Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Night of Terror #31: Alien

Last year I wrapped up the blog with John Carpenter's Halloween, so I thought it would be cool to go with another giant, perfect horror classic on Halloween this year. And since it was playing at the Paramount Theater in Austin, I went with Ridley Scott's Alien.

I'm not using the word "perfect" lightly here - every time I see Alien I'm struck by how relentless it is at building suspense and creating a frightening atmosphere from only the highest-quality ingredients. The characters, unlike the ones in most horror movies before or since, seem like fully fleshed-out human beings, despite there being a minimum of exposition or explicit "character development" in the plot. It's mostly due to the performances by the actors, and the willingness by the filmmakers to let those performances breathe and bounce off of each other like real people instead of just props.

And then there's the monster, who in some sequences seems terrifyingly human(oid) rather than just believably so. That's probably because he's meant to be a hybrid of human and xenomorph - that idea of sinister procreation goes along with all the creepy sexual imagery that the beast embodies. I read a review once when I was a kid that said he had a "dripping, vaginal mouth." How about that??

Anyway, I guess I don't have that much to say about Alien, partially because I saw another movie afterward that sort of fried my brain but mostly just because, like, what more can I say? So to close us out I'll do my best to describe my favorite sequence in the movie, one that would make an appropriate closing to our month of scary movies since it ends on a classic "boo" shock:

The scene is set thus: Our hero Ellen Ripley is alone (or is she?) on an escape pod in deep space after blowing up the Nostromo and presumably the alien creature that killed the rest of the crew with it. She's leisurely making her way through the shuttle, checking on various doodads and whatsits while stripping down to her underwear and getting ready to go into hypersleep. Then, the audience notices a row of oxygen tanks along the wall of the shuttle that look suspiciously like the alien's head - "wow," the hypothetical audience member thinks to himself, "this movie is really getting to me. I'm seeing that monster's head in those oxygen tanks! What a good movie this is, ha ha!" The shot holds ... just long enough for our hypothetical audience member to convince himself that it is indeed just an oxygen tank, when suddenly ... the alien's claw pops out of the wall, grabbing at Ripley and jolting all of us in our seats! I've probably seen Alien a dozen times and this scene always "fools" me even though I know it's coming, and it always, always makes me jump. To me it's the greatest jolt in the history of horror movies, and it's Scott's restraint and patience as a filmmaker that makes it so.

Happy Halloween, everybody! Thanks to everyone who participated, and hopefully we can do it again next year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Night of Terror #30: The Blob

Monster movies are certainly one of the most popular subsets of scary movies, especially around Halloween. But since the 1950s, the monster movie has been replaced by stuff like psycho killers, zombies, and other more down-to-Earth threats. Nowadays it's rare to see a monster movie at all, let alone one that's actually scary.

Which brings us to The Blob, the rare remake that manages to get everything right about the original while adding its own juju to the mix, justifying its own existence and giving audiences a reason to sit through a movie starring The Lesser Dillon. It nails the almost quaint atmosphere of classic 50s monster movies (The Blob included), while adding a genuinely dark and scary world in which the audience is never sure who will live and who will die - some characters who seem set up to "deserve" death get got, sure, but so do plenty of people who would seem like sure survivors in a more conventional horror movie.

There are also those special effects, which rival the ones in John Carpenter's The Thing in the bloody-oozing-bone-cracking-guts department. Some of the scenes of the titular blob oozing all over the city aren't quite up to that gold standard, but you know what? I don't care that much.

Anyway, The Blob is a surprisingly good movie, with a lot of great blobby action and some genuine scares. If only there were a holiday specifically for that sort of thing ... ah well, there's always Christmas.

Night of Terror #29: [REC] 2

Hello Halloweenies. In the hopes of getting the blog caught up in time for the Big Day, I'm going to run two guest spots in a row, today's second one being from my good friend and future Taylor Swift song subject Jere Pilapil. Here he is on [REC] 2, which I have not seen and thus am not sure how to type - hope I got it right.

"Just add priest"; that should have been the subtitle for [Rec] 2, the sequel to the 2007 not-zombies-but-c'mon-who-ya-foolin' shaky cam horror film. [Rec] set itself apart from other zombie fare by positing a religious aspect to the "virus" that sends those infected by it into a rage. American zombie movies tend to explain via science; the [Rec] series uses demonic possession. So, it makes sense that [Rec] 2 would double down by having a priest lead a SWAT team into the house from the first film.

The original [Rec] was scary enough. It's been too long for me to recount the details well (I need to rewatch), but it was definitely the last horror movie I watched to legitimately scare me. So, I was looking forward to seeing this one for awhile. All in all, [Rec] 2 is a worthwhile sequel that doesn't deepen the series' mythology at all but moves the story along logically (and, of course, sets up a sequel). [Rec] was a zombie movie in a haunted house, and [Rec] 2 takes the obvious sequel route of simple sending even people into the same house.

The choice to have a priest in the lead, surprisingly, does not reveal any insight into how this demonic virus came to be. But, his very presence adds some gravitas to what could be a terrible retread. Jonathan Mellor is excellent as the priest, his performance a feast of bug-eyed intensity and yelling Latin sounding things between interjections of "that was our last chance!" and "we can't leave now!"

Aside from a somewhat unnecessary diversion in the middle third (wherein we need to send more people into the house!), [Rec] 2 moves at a steady clip, carried by this performance. The shaky-cam style cinematography is more of a hindrance at this point (in both the series and in cinema in general), making it hard to see much of the action clearly. It almost emphasizes how faceless and interchangeable the SWAT team is. But the limited perspective sometimes works when building up to the various zombie attacks. (Also, the final third of the movie uses the camera's night vision to great effect.)

The action is the weakest point of the movie, ultimately, but that is somewhat inherent in the premise. Every attack by a zombie bears out more or less the same: 1. "What's that sound?" 2. A silhouette at the end of a hallway. 3. Screaming! Growling! 4. Either the attacker or the victim dies. The formula gets tiresome, so thankfully only the first 2/3 of the movie relies on it heavily, while the final 1/3 focuses on the Big Villain with some novel cinematic twists.

The [Rec] 2 offers ample tension in its short run time. Any time the story stays in the house where it’s undefined how many people might be infected and lurking, the movie feels fresh despite being a retread of the original. Supposedly, the third movie in the series takes a horror-comedy route, which seems about right. [Rec] was strong enough to handle a retread in [Rec] 2, but the genre’s limits demand massive changes to stay fresh.

*(I am trying not to spoil anything, but I will say that the movie cleaves almost completely evenly into three separate acts. They're not quite separate enough from each other to be a series of vignettes, but it' another construct that helps the movie stay relatively fresh for its 84 minutes [another wise choice, keeping these short].)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Night of Terror #28: Critters

Hello critters and crittettes, it's me, your FIENDly (friendly) GHOST-HOST (I am not actually a ghost). In a strange reversal of how I remember doing this blog last year, I have a bit of a backlog of guest pieces my friends have sent in, which is cool. Especially since it happens to coincide with a bit of a lag in updates. So here's the esteemed stand-up comedian / cinephile Jimmy LeChase (whose website you can check out here) on the film Critters. Don't forget to tip your waiters, yuk yuk yuk.

Critters was released in 1986 as New Line Cinema’s answer to Gremlins. Critters is not Gremlins. If Gremlins is Gremlins, Critters is a weird guy jacking dick in the back of a movie theater to a magazine with Gremlins on the cover. Why did he bring a magazine into the theater? I don’t know, but that’s the kind of bullshit you have to deal with when you’re Critters.

Stephen Herek directed and co-wrote Critters with Dominic Muir and Don Keith Opper, and despite the fact that New Line Cinema advertised Critters as their answer to Gremlins, Herek maintains that’s not the case and that the script for Critters was in existence before Gremlins came out. I believe him, because aside from the titular characters being small creatures with big mouths full of teeth, there’s nothing else about Critters that is even remotely close to Gremlins.

Critters opens up on a prison asteroid; which you can tell because the opening scene is of a big rock in outer space and a title card pops up in front of it that says “Prison Asteroid - sector 17: Maximum Security,” so right away you know we’re dealing with aliens and definitely not Asian demons like in Gremlins.

Taking the approach of telling and not showing, the audience is made aware that 8 “Crites” are ready to be transported to another asteroid or some shit and then BAM an explosion and the “Crites” have sprung themselves from the klink. The leader of the prison asteroid, an alien that looks like he was cobbled together by an angry intern at a community college film school program who was high on airplane glue, hires two animorph like bounty hunters to  chase down the “Crites.” “Fuel is not their problem,” he explains to the bounty hunters, but, because the “Crites” are hungry little assholes, they need to stop at Earth to pick up some take out before hopping off to the next planet. This explanation feels like it was put in in post to give the script something that resembles logic as to why the “Crites” would need to go to Earth if they could, y’know, just escape forever with endless fuel.

While the “Crites” and bounty hunters are speeding to Earth, we’re introduced to the Brown family and their loveable, All-American farm life. There’s Jay, the stern, hardworking farmer with a heart of gold when it comes to his children. There’s Helen, the wife that seems as if she’ll fall apart if she ever takes her apron off or stops looking out of windows. There’s April, the oversexed teenaged daughter that’s dating -wait for it- Billy Fucking Zane with a rat tail. And last, but certainly least there’s the trouble making, ginger haired son, Brad. Oh, Brad you’re such a rapscallion with your fireworks and slingshots!

Brad, being the trickster dufus that he is, hangs out with a loveable town drunk named Charlie that is played by none other than one of the film’s co-writers, Don Keith Opper. I didn’t bother looking up any of the other actor’s names, because once I saw Billy Fucking Zane was in the movie I stopped caring about anybody else.

Anyway, because the plot needed to move forward, Charlie and Brad are up to no good (as usual!) and Charlie accidentally hits April with a pellet from Brad’s slingshot and Brad ends up being grounded. Typical Brad. While Brad is serving out his sentence, he attempts to sneak out of the house and sees what he thinks is a comet, but it’s not a comet! It’s a spaceship full of Critters! Wow!

The spaceship crash lands and causes an earthquake; which startles Jay and Helen out of the kitchen, but what does Jay see when he goes out to inspect the damage? Oh, just Brad sneaking out of the house! “The earthquake through me clear out of my window!” Brad explains, but Jay, knowing his red haired son is less than human, doesn’t buy it for one second and demands his some come along with him to see what happened as further punishment for being such a terrible child.

At the landing site the Critters shrug and say “fuck it” and roll off to eat a cow.

Jay and Brad stumble upon the cow and talk about what could have done such a thing. Brad, being an asshole, says things that his father dismisses and they head back to the farm. The “Crites” watched all of this happen, shrugged, said “fuck it” again and rolled off to kill a police officer; which they totally do.

What about the bounty hunters, you say? Well, on their way to Earth they were quickly schooled on what’s up with our funky planet by being shown a shoddily edited video, and one of them decides to turn itself into the epitome of feathered 80’s hair that is Johnny Steele, singer of the song “Power of the Night” and owner of the laziest fucking name ever scripted outside of “Joe Smith.” The other bounty hunter turns himself into somebody else, but that doesn’t last very long, so after giving up on life he assumes Charlie the town drunk’s form and goes about being a bounty hunter as best as he can.

Charlie, meanwhile, is bugging out about the spaceship at Comedy Relief County Jail and the sheriff and sassy receptionist just aren’t having it, but this time... Charlie is right! I bet he wishes Brad wasn’t grounded so he could hang out with a child that listens to his drunken ramblings, but Brad is Brad and can’t be contained. Charlie, resigned to give into his addiction, drinks from a bottle of whiskey he keeps in his pocket.

Back at All-American Farms, April and Billy Fucking Zane are making out in a loft in the barn and Billy Fucking Zane is into it, or so the sway of his rat tail would have you believe, but when April pushes him into the bone zone, he backs off claiming her father would kill him if he caught them. What Billy Fucking Zane doesn’t know is that a Critter is planning on killing him either way; which it tries to do before Brad shows up and turns the tables on the Critter and feeds it a stick of dynamite. Nobody cares that Brad is troubled enough to have a stick of dynamite, and nobody seems to wonder why he has so many explosives or a detailed map of his school with Xs all over it, but hey, who wants to grapple with Brad? Not me.

After Billy Fucking Zane is almost eaten by a Critter, some stuff happens and the bounty hunters end up at All-American Farms and there’s a bit of a scuffle with the “Crites” and by “scuffle” I mean, not a fucking thing really happens except one of the “Crites” makes itself huge and kidnaps April which really puts a damper on Billy Fucking Zane’s fingering plans for the evening, so now everybody has to rescue April and ugh nobody in the cast is a good enough actor to make caring about April believable, but they go through with it anyway because it’s in the script.

One thing leads to another and Charlie and Brad end up saving the day with a molotov cocktail and more dynamite. The “Crites” blow up The Brown Family home on their way to being blown up themselves and everybody is sad. Even Brad, the soulless golem that he is, seems to be upset that all his stuff got blown up. Ironic, isn’t it, Brad, that such a fan of explosives would have his entire existence destroyed by an explosion? Maybe use this moment as a learning experience, Brad.


The bounty hunter with the hair of the gods gives Brad a remote control looking like thing and Brad pushes a button on it and in less than a few minutes their entire house is rebuilt like nothing ever happened; which taught Brad absolutely nothing. Great.

Just when you thought the movie was over the camera starts to move toward the barn -oh no! is Brad in there?- and slowly it’s revealed that the Critters laid eggs! Laying the groundwork for 3 sequels, one of which includes Leonardo DiCaprio, and none of which include Billy Fucking Zane.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Night of Terror #27: Sisters

Greetings! Today we're doing something a little bit different in honor of Brian De Palma's horror masterpiece Sisters. I and podcast auteur Oswald Hobbes discussed the movie on a special edition of our podcast Audio Assault. Here it is - listen ... if you dare!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Night of Terror #26: The Films of Frank Henenlotter

Hello basket cases! Sorry for the lack of posts yesterday - I was in the middle of watching a movie specifically for the blog when something came up and I had to go. In case I don't get to it this month - it's called Spooky Encounters by Sammo Hung. It's sort of a kung-fu horror/comedy thing from Hong Kong. It's delightful! See it!

Anyway, today's Night of Terror is from fellow ghoul Chip (who has a pretty cool blog here, and he's written a bit about director Frank Henenlotter. I've only seen one of this guy's movies (Basket Case) and I loved it so I can't wait to check out more. Here's Chip:

I first saw Basket Case when I purchased the used DVD from Tower Records as it was going out of business however many years ago that was. I had heard about it, but regularly got it confused with the Larry Cohen seventies horror film It’s Alive - due mostly to the similar wicker-themed cover. Instantly I loved it. It was too fanciful for what I was looking for at the moment, but there was still a disturbing, seedy, unsettling quality to the filmmaking that I loved. It would five years before I would revisit the DVD. I was even more ecstatic about the movie the second time. And so I decided it was time to explore the short and sweet filmography of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter.
It’s pretty easy to see how someone might find his movies off putting. The jokes alternate between cartoonish buffoonery and pitch black gallows humor. The violence is sudden, graphic, unrelenting, and not very convincing. The acting is uniformly unprofessional. The cinematography is murky. The sets are seedy, stained, sleazy, and shady. And the characters are reprehensible. And the body horror ... Henenlotter fetishizes scars, deformities, and mutations even more than Cronenberg. But his movies are so damn irreverent and fun. His movies are never scary, but they manage a powerful disturbing quality in their offbeat humor. Henenlotter embraces his shortcomings (which are mostly financial and taste-related) and creates a distinctive brand of horror comedy that no one else dares emulate.
A young man named Duane keeps his deformed and detached siamese twin (Belial) in a basket. Together they seek out the quack doctors who botched the separation operation and take revenge on each of them in turn. Duane is played by non-actor Kevin Van Hentenryck, who apparently never felt the need for a stage name. This guy is so charmingly terrible. Yet his loyalty to his foam, immobile sibling is completely believable. The Belial puppet is an astounding bit of cheap plastic whose hollow eyes, ever-perched arm, and guttural scream make it genuinely fucking creepy. It’s E.T. by way of Dead Ringers with hilariously incompetent bit players and gory violence. This movie is a brilliant statement on the destructive nature of family and familial loyalty.
Questions raised: Is Belial a family name?
A young man named Brian happens upon a small phallic creature named "Aylmer." Aylmer speaks in a cartoonish voice, lodges himself onto the back of his host’s neck, inserts himself into the host’s blood stream, and excretes a liquid that proves euphoric to the host. Brian becomes erratic trying to keep Aylmer in check while an elderly couple who once kept Aylmer in a bathtub, soon come looking for him.
Henenlotter continues his exploration of good looking young men and their loyalty to grisly creatures with dark agendas. Only this time, Henenlotter is more overtly sexual. When Aylmer inserts himself into the back of Brian’s neck, Brian grimaces, then moans with ecstacy as Aylmer inserts himself. Nothing sexual here, folks. On the surface, the movie is a metaphor about drugs and addiction. But the presentation is all about sex.
Typical death: When Aylmer shoots out of Brian’s open zipper and into the mouth of a morally questionable young woman attempting to give Brian a blow job. Aylmer then rips out her brains.
Questions raised: Why does one character make a point of spelling it "A-y-l-m-e-r" when the credits clearly read "Elmer," as did early posters. Did no one watch the movie before working on the credits?
Duane and Belial fall in with a group of absurd prosthetic monsters who look like rejects from McDonald’s advertising campaigns of years past. It seems Henenlotter got a bigger budget and got a fancier Belial puppet - compete with moving eyes. Although I’m going to miss the empty-eyed, barely movable puppet that screamed bloody murder (and occasionally broke into stop motion animation) from the first movie, the fancier puppet makes the mutant-on-mutant sex towards the end of the movie feel endlessly more disturbing than it would have been otherwise. While this movie is still not for children or anyone with any sense of taste or dignity, its sense of grotesquerie is less of the under-the-skin variety. It seems to go straight for the gross out humor. It’s still a pleasure to watch, but it doesn’t linger in the dark recesses of its audience’s psyche the way the first film did.
A young man named Jeffrey Franken accidentally chops his fiancé to death with a remote control lawnmower. He then steals the head, feeds explosive crack to hookers, collects their body parts, and puts together a mottle of a hooker that asks "Wanna date? Got any money?" This is perhaps Henenlotter’s most mainstream movie. (I remember seeing the VHS box in video rental sections for years.) It’s less horror than out-and-out comedy. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t play it straight like his other films did. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fucked up, but it feels more self-aware than his others.
By the third film in the series, Henenlotter had fully embraced a slapstick approach to horror. (There’s one scene in this movie that feels ripped from a Muppet film). There are long stretches without violence or menace.
Duane’s motivations seem to change from scene to scene and in the end, there’s no resonance to his ultimate fate (which is pretty incidental). Regardless, this movie maintains the low budget, accidental feel of Henenlotter’s previous films. It’s less sexual than his others (the only sexual scene is a mockery of BDS&M). It may be weaker Henenlotter, but it still remains fully unique to his filmmaking talents.
Typical death: Belial leaps onto a police officer, half rips his face off (the sight of his upper teeth hanging out of his mesh of skin is particularly memorable), and then knocks his head off.
A young man named Batz has a giant sentient penis. Nothing can satisfy it. Not even the elaborate machine Batz has set up in his home to relieve himself sexually. He is constantly at odds with the erratic bulge in his pants. Then he meets Jennifer, a young woman with seven plus rabid clitorises that are never satisfied. She is driven to sex men to death, and then ditch the mutated baby that is birthed mere hours later. Batz’s penis soon proves not only sentient, but detachable. It scours the neighborhood and rapes all the hot scantily clad women lounging around their homes. The recurring image of the penis bursting through the paneling is a highlight. Eventually, the two sex each other to death - releasing a penis baby to the world.
This was the first movie Henenlotter had directed in sixteen years. He had spent the years since Basket Case 3 cultivating his home video company, Something Weird. He returned the to the very same tropes that he started with. Amateur actors. Sexualized monsters. Body image horror. And wonderfully perverted and deranged sense of humor. I’m glad he took off time to recharge his batteries. As one friend said to me after watching it: “I want to hug/punch you for that.”
There’s no other filmmaker like Henenlotter. He’s so wonderfully adept at being inept. He’s John Waters, David Cronenberg, and Andy Milligan all rolled into one. Wrong-headed, tasteless, gross, and brilliantly hilarious. So far, every other film he’s made has been a Basket Case movie – which means we’re due for another. But if he doesn’t get around to Basket Case 4, Bad Biology is a perfectly wrong movie to go out on.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Night of Terror #25: Dead Heat

Hello, scary movie fans and self-Googling former Saturday Night Live cast members! Today we have a guest spot from my friend Tim Garlitz on the film Dead Heat - as a personal note, when Tim told me that this movie was "a zombie cop movie starring Joe Piscopo and Treat Williams" I could barely believe such a thing really existed. Here he is on the horror and majesty of Dead Heat:

This review contains major spoilers, so if you were worried about having the film Dead Heat spoiled, then I just feel sorry for you.

I’m curious as to who was the first Hollywood executive who stated, “what if we crossed a buddy cop movie with a zombie movie and got Treat Williams and that Joe guy from Saturday Night Live to play the leads? Also, what if, instead of Riggs and Murtaugh, it was Riggs and über-Riggs?” I wonder how many offices he was thrown out of before someone finally green lit the project. If the 86 minute running time is an indication, it’s clear that even the people that would make such a movie in the first place weren’t sure if audiences could take a full 90 minutes.

Dead Heat stars Treat Williams as Det. Roger Mortis (get it?) and Joe Piscopo as Det. Doug Bigelow, a leather jacket-wearing quip machine that puts Guy Pearce’s character in Lockout to shame. Any trace of actual police procedure or normal cop behavior is practically non-existent in this movie. Mortis and Bigelow are undercover cops that tool around in a ’57 Chevy convertible, after all. Sure, there are the standard cop-movie clichés, like getting chewed out by the chief and put on probation for all the damage caused to city property, but even the clichés seem forced, as clearly no one wanted to spend much time on formalities. They didn’t even bother with a storyline about someone’s early retirement.

The plot revolves around the detectives attempting to solve a string of jewelry heists perpetrated by criminals wearing ski masks in broad daylight. In each of the ensuing shootouts with these thieves the police have found them extremely difficult to kill, forcing Detective Mortis to impale one with a car. After one of the coroners (Mortis’ on-again-off-again girlfriend) discovers traces of a chemical found on the body, the detectives investigate a lab where the chemical is manufactured. After a run-in with a giant two-faced monster found stitched together in the lab, Mortis is killed (not a spoiler) in a special chamber and revived by a machine that essentially turns dead tissue into living matter. With no heartbeat and a rapidly deteriorating complexion, Mortis sets out to find his killer and the culprit behind the zombification of the thieves. WOW, explaining the set up for this movie took longer than the actual movie.

The film is set up in a way for the characters to get from set piece to set piece with as little dialogue or character development as possible. The writer on Dead Heat was Terry Black, who I assume was hired based on his last name, thinking he was a relative of Shane. However, judging by the Piscopo character, it’s more likely that Black was a failed standup comedian. Det. Bigelow, portrayed by Piscopo at what appears to be the height of his steroid usage, shows nothing resembling normal human reactions or behavior, and is practically a conduit to spout quip after quip, joke after joke, and sexist comment after sexist comment with zero remorse or pathos. The one time Piscopo actually does make an attempt at normal human emotion is completely laughable and ridiculous, as he ponders the ethics of reviving his partner and the necessity of the human soul. Over the course of the film Piscopo makes a pass at LITERALLY every woman he sees, mentions his girlfriend once, and mentions his ex-wife once, all bookended by punch-lines, never to be mentioned again. Although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if they knew they’d have to be mentioned along with such witticisms as “I gotta take a leak so bad, my teeth are floating” and “Sorry to interrupt your erection, pal, but we’d like to speak to the management.”

The script problems also affect the pace the of the film, as I mentioned before with that 86 minutes. One of the main reasons for this is the apparent deletion of entire scenes replaced with overdubbing on transition and exterior shots, giving vital exposition on the fly instead of having actual scenes play out. This film has the most amount of obvious post-production added dialogue of just about any movie I’ve ever seen. This was also a great device to ensure more hilarity from Piscopo, as he is just shouting jokes off-screen for about 1/4th of this movie.

Yet despite all these unfortunate occurrences, the movie does have some surprisingly well-done makeup and effects. Most of the zombies (including eventually Treat Williams) are quite disgusting, and many of the effects are fairly inventive for this type of movie. One standout scene takes place in a Chinese butcher shop where all of the meat comes alive and starts to attack the detectives. Much of the atmosphere of this scene appears to be ripped from Big Trouble In Little China, but watching Treat Williams wrestle a skinless, headless cow is still pretty fantastic.

Several Hollywood veterans make appearances in this picture: Darren McGavin as the head coroner, Keye Luke as the stereotypical Chinese restaurant owner/mystic, and Vincent Price in a role that I believe has a total screen time of about 10 minutes, and I’m still not exactly sure who his character was or what he did. This was clearly one of Vincent Price’s last roles, and I doubt he had much interest in committing to the role too much.

By the end of the movie, practically everyone has died at some point and then been revived. Most of the characters that appeared early in the picture, including the police chief and the lieutenant, have all disappeared, never to be heard from again. And despite the one believable relationship in the film being between Mortis and his coroner girlfriend, no attempt is made to revive her when she dies near the end, because apparently that would be a little bit too sympathetic. Finally, to solidify its place in film history, the ending references Casablanca, because it features just as many memorable lines of dialogue as that classic. Although I guarantee that you won’t find this film scary in the least, if you appreciate buddy-cop movies, zombie movies, or bad movies, this will be guaranteed to entertain.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Night of Terror #24: The Devil-Doll

My parents used to tell me "it's not Halloween without Tod Browning" - a rare instance of my parents being completely on-target. So tonight I watched one of my favorite Browning movies - The Devil-Doll, starring Lionel Barrymore as a man who escapes prison and evades capture while plotting his revenge against those who wronged him by disguising himself as an old woman.

Cinephiles may recognize some of that plot synopsis from Browning's earlier silent classic starring Lon Chaney, The Unholy Three. I probably like that movie a little bit more, but I will concede that Barrymore makes a more convincing old lady than Chaney does. And The Devil-Doll also has a truly grotesque science-fiction twist that makes it a lot weirder than the earlier movie, too.

That twist (and you can stop reading here if you want to avoid knowledge of this movie's gonzo insane plot) has to do with a special piece of technology developed by Barrymore's escape-mate that allows him to shrink living things down to 1/6th their size. There's one unfortunate side-effect though: The recipients of this treatment lose all of their will - in fact, they appear to lose all brain activity whatsoever. But they can be compelled to move about through intense concentration and will power. The science is fuzzy, we don't understand it, just go with it, etc.

From there, Barrymore uses this special process to inflict revenge on the three people who framed him and put him in prison, and clear his name in the process. It's all really great, pulpy stuff, but unfortunately it doesn't really rise above its pulp origins in any way other than unusual weirdness. Barrymore is great, though - as is my immortal beloved Maureen O'Sullivan in a thankless role as his long-suffering daughter. And I love Rafaela Ottiano too - especially the way she says "small."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Night of Terror #23: Suspiria

Hey everyone! Welcome to 31 Nights of Jessica Harper. Last night we watched Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, and tonight my friend Clayton Oeth will tell us about arguably her most famous movie: Dario Argento's Suspiria. Tomorrow night: The Crabby Cook Cookbook: Recipes and Rants!

I’ll start out by saying that I knew relatively little about Dario Argento’s Suspiria going into it for the first time. I knew it had a fairly respectable reputation and a famous scene involving a stained glass ceiling. I had vague memories of the segment about it on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and though I watched that series annually for about three years in high school, I didn’t remember any plot details about Suspiria specifically. But it was these vague memories of the clips of the glass ceiling scene that drew me to the film. And it wasn’t anything to do with the scare that came with this bloody beaten woman falling through a ceiling only to be caught by a noose before she hits the ground. It was a frightening image, but if the show provided any context for the woman’s death, I didn’t recall it. What intrigued me and what stuck with me were the visuals that complemented this death scene: the bright reds and shapes on the walls, the layout of the building, the design of the stained glass and the floor. When watching its segment of the Bravo series, which was essentially a marathon viewing of famous death scenes, it stood out so much among even the most iconic horror films. After seeing the film in its entirety, I look back on this and find it pretty amazing that so much about the film as a whole was communicated from watching literally seconds of the film and from a scene that ultimately plays only a minor part in the narrative.

The film begins with the arrival of main character Suzy Banyon at her new German ballet school, but for whatever reason she cannot be let in the building. As she is arrives, a woman runs out the door, yells something she can’t understand and runs into the night. The film then switches to this woman, Pat, still shaken from whatever was at the school, at her friend’s apartment. When she is alone in the room, she sees a pair of eyes outside and suddenly she is attacked, stabbed and disemboweled. Her body falls through the glass ceiling of the building, catching on a noose before she hits the ground, with the falling glass and debris also killing her friend. The film then returns to Suzy, getting settled in at the ballet school. The school is filled with strange characters, but seems normal initially. But strange things begin happening: Suzy suddenly becomes ill after an encounter with one of the staff, maggots infest the building and the school’s blind piano player’s seeing-eye dog mauls and kills him. Along the way, Suzy befriends a classmate, Sarah, who was friends with Pat and has some theories as to these happenings. Sarah tries to tell them to Suzy, but before she can she is murdered by presumably the same assailant as Pat while Suzy is asleep. Suzy is told that Sarah left in the night, but she looks into a man Sarah had mentioned before she leaves. This man explains to her that the school was founded by a woman interested in the occult, famously thought to be a witch and the school thought to be run by a coven of witches. Returning to the school, Suzy finds a secret section of the school, based on what she remembered Pat yelling as she left and discovers that, surprise, the staff is witches. She confronts the founder of the school, who tries to kill her, but Suzy ultimately triumphs and walks away as the school burns down.

The narrative is certainly distinctly horror, but many elements of the genre come and go to contribute to the film to the films nature of horror. Initially, the films makes the viewer believe this will be a stalker-murderer story with its first killing, then later reaffirms this with Sarah’s death scene. But once Suzy settles into the school, the scares come more from the idea of the school as a haunted house, until finally settling on a more supernatural horror story with the introduction of the idea of witches. But though some narrative elements may be too familiar, the way Argento uses them in tandem with certain directorial techniques to get the scares is rather unique. Initially, I was slightly off put by the way Argento handled the tension and release of the killings that the success and effectiveness of the horror genre so depend on, but in retrospect there’s a certain unique genius to it. The score of the film, by Italian progressive rock band Goblin, is a constant presence, as any score should be, but is a loud symphony of many noises and instruments that could almost be described as cacophonous. At the tense moments before a killing in the film, the score builds and builds only to completely stop before anything happens, leading the viewer into a something in between a false sense of security and disappointment at the lack of catharsis. But it is shortly after this when the killing finally happens and often in an unexpected fashion. The way the viewer braces for some monster or supernatural force to take out the blind man in the square, but jumps when it is the man’s dog that bites his neck or how we think Suzy as escaped the killer through the window, only to have her fall into a sea of barbed wire.

But although the film excels in providing a horror story and frightening moments, what drives and ultimately defines the film are the visuals and Argento’s directing in general. Any horror film can be said to be a nightmare brought to life, but with Suspiria, Argento immerses the viewer in an environment so surreal and frightening “nightmare” is the only descriptor that will do it justice. The unnatural lighting of blue and red and extravagantly designed rooms and hallways of the school provide the viewer with a consistent visual aesthetic, but one that keeps them consistently on edge and unsettled. Certain physical spaces are established, but the viewer never really has an idea of the layout of the school that the majority of the film the school takes place in, causing a jarring effect when the characters wander. As I mentioned previously, parts of the narrative are somewhat problematic. Characters and ideas are introduced but never really developed in the story as a whole and the inconsistency of the horror elements used is interesting but strange. But ultimately these aspects lend themselves to the dream-like nature of the film, making the school seem like some unique realm where strange things happen with little or no explanation. What drew me to the film was the beautiful and strange imagery, the likes of which I had never before seen. What the film as a whole provides is a nightmarish vision and an approach to horror that is just as equally unique.