Monday, December 28, 2009

Come On, Dario

Dario Argento's "Giallo" is scheduled to hit American shores soon, whether via limited theatrical release or DVD. It's played some dates in Europe, but the U.S. market is maintaining a stony silence, despite the potential drawing power of Academy Award-winner Adrian Brody in the lead.

Of course, Argento has always had trouble getting U.S. theatrical play. His most famous work, "Suspiria," stands alone as the film with the heaviest theatrical distribution, courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's long-gone International Classics division. I saw it at Chicago's (also now long-gone) State-Lake Theatre in 1976, where I became aware of Dolby stereo for the first time, thanks to Goblin's incredible score. Being an American teenager, I hadn't been exposed to any of his other films ("Bird with the Crystal Plumage," "Cat O' Nine Tails," "Profondo Rosso," "Tenebrae"), although I'm sure one or two must've played some drive-ins at some point. I just that knew my mind was expanded by this crazy, colorful, haunting fairytale, even with most of the extreme gore excised. Still, you got to see a woman falling into a room full of razor wire, maggots raining from the ceiling... And the stentorian Alida Valli snapping, "Dance, girls! Dance!" All the acting was so strange, even from veteran Joan Bennett, and some of the dialogue was bizarre, but it all fit perfectly in the otherworldly framework. And Luciano Tovoli shot it in the old three-strip Technicolor process to get that extreme saturation.

A fond memory: I ran the film program for a couple of semesters in college and played "Suspiria" to a captive audience of students who'd probably never heard of it before. We didn't have a scope lens so I had to run it "squished"—and nobody left!

When the home video revolution arrived, some of those movies saw the light of day on VHS in the States, although in severely truncated and ludicrously retitled versions ("Tenebrae" became "Unsane" and "Phenomena" became "Creepers"), but there was still enough Argento magic in them to make me long for another classic. I was thrilled to discover a copy of "Inferno" at the video store, inviting like-minded friends over to watch the sequel to "Suspiria," only to have the evening fall flat on its face because 20th Century Fox's cuts included all the agonizing, drawn-out death scenes Argento specializes in (and we root for) as well as large chunks of continuity.

DVD changed all that. With the format's emphasis on quality, companies like Anchor Bay made obscure and/or censored European horror films available for the first time they way they were meant to be seen—uncut, restored, remastered and in their correct aspect ratio. I finally was able to see films like "Profondo Rosso," "Phenomena" and "Inferno" as the Maestro intended. And they were all vastly improved. Sadly, seeing them complete for the first time reminded me how self-referential a filmmaker he has become and how slack the scripts are, relying more and more on Argento-esque flourishes instead of solid storytelling. Even in one of his most interesting later works, "Non ho Sonno," he's falling back on old plot devices from his '70s hits. Now, I know we all demand the same things from Argento in every film—elaborate murders and weird characters—but can we please get on with the story? I don't understand how someone who made the superbly plotted "Tenebrae" would look at a lame project like "The Card Player" and say, "That's what the fans want! An Argento police procedural without any gore!"

There have been some bright spots. "Non ho Sonno" has the wonderful Max Von Sydow as a weary detective coming out of retirement to pursue a serial killer who has begun his murderous ways again after a 17-year hiatus, and its playful nursery rhyme motif is reminiscent of "Profondo Rosso." I know a lot of people hated "The Stendhal Syndrome," but it's actually grown on me even though it's almost too complicated. His "Black Cat" segment of "Two Evil Eyes" was very well done, and I even liked his TV movie, "Do You You Like Hitchcock?" with its nods to the master of suspense.

His most recent picture, "Mother of Tears," which was heavily promoted as the highly-anticipated conclusion of the "three mothers" trilogy ("Suspiria" and "Inferno" being the other two parts), played a limited engagement at the Nuart here in Los Angeles. Of course, I rushed to see it, and was disappointed by a real mess that made absolutely no sense, was ridiculously overstyled and played more like a horror remake of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." It desperately screamed, "Look! I'm a Dario Argento film! Aren't I fun?" But—crime of crimes—it was boring! Come on, now. Ludicrous, yes; incomprehensible, fine; but boring? Even the wretched "Phantom of the Opera" deserves to have many adjectives flung at it, but boring isn't one of them.

His Masters of Horror segments are okay, with "Pelts"coming off better than "Jenifer," in my opinion. Word on the street is that "Giallo" is no barn-burner, either, but fansites report that it may be due to Brody's "input" during the filmmaking process. And he's using screenwriters, as he did with "Mother of Tears," instead of writing it himself or with one of his old collaborators, which I don't think is a great idea. Can you imagine John Waters using a screenwriter on one of his films?

I'll see it, of course, but I'm still waiting for the next truly great Argento film. And I'm not talking about the "Suspiria" remake (for which he only receives character credit).

By the way, what's up with the still at the top of this post? Is Brody interviewing a corpse? Is he saying, "Now that you're dead, how do you feel?"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best in Horror for 2009

2009 will be remembered as a year in which drippy emo vampires took over the big screen while kick-ass vampires stalked the airwaves. Zombies came back from the dead and so did remakes and sequels. Here's a list of some of my favorites of the year, in no particular order.

1. Zombieland. Following in the footsteps of "Shaun of the Dead," this is a funny movie about zombies, not a movie about funny zombies, a critical difference. Woody Harrelson is a riot as Tallahassee, a hair-trigger, testosterone-driven lug whose fondness for Twinkies knows no bounds. Jesse Eisenberg plays...Jesse Eisenberg, but this role was tailor-made for him. Bill Murray provides an amusing cameo and the list of rules Eisenberg's character follows is hilarious, popping up at random throughout the film. Not even 90 minutes long, it's brisk, amusing entertainment.

2. Drag Me To Hell. Praise the Gods of Cinema! Instead of another Eli Roth torture-porn travesty, we had Sam Raimi back in form showing everyone how to make a comedy horror film. Walking the thin line between creepy and goofy, it provides jolts as well as laughs and even gets away with a wonderfully nihilistic ending. It already pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating, but the unrated DVD is even better. No new scenes are added, but each of the gooey sequences are extended, providing a messier experience that would probably earn an "R."

3. Everything's better in 3D. Okay, these films would probably be a snooze in flat versions, but in RealD, they're a hell of a lot of fun. My Bloody Valentine kick-started the year for me, providing lots of refreshingly un-PC mayhem and various things (knives, breasts) being hurled from the screen. It was so cool when the killer miner turned his headlight to the audience; it actually felt like we were being illuminated and, therefore, recognized as potential victims! A side benefit of the film was Lion's Gate's DVD release of the 1981 original with the censored gore effects restored. Sure, the cut scenes were scratchy and didn't always match, but it was great to see what the filmmakers had intended when Paramount prudishly cut out all the fun on its original release. The Final Destination was a little more routine. Previous installments of the series were far more inspired even without the added dimension; it's like the filmmakers traded ideas for effects. That said, the RealD gave it the needed boost.

4. Orphan. I know, I dissed this one at first based on the poster, but it was a lot of fun and left films like "The Good Son" running home to their mommy. I mean, if you're going to depict a creepy little kid, do it with guns a-blazing. The film's multiple layers—screwed-up family, deceitful husband, disturbed wife—made the drama all the more intense.

5. District 9. This Peter Jackson-produced sci-fier from South Africa took on the issues of xenophobia and bigotry with admirable restraint. When a spaceship breaks down and hovers over Johannesburg, its alien inhabitants are rounded up and put into concentration camps. Nearly thirty years later, the creatures, called "prawns" by their human captors, still live in these harsh conditions in a slum known as District 9, and the government hires mercenary soldiers to relocate them to District 10. Shot in a documentary style, it's touching, humorous and delivers a powerful message without proselytizing. I was actually choked up at the conclusion!

Speaking of Jackson, word on the street is that "The Lovely Bones" is a stinker. I can't comment because I haven't seen it. Come on, Peter. First the labored "King Kong" and now a stoopid ghost story? He should take a lesson from Raimi—return to his roots with a nice inexpensive splatter comedy to loosen up.

6. Let the Right One In. Made in 2008 but not reaching American shores until early this year, this striking Swedish film tells the story of the relationship that develops between a lonely 12-year-old boy and the vampire next door. As deliberately paced as anything Bergman directed, it's set in the atmospherically chilly Scandinavian winter and the two young leads are marvelously natural and persuasive even in light of the fantastic story.

7. True Blood. Speaking of vampires, this HBO hit completed its second season this fall, leaving viewers like myself clamoring for more. It's sexy and shocking, a real spit in the face to those wimpy "Twilight" pretty boys. Yes, it's basically a soap opera with fangs, but it's a lot of fun. The culture it's created—vampires attempting to live (unlive?) peacefully among humans while fundamentalists flip out—is wonderfully clever, and other creatures in addition to the bloodsuckers keeps it interesting. I mean, who ever heard of a Maenad until this year?

8. Dexter. Another selection from television, this Showtime series came back with a bang this year after what I thought was a rather lackluster season in 2008. John Lithgow makes a terrific villain, and his Trinity was a marvelously complex and creepy character. Best of all is what he did to Dexter. He really got the hooks into him, screwing up his judgment and—gasp!—causing him to make mistakes. And if you haven't seen the finale, it's a controversial mind-blower that's making us "Dexterites" impatient for the new season.

It's easy to categorize the stinkers of the year—remakes. "Friday the 13th" was unbelievably awful (and surprising, since the director, Zack Snyder, made the excellent remake of "Dawn of the Dead). Instead of a seemingly indestructible phantom killer, here Jason is portrayed as some sort of lunatic survivalist who just doesn't like people. Add a gang of cliched kids snorting and drinking everything in sight and you just want everyone to die. Except you're not interested in watching. "Last House on the Left" wasn't as bad, but certainly no improvement on the original. As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't see Rob Zombie's "Halloween 2" because his films are just terrible! On television, the CW's "Vampire Diaries" is also awful—"Gossip Girl" with fangs. Much better is the old "Forever Knight" series currently airing on Chiller. Although its early '90s roots are showing, it's still a fun vampire detective show.

Well, the new year brings us Benicio Del Toro as "The Wolfman" and Kelly Leek—I mean Jackie Earle Haley—as Freddy in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" redo. I'll be interested in them both. There'll be another (yawn) "Saw" film and Sam Raimi's remaking "Evil Dead"! The director of the "My Bloody Valentine" remake is doing "Halloween 3D," which could be a lot of fun. And William Lustig is remaking his own "Maniac" (1980). Weird. And—oh, God!—another "Hostel"! If this list is accurate, there will be tons of other remakes as well, some in 3D (which is the only reason to do it, in my opinion).

Surely the most horrifying thing I've seen this year is L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland near the Scientology building in Hollywood last Saturday night. Check out this creepy Santa! I wonder if he's a Thetan. You can see part of the band on the  left, dressed as pirates and singing "Highway to Hell."

Now back to your regularly scheduled holiday programming, already in progress.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dueling "Christmas Carol"s

The holiday cheer continues here at WMV as we compare select film adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens' famous story has been done numerous times on stage, on television and on film. There have been female Scrooges, African American Scrooges, comedy Scrooges—even Mister Magoo took a stab at portraying the old miser. It's a timeless story whose construction is's all a matter of execution, and that's where talent both in front of and behind the camera really counts.

Film productions of the tale date back to as early as 1901, and one performer, British actor Seymour Hicks, portrayed Scrooge twice in 1913 and 1935. I've seen the 1935 version. It's a primitive if interesting curio, with 64-year-old Hicks making a good older Scrooge but not terribly convincing in flashbacks when he must portray a much younger man. Also, only the Ghost of Christmas Present appears fully onscreen, with the rest represented by indiscernible shapes, pointing fingers and disembodied voices. Also, this is one of only two sound versions that shows the dead body of Tiny Tim!

The MGM factory took a stab at the story in 1938, with Reginald Owen as the miser. It's too sweet for me; a lot of the grimmer aspects of the story were eliminated, in keeping with the family friendly fare the studio was producing at the time. There are no wailing phantoms, the Ghost of Christmas Past is played by a pretty young woman, and the romance between his nephew Fred and fiance Elizabeth was greatly expanded in a way that Dickens never intended. And Owen just doesn't have the presence to make a truly menacing Scrooge. Humbug, indeed!

The 1951 English version started airing seasonally on American television in 1970 and quickly became the favorite. It's clear to see why: Alastair Sim is an absolutely perfect Scrooge. When the film begins, he is grim, humorless and absolutely incapable of expressing human warmth or emotion. As the spirits visit him, he gradually remembers the way he used to be and realizes that his time for redemption is running out. He becomes more exuberant—even childlike—as the feelings long dormant in his old carcass are awakened once more. It's a marvelous performance, and Sim is supported by a splendid cast of English character stalwarts. Though produced on a modest budget by tiny Renown Pictures (which is still in existence, much to my surprise), the sets and art direction are wonderful, the special effects are terrific and it doesn't cop out on the creepiness. I mean, this is essentially a horror story, after all! Sim and Michael Hordern, who portrays Marley's ghost, lent their voices to an animated TV adaptation 20 years later. Check out the trailer here. It looks much more like a Universal horror classic than a seasonal heartwarmer.

Another English version is the 1970 musical "Scrooge," which I recall first seeing at a kiddie matinee when I was a kiddie. It's one of those films that people said "meh" to when originally released, but it has grown in stature through the years. Mounted lavishly in the style of the 1968 smash "Oliver!", it features 34-year-old, Golden Globe-winning Albert Finney very convincingly portraying Scrooge through the ages. As a matter of fact, when you finally see him in flashback during the Christmas Past sequences, you're shocked to see just how young he really is. Alec Guinness plays Marley's Ghost, and it's obvious that he's having a blast with the role. His performance is off-kilter, quirky and a lot of fun. When Scrooge is sent to hell during the Christmas Yet to Come segment, he asks where they are and Guinness deadpans, "I should have thought it would be obvious." And "I'm sorry your chain isn't ready yet. They had to put on extra demons to finish it." Most importantly, the musical numbers are decent, and anyone who doesn't shed a tear during Tiny Tim's rendition of "The Beautiful Day" and the "Happiness" sequence with spurned fiancee Isabel is as hard-hearted as Scrooge himself.

I have a print of the 25-minute "Mickey's Christmas Carol" on super 8mm and I have to admit it's a charmer. The filmmakers had the dual challenge of telescoping the story into under half an hour while still inserting as many familiar Disney characters as possible, and they succeed admirably. Scrooge McDuck plays the miser, of course, with Mickey portraying Bob Cratchit. Among the other familiar characters are Minnie as Mrs. Scrooge, Donald Duck as Scrooge's nephew, Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past and many other recognizable characters. It's actually funny without being cloying, and it looks great, with wonderfully lush animation and vivid colors. And it was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon made in 30 years at the time, on a double bill with a re-release of "The Rescuers" for the 1983 holiday season.

Last January I saw a stage production starring Christopher Lloyd, John Goodman and Jane Leeves at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. You'd think it'd be a dream, but what a mess! A huge set overpowered the stage, dwarfing the performers, and frequent scene changes required much hilarious and loud moving around of backdrops and awkward pauses. The music cues seemed to be whatever was handy, including a song from the Charles Laughton-directed classic "Night of the Hunter"! The actors seemed confused by the constantly flying scenery, resulting in some flubbed lines and unsure performances.

I really have no interest in the current theatrical release with Jim Carrey. I loathe that style of computer animation, I can't stand Carrey and I really hated "The Polar Express," Zemeckis' previous holiday movie with Tom Hanks. Unless the technology has vastly improved, the characters all have dead eyes and weird mouths that look like they have ill-fitting dentures. And I actually found myself in the theater struggling not to scream "SHUT UP!" at Tom Hanks. I intend to catch the 1984 George C. Scott TV version, however. It's on AMC December 20th and 21st. He makes a great Scrooge, I'm sure. And it's the other adaptation where they show Tiny Tim...dead!

Still, you can't lose with a double-feature of the Sim version followed by the Finney musical. They make a nice counterpoint to each other: one black and white, one color; one musical, one straight drama. But they both—most importantly—dish out the supernatural elements inherent in Dickens's original tale.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Santa Claus

Since the holidays are fast approaching, it's time to celebrate the secular emblem of the season, jolly old Saint Nick. And since we're in Weird Movie Village, we just have to talk about him in context with the 1959 Mexican fantasy film "Santa Claus." Millions of American kids were treated to this seasonal delight courtesy of K. Gordon Murray, a Florida-based exploitationeer and huckster who bought children's (and horror) films made south of the border, dubbed them into English, and four-walled them at kiddie matinees, a genre he was responsible for inventing.

Murray would book his films into theaters on weekends, publicize the hell out of them beforehand, and watch the profits roll in. He knew that parents would be thrilled to get rid of their responsibilities for a few hours on the weekend, and sure enough, they dropped their tots off in droves to have their minds warped by these epics whose inherent strangeness was enhanced by the English dubbing.

Murray (known as "Kagey" to his friends) even served as the narrator for "Santa Claus." He released the English version for the first time in 1960 and continued to re-release it every few years throughout the seventies. It made tons of money and even became a seasonal staple on television. I can only imagine the college students and other enlightened individuals, armed with the necessary quantities of mind-altering substances, sitting down to enjoy the annual broadcast.

In 1959 Mexico, Santa wasn't a big deal. They were still celebrating the holiday traditionally, with piñatas and posadas and, of course, lots of religion. So this film in a way was introducing Saint Nick to the kids of Mexico. And what a warped debut it is!

The picture opens on Christmas Eve in Santa's magical castle in the sky. He is overseeing the final preparations for his flight. The toys are all ready, having been built by child laborers he seems to have kidnapped from all over the world. There's still time for him to sit down at the organ, though, and accompany each stereotyped ethnic group as they sing their native holiday songs.

Later, with the help of his young assistant Pedro, who looks like a creepy doll come to life and keeps lapsing into Spanish even on the dubbed soundtrack, he gets ready to launch his sleigh. The reindeer are all mechanical, and when Pedro winds them up with huge keys jammed into their sides, they begin to laugh maniacally. I'm sure many a toddler stored that image alongside the sugarplums dancing in his head.

But there's trouble afoot. Satan (not Santa) is sending his minion, Pitch, up to Earth to ruin Santa's night by luring children into corruption and screwing up Santa's toy delivery schedule. The actor playing Pitch wears a form-fitting red bodysuit, greasy red facepaint and various prosthetics to give him just the right demonic demeanor. Three little boys are easy to convert—soon he has them running through town smashing store windows and writing phony letters to Santa about how good they've been! They also plan to kidnap Santa and steal all the toys. Another intended victim is little Lupita, whose family is too poor to buy her a doll. Pitch tries to convince her to steal one from the marketplace instead. There's also a little rich boy whose parents ignore him, but what the hell—he's rich.

Santa takes the "he sees you when your sleeping" line a bit too far with his heavily-equipped communications room. He uses a bizarre telescope—a huge human eye mounted on an extendable rod—to watch the children on earth. There's also a huge pair of Mick Jagger lips mounted on the wall that tell him what the kids are saying. Even more disturbing, he has a "Dreamscope" that can see into their minds.

Noting Pitch's interference, he becomes irate and is determined to stop the devil in his tracks. What follows is a bizarre series of episodes of one-upsmanship, with occasional visits to the kids. Even Merlin the Magician pops in for a visit to give Santa dreaming powders (eh?) and a flower that enables him to disappear at will, since children aren't supposed to see him. I guess jaded adults would just think he's a fat guy in a red suit who got lost after the company Christmas party, so I guess it doesn't really matter. Although he does visit the wealthy couple at a luxe restaurant and serves them the Cocktail of Remembrance, which makes them long to be reunited with their child. I wonder how you make that?

Speaking of class differences, when Santa goes to the rich boy's house, he brings him a buttload of presents and even reveals himself to the kid (I said reveals, not exposes). Meanwhile, Lupita, who has struggled to maintain a virtuous life, doesn't get squat.

"Santa Claus" is readily available on video, but Shout Factory just released a Christmas gift for everyone—the "Mystery Science Theatre" version on DVD, and it's hysterical. Here's a nice long clip from the show with the singing slaves, Pitch and his intended victims:

Either way, MST'd or not, this is one weird flick. Make sure to catch it this holiday season. I gotta warn you, though: if you're one of the "kiddie matinee" orphans, viewing it may bring long-suppressed memories bubbling to the surface and cause some trauma.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Terror in the Woods

Tonight's my first evening at the Wuksachi Lodge here in beautiful Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevadas. The current weather is 41 degrees, but it's supposed to get as low as 19! Silence of the Lambs was on the television in my room when I arrived, so you know it's just right for Weird Movie Village. The inky black sky is shimmering with stars, something you never see in Los Angeles with all the city lights reflecting up. It's the perfect night to sit by a roaring fire with a Macbook and muse over some of the more memorable horror films set in the woods. After all, it's the perfect environment for horror. When it's dark, it's really dark. You can hear rustling in the leaves and twigs snapping all around you. Shadowy objects pass through your peripheral vision that you can't quite make out. Is it an animal—or is it something else?

Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987). Important for cementing the reputations of director Sam Raimi and cult icon Bruce Campbell, both films are set in a remote cabin in the woods with occasional trips outside to be assaulted by the vegetation and Steadicam frantically around the property.

Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) is an enchanting, poetic film that wraps a young girl's coming-of-age in an authentic-feeling series of folk tales told in a village plagued by wolf attacks. Shot in a beautiful, studio-bound, make-believe forest, it's a poetic film reminiscent of the Hammer classics of the 1960s that's also an adult fairy tale tinged with a sense of longing and melancholy at its core. The ever-reliable Angela Lansbury provides an amusing characterization as the grandmother, and Jordan favorite Stephen Rea pops in for a cameo.

But wolves and werewolves in general usually find themselves at home in the woods. The Universal classics featuring Chaney's Wolfman—as well as Karloff's Frankenstein monster—had many scenes set in the woods. And didn't Christopher Lee's Dracula, or at least his minions, run down victims in the woods? It's just better there, that's all!

Movies set in the woods that feature human monsters (psycho killers) include the previously discussed Last House on the Left, whose wrenching key scene is entirely set in the undergrowth. The Burning (1981), which featured a disfigured but very much alive killer on a quest for revenge. It's notable not only for being an early Miramax production, it also provided roles for the very young Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander!

The 1980s were a fruitful time for woods-bound horror films, all trying to grab onto the Friday the 13th series' profitable coattails, and usually failing miserably. Don't Go in the Woods and The Forest are two titles that come to mind, but frankly, I didn't see either of them. I just remember the cheesy video box art for Don't Go: knives and blood and a dead chick with the killer's image reflected in her sunglasses. It actually prevented me from renting the film because it looked so stupid.

And even though it's not considered a horror film and the environs may not necessarily be considered woods, I have to mention 1972's Deliverance. Director John Boorman twists the spring so tight it becomes almost unbearable. That film and Texas Chainsaw inspired a mini-genre of local yokel killers, but it didn't last very long. Probably the most notable, and funniest, was 1980's Motel Hell.

Of course, the ultimate in-the-woods horror film has got to be 1999's Blair Witch Project, with its rough camerawork and ambiguous ending. Maybe the camerawork was a bit too rough: when I saw it in the theater, someone a few rows ahead of me threw up! Nevertheless, it's certainly the picture that most easily comes to mind when I'm hiking here in the Sequoias and I can hear someone far off in the distance frantically screaming someone's name (as I did last September).

Speaking of Blair Witch, there's a cabin here at Grant Grove in King's Canyon that looks mighty suspicious...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween week movie viewing part deux

This is off-topic but I've got to rant for a moment. Being a bicyclist in Los Angeles is a risky proposition. Today I got bitten by a stupid lady's stupid dog, and no fewer than three moronic motorists decided to hurl their three-ton hunks of metal in my path even when I had the right of way. But I digress.

On Saturday I 'll be at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood to see 1988's Night of the Demons (remade this year) and the Dario Argento-produced Demons (1986), both cheesy, gory fun. The New Beverly is the last surviving revival theater in Los Angeles. There used to be lots of them—the Fox Venice, the Tiffany, the Rialto, the Nuart (which is now a first-run arthouse)—but the home video revolution killed them all off. And even though it's easy to get these films on video, it's much more fun to watch them with an appreciative audience. For those of you who will be stuck at home handing out candy, here are my final picks for your Halloween enjoyment...

1. Who greenlighted this mess? Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).

What would Halloween be without a Linda Blair movie? Since the original Exorcist has been done to death, I thought I'd focus on its woebegone sequel starring a tipsy Richard Burton, confused Louise Fletcher and—above all—Blair herself reprising her role as Regan MacNeil, now an extremely buxom teenager who has been left in the care of Sharon (Kitty Winn, from the first film) because Ellen Burstyn wisely ducked out of this debacle.

Evidently Mom feels guilty about being away making movies all the time, so she has Regan under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jean Tuskin (Fletcher). Hmmm...nothing says "I love you" than a visit to a shrink. Anyhow, Tuskin's office is located in what appears to be a combo mental health clinic and day care center. Along with the various patients suffering from various mental illnesses, there are also groups of carefree children laughing and playing. And did I mention the entire place is made of glass? All the offices, all the walls. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. And I guess they took it on faith that one of their more troubled patients wouldn't pick up a chair and begin smashing down the walls one by one.

Enter Father Lamont, played by an extremely strange and sweaty Burton. He has been given the assignment of investigating the exorcism and Father Merrin's (Max Von Sydow) death from the first film. Barging into Dr. Jean's office, he insists upon interviewing Regan, but she refuses, claiming that the exorcism had done her more harm than good.

I'm not going to go into a long description because I want to have room to talk about other movies, but let's just say the remainder of the film contains a hilarious psychiatric device known as a "synchronizer," a badly-matched double of possessed Regan (Blair refused to wear the makeup again), James Earl Jones in a giant bug suit (I'm not kidding), Fletcher getting her chest massaged by Blair and a thoroughly deranged Burton carrying on about things that are "eee-vil." Watch this with a bunch of friends and make a party out of it. It's so easy to Mystery Science Theater this turkey, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. You can read a lengthy and extremely hilarious review of it here.

2. Ugly Stepchild—Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).

Another sequel that was thoroughly loathed on its original release, Halloween III dumps Michael Myers and replaces him with a story of a Halloween mask maker whose diabolical scheme is to plant pieces of Stonehenge, long thought to be a site of witchcraft and supernatural power, into his masks. Then, when a special commercial is broadcast, a signal would be sent to the chips in the masks and all the children wearing them—and watching—would succumb to horrible deaths.

Audiences expecting another installment of "the night HE came home" were disappointed by a '50s-style tale reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with modern gore. However, as with other films of the era, time has been kind to III. The atmosphere is nice, there are some grimace-inducing deaths, and Dan O'Herlihy, as Conal Cochran, the sinister owner of Silver Shamrock Novelties, has a field day chewing up the scenery.

Tom Atkins (The Howling) stars as Dr. Dan Challis, who is understandably miffed when a patient under his care, who had been discovered clutching a Silver Shamrock mask and feverishly muttering, "They're going to kill us all," is viciously murdered in his hospital bed. The man's daughter, Ellie (Stacy Nelkin) arrives and together they travel to the coastal town of Santa Mira to unravel the mystery. Impersonating store owners picking up an order of Silver Shamrock masks, they are given a VIP tour of the factory. But when Challis returns later and discovers Cochran's diabolical plot, it's a race against time to stop the cursed commercial from being broadcast.

Now, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, to be sure. I mean, there are only three mask designs: a witch, a pumpkin and a skull. Even in 1982, why would this meager selection become the top-sellers in the country? How in the hell did Cochran manage to steal a whole block of Stonehenge and fly it to California? How did he become an all-powerful billionaire from selling Halloween masks? Why would Ellie, who is at least a decade younger than the frumpy-looking Challis, immediately want to jump his bones when they get into their motel room? And why did they include a shot of Tom Atkins' butt?

The Silver Shamrock jingle will haunt your nghtmares. Watch it if you dare. And it raises more questions: Would the kids in New York die three hours before the ones in Los Angeles? What about daylight savings time? And what if the commercial was pre-empted by a news event or the World Series going into extra innings? I'm just saying.

3.  The classic: Last Man on Earth (1964).

This first adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" is a shot-in-Italy creepfest starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the titular last man. A mysterious plague has swept through society, transforming everyone else into vampire-like creatures who cannot stand the daylight. Immune as the result of a vampire bat bite he received on a visit to Panama, Morgan spends his days hunting these creatures down, staking them and burning them in a communal pit. His lonely, terrifying nights are spent in his boarded-up house with the monsters outside trying to break in and moaning his name: "Mo-o-o-rgan!" Flashbacks reveal that he is a research scientist who had been trying to find a cure for the virus but had obviously failed.

When he meets Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), she reveals to him that she is a member of a group of survivors who have been infected but are taking an experimental vaccine, allowing them to move about in the daylight when it is in their bloodstream but reverting to vampire form when it wears off. Their plan is to kill off the unsalvagables and rebuild society. Since some of the people that Morgan had killed as vampires were actually part of their group, Ruth had been sent to spy on him.

While she is asleep, he gives her a transfusion of his blood, apparently curing her, and they decide to take the cure to the others. Before they can do so, the survivors attack, as their plan all along was to kill Morgan before he could destroy them.

Clearly an inspiration for Romero's Night of the Living Dead and far superior to the Charlton Heston hamfest The Omega Man, Last Man delivers atmosphere and chills in spades. Price is wonderfully understated as the tormented Morgan, and even the Italian actors and scenery (when it is supposed to be American) doesn't prevent you from getting a good case of the goosebumps. Long in the public domain, this was only available as a washed-out bargain basement video, but the MGM DVD restores it to its monochrome widescreen glory on a double feature with the Ray Milland sci-fier Panic in the Year Zero. There's also a colorized version available, but I'd avoid it like...the plague!

This is one to start at 11:59 on Halloween night and watch it with all the lights off. If that doesn't get to you, nothing will.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween week viewing

Saturday's the big day, so whether you spend it watching a marathon of your favorite horror films or taking the kids out for trick or treating, you'll want to get in the mood for the Season of the Witch. Here are some of my suggestions for Halloween week viewing. From the classic to the catastrophic, we cover all bases here at Weird Movie Village.

1. Double feature: Nosferatu (1922) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000).

F.W. Murnau's silent classic is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," with names and locations changed to protect the unliving. Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter as he travels to Dracula's (now Orlok's) castle in the Carpathians with real estate documents for his new home in Wisborg. As in the novel, he discovers the vampire's true nature too late, and Orlok begins his journey to the little town, spreading death and disease along the Black Sea.

Often crudely filmed (but hard to judge by extant prints), Nosferatu features a truly terrifying performance by its enigmatic star, Max Schreck. As Orlok, he is tall, thin and completely chilling, with burning eyes, pointed ears and rat-like teeth. This creature is far removed from the characterizations seen in contemporary vampire films. No romantic leading man with a red-lined cape and baritone voice, he is the embodiment of disease and unnatural hunger—more like a repulsive human-shaped leech. As a matter of fact, plague and disease are recurring themes in this landmark film.

Stoker's widow won a plagiarism suit against the producers and ordered all the prints destroyed, but fortunately some survived and you can now get a pretty good remastered copy on DVD. When you take into consideration that about 80 percent of silent film history is lost forever, it's lucky we still have this monster to revel in.

So little was known about Schreck that for years it was rumored that he was really one of the undead, appearing for one film and disappearing into the shadows of time. Filmmaker E. Elias Merhige dramatizes this concept in Shadow of the Vampire, a sort of "making of Nosferatu" comedy-drama that's the perfect counterpart for the silent original. John Malkovich plays Murnau as a director so obssessed with getting his vision right that he would make a deal with an authentic vampire as his star—and offer his leading lady as payment!

Willem Dafoe is in turns hilarious and blood-chilling as Schreck, the actor Murnau insists to his fellow cast members "is so devoted to his role that he stays in character at all times." Surprisingly, his willing costars fall for Murnau's fabrication, and even when Schreck snatches a flying bat right out of the air and eagerly drains its blood, they applaud his dediction to his craft. Dafoe hits all the notes just right, playing it straight and letting the dark comedy of such a situation come through naturally. It's simultaneously creepy and funny.

2. Take a dive off the goofy board with Phenomena (1985).

Horror lovers consider Dario Argento to be one of the masters of contemporary Italian horror, and so do I, but part of the fun of watching his work is how crazy the plots can be. Phenomena definitely falls into that category. Fifteen-year-old future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American film star whose agent has sent her to a remote Swiss boarding school, the  Richard Wagner Academy. It's such a horrible place, you've got to wonder what she did to deserve the punishment. And they don't seem to teach the girls anything escept how to insult and wear bad '80s fashions.

Parallels to Argento's masterpiece, Suspiria, come fast and furious as she meets some strange and hostile teachers and a doctor who thinks she's schizophrenic and in immediate need of treatment. What was subtle before, even in Argentoworld, now gets slammed into our faces. Her roommate warns her about a mysterious murderer who is stalking students in the dark and foreboding forest that surrounds the school. A narrator even pops in at the beginning to let us know what's happening, just like the airport scene in the Jessica Harper classic.

The twist here is that Jennifer is a sleepwalker who also has the ability to communicate telepathically with insects of all kinds. During one of her somnambulist sojourns, she witnesses one of her fellow students viciously murdered by the unknown assailant and finds herself at the home of a local entemologist (don't all Swiss villages have one of those?) played by Donald Pleasance.

Since she has such an affinity for bugs, the good doctor decides the best thing to do is to put Jennifer on the case with a rare fly—known as "the Sarcophagus"—as her guide to search for the bodies of the victims that he surmises the murderer is stashing away to keep in close contact with. No worries about what happens if she actually runs into the murderer himself...

More surprises and lots of "huh?" scenes follow. There's some amusing gore, and Argento takes the opportunity to smash not one but two heads through panes of glass (his favorite). The score features some thrash metal songs that are not at all integrated into the editing. Nothing makes a scene move even slower than when actions are taking place at normal speed while the soundtrack is blasting a song by a band whose members you just know have that huge 80s metal hair and skin-tight leather pants. One of the groups listed in the film's end credits is "Andy Sex Gang." You get the idea.

Still, the actual revelation of the killer's identity is pretty cool—and did I mention there's a heroic chimpanzee? Thanks to the magic of DVD, the film (originally called Creepers in a truncated, direct-to-video American release) can now be enjoyed in its full glory in widescreen and 5.1 sound. And if you want to see how Connelly's career began, it's a must!

3. A 50s masterpiece: Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon) (1957).

This black and white classic from one of the great directors of the Val Lewton (Cat People and Isle of the Dead) school, Jacques Tourneur, still delivers the thrills after all these years. Dana Andrews stars as John Holden, an American professor who has been sent to England to investigate a series of mysterious murders that seem to have been committed by a satanic cult.

He discovers that said cult is headed by Dr. Julian Karswell, a satanist who performs as a clown for children's parties (ewww! John Wayne Gacy!) and has been passing along pieces of parchment from an ancient book to people as a way of deflecting the curse of the demon from himself, resulting in the killings. When Holden meets Karswell, they lock horns over their conflicting beliefs, and Holden, not surprisingly, finds himself in possession of a cursed piece of parchment.

The rest of the film moves along in solid Lewton territory as Holden discovers more evidence of Karswell's malevolent power and must question his own beliefs. Is this guy really able to summon a demon from hell to snuff out an innocent victim of his choosing or is he just a creep in a clown suit? In one subtly chilling scene, Karswell explains to his elderly mother that he has to keep passing the parchments in order to survive—and she understands completely!

What makes this film so compelling is that the viewer is also put into this predicament. Even when the demon is manifested before our eyes, we still wonder if we're seeing something that's real or has been forced upon gullible minds by a psychotic but strong-willed human monster. The demon itself is a wonderful creation. Tourneur insisted that he fought against actually showing it, but it is so well integrated into the plot and is so effective that his claim can't possibly be true.

For you Rocky Horror fans out there, the line in the theme song, "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes and casting them used lots of skill" refers to this film. The short story it was adapted from is called "Casting the Runes" and refers to the cursed parchments.

This concludes Part One of your Halloween horror suggestions. Look for Part Two on Thursday.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The legendary "Night of the Living Dead"

When I was a kid, my mother took my sisters and me to the drive-in theatre on a regular basis. Dad was often out of town on business and it was cheap entertainment. Besides, a triple horror feature was playing and I loved loved loved going to the drive-in!

I don't remember all of the films that played that night; I think one of them was The Green Slime. It doesn't matter. Almost anything would have faded into insignificance once they began to unspool the main feature: Night of the Living Dead.

To my nine-year-old eyes, this felt like the real deal. Filmed in stark black and white and saddled with some amateurish acting (Judith Ridley, who hated her performance), it seemed like it was really happening. And when the cast sits down to watch news reports on the developing zombie crisis, it only enhanced the reality.

Best of all, the zombies are truly threatening. In varying states of decay, wailing and yammering, they are more than happy to chow down on any unlucky human that gets within reach.

And Romero really delivered the gore! Partially-eaten bodies, murder by trowel, living dead folks fighting over entrails...I couldn't believe it. In earlier movies, zombies killed with more conventional means—bludgeoning and strangling. Or they didn't kill at all, merely working as dim-witted slaves. As author Jamie Russell put it in his wonderful Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema:

Refusing to skirt the issue of the zombie's physicality—both in its monstrous form as a reanimated corpse and in its newly threatening form as a flesh eating creature—Romero brought an uncompromising realism to the genre and added a previously unheard of dimension to the zombie myth: cannibalism.

It also opened the floodgates for a host of imitators, mostly European. Spanish director Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is one of the notable early efforts. And, of course, Romero's own sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978) sparked the Italian zombie craze that lasted for nearly a decade and produced Fulci's masterpiece, Zombie, which has been discussed here previously.

But Night was a real shocker in the '60s. Its subtexts included a protest of the Vietnam war as well as a commentary on integration. The "summer of love" was giving way to disillusionment, and Romero paints a bleak portrait of a society both rotting from the inside and feeding on itself. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones), happens to be black, but his race is never made an issue in the story. Critics hated the film, though. Variety questioned the mental health of audiences who would "cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism." I was too young to understand all that's going on, but I certainly was one of the "cheerful opters." Critic Roger Ebert wrote a warning in Reader's Digest after attending a matinee with young children who'd been dropped off by their parents, thinking it was another silly horror film, and finding himself surrounded by trembling, crying kids. Wimps.

When I was 18, the local film distributor, Niles Film Products, announced that it would be releasing Night full-length in super 8mm. Excitedly I raced down to Mishawaka Avenue to put down my deposit, anxiously counting the days when it would finally be released. I never saw it on television in those days; it was too gory for broadcast and too black and white for cable.

The people at Niles had trouble with the negative, resulting in some delays, driving my anticipation to an almost unbearable level. Finally, my beloved print was ready, and I gave many movie parties for friends who'd never had the opportunity to see it.

I'll never forget showing it to my friend Mark. After the screening, I gave him a ride home. Barely waiting for the car to come to a halt, he jumped out without so much as a goodbye and raced to the safety of his house! Although it's pretty contrasty and the soundtrack is fuzzy, I still treasure it and watch it every couple of years.

After Dawn and its sequel, Day of the Dead, Romero put the zombies away for a while, but recently returned to the genre with the iffy Land of the Dead and the superior Document of the Dead, made Blair Witch-style with the characters using home video cameras to capture the mayhem. Romero also scripted a remake of Night in 1990. Helmed by special effects legend Tom Savini, revisions to the story include making Barbara, who spent most of the first movie in a catatonic state, more like Ripley in Alien. Savini was unhappy with the result, due to some interference by the film's backers, but I like it.

Due to a clerical error, the film quickly fell into public domain and the same faded, choppy print could be picked up on VHS in bargain bins everywhere. Then, in 1997, Elite Entertainment released it on laserdisc and DVD newly remastered from the original negative, and what a revelation! For the first time, you could see that it was actually professionally shot, with deep blacks, nice contrast and razor-sharp photography.

In 1999, some opportunistic hacks vaguely associated with the original film (including the graveyard zombie, Bill Hinzman) released a "30th anniversary" edition which replaces the music with an awful "original score" and includes new scenes—not outtakes from the original—but new footage with no-talent actors that alters the plot and basically ruins it. To make matters worse, in order to make room for these lousy new scenes, they cut out portions of the original! It made me so mad I threw away my DVD.

Still, nothing can take the place of the 1968 film in my heart. Even with some amateurish acting and use of library music (also heard in Teenagers from Outer Space!), it's an epoch-maker that simply can't be bettered.

Hey! It's almost Halloween! I think it's time to bring out the projector and run that ol' super 8 print! Since you can't watch it with me, I invite you to enjoy this pretty cool trailer:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cannibal Vomitoriums

In 1962, an Italian documentary depicting the extremes of human behavior made a huge impact and went on to be a smash hit all around the world,  even winning an Academy Award for its theme song. Mondo Cane (literally "A Dog's World") spawned numerous imitators and created a subgenre of its own: mondo. These movies  featured wide-ranging subject matter: aberrant sexual behavior; voodoo and witchcraft; scenes of violence and death; and—most objectionably—the actual slaughter of animals.

Since many of these films included scenes that were recreated, or dramatized, for greater shock effect, opportunistic filmmakers decided that the next logical step would be to make movies that provided the gross-outs their audiences hungered for tethered to an actual storyline that would be more dramatically compelling than the freewheeling documentary style. The resulting genre became known as the cannibal vomitorium, and—whew—they can be extremely tough to watch.

There are three main storylines for vomitoriums. In one, a "civilized" person (or persons) crash-lands in a remote jungle and is set upon by primitive, flesh-eating natives. In the second, students travel to said location to do research on the natives and end up as the main course. In the third, and truest to the mondo model, filmmakers hit the jungle to film a documentary about the natives and...well, you get the idea. They're never heard from again, and their footage is later salvaged and screened by their horrified peers, thus forming the structure of the narrative. Keep in mind this was decades before The Blair Witch Project freaked out moviegoers in 1999.

A constant in all these films is that the protagonists must endure every sort of atrocity, including imprisonment, sexual assault, the amputation of a body part and full-on consumption. What makes these pictures particularly reprehensible is their blend of staged mayhem and authentic animal mutilation, causing a great deal of controversy and allowing their distributors to proudly crow, "Banned in 50 countries!"

I've seen a few of these movies on video, and I'm sure it's a completely different experience than watching them with a live, stoned, screaming audience on 42nd Street (where a lot of them played for years). One of the most notorious, Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox, aka Make Them Die Slowly (1980), was re-released in 1997 by Grindhouse, a distribution company owned by Sylvester Stallone's son Sage. It played some theatrical dates, but I bought it on laserdisc, unable to resist the temptation of seeing "the most violent film ever made," according to the publicity. It also came with a 45 RPM single of the theme song and a vomit bag. Hey, I can't resist effective marketing!

In Ferox, a group of students (yes, plot "B") go to Colombia to prove that cannibalism doesn't exist. They meet other explorers who spin a tale about encountering a tribe of cannibals who'd killed their friend and which they had to battle in order to escape. It's all a lie, though; in fact, they are hopped-up drug dealers who had themselves committed atrocities against the natives in a futile search for emeralds. Naturally, the paths between the "civilized" people and the natives collide. It's difficult to describe some of the scenes in this film, but one unintentionally comic segment features the female students, trapped in a semi-submerged wooden box, awaiting their fate and mournfully singing "Red River Valley."

Anyhow, one of the drug dealers, Mike, is played by the ever-popular Giovanni Lombardo Radici (aka John Morghen) whom Italian horror fans will recognize from Fulci's City of the Living Dead and Deodato's House at the Edge of the Park (an Italian reimagining of Last House on the Left featuring its original star, David Hess). It's Mike who told the lies about the tribe and whose murder of a young native girl in cold blood motivates the tribe's lust for revenge. Of course, he gets his just desserts—or in this case, I guess the tribe does. Along with the requisite animal cruelty, Ferox features some shocking special effects, including an A Man Called Horse-style hanging. If you've seen that film, you know what I'm talking about.

This is not a film I revisit fondly (although I do wish I'd attended one of those midnight screenings to see the hysteria), but I put it on when I'm with like-minded friends, just to see how much they can take. Lenzi claims that he initiated the vomitorium cycle when he made Man from Deep River in 1972. His parents would be proud.

Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1981) follows much the same formula, except it uses Plot "C" (filmmakers shooting a documentary), and includes special effects so shocking—including a native girl impaled from stem to stern on a pike—that the director was dragged into court to prove that it wasn't real. Interestingly, some critical response at the time was positive and it still gets a 67% (fresh) on RottenTomatoes!

Although it's acclaimed as an attack on society's ills (by those who acclaimed it), I think it's nastier than Ferox. Along with the aforementioned piking scene, it really ladles on the animal attacks.

A lesser pic in the genre, Il Rei di Morti-Viventi (1979), which was released to U.S. drive-ins as Dr. Butcher, M.D., brings cannibals and zombies together. It's a hodgepodge starring Ian McCullough from Fulci's Zombi 2. It seems that patients are turning up with limbs missing in New York hospitals and—huh?—the culprits are traced back to a remote Caribbean island where a mad doctor is making zombies out of cannibals. Now that's what I call recycling! Fortunately, the vomitorium cycle only lasted a few years, although recently Deodato attempted to raise financing for an update of Holocaust.

And Grindhouse has played the film in theaters as recently as June! Here's the rerelease trailer, cut in a Blair Witch style, but I gotta warn you—even though it's on YouTube, it's still  pretty nasty.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kitten with a Whip

It's time to give a shout out to that sassy, brassy fireball of entertainment known as Ann-Margret. In more than five decades in show business, she's appeared onscreen with legends Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen and Elvis. She was immortalized in cartoon form as Ann-Margrock in "The Flintstones." She entertained American troops in remote parts of Vietnam. She survived a devastating accident during a rehearsal in Lake Tahoe. And most importantly, she showed the industry that she had some serious acting chops with acclaimed performances in films like Carnal Knowledge, Magic and 52 Pick-Up.

But it's those campy movies that give her an opportunity to cut loose that have earned her an honored spot in Weird Movie Village. Here's a sampling:

Kitten with a Whip (1964). Wow—what were her managers smoking? Enjoying a positive career trajectory after State Fair, Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, A-M went decidedly downmarket in this prime slice of low-budget Universal '60s trash, one of several films she would make for major studios laboring under the mistaken impression that they were providing "hip" product for the youngsters.

What those youngsters got instead was an already hilariously dated melodrama with A-M starring as the titular kitten Jody, who claws her way into senatorial candidate John Forsythe's suburban home while his family is away. Discovering her sleeping in his daughter's bed, he threatens to call the police, but Jody gives him a sob story about running away from home after being sexually abused by her stepfather, so he buys her new clothes and drops her off at the bus station to start off on a new life.

While out with a friend, however, he sees a television bulletin revealing that Jody is in fact a delinquent who made a violent escape from a juvenile facility. And when he gets home, of course, there she is.

Again he moves to the phone, but she threatens to tell the authorities that he raped her. Worried about his political prospects (and his wife), he finds himself playing reluctant host to Jody and her gang of really clean-cut beatnik pals.

A-M is wildly over the top in this juvenile delinquency epic, and that's precisely why it's earned a special place in our hearts. Whether she's purring seductively to Forsythe or holding a broken bottle to someone's throat, she's firing on all cylinders. Forsythe, on the other hand, is so consistently low-key that at times he appears medicated. And the dialogue is priceless. Jody frequently refers to feeling "creamy," and one of her beatnik friends, after being seriously wounded, says, "I'm dyin' in a rush, man."

This would make a great double-feature with another black and white Universal classic of similar vintage, William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965). In it, two teenage girls having a slumber party prank call a man who's just murdered his wife, whispering to him, "I saw what you did and I know who you are," unaware of what he'd just done. This leads to a night of terror as he hunts them down to silence them permanently.

Two years later, A-M reunited with Birdie and Vegas director George Sidney for a slice of allegedly "with-it" '60s psychedelia, The Swinger. Here, A-M is Kelly Olsson, a wholesome Midwestern girl who lives in a Los Angeles mansion with a bunch of artist types.

While waiting in the lobby of "Girl Lure" magazine, she is mistaken for a model, despite her insistence that she's a writer. When they only show interest in her body, though, she hits upon a plan. She'll write a story so salacious they'll just have to publish it! Now, if you're a wholesome wannabe writer whose ambition is to have your work appear in "Girl Lure" magazine, aren't your priorities a little...well, wait. It gets weirder.

She cobbles her story together by plagiarizing sleazy paperbacks. And did I mention that the creative process involves slinking from room to room with her hair blowing in a nonexistent wind? "Girl Lure" editor and ersatz playboy Ric Colby (Anthony Franciosa) rejects the manuscript, claiming that it's fake, but she insists that it's her story.

The magazine's old letch of a publisher, Sir Hubert Charles (Robert Coote) wants to get a glimpse of her swingin' lifestyle, so he drags Ric to the mansion where Kelly has enlisted the aid of her artist friends to put on a show they'll never forget, which includes becoming a human brush as she writhes around a canvas covered in psychedelic paint, clad in a bikini. Suitably shocked, Ric now wants to save Kelly from herself and —like Pygmalion—turn her into a lady.

A private detective informs Ric that Kelly is a fake with virginity intact, but he's enjoying watching how far she'll go now to prove that she's a tramp. The situations get more outlandish and awkward until she finds herself on a strip club stage performing "That Old Black Magic." Huh?

Do you think Ric and Kelly will end up together? Of course they will. This is the goofy sixties, with a major studio desperately trying to emulate a counterculture it knows absolutely nothing about. But with A-M going full steam ahead, performing the title song twice—once in black leather and then on a swing—you can't lose!

Ann-Margret and beans.
The final selection today is somewhat polarizing. In 1975, A-M starred as Nora Walker in Ken Russell's film of The Who's Tommy. I refer to it as polarizing because people either consider it over-the-top camp trash or a stroke of cinematic brilliance. I think it's a little bit of both.

As Tommy's mother, A-M gets a chance to sing, emote ferociously, get sexy with Jack Nicholson and Oliver Reed and seduce her son. And she also gets another opportunity to roll around in liquid substances—this time soap suds, baked beans and chocolate.

Now if you're familiar with Ken Russell's ouevre, subtlety is not his stock in trade. In The Music Lovers, looney Glenda Jackson gets gangbanged in an insane asylum. In Lair of the White Worm, delicious Amanda Donohoe slithered around topless with really huge fangs. And Kathleen Turner gave her all to the "architect-by-day/whore-by-night" opus Crimes of Passion.

Of course, A-M took full advantage of the freedom Russell encouraged while actually managing to give her character multiple dimensions. She's at varying times earthy, glamorous, maternal, devout and dowdy...all in the same film!

Distraught that Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has become deaf, dumb and blind as a result of seeing her lover, Frank (Oliver Reed), kill her husband (Robert Powell) when he returns home unexpectedly from the war, Nora embarks on a series of crazy cures in the hopes of restoring his faculties. These include visits to a quack specialist (Nicholson), a faith healer (Eric Clapton) at the Church of Marilyn Monroe (whose communion consists of a pill and a swig of booze),  and the Acid Queen (Tina Turner, who gives A-M a run for her money in the freak-out department). Notice how all these solutions involve drugs?

Nothing works, but Tommy reveals a talent for pinball and becomes rich and famous. Nora, still guilt-stricken but enjoying the trappings of success, is drunkenly watching television in her bedroom and singing about her woes when Tommy appears on the screen. Unable to change the channel, she hurls a bottle through the tube and the aforementioned liquids begin to cascade out of the box. Of course, she rolls around until she's completely coated in the mixture. Wouldn't you? Finally, confronting Tommy in the same room (which the servants did a really good job of cleaning up, incidentally), she accidentally throws him through a large mirror on the wall and—surprise—he's healed!

Now Tommy gets all Christlike and makes everyone in his circle renounce their indulgent lifestyles, unaware that hangers-on are cashing in on his fame more than before. And when his flock finally turns on him ("We're not gonna take it") at a retreat for the faithful, Nora and Frank are killed in the ensuing riot. Undeterred, Tommy simply links their dead hands together, strips off his shirt, dives into a lake (which looks really cold), climbs a mountain and becomes one with God. I think.

In preparing my comments about Tommy, I did a lot of Googling and was surprised to see how many people felt the film was a life-changing experience for them. I wouldn't exactly say it changed my life, but I enjoyed watching it and still do. I still remember the groovy "Quintophonic" sound when it played the theaters back in the day.

Since A-M won the Golden Globe and was Oscar nominated for this role, let's give her the last word. Here she is at her unhinged best, singing "Smash the Mirror."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Horror's dirty word

The world of horror is a big tent—there's room for all kinds of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls—all are welcome. However, there's one creature that even the most ardent horror fan finds repulsive–the necrophiliac. There are two main reasons, I think: one, because the idea is so revolting; and two, because said "monster" is a living human being, and such things actually happen in the real world.

Frankly, the subject matter isn't everyone's cup of tea under any circumstances, but daring filmmakers occasionally turn their cameras to this quease-inducing topic with varying results. Drive-in audiences were traumatized by Love Me Deadly, a combination of '70s fashions, shocking sexuality and Lyle Waggoner. Extreme trashhounds adore German filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit's underground films Nekromantik and its sequel, but they're definitely not for everyone. There was even an "art" film made in Canada in 1996, Kissed, about a young woman's attraction to stiffs. I mean real stiffs.

Due to the subject matter, these films are necessarily exploitative, but among the brash shockers are little jewels of perversion, one of which I'm going to discuss in this post.

Riccardo Freda's The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962) has quite an agenda for a film of its vintage. Made during Italian horror cinema's gothic golden era, it's the story of a Victorian-era doctor whose double life, if exposed, would make him the scandal of London.

In a foggy cemetery, a gravedigger is clubbed senseless by a mysterious figure that opens the unburied coffin and fondles the female cadaver inside. We soon learn that the figure is Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), a distinguished surgeon whose development of a new anesthetic has taken him to the top of his field. His personal life is another matter, however. Not only is he drawn to the cadavers in the hospital morgue, he also uses his anesthetic for sex games with his willing wife, Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello). The drug puts her into a cataleptic state, allowing Hichcock to have his way with—for all intents and purposes—a corpse. One night he goes too far, injecting her with a lethal dose, and can only watch helplessly as she succumbs.

Twelve years later, he returns from Italy with his new wife, Cynthia (genre icon Barbara Steele). Here is where the "Hichcock" in the title comes into play. We're in Rebecca territory now, complete with a foreboding mansion, a sinister housekeeper (Harriet Medin) and the spectre of Margaretha that seems to cast a shadow over everything. Matters grow more complicated when it is revealed that Margaretha, who is not dead after all but recovered from the overdose, is now an insane hag roaming the dark halls—and she doesn't want that "other woman" with her husband!

What's remarkable about Terror, besides its matter-of-fact treatment of the subject matter, is its approach to Hichcock himself. Far from passing a moral judgment, the filmmakers depict Hichcock as something of a sexual pioneer, a man who has not only accepted but embraced his inner necrophile. The contrast between the wives is interesting, too. Margaretha's excited expression as Hichcock approaches her with the needle parallels the excitement of a junkie. She seems to represent Hichcock's "liberated" side while Cynthia, cold and withdrawn, is the "safe" wife who will help him repress his urges...but it doesn't work out that way.

The film is very dreamlike in tone, which some have attributed to a tight shooting schedule that forced some expository scenes to remain unfilmed. Both Steele and Medin acknowledged that Freda would throw away pages of the script to stay on schedule. Nevertheless, it works, and some critics embraced it as a surrealist masterpiece. Loaded with gothic atmosphere and complemented by a lush score, The Terror of Dr. Hichcock is a lyrical examination of one of society's biggest taboos.

Freda made a sequel of sorts, The Ghost, also with Steele. Hichcock appeared in name only as the feeble husband Steele plots to kill with the aid of her lover.

Here's a trailer I put together using material from Sinister Cinema's source print. Rather than take a modern approach, I cut it in the style of old school television spots.

Although it's commendable that Sinister makes it available in any form, this is a film that deserves rediscovery and restoration.


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