Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 21

M (1931) 
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

After watching “Mad Love” the other day, I felt the need to revisit Peter Lorre’s star-making turn in “M.” Released in 1931 – the same year as “Dracula,” “Frankenstien,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – the film is generally considered the first ever to portray a serial killer. Though more properly described as a crime story, this marks it as hugely important to the horror genre. Director Fritz Lang, already a critically acclaimed filmmaker by ’31, referred to it as his favorite of his own films, pointing to the social criticism in the script. Like the dark streets of Lang’s expressionistic direction, “M” cast a long shadow over the entirety of cinema.

The city of Berlin is gripped with fear. Someone is abducting and murdering children, little girls. Eight have already been claimed. Fear over the killer drives the city into a hysteria. The police increase their patrols, which hampers the business of Berlin’s criminal underground. Incensed, the crooks launch their own man-hunt for the murderer. Eventually, he is found. His name is Hans Beckert and he is a paranoid, sick, pathetic man. Beckert is soon on the run from the cops, the criminals, and his own haunted memory.

“M” was Lang’s first sound film. Like many early talkies, “M” has long, silent stretches. A sequence devoted to the criminals filling their bar is one such example. Despite this, Lang often makes novel use of sound. The opening scene is still haunting. We follow the little girl as she plays with her friends, leaving school. We see Beckert’s shadow as he approaches her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Lang cuts between Beckert’s calm abduction of the child with her mother worrying at home. The scene ends with silence, the girl’s balloon floating away, caught in phone lines. Lang creates other striking, stark moments throughout the film. The director often assumes a roaming, voyeuristic point of view, watching the killer and others from afar. This creates a constant sense of unease, of watching and being watched. The black and white photography is gorgeous, rooted in the reality of 1930s Berlin yet also visually inventive, recalling Lang’s work on “Metropolis.”

“M” also shows how hysteria can grip an otherwise calm populace. As the man-hunt for the child killer grows more intense, the populace becomes more willing to pin the crime on anyone. A friendly game of cards comes to a sudden end when one man accuses the other of being the killer. A mob quickly descends on a gentleman innocently talking to a child on the street, shouting and attacking him. All the while, Hans Beckert continues his habit, unobserved by anyone.  The police’s investigation, which Lang portrays austerely as a grounded procedural, seems to only embolden the public’s frenzy more. The film keenly portrays how a crime can overtake a city, innocent people driven to violence by fear and paranoia.

The central plot of “M,” of criminals hunting another criminal, presents a further oppretunity for social criticism. The thieves, safe crackers, and other petty crooks say they’re disgusted by the murders. A notable scene has a shopkeeper explaining to a police officer how even the hardest criminal loves children. Yet the vile murders aren’t what force the criminal underground towards action. Instead, it’s their illegal enterprises being interrupted by the cops that upset them. In its final act, “M” presents a parody of the justice system. The thieves and murderers apprehend Beckert and stand him before a jury of other crooks. (Amusingly, it’s pointed out how these repeat offenders might as well be experts in the law.) The convicted is eager to point out the hypocrisy of being judged by other breakers of the law. “M” sharply condemns the self-righteous, those who believes themselves better then anyone.

In truth, “M” ultimately presents a message of mercy. Not only is Hans Beckert the first cinematic serial killer, he’s also the first sympathetic cinematic killer. Beckert can be calculating, such as when he sends a taunting letter to the press or when he easily convinces a child to trust him. Yet Lorre’s performance is mostly characterized by pulsing, deeply human insecurity. Beckert is always looking over his shoulder, sweating, eyes bulging, mad with paranoia. The way he’s doggedly pursue in the last half can’t help but court audience’s sympathies. The film’s powerful climax has Beckert pleading with the kangaroo court. In a shrieked, wild monologue, Hans screams about his uncontrollable urge to kill. How he hates his desires but is caught in an inescapable loop, murdering and then regretting his actions but killing again to escape the stress. Beckert is despicable but he’s also ill. “M’s” final, chilling scene makes it clear that, no matter what happens to the killer, nothing can bring the dead children back.

The police procedural scenes can be a bit dry. When the audience is most concerned with what’s happening to Beckert, Lang cuts away to long shots of the cop interrogating a witness. Critics in 1931 had a similar criticism, saying the film was a little long. The available version, for years, was cut by about ten minutes, likely clipping these scenes. For its flaws, “M” is still a staggering masterpiece, a powerful and insightful film that resonates even today. Lorre’s incredible performance, Lang’s atmospheric direction, and a sharp screenplay creates a film that has often been imitated but rarely been matched. [9/10]

Hunter’s Blood (1986)

Have I mentioned what a timid kid I was recently? Here’s another example. As a kid, my local Blockbuster kept the horror section right by the new releases. Often, I would take brief glances at the VHS boxes, hoping to catch sight of something that scared me. This is how much of a wimp I was: One look at the “Hunter’s Blood” artwork was enough for me to turn away. It’s not even an especially scary cover, is it? A bleeding body, sprawled on what I thought at the time was snow? (Turns out its water.) But something about it freaked me out. Naturally, when I saw that same cover art at the VHSPS booth at Monster-Mania, I had to pick it up. See what all the internal hubbub was about.

Plot wise, “Hunter’s Blood” owes an obvious debt to “Deliverance.” Five city boys drive off to the Arkansas country side for a weekend hunting trip. The group is composed of David, his father Rand, his uncle Al, Al’s son Ralph, and mutual friend Marty. Once there, some park rangers warn them that people have disappeared in these woods. Soon, the five stumble upon a poaching operation, selling illegally killed deer to a big burger company. They bust the deprived rednecks responsible but the poachers don’t stay captured for long. As the night goes on, the Yankees have to fight for their lives against the dangerous southerners.

“Hunter’s Blood’s” earliest scenes of manly bonding are deeply silly. There’s some torturous long character establishing scene, devoted to the guys driving around and talking. The city boys do everything possible to piss off the locals. Marty snaps pictures of a redneck as if he’s an animal in the zoo. They pick fights with a gang in a seedy bar. This leads to an utterly ridiculous pick-up truck chase. There’s even some banjo music on the soundtrack! Sillier still is the sequence devoted to the men passing a joint around the campfire, which concludes with a high-pitch helium voice. The protagonists aren’t much to write about though the cast is decent. Sam Bottoms is a standard hero type but Clu Gulager and Ken Swofford are entertaining as the older gentlemen.

Once the redneck crazies wander on-screen, “Hunter’s Blood” perks up considerably. They disturb the campfire, literally pissing on the men. They glower and spit, acting like Southern fried menaces. The film lines up a number of memorable character actors to play the degenerates. Lee de Broux, best known for bit parts in “RoboCop” and “Pumpkinhead,” plays the gang’s leader, relying on silent intimidation. Billy Drago appears as a character named Snake – of course he does – and brings a great deal of crazy-eyed glee to the part. Mickey Jones, who I recognizes from “Home Improvement,” is an especially gross redneck weirdo. Even Charles Cyphers and Billy Bob Thorton show up! Yet none of the villains make an impression like Bruce Glover. Playing One-Eye, so named because of his cataract covered left eye, Glover goes nuts. He screams, slobbers, glares, and acts totally demented, inhabiting the part of a deprived hillbilly psycho. It’s good to know Bruce’s kid got his knack for playing crazy from his dad.

“Hunter’s Blood” gets increasingly sleazy as it rolls along. What starts as a lightly comedic backwoods adventure evolves towards brain-dead action. After stumbling upon the poaching operation, one of the guys gets into a mud fight with Drago. Following this, the film takes a hard turn into bloody horror. The rednecks slit one park ranger lengthwise, leaving his body hanging from a tree. They decapitate the other, impaling his head on a stick. A shotgun blast practically decapitates one minor character. Someone is stabbed with deer antlers. Before the end, “Hunter’s Blood” even shovels in some greasy sleaze. In addition to the poaching and moonshining, we discover the backwoods criminal are also running a sex slavery ring. The hero’s girlfriend, reappearing randomly midway through the film, is nearly kidnapped by the slavers and threatened with rape. It’s a surprisingly grisly change but also makes “Hunter’s Blood” way more entertaining as it goes along.

I ended up having a good time with “Hunter’s Blood,” even if the film does little to break out of the clichés of the savage south subgenre. Aside from the general premise, the film has other aspects in common with “Deliverance.” A character is injured early on, dragged around by the others for the reminder of the story. Luckily, no one squeals like a pig. Mostly, catch this one for a few surprising moments of gore, an appealing greasy Southern setting, and a completely demented Bruce Glover performance. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Yeti

“Lost Tapes” was usually dumb but occasionally touched upon a clever idea. Any cryptozoology series will have to cover the Yeti eventually. Filming an entire episode on a snowy hill top was outside the low budget show’s limited means. So this is the work-around they cooked up. A billionaire explorer goes missing while climbing the Himalayan Mountains. However, his major discovery is found and shipped towards America aboard a cargo ship. A pair of journalists bribe a disgruntled dock worker and sneak aboard the ship before the next day’s press conference. They record their big scoop. What they find is a busted crate that obviously contained a living specimen. That live specimen – an exceedingly pissed off yeti – finds them next.

“Killer yeti on an empty cargo ship” is a premise with an undeniable pulpy appeal. “Yeti” makes good use of the claustrophobic setting. The dark interior of the ship, usually lit in bright red, helps build a tense environment. The characters being pursued through the tight corridors and winding tunnel by a huge, angry monster creates some thrills. That the Yeti is so ferocious makes him an even more viable threat. He tears a dude’s arm off, for one example. For once, the running and screaming filled finale pulls the viewer in. Making the protagonists journalists willing to break the law changes the context of the usual downbeat ending. For once, the characters arguably deserve to be torn apart by a monster. The documentary segments are devoted to rehashing the yeti mythology but at least the interviews stay on topic. [7/10]

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society – essentially an elaborate role-playing group – had a neat idea. They were going to adapt Lovecraft’s most popular and influential story to the screen. Yet the group didn’t intend to make a standard adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Instead, they imagined what an active filmmaker in 1926, the year Lovecraft wrote the story, might have done with the tale. Thus, 2005’s “The Call of Cthulhu” is presented as a silent two-reeler, the complete picture running fifteen minutes shy of an hour. While the effect is not entirely seamless, director Andrew Leman does an excellent job of capturing the tone and spirit of a silent film while paying due respects to Lovecraft’s work.

Being made by the faithful admirers at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the film is deeply fidelitous to the story. It maintains Lovecraft’s somewhat clumsy, flashback heavy plot structure. A narrator tells his story of uncovering his granduncle’s mad tales to a friend. A statue of a bizarre, octopus-headed creature reappears multiple times. This recollection spirals back to several different characters: An artist driven insane by a nightmares of a bizarre city, floating at sea. A police detective uncovering a strange cult in the New Orleans bayou, seemingly worshiping the same deity. Finally, a Norwegian sailor shares his terrifying encounter with the same city and the god-like entity that dwells there. Lovecraft’s text relies on the power of suggestion. Somehow, by turning H.P.’s long descriptions of eldritch things into black and white images, the filmmakers have maintained that same creeping sense of dread.

Andrew Leman and his team, for the most part, successfully replicate the look and feel of a silent film. Occasionally, the seams show. The short’s use of CGI is noticeable from time to time, especially in the shots of the shifting sleeping city or the swamp bound cultists. Yet the director nailed the black-and-white atmosphere. The scenes of a police carriage driving through the night streets or a countryman leading the detective to the cult’s bayou lair feature an impressive, foggy atmosphere. There are some inventive camera angles, involving people stepping through dark doorways or clerks stamping papers. Smartly, the filmmakers rely on “Dr. Caligari”-style expressionistic sets to portray the risen city of R’lyeh. This furthers the nightmare tone while adequately capturing Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean architecture.

While it’s hard to call something as intentionally stodgy as “Call of Cthulhu” scary, the short does feature some nicely spooky moments. The cult’s activity in the swamps rises to a frenzied, unnerving pace. Later, one of the cult member’s insane rantings to a police officer builds in intensity. The short regards the titular Elder God’s appearance correctly. Cthulhu is portrayed through some nifty – though probably too advanced for 1926 – stop motion animation. He remains mostly in the shadows, maintaining his mystery and sense of mind-shattering danger. “The Call of Cthulhu” is probably best enjoyed by hardcore Lovecraft fans but is still very well made, considering its more-or-less a fancy fan film. The HPLHS would try something similar several years later. Their feature adaption of “The Whisperer in Darkness” done in the style of a 1930s monster movie, wouldn’t be as successful. [8/10]

Friday, October 21, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 20

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

I reviewed “Cloverfield” two Halloweens back when I was marathoning kaiju films. At the end of that review, I noted how the long discussed sequel was probably never going to be made. Little did I know, likely around that same time, a follow-up to “Cloverfield” was in development. Befitting the mystery box approach producer J. J. Abrams loves so much, “10 Cloverfield Lane” was filmed under a different title, before an oblique trailer announced the truth. Of course, “10 Cloverfield Lane” isn’t a direct sequel to the found footage flick. It’s said to be set in the same universe, to share DNA with the original. In truth, Abrams and co were using the time tested tactic of tagging a known property to an untested project. Ultimately, this matters little as “10 Cloverfield Lane” is an effective thriller in its own right.

Following an argument with her boyfriend, Michelle leaves town suddenly. Driving down a dark back road, she’s struck by another vehicle. She awakens in a fall-out shelter owned by a man named Howard. He assures her that the kidnapping was for her own safety. He claims some sort of chemical attack, either foreign or alien in nature, has happened above. That the world has effectively ended and they are now survivors in the apocalypse. At first, Michelle doubts his outrageous claims. Soon, she discovers that he’s more right then she assumed. Howard, however, proves to be more dangerous then whatever is outside.

I only recently became familiar with the term “cozy apocalypse.” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” however, seems like a deliberate deconstruction. Michelle seeks to escape at first, fighting Howard, deliberately undermining his rules. After a major escape attempt, she realizes some bad shit has gone down overhead. What results is a surprisingly comfortable existence. Howard’s bunker is well stocked with movies, snack food, and books. (They watch “Pretty in Pink” and what appears to be an Italian cannibal movie.) He even has a jukebox! The trio – which include a likable good ol’ boy named Emmet – play board games and put together jigsaw puzzles. It looks comfortable, if not fun. However, “10 Cloverfield Lane” soon comes around to the point that it would not be nice living with a serious survivalist. Howard’s dangerous nature, which includes a vanished daughter, is slowly revealed. The viewer and the characters go through the same process, questioning if they can trust this man, before the film reveals how unsafe Howard is.

Mostly, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is built around two wonderful performances. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, now and forever Ramona Flowers, shows a real steel as Michelle. Her attempts to escape Howard reveals an on-her-foot ingenuity that continues to define the character. Yet Winstead also gets some vulnerable moments, showing a nice range. Michelle has a standard but deeply satisfying character arc. Goodman, meanwhile, is even better. Intentionally playing against his sitcom dad image, Howard can be deeply avuncular at times. When push comes to shove, he reveals how unstable he is. He’s a control freak who has some serious hang-ups about women, seeing them all as innocent little girls that need protecting. Any attempt to violate that conception makes him angry. There is a sympathetic side to this too, as Howard is also a deeply sad person. (John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett is funny but has a lot less to work with.)

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is probably not the best choice for October, as it belongs more to the sci-fi or thriller genre then horror. There is still quite a bit of intensity to be had. There’s a bracing encounter with the outside world, a sick woman knocking on the bunker door. A game of Pictonary builds in tension, the captives fearful Howard has discovered their secret. When he discovers what they’re up to, his next action is genuinely shocking. The showdown that follows gets surprisingly violent, the viewer truly wondering if our heroine can escape safely. The last act produces a big twist that would’ve been more surprising if the TV ads and posters didn’t spoil it. There’s way more special effects, explosions, and sci-fi elements then you might be expecting. The ending takes this small story in a big direction, without fumbling. It’s pretty cool that “10 Cloverfield Lane” keeps finding ways to catch the audience off-guard.

Strong performances and a clever script makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” worth checking out. Director Dan Trachtenberg, whose most prominent former credit is a “Portal” fan film, keeps the intensity high throughout. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed when I learned that the Cloverfield Monster doesn’t appear in any form, that this “blood relative’s” connection to the original film is truly minor. Even without a giant monster, the film functions extremely well, keeping the viewers on their toes, entertaining and thrilling. Now there’s talks of a third film. While Michelle’s further adventures could be neat, I think I’d rather see “Cloverfield” become an anthology series, each film telling a different sci-fi/horror story. [7/10]

Terror Train (1980)

Over the years, through the various Halloween Blog-a-thons and Director Report Cards, I’ve reviewed most of the horror films Jamie Lee Curtis starred in during the late seventies and early eighties. This year, I intend on getting to the few remaining ones. Like “Terror Train,” for example. Shot in Canada, like “Prom Night,” the film was dismissed for years as another forgettable slasher pic. After all, it didn’t spawn any sequels. At some point, galvanized by the internet’s ability to uncover anything, “Terror Train’s” reputation turned around. Now it’s considered a minor classic. So which is it? Which track do we proceed on? Let’s find out.

During a college fraternity New Year’s party, some bad shit goes down. The frat plays a prank on resident loser, Kenny, by tricking him into making out with a corpse. Kenny goes insane, winding up in a mental hospital. Three years later, the same frat is throwing a New Year’s costume party, this time on a train. Before the train pulls out of the station, someone sneaks aboard. He begins killing the fraternity members, stealing their costumes after each murder. Soon, only Alana – a girl who reluctantly participated in the prank – is left standing. Is Kenny responsible or is someone else behind the mask?

“Terror Train” is standard slasher stuff. Many of the genre’s clichés are present. You’ve got the crime in the past, the isolated location, the prankster character, the sex and violence. The black guy nearly dies first. Despite Kenny obviously being the murderer, the film sets up a superfluous red herring. What makes “Terror Train” worth seeking out is its funky, party atmosphere. There’s lots of disco dancing, slightly less then “Prom Night,” all set to groovy white people soul. Director Roger Spottiswoode, years before he made blockbusters like “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shot” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” contributes some colorful direction. There’s lots of neon lighting, greens and blues. This style climaxes during David Copperfield’s magic tricks, which are dramatically lit. The film is set on New Year’s Eve. However, considering everyone is in costume, I purposely ignore a few lines of dialogue and just pretend it’s Halloween.

In truth, the goofy party scenes are way more entertaining then the horror elements. The gore is fairly mild, as far as these things go. The film usually cuts away right before the killing blow. We see a head smashed into a mirror or a knife slice a throat. There’s more blood in the aftermath. Such as a bleeding body left in the bathroom or a decapitated head tumbling out of a bunk. The film attempts to play the suspense straight, so there’s no grand, theatrical death scenes. Instead, there’s long chase scenes. Only the last of which, involving Jamie Lee hiding in a cage, generates any tension. The biggest novelty is the killer’s gimmick. Kenny switches costumes after each murder. He starts out wearing a Groucho Marx get-up, which got the poster art treatment. Throughout the film, he progresses through a bitchin’ lizard man costume, a lame parrot get-up, and a mildly cool monk’s robe and old man mask.

Throughout my years in the slasher fandom, I’ve met a number of people who genuinely enjoy the characters in flicks such as these. I sometimes understand this tendency but, in the case of “Terror Train,” it’s mostly a pretty generic lot. Jamie Lee Curtis is as charismatic as usual, though Alana isn’t as distinctive as Laurie Strode or “Prom Night’s” Kim. Ben Johnson has a nice role as the heroic conductor, silently attempting to control the violence before it gets out of hand. Hart Bochner and Sandee Currie are mildly memorable as Doc and Mitchy, partiers in various states of drunkenness. Lastly, the film features David Copperfield’s only attempt at acting. Reportedly, the character was inserted into the film because the producer’s wife was a fan of the illusionist. Copperfield is pretty much playing himself and his extended sequences of magic bring the pace to a sudden stop.

I wouldn’t call “Terror Train” a classic, minor or otherwise. It’s not very memorable all together, save for one or two scenes. The train setting is slightly unique. I imagine most of its following stems from nostalgia over late night television screenings or VHS rentals at slumber parties. But I guess it’s not bad either. Notably, there have been two attempts to remake the film. The first, entitled simply "Train," eventually severed all connection with the original and became a dour, stand alone torture flick. A proper remake was announced in 2009 but never went before cameras. Which is a bit of a bummer, since “Terror Train’s” stock parts script means a remake could do anything it wanted. All you would need is a killer, a train, and a costume party. That leaves a lot of wiggle room. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Monkey

I don’t know how “Lost Tapes’” producers decided which monsters to showcase, though I suspect how cheaply they could be brought to life was a big motivator. The Devil Monkey of Appalachia seems like an awfully obscure creature to build a show around. The episode follows a trio of ATF officers, searching the forest for moonshine stills. They’re followed by a reporter, filming a story for a local West Virginian station. As they venture into the woods, they discover strange animal marks and blood. After uncovering a still, they find a screaming teenage victim, nearly driven to madness. The ferocious Devil Monkey soon follows.

The Devil Monkey sounds preposterous. And, I mean, it is. However, once you think about it, a giant baboon/chimp would probably be pretty scary. “Devil Monkey” is one of season three’s better moments. Recalling the first season, the creature is kept off-screen most of the episode. We hear him pounding on the shed and see the grisly remains of his victims. The dismembered bodies means this is one of the goriest “Lost Tapes’ episode. The story, of cops investigating local crime, already produces a tense tone. Disappointingly, once the creature appears on-screen, much of that tension is lost. The Devil Monkey is clearly a guy in a suit and not a convincing one. The found footage angle is fairly dumb. Once again, the heroine waits until the very end to drop the camera. However, the down-beat ending is another welcomed return to the series’ earlier episodes. The documentary segments share genuinely unnerving chimp attack facts and features stock footage from “Night of the Living Dead!” The writers, however, missed a chance to connect the Devil Monkey with the Monkey Man of New Dahli. I mean, that’s what I would’ve done. [6/10]

Frankenstein (1910)

Unlike Animal Planet’s “Lost Tapes,” lost films are a slightly more pressing concern. For years, the 1910 silent version of “Frankenstein” was thought lost. Produced at Thomas Edison’s studio, it was the earliest film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Luckily for horror historians, a nitrate copy was uncover in the seventies. Now, thanks to the public domain and the internet, 1910’s “Frankenstein” can be easily found and watched by anyone. It’s a highly condensed version of the story, shoving the whole novel into thirteen minutes. Frankenstein leaves college in the first scene and uncovers the secrets of life and death during an intertitle. The monster is created, dismissed by his father, and returns to threaten the doctor’s wedding night in quick succession. Unlike Shelley’s original, this version has a happy and slightly surreal ending.

Edison’s “Frankenstein” – that’s what people call the film even though J. Searle Dawley directed it – is more interesting for its historical value then its aesthetics. Like most early films, the direction is extremely flat. The short is basically a filmed stage play. The performances are extremely theatrical. Charles Ogle as the creature gesticulates wildly. Augustus Philips’ take on Dr. Frankenstein is similarly overdone. The confrontation between monster and creator is extremely underwhelming. They struggle for a second before the doctor waves a burning beaker at the homunculus, prompting his hasty retreat. There’s at least one long scene without titles, where characters talk about something. Edison’s studio reportedly played down the story’s horrific content, in favor of romance, which only explains some of the above.

Despite these short comings, the first “Frankenstein” does have some neat stuff in it. The most notable sequence is devoted to the monster’s creation. This Frankenstein doesn’t stitch his creature together from dead bodies. Instead, Charles Ogle is assembled inside an odd chamber, the body coming together from loose materials and fire. This is obviously just a model burning in reverse but the effect is memorable. The creature’s design mostly resembles a hairy hunchback. However, he does have the same flat head that Boris Karloff would sport twenty-one years later.  (It’s not as cool looking as the Silent Screamers action figure based on it.) The ending is goofy but unique. Considering its availability, briefness, and historical importance, there’s no reason not to check it out. But Frankenstein movies would come a long way over the years. [6/10]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 19

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Of this past summer’s horror hits, “Don’t Breathe” was the one that most surprised me with its success. I had seen the posters and a few of the ads but wasn’t impressed. Looked like another underachieving studio horror flick, only lacking the PG-13 rating necessary to be a totally disposable bit of mall horror. Then genuinely positive reviews started to roll in and the movie became a sleeper hit. I went from dismissing the film to it being on my radar. Catching it at a kind of seedy, second-run discount theater, I wasn’t too far off with my first impression.

On the economically depressed streets of Detroit, three teenagers – Rocky, her boyfriend Money, and her platonic male best friend Alex – break into homes, selling the stolen goods to a fence. They do this because they have no other options. Word trickles down to the three that a local house contains a large cache of cash, in the six digit range. The home is owned by a blind man, a former war veteran who lost his daughter in a car wreck. They figure it’ll be an easy gig with a big pay-off. They’re wrong, as the blind man is far more dangerous then any of them anticipated.

Director Fede Alvarez’ previous film was the “Evil Dead” remake, which left me cold. That one had some effectively grisly effects but was shockingly vapid, empty in intention and atmosphere. “Don’t Breathe” dials the gore way back but is otherwise similar. The plot takes some admittedly unexpected twist, once the teens discover what’s in the old man’s basement. His intentions with the final girl are twisted, to the point of being tasteless. Yet “Don’t Breathe” seems shockingly unaware of the implications of its own plot. Little time is spent setting up the teens’ desperate situation, of the near poverty they live in. They’re anti-heroes, criminals justified by being up against someone far worst. Yet the script doesn’t bother analyzing the circumstances of why some have to steal to survive. Of course, this is America. An old man murdering teenagers breaking into his home would be hailed as a hero in some corners, a plot inevitably the film barely bothers to address. “Don’t Breathe” rolls serious, real world issues into its story but doesn’t do anything with them.

What “Don’t Breathe” does, instead, is operate as a well oiled jump scare machine. Lots of things leap out of the dark at the protagonists, the build-up earning the film those little spikes of adrenaline. Once the kids are in the house, the movie delights in putting them in increasingly perilous situations. There are several occasions were characters stand still, hoping not to alert the old man. (Seemingly ignoring his ability to smell them.) Except for Rocky’s brutish boyfriend, who makes the worst possible decisions. The blind veteran’s Rottweiler is one of the most tenacious dogs in any horror flick. He chases after Rocky into the crawl space of the house. Later, he pursues the girl as she hides in a car, a sequence that pushes pass the point of absurdity. An effective moment involves a body balancing on a quickly cracking piece of glass. It’s not exactly scary but it functions similarly to a haunted hayride. You’ll get enough boo for your buck.

The cast is uneven. Jane Levy returns from Alvarez’ “Evil Dead.” Levy is a likable, light comedic presence so I wonder why the director continues to cast her in traumatized, indistinct tough girl parts. The script’s attempt to add depth to Rocky – a monologue involving a ladybug – draws way too much attention to herself. When she goes aggro on the old man, in a moment involving a turkey baser, you just feel embarrassed for everyone involved. Dylan Minnette is notably the most reasonable character but Minnette is a bit flat. Which is better then Daniel Zovatto as Money, who is an obnoxious stereotype. Lastly, I really wanted to like Stephen Lang as the blind man. The script presents the character as possibly sympathetic, giving him a tragic backstory. Sadly, Lang’s performance is mostly one-note. He glowers in a preposterous accent, saying his lines in an oddly mannered way. He’s not a very compelling villain, too one-dimensional, and played by a performer making some unusual decisions.

“Don’t Breathe” had a lot of potential. The film had the chance to put the viewer in a morally uncertain place, given the choice of sympathizing with petty criminals or a violent psychopath. Instead, it excuses the teens’ behavior and makes the bad guy a 2D monster. It could’ve commented on life under the poverty line, in the saddest parts of this country. That’s just window dressing to a standard genre story. Alvarez has the ability to create tense set-pieces and build up to good thrills. Yet his scripts are shallow genre exercises, too dour to be dumb fun and only using serious ideas to add artificial depth to their premises. Maybe he’ll finally make a good film next time. [6/10]

The Forest (1982)

Sometimes, you need some goofy, stupid bullshit. Watching “The Forest” takes me back to a very specific period of my life, one I’ve probably talked about ten thousand times in the past. It was post-high school, pre-college. I wasn’t working yet and basically had the whole summer to just mess around and do nothing. So I watched a shit ton of old slasher movies, many of them ripped off dark VHS tapes and posted illegally to the internet. This is how I developed my love of low budget films, of home-made nonsense. Grime-bucket, Z-grade, Bleeding Skull cinema is what I call it. “The Forest” is one such picture, a early eighties slasher flick shot in two weeks for 14,000 dollars. It’s a movie I enjoy more every time I watch it.

The plot of “The Forest,” insomuch that any can be said to exist, is as follows: Two married couples, one on the brink of divorce, make a bet. The men say the women can’t handle the difficulties of camping. To prove them wrong, the two wives journey ahead to the forest without them. Later, the men follow, to catch up. In the dark side of the forest, the four people encounter a murderous, cannibalistic redneck and his two ghost children. Despite multiple warnings, they do not immediately leave. Shenanigans ensue.

My nostalgia for films like “The Forest,” or even my enjoyment of them in general, can be difficult to justify. This is not, by any traditional metric, a good film. The production values are nonexistent. Though the waterfall around which most of the film is set is, admittedly, nice scenery. The acting is awful. The actors playing the ghost children and their mother are amazingly tone death. Gary Kent plays the slashing redneck as a straight-laced guy, speaking in a bored monotone. The two couples both stumble over the frequently circular dialogue. The musical score is terrible, a collection of droning, shrieking synth. The original songs, with titles like “The Dark Side of the Forest” and “On the Road to the Edge of Forever,” are overwrought, to say the least. And yet there’s a warm fuzziness to the shitty video quality. There’s a sense of “kids playing in their backyard” fun to the whole production. It’s clumsy and deeply dumb but these are the reasons I love it.

I’ve heard some call “The Forest” boring. True, it does drag during long stretches. However, the film is also frequently hilarious, completely unintentionally. The appearances of the ghosts are, for no particular reason, proceeded by sounds of bobcat shrieks. The male leads, Steve and Charlie, are very close. They sleep next to each other, often touch one another, and frequently compliment each other on their physiques. Combined with Dean Russell’s bushy porn ‘stache, they can’t help but come off as gay lovers. (Maybe that’s why Charlie’s wife is leaving him.) There are other moments that are strictly ineptly assembled. A fall down a rock results in a broken leg but looks more like a slight stumble. The funniest moment involves the killer’s backstory. He walks in on his wife sleeping with the refrigerator repair man. The fight scene that follows is hysterically, awkwardly assembled. The father attempts to kill the man with more and more unlikely implements.

Honestly, the scenes of overt horror are probably the least effective ones in “The Forest.” The opening stalk and slash scene goes on way too long. The murder scenes are uninspired, as the production had little money for special effects. Instead, “The Forest” is more compelling when it follows its goofball muse. Such as with the ghost kids, who dryly comment on the action and nonchalantly reveal their suicidal nature. The killer’s lair is a cave with a rocking chair and some Dracula candelabras laying around. It looks like something out of an underachieving haunted attraction. The closest the movie comes to genuinely creepy is when the one guy unknowingly eats a piece of his own wife’s flesh. Even then, the effect is undermined by how silly the actor’s reaction is. And also how tasty the roast looks.

Director Don Jones made a few other low budget horror flicks before this one. On the DVD special features, he reveals that he financed this film entirely independently, by putting a second mortgage on his house. The film wasn’t immediately successful and Jones, adding grimly, lost his home. Despite that, “The Forest” has developed a following among fans of the low budget and stupid. It’s a film that makes me laugh and gives me a warm, fuzzy feelings for reasons I can’t entirely articulate. Do you dare to journey to the dark side of the forest as well? [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Imprint

You tell Takashi Miike he can do whatever he wants and you’re going to get some fucked-up shit. The infamous Japanese shock-meister’s “Masters of Horror” episode proved too spicy a meatball for even Showtime. The pay cable network passed on airing “Imprint,” the film not surfacing until its DVD release. Set in 1800s Japan, the story follows American traveler Christopher. During a previous journey to the country, he fell in love with a brothel girl named Komomo. Upon returning to Japan, he finds she has vanished. His search for her comes to a strange brothel located on an isolated island. There, he meets a deformed prostitute who claims to have known Komomo. During the night, she tells an increasingly disturbing story about what happened to the love of the man’s life.

“Imprint” is obsessed with the grotesque. It begins with human deformity, with the prostitute’s warped face and the brothel’s owner, a dwarf with a rotted nostril. A conjoined twin appears as a hand emerging from a head. In time, the prostitute reveals her backstory. She’s the product of incest, she was sexually abused as a child, and her mother was an abortionist. Miike spares no details, repeatedly showing us dead fetuses. The center piece is a grueling torture sequence. Komomo is accused of stealing the madam’s ring. Since her body and face can’t be bruised, the girl’s torture is more sadistic. Her limbs are bound with ropes in painful positions. Her armpits are burned. Needles are driven under her fingernails and gums. It’s frankly unnecessary, considering how disturbing just the sound design is, for Miike to get so graphic. Did we really need to see the bound girl pee herself? Did we really need to see someone reach into a weeping wound and yank their own brains out?

As repulsive as the episode’s content is, Miike’s film is frequently gorgeous. The use of shadow, light, and color is striking. The brothel is a truly otherworldly location. Dream sequences – which include the required Japanese ghost girl with long, black hair – add to the surreal feeling. Once you look pass the self-indulgent gore, “Imprint” emerges as a film about storytelling. The prostitute retells her story three times, the tale growing more unnerving as she draws closer to the truth. By the end, it’s apparent that Christopher and Komomo had secrets of his own. Through this lens, you see a haunting, melancholic film about how we rewrite our own lives, telling events from angles that favor ourselves.

The cast is almost entirely Japanese yet the film is in English, leading to a lot of stiff acting and mangled dialogue. That’s okay. English probably wasn’t their first language. So what’s Billy Drago’s excuse? Drago’s performance is oddly heightened, involving plenty of strangled yelling. In the end, I’m not sure what to think of “Imprint.” It has some interesting elements but the unending, extreme violence repels the viewing. Miike clearly has a point but his focus on brutal torture overwhelms any purpose the story has. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Poltergeist

“Poltergeist” is another “Lost Tapes” episode that abandons the cryptozoology premise. It’s also the point when I originally gave up on the series. The Colorado based Golden family is experiencing strange events. Their youngest child, ten year old Troy, is seemingly exhibiting telekinetic abilities. They contact a trio of paranormal researchers, filmmakers for cable ghost show, to investigate. While the three believe Troy may be responsible for the unusual incidents, it soon becomes apparent that something more sinister afoot.

For its first half, “Poltergeist” pretends to be about a young boy with telekinesis, which at least makes it distinct from any other found footage ghost story. All pretenses are dropped half-way through and the episode just becomes a standard haunting. Apparently, a guy murdered his family and then himself in the house. This is discovered thanks to a newspaper clipping that was lying around. There are many eye-rolling moments. While Troy lays in bed, a preposterous devil voice whispers his name, before his stuff animal moves and is replaced with a butcher’s knife. Scenes like this makes it clear that “Lost Tapes” was hopelessly ripping off “Paranormal Activity.” The woman in the wheelchair rolls around, one guy bleeds from the eyes, and the main filmmaker sees a bloody reflection of himself. It’s incredibly lame. Can we get back to the Bigfeet and Mothmen now? [3/10]

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 18

Mad Love (1935)

If horror fans give you that shit about how remakes have taken over the genre, crack this egg of truth over their head. “The Hands of Orlac” has been told on screen officially three times, though the story has been adapted unofficially more often. The most highly regarded adaptation of the story, 1935’s “Mad Love,” is actually the second cinematic version. (For non-horror fans who make the same argument, bring up “The Maltese Falcon” instead.) “Mad Love” would be the final directorial credit of legendary cinematographer Karl Freund and the American debut of Peter Lorre. While Freund would mostly focus on television from this point on, Lorre’s subsequent career as an iconic screen presence needs no introduction. “Mad Love” would come a little too late into the thirties to be a huge hit but would, in time, develop the reputation of a classic.

Concert pianist Stephen Orlac is wildly successful and is happily married to Yvonne, a popular actress. Yvonne, however, has a not-so-secret admirer. The surgeon Dr. Gogol rents the same theater box every night, to intently watch her performance. Gogol’s obsession is such that he buys a wax sculpture of Yvonne and keeps it in his bedroom. Stephen’s career as a piano player is seemingly cut short when his hands are crushed in a train crash. Gogol, as a favor to Yvonne, performs a miraculous hand transplant. But there’s a catch. Stephen has lost his ability to play piano but has gained a knife throwing hobby. Gogol, it turns out, transplanted the hands of a notorious murderer onto Orlac’s wrists, all in a scheme to win Yvonne’s heart.

“Mad Love” differentiates itself from the other adaptations of “Hands of Orlac” by turning the surgeon into the main character. His title-lending romantic obsession with Orlac’s wife is unique to this version. This totally shifts the focus of the story but that's okay because Peter Lorre is awesome. His unforgettable voice immediately establishes Gogol’s mad infatuation. His wide eyes stare upon the woman with absolute devotion. When she rejects him, his sorrow is deeply felt. Lorre, of course, is also excellent at playing crazy. When he touches upon his plan to frame Orlac, Gogol’s reflection begins speaking to him. His intense stares grow even more unhinged. By the end, he’s dressed in a elaborate costume featuring robot hands and a neck brace. He’s gone completely around the bend. Lorre’s Gogol is a dangerous villain but too pathetic, too relatable, to be a two dimensional bad guy. He even gets a charitable moment, when he performs surgery on a sick girl. This combination of madness and sympathetic qualities was already Lorre’s trademark by 1935. It was rarely better used then here.

Freund’s expressionistic cinematography would define the look the earliest Universal Monster movies. Freund would bring that same style to his directorial credit, like this film and the original “The Mummy.” “Mad Love” is often gorgeous looking. Gogol’s lair is characterized by deep shadows, the man’s silhouette often peering out of door frames. His house features some “Caligari” abstractions, with slanting windows and winding staircases. His hallucinations ratchet up the eeriness. An extended montage, where Gogol’s mad face and Stephen’s anxiety are framed by grasping hands, is especially memorable. We get a first person perspective of Gogol’s maid, as she sees double in a drunken haze. Freund brings his A-game to the picture, creating a black and white atmosphere distinct from the other horror classics of the time but no less intoxicating.

“Mad Love” spends so much time focusing on Dr. Gogol that the actual hands of Orlac plot falls somewhat by the wayside. In most versions, the audience is left wondering if Orlac’s new hands are compelling him to murder. In “Mad Love,” it’s all but immediately known that Gogol is gaslighting him. Yet this subplot is still interesting, mostly thanks to the cast. Colin Clive – Dr. Frankenstein himself – brings a similar sweaty desperation to his role here. We know better but Clive’s performance sells the character’s wild fears. Clive is good but Frances Drake is better as Yvonne. Drake is a phenomenal scream queen, shrieking in terror during several key moments. She has a few stronger moments too, like when she sneaks into Gogol’s lair. Admittedly, it’s by accident but that still counts for something in 1935.

Because it’s not associated with a studio known for genre films, like Universal or R.K.O., “Mad Love” has been somewhat overlooked over the years. Classic horror fans who haven’t checked it out already, drop what you’re doing now and watch this. It’s a brilliantly acted, gorgeously directed film with a powerfully composed story. Since Lorre never got a Dracula or Frankenstein level part to confirm his status as a horror icon, I submit the mad Dr. Gogol as his trademark role. It has all the characteristics you associate with Lorre and belongs to a wonderful film. [9/10]

Grace (2009)

This is how far in advance I plan things, sometimes. During last year’s Monster-Mania, I met Jordan Ladd. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance in “Grace,” prompting a conversation about the film. I had planned on revisiting the movie that year. However, I wasn’t able to find a copy in time and “Grace” got shuffled over to next year's watch list. Luckily for me, if not local businesses, I grabbed a DVD of the flick when the last video store around here went belly up. I wish I could’ve re-watched the film before meeting Miss Ladd last September but better late then never, I suppose.

Madeline and Michael have made three previous attempts to conceive. For the first time, they’re successful. Madeline isn’t taken any chances. She’s switched to a vegan diet and is consulting with an all-natural midwife. (Who happens to be her former lover.) But luck still isn’t with the couple. After a close-call at the hospital, Michael drives Madeline home. A car crash follows, Michael and the unborn baby dying. Despite this, Madeline decides to carry the fetus to term. The child is born dead… Until she revives suddenly. Madeline names her daughter Grace. At first, the baby seems normal. Soon, Grace starts to smell strange. Flies buzz around her. Most pressingly, the baby will only drink blood. Others try to come between Madeline and her blood-sucking baby but she won’t let them.

No exaggeration is necessary to make motherhood terrifying. Aside from the fleshier attributes to giving birth, the anxieties that come along with it must be shattering. “Grace” coats these doubts in horror movie metaphor. Madeline’s baby won’t eat because it’s undead. She feels like the baby is draining the life of her because it is, Grace suckling more and more blood from Madeline’s breast. Her distrust of doctors only increases after she begins to kill for her baby. Writer/director Paul Solet drapes his story in other symbolism. Grace eventually abandons her vegan diet to feed her baby blood. The film draws a slightly unclear parallel between Grace and her predatory house cat. The mother-in-law’s eagerness to adopt the child – which includes building a crib and getting herself to lactate again – another mostly unnecessary addition.

Solet is friends with Eli Roth and Adam Green. As with those guys, the director has a knack for grisly, gory horror. Solet lingers on the uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy, blood gushing from Jordan Ladd’s nether regions. Grace’s blood sucking ways means Ladd spends most of the movie with fake blood covering her breasts. Having such a sensitive area constantly chewed and gnawed can even make a man uncomfortable. The image of a fly crawling in and out of the baby’s nose is cringe inducing in a different way. Once the body count starts, the film runs with yet more red stuff. The director emphasizes the stickiest of dried blood, further making the viewer uneasy. The film’s final, shocking image confirms how strong “Grace’s” body horror roots are.

For all its other positive attributes, “Grace” works best when revolving around Jordan Ladd’s performance. Her early scenes have a natural sweetness to them, the character clearly excited about the opportunities of motherhood. After Grace’s vampiric tendencies are revealed, a thread bone exhaustion settles in. You believe how desperate she is by the time her decision to murder comes. While never loosing sight of the film’s emotional center, Ladd also displays the character’s madness. The supporting cast is solid too. Gabrielle Rose and Samantha Ferris both do decent work, despite how underdeveloped their parts are.

“Grace” only runs a little over eighty minutes. A longer run time would have allowed more room for its various subplots to breathe. Ferris’ lesbian tendencies towards Madeline seem to mostly exist in order to set up that ending. Rose’s motivations are questionable. Madeline doesn’t seem to care about her husband at all, as his death barely weights on her. By the same accord, Solet already stretches his premise somewhat thin with the film as it is. Still, “Grace” is worth seeing for Ladd’s stand-out performance and the number of grotesque thrills the director cooks up. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale

“Haeckel’s Tale” should’ve been a “Masters of Horror” two-fer. The story is from Clive Barker while George Romero was originally intended to direct. Romero had to drop out though, so John McNaughton of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” fame stepped in. The story is Barker’s homage to “Frankenstein.”  18th century medical student Ernst Haeckel denies religion. Instead, he hopes to conquer death via science. Since his attempt to revive corpses do not succeed, he seeks out the help of a near-by necromancer. He believes the man to be a con artist. With bad weather coming, Haeckel seeks shelter in a strange cabin. There, he meets old man Walter and his beautiful young wife, Elise. When the necromancer pays a visit in the middle of the night, Haeckel discovers the man isn't a fraud after all.

What qualifies someone as a Master of Horror? Yes, “Henry” is a great horror film. But it’s McNaughton’s only horror credit of note. Truthfully, the episode’s content recalls “Wild Things” more then the director's brutal debut. “Haeckel’s Tale” begins promisingly. The science vs. superstition debate is a solid foundation to build upon. Joe Polito is having fun playing the necromancer. However, the mystery of what the wife is up to builds towards a disappointing reveal. Turns out, Elise brings her dead husband back to life to have sex with him. The other zombies then join in. Yep, “Haeckel’s Tale” concludes with a zombie orgy. Instead of going for frights, McNaughton shoots these scenes with a glossy, softcore gleam. Leela Savasta is lovely, and very naked, but the zombies drain any eroticism. McNaughton’s direction is almost self-consciously hokey, featuring a theremin-laden score and shots of a foggy cemetery. The twist ending goes for broad comedy, which is against the rest of the episode’s tone. I don’t know what Romero would’ve brought to this story, other then likely focusing more on the obligatory sequence of zombie gut munching. However, his version probably would’ve been a little creepier then McNaughton’s. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Strigoi

After putting their own twist on the vampire myth in season two, “Lost Tapes” went for a more traditional approach with season three’s “Strigoi.” The Enigma Corporation returns, this time to investigate mysterious disappearances at an oil drilling installation. The team find the surrounding town abandoned, save for a few stray animals. When they discover a survivor, they notice he’s acting odd. Once left alone with some side characters, the man reveals fangs. Yep, he’s a vampire and a blood sucker outbreak is responsible for the town’s sudden depopulation.

Despite using a fancy synonym as a title, this episode is not about the witch-like strigoi of Romanian legend. Instead, it features a standard vampire. He looks like a normal person, has super strength and speed, and hisses obnoxiously when barring his fangs. As an extremely tenuous connection to the show’s Animal Planet roots, the vampire also transforms into a black canine. This leads to a comical scene of two armed soldiers backing away from a barking dog. Even though the educational segments give away the premise, “Strigoi” still plays coy. The vampire villain isn’t revealed until it’s nearly over. The attempted scares are extremely lame. The vampire springing forward and biting someone features overdone camerawork. The climatic jump scare is neutered by the resolution. The expert interviews bring up relevant information about vampire myths. They also, for some reason, mention the Black Plague and butterfly metamorphosis. Anyway, this is one of my least favorite episodes of the entire series. [3/10]

Monday, October 17, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 17

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

When it comes to art house cinema, there are few names more revered then Ingmar Bergman. In the right crowd, Bergman is considered one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. His films – especially the image of the Grim Reaper playing chess from “The Seventh Seal” – have become visual shorthand for dour, arty, European cinema highly regarded by serious cinephiles. I mean, Goddard and Truffaut didn’t get referenced by “Bill and Ted” and “Animanaics.” I’ll admit, that film was the only Bergman I had previously watched and I didn’t love it. “Hour of the Wolf” has appeared on multiple best horror movies list, meaning I had to watch it eventually. This would be the one that would decide whether or not this kooky Swedish guy is for me.

Johan, a respected painter, moves to a new home on an isolated island with his pregnant wife, Alma. At first, the couple is happy in this location. However, Johan begins to suffer from insomnia. During his sleepless nights, he begins to see entities that look human but aren’t human. These personal demons haunt him, attacking him even during the sunlit hours. After the couple is invited to a party at a near-by castle, Johan slips further away from Alma. The wife is desperate to save her husband from the visions that torment him.

“Hour of the Wolf” is not a traditional horror film, though its classification within the genre is without doubt. At the story’s root, it’s about a dissolving marriage. Max von Sydow’s Johan and Liv Ullmann’s Alma seem to have marital bliss at first. The early scenes of the two hanging around their home, Sydow sketching her, are sweet. However, it soon becomes apparent that Johan is stuck on an ex-girlfriend, Veronica. He has fantasies about her, paints portraits of her. When this revelation is delivered to Alma – via the humanoid monsters – she becomes desperate to hold onto him. After the party, she begs him to stay. She stays up with him during his insomnia, becoming increasingly frightened by his thoughts. She runs to save him during the night time climax. Yet the seed of doubt has been laid in her mind. Ullmann’s opening and closing monologues, delivered directly to the audience, clarify this point. The question of, no matter how much you love someone, if it’s possible to ever truly know them.

This point is powerful but not what truly drew me into “Hour of the Wolf.” Walking home from a day of painting, a man attempts to make casual conversation with Johan. This makes him incredibly uncomfortable. At the party, Johan and Alma are the odd couple out, as they don’t know any of the people there. Bergman slips disturbingly personal confessions in with banal, party chitchat. This builds towards an incredibly eerie sequence, where a strange puppet show is performed. Ostensibly, the reason this is spooky is because the audience can sense that the people in the castle mean the protagonist harm. The reason it speaks to me is I’m never comfortable at parties. I hate it when random people try to strike up conversations with me. I don’t know if Bergman was intentionally recalling social anxiety to create unease. Either way, it works.

Before the end, “Hour of the Wolf’s existential horror descends into disturbing nightmarish visions. There’s a startling sequence where von Sydow is attacked by a young boy. (Or, at least, something that looks like a young boy.) The scene has no dialogue or incidental sound. Instead, a quivering, chaotic musical score plays over it. As Sydow reels in a fishing line, the boy looms behind him. When the child climbs onto his back, biting and clawing, the soundtrack goes wild. The climax has Johan walking through the castle, entering a hellish netherworld. A man walks up walls. An old woman removes her face, plopping her eyeballs into wine glasses. Crows attack. It concludes with a sexual humiliation, the film’s psychic and visceral horrors meeting head-on. Bergman shoots these scenes in stark black and white, capturing the visual language of a nightmare.

What it all means is debatable. I’m sure scholars have examine every little detail of the film, searching for deeper symbolic significance. It’s clear that the apparitions represent Johan’s various psycho-sexual hang-ups. The film is deliberately ambiguous about what level of reality these events are happening on. The discussion about the titular time frame and the value of a minute surely have deeper meanings. I’m not well read in Bergman so I can’t attest to how these themes reflect on his career. And scholarly readings only matter so much when faced with pure, primeval reactions. To me, “Hour of the Wolf” is a genuinely terrifying horror picture, a nightmare committed to celluloid. I guess I’ll have to give “Persona” a try next, won’t I? [9/10]

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Earlier this year, I came upon a listicle about the trailblazing horror films directed by women. I had never heard a few of the films on the list, including “The Velvet Vampire.” It was described as an American counterpart to the dreamy, sexploitation vampire flicks of Jean Rollin, of which I’m a fan. Onto the Halloween watch list it went. Stephanie Rothman – a protegee of Roger Corman – directed at least one other horror movie, 1966’s “Blood Bath,” and a number of New World’s sleaze flicks. Despite this pedigree, she doesn’t seem to have much of a cult following. Let’s see if we can find out why.

Young married couple, Lee and Susan Ritter, attend an art gallery. Inside, they meet a strange woman named Diane LeFanu. Lee is immediately smitten with the woman but Susan is uncertain what to make of her. Diane invites the couple to her home in the desert. The days are filled with dune buggy rides. The nights are filled with strange dreams, that the husband and wife share. Diane attempts to seduce both of them but it soon becomes clear that she’s not an ordinary woman. She obsesses over her dead husband’s grave, has an unusual manservant in her thrall, and fears crosses. Soon, Susan begins to suspect that Diane may be a vampire.

If Jean Rollin’s vampire films were the artsy-fartsy, if very sleazy, take on the age-old monster, “The Velvet Vampire” is the hippy version of the vampire movie. Both the women and the men have long hair. The central couple is somewhat square. Their encounter with the vampire woman, in one way or another, expands their minds. There’s undercurrents of free love and feminism running through the film. If that isn’t evidence enough, dune buggies are a plot point. Yet the movie’s hippy-est element is its meandering story. Long stretches of “The Velvet Vampire” are practically plotless. People hang around the house, eating, sunbathing, talking. The more active sequences – a pitchfork stabbing, a snakebite, a trip into a cave – are few and far between. It’s not exactly dull but I wish “The Velvet Vampire” had a little more going on.

That so much of “The Velvet Vampire” drags is a bummer, as the film does feature some interesting moments. The reoccurring dream sequences are my favorite. Every night, Susan and Lee both dream about their bed appearing in the desert. Diane appears out of an empty doorway. She lures the man from the bed, in the nude, just so she can bite the woman. The scenes are scored to a sparse, trippy guitar score, truly capturing the feeling of a strange dream. In its waking moments, “The Velvet Vampire” occasionally captures a similar feeling. The climatic sequence, where Diane chases Susan through a bus station, wraps up in a slightly surreal fashion, feeling a little out of step with reality. It’s not as aggressively strange as Rollin’s movies but occasionally Rothman’s film captures a similar feeling.

If you’re watching the movie for its erotic vampire action, you’ll likely only be satisfied with one half of that equation. The vampire stuff is brief, more implied then anything else. There’s no actual bloodsucking on-screen until near the end, when Diane turns on the couple. The film even floats the possibility that Diane isn’t a literal vampire, that she only believes herself to be. As for the erotic stuff, being a seventies New World film, there’s plenty of nudity. Celeste Yarnall as Diane and Sherry Miles as Susan often remove their clothes. The lady vampire has love scenes with all three of the other major characters. It’s not especially sexy, as there’s an uncomfortable layer of sleaze surrounding all of it. If you’re into that sort of thing, the film does deliver.

It’s doubtful that Rothman was deliberately emulating Jean Rollin, as the director had only made two of his naked vampire epics when the “The Velvet Vampire” was made. (Rothman has cited Harry Kumel’s “Daughters of Darkness” as an influence.) Maybe these thoughts – dream sequences, loose plots, bisexual vampires shedding their clothes – were just in the air at the time. Either way, Rothman can’t reach the same unusual heights of those European filmmakers, even if she tries really hard from time to time. She probably should have included more beach scenes or twins. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up

I’m not quite done with Larry Cohen just yet. The director’s “masters of Horror” episode is as high-concept as the rest of his films. David J. Schow’s script, based off his own short story, presents a psycho vs. psycho scenario. Walker is a serial killer hitchhiker, who murders the people who pick him up. Wheeler is a serial killer truck driver, who murders the hitchhikers who enter his cab. After a bus breaks down on the side of the road, a number of people are stranded. Passenger Stacia chooses to walk to the nearest hotel but the others take their chances on Wheeler, unaware of his gruesome hobby. Soon, both men are pursuing Stacia, the two killers forming a grisly rivalry.

“Pick Me Up” is one of Cohen’s most violent films. Walker bounds a woman with barbwire and hangs her from a tree. Later, he ties a nude girl to a hotel bed, partially skinning her. Wheeler’s antics are less obviously visceral but his tendency to punch women is still awfully confrontational. Despite the gore, “Pick Me Up” is quite funny. Warren Kole plays Walker as a sarcastic, sadistic cad. While chasing a potential victim through the woods, he comments on the triteness of the situation. (He also expresses his dislike of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake.) His torture of the girl in the hotel is mistaken for enthusiastic sex. Michael Moriarty, meanwhile, is typically nutty as Wheeler. His performance is as off-center as ever, aggressively eccentric, making normal lines of dialogue into strange poems. When the two confront each other at the end – discussing punchlines and snakes – the episode reaches its absurdist peak. Fairuza Balk as Stacia, as caustic and independent as ever, makes a solid foil to the killers. An ideal cast, Schow’s grisly script, and Cohen’s sick sense of humor makes “Pick Me Up” an October treat. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Kraken

For season three’s second episode, “Lost Tapes” returns to formula. A documentary filmmaker follows a group of scientists and explorers on a trip into the Baltic Sea. The team is there to excavate a sunken Finnish battleship and recover the Tsarist gold on-board. One of the divers disappears, claiming to have seen something in the water before vanishing. Their boat is repeatedly struck by something underneath. Eventually, the giant tentacles and huge eyes of the Kraken peak out of the water, directly attacking the ship.

For once, “Lost Tapes’” educational segments actually make the episode creepier. The mythology behind the Kraken is explained in an interesting way while genuinely unnerving squid facts are delivered. The fictional segments features some decent suspense, as we hear people attacked off-screen by the beast. The episode escalates nicely. First, the ship is bumped by the Kraken. By the end, the sea monster is directly scooping people up with its tentacles. The monster’s presentation – we only see its huge eye and grasping tentacles – is handled well, making some okay chills. The characters are disposable and the found footage gimmick doesn’t add much. However, “Kraken” is at least a big improvement over season three’s first episode. [7/10]