.............................................................TRAPPED INSIDE A WORLD UNDER LEAGUES OF OCEAN........................................................

Saturday, October 20, 2012

movies: in my skin (dans ma peau) (2002)

I was completely blindsided by this film directed by and starring frequent Francois Ozon collaborator Marina de Van.  In My Skin is the story of Esther, recently promoted at work, and becoming more serious with her partner Vincent (played wonderfully by Lemming and Calvaire's Laurent Lucas).  After a mishap at a party where Esther cuts her leg, she slowly begins to become fascinated by the wound, gently prodding and picking at it and ultimately allowing it (and her new found pleasure derived from cutting herself) to consume her entirely.

A fascinating, bold, and at times very tough to watch film, In My Skin's success hinges on one thing - the believability of the lead performance and the empathy it commands.  Fortunately, de Van is quietly riveting, and not only is her descent into oblivion believable, it is tragic, horrifying, and, in a very strange way, beautiful.  De Van's Esther has the ability to completely and fearlessly let go, to allow her instincts and desires to complete her transformation from nervous stability to physical, emotional, and spiritual self-immolation; this, more so than any kind of physical hurt, is terrifying and awesome.  The idea that someone can willingly (or, arguably - and perhaps more frightening - unwillingly) sacrifice themselves to a feeling is at once simple and profound, and frankly, seductive.  I mean, we do it on a small scale everyday, give in to our cravings and desires, but not to the extent of obliterating your very existence in order to attain some form of total grace.

The film works on several layers: the first is straight up, Cronenbergian body horror.  I consider myself not very easily shocked - I've seen everything from Budd Dwyer's live televised suicide to 2 Girls 1 Cup and pretty much a whole bunch of sick, twisted shit in between that has often left me despising myself for being a part of the same species that can create such things.  However, there were moments in In My Skin that truly made me squirm, but not in a sensationalistic sense.  See the "violence" here is never gratuitous, and is in fact necessary for the story to play out the way it does.  De Van treats the often gruesome visual details of Esther's affliction with a mix of poignancy and the sense that Esther is an stranger in her own skin, and cannot fathom what this alien tissue is.  In this way, In My Skin owes a huge debt to the the slow burn psychological nosedive of Polanski's Repulsion, and indeed, Esther and Catherine Deneuve's Carol undergo very similar meltdowns, though Esther's is obviously much more graphic.

Another reading of the film is to see it as an addiction parable.  This is an obvious one, and my earlier mention of the horror and odd beauty of someone allowing themselves to be utterly consumed is an idea that is often explored in more literal translations, i.e. the typical "drug movie".  However, even that has become a hackneyed film trope and these days drug movies are no longer transgressive and fearless, they are de rigueur.  By removing references to drugs/alcohol/sex/texting, de Van reconfigures the viewer's experience.  We no longer overlook the addiction itself, because the addiction is the film; the film is the addiction.  By making the viewer focus on the ghastly goings-on as an externalized force, he is not allowed to forget, and is constantly being reminded that this is indeed what addiction is, this living nightmare of the soul betraying the body is very literally right in front of our eyes.

Esther uses the mutilation to escape or transcend the banality and growing pressures of her "real" world, and the deeper she crawls inside herself, and becomes more and more detached from the society around her, her externalized stigmata become increasingly brutal, until she finds herself stripping and consuming her own flesh.  In order to feel anything, she must destroy herself; an interesting philosophical paradox, and one suggestive of the image and idea of the Ouroboros, a kind of cyclical self-destruction that brings emotional transcendence and renewal.

There is no real resolution or consideration of those left in Esther's wake; in many ways, In My Skin is sort of an anti-slasher, where the violence and hurt is self-inflicted and is limited entirely to one person.  The final shot is haunting and elegiac, and will be fused to your retina for awhile, in much the same way that the final moments of Martyrs were.  In My Skin is a powerful, provocative, punishing work that has easily jumped into my top five horror films from the last decade.  A difficult, emotional, and ultimately very rewarding watch.

movies: deadbeat at dawn (1988)

Depraved indie bad boy Jim Van Bebber locks down the low-budget, ultra-badass vibe in this entry, in which he also stars and does his own stunts, including leaping off quite a tall bridge. The tag line for the film is "He quit the gangs, they killed his girl", and if you need more explanation than that, stop reading now. Van Bebber nails the look and feel of grimy '80s actioners, but with an air of authenticity (perhaps coming from the suitably decaying Dayton, Ohio cityscapes that frame the film) lacking in many of the more polished offerings of the era.

In his little interview (on the lovingly assembled Dark Sky DVD, part of the "Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim Van Bebber" box, which also includes The Manson Family and several early shorts), Van Bebber relates how he wanted to create a mashup of The Warriors and some of the Chuck Norris films he worshiped. He does that, certainly, but adds his own stamp to the film with psychedelic montages, graphic drug use and the main character's rather explicit spiral into near-oblivion.The final 10 minutes are spectacularly bloody and primal; Van Bebber and cast do a remarkable job creating a palapable mix of menace and fatalistic humour.

Not to everyone's tastes, for sure, but if you can dig either of the aforementioned precedents of this film, you'll find something both familiar and unique in Deadbeat at Dawn. I enjoyed it so much I bought the box set for myself, for what little that's worth.  Check it.

movies: lovecraft: fear of the unknown (2008)

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is Fear of the Unknown."  So wrote Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the early part of the 20th century, and so begins the documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.

If you don't know who Lovecraft is by name, perhaps you are familiar with some of the film adaptations of his work, or those based on his writings and ideas?  The Thing, Alien, Hellboy, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and nearly a hundred others - not to mention those writers/filmmakers upon whom Lovecraft's influence is palpable.  Stephen King's The Mist?  Straight Lovecraft ripoff.  And John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness is widely regarded as one of the most successful interpretations of the Lovecraft mythos.

Perhaps Lovecraft's greatest contribution to the horror genre is that he created a completely new realm of possibility for horror; he left behind the gothic trappings of previous authors, the ghosts and witches, and introduced his readers to a much darker world ruled by old, vengeful gods, where mankind teetered on the brink of sanity and in which humanity's ultimate cosmic meaninglessness was stressed.  Some (intentional or not) very cool concepts are touched on in his stories - one such example is how he structures the final scene in The Rats in the Wall to parallel the relatively modern theory of Deep Time (which would have been known to Lovecraft).  Toss in some really creepy, slimy monsters (most resembling some kind of massive, mutated, deep sea thing), and some of the more purple prose you'll read, and you've got a bona fide heavyweight in American literature, albeit one who has only recently been recognized as such, finally elevated from the "lowly" designation of "pulp writer" with the stodgy Library of America's publication of Lovecraft: Tales.

The doc gathers together all the usual Lovecraft heirs - Ramsey Campbell, Stuart Gordon, Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, ST Joshi, John Carpenter and a few others, and simply allows them to speak.  Interspersed with their musings are period photographs (don't say it), letters, and modern artworks that interpret some of Lovecraft's nastier beasties.  The film is fairly straightforward, following the course of the general "survey doc", and is thorough in its study of the troubled author in the context of his times and his impact on the present.  Kudos to the filmmakers for not shying away from Lovecraft's intense xenophobia, as I find many of these docs that present the subject adoringly tend to gloss over the less savoury aspects of the person's life.

An enjoyable, informative, and well-made doc that will please current fans but isn't so esoteric as to alienate the newcomer to Lovecraft's work.  Recommended.  And I cannot wait for House of Re-Animator - shit's gonna be so rad.

movies: the boxer's omen (1983)

Wow, what to say about The Boxer's Omen?  One of the most mind-bending, visually imaginative and all-together fucked films I've seen in awhile.  A simple plot synopsis, though it cannot do the film justice, is necessary to understand what the hell is actually going on.

I've already forgotten the name of Lung Wei Wang's character, but we'll just call him Lung for clarification purposes, and Bolo Yeung, we'll call Bolo.  So, Lung's brother is beaten by shady methods in a boxing match with Bolo, and Lung is asked to seek revenge for the now paralyzed brother.  He travels from Hong Kong to Thailand to confront Bolo and demand a match to avenge his brother.  He is then drawn to a temple that bears a glowing arch that is identical to the one he saw in his dream.  There he is informed by the monks that he was chosen by their lama to come to them to free the now near-dead (actually imprisoned by a dark spell) lama from some horrible black magic curse.  The almost-dead lama speaks to Lung and tells him that they are twins and that if the lama cannot acheive immortality then Lung too will die.  So Lung becomes a monk and sets about training to break the curse and avenge his brother and stay alive.  The movie shifts incomprehensibly back and forth between Hong Kong and Thailand, and I could never be sure where they were exactly, as everything looked the saem.

Haha, reading that summary back again, I can't even believe how messed the film is.  But the best part?  Oh yeah, the best part are the amazing effects, gloriously gory and gruesome and slimy practical and stop motion effects involving the blackest of magics.  The lighting is also fantastic and trippy, and shares much with the contrasting primary colour schemes of Argento's Suspiria and Inferno.

I read a review that said if Jodorowsky and Coffin Joe got together and made a martial arts/horror film in Hong Kong, this would be it.  I can't think of anything more to say than that is probably the most apt description for The Boxer's Omen.  Unlike anything I've seen before, and doubt I'll see anything like it again.

movies: let's scare jessica to death (1971)

Released in 1971, a year before Robert Altman's Images, John Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica To Death is an anomalous landmark in the horror canon.

Based on Gothic horror author Sheridan Le Fanu's work "Carmilla", and starring TV (and later the underrated Exorcist III) vet Zohra Lampert, LSJTD has a simple plot:  Jessica has recently spent six months under psychiatric care/evaluation in New York for an unknown "illness", and now, supposedly cured, is moving out to the country upstate, along with her husband Duncan and their good friend Woody.  They are going to live in an old farmhouse and work the adjoining orchard, get back to the land, for the good of Jessica's mental state.  When they arrive in town, they are greeted less than hospitably by some old men, but things cheer up as they arrive at the house.  However, they soon find they are not alone here; living in the home is a woman, Emily, who has been squatting there for some time.  She is very friendly though, and all four of the characters get along quite well.  After a little bit of familiarizing, and a fledgling romance with Woody, Emily is asked to stay with the trio.  And that's pretty much it.  But as the story unfolds, we see that Jessica is indeed not well - she hears voices, her paranoia grows, and a mysterious girl in white appears at random times, seemingly to warn Jessica of something.

As Jessica's mind begins to fragment, Emily wedges herself between Jessica and Duncan, even treating the latter to some late night carnality one midnight.  And as things fall apart, Jessica starts to wonder if she is in fact mad, or if something more sinister is at play.  Even the somewhat revelatory ending is still left open to interpretation precisely because of Jessica's mental state.  "Dreams or nightmares?  Madness or sanity?", she asks herself in the film's bookending scene.

The score is excellent; throbbing electronic pulses mix with pastoral, folky acoustic guitar, and provide an aural backdrop for the dual sides of Jessica. 

All actors are quietly superb in their roles, and the film has that early '70s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact realism that was prevalent in almost all dramas then, and is sorely missing from much of today's cinema.  Lampert, especially, is wonderfully cast in a difficult role - she comes off at times lucid, at times shattered, simple; at times radiant, at times haggard.

The ambiguity of the film is its great strength and has given it its staying power, I believe.  We are never told one way or the other whether or not Jessica has completely slipped into a fantasy world facilitated by a broken mind, or if in fact the demons that haunt her are real. Laced with an undercurrent of dark sexuality and misogyny, LSJTD belies its often unadorned exterior.  I've watched this three times in the last year and a half or so, and find something new with each viewing.  We feel the very real sense that Jessica's fragile mental state could at any moment teeter slightly, plunging her into madness forever.

Another thing that puzzles me about the film is its title, specifically the "Let's" part.  "Let's" meaning "let us"...so who are the "us"?  The creepy old men in town?  Duncan, Woody, and Emily, playing some cruel and elaborate prank on Jessica?  Or are they the whispers inside Jessica's head, conspiring to remove her from this world once and for all?  Hmmm, certainly something to ponder...

Highly recommended viewing for this time of year, or anytime, for that matter - a worthwhile watch, all these years later.

movies: student bodies (1981)

"Before there was SCREAM, there was...STUDENT BODIES"

So goes the line on the front of the DVD box.  Now, I'm not one of those who believe that Scream killed horror, or at least serious horror.  I love Scream; even moreso what is essentially its pilot run in Wes Craven's earlier film New Nightmare.  So I was intrigued by Student Bodies, this film from 1981 that claimed to be the original Scream.  In fact, it is much closer in spirit to Airplane, The Naked Gun, or the Scary Movie series, and surprisingly funny at that.

Not much of a horror, Student Bodies uses the late '70s/early '80s genre leanings to maximum comic effect; the opening scene is a medium shot of a house exterior with the word "Halloween" appearing at the bottom of the screen....cue creepy music.  And then, the screen goes black.  The same exterior appears a second later, the title at the bottom of the screen now says "Friday the 13th"...cue creepy music.  Again, fade to black.  A second later, same shot, but the title now says "Jamie Lee Curtis' Birthday"...cue creepy music.  Ha!  Then we go inside, where a scene very similar to the opening of Scream takes place, a girl answers the phone, heavy breathing ensues, repeat...  Then she hears a weird noise and goes outside to check on it, but when she comes back in, she leaves the door unlocked.  The camera zooms in on this soon-to-be fatal error and the word "UNLOCKED" flashes on the screen, with a big arrow pointing at the door.  Stuff like that...

The killer is called "The Breather" and pants like a dehydrated dog, which then becomes near-athsmatic wheezings, all the while tracking and killing virtually anyone who has sex.  Red herrings abound, obvious suspects killed, The Breather j-oing in a locker room while he stares at nubile coeds, a couple references to the real cause of death being swine flu (!?!), bizarre uses of the deus ex machina plot device and then, at the very end, the cliched "it was all a dream", followed by a real twist!  At 80 minutes and change, this movie stays just long enough and leaves before wearing out its welcome.

Intentionally or not, Student Bodies was quite prescient.  I can't believe how much so many later films have "borrowed" from this, yet it remains relatively unknown.  If you are a fan of any of the aforementioned films, you'll do well to check this out; even if you're not a fan, or are unfamiliar with them, you could do far worse for some mindless fun and surprisingly original humour.

movies: in the mouth of madness (1994)

"Do you read Sutter Cane?"

What is my favourite John Carpenter film, you don't ask?  That's a tough one, as there are so many.  I could maybe give my top 5, in no particular order: Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live, and In the Mouth of Madness.  And that's excluding many worthy also-rans like Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Christine, Prince of Darkness, etc...  As you can see, picking a favourite is tough.  But I will say this - the film I have watched the most (disqualifying Halloween, which I watch almost every fall as a tradition) is In the Mouth of Madness, if that means anything.  I think I've seen it about half a dozen times, and it keeps beckoning me to return as the days grow shorter and the sun turns tea-weak through slate clouds.  Roughly once a year, sometimes more, something calls me back to Hobb's end.  Something old, dark, and wet.

The final film in Carpenter's supposed "Doomsday Trilogy" (The Thing being number one and Prince of Darkness being number two), ITMOM revolves around hack horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, who we don't see until about halfway through the film), whose work bears no small resemblance to Stephen King.  Cane's work is massively popular, more popular than King or even the Bible, we are told.  Thing is, Cane has gone missing, and his latest work is having very strange effect on readers (almost everyone), driving them to madness, mayhem, and murder (hey, if you're invoking hack writers, you've got to use that most hakneyed of hack devices, alliteration).  Enter John Trent (Sam "God Among Men" Neill), an insurance fraud investigator, who has been contracted by Cane's publishing firm to find the missing author.  Trent is accompanied by Linda Styles, Cane's editor, and they set out to find the fictional Hobb's End, some quaint New England town that isn't supposed to exist except for in Cane's fiction.  Problem is, they find it; Hobb's End harbours some dark secrets and is anything but Main St. USA.

Carpenter does a masterful job of reigning in the various aspects of the story to keep it from becoming too confusing - there are quite an array of ideas on display here, and if you remove the slimy things which crawl out of the black pit in the church (very nice tip of the Lovecraft's Old Ones), and the couple of hatchet jobs (literally) that occur in town, you'd still find yourself dealing with a very darkly comic existentialist apocalypse horror.

As always with Carpenter, the practical special effects are top notch, and the director's own throbbing-synth score is fantastic.  Prochnow and Neill are worthy foils and Charlton Heston does a superb job as Cane's befuddled publisher.  And keep an eye out for many of the locations, as the film was shot in and around Toronto (most notably, the RC Harris filtration plant, doubling as an insane asylum here).

Carpenter had played with Lovecraftian ideals before (most notably in The Thing), but never so obviously as he does in ITMOM.  While Cane can be seen as King (or King-like), he is also operating very much within the Lovecraft mode.  And, though I can't remember the exact quotation, I'm pretty certain Cane actually says "the Old Ones" at one point, or something very similar.  With that in mind, the structure of the film is deceptively complex.  Sure, the "story-within-a-story" thing has been done before, but Carpenter masterfully weaves the fiction with the reality (still fiction, as it is the film itself), and with a bit of suspension of disbelief, the viewer is led to believe that what is happening onscreen is happening in the real world, outside the cinema.  Of course, it is less believable now, as the film and its decor have dated somewhat, but still, there is a complexity in the film that I have not found in any other of Carpenter's oeuvre (though he mildly flirted with similar concepts in his too brief, but highly enjoyable, Masters of Horror entry Cigarette Burns).  In this regard, ITMOM is certainly not to the same league as something like Synechdoche, New York, but they're playing the same game.

A thought-provoking and immensely re-watchable (not to mention quotable) film, I think that for me, ITMOM is, if not my favourite Carpenter film, his most accomplished and prescient work.  It marries the visceral impact of The Thing and the arcane sci-religion of Prince of Darkness and emerges as a powerful and whole work.  I only watched it a week ago, and something has me wanting to pop it in again right now, if only to remind myself, as one character in the film wearily and portentously utters seconds before eating the barrels of a shotgun, "reality is not what it used to be".

movies: at midnight i'll take your soul (1964)

Where to even begin with this one?  Written, directed by and starring the inimitable Jose Mojica Marins, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is the film that kickstarted the Coffin Joe franchise.  And what a franchise it is:  roughly 15 films featuring Coffin Joe, with the majority of them played by Marins.  Earlier in the year I ordered the handsome PAL box set which contains eight Joe films plus a documentary entitled The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins (the NTSC set, which contained three films, is long OOP, but we have them at the FBW).  How can you not love it?  Along with that, I picked up the most recent Joe film, Embodiment of Evil, sadly as-yet-unreleased in NA.  But enough about my acquisition fever, let's get on to the film itself.

AMITYS is such a strange trip.  The plot concerns a small town's sadistic gravedigger who is obsessed with finding a woman to bear his seed and continue his bloodline.  But the plot is neither here nor there - we get an evil witch, the walking dead, and a truly trippy vision of vengeful ghosts mixed with all kinds of supernatural strangeness.  Coffin Joe is the highlight, of course, and anyone who defies him is dealt with brutal, graphic violence.  There are a few scenes sprinkled throughout the film where Joe truly gets to lay bare his bleak world view - there is no life after death, there is no God, there is no Satan, there is only LIFE.  And in this one life, Joe has chosen to live it exactly as he desires, indulging in all earthly pleasures.  Wine, sex, violence, power; Joe swims in it all, fears no one or no thing, and laughs in the face of religious cowards.  Joe is a non-believer, or rather, a believer in the here and now, whatever he can experience through sensual means.  Quite simply, Joe is a hero for our times.

The sound mix on the film is incredibly muddy, although there are some near supernatural moments that sound like the actors are delivering their lines inside an echo chamber.  Spooky stuff.  The cinematography is lurid, but the black and white tones are starkly stunning.  This is crude filmmaking, in the very best sense of the word - raw, unrefined, pure.  Not much actually happens in the film - between the taverna, Joe's house, the graveyard, and the windswept woods that connects them all, locations and scenarios are limited, and we find ourselves watching a fairly repetitive film.  None of it matters though, because Joe is so deliriously over the top and fun to watch that you forget the film's shortcomings.

Marins conveys a singular vision that is in no way diluted as the series rolls along - something that can be said of very, very few horror franchises.  Coffin Joe may not be as recognizable a name in the horror canon as Jason or Freddy, but he has every right to be.  You'll have a hard time finding a more consistently sadistic, evil character in horror cinema.  I'd recommend any of the Coffin Joe films, but AMITYS holds a special place in my heart as it was introduction to the Coffin Joe and has left an indelible imprint on my mind.  All hail Jose Mojica Marins!

movies: sole survivor (1983)

Not to be confused with the made for TV William Shatner vehicle, or some Kensington cobbler, this Sole Survivor is a subtle, eerie portrayal of guilt, depression and confusion, and the very real "horror" that those emotions suggest.

In keeping with the quiet, creeping dread of earlier films like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls or Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz' Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor tells the story of Denise (Anita Skinner), the - wait for it - sole survivor of a horrible plane crash, of which we are shown the grisly aftermath during the film's opening scene.  The rest of the film plays out very much in Final Destination mode (albeit with much less gratuitousness and spectacle), with death sending his minions to collect what should have been rightfully his.

Helmed in a workmanlike fashion (but with a strange, austere artistry) by Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet), Sole Survivor is one of those forgotten jewels of the VHS era, only recently exhumed by Code Red.  And for that, we can all be grateful, as what we have here is a compelling film that is better off in your DVD player than in a Blockbuster delete bin.

As Denise, Skinner is an incredibly sympathetic character, tough and fragile at the same time, trying so very hard to keep a smile on her face and her head held high, but we get the sense that somewhere just beneath the surface, cracks have formed and are beginning to take hold.  What makes the outcome of the film all the more shocking and brilliant is that following her crash, she has found love, and things are beginning to look up.  Oh dear, she couldn't be more wrong.

Skinner authors a very complex character in what could have been a much less touching role.  Her nuanced performance makes the film and elevates it from a forgotten also-ran to a rediscovered gem.  Making this all the more remarkable (and - if you'll play along with me - a touch creepy) is the fact that this is one of only two of Skinner's film credits.  She had a role in the 1978 film Girlfriends, then poof, right off the map.  A cursory internet search turned up nothing else as to what she did next, or her current whereabouts.

Sole Survivor offers up an icy, crawling horror that comes from the slow realization that the impossibly terrifying is not only possible, but probable, and that more often than not, there are no happy endings.  I watched the film three days ago and it's stuck with me in the way the best horror does - it doesn't seek to shock, but to disturb, to burrow its way into your unconscious and lie there for a spell, reminding you every once in awhile that everything is not as peachy as it seems.  Highly recommended.

movies: dagon (2001)

I've had Stuart Gordon's Dagon more or less near the top of my "to watch" pile for over a year now, and with yesterday's torrential rain and general gloominess, I figured it was time.

Gordon again turns to Lovecraft as his inspiration for this tale (actually a conflation of two Lovecraft stories, "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), in which a young couple is stranded in a small Spanish fishing village after a boating accident, though it soon becomes very apparent that all is not bueno in this seemingly sleepy town.  When Barbara (the fetching Raquel Merono) goes missing soon after their arrival, Paul (Ezra Godden) tries to track her down only to be overcome by a horde of garish fishmen.  Or rather men who are slowly transforming into piscine form, including all that transformation might entail (hobbled walking, garbled speech, and grotesque physical mutation).  After a chance run in with Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), Paul learns the terrible secret of the town, one in which the denizens relinquished their faith in God when fish stocks ran low and turned to an older, more powerful deity, Dagon, who blessed the town with untold oceanic bounty and gold and treasure, but left them cursed with their current plight, the offspring of all his untold trysts with human women being the current crop of fishmen.

First, the good: Gordon succeeds in creating a oppressive and chilly atmosphere where rain and darkness are the norm, and twisty, cobbled streets mirror Paul's own confusion.  The makeup effects are stellar, and the briny disciples of Dagon look as alien as they do human, and embody both of these aspects in their speech and actions as well.  The largely Spanish cast do excellent work as the lurching, slimy humanoids from the deep, minds filled with a singular, murderous intent.  And the small Spanish village of Combarro that was the location of the shoot provides a delightfully damp and depressive tone.  Looks like a nice place to visit, though you'd probably want to stay away during the rainy season.

There are some terrific practical effects, the most notable the scene in which Ezequiel is strung up and has his facial skin stripped from his body.  Again, Gordon looked to the locals for makeup duties, and they come through in spades.  Tentacular appendages and probing probosci simultaneously repulse and delight.

And now, the bad:  I know I must sound like a broken record by this point, but the CGI employed in the film is worse than awful.  Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus provided a better sense of reality than some of the VFX in Dagon.  I think this is an unfortunate side-effect of the year in which the film was made.  2001 had filmmakers excited about the possibility of CGI, even though the technology wasn't quite there to back up the boundless visions of some of the brighter directors.  The technology was in a dangerous nascent phase that allowed directors to employ it without it being fully developed, to the overall detriment of their final vision.  Granted, it would probably have been prohibitively pricey for Gordon and crew to build a massive model of the enormous mer-god Dagon, but he could very easily have taken the route John Carpenter did in In the Mouth of Madness, his Lovecraftian puppet-beasties sprang from the screen and seemed much more menacing than some green-screened squid.  Or even do what he had done earlier in the film and suggest (a la Val Lewton) the kraken-king through creative camera angle and actor responses.  The poorly done CGI is all the more glaring when juxtaposed with the expertly done practical effects, and the whole thing becomes jarring and takes you out of the film.  Regardless, barring the visual let down of the climax and a couple other ill-advised effects throughout, Gordon does a credible job overall capturing the mood of the Lovecraft original.

The casting of Godden as Paul also strikes me as a strange choice - I mean his type is right, but the actor himself can't seem to decide whether to play the role as camp or straight-up, and his wavering between the two leaves the performance wooden.  There isn't a great chemistry (read: none at all) between he and Merono's Barbara, either.  Really the only good thing about his wholly unlikeable persona was his Miskatonic sweatshirt, a sly wink by Gordon at observant Lovecraft fans.

Overall, Dagon is worth a look, for sure, but falls somewhat shy of the best cinematic Lovecraft adaptations.  If you're looking for a Lovecraft-on-film primer, seek out the superior gallows humour of Re-Animator and the ultra-weird, candy-coloured From Beyond (both by Gordon as well), or even older fare such as The Shuttered Room.  I'm not generally an advocate of remakes, but I'd love to see someone (even Gordon himself) take another stab at the Dagon story, either with the complete use of practical effects or prudent use of updated CGI technology.

movies: asylum (1972)

Another day, another anthology.  This time it's the intriguing Amicus joint Asylum starring basically every British actor ever.  No?  Okay, how 'bout this: Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland (oh man), Patrick Magee, Charlotte Rampling (oh MAN!), and a bunch of other people you've probably never heard of but would recognize if you've watched anything from Amicus/Hammer from the '60s/'70s or essentially anything on the BBC from that time.

The setup for this one is a doozy - Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) sets off from London to take a new job at an asylum for the incurably insane, although the doctor who greets him (Magee) is not the doctor who summoned him there in the first place.  No, Magee's Dr. Rutherford informs Martin that Dr. Byron has himself gone mad and is now confined upstairs with the other patients.  And if Martin can figure out which of the patients is Dr. Byron, Rutherford will consider him fit for the position.  And off we go...

Rutherford is greeted by the orderly, from whom he tries to extract clues as to the personage of Byron, but the orderly knows better - the game is afoot!  From there, we are taken into each of the four patients' rooms, each with a different story of how they came to be there in the first place.  And for once, the framing narrative is actually just as, if not more, compelling than the individual stories themselves.  Not to say that they are inferior to other Amicus anthologies, but they do at times seem to drag.

The first story (Frozen Fear) concerns Bonnie (Barbara Perkins), who was conspiring with adulterer Walter (Richard Todd) to bump off his voodoo-obsessed wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) so they could go on the make together.  Well, as one would expect from this EC-styled segment, Ruth bites it, and is hacked to pieces by Walter.  However, the body parts (presumably aided by some sort of voodoo powers) arise and destroy not only the unfaithful husband, but also gets to Bonnie, who, in an attempt to save herself, hatchets away at her face to remove the disembodied hand clinging to it.  And we're brought back to the asylum, where Bonnie shows off her scars, rather delightedly, to Martin.  Is this Byron?  Martin is unsure, which takes us to the next patient...

Behind door number two, we find Bruno (Morse), who at first gaze appears to be fashioning the emperor's new clothes, complete with invisible needle and thread.  What has caused this madness?  We find out, in The Weird Tailor.  Bruno is an old-school tailor who is behind on the rent, and his displeased landlord gives him until the end of the week to come up with the cash or find new digs.  Bruno is at a loss: how to get the money?  Ah, but lo and behold a very distinguished and somewhat mysterious gentleman enters the shop as if to answer Bruno's prayers.  Mr. Smith (Cushing) commissions a suit made of a strange glowing fabric (Hypercolour FTW!), with very strict specifications that the suit only be worked on between the hours of midnight and 5 am.  And the handsome sum of 200 pounds is promised to Bruno upon the suit's completion, more than the tailor needs to settle his rent.  All week Bruno toils in the dead hours of the night and finally completes the suit.  Upon delivery to Smith, he discovers that dark purpose for the suit that involves raising the dead.  He also discovers that Smith has no money to pay him.  Anyway, things turn out real crazy and a mannequin in the tailor's shop on which the suit is placed ends up coming to life and nearly destroys Bruno.  At least it destroys his mind.  Martin is still unconvinced that he has met Byron, and asks to see the next patient, the ravishing...

Barbara (Rampling).  Barbara is the first to seem sane, at first.  Then comes her story (Lucy Comes To Stay), which is weakest of the bunch, but makes up for it by featuring both her loveliness and the swingin' sexpot styles of Britt Ekland (naked Wicker Man wall-hump, anyone? Start at 1:15).  This one isn't really worth recounting, but it involves a scheming older brother trying to get his hands on Barbara's inheritance by proving she's either insane, addicted to pills, or both.  At the end of the segment, I didn't really care, I just wanted more Rampling/Ekland action.  I think the producers knew that this story was the weakest of the four, and compensated by upping the pulchritude power.  Martin is getting antsy at this point, thinking he's being strung along by Rutherford, and asks to see the final patient, in what is the shortest and most gonzo of the tales...

Which brings us to Dr. Byron's (Lom) room, for the segment Mannikins of Horror.  Byron seems sane enough, but soon reveals he's out of his gourd by showing off his collection of miniature robots with very lifelike human faces.  Each of these, he informs Martin, represents a different real life person, and is exact inside down to the very last detail.  His latest creation is a tiny robot in his own likeness, which will soon be given life through "the power of concentration"(?).  Thank you, says Martin, I've seen enough.  He and the orderly make their way out of the ward, and Martin returns to Rutherford.  Martin exclaims that he will not choose and does not appreciate being subjected to the whimsical games of the doctor.  While they argue, we see cuts to Byron's room, where he lies in darkness, eyes focused on his little doppelganger, concentrating life into the little guy.  Well, goddamn, it works!  Through a series of improbable (given the robot's lack of great mobility) events, the robot enters Rutherford's office and stabs the doc in the back of the neck with a scalpel!  This segment is just so bizarre it needs to be seen.

Directed by the venerable Roy Ward Baker (who helmed countless Hammer and Amicus films, and who sadly passed away just a week ago, aged 93), and written by Robert Bloch (Psycho), Asylum is a fun little romp.  The actors all pull off their roles with great aplomb, and while some of the stories are weaker than others, the whole thing is kept interesting by the overarching narrative.  Which, it must be said, is fairly easy to figure out (I guessed correctly at the conclusion five minutes into the film).  If you're a fan of anthology horror, mysteries, Charlotte Rampling and/or Britt Ekland, check it out.  I'm not going to say it's a "must see" because, frankly it's not; however, you won't feel like you've wasted your time when it's all said and done.  Don't rabidly track it down, but if you see a lonely copy gathering dust at your local independent video store, give it a whirl.  You won't be disappointed.

movies: dark night of the scarecrow (1981)

As made for TV movies go, 1981s Dark Night of the Scarecrow is as good as it gets.  Previously available only on a long OOP VHS, VCI recently released a stunning looking DVD of this horror/revenge minor classic.

Starring the venerable Charles Durning and Larry Drake (Darkman, L.A. Law, Dr. Giggles), Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a slow burn, quiet creeper, less gratuitousness and more skin-crawling tingles.

Bubba (Drake) is the village idiot, and after a girl is attacked, postmaster Otis (Durning) and his cronies make a rash decision to take vigilante justice on the presumed guilty Bubba, and after a tense hunt, they find Bubba hiding in the fields as a scarecrow.  Helpless on the cross, Bubba is gunned down in cold blood by the rage-blinded men.  Soon after, they discover that Bubba had actually saved the girl's life, and their decision to take a man's life was in vain.  However, because of a grudge held toward Bubba, this action doesn't seem to weigh too heavily on any of the men's souls...until they start getting picked off by an unseen force, one by one.

The cast is better than it has any right to be, but Durning is especially sterling as his usual mealy-mouthed, greasy, conniving self.  Drake is wonderfully sympathetic in a sort of Frankenstein's monster role.

The pacing of the film is terrific, and the sense of vindication in the viewer grows alongside the fear felt by the perpetrators of the heinous crime.  There aren't any "cheap scares", and every fear that the antagonists hold is played out in agonizingly long detail.  The last five minutes are truly something to behold, filled with a creeping dread that is so regrettably absent from most modern "horror".  With thumbs up from Vincent Price, Ray Bradbury, Stuart Gordon, and me, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a much appreciated resurrected gem that can be appreciated by the dyed-in-the-wool genre fan as well as the casual viewer.  Watch it.

movies: let sleeping corpses lie (1974)

"You're all the same, the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes.  Drugs, sex, every sort of filth.  And you hate the police, don't ya?"
"You make it easy."

Aka The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, aka Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, aka Don't Open the Window, Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead, aka Zombi 3, aka at least half a dozen other titles depending on the country in which it was released, Jorge Grau's zombie opus Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (the title on my Blue Underground DVD) has an international pedigree worthy of its plethora of monikers.

Directed by a Spaniard, starring a half Brit-half Italian (Ray Lovelock), a Spaniard (Cristina Galbo), an American (Arthur Kennedy), and a host of Spanish and Italian character actors in minor roles, and shot mainly in the English countryside around Manchester and Yorkshire, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a strange and wonderful horror film.  Taking cues from Night of the Living Dead, the Manson murders, environmental fears and generational unrest, it is shocking to realize Grau's film presaged Romero's Dawn of the Dead by four years.

We begin with George (Lovelock) locking up his London curio shop and goin' up the country for a weekend of R&R.  An ill-fated gas station encounter with spacey Edna (Galbo) leaves the two of them traveling together, not by choice, to Edna's sister's house.  A couple wrong turns and an unfamiliar landscape soon see the pair among markers such as rolling hills, oaks and streams instead of signs for Leicester Square.

As they stop to ask for directions, Edna is attacked by a man with blood red eyes (this is, coincidentally enough, 28 years before the rage virus induced similarly scarlet orbs in 28 Days Later...) and a like thirst for the crimson stuff.  George, who was over the hill asking a farmer for directions, shrugs off Edna's hysteria as a mixture of fatigue and the possibility of her exaggerating an encounter with a tramp.  Later that night, Edna's sister's husband is killed by the same man who attacked Edna, and as the police get involved, there is an immediate friction between the inspector (Kennedy) and George.

The anti-authoritarian, long-haired, bearded and hiply-garbed George doesn't go over well in small town England a mere five years after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and nor does the inspector's hard-headedness and bigotry sit well with George.  As bodies begin to pile up and the dead begin to rise (highlighted in one chilling scene at the...uh, the Manchester Morgue), the two poles of George and the inspector pull further apart and we see the clash between rational thought and blind belief taken to the extreme.

Having more in common with Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man than, say, Lucio Fulci's Zombie (though there's enough graphic grue on display to please the gorehounds), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a smart, well-acted, moody (owing largely to the chilly, grey, misty English countryside) horror film in which the director's reach does not exceed his grasp.  If you count yourself among the zombie faithful and have yet to see this one, move it to the to the top of your pile.  Highly recommended.

movies: the tomb of ligeia (1964)

The very last of Roger Corman's uncannily successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, The Tomb of Ligeia is yet another winner.  Starring Vincent Price (I'd seriously watch the man read the phone book) as Verdon Fell and Elizabeth Shepherd as The Lady Rowena Trevanion, Ligeia breaks somewhat with Corman/Poe tradition as there are many outdoor settings and many scenes shot in daylight.  Still, Corman's trademark gothic chill pervades the film, and several of the more unsettling scenes are clothed not in satin drapery but bright sunshine.

The story begins with Fell burying his newlydead wife, the Ligeia of the title, although there is some doubt as to whether or not she is actually dead.  A priest implores Fell that he cannot bury his wife in consecrated ground as she died unnaturally.  Price chews up this scene, spewing forth dark prophecies about his wife's will being too strong for her to die, and comes across somewhat like the devil himself.  A black cat jumps on the coffin and Ligeia's eyes flutter open!  Fell informs the priest and the pallbearers that it is simply an effect of rigor mortis.

Later, on a fox hunt, Rowena stumbles across the crumbling abbey where Ligeia is interred, but is thrown from her mount when the black cat returns and spooks the horse.  Fell appears from behind a wall and startles Rowena to fainting.  From this point on, Rowena is transfixed by Fell's wounded widower, and becomes intent on marrying him.  However, that seemingly vengeful cat just won't go away, and interrupts any attempt at intimacy between Fell and Rowena.  Is the cat actually the reincarnated soul of Ligeia, who will not rest while any potential suitors for her husband live?  Or is the answer more grounded in a shadowy reality, where everything is not as it seems, and those who project a noble countenance actually carry a dark purpose?  Such is the beauty of these Corman/Poe adaptations: likely owing to the original literary source, things are rarely as simple as they seem, and there almost always (as there are here) undercurrents of madness, obsession and brooding, buried sexuality.

As always, Price looks likes he's having an absolute blast with the character of Verdon Fell, and when the truth of his wife's "death" comes out at the end, the mixed sympathies we feel for him throughout the film come crashing down like the mossy stones of the the abbey.  While I would have a hard time picking a Price/Poe favourite, this one stands up with the best of them.  Ligeia is a fun, occasionally spooky descent into necrophiliac lust and the supernatural.  Worth it.

movies: the legend of hell house (1973)

Richard Matheson's countless film and TV writing credits are often overshadowed by his most famous work, I Am Legend, from which three (to date) official adaptations have been made, with many other "last man on earth" films drawing direct inspiration from his original novel. But attention must be paid to the fantastic work he has contributed elsewhere in the cinematic realm, the absolute peak of which, for me, is 1973's The Legend of Hell House.

Directed by John Hough (who would later go on to direct Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, the "Witch Mountain" films, and the supremely creepy "children's" movie, The Watcher in the Woods), The Legend of Hell House begins with a group of four characters - mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and physical medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) - converging on The Belasco House, aka Hell House, the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" we are informed by Lionel. They have been charged by the wealthy Mr. Deutsch with shutting the door once and for all on the haunting. Trouble is, this very same thing had been attempted before, 20 years earlier, and all involved were either killed or crippled and made insane. All but one, that is, McDowall's Benjamin Fischer, returning to the home not for any sense of closure, but simply to shut himself off from any psychic phenomena to which he may be susceptible, wait out the week, collect a paycheck, and bid goodbye to the house forever. The young Miss Tanner and Dr. Barrett have other plans though - Tanner wishes to commune with the spirits in the home through her psychic powers, and Barrett wishes to zap the home of its energies with his newfangled technology. Neither of them see their goals through to the end.

The film plays out in a tastefully restrained fashion a la The Haunting, and some opulent, creaky, cobwebby sets inside the home (as well as the home itself) provide much appreciated eye candy. Director Hough conjures a slow burn build to a simultaneously preposterous and chilling finale. Along the way there are ghostly whispered threats and pleas, a possessed cat, a ghost-rape/possession, an eerie seance, overtones of sexual repression/buried desire, and an uncovered rotting corpse. As the days go by, the screws are tightened, and minds begin to break.

Bizarre and often grotesque camera work from Alan Hume (who lensed From Beyond the Grave, among many others) is filled with exaggerated angles, jarring depths of field, and tight compositions, and augments the claustrophobic, disorienting atmosphere of uncertainty and dread. Executive produced by James H. Nicholson (of American International), The Legend of Hell House has a similar feeling to the films that came out of AIP's stable; brooding, gothic, ghostly, horrific more in their implication than what they actually showed, and with a wonderfully downbeat ending. You could do far worse than to pop in this classic ghost house thriller on a chilly autumn day like this.

movies: the stone tape (1972)

Originally broadcast on the BBC as a Christmas ghost story in 1972, The Stone Tape has gained a significant cult following that belies its humble beginnings.  It's greatest pedigree is screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best known for his creation of Bernard Quatermass, the character around whom the Quatermass series and the resulting films are based.  The Stone Tape treads in a similar track as the more renowned Quatermass, but while the latter deals mainly with science (and science fiction), the former, and the subject of today's review, delves into superstition and the supernatural, and delivers a nice ghostly chill that the earlier series lacks.

We begin The Stone Tape outside a secluded mansion which has been purchased as a research facility by Ryan Industries.  The purpose of the research is for the team to come up with a new recording medium, something beyond tape.  As research team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant - no, not that one...) says, "Give me Wagner's Ring Cycle on the head of a ball bearing with instant playback".  Somewhat quaint, by today's standards; or perhaps prescient?  As the team begins setting up equipment in one particularly cavernous room, Jill (Jane Asher, ex-Ms. Paul McCartney) hears echoing footfalls and then a woman scream.  As others hear the woman at varying intervals, it is determined that the room is haunted.  After attempts are made to expunge the ghost, Brock, with some insistent urging from Jill, realizes that there is not a physical roaming spectre per se, but that the spirit in the room is recorded in the very walls themselves, a "stone tape".  What at first seems like a major breakthrough in the team's research (i.e. this is the recording medium that has eluded them thus far), soon becomes something far more sinister as Jill becomes obsessed with and haunted by the spirit and her history, and makes a chilling discovery that the ghost to which they have been witness is simply on the surface, or the first layer of the "tape", and that there are far older things recorded or contained on sub-layers of the stone, back, back in history, back perhaps to when the stone itself was formed.  Old, dark, unspeakably malevolent things.

The whole cast here is wonderful, with especially exceptional turns by Asher, Bryant, and Iain Cuthbertson (see also the similarly spooky Children of the Stones).  Bryant's team leader is headstrong and vain, and is nearly seized by madness while trying to remove the ghost from the room (in a terrifically psychedelic and possibly seizure-inducing scene) before refusing to acknowledge that what he had clung to so tightly was even a possibility after the experiment has failed.  Asher is the typical gothic heroine, fragile and tough in the same package, and one whose pleas and warnings are mostly ignored by the rest of the team, save Cuthbertson's Roy Collins.

The sound and visual effects are of course dated but work well in reinforcing the theme.  Analogue sound and video effects are nowhere near as precise as modern CGI, but the amorphous green shapes and eerie glowing lights the VFX crew conjures up are a perfect match for old, weird things that cannot be described, let alone shown visually.  The effects have almost add to the creepiness, because instead of striving for realism and falling hard, they simply embrace the sort of abstract concepts in the play and work marvelously to that end.  Some might see the effects as cheesy or dated, but they worked well given the concepts and subject matter of the play.

The final 5 minutes of The Stone Tape are truly chilling and a semi-ambiguous ending leaves the viewer contemplating the terrible consequences and possible outcomes of Jill and Peter's actions for days.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is The Stone Tape:

movies: from beyond the grave (1973)

Perhaps best known for the excellent anthologies Tales From the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973), Milt Subotsky and Max Rosenberg's Amicus Productions was most often compared to the more prestigious Hammer Films. But while Hammer is best known for their gothic-drenched retellings of Universal's classic monster films, Amicus specialized in "modern day" (read: lower budget) anthology tales.  The aforementioned two are probably the best of the bunch (the former of which inspired the '90s television show of the same name), but a very interesting curio that was released the same year as The Vault of Horror is definitely worth a watch to get things started in this season of the witch.

From Beyond the Grave centres around the mysterious and slightly malevolent back-alley antique and oddments shop Temptations Ltd (Offers You Cannot Resist) and its vaguely sinister proprietor (played with a wonderful mix of affected ignorance and wily menace by the superb Peter Cushing).  Each of the four tales in the film are kickstarted by that story's main character entering the shop and, by some less-than-honest means, acquiring an obscure object of desire.  From there, each of the four tales follows roughly the same story arc - the dishonest antique hunter slowly begins to notice that something is amiss and after a series of increasingly traumatic events, they all get their grisly comeuppance (save for the couple in "The Door" - though they do go through their fair share of horror - for reasons that are explained at the end of the story).

As with most anthology films, not all the stories in From Beyond the Grave are created equal; in fact, the two bookending chapters, "The Gatecrasher" and "The Door", are essentially the same story of a centuries old spirit trying to break on through from the other side, just wrapped up in different details.  The most touching yarn (as well as the most chilling) is "An Act of Kindness" in which a frustrated man (Ian Bannen) trapped in an unfulfilling marriage happens upon a street vendor (Donald Pleasance) and the two strike up a friendship based on their military history (though Bannen is lying about his).  After increased meetings at Pleasance's home and a growing familiarity with his creepy semi-lobotomized daughter (an effectively eerie turn by Donald's real-life daughter, Angela), things take a dark turn and, needless to say, it doesn't end well for ol' Bannen (or his wife).

The other three tales are wonderfully frightful, and a special mention must go to Margaret Leighton's grandiose medium Madame Orloff in "The Elemental".  The best performance - and one of the main reasons for watching - belongs to Cushing, whose sly, knowing proprietor is at once bumbling and malefic.

Low production values are well-hidden, and like I mentioned, staging the tales in the present day allows for much budget-shortfall overcoming.  Overall, a worthy anthology, and if you are a fan of the format, you'll certainly find lots to tempt you in here.  Come in, come in...

variations on a theme

two gorgeous posters done by the folks at mondo for upcoming screenings of halloween at la's the new beverly.

via bloody disgusting

bad moon rising

via witchtanic

Friday, October 19, 2012

books: now reading

"October Country...that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain..."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

another lovely day begins

movies: the innocents (1961)

one of the most haunting songs in one of the most unsettling ghost stories. a winning combination.

leave my ass alone

it's getting closer...

halfway there

absolutely TITANIC

a must find tome

we're all humanary stew

man has ruled this world as a stumbling demented child-king long enough!

one of the best trailers around

a thrilling take on arthurian legend

one day...