Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

Monday, October 21, 2019

Creature Triple Feature I: SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK + HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE HAUNTING (via Prime)


Good evening friends of the creeping floor! October is halfway done. Over the next ten days leading up to Halloween, Acidemic will be presenting several curated double and triple features of films streaming on Prime, one every other day until Halloween. (I was going to release on super long 22 film post but my reviews for each were too long, so it got kind of unwieldy). At the end, there may be a massive round-up. And hey, man, even if you don't have Prime (or live in a country with different licensing), you can find these greats lolling around in all sorts of spots. They're worth the hunt!

The first theme is Dark, stormy, and eventful Nights spent in Haunted Houses! We've got one maybe as new to you as it was to me title, one old chestnut, and one so bad-it's-good. You can't resist, so yield the remote to my skeletal hand, and spend the night lost between two washed-out bridges.
 
SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK
"Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio"
(1971) Dir. Mario Colucci 
*** / Amazon Image - B-

This weird Italian horror movie bobbed to the surface on Prime last week. Having no awareness of what it was about, only that my man Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby Kill) was driving on a dark and rainy night to some far off party in the opening, right off the bad, grabbing my attention with the sarcastic salvo "Helen certainly picked a beautiful night to unveil her new nose." to his snippy wife Sylvia (Lucia Bosé). As we hear their repartee, the image freezes with a violent clank from the score to list a new name in the credits and our hand moves from the stop button and puts the remote down, confident that whatever this is, it's gonna be engaging. We see other people in cars, in the rainy darkness Soon the bridge is washed out, on both sides, and as in The Old Dark House and The Black Raven, the stranded travelers seek shelter at the only house around, which just happens to belong to a recently deceased lady occultist. One of the cars holds two detectives and a psycho killer in a leather jacket named Spike. If you're wondering why that psycho killer seems so familiar, it's because it's Farley Granger, and he still looks terrific after all these years, though with his thick black hairpiece and leather jacket he has kind of a Horror House-era Frankie Avalon's cool but disturbed older brother vibe. With those big kind of hurt child eyes you want to untie him and give him a knife even knowing he's supposed to be guilty of a string of murders. He develops an instant sad eyed connection with Sylvia, and as he plays a plaintive theme on the piano in the occultist's parlor to pass the time, she has a very strange fantasy about him.  There's also a pretty but repressed assistant Susan (Mia Genberg) to a clueless surgeon Dr. Williams (Stelvio Rossi) urgently needed at the hospital for an operation and unable even to call out (even the phone is dead). There's also an old mystic, the one guy who was actually headed to the house, who advises them to not scoff at the supernatural. Overseeing is the manservant (Giulia Raval) who also keeps a half-naked rough trade lover (Gianni Medici) hiding in his room for some reason.

It might have been an uneventful night, but restless Sylvia, after a few drinks, goads everyone into a seance to contact their dead host. Maybe not a good idea as soon they're being possessed, haunted, and generally released from their inhibitions (and not necessarily in a good way). Most notably Susan, who lets down her hair and her blouse in a play for Dr. Williams, who is urgently needed at the hospital, but how can he resist? Meanwhile Granger's mad killer is loose in the woodsy stretch around the house (not that there's anywhere to go, since the water is rising on all sides)!

Shit is happening on this wild and crazy night, including at least two murders and a suicide. Like his fellow countryman Elio Petri, it seems Colucci is a bit of a post-modern prankster, as the film brims wit all sorts of wry sidesteps, like a cape distracting the bull of our narrative film conditioning snd then yanking away to leave us confounded. In this way it gets at the nature of hauntings as well as of genre. From the opening freeze frames with the metallic clank of Angelo Francesco Lagavino's moody score, we know we're in a special rarefied realm, between genre and nothingness. It's as if the red telephone has been left out in the storm and is now a kind of found object art.

 I'll confess: I'm prejudiced to adore this movie, as I'm partial to movies that take place over one wild night and end at dawn. I'm a big fan of partying til the morning light, and this is a great example. The night exteriors are all really filmed at night (rather than lazy 'day-for-night'), too, which makes a huge difference. And there a lot of bizarre termite touches that are very effective, as when all the clocks in the house suddenly stop after all ticking relentlessly all night, and everyone thinks they've gone deaf. Though the mise en scene is reminiscent of an American TV movie of the time, the direction is a notch above and gets good mileage out of characters even when they're doing little more than standing around. Characters succumb to the possession of the occultist woman's spirit, or not, while the actual scholar of the bizarre stays, smartly, in the main room, playing solitaire, as those who dare drift off to their own rooms slowly run into trouble and come back, in one state or another. It's not great but it's a great discovery. Laden with enough termite touches to get over its ultimate shrug of an ending.
---
PS - I highly recommend Granger's book Include Me Out. I read it all in one night, until dawn, while enduring terrible allergies and fear in a haunted Westchester tract home after seeing two Baghead movies. 

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
(1959) Dir. William Castle
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Monster hands reaching for a terrified ingenue, an organ playing by itself, a rope that coils and moves around her room, pistols in little coffins as party favors; a woman hanging by the stairs, her bare feet dangling high in the foyer; a falling chandelier, a head in a suitcase, a super scary old lady who floats in and out of the darkness on (presumably) wheels, her hands and face in a distorted evil crone grimace, and old man caretaker named Jonah Slides who grabs the shrieking nervous breakdown candidate from behind and whispers, "Come with us before they kill you!"-- these are just some of the delights in this William Castle chestnut. As perfect for October and Halloween as It's a Wonderful Life is for Xmas. It all goes down over one long night, in a big house that millionaire playboy Vincent Price's conniving trophy wife (Carol Ohmart!) blithely describes as "Charles Foster Kane meets The Muensters." He's offered an assortment of guests $10,000 each if they'll spend the night with him in this allegedly uber-haunted house, where there's already been seven murders. Elisha Cook Jr. is the only person who's ever survived a night there, and he takes the guests on a tour of where all the murders went down, including a big pool of acid in the basement wine cellar. He notes that the murders were never ordinary but "kind of wild." (And if you've seen him drumming in a jazz band for Phantom Lady, you'll know he's an expert on wildness). He also notes the ghosts have chosen to focus on the wild-eyed damsel Carolyn Craig, who seems to be having a nervous breakdown just because she keeps seeing 'things'. Smug white man Lance tries to take charge of Craig due to some surface affinity they seem to have for each other but then winds up trapped inside a wall for the climax, after earlier getting conked on the head by, presumably, a spirit. "I wonder why they didn't kill him," says Cook Jr. Indeed, they really missed a prime specimen.

We classic horror fans who were too young to have seen it in the theater (with 'Emergo!') first fell in love with Hill when it used to appear in a haze of local UHF antenna static on some afternoon Dr. Shock double feature back in the 70s, that's when I first found it, when I'd get up so early on a Saturday morning I could catch the late late movies. It seemed like a ghostly transmission - so many old horror movies were just bland talk - talk -talk, the sort kids like me don't understand so merely endure waiting for the monster. Castle knew this, the plot and dialogue are easy for an eight year-old to follow all the way through; we loved Vincent Price at any age, and the spooky touches are evenly spread around.

House on Haunted Hill is built for such ghostly travel. It's strong and sparse enough to blast its way through blurry dupes and fuzzy reception like a shot from a cathode ray gun out of a tiny party favor coffin, and to maintain its ghoulish gleeful spookiness even in a theater full of kids throwing popcorn at the screen and the skeleton on the string. The Robb White script is full of bitchy marital vitriol which of course the kiddies love as much as the blind caretaker being reeled through the hall and back like a 'scare' pop-up on a five-cent carnival ride. And though time has added creaks in the joints (and marred its name with a super-shitty remake), Castle's full empty ersatz fly-by-the-seat reckless effrontery is still the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and whether snarling in a kind of half-veiled purr at sultry conniver Carol Ohmart, rolling his eyes at doomsaying drunk Elisha Cook Jr., or scaring a progressively hysterical Carolyn Craig, Price is the perfect Halloween party host. 

A very sexy nightgown down the stairs waft for the climax made Carol Ohmart a fan
favorite for many of us from childhood. Her subsequent work for Corman (Creature from the Haunted Sea)
and Jack Hill (Spider Baby) would cement this, and both are on Prime!
The Prime print is sublimely perfect, don't do the color version, that would be somehow.... disrespectful to the ghosts.


(1999) Dir. Jan de Bont
*/*** / Amazon Image - A

I resepect the Robert Wise 1964 Haunting as much as the next fella, BUT that said, it's flatly lit (everyone seems to sleep with flat TV lighting still on, there's nary a shadow in the place, ghosts live in the dark corners, but Wise makes sure every corner is lit so we can see the bric-a-brac) and I find myself dreading having to put up with curly-haired Russ Tamblyn and his smarmy jive just to get to the lesbian sultriness of Claire Bloom. I keep hoping Russ will have one, just ONE line of dialogue that doesn't concern how much money he can get for this or that or how this ghost stuff is a lot of bunk, huh doc? You can't be serious with this ghost jazz? There's also the issue of the rather pretentious dialogue of the doctor as well. Julie Harris is almost too good as the sheltered, shattered spinster, but she loses our sympathy when she displays curt homophobic slurring towards Bloom. It's Bloom, beautiful Bloom, who really makes it here, and the idea that the two women are leagues more mature and rounded then the men who try to control them, even though one is a cracked neurotic.

Some of that is still present in the gorgeous if vacuous remake, but though it's super crappy in a lot of ways, for me and others I know, it has its own bad movie charm--it's never boring or vulgar. And on a bad, rainy day it's the perfect remedy - the nonalcoholic equivalent of a hot toddy. And it just gets better every viewing. You could say it's bad because it gives up the 'power of suggestion' speculation in favor of some dumb sleeps study blind, but De Bont isn't interested in dialogue, clearly. He just wants to waste massive amounts of money creating vast gorgeous roccocoo-style sets, a titanic fun house of spinning floors and mirrored halls, for these actors to waft through and most importantly he knows that Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones are his best assets. They looks sublimely sexy together, all dark red and pale skin, that I could watch them explore vast rooms forever. The homophobia is lessened, and Jones' character is turned into an insecure fashionista desperate to seem worldly, whose bisexual tendency draws Taylor's mousy character towards her and for awhile, watching these raven-haired clear-eyed ladies running amok in their auburn finery in this deep wood and gold mansion, is a real wow.

Alas, all too soon they tumble into the sights of Owen Wilson, looking almost like a Reid Fleming-drawn portrait of himself rather than the real thing. In the Richard Johnson role we get Liam Neeson, who seems so lost and uninterested it's almost like De Bont is just projecting Star Wars outtakes onto the walls. Though still a nice break from Tamblyn's boisterousness, Wilson looks intimidated and under-directed which just makes him a prime target for Jones, who ably deflects his attraction and places him as the designated little brother position. That she does so without him getting petulant should make it an important moment of study for girls still trying to not alienate smitten guy friends.

As for the ghosts, alas, in 1999 the CGI was still rather crude when it came to human figures so just pretend the ghosts are supposed to look like the flash-frozen Han Solo in Return of the Jedi or like the characters in Polar Express went through a torrid zone detour. For me the tacky ghosts are just part of the CGI-rococo conceptual design. They're tacky Disney ride sculptures come to life, as fake in their fakeness as the clay Orson Welles in Heavenly Creatures. This is a movie as a ride, it's supposed to be fun, more like the previous film in this triple feature, House on Haunted Hill than the pretentious original. It's not supposed to be a turgid white elephant downer with everyone snapping at one another and mouthing terrible pun-choked dismissive analysis that feels it has to justify itself to its imagined skeptics a dozen times a page. It has no ambition to be taken seriously or to at least be nominated; it's just trying to make it to 90 minutes, in peace, so it can go home, like everybody else.(see Rococo Gold: The remake of HAUNTING is better than the original, yeah I said it)

As for the quality, it's the usual sublime HD duskiness. My review of */**** is, in case you don't know, the 'so bad its good' rating, where the enjoyment level exceeds the quality level in that ultimate sublime manner reserved for the greats, like Ed Wood, Luigi Cozzi, and Ron Ormond.

2 comments:

  1. Not a helpful comment for this page but for me,Shirley Jackson's original works cannot be topped.

    ReplyDelete

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