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.

(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…”

(1980) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Despite its excessive gore, sub-basement Freudian dialogue (everyone's hung up about porno flicks, incest, prostitutes, and witch burning), and endless parade gross-outs (including open mouths full of food, rotting carcasses covered with neon pink worms, muddy offal rubbed in faces, intestine-vomiting and maggot storms), City of the Living Dead is a strangely beautiful film. Thanks especially to a great HD transfer capturing every silken web glisten against the stygian blackness of Sergio Salvati's gorgeous cinematography. Its script makes no logical or linear sense but on a purely dream level, it's like an HP Lovecraft book read by lamplight in the dead of night in a quiet old country house. The ground is ever laden with billowing fog. The hair of the ladies is wondrously loose, auburn and backlit so it glows with an unerring luster. The hair is still 70s perfect. No 80s perms here, except on Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) the unprofessional shrink, and the NYC psychic lady who foretells the dead rising from their graves and only  the woman who had the vision and the journalist who nearly impaled her skull while rescuing her from being buried alive can drive out to New England to stop it. 

It's not perfect, the way say, Fulci's The Beyond or House by the Cemetery is. Some of the gross outs are a bit overdone, such as when sultry Daniela Doria literally hurls 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 have an autopsy done before arriving in undertaker makeup (replete with tissue stuffed up her nose) later that same night lying dead on Janet Agren's kitchen floor; or that people tend not to defend themselves well when attacked, or run fast, or get out of the way, but anyone can make another "shoot 'em in the head" flick. Nightmare logic is way beyond that. If it does its job well--like it does here--we resonate with the paralyzing sense of total shock. If anything here it's the occasional feints towards daytime familiarity that seem out of place: the handful of cop cars, coroners leaving funeral homes, emergency news announcements on the bar radio, and wrongly accused suspects violently murdered by superstitious locals, etc. indicate Fulci hasn't yet totally severed the connection to his earlier giallos like Don't Torture a Duckling, but he sure soon would.

On the fourth or fifth viewing, the nonsense makes more sense even when marveling on the weird web of sexy relationships and inappropriateness going on in the lives of Dunwich's doomed residents. We find time to dial in and wonder whether Gerry is dating the much younger Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) and if she was once a patient (how unprofessional!) and if so, why she feels she has the right to casually barge in on his session with sultry Janet Agren (who self-deprecatingly dismisses her own dreams as just 'daddy issues") because she has to (for some unknown reason) break her date to go check on 'Bob,' (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) a deranged probably probably pedophile who lives in a hovel on the outskirts of town with his inflatable girlfriend. It makes no sense why Emily thinks she must barge in on a session of psychoanalysis just to break up a date in order to drop in unannounced at the derelict squat of a confirmed pedophile in the dead of night, just to pose seductively (and uninvitedly) on his rotted mattress. You could say it's all just haphazard the way 'story' is in a XXX movie (with scenes an excuse for linking gory tableaux) but that's like saying who cares what dreams mean since their sole intention is to keep you from realizing you're asleep, 

Nothing we imagine or expect ever does happen. Even the title is misleading: we leave NYC early on (very much alive) and spend the rest of the movie in the small town of Dunwich (hardly a city), so the images of grungy urban squalor full of dead commuters conjured by the title never materialize. But succumbing to its pleasures is like sliding upright down a slimy marble stairs in the dark with no handrail. You could step very carefully downward and get there safely but you'll have to wake up in a few minutes either way so why not go as deep as you can. What's important isn't that you don't break your skull open, it's that you feel that queasy vertigo twinge on the way down where you feel it almost happen, as Fabio Frizzi's mellotron-sampled male chorale-led synth anthem pronounces you triumphant over death itself. 

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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