Wednesday, August 28, 2019


America, Canada, the North: vast empty night skies, rows of dreary tract homes without trees or sidewalks. A single gas station the only sign of life for twenty miles in each direction. The Winter: the dwindling Fall dying err it arrives. The bell of the end of meditation-- the clicking wheel of life and death Only dreams fill the void of the empty road, sky, and life... and movies, of course. 

Autumn comes everywhere, even Italy, whose art is older than America by many centuries. The orange hair of Nicoletta Elmi as she comes roaring at you with a hammer like a modern instance. And all on Prime... Can such deals be real, even at the tragic cost? 

(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 in color, from 1988, and bathed in wintry Ontario wanness. The titular brain for this one is a giant fanged, alien, floating head (less Donovan, more Arous), so don't worry about being gypped on the monster end (I haven't ever seen Donovan, out of principle). This evil brain isn't possessing gangsters or John Agar, it's using local TV signals to brainwash parents into believing their children are dangerous illegal drug addicts! Hear that, mom? 

If that brings you a shudder of recognition, maybe you were a teenager in the 80s (the decade of high school urine samples--even for non-offenders--and 'surviving straight'-style kidnap rehabs). Too, it might make you think of the divine Carpenter's They Live from the same year, although that was less about suburban teenage rebels and more about the inner city homeless. Thank god I can't relate to that one as much as this. 

there's obviously no such thing as irony on this Brain's planet
The storyline of The Brain --if you pare away the sci-fi--boils down to the welcomely familiar Hitchcockian 'lovers on the run' model. A smirky antihero (Tom Bresnahan) reaps the bitter fruits of his practical jokes when no one believes his conspiracy babbling and he winds up in some shady rehab clinic at a local TV studio. His too-good-for-him girlfriend (Cynthia Preston) doesn't brook his tomfoolery until she sees thugs from the mental hospital forcing their way into her place of work to grab him. Escaping from rehab leads to a great stretch of film where he's just driving around his local streets, eluding the funny farm wagon, the endlesss Ontario sameness of the landscape coupled to the feeling of being pursued by faceless agents of parental homogenization are so relatable to me (and I'm sure to you as well, and the bulk of its targeted demographic), as to feel like someone's been reading my mail. In. a great scene the driver of the pursuing paddy wagon --a hulking hipster of a thing--his lab smock wafting gracefully out of the van--brandishes ID tag and hypodermic, slinging a doped Tom over his shoulders like a bag of dog food--all while fighting off Tom's buddy and girlfriend. It's one of those stealth cool/creepy termite film moments we took for granted in 80s movies, but we shouldn't - for they have not yet come again. 

Anyway, old Tom deserves his fate for wasting his chemistry skills on spiteful pranks too gauche even for a detention-magnet hesher. But he'll learn... oh yes.

 "he was dead before he ate here"

As with Cronenberg films like Scanners, the Brood, and Rabid, the bulk o fthe mise-en-scene consists of free-standing commercial/residential structures--clinics, corporate headquarters, and so forth--offset against snowy woods or flatlands. Here the action goes down mostly in the combination TV station / youth rehab / reprogramming facility, whose ruler, Dr. Anthony Blakely (a re-animated David Gale) is a kind of Dr. Phil meets Dan O'Herlihy in Halloween III. He works for a a disembodied alien head that controls the minds of the town via the UHF TV waves of Blakely's self-help show, convincing them to come into the studio so he can devour their brains. And now he plans to launch a global satellite system that will enslave the world! But in the meantime, kill that rascally kid! The knack the big brain has for motivating the populace to kill smirky Bresnahan results in housewives and workmen grabbing up jackhammers and swords whenever they see him running through their backyards (they go crazy and hallucinating tentacles if they try to disobey). Car chases and fights occur on the same drab suburban roads we all drove up and down every day while in high school. You know, the kind with no sidewalk, or trees: tract homes hung in brick rows along soggy front lawns,-- it might be Ontario, but it's still grimly familiar territory for a lot of us 80s kids when November came around and the ground froze. We may well remember taking backyard routes along tiny strips of shrubbery-filled no man's land just to sneak home to get a change of socks while our parents were at work. And the TV studio/ rehab looks just like the high school and the high school looks just like your dorm rooms --it's all made out of those drab cinder blocks, painted white or grey -- prisons without bars.  For me at least it's so familiar it's like the filmmakers are inside my head, rooting through public high school memories, ransacking my own unconscious dreams for their tasty centers. 

Today we can watch a film like The Brain and--in addition to reveling in the great, over-the-top 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 was only in its infancy, early enough that films like Videodrome and They Live seemed more speculative than historical. The Brain and They Live coming out the same year reflects a moment in time when parents were turned against their own children on the word of hysteria-mongering TV pundits, even as every other facet of outlaw self expression was slowly rolled back on us by our own consumerist impulses. Our only quasi-legal 'fun' came in skipping school, driving to the mall and smoking cigarettes at Spaceport. Too specific? For those of us living in this post-real America of the Now, where dueling 24/7 news channels turn America agains itself as Russia crashes our future's hard drive with flag-pumpin' sock puppets, fanning flames from phony fires they faked us into fearing, blah blah. 

Forget all that relevance. Come back to when our current Black Mirror nightmare was 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 Videodrome and They Live, but it's more fun--and moderately less sanctimonious--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-growing fanged beach ball alien. If you were a pot-smoking hippy or punk teenager in the 80s watch it remember how once upon a time the it was OK for your parents to have you shanghaied off to Christian extremist rehabs if she they found a dime bag of weed 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 flicks, like Michael Almereyda's Nadja and 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. 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), she's ready to be not bossed! And so Lillith (Barbara Eugenia) rides into Lucy's dreams to wreak some vengeance, which then those dreams seems like reality. When it seems like it's almost always night, when days pass like dreamy flashes between eternal flat stillnesses, which is the dream and which is the waking?  

That sentence 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-hot actors around to remind us of our own crumbling mortality.

What helps most is that Demes and her cinematographers have found a way to capture the deep spooky blacks of Iowa's flat straight landscape, where the night extends outwards ever blacker into the vast distance, while letting us see--gradually--shapes and faces emerging into an invisible lighting spectrum. There are blacks on blacks here 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, or that ambiguous black blotch animation in  the original Cat People. 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. We keeps straining the emptiness 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. Like Lucy, we begin to go crazy as a defense mechanism against such unyielding emptiness. Sometimes '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.

Filmed mostly in the dead quiet of night, with huge empty starless skies, in the middle of nowhere- it's a kind of 80-minute nightmare logic poem that could have been a real bore in lesser hands. Demes takes a few pointers from Lynch (who cameoed as a security guard in Nadja so it all fits full circle!) by papering the cracks with a droning avant-garde minimalist underscore, adding intensely hypnotic layers to the empty darkness of the landscape.

Strain real close now, and let your paredolia fly! 

It's not perfect. Moments like sudden CGI flash of fangs, or a dumb shot of Lilith hanging upside down from a tree like a bat are more dumb than scary or dreamy. (Demes might have taken a look at the way bat conversion is subliminally alluded to in films like Daughters of Darrkness rather than spelled out); it would be the same in Witch Who Came from the Sea if we saw shots of Millie Perkins wearing a pointy witch's hat and straddling a trident. It also doesn't seem believable that Lucy's chucklehead husband would announce to her that he invited his boss and his wife over for dinner and therefore he expects Lucy to cook some nice meal for them when their kitchen is the size of a matchbox and it's not the early 1960s anymore and it's clear she never cooks anyway and holds a full time job of her own.

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?' vibe. But who's complaining when--instead of the usual trench-coated middle aged working stiff investigating detective we get lovely Eden West in big aviator shades and a leather jacket as the cute lady motorcycle cop investigating the rapist mechanic's mysterious disappearance? 

With directorial debut 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 "Together Forever" 
(1975)  Dir. Massimo Dallamano
*** / Amazon Image - B

Despite its banal title/s, this autumnal-hued, Exorcist-tinged supernatural Freudian Italian thriller delivers "the goods." Richard Johnson (The Haunting) stars as a British documentary filmmaker whose new subject is "Diabolical Art," specifically a nightmarish, ancient Italian painting with a tragedy-speckled provenance that has some eerie connection to his Elektra-complexioned young daughter Emily (giallo redhead mainstay Nicoletta Elmi). She's still getting over her mom's death (in a horrible fire which Emily witnessed) and is so clingy she ends up tagging along to Italy (at her shrink's insistence) to watch daddy film the cursed painting and its creepy condemned historical old 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 make her own move in that department. As you may guess, all sorts of similarities between the events depicted in the painting and reality start to manifest, especially--as the painting restores itself and pieces of old paint fall off-- the young girl is starting to look a lot like Emily. And Emily is growing increasingly possessed by the homicidal spirit attached to a mysterious medallion that used to belong to her witchy mom. 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, he's "sorry." He keeps insisting the accumulating deaths are "accidents." The discovery of a duplicate to Emily's locket inside the statue that breaks at his feet when looking at the painting?. That too, countess, is coincidence... Sigh.   The countess can already see his death and see the roots of all the problems in her weird dreamlike trances but she can't convince Johnson to believe her warnings. 

Meanwhile, Emily has terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring with sexy Cassidy. Everyone standing in the way of Emily's Elektra-Freudian desires starts dying off, and each time the dried blood or other strange gunk falls off the painting to expose more and more eerie detail. Why is her image appearing on this ancient canvas, holding a sacrificial double-edged knife? And what size rock has to fall on our documentarian's head before he wises up to the ghostly truth? Stay tuned!

Johnson and his vaguely bossy/patriarchal manner and dismissiveness of the supernatural are familiar from The Haunting, so the real surprise here is Nicoletta Elmi. There's a startling scene where she goes from having a kind of nightmare seizure to a kind of Helen Keller plate-breaking fit to outright maniacal psychosis. In the scariest scene-- her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee--she starts lunging at her terrified governess while swinging a hammer! Even just trying on her mom's old dress, Emily's eyes light up with such dirty 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 smoking 10 year-olds trying the same look around the same time (like Tatum O'Neil in Paper Moon.)

The Italians never just rip off one influential horror film at a time so, in addition to Exorcist's possessed child / mysterious relic connection thing, there's Don't Look Now's muttonheaded tourist artisan father chasing a strange child through twisting old narrow twisted Italian alleyways thing (Spoleto instead of Venice).  

SStelvio Cirpiani's score comes at all this like it's some sweeping sinful post-neorealist romance: building strings and wistfully gamboling fifths soaring and lilting until you practically smell the autumn leaves and see pairs of lovers lost in blissful slow-mo montage. Did he even know what kind of film this was supposed to be? He then plays that tune over and over and over, all that banal grand piano sweep sort of way. Only a three-beat recurring solo heartbeat line provides an in inkung Cipriani even watched the film he's scoring. Suddenly the soapy dross drops away like mortality's curtain for this spare, ominous line. 

As befits a film about art, the real star is the cinematography and Italy itself. The colorful autumnal foliage and ancient buildings--often seen via reflective windows--lets you know they really are driving around the Italian countryside. Emily's nightmares are layered in images which only reluctantly give way to dissolves, an effective trick that should be more often utilized, especially when depicting hallucinations (in my opinion and experience). The painting that so fascinates dad so much is just the right blend of classical and heavy metal (Bosch meets Kiss) without it becoming uninteresting, which is important since we look at it so damned much. All in all, Night Child might not be as great as The Exorcist or Don't Look Now, but the combination of Elimi's terrifying smile, the unabashed Freudian murk of the father-daughter relationship, and Italy's leafy old world splendor more than make-up for Cipriani's generic scoring, the low body count, the ultimate emptiness of the resolution, and the flat dubbing of everyone but Johnson.  

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