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.


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