed in Iowa while under David Lynch tutorship at the University of MUM (i.e. Maharahrishi University of Management). Sophia Woodward stars as Lucy, a dissatisfied woman living in a twilight world of the flatland emptiness-drenched midwest, where she's bossed around by her dad (she works at his gas station as a cashier), almost raped by his creepy-hot mechanic (Matthew Lloyd Wilcox), and bossed around by her doughy husband (Sam Garles). Lillith (Barbara Eugenia) rides into Lucy's dreams to wreak some vengeance, though her dreams seem like they're also happening in reality. When it seems like it's almost always night, when days pass like dreamy flashes, which is which? That could be a sign to click 'stop' and keep scrolling, but resist! In a lot of ways this works as good as or better than Lynch's own Twin Peaks: The Return in that it's at least not boring and there's not as many badly-aged once-cute actors to remind us of our own crumbling mortality every second.
What helps most is that Demes and her cinematographers have found a way to capture the deep spooky blacks of the Iowa flat straight landscape, where the night extends outwards ever blacker into the vast distance, while letting us see, gradually, as shapes and faces emerge into an invisible lighting spectrum; there are blacks on blacks in ways one hasn't seen since straining to find Joe Spencer's tattoo on the cover of the Velvet's White Light/White Heat album. Filmed mostly in the dead quiet of night, with huge empty starless skies- a film that exists already deep in the void.
A kind 80 minute nightmare logic poem, Lilith could have been a real bore in lesser hands, but Demes takes a few pointers from Lynch (who cameoed as a security guard in Nadja!) by papering the cracks with a droning avant-garde minimalist underscore, adding intensely hypnotic layers to the empty darkness of the landscape; its few twisting trees, tapping into a meditative, pleasurable unease.
This is a dark movie, and the camera settles in for long-held static shots comprised often mostly of darkness, shadows of tangles of trees overlapping, or long flat stretches of road, with angry or zombified faces illuminated by dashboard lights at the wheel. Since it is so dark we're always peering into it, straining the emptiness out for faces; and sometimes, when one does show up, Demes ingeniously keeps the score quiet about it --there's no jangle of music letting us know what to feel and when we should feel it, and/or see what may even not be there. Thus, along with Lucy, we quickly begin to go crazy ourselves, as a defense mechanism against such unyielding emptiness; the uneasy wintry place where daylight savings' time is almost a relief, crushing out the latter half of the day from the reminder there's nothing to do and nowhere to go.
|Strain real close now, and let your paredolia fly!|
We hope she'd tell him to go fuck himself, or that Lilith, her dream anima-avenger shadow, will rip him asunder, but this is a movie not really on a realistic level -instead it has a kind of dreamy 'is Lilith real or is this girl hallucinating, seeing her murderous alternate personality as a fantasy (ala Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came From the Sea); but who's complaining when--instead of the usual trenchcoated middle aged working stiff investigating detective we get lovely Eden West in big aviator shades and a leather jacket is the cute lady motorcycle cop investigating the mechanic's mysterious disappearance. With first timer--or any--horror movies, it's sometimes not about the cumulative effect and the cohesion into a nice wrap-up payoff, it's about the mood and the moment. And on that, Demes delivers!
Il medaglione insanguinato (malocchio)
aka "The Cursed Medallion"
aka "The Cursed Medallion"
aka "Together Forever"
(1975) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
(1975) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
*** / Amazon Image - B
Despite its crummy name/s, this autumnal-hued, Exorcist-tinged supernatural supernatural/psycho thriller has the goods, especially for classic and giallo horror fans. Richard Johnson (The Haunting) stars as a British documentary filmmaker whose new subject is a strange nightmarish ancient Italian painting with a tragedy speckled provenance that has some eerie connection to his Elektra-complexioned young daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi of Who Saw Her Die?). She's still getting over her mom's death in a horrible fire and is so clingy she ends up tagging along to Italy with him to film the work and its creepy private gallery/museum setting. Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) is his sexually available new assistant; Evelyn Stewart (the stringent sister in The Psychic) is the governess who maybe waited too long to seem interested. As you may guess, all sorts of similarities between the events depicted in the painting and reality start to manifest, especially the young girl in the painting is starting to look a lot like Emily, who's growing increasingly possessed by the homicidal spirit attached to a mysterious medallion. The painting's owner, Contessa Capelli (Lila Kedrova, Torn Curtain), tries to convince Johnson to leave Italy at once, but he won't! He doesn't believe in the supernatural, countess, I'm sorry... And yet... that painting...
As the events accrue he has a harder and harder time explaining it all away, especially when an old Venetian dagger zips across the gallery floor towards the feet of anyone getting too close to the painting. Meanwhile, Emily has terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring with Joanna instead of at home where she can spy on him. As evil doings accrue and everyone in the way of some ancient curse of Freudian impulse starts dying off, the dried blood or other strange gunk falls off the painting to expose more and more eerie detail. What is Emily doing on this ancient canvas, holding a sacrificial knife? And what size rock has to fall on our documentarian's head before he wises up to the ghostly goings-on?
The real stand-out here is bizarre grin of Nicoletta Elmi. It is legitimately terrifying. There's a scene where she goes from having a kind of nightmare seizure to a kind of Helen Keller plate breaking fit to outright maniacal psychosis: her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee, a truly fiendish yet merry innocent grin on her face, she lunges at her terrified governess with a hammer while daddy and new girlfriend Joanna Cassidy are off on a date, and we're left feeling like something legitimately nightmarish has just happened. Even just trying her mom's old dress, Emily's eyes light up with such dirty adult malice a viewer may get a deep, satisfying shudder. When she smokes a cigarette, she does so with a look that's startlingly adult, easily outpacing other 10 year-olds trying the same look (as in Tatum O'Neil smoking in Paper Moon.)
Though it's a 70s post-Exorcist horror film, Italian cinema rarely let go completely of its old obsession just to add the trappings of a new. (their history is too damned ancient to escape into a ground zero canvas the way we can here in the States). Maybe that's why the past is never through with the present. Maybe that's why Stelvio Cirpiani's score comes at it all like some sweeping sinful post-neorealist romance, building strings and wistfully gamboling fifths up into where you can practically smell the spring flowers and see pairs of lovers lost in blissful montage like it's some 60s softcore erotic vacation. Occasionally cycling minor key piano motifs and dimly choir-like vocalizing gallop along with music box tones and Spanish guitar, though why is anyone's guess. Seriously the music is so generic I doubt even Cipriani himself would recognize it if his name wasn't on it.
Other percs: the lush autumnal scenery--often seen via reflective windows on the film's many drives--lets you know they really are driving around the countryside; and the dreams Emily has are layered in extended overlaps which only reluctantly give way to dissolves - a trick seldom employed as brazenly or as effectively. The painting that so fascinates Emily's documentarian dad is just the right blend of classical and heavy metal (Bosch meets Kiss). All in all, it might not be as great as The Exorcist but the combination of Elimi's terrifying smile, the unabashed Freudian murk of the central relationship, and Italy's autumnal foliage more than make-up for Cipriani's generic scoring.