Thursday, October 31, 2013

Night of Terror #31: 'The Pit and the Pendulum'

Another month straight of horror movies comes to a fitting close with an inexplicably-unseen-by-me-before-tonight entry in one of my favorite series of movies ever, the Roger Corman "Poe cycle" made at American-International Pictures.

The Pit and the Pendulum might be one of the best of the series, although nothing could ever upset The Raven's number one spot in my heart. As I was watching it I had occasion to compare it to another famous series of horror movies made at around the same time but across the Atlantic ocean, the Hammer horror movies, since I also watched a Hammer movie today. While it's easy to imagine Hammer movies being shown in drive-in theaters and the like, the Corman-Poe movies have aged into these weird kind of art films, despite the fact that they attracted huge gobs of teenagers when they came out.

Unlike the Hammer films, which are full of sex, blood, action, and a sometimes almost desperate urge to entertain, Corman's work in this phase of his career is weirdly restrained - narratively austere, maybe because of the source material, and thematically and visually cohesive throughout all the movies in the cycle.

But don't let that fool you into thinking Pit doesn't have any shocks. They're deployed with an expert eye towards maximum impact, but when they hit, they stick. My favorite is probably the reveal of "Elizabeth" within her coffin, clutching at the space between the coffin lid and her hands, her face twisted in grotesque horror - the fact that it actually doesn't make any sense (or at least isn't adequately explained given the plot twists that follow) makes it work even better as a kind of pure shock bludgeon.

Vincent Price gives another excellent performance as the movie's tortured antihero, and he also gets an opportunity to play an outright villain within the same character (never let it be said that Roger Corman couldn't work his way around a low budget better than anybody else). His performance reveals this as probably the most nakedly emotional of all the Corman-Poe movies - watch the scene that has him sobbingly repeating "I killed her, I killed her" over and over again and try not to be affected.

As I mentioned earlier, Richard Matheson's screenplay isn't exactly a masterpiece of airtight plotting - multiple character motivations go without explanation, as do a couple of seemingly contradictory incidents. But this doesn't conflict with the hallucinatory nature of the movie - lurid color filters, claustrophobic restriction of all sequences to within that creepy castle, and a score by Les Baxter that strikes an impossible balance between lush Gothic melodies and atonal oddness.

I had a great this time watching (and writing about, I guess) horror movies this October, just like every year. Thanks for tuning in, those of you who did, and extra-special thanks to those who helped me out with a guest piece. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled next month for 30 Days of Thankfulness in which I watch a movie that involves the theme of being thankful for your blessings every day.

No one will enter this room again.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Night of Terror #30: 'House on Haunted Hill'

For the penultimate Night of Terror for 2013, I ended up with a classic by one of my very favorite directors, William Castle. My usual line on Castle is that his best movies have aged into pop-art masterpieces, with his showboating gimmickry creating cinematic experiences that you simply can't get anywhere else. But as I watched House on Haunted Hill for the 2nd or 3rd time, I was struck by how that really isn't the case with this, even though it's probably his most popular movie.

That's because Castle's gimmick for this one, Emergo - involving a plastic skeleton being made to fly over the audience during a key sequence, doesn't really manifest itself onscreen in any way. So there's none of the fabulous fourth-wall collisions that The Tingler has (at least not apart the very beginning and end), the faux-interactivity of Mr. Sardonicus, or the carnival-like "Fright Break" of Homicidal.

And yet I still count this as a solid if not exemplary entry in Castle's filmography. It's probably in large part due to its top-notch "old dark house" atmosphere that relies pretty much entirely on stagebound effects, the kind you might see in an actual past-its-prime haunted house. And it's also thanks to the cast, which has its share of ringers including not just Vincent Price (clearly having a ball with his somewhat inscrutable character), but also Elisha Cook Jr. and Julie Mitchum.

Anyways, House on Haunted Hill is pretty darn close to being a quintessential Halloween movie, for its interest in spooks jumping out and scaring you before vanishing, and its commitment to old-school shocks and a plot in which only the bad guys get killed.

One other thing I wanted to note - might this be a little bit of an autobiographical movie on Castle's part? I know nothing of his personal life at the time, but I did notice some parallels between Vincent Price's ghoulish sense of humor (those tiny coffins, for one) and the one Castle either had or pretended to have. Food for thought.

Night of Terror #29: Some Wrestling Bullshit

Hi everybody. A couple weeks ago I did something that will probably haunt me until my dying day: I asked Dan if he wanted to write about wrestling for this blog. You see, Dan has been a professional wrestling fan (the wrestling is professional, not the fanship) for almost 1 1/2 years now, and I thought it would be interesting to read him expound on some of the spookier aspects of the sport. For more of Dan's thoughts about pretty much just wrestling, hit up his Twitter here.

Sports in general are not typically considered “scary”. There are certainly scary things that can happen, but due to the real world nature of sports it’s not really the same as watching a horror movie. The horrifying elements of sports instead tap into a real-world fear of injury and death, something sports fans get to watch play out in agonizing reality and thus makes it much less fun. The one sport that can claim a hold in the world of “fiction” and therefore can truly prey on man’s fears without honestly entering into reality would be Professional Wrestling.

Pro wrestling sits at this bizarro intersection between the reality of sports and the sort of “hyperreality” of fiction, and thanks to its scripted nature can use the language of story-telling to impress the audience. Both in the duration of a match and in the meta-reality of a wrestling “program” or storyline a distinct story is told. Heroes and villains clash, twists leave the viewer wondering where things are going to go, and grand finales ending stories in the biggest ways possible. However, few wrestling matches ever really tap into the fictional horror like horror films can. The due to the physical limitations of the body wrestling matches still have to adhere to the laws of physics and reality. One man, though, triumphed over all that and became one of the scariest forces in professional wrestling. That man is The Undertaker.

You might ask, why exactly would someone come on a film blog and not only come in talking about professional wrestling but a single professional wrestler? Well, the Undertaker is more than just an athlete and a man. Thanks to the creative forces of professional wrestling The Undertaker was crafted into a character rivaling slasher film monsters in terms of brutality, intimidation, and yes-even horror.

The Undertaker benefited from coming up in the “Attitude Era” of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest wrestling promotion in America and the world). This era of wrestling, defined by a “take-no-prisoners” mentality and bolstered by an “anything for ratings” creative mindset, seemed to thrive on anti-heroes. This was the era that gave us “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, an alcoholic violent redneck who wrecked cars, beat up women, and just generally didn’t give a shit; The Rock, an attention hog larger-than-life superstar who beat up his friends and battled with authority in the name of “the people; Mankind (who will be important later), the underdog hardcore wrestler who put his body on the line in order to destroy his enemies and later became a “corporate champion”; and most importantly gave us The Undertaker, a supernatural terror who could be almost anywhere and destroy almost anyone, whose weakness was an urn in the hands of a backstabbing manager called Paul Bearer, and who got known for claiming to have set a fire that killed his family and scarred his half-brother, the psychotic giant wrestler Kane.

This feud with Kane, Undertaker’s debut in the WWE, ended up defining the Undertaker character. This was one of the feuds I most distinctly remember growing up due to the horror-tinged nature of it. The feud was built on psychologically terrifying “promos” (video packages or in-arena incidents outside of the match designed to psych out opposing wrestlers and build up a feud in the minds of the fans), including The Undertaker’s trademark of shutting off the lights in the arena and appearing behind Kane while Kane was in the middle of a match, or sometimes just not appearing at all. Through the work of aforementioned backstabbing manager Paul Bearer, Kane was built up as a formidable opponent to Undertaker with a legitimate grudge, and the feud finally boiled over in a legendary Inferno Match. Due to the real world risk of burning alive, mixed with the knowledge of wrestling being scripted, this became one of the most terrifying matches and one of the three big career defining matches of Undertaker’s career.

Undertaker’s other defining matches also play on our human fears to deliver exciting and exhilarating action. He made famous the concepts of the “Buried Alive” and “Casket” matches, rather self-explanatory ideas that continue to mix real-world fear with the scripted nature of professional wrestling. These matches were used especially in his feud with Mankind. However, the match that truly made Undertaker a legend and defined him as the scariest thing alive didn’t involve fire or dirt, just two men and a steel cage that became the hallmark of a generation of wrestling.

The concept of the “Hell In A Cell” is simple. Upping the ante of the traditional steel cage match, participants are completely encaged in a chain link structure. The match is a No Disqualifications match, allowing for some of the most brutal wrestling anyone can see.  Born from the Attitude Era, an era defined by hardcore wrestling, a lawless brutal and bloody genre of wrestling, the Hell In A Cell is most often used for “blow-off” matches, the final match in an extended storyline.

The ’98 Hell In A Cell match was the climax of the long-running feud between Undertaker and Mankind. Mankind is a hardcore wrestling legend known for putting his body on the line at all costs, and it goes without saying that the match is more or less his showcase for this. The match starts with Mankind on top of the cage, challenging Undertaker to come to him. Undertaker, the ever-ominous villain, meets that challenge, and as the two men grapple on top of the steel cage there is a palpable sense of malice and danger. Undertaker edges Mankind towards the edge of the cage and, in a moment that shocked the world, pushes him over onto the Spanish announcers table. 

Staged or not, that’s not a fall one can fake, and everyone in the stadium met the fall with the appropriate response: shrieks and silence. No one knew whether Mankind was ok, and no one was prepared for what would come next.

As doctors checked out Mankind, Undertaker continued to glower from the roof of the cage. As stretchers came to get him out of the ring, Mankind leapt up to finish the match. Climbing up on a dislocated arm, he prepared for one last battle with the prince of darkness, not unlike any number of heroes in a slasher film. One last grapple, and then a completely unscripted moment: Mankind falls. Again. Through the roof. With genuine concern for his safety, doctors and trainers ran to the ring to check on him, and all the while the man that put him there stood above all. Undertaker, the unstoppable slasher film villain, would prove victorious again latter in the match, after many more insane things happening. But no scene could be as indicative of Undertaker as a frightening man right out of horror movies as that last, completely unscripted shot.

As the years went on the toll on Undertaker’s body continued, and he shifted from villain to hero and eventually part-timer, but even Jason and Freddie had to become comedy acts eventually. We all remember those shocking moments from them though, and none can really compare to the real world terror of The Undertaker.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Night of Terror #28: 'Island of Lost Souls'

Hello everyone. Today in my vivisection laboratory I was experimenting on a wildebeest and after a brief problem with the knee-joints I eventually produced Mr. Ben Ettinauer, who you can find on Twitter here. Here he is on the horror classic Island of Lost Souls starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. His is the hand that types movie reviews for my blog, eh, whatever, you get it.

The horrors Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls might seem obvious at first glance. The freakish man-beasts that are the result of Dr. Moreau’s experiments feature still-impressive make-up work. The jungle on the island is close and foreboding, with expressive shadows and light. Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is sadistic and sinister. But the fear and discomfort that the film carries and eventually leaves us with is of bodily violation, mutilation, and disfigurement. Moreau forces animal bodies into shapes in which they don’t fit and don’t belong, and he destroys any sense of bodily or even sexual autonomy to which sentient creatures are entitled. It is a horror film about physical violation. This is Cronenbergundian (to use that director’s preferred descriptor) before there was a Cronenberg.
The film was famously banned in the UK for 25 years, in no small part due to Moreau’s claim to be like a god. This does not seem to be a baseless claim. In the film we see him “elevate” creatures to sentience and near-human intelligence, subverting biological or theological design. He sees himself as above them, handing down laws from on high and punishing sinners. The House of Pain – Moreau’s laboratory – where he violently punishes insubordinate creatures is also the place where he gives them their new bodies and minds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Moreau pointedly doesn’t use anesthetic in his experiments. He wants to inflict pain in order to establish himself as the one with the power. Pain is power, and Moreau has ensured that he is the only one allowed to cause it. The beast men that he creates echo the hollow mantra “Are we not men?” lead by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi). The three laws establish the hierarchy of control. Not to eat meat, not to go on all fours, not to spill blood - they deny their true nature at the behest of Moreau seemingly out of desire to be human, but it’s clear that it’s out of fear of the House of Pain, of vivisection and torture. They desperately want to please their abuser. To further explore the horror of violation, the screenwriters Waldermar Young and Philip Wylie introduce a sexual element to H.G. Wells’ story in the form of a new storyline and characters. The hero Parker - played with headstrong stiffness by Richard Arlen - is given a fiancĂ© named Ruth (Leila Hyams) and Moreau is given his most “perfect” creation, Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When Moreau forces Lota to attempt to seduce Parker, the question of her consent or desire never seems to enter Moreau’s mind. He gleefully watches her forced and clumsy attempts at flirtation and seduction. Seemingly, he wants to see how well his greatest creation mimics human women. But when Parker rejects Moreau’s experiment upon discovering the truth about Lota, he orders one of his beastmen to rape Parker’s fiancĂ©, abandoning any pretense of scientific exploration in his desperate attempt to exert his violent control on everyone he encounters, whether animal, human, or something in between. He will rape, torture, and dismember whoever he chooses to achieve his ends. But Moreau is human, and when his desperation becomes clear,  Moreau’s beastmen finally see that Moreau is not God, only a torturer, and that he has mutilated them into their current ill-fitting forms. They turn on him, returning him to the House of Pain to force his own tortures back upon him. The film closes on a shot of the laboratory burning, Moreau’s own howls of pain echoing through the dark jungle.
There is an unfortunate subtext of eugenics, anti-miscegenation, and racism in this film (Parker at first believes Lota to be “full Polynesian”) which marks it as a product of its time. But it’s the horror of vivisection, of rape and sexual violation, of bodies forced into shapes that they don’t fit, which creates such revulsion, a visceral reaction that remains potent today. Moreau exerts his will through violence against mind and body, and the audience is not spared the consequences.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Night of Terror #27: 'Maniac'

Psycho killers have been a staple of horror movies and thrillers probably as long as the genre has existed, but they were usually kept at a nice safe distance from the public. I'm not enough of a scholarly historian to know when exactly that changed, but I do know the transition was probably fully complete by the time Maniac came out in 1980.

As a result, the experience of watching Maniac can be a little uncomfortable, as you're pretty much spending 88 minutes inside a deeply disturbed individual's head. But for whatever reason Maniac doesn't hit me quite as hard as some other grimy psycho movies like Taxi Driver or The Driller Killer, but it took me a while to figure out exactly why.

But I think I got it - director William Lustig (an exploitation god if there ever was one, if for no other reason than the fact that he gave us Vigilante - oh, and the Blue Underground label) might be working in the scummy world of low-rent exploitation movies, but his instincts are those of an old-fashioned movie-maker. That means that Maniac is layered with suspenseful set-pieces and creepy atmosphere, and in a weird way it makes the whole thing seem a little bit less unhinged.

Maniac's other liability, and I realize this might be a controversial statement, is star/writer Joe Spinell. Don't get me wrong, he gives a totally committed and compulsively watchable powerhouse performance, but I found the scenes depicting his derangement a little lacking. He pretty much sticks to the tried-and-true "crazy" line-readings during these scenes and the result is a lack of texture, at least compared to the other aspects of the movie. As contrast, watch his scenes with Caroline Munro, with whom he has a weird kind of chemistry - they're fascinating, because they are so unexpected and unlikely.

I guess I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today (technically yesterday, as I'm writing this after midnight) marks the passing of Lou Reed, rock god and personal hero to me. I'd be remiss not because Lou had anything to do with this movie (although I'd like to think he watched it), but because it depicts so much of the world that he called his literal and artistic home - dirty, scary, dangerous, sexy, beautiful New York City. I don't know if Lou Reed ever appeared in any horror movies (I'd have to ask Ira Brooker to know for sure), but if he did I don't have access to any of them, and it seems somehow appropriate that this was the horror movie that served as kind of a de facto goodbye. Because I think he'd probably dig the movie, this one is dedicated to Lou Reed. Perhaps he and Joe Spinell are in Heaven right now, freaking everyone out in concert.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Night of Terror #26: 'Inferno'

"Nightmarish" is probably a little bit of a lazy crutch-word when discussing horror movies, particularly those of the Italian variety. Who cares about narrative coherence, acting, or script quality (or paying enough attention to properly assess same) in the context of a nightmare? But even if that's true for all of Dario Argento's other movies, there's really no other word that can be used to accurately describe Inferno.

Much like a dream, the ostensible protagonist of Inferno shifts back and forth without any reason or narrative logic (no matter how confusing Suspiria or Deep Red get, at least the audience only has one main character to follow). Buildings will burst into flame for almost no reason - one late scene had me wondering if perhaps this movie was an influence on the Coens when they made Barton Fink. Scenes also shift, sometimes to the confusion of the characters ("where was I last night?"), and sometimes a simple trip to drown a sackful of cats takes a sinister and unexpected turn.

On the level of pure craft, Inferno is up there with all the best of Argento. His colors have never been more vivid, as his famously expressive camerawork is a tad restrained as if to compensate. And his set-pieces are as scary and suspenseful as ever - I, for one, will never be able to go swimming in a stagnant pool with a flayed corpse again without feeling a little bit creeped out.

The score by Keith Emerson doesn't quite fill the Goblin-shaped hole in the movie, but it's still a perfect fit for the uber-Argento material. The main theme, which build to its full intensity at the climax of the movie (go figure), is one of my favorites.

I can see a lot of people being disappointed by Inferno, because even in the rare stretches in which the plot makes sense it never quite crosses into "engaging." But if you go in with a mindset of appreciating dark surrealism than an a big roller coaster, you might find that it hits the spot.

"Death! Death!"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Night of Terror #25: 'The Black Cat'

"Man, you're watching a lot of Fulci movies lately." "Yeah, what are you, some kind of a sicko?" Well first of all, hypothetical individuals who represent my sublimated conscience, I've only watched two Fulci movies this month. And secondly, I pretty much only watch his stuff in October since I generally find him pretty hard to stomach. I'm pretty neutral towards gore in movies, but Fulci makes it really tough to disengage the part of your brain that thinks movies are "real" and just appreciate the spectacle, exactly because he favors effects that look so realistic.

That sensibility can infect the other parts of his movies, too - for that reason he's never struck me as a particularly atmospheric director, his movies are too microscopically constructed to build the kind of fog-drenched spookiness you see in movie conventional horror movies. That's not so for The Black Cat, though - I'm delighted to report that this is a very fun combination of Fulci's style and spooky atmosphere that for me works very well.

It's not as suspenseful as other top-tier Fulci movies, perhaps because the idea of a small black cat stalking around killing people is only slightly less ridiculous than that killer tire movie. But he makes the most of it, with lots of prowling "cat's-eye-view" shots punctuating the mayhem. And unlike The Psychic or some of his other giallos, the plot never gets too convoluted for its own good, instead featuring a kind of single-minded progression that Edgar Allan Poe himself would probably approve of.

There's also a typically lush score from Pino Donaggio, giving the movie a classier aural backdrop than these types of movies usually have. And compared to his performance in A Clockwork Orange, Patrick Magee is positively restrained. All in all, probably the most Halloween-appropriate Fulci movie that doesn't have any zombies in it.