Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A mildly horrific selection of October movies

Using the Grand Illusion Cinema's October programming to inform the selections for the October Horror Movie Challenge was not such a bad idea. In the third week of October, they were showing the 1943 Phantom of the Opera in a double feature with Arsenic and Old Lace. Therefore, it seemed like a good plan to see in 1925 Phantom of the Opera with Lon Cheney as the Phantom and I'm glad that I did as the two films were vastly different adaptations of the story.

The 1925 film I do not hesitate calling a horror movie. Both are set in the Paris Opera House, but in the earlier film, it is established that the Paris Opera is haunted. A mysterious figure moves through the Opera house and even has a box reserved for the performances. The ballet's chorus speak of the phantom on hushed whispers, which gives the film the slight unsettling quality of a ghost story. By comparison, in the 1943 version, with Claude Rains as the Erique Claudin, there is no phantom. Instead, Erique is a disgruntled violinist who takes up residence under the opera after being replaced in the symphony. Probably because there was never any suggestion of a phantom before Erique begins to appear to Christine, this version is very different and more melodramatic that the 1925 film.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943) is very much a musical. It was filmed in stunning technicolor and so was stunning to see on a new, 35mm print. The sets and costuming was gorgeous and a new musical score was composed for the film by Edward Ward. The film received Oscars for cinematography as well as art design and Edward Ward received a nomination for the music. But sadly, for those who do not enjoy opera or musicals, this version of The Phantom doesn't leave much to contemplate. The plot was altered so that Christine (Susanna Foster) is involved in a love triangle with Raoul (Edgar Barrier) and another opera singer, Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy). Thus giving an excuse for even more singing to appear. And Erique (the Phantom) was helping Christine advance in the opera by secretly paying for singing lessons, until he is dismissed from the symphony. Then he is injured and hides in the tunnels of the Paris Opera House in an attempt to continue to help Christine. Most of the horror has been excised from this version and instead it plays out at a melodrama that is more interested in the music than the the story of a mysterious phantom.

This is in contrast to Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. In the 1925 version, the phantom is also revealed to not be an ethereal spirit, but a disfigured man, but Lon Chaney depicts Erik as a man who has withdrawn from humanity to live in the depths of the Paris Opera. As a result, he has gone mad, but it is his love for Christine that could save him. When he reveals himself to Christine and professes his love, he begs, "If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me." This makes for a much more compelling Phantom of the Opera, albeit with a whole lot less singing.

And finally, the other film the was part of the double feature with The Phantom of the Opera (1943) was Frank Capra's delightful madcap black comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace.

As I doubt that there is anyone that hasn't seen Arsenic and Old Lace, I'll dispense with saying much about it, beyond that it was delightful to watch it again. Actually, this was the first time I've seen the film in any other format than on television. The Grand Illusion lucked out with an amazing looking 35mm print of the film and screwball comedies are much more fun to see in a crowded theater.

October Horror Movie Challenge Tally: 21 with 17 FTV

An October Challenge

Part of the reason that I sign on for the October Horror Movie Challenge is to guide my cinema consumption. While I've devoured innumerable hours of film for as long as I can remember,  the films tend to drift through genres, nationalities, subject matter. And because there is no disciple to my viewing practice, I've neglected too many essentials. So among the films chosen due to curiosity and whim, I've also used the October as an excuse to watch films that I might otherwise avoid. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has none of the thrills, suspense or scares that I want in a horror movie. As expected, Henry was not a particularly enjoyable film, but probably an informative one.

Before watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I hadn't really taken much time to consider what makes a horror movie tick. Henry is absolutely a horror movie, but it defies the expectations of a 1980s horror movie. There is a campiness to a lot of the 80s movies and quite a bit of humor, but the thing I associate with horror movies of the period is gore and inventive methods of killing teen-aged victims, like Johnny Depp being killed by Freddie in the water bed and the resulting tidal wave of blood. There's not much of that in Henry. Instead, Henry is a rather drab, character study of a man who kills a lot of people.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is exactly that; an attempted portrait of the convicted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. At one time, Henry Lee Lucas was thought to be the most prolific serial murderer, as he confessed to over 600 murders. He was convicted of 11 homicides, but it was it was likely that Henry was admitting to murders that he couldn't have committed, so it is unclear just how many people that he killed. There is little doubt that that he was responsible for the murder of his mother and Frieda Powell or "Becky", played by Tracy Arnold. But if Henry had committed the hundreds of murders that he confessed to, he would have been killing a couple of people a week, which is what is depicted in this film.

So Henry is a bit different as it is a docudrama that does attempt to depict the actions of a man with no conscious, who kills with ease and no signs of remorse.  The film opens showing the trail of bodies that Henry has left behind. Women in various stages of undress, lifeless and discarded. And with those images, there is no doubt that Henry murders women in his spare time. But the majority of the film is spent seeing Henry from Becky's perspective. She has come to live with her cousin, Otis, to get away from an abusive husband. And to Becky, Henry is fascinating and powerful. During their first conversation, Henry talks about killing his mother after years of abuse. Becky isn't frightened by this, but probably sees it as justified retaliation as she shares a childhood of sexual abuse. Henry seems to easily fall into a role and lover and protector for her.
But when he is away from the apartment, Henry can snap a prostitutes neck in the blink of an eye, without even a momentary change of expression. His are the actions of a man who has no empathy. It isn't just that he doesn't see women as human, he is simply lacking all empathy. He has the ability to kill even those closest without a moment of hesitation. This is what I found most troubling about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This film mechanically and without passion depicts the taking of life that captures that detachment that Henry must feel from humanity. Doesn't make for the most warm and engaging of viewing experiences, but it does make an impression.

Really, Henry is a sad portrait of a disappearing working class America. Henry and Otis have menial, low wage jobs and share an apartment. Much of their time is spent drinking beer in front of the television. With this drab, hopeless existence, murder seems almost a way to pass the time. A distraction from the daily humiliation at the service station and the general pointlessness of existence. And likely the only way that they can feel a sense of control over their life. Thankfully, the majority of humanity are not psychopaths or more might take up this past time.

October Horror Movie Challenge Tally: #18 and 15 first-time viewings (FTV)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

OHMC: On a lighter Note

Troll Hunter (2010) Dir. André Øvredal

Last week, the October Horror Movie Challenge took a turn towards much lighter fare. Actually, a couple of movies I hesitate to even consider for the challenge, although for my own personal rules for the month, I decided to include any of the Grand Illusion Cinema's Curse of All Monsters Attack programming and for the final weeks of October, the programing has become much more family friendly with more of comic tone. And while I do enjoy truly dark and psychologically troubling cinema, I cannot sustain a full month of movies like The Woman, Snowtown Murders, or even this month's viewing, Sheitan. I'd like to maintain some sanity.

 On an uncharacteristically sunny and warm fall afternoon, when scrolling through the netflix queue, Troll Hunter stood out as the type of movie that might be more of a lighter take on horror and thus, not diminished by the freakishly sunny Seattle fall. In this Norwegian mockumentary, a trio of students are attempting to get to the bottom of a story concerning a dead bear. As the experts discuss the animal, they note oddities in the observed bear tracks and some postulate that the bear was shot by a poacher. They then begin to follow a hunter in a van in an attempt to interview him about the bear, when instead of catching him on a bear hunt, they find him following something else entirely. They have stumbled upon a government Troll Hunter, Hans, working to help the government keep the human population safe from these ancient giants while keeping them ignorant of their existence.

 After many years spent hunting trolls in the night, Hans is finished with hiding government secrets, so he agrees to let Thomas, Johanna and Kalle tag along and document everything as long as they do everything he tells them to. What is most enjoyable about Troll Hunter is the troll mythology. Hans quickly dispells any myths of fairy tale trolls that wear trousers and can be bargoned with. No, here trolls are huge, smelly, and slimy animals, some over 50 ft, that turn to stone if exposed to sun light. Okay, sometimes they turn to stone, othertimes they explode. And they can smell a Christian from miles away. Trolls really hate Christians.

 And so, the troll hunting is documented in a fashion very reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, until during one troll encounter, the footage suddenly ends. This was an entertaining afternoon diversion. It was at times quite funny and still had plenty of tense moments when it seemed there would be no chance that they would get away without becoming a Troll sanwhich.

The Comedy of Terrors (1963) Dir. Jacques Tourneur 
  Last week, the All Monsters Attack double feature was two films with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. While at the cinema, I was needed in the lobby to answer the phone, deal with late admissions, etc. But each time I passed through the theater, there was a lot of laughter. Even the projectionist was laughing along. So I decided to catch up with these at home. Just as well, since the 35mm prints weren't in the best of condition, or at least The Comedy of Terrors was not and had to be projected digitally.  
  I still cannot believe the cast. Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in the same movie. Awesome. Price is a drunk, unscrupulous undertaker and Lorre is his obsequious assistant in this black comedy. When the landlord threatens Price with homelessness if he doesn't pay the year of rent owed, the duo resort to murder in increase profits. Not a surprising plan from Price who is outspoken in his hatred for everyone around him, including his tone deaf, opera-singing wife and her feeble minded father, played by Karloff. In fact, Price is always attempting to give the old man "his medicine" from a bottle a poison he keeps in his pocket and frequently hopes that his wife were a customer, especially when she launches into song.  
  Here Lorre and Price make a great comedy team in their criminal endeavors. In one great set piece, a series of busts line a stairway. As Price pleads Lorre to be quiet, Lorre topples the bust at the top initiating the domino effect of shattering busts. And then there is the Landlord (Basil Rathborn) who refuses to stay dead. The man is pronounced dead, but minutes later is brandishing a sword while reciting Shakespeare soliloquies.  
  As someone who doesn't generally enjoy comedies, The Comedy of Terrors was a really fun movie. I should search out The Raven next.  
  Children of the Corn (1984) Dir. Fritz Kiersch 
 Growing up, Children of the Corn was a big deal. In 1984, I was 11 and remember classmates talking about this movie as if it were the scariest movie ever made.  I've seen most of the Stephen King penned horror movies of the 80s and 90s, but I never did get around to seeing Children of the Corn. Not that I was missing anything, really. This really is a horror movie for kids. I cannot imagine that it contains a lot of scares for anyone old enough to see this R rated movie without being accompanied by a parent or guardian. The less than subtle message of the danger or religious cults would seem enlightening to my classmates in 1984.  
 This movie has a problem for adult viewers. It seemed unlikely that even a whole town of kids would so easily dominate Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton. And Linda Hamilton was totally useless here. She was kidnapped and crucified to the corn in minutes and had to be rescued. Totally implausible. I've seen the Terminator movies.  
 But I can see how Malachi would have been really scary if I were 11. Just not so much today and certainly not with Linda Hamilton around. I don't know how she managed not to spank them all and send them to their rooms.   
Tally: 17, 14 FTV

Saturday, October 20, 2012

October Horror Challenge, next installment

I've apparently reached the point in the challenge where I start to wonder if I like horror movies. Probably a result of seeing a ton of films that I wouldn't have otherwise, but sometimes it seems that my cinematic language is insufficient to talk about these films and my reaction doesn't jive with the consensus. That said, Friday was the late night screening of Sam Raimi's, The Evil Dead (1981) and it was presented in 35mm and a pretty good print. I thought this was the movie that Nate showed me, dismayed that I'd never seen it, that was a stylized and very comic horror movie. Must be getting old, because it wasn't The Evil Dead, but the sequel Evil Dead II, so I waited all movie for a kick-ass chainsaw battle scene that never materialized. Oh, well. My memory might not be so good and thus, more evidence than ever before that I need to write about the films I see as a back for my failing memory.

Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his 4 friends spend a weekend at an isolated cabin in the woods. While settling in, the door to the basement is blown open and while investigating, they find a book and tapes. They listen to the tapes which identifies the book as the Necronomicon, containing ancient Sumerian burial practices and incantations. The incantations are translated and recorded on the tape which seems to trigger the trees to misbehave and demons possess the friends. Ash must then fight off the demons to escape.

Probably due to having seen the Evil Dead II, I misread the tone. The Evil Dead was less comic and more focused on scares and gore which were delivered by the bucket full. The supernatural presence in the surrounding forest provided the point of view, with the camera moving close to the ground and quickly between the trees before returning to the actions of the friends. This gives a sense that they are being watched and adds tension to what otherwise might have been a more formulaic kids in the woods horror movie (or is this one of the originators of that trope).

Once Cheryl is possessed as a result of tree rape, the movie becomes less jump inducing and just plain gruesome. As Ash's friends succumb to demon possession, he is forced to maim and dismember them again and again. There seem to be endless quantities of fake blood and gore and with so much over the top slashing, whacking, skewering, sawing and hacking, it becomes more humorous than frightening.

And I hate to admit it, but my enjoyment of the film has been detrimentally impacted by recent politics (the war against women) and the obsessive consumption of feminist blogs. The tree rape scene was a disappointing reminder that the horror genre is made by and for young men who don't see female characters as people but potential monsters. I'm afraid it is becoming more difficult to turn off the feminist filter as I watch movies. The rape scene was not at all realistic and certainly didn't push any buttons due to its silliness, but it was put there for amusement, and rape, even by trees, isn't. So with that in mind, viewing Sheitan, with overtly misogynistic characters might not have been the best choice for this October.   

Sheitan opens in a night club, STYXX, as the DJ spins a record of that name. This may be the only reference to the Turkish word for satan in the film, although there is plenty of references to his work. From the start, before the movie even left the club, I began to despise it. Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) is brutishly accosting women on the dance floor and when his sexual advances are rightly refused, he responds violently, calling the woman a whore and worse and a fight erupts. He and his friends are ejected from the club and they decide to follow Eve (Roxane Mesquida) back to her home outside the city. Their arrival is delayed by goats in the road and the foursome show their ignorance and discomfort with life outside the city when they refuse to taste the goat milk that Joseph (Vincent Cassel) laughingly sprays at them. And Joseph immediately latches onto Bart, reappearing at his side, introducing him to a country girl, offering him a bottle of goat's milk, pestering him to go to the hot springs and Bart is very visibly uncomfortable with Joseph's manic and aggressive friendliness.

Joseph is the reason to see Sheitan. Vincent Cassel's portrayal of the grounds keeper is both friendly and terrifying. He is a contrast to the young men that have followed Eve to the countryside in order to get laid (they are very single minded about this goal), but also see everything as a threat to their delicate sense of manhood. This is in contrast to the apparently inbred country boys who are overtly masculine and threatening to Bart, Thai, and Ladj. And watching them squirm is one of the pleasures of this unsettling comedic, horror movie. I found this trio so distasteful that I found it difficult to sympathize with their unease and was oddly rooting for Joseph to harvest Bart for his devil doll making project. Having likely misread the tone, which happens a lot when watching movies alone at home, I suspect giving myself permission to laugh at Joseph's dominance of the egotistical city boys would have been satisfying.
The Grey was a definite high point. Rarely do I see a film that confirms my outlook and reiterated my long held beliefs. America is a Christian nation and I've had those beliefs shoved down my throat from an early age. I also started doubting early. While atheism is not an attribute I seek in the horror movies I watch, its presence was comforting and life affirming in a way that I very much needed. Actually, when it comes to horror, I seek fantasy. The scariest are the supernatural and religious based films, for some reason. Maybe it is simply because I'm frightened by the things I don't have a rational answer to.

 Liam Neeson is Ottway and is among a small group of pipeline workers that survive a plane crash in the desolate and harsh wilderness of Alaska. Having lived in Alaska, I know firsthand that survival is the biggest challenge in that situation. And The Grey is very much a horror movie that is of the man versus nature subcategory, although the climate isn't the true opponent. Here nature is an aggressive and ever present pack of wolves that hunt the survivors. And Ottway naturally ascends to lead and protect the men from the huge and terrifying wolves. This a natural choice as Liam Neeson is a very plausible figure of leadership with his authoritative voice and 6'4" stature.

Ottway's survival of the crash is more curse than blessing. Prior to boarding, Ottway had slipped away from the dining hall into the night to put a rifle barrel in his mouth. He is tortured by the memories of his wife, who is ever present. His only desire is to join his love in the grave and this is at the root of his easy acceptance of death and this new role of guide for the small group of survivors. There is no hope for a future as the only inevitability of being eaten by wolves or freezing to death. They know this, but fear and hope prevent their immediate resignation to this. But the wolves are always present, just beyond the light of the campfire as a reminder of this fate.

Not only is The Grey a movie where death is a constant presence, but also a movie where no amount of posturing and toughness will protect them. In fact, this film sneers as the machismo of the Alaskan men that Ottway describes in narration as "Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind." When one man challenges Ottway for admitting fear, Ottway shakes it off and replies authoritatively reminding that they all should be scared. Shortly after this show of male posturing and fear denial, the wolves answer the challenge further reducing the band of misfits' number.

There is something about this film that inspires, that touches something deep down inside and readies me to rejoin the fight for survival in a world where survival seem unlikely. Odd so find so much hope and inspiration in a film with a message of the inevitability of death, but that is what I took away form it. Ottway's challenge to the heavens:

"Do something. Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I'll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I'm calling on you. I'm calling on you! Fuck it. I'll do it myself. "

Sunday, October 14, 2012

OHMC: Raw Meat

Raw Meat (1972) Dir. Gary Sherman

Raw Meat, AKA Death Line, was not exactly what I was expecting form a movie that boasts "Beneath Modern London lives a tribe of once humans. Neither men nor women. They are the raw meat of the human race" on the poster. And apparently with increased availability of this film, it has caught others off guard as one probably wouldn't expect much from an early film from a director that gave us classics like Poltergeist III. On my quest to track down a few stills from the film, I've seen endorsements from critic Jim Emerson and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. This allowed a sigh of relief because sometimes, I doubt my immediate impressions when it comes to horror and cult movies. In contrast to more jaded viewers, I do tend to be a bit more squemish and a lot more jumpy than most, but I found Raw Meat to be totally absorbing.

Raw Meat was not particularly scary, but functions mostly be buidling a sense of mytery about what is happening below London's Underground stations. After a very unusual opening credit sequence of out of focus images that slowly come into focus, only to again fade into undescipherability.  Finally the shot reveals a smartly dressed man, in a bowler, trolling London's red light district. He suffers a blow to the head and a young couple find him unconscious while exiting London's Underground. They leave him in search of help, only to be unable to locate him when they return with the police. It turns out that the man they saw unconscious has disappeared and is part of the ministry. This leads Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) and sergeant Rogers (Norman Fossington) to defy orders to let MI5 handle the case and further investigates as they realize that numerous missing were last seen at the same underground station. What unfolds is a curious gritty british mystery with a nice helping of canibalism.

The first clue that Raw Meat is not the average low budget, shocker, was the first revealing decent into the tunnels. Filmed in a long takes, the camera moves away from the platforms and into a lair lined with the bodies of the missing, in various states of decay, but the camera doesn't stop with that grisley sight and continues to a man and woman embracing. They are both obviously quite sick and he is attemping to feed and care for her. And all of this is shown with steady, long tracking shots.  Additionally, I didn't expect empathy for canibals either. As the woman dies, he wails in anquish and arranges her body among dozens of others, revealing that there have been generations of underground dwellers that have likely been sickened with septicemic plague.

By the end, they reveal that the canibals were the progeny of workers that were trapped underground as the result of an industrial accident and while the details may not make much sense if one dwells on it too long, the film over all was engaging and thought provoking.

Tally: 11 total, 9 FTV

OHMC: Of Gods and Monsters

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Dir. James Whale

I saw the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters in 1998, so why did it take me more than a decade to see The Brike of Frankenstein? And why was I taken by surprise by the tone, striking visuals, and humor?

The film starts with a conversatons between Lord Byron, Percy Shelly and Mary Shelly concerning her frightful morality tale about the monster and says that the story doesn't end with the fire at the mill. Not only has the monster (Boris Karloff) surived the fire, but the man who created him, Dr. Frankenstein also survives and is being nursed back to health by his betrothed so they may be married. But one night, the doctor is visited by his mentor, Dr. Petrorius and with a toast "to a new world of gods and monsters" Dr. Petrorius convinces Dr. Frankenstein that they must create a mate for the monster and thus, the plan to create the Bride is born.

Unlike in Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein paints a very different picture of the monster, one considerably less frightening. Here it is the monster that is frightened and misunderstood. His attempts to approach others are met with fear and attempts to capture and kill him and thus, the monster is humanized. His friendship with the blind violinist is touching in that due to his inability to see the monster, the blind man befriends him and we get a glimpse of his loneliness, but it is also quite funny. The Mel Brooks spoof, Young Frankenstein, doesn't need to add much to this sequence to highlight the absurdity, although the monster's gained humanity is lost.

Although, one cannot see The Bride of Frankenstein without bieng forever left with the image of the monster puffing on a cigar, what gives me the most delight is the compassion the film has for outsiders. The monster is an ultimate outsider and in this story, he is aware of the futility of his desire to find companionship and understanding. And thus, the film makes the monster a tragic figure. And while outsider stories are enduring, it is difficult not to see gay subtext all over this film and I'm not the only one. Apparently, while those close to James Whale insist that any homosexual elements seen in his films were unintentional, it is a widely held reading of the film that the monster's relationship with the blind violinist as an example of same-sex domestic life, complete with the larger societies' disapproval evidenced by the monster being driven out with guns and torches. And the monster's yearning for a friend that is exactly like him can also be seen as a nod toward same-sex desire. And that is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to queer readings potentially contained in this film.

Considering the trajectory of James Whale's life and carreer, it is hard to dismiss these readings. James Whale was openly homosexual throughout his career. However, while he didn't exaclty publicise his sexual preference or relationship with David Lewis, it is also believed that his relatively short filmmaking career was a direct result of Hollywood blacklisting due to him becoming increasingly outspoken about his relationships.

Tally: 10 total, 8 FTV

Saturday, October 13, 2012

OHMC: The Bunker and Prince of Darkness

The Bunker (2001) Dir. Rob Green

Another disappointing challenge entry and this one looked promising and came with a strong recommendation, too.

Actually, The Bunker starts strong, with seven German soldiers holed up in a bunker in an attempt to survive an attack from American troops while protecting their position at the Belgian-German border. They are running low on ammunition and sleep. Some of the men want to explore the tunnels in search of supplies or an alternate escape, but there are stories about the underground tunnels "and stories don't last for hundreds of years without reason". Some of the men ignore the Sergeant's orders to stay out of the tunnels, claiming those are just ghost stories, but once in the dark isolation of the tunnels, the men start to see and hear things and their actions become driven by fear and madness. This created a very intense atmosphere for a horror tale, but unfortunately it wasn't a memorable or compelling one.

I really struggled to remain engaged with this film. Sometimes I can attribute this to watching a movie in the daylight hours of my living room. It is very easy to be distracted and I much prefer to watch films, especially those in the horror genre, in the dark. But I suspect that this movie just did not have enough plot to hold my interest. Also, while I liked the premise and the general atmosphere, the movie was not very suspenseful. It was very dark, so dark that sometimes it was a challenge to keep track of the characters. [SPOILER]So when it is finally revealed that the soldiers were ordered to gun down a squadron of German deserters, the reveal feels very forced and anti-climatic. In many ways, The Bunker has much in common with Session 9, but Brad Anderson's film took the time to develop the characters allowing one to become invested in their experiences that led to a mildly disappointing reveal, but at least I enjoyed the movie that led up the ending. Sadly, I cannot say the same for The Bunker.
Prince of Darkness (1987) Dir. John Carpenter

I was excited to find a John Carpenter movie on Netflix that I hadn't seen before, Prince of Darkness; the second film in Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy (The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness are the others). Having just seen The Thing again on Sunday, it seemed logical to continue with this next installment in the trilogy.

Turns out that I'd seen Prince of Darkness. I remember renting it, probably from Tower Records, when I was around 15. And I've never forgotten it, although I had no memory of the name of the movie or any plot elements, which after seeing it again after so many years, it is not surprising. What I did remember was the swirling vat of green liquid that dripped upwards and the ominous presence of the homeless people gathering outside. This makes sense as it is the imagery early on, the threat imposed by the possessed street people outside and the gravity defying glowing green pool that remain the most creepy elements.

And luckily, it still is a fascinating film. Not a particularly good one, but intriguing. Assuming I remember correctly, it seems that the last of a secretive Catholic sect, the brotherhood of sleep, has died and Father Loomis is left with a mysterious room, containing a cylinder of swirling green liquid and some ancient texts. So Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) asks physicist Prof. Birack (Victor Wong) to help understand these mysteries. And I wish I could give a better synopsis of exactly what either the priest or the scientists were hoping to accomplish by hanging around a creepy church basement, but the handwavy explanations about anti-matter being the physical source of evil left me a bit mystified. Prince of Darkness is absolutely not a Duncan Jones movie with well researched and communicated scientific elements that are logical.  This is my biggest problem with Prince of Darkness;  the ideas behind the concept for the film seemed beyond the grasp of the writers and thus, despite that numerous philosophical speeches from Father Loomis and Prof. Birak, the film becomes a rather conventional horror movie, where the scientists are one by one possessed by evil via satan's green-tinged golden showers.

Tally: 9, 7 FTV

Friday, October 12, 2012

OHMC: The Thing & Crawlspace

The Thing (1982) Dir. John Carpenter

It is always awesome to watch a modern horror classic with an audience on film. This time last year, I had the opportunity to see Alien and my favorite of the alien franchise, Aliens. This year, my most anticipated screening at All Monsters Attack was John Carpenter's The Thing. The screening I attended was introduced by John Carpenter expert and author Robert C. Cumbow who reminded the audience that the Thing was a remake of the Howard Hawks co-directed 1951 film, the Thing from Another World. I have not yet seen the 1951 film, but Cumbow shared some fascinating observations. He states that in the Hawks film, as was common of a lot of films in the 1950s, the team had to work together to survive and defeat the monster. But Carpenter's film is a more modern take on the monster movie. Since the Thing can imitate any life form, it causes the Antarctic team to distrust one another as anyone could be the Thing at anytime. Thus it is a more isolating film and is attuned to our modern fears. This might be the reason that John Carpenter's, despite being made 30 years ago, remains relevant and scary.

Or as MacReady (Kirt Russell) put it, "Trust's a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what - Why don't you just trust in the Lord? "

The other bit of trivia learned that night, The Thing was not a commercial or critical success at the time of release. Looking back at reviews from the time, I am shocked at how much critics disliked the movie. Seemed the consensus was that the movie is all about the shock and gore. Maybe it seemed like that at the time and I've just seen too many graphic Japanese and Korean horror films, but I don't see it as an explicit gore fest. But then, I also hadn't realized that it was released just 2 weeks after E.T. so the hatred expressed for John Carpenter's movie might have been a reaction from an audience that just fallen in love with an extraterrestrial, and thus didn't immediately see all aliens as a threat. While I was only 9 in 1982, I did see E.T. in theaters and LOVED it. I can see how that movie would have generated a cultural climate that just wasn't prepared for such a dark and truly terrifying outcome of first contact.

But despite it's failure back in 1982, the film has been reappraised and now stands among Carpenter's most loved films. And it is still a great, scary movie.
Crawlspace (1986) Dir. David Schmoeller

Crawlspace is a rather stereotypical 1980s slasher flick,well  if any movie with Klaus Kinski were typical. Dr. Karl Gunther (Kinski) is a landlord who selectively rents to pretty, young women. In the building is crawlspace access to all of the units, so that he can watch and release rodents into the apartments of unsuspecting renters. But Dr. Gunther has developed a taste for murder and has a tendency to prevent the development of any long term relationships. In fact, when welcoming a new tenant, the other women in the building complain about their inability to keep guys around. But one day, a man arrives with a lot of tough questions for Dr. Gunther about his brother suspicious death while in Dr. Gunther's care. So in order to keep his secrets safe, the doctor starts to pick off his tenants in instantaneous and rather implausible ways.

What keeps Crawlspace entertaining is the crazy nazi that Klaus Kinsky is portraying. Dr. Karl Gunther's father was an unethical Nazi surgeon and the son has followed in his father's footsteps. He keeps a diary where he talks about murderous needs and lack regret or remorse. Although he does regularly play Russian roulette, loading the gun with a single, blood painted bullet (that literally has his name on it) and after surviving another round, utters "So be it". There is a mute woman that he keeps in a cage and a collection of parts in a jars, the souvenirs of his kills. So the characterization of Dr. Gunther could have been used in a film that with some actual suspense, but this one often looks and feels like an 80s sitcom.

Tally: 7, 5 FTV

Sunday, October 07, 2012

OHMC: The Screen at Kamchanod & Possession

The Screen at Kamchanod (2007, Thailand)

 I finally took a gamble on a movie found on netflix. A few years back, Scarecrow video started categorizing their horror selection based on country and while it wasn't unexpected to find a Japanese horror section, the Hong Kong and Thailand horror sections peaked my curiosity. I never did get around to seriously delving into the films that were placed in those sections, but I have found several Thai directors that have become favorites and I started to wonder whether the things I enjoy about Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's might be general feature of Thai cinema. So when I read that the Screen at Kamchanod was more atmospheric than downright scary, I took this as an attribute. Sadly, atmosphere was all the Screen had going for it.

Dr. Yuth (Achita Pramoj Na Ayudhya) hears about a mysterious event that happened at a film screening at a temple at Kamchanod. As the projectionist ran the film, no one was gathered to watch, but as it played, people mysteriously appeared and lined up in front of the screen. When the film ended, they mysteriously disappeared. Dr. Yuth believes that if they can find the film that was screened that day and duplicate the event, he will be able to understand what happened that day and perhaps prove that people can cross over to another dimension. But as he pieces together the details, he and those aiding him, begin to believe that they are haunted.

While the premise sounds promising, it just doesn't work. There is no attention to character development or even establishing any relationship between the characters. Towards the end, it seems that Dr. Yuth beats he girlfriend, but earlier it was suggested that her bruises were due to the haunting that began when they screened the mysterious film. And while there was quite a lot of tension and mystery, the film never finds a satisfying conclusion. The problem with the film isn't so much that the incidents surrounding the screening at Kamchanod are never explained, but that the people caught up in the mystery are never fully realized.

Possession (1981)

October 5 - 31 is the Curse of All Monsters Attack at the Grand Illusion Cinema. Every October, the Grand Illusion programs a full month of monster movies or other devilish treats for Halloween and the program began on Friday with the return of Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. I had seen the film a few months back for the first time, but had hoped that watching it a second time might allow me to see it with a bit more clarity. Sadly, it did not. I was ever bit as insane and perplexing a viewing experience the second time.  

Possession is a complete assault on the senses. Mark (Sam Neill) has returned from abroad to find that Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wants to dissolve their marriage. In their first interaction in the film as she moves strangely and erratically and communicates mostly in screams. And the intensity of these interactions only escalate as every other encounter with Mark leaves one or both of them bleeding. At first, Mark wants answers and discovers that she has been having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), but still cannot determine what has happened to change things so dramatically and why she has abandoned him and her son. In some ways, Possession can be viewed as a film depicting the end of a relationship as if the couple have been literally possessed.

 Possession is an intriguing film that is a collision of genres and conventions making me uncertain whether to approach this film as a supernatural thriller, a horror film in the of Polanski's Repulsion, a political satire, or art film. I cannot deny that there is a strong misogynistic sentiments expressed, but Possession is so removed from any semblance of reality that it is difficult to analyze from a feminist perspective. This film reads more like live performance theater than film with the unusual clash of inexplicable accents used by the cast and the unreal movements of the actors and the constantly spiraling camera work. Possession is a dizzying and intriguing experience that doesn't permit any depth of understanding.

Tally: 5, 4 FTV

Saturday, October 06, 2012

October Horror Movie Challenge: Häxan

Finished off my silent horror movie private film festival with the 1922, Swedish documentary, Häxan. I see this film in the Scarecrow Video, special October movie section every year and every year, I decide not to rent it simply because it is a documentary. I'm happy to report that I didn't let that stop me this year.

I watched the Criterion release, which is quite a bit longer than other versions (104 min) and includes portions that were censored for the theatrical release. It begins by detailing the beliefs of the universe in the Middle Ages and then spends a lot of time showing artistic renditions of hell. I couldn't help, but to smirk to myself at the number of times the text pointed out nude figures in wood cuts. This was the first clue that in 1922, watching Häxan must have been a bit like going to the ballet in the 1600s or documentaries on indigenous peoples when I was growing up. Yes, this must have been an example of how it is more socially acceptable to watch a scandalous, titillating, and sacrilegious film if it is disguised as a documentary.

After the artist renderings of the misery and suffering of the unfortunate that spend eternity in the depths of hell, the film progressed to discussing witchcraft in the middle ages. Instead of art work, there are dramatizations of the activities of witches. There are women putting toads and snakes into cauldrons and selling a love potion that is used in an amusing dramatization to seduce a monk.

Then Häxan focuses on the inquisition and the European witch hunts and the film examines the methods used by the inquisition by examining one dying man's house hold. Once a religious authority pronounces that a curse is behind the man's suffering, a woman in the house accuses an ugly beggar, Maria the weaver,  of witchcraft. She is captured and tortured until she confesses to being a witch, but in the process identifies other witches in the community including the remaining women in the dying man's home. And thus, Häxan was more aware than expected of the social forces at work during the middle ages as in one of the later chapters, it knowingly points out how many of those identified as witches were poor or suffered medical or psychological illnesses and that the use of torture prompted most "witches" to confess to fanciful tales of sorcery and sacrilege and to falsely accuse numerous other "witches". As a result, as the inquisition's prosecutors traveled from town to town, they never found any lack of witches to burn.

It was the final film chapter that finally caused me some hysertia, when the narrative proceeds to describe just how modern and liberal they are today (the 1920s) in comparison to those barbarians of the middle ages that tortured and burned thousands of innocent women. Häxan dramatically shows a woman suffering from symptoms that would have been due to the influence of the devil in earlier times, but in the 1920s was found to be due to hysteria. The doctor then discusses her condition with her mother, suggesting she be housed in a clinic. Sigh, oh yes, the wonders during this new time of compassionate treatment of women.

I quite enjoyed Häxan. It was fascinating piece of 1920s film making that captures a perspective that we can look back at as somewhat quaint today. Although, in other ways, the images and descriptions of torture and sacrilege are still shocking and horrific. And some of it is just downright amusing.

Friday, October 05, 2012

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Golem (1920)

Continuing with the quest to watch more early horror, I selected the 1920 German silent film, The Golem. Paul Wegener's film recounts a legend from Jewish mysticism where a creature is formed from earth and brought to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from a frightening prophesy.

The film begins with Rabbi Loew with a sequence depicting the stars as round lights hovering above the sharp angles of mountains as he reads the prophesy. With the look of the opening, I wrongly assumed that The Golem was animated, until the Rabbi returns to his home and build the Golem. These scenes while still very high contrast, they were more obviously created with a motion picture camera.  The film was also tinted in reds, greens, and blues.

The plot is somewhat generic and despite not knowing much about Jewish folklore, the tale of the golem was a familiar one. Shortly after the Rabbi warns of the danger seen in the constellations, the Emperor orders the Jews to leave their Praque ghetto and Rabbi Loew, with the help of Rabbi Famlus, summon a demon to give life to the Golem. When the Emperor calls for the audience of Rabbi Loew, he brings his new servant, the hulking Golem. When he shows the Emperor and his court his vision of the exodus of the Jews, they begin to laugh and their laughter causes the building to collapse, but the Golem holds the ceiling up, saving them. So the Emperor rescinds the evacuation order and the Jews celebrate.

However, there is a second prophesy that the Golem will destroy his creator. And while the village celebrates, the Golem is awakened and begins to destroy the village. This final act of the story is very reminiscent of Frankenstein and the Golem displays a similar development of awareness. The Golem may be huge and lumbering and made of clay, but when he comes upon a group of girls playing, he picks up a curious girl and holds her. The girl removes his amulet and the Golem returns to an inanimate form, dropping to the ground, and the Jewish ghetto is again safe. This film looked amazing, being an early example of German expressionism, but the story did unfold a bit slow for this, modern audience member. Probably because so many monster movies follow the same plot, it was difficult to remain engaged. But still contained some stunning cinematography, so it is noteworthy that cinematographer, Karl Freund, later worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Unknown

With the whole problem of not having a job, I have time to participate in the October Horror Movie Challenge this year. I've never actually completed the challenge, but came damn close the year I was stuck in bed with a broken ankle. I was only 2 movies shy of watching a horror movie a day for the month of October. Seemed like this would be a good year to try again. Even if I were to only see the movies playing at the Grand Illusion during October, that is still 21 movies, most of which I haven't seen before.

The biggest challenge for me is that I want to blog about the movies I watch. This has become difficult. I've lost confidence when it comes to writing about film since I no longer trust that my brain is in working order. And I worry that with the cognitive issues I've been having, that I'm not making sense. Must remember to proof read. 

I started off strong with The Unknown, the 1927 film from Tod Browning. In preparing for All Monsters Attack, I'm considering viewing the original Phantom of the Opera with Lon Cheney and as a result found myself browsing the "silent horror" section at Scarecrow Video. It is fascinating that while I seem to innately understand the conventions of silent film, I've actually seen very few, so I decided to include some in the challenge.

In the Unknown, Lon Cheney is Alonzo, the Armless. He is traveling with a sideshow, where he falls in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford) who is not only part of his knife throwing act, but also the daughter of the ringmaster. Not only does Alonzo pine for Nanon, so too does the circus strong man, Malabar. However, Alonzo has been Nanon's friend and confident and only he knows the reason that she trembles with fear when Malabar attempts to touch her. She fears the hands of men.

But this isn't the only secret. The armless Alonzo is a thief on the run with an unusual deformity that would give away his identity, so he hides it by strapping his arms to his sides. But one night, the ringmaster learns of Alonzo's secret and in a rage,
Alonzo strangles him. What follows is a cascade of tragedy driven by Alonzo's desire to possess the beautiful Nanon while keeping his true identity secret.

The Unknown was great. With a plot that was so focused on hands, arms, and murder I was reminded of a very different film, Santa Sangre, and wondered if this was the inspiration. What I found fascinating was that Lon Cheney's acting style was not as big and over the top as I was expecting. Maybe this was due to the inability to use his hands to portray Alonzo, but in the past, I've noted an acting style more akin to mime, than what I saw here. But I did note other elements that I had associated with silent films of the era. The love triangle and eventual tragedy that befalls Alonzo was very melodramatic. Yes, I liked this one quite a lot. Hopefully, this will be a trend.