Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Cozzi Breaks the Cake: THE BLACK CAT (1989) aka Demons 6: De Profundis

Night 55 of Acidemic's 12 Days of Ed Wood

Cozzi's/Coates' CAT hath cometh to Blu-ray last year, and you gotta see it! It's not your grandparent's Black Cat (with Karloff) it's not your drunk uncle's 941 Black Cat (with Broderick Crawford), it's not even your weird cousin's 1983 Black Cat (with Patrick Magee's hairy eyebrows menacing Mimsy Farmer). No, this is the 1989 Black Cat, aka Demons 6: Des Profundis (with everything exploding all the time), directed by Lewis Coates, aka Luigi Cozzi, aka "The Italian Ed Wood," and it's all ours. 5-eva.

Now, some people, maybe even Cozzi himself, think being called "the Italian Ed Wood" is not a compliment. They're 160 proof wrong! Like Wood's, Cozzi's best films brim with pagan innocence of narrative structure that results in giddy freedom from expectation. Both display a palpable rapture for classic horror and science fiction that's blissfully at odds with the usual Robert McKee three act structurezz and character arc-ingzzz. Everything is alive from minute to minute with the sort of giddy rapture we once got hearing our parents read us our favorite books before bedtime. That's why Plan Nine is a beloved cult treasure watched over and over, while The Day the Earth Stood Still is just a respected as a well-crafted liberal message movie even die hard sci-fi fans like me have only seen two or three times, and solely for Gort. I don't turn to my DVD collection for a feel bad-lecture about nuclear responsibility from dull paternal Michael Rennie. I turn to my DVD collection to hear Dudley Manlove rant about "Solarmanite" and our "stupid minds! Stupid!" I'd rather a movie try and fail at 'passing' as a mainstream /normal film but succeed at being niche/surreal rather than the other way around. Nothing drains the joy out of a project like groupthink and big budget competence. Wood's and Cozzi's films don't have to worry, the joy is there. 

Cozzi's career may have been winding down a bit by 1989, as indeed was the drive-in era of Italian cinema as a whole, but before the 90s could begin in earnest, Cozzi gave us two parting gifts. One was Paganini Horror, it's a-verra-nice, but the other, The Black Cat is a bona fide back row meta-classic. 

Initially conceived of a "Three Mothers" entry by its writer and intended star Daria Nicolodi (Dario Argento's ex-wife, she co-wrote/created Suspiria and Inferno, see Woman is the Father of Horror), Cozzi  worried about displeasing almighty Dario by "choosing sides" so he refracted the story to a kind of  alternate reality meta-sequel, somewhere between Targets and the Freddy's New Nightmare rather than a straight up Mother movie. This pissed off Daria, so she split the project. Yet on it went, finally erupting like a last gasp of primo 80s Italian supernatural horror/sci-fi into god knows where. 

The point is, get over the total weird disjointed aspects, the all over the place narrative, and the terrible dubbing and man does it rock, howl and rattle.

The story involves Italian horror power couple, director Marc (Urbano Barberini) and star Anne (Florence Guérin) and their young baby--no doubt loosely based on Argento and Nicolodi--planning a movie about a witch named Levana, not officially a "Mother" but intricately connected. Marc and Anne are tight friends with screenwriter Dan (Maurizio Fardo) and his actress wife Nora (Caroline Munro). There's also Michele Soavi as the director of the movie the women are currently working on (something to do with guns and 80s sunglasses). The go pitch the story Brett (Return of the Fly) Halsey as a Satanic, wheelchair-bound producer named Leonard. He vows he'll "create such excitement over this project that the major distributors will be cutting each other's throats to get a piece!" He sends the boys off to a psychic (Karina Hoff) who busts out her big apparently hand-written volume of Suspiria de Profundis ("not a work of fiction!" she exclaims as the Goblin Suspiria music cue briefly plays in the background). The psychic encourages Marc to change the character's name to something else. For there really was a witch named Levana and she is waiting to be reborn. Just saying her name can wake her up. Marc and David don't believe her of course, maybe Levana has already manifested in their psyches.

As in Michele Soavi's Stagefright, we're in a world where the meta and the intertextual are woven in the fabric of the narrative in a way far more deadpan and subliminal than perhaps might be discernible on first (non-DMX-enhanced) viewings. I remember catching Black Cat out of curiosity ten years or so ago--long before I discovered and fell in love with Cozzi's oeuvre-- when Netflix still had lots of weird old movies on their streaming service. It seemed kind of disjointed and needlessly gross with all the bursting green food coloring postules (ala Dèmoni) on the witch's face in lurid close-up, the intestines erupting from the TV, the terrible dubbing and fractured artsy style, but there was no getting around how unique it was. Over the years that uniqueness and abiguity has come to mean an awful lot.  

Yeah, the pustules. Validating the psychic's warning, we occasionally fade into a gross fleshy strand-covered fetus rising from its amber liquid interstellar/ transdimensional grave, maybe on the moon, (no doubt meant as a kind of reverse-evil star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Meanwhile, an adult Levana, with them damned pustules, begins to take over the mind of Anne, urging her to kill her own child!  Just how far will Anne go to get into character?

What makes the movie such a blast is that Levana starts bending reality and the minds of all who think of her almost from the get go, including Nora, Dan, and Marc. The only question: is this the movie's reality - in all its weirdness, the movie in the movie, or Ann's dreams? We oscillate so seamlessly back and forth between them there's no point guessing which is which 

As in most of his work, Cozzi's love of strong, cool women characters shines through in a way unique to Italian cinema (the only similar figure in the US is probably Roger Corman). There's usually at least one female villain in his films, as well as a strong heroine, and a string of strong cool female characters in between. Yet in the Levana script Marc and Dan are writing, there's only one woman character and she's a pustule-covered witch! (Dan's affirmation that she's "very strong" seems like a back-handed condescension) This sets up a rivalry between Nora and Anne for the part, though one wonders why on earth would either woman would want so desperately to play a part where they're covered in pustules, and why can't Marc and his writer create two female spots for their own actress wives? But, as per Cozzi, of all the women in the film, none are objectified; they're resourceful and strong, never victims. In other words, it's a strange and cryptic anti-patriarchal judgment made as far from the mire of misogyny as any 1980s Italian horror movie or indeed the world could reach.  This is such a female-centric movie that when some guy who's arc was no doubt lost on the cutting room floor shows up, his presence seems very odd, shows up and gets in Caroline Munroe's car to go visit Lavana. He's dead before he even gets off a single line! 

Other female cast members include Luisa Manieri is the babysitter, who asks to bring her cousin along on one of her babysitting jobs. In one of the creepiest scenes, Anne comes home to find a young boy playing with her baby, only to learn the babysitter's cousin didn't come along. WHO IS THAT BOY? She runs up and he's gone! She goes into the other room where the fridge, that was supposed to have been fixed, is now overheating. The receipt from the repairman is GONE! She flashes back to a messy fridge. Is she losing her damned mind or is someone gaslighting her? The TV turns on by itself. A child is onscreen, calling her by name. Warning her about Levana:  "If she takes the body of a young woman born under the sign of the sixth moon there will be no way on earth to stop her!" It explodes and showers the floor with intestines, and a glowing knife appears! That's all in like five minutes.

The normal progression for these kinds of "is this bitch crazy?" type of things usually involves dream sequences, red herrings, phony staged ghosts or hanging dummies outside the window, and 'gaslit moms walking around their big houses alone, hearing noises and watching strange new gardeners through the curtains' - the sort of hackneyed stuff that would eat up a whole hour of a TV movie by Dan Curtis or Curtis Harrington.  Cozzi has no patience for slow builds. He crashes a car through the wall like a ten year-old, utterly derailing the movie already in our heads, freeing us from the familiar linear shackles. So before Anne can be taken to a shrink and told it's all in her head as Marc gives her part away "for her own good," like we expect, we're plunging heedlessly into lunatic dreamtime, ever father and deeper. Weird colored lighting, an inner child filling Anne in on plot points; Anne dressing up like Levana and trying to stab her own baby; Anne actually stabbing Marc (or did she?) and fending off curvy dagger attacks by Levin's sultry personal assistant. Where is her baby!? ' The baby is gone! And as this is an Italian horror movie, there's no guarantee of the child's safety.

Here nightmare/dreams are so indistinguishable from reality it doesn't feel like a cheat as some nightmare scenes do; there's no waking up in the dead of night screaming, no being told it was just a dream. Cozzi knows that in a movie everything is already a dream, he owes us nothing as far as 'bringing it back to reality' - he laughs at that hack pedestrian need for a normal reality through line, the type with investigating cops and patriarchal shrinks. Thus, as Marc lies dead at her feet, she hears herself in the distance telling Marc about the dream she had where she kills him. But then car comes crashing through the living room and the bloody Dan emerges. Bang Boom

And for the fans, there are callbacks to all Cozzi's best: a bladder burst stomach effect evokes Contamination; Munro's presence evokes Starcrash; we see leftover moon shots he stole from Hercules; an inner child appearing in the TV is dubbed by the same child actress who plays the spirit guides in Hercules 2, and so on.

As for the music, well, even if it's not Goblin or Ennio Morricone, Vince Tempera's 'shoot for bodacious, settle for bemusing' score is certainly better than Keith Emerson's clueless melange in Argento's own Suspiria follow-up, Inferno. By 1989 Argento was himself falling into disrepair as far as his shitty music choices, leaning towards half-baked metal and away from Goblin-style clanging). Tempera keeps it all humming without trying to turn anything into a music video, and that's good enough for me. 

If Cozzi's films have an Achilles' heel, it's always the English dubbing. Sometimes, if the budget allows, as with his his Hercules movies or Contamination, it's pretty good. But here and in the same year's Paganini Horror (1989) it's-a not so good-a. Worse, the one place where Nicolodi's absence is really felt is in Levana's voice. Setting the benchmark for super creepy voices with her guttural croak as Helena Markos ("you are going to die now!") in Suspiria (if you doubt it's Daria doing that laugh, just dig her throaty, evil laugh in Property is No Longer a Theft), Nicolodi would surely have nailed Levana. Instead, the actress used for Lavana's voice sounds pitch-shifted and forced. Lines like "I won't rest until I force your heart beyond the brink of madness! Hahahah" - evoke a hammy drag queen auditioning for a gig as a Disney haunted house emcee. 

In the end though, Cozzi doesn't give us any time to complain about diegetic consistency: things zip along so fast and incredible we can only hold on, never daring to stop long enough to go "hey....wait a minute!" Always Jack Kirby-cosmic, Cozzi uses the meta tale of an Argento-like household being  taken over by a witch only as a spring board-- broadening the aperture to include time travel, outer space, cosmic balance, witch battles, and fairy tale Jungian bedazzlement, in other words, that Cozzi Lite-Brite stardust. When a film's this great, no one should mind if it's kind of terrible. Isn't that what makes being the Italian Ed Wood the greatest "thing" in the world? 

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Hair of the Dogmatizer: THE BRAINIAC (1962)

Night 13 of The 12 Days of Ed Wood:

I tried to watch the first episode HBO post-apocalyptic pandemic drama Station 11 last night and ended up locked in the bathroom in full anxiety attack mode, breathing erratically, trying not die from worrying about dying, the whole bit, all because of sound mixing. There needs to be new warning in addition to strobe lights for epileptics, sexual assault, drug use for parents, etc: 'vividly reproduced panic attack hearing distortion" for anxiety-sufferers. You know what I mean: a character has a panic attack and the sound mixing and acting, camera movement and music all work in a unison way too realistic not to entrain a reflexive panic attack from susceptible viewers (the voices suddenly grow faint, yet urgent, the sound of blood in your ears rushing). I suddenly remembered the feeling of early in March 2020, when I was loading up on peanut butter, dried rice and beans in anticipation of civilization's COVID collapse, suffering anxiety attacks every day, unable to breathe for fear of being unable to breathe. I'd forgotten that anxiety, until the first episode of Station 11 reproduced it so well it made me feel like I was a post-Jimmy Stewart looking down from Midge's step ladder and realizing I was--in some way--still clinging by my fingers to that high-up rooftop in Vertigo. 

We never saw Jimmy rescued from that rooftop in the beginning did we? At the end, he's still up there. He's probably up there still. 

That's where the glory of bad movies come in. For those of us so easily suggestible, those of who lose our shit just thinking about losing our shit, those of us easily triggered by the anxieties of our post-real age, watching our private nightmares played back for us in a tumble of cheap mummery provides a warm comforting gush of relief. We can breathe freely in the presence of recognized chicanery--exposing the absurdity of our fears in ways that actually lessen them. We can latch onto doddering Frank Morgan's lapel and hide behind his curtain as the big green Oz bellows and puffs. We're safe, with the winners. Isn't this the function of ceremonial demon masks and re-enactments of ancient god dramas, performed around the flickering flames  in primitive societies? The outsider 'so bad it's good' horror movie achieves this same therapeutic function. 

Lucky for me, and maybe you, the bizarro spirit of 'bad' moviedom lives beyond Wood, in rocky crevasses the world over, the equivalent of a "I do believe in spooks / I do believe in spooks" holy mantra coming like a last minute helicopter ladder out of the collapsing pyre. I'm finding new protective totems ever year. Some of which I'm sharing for the first time in this Ed Wood series. One I always knew about but never really fully embraced for its full anxiety-abating lunacy until lately: The Brainiac (the Mexican title: El Baron del Terror). It's this movie I turned to once the first Station 11 episode finally ended. And lo, it healed me. It dispelled the anxiety with a flicker of a long, brain-sucking straw/tongue

Intrigued? finish your pulque and come along with me down the rabbit hole of time and space to....

(1962) Dir. Chano Ureta 

Actor Abel Salazar produced a web of 'great' weird and wondrous early-60s horror (and other) films in Mexico, but THE BRAINIAC (1962) is the only one that can be rightly placed next to the works of Bunuel and Jodorowsky in the zebra, shoehorn and xylophone-stuffed canals of Mexican cinematic surreality. Salazar himself--a kind of Mexican version of Sheldon Leonard--takes the title role and makes all the pretty girls kiss him (as Eric Schaffer or Paul Naschy would later do) as the irresistible Baron Vitelius d'Estera. Tried by a hooded tribunal for "dogmatizing" and seduction, he has nothing but a baleful stare and a lone friend's plea (rewarded with 50 lashes) for rebuttal. Tied to a big X, made pants-less in a pope hat, he glares as the inquisitors read their verdicts (and the ladies roll their eyes). After cursing his condemners out by name (seeing right through their black hoods), and making his chains disappear, our saucy Baron hitches a ride on a passing comet, leaving the pyre behind. 

Three hundred years later, the comet returns and the baron drops out of the sky with a thud, right near an observatory where the chief astronomer will late exclaim: "comets can't just disappear!" 

The plot itself is sparse and expects us to fill in a lot of blanks, presuming we've seen other films like it, so can piggyback on their set-ups. For example, there is no need to explain why the baron has returned from his 300 year round trip through the cosmos as a suction cup clawed, long-tongued, patchy-haired pointy nosed, brain-sucking alien shapeshifter, because similar things happened to los astronautos in a bunch of late-50s sci-fi B-films: First Man into Space (1959), Night of the Blood Beast (1958), and The Creeping Unknown (1955) all feature astronauts returning from orbit with some alien life merged into theirs, altering their appearance and appetites. So why bother explaining that something similar happened to our terrifying Baron Vitelius?  By 1961, coming back from space merged with a vampiric space 'other' was as familiar as the "bends" or oxygen narcosis. The difference here is that he now eats brains instead of drinking blood. Otherwise writers Frederico Curiel and Adolfo López Portill just siphon out the plot points from those other films, as if making ghostly intertextual subliminal links, 

On the Gothic horror side, Brainiac's plot leans on Bava's Black Sunday (for its witch burning prologue and descendant cursing) and of course, for a fusion of the two, there is Edgar Ulmer's Man from Planet X (for the weird noir-ish observatory / fog machine-and-rear projection soundstage noir isolation and omnipresent darkness.) Lastly, for the 'back from the great beyond to wreak vengeance on those who sentenced me to death, one-by-one' plots we have everything from that spate of late-30s/early-40s Karloff vehicles, like The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang, Black Friday, and The Walking Dead and even Son of Frankenstein. Somewhere or other the detectives learn that the baron can jump to a different body if not destroyed by fire, so when they finally close in, both detectives have comically large flame-throwers. Once again, we know all the missing plot beats that got us there via other films. By skipping them, the filmmakers here avoid all cliche and familiarity, as if all those other films happened in this diegetic reality, just like the Italians! 

Then there's the monster: his weird two fingered suction cup claw hands, his long forked tongue, his scattered tufts of hair, the weird hatchet-like planes of his face, the crudeness of his sculpted features, giant plastered-on fangs and pointy nose and ears. Clearly just a big latex (?) mask replete with open mouth and bulging eyes, somewhere between the Fly, the Devil Bat, and an anteater. His habits are a great blend of sophistication and outrageousness. When not eating them on the scene, the baron keeps his uneaten brains in a jar inside a locked desk in his expansive mansion, and takes periodic hits from it as needed.  Though he does most of his pre-killing groundwork via hypnotic staring (a flashlight shining on and off in his face to indicate his occult/alien power), the baron always takes time to force the male descendant to watch--standing bug eyed and paralyzed--as he makes out with his wife or daughter before becoming the monster and sucking the brains of them both, then burning the place down. As they tried to have him burned... 300 years ago!

Blissfully expunging of all the more tiresome plot points and establishing shots of lesser films, The Brainiac is too fleet of foot to ever get dull even if his killing/kissing strategy is repeated with little variation from one descendant to the next. There are no exteriors or daytime stock footage 'next morning' inserts to dull the eerie dislocated nocturnal vibe - everything is on soundstage with rear projected stills for backdrops giving everything a sense of isolated nocturnal paralysis. There are no plucky girl reporters or comical bumpkins (the latter one of Mexican horror cinema's least crossover-able elements); no children, no animals in cages. Very few cast members at all - just a pair of detectives, the coroner, the baron, his butler, his parade of victims and their lovely wives or daughters, and the hero couple (the hero Ronny being a descendent of the baron's one friend who stood up for him). 

It's the little details and hilarious English dubbing too that make it work. Cause and effect barely know each other in this alternated world of a stressed-out astronomer (he's so flummoxed by the comet's disappearance, he acts like a harried police chief) calves brain-eating, flame thrower-waving homicide detectives (with technical cop jargon at the scene of a double murder: "keep the parts separate, otherwise I might get mixed up!"), a coroner ("Just look at these two orifices!") and a weird direct lineage family tree situation; every one of his would-be executioners has exactly one descendent who looks just like them (except for one girl, leading to a one of the many wow but sublimely deadpan moments). All the members of his tribunal are even conveniently buried together in one old mausoleum. The old records of his trial are just lying around on people's desks like an old phone book. The baron knows the charges by heart: accused of "dogmatizing, using conjuring for evil ends that all men are attracted to, and seducing young maidens that couldn't... couldn't resist!" 

Lastly, cementing its classic status is a kind of strange lonesome soundstage nocturne vibe, both chilling and comforting. There's the baron's first night in town, drifting into a closing, empty bar, with one guy sweeping up, another counting the till, the lonely girl at the bar drinking her isolation away who welcomes him without question. Towards the end, the baron has killed most of the cast, so when he tells the inquisitive cops to send his sympathy to their loved ones, the detective says, "it's impossible. There's no one left to feel sorry for now." The sets seem to breathe in deeply in relief or fear, as the backgrounds of scenes empty from the one or two extras that were loitering in the corners just scenes before. When the baron first meets Ronny and his fiancee outside the observatory he instantly bonds with them over astronomy. Later when the pair come to visit (it turns out his fiancee is his last intended victim), they remember their meeting, and the baron says "we became friend then, did we not?" The baron seems to want to be friends, and so do the victims. It's as if everyone was just waiting for something like the baron's grand Gothic reception hall (clearly left over from some bigger budgeted-production) to come colliding like some chimera from Universal horror's past into a modern day poverty row police procedural noir. All the characters immediately accept random invitations to the baron's mansion, as if just waiting for the cool new kid to kickstart their social lives. Yet they have no clear idea what to do there: all are introduced by the butler, grab a drink and mill around, then turn around and say good-night minutes later. At the wedding of one of the couples the baron is the only one in attendance (he shows up late, is why, and meets them at the church foyer.

In short, this Mexico, all wrapped up in its emptied interior loneliness, is is a very strange reality: there are only ever the characters we see. Nothing exists beyond the camera's proscenium arch, giving it all a beguiling interiority and feverish dream logic. Somewhere in there, the baron even falls in love with Ronny's fiancee, though there's no indication of when, why, or how. He must kill her though, since she's a descendant, the last one: "My hate is much stronger than my love, like a master no one can control!" He goes on and on: "Why did destiny elect you! ? Why? I want to know!" She faces away from him in classic soap opera Latin over-emotion as he says all these things; like she doesn't want her husband to know about how much reciprocal desire feels, like it's all just the usual Besos y Lagrimas-style suds. Suddenly the baron can also become invisible and run right through people; and then as soon as the baron is vaporized by flame, the film ends - without even a shot of the reunited lovers heading off into the sunrise. For what these characters don't seem to know is, without the baron's presence, none of them are destined to survive 'the End.' 

And just like that, it's over. We kind of have to wake up. The rest of Station 11 and all those terrifying vertigo end of the world global warming too fast Covid leaky ceiling work woes are all still waiting to pounce and send us hyperventilating to the bathroom to splash cold water on the back of our necks But don't worry. There are miracles of our modern age as well as horrors. We may all be isolated in our cribs, the world coming us to digitized without even the warmth of a funeral pyre as comfort, but movies like The Brainiac aren't going anywhere. They're everywhere, in fact, even on our phones, like some kind of weird twilight rosary, or a passing comet, its tail ready to whisk us out of the pyre, or into one. 
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