Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception until your screens glows infinite

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Creature Double Feature Night 4: BAFFLED! (1972); CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)


Tonight, here's an oddball pairing of films (currently on Prime) about oddball couples investigating strange happenings together based on an eerie and unexpected premonition that strikes one of them out of the blue. In each film, one is a layman with the vision, the other is an investigator with a yen for a big story, eager to visit the place they saw in the vision. To balance things out, in one film its a NYC woman (Catriona MacColl) who has the premonition and the man is a cigar-chomping newspaper reporter (Christopher Plummer) sensing a scoop and maybe some chemistry (he rescues her from a coffin --and nearly splitting her head open with a pickaxe doing so, after she 'dies' in the midst of a seance) and the town is in New England. In the other, the seer is a race car driver (Leonard Nimoy!) who almost dies in a racing accident while having the vision, and the investigator is a spunky lady Brit rare occult book detective (Susan Hampshire) and the town is nestled in the remote English countryside. One is a gory nightmare of zombies and creepy violence; the other an early 70s TV movie/pilot. Can you ask for a more/less at the same time? A veritable yin/yang they are.

1. BAFFLED!
(1972) Dir. Phillip Leacock
*** / Amazon Image - B-

The weird surprise of this one-off bloodless supernatural comedy-thriller pilot is the odd duck chemistry between Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire as a pair of pre-Minority Report solvers of crimes yet to happen. Nimoy plays a race car driver suddenly stricken with the ability to see future events, in this case it's a murder at some weird English mansion. Nimoy can't shake his alien aura long enough to convince as a regular Formula 500 joe, but he seems to be having a wry blast of a time running around the countryside with Hampshire and his Satanic alien head seems natural for a hip soothsayer. For her part, Susan Hampshire radiates a kind of can-do British cheek as occult bookseller Michelle. She sees him on TV after his big race, talking about a flash to a murder yet-to-happen and she's determined to help him find the mansion and prevent the crime. Rachel Roberts (Picnic at Hanging Rock's uptight headmistress) is in charge of the place (open to guests in summer); Vera Miles as the rich middle aged actress Kovak sees falling out of an attic window. She's with her daughter (Jewel Blanche) while her estranged ex-husband (Mike Murray -She-Devils in Chains), sporting the most cruelly Satanic haircut of the entire decade--hides in the greenhouse where he lures his daughter to dark side with the help of a mystic wolf amulet. See? BAFFLED! is Cool! 

Lots of turtlenecks and medallions and occult signifiers; fancy British cars tool around the grounds to make sure the car fanatic aspect of Kovac's character fits in (with some unconvincing but just dandy rear projection during the chase scenes). There are way too many daylight exteriors and extraneous herrings about but I like the weird non-sexual friendship chemistry of Nimoy and Hampshire's characters. They're into each other but not enough for it to get in the way with their strange bond, which means they're smart enough to leave it as a will they-or-won't they. Between her trenchant knowledge of arcane texts and his weird flash forwards to strange murders somehow tied in with an an occult group of weirdoes known as the House of the Wolf, they're kept too busy, aside from being stuck in an elevator shaft during most of the hair-raising climax, too get gooey (but Kovak's already seen the previews).  The cast of British BBC stock are all in their best chipper form. Hampshire is especially a delight: animated, assertive, fearless, funny and forthright, bouncing around in her 70s peasant frocks and groovy turtlenecks. A bewildered Nimoy can't help but laugh in admiration.



Richard Hill's score is over the top cop show pumping, never quite on the nose as far as being bouncy when it should be scary or scary when it should be bouncy, but that adds an almost mocking tenor that's most invigorating. The Prime image is pretty solid, albeit in that usual drab TV movie frame, luckily the colors are strong, as you can tell from the red of Michelle's turtleneck, above. There's a great final line after their awkward near-kiss goodbye: "Michelle… we’re leaving for Paris. Someone’s in trouble… I don’t know who, yet…”
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CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD
(1980) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Despite its unconvincing and excessive gore and gross-ours, City of the Living Dead is a strangely beautiful film, thanks especially to a great HD transfer: the darkness seems to stretch inward to the infinite; it occurs almost all at night or late afternoon and each scene is lit for maximum moody October night eeriness. The ground is ever laden with billowing fog, the night courses jet-black (no 'day for night' balderdash here) and the hair of the ladies is wondrously loose, auburn and backlit so it glows with an unerring luster. 

It's not perfect: Carlo De Mejo sports a terrible frizz toupee and fake beard as Gerry, Dunwich's resident shrink and some of the gross outs are a bit overdone, such as when sultry Daniela Doria vomits her literal guts out and cries blood after seeing a vision of a hung priest while trying to make out with Michele Soavi in a car. Those who consider 'nightmare logic' merely an excuse for narrative inconsistency and lazy writing won't like that the zombies can sometimes appear and disappear at will, or that someone might die early in the evening and then escape from the funeral home a few hours later, nor will they like all the evidence of editing as story tangents pop up out of nowhere and disappear as fast (like the strange body that shows up in Agren's kitchen) but those are also some reasons why I love the film so much.

On the fourth or fifth viewing it gets no easier to unravel, especially when marveling on the weird web of sexy relationships and inappropriateness going on in the lives of Dunwich's residents. For example: Gerry's girlfriend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) is far too young for him, was probably once a patient (how unprofessional!) and even barges in on his session with sultry Janet Agren, only to have her self-deprecatingly dismiss her own dreams as just 'daddy issues,' all just so Emily can cancel her date with himsas she decides she has to (for some unknown reason) to go check on 'Bob,' (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) a deranged sex addict derelict who lives in a hovel on the outskirts of town. Somehow or other she thinks she must barge in on a session of psychoanalysis, and break up a date all just to pose seductively (and uninvitedly) on Bob's rotted mattress, only for him--all pale and red-eyed in fear of some disembodied moaning monster-- to push her down as he spring away, so whatever it is takes her instead of him. Talk about nightmare logic! Why the frickin' hell would she head off into this dump to visit a deranged sex offender on his filthy mattress in the dark of an autumnal night? If you have an answer, you must be lost in a vivid REM cycle.

Even the title is misleading, since we leave NYC early on and spend the rest of the movie in the small town of Midwich. This is a movie that's like descending slimy marble stairs in the dark with no handrail. You can either crawl patiently downward like a little bitch, or just throw yourself down and try to surf the edges and probably break your neck. You can practically hear the "thuck!" of your skull hitting wet stone as you think about it. You'll have to wake up in a few minutes either way. What's important is that a crisp autumn air rushes through every open space, and that Fabio Frizzi's insane  score is one of the greatest ever, a bizarre fusion of ominous guitar signatures on repeat, atonal keyboard fist mashes, 'off' concert piano refrains (like a drunk trying to remember scales) and a main theme which seems to be always slowly building with sampled male mellotron moan sampler echo and impatient click drum track leading up to a neat little antithetical synth anthem that sounds like it could be Flash Gordon's funeral procession through the Aboria swamps. ADD A brilliant HD restoration, cinematography by the great Sergio Salvati, and a wide assortment of pretty women, and even some cool cops, and it all comes together in a coming apartness kind of way.

The middle child bridging Fulci's early Zombie and the gonzo far-outness of The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, City is a great R-rated (for gore alone) creeptastic ideal 2 AM Halloween pick for the Mole Family. Pounce on its wriggling form before it vanishes back into the ground, and all therein that may be explored.



Third Feature Option:

(1998) Dir. Michael Almereyda
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

A kind of Lower East Side downtown hipster coffee and cigarettes experimental and cool, The Eternal is a boozy metatextual dissertation on memory, alcoholism, and the bonds of the moment transcending the bite of history and vice versa, it's also a loose, sexy update of a kind of combination of Hammer's 1972 Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (and its Stoker source novel) and the 1951 The Thing. The story has boozy rich couple Alison Elliot and Jared Harris leaving NYC for her ancestral Irish moor's estate, as if called home by some archaic homing signal (shades of 1934'a Black Moon, though I can't imagine Almereyda has seen it). As far as the previous two films, it's got that American out of water vibe as an ancestral estate is visited, strange visions, sudden corpses, and a sense of nonchalant cool highly unusual for the horror genre.

Christopher Walken has a couple of great scenes as a boozy call aesthete puttering around the mansion in his red robe, drinking Irish whiskey and, amongst other things, showing Alison the mummified corpse of a long dead druid priestess relative, found nestled in amidst old basement trunks. Amongst other curious things, the more Elliot starts to feel woozy and black out, the more alive and beautiful the mummy gets, until it looks almost identical to her, though gifted with immortal strength, a disregard for the life and death of those around her, and telekinesis. What's her deal? "It was the Iron Age," notes Walken. "You had to do a lot of nasty things, just to get by." Amen.
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