Thursday, November 26, 2020

#2,522. The Addiction (1995)

Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find”. 

This is a line spoken by Kathleen (Lili Taylor) - the lead character in Abel Ferrara’s 1995 horror film The Addiction - in her dual role as narrator. A graduate student majoring in philosophy, Kathleen’s world is turned upside-down following a chance encounter with a vampire (Annabella Sciorra). As a result of being bitten, Kathleen herself begins to change, and before long her craving for blood is uncontrollable. 

At first energized by this transformation, a brief meeting with another vampire named Peina (Christopher Walken, in a brilliant cameo) soon has Kathleen seeing her “condition” in an entirely new light. 

 Shot in stunning black and white, The Addiction is a fascinating take on the vampire mythos, treating those “afflicted” with vampirism as addicts (equating their need for blood with alcoholism or drug dependency) while, at the same time, drawing comparisons between the so-called “evil” inherent in vampires and that of humanity itself (at one point, Kathleen attends a lecture about the My Lai Massacre, and later visits an exhibit featuring images from the Holocaust. With moments such as these, Ferrara seems to be suggesting that vampirism itself isn’t the root of evil, but is merely a magnification of the fundamental evil always lurking, dormant or otherwise, within mankind’s psyche). 

By way of his thoughtful approach to the material, coupled with a kinetic visual style, Ferrara has fashioned a vampire movie with an arthouse mentality that also features plenty of blood and carnage, creating what amounts to a hybrid genre film, one likely to impress academics as well as horror fans. This, along with an extraordinary performance by Lili Taylor, has me believing that The Addiction is one of the best vampire flicks I have ever seen. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - don’t waste another minute… see it now!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Lucio Fulci

Three from the Godfather of Gore (Over the course of my 2,500 Movie Challenge, I covered several Fulci films. To read these reviews, click here).

1.The Black Cat (1981)

The first half hour of The Black Cat features one incredible scene after another! There’s a creepy pre-title sequence in which a guy, driving down the road, spots a cat in the back seat of his car and crashes into a parked vehicle (his head smashes through the windshield, and the car bursts into flames). Next, we visit the home of Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who is resting comfortably in a chair, listening to audio tapes, when he’s suddenly and viciously attacked by a black cat. From there, we join American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer) as she’s walking through a cemetery. She descends into an open crypt, where she finds numerous skeletons (from the way the remains are positioned, it’s obvious that, centuries ago, this area functioned as a torture chamber). Moments later, the action shifts to a small boat, where Maureen (Daniela Doria) and her boyfriend are making out. Interrupted by another boat that happens by, the boyfriend suggests they go somewhere a little more private… with tragic results. All of these scenes are great, yet as I sat watching them, it suddenly dawned on me: I had no idea what the hell was going on! As The Black Cat progressed, it started to make a little more sense: every tragedy centered on Professor Miles and his pet cat. Though I was admittedly baffled when David Warbeck, playing a Scotland Yard Inspector, was randomly attacked by a black cat. Or maybe it was three black cats? I can’t say for sure. But, you know, the seemingly incoherent story didn’t bother me, because The Black Cat featured plenty of that patented Fulci gore I’ve come to love, and many scenes, whether or not they made a lick of sense, were so damn cool that my comprehension of it all became secondary. To be fair, it does come together in the end, but even if it didn’t, I would have walked away from The Black Cat smiling ear to ear.
Rating: 8 out of 10

2. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Several children have been murdered in the small village of Accendura. As the police work diligently to track down the killer, an out-of-town reporter (Tomas Milian) and a pretty socialite (Barbara Bouchet) do a little investigating of their own, hoping to find out who is committing these heinous crimes, and why. Don’t Torture a Duckling is Fulci’s take on the Giallo subgenre, and it’s a good one! The mystery surrounding the killings becomes more puzzling with each subsequent murder, and there are hints that black magic might figure into it all. While not as consistently violent as some of the director’s later films, Don’t Torture a Duckling does feature a handful of bloody moments, the most shocking of which occurs when La Magiara (Florinda Balkan), a suspect in the killings, is cornered by five villagers and beaten with chains. Like most giallos, there are plenty of potential suspects, and Fulci does a masterful job juggling them all, keeping us guessing right up to the very end. A word of warning, though: there is a very uncomfortable scene towards the beginning of the movie, in which a naked Bouchet practically seduces an adolescent boy. But if you can somehow overlook this bit of creepiness, you’ll find - as I did - that Don’t Torture a Duckling is both a strong Fulci film and one of the best giallos of its era.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

3. The Psychic (1977)

Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill), a clairvoyant, experiences visions of a brutal murder that occurred sometime in the recent past. Before long, these visions lead to the discovery of a skeleton, which was buried in the wall of an estate owned by her new husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). The remains are those of a 25-year-old former model that Francesco once dated, so, naturally, the police arrest him and charge him with murder. But Virginia is sure her husband is innocent, and hopes that, with the help of her somewhat confusing visions, she can track down the real killer. With Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic, Fulci proved he was more than the Godfather of Gore; both of these giallo-esque films are well-paced, with intriguing mysteries at their core. In addition, The Psychic makes great use of its lead character’s extrasensory abilities, showing us her entire vision at the outset and slowly revealing the mystery behind it, scene by scene. Jennifer O’Neill is very good as Virginia, and Gabriele Ferzetti (L’Avventura, Once Upon a Time in The West) turns up in a small but essential supporting role.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Thursday, November 12, 2020

#2,521. Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus was shot entirely within the confines of England’s Pinewood Studios. Watch the movie, and I guarantee you’ll find this tidbit of information as amazing as I did. With its gorgeous colors and setting high atop the Himalayan Mountains, you would swear the film was produced on-location in India or Tibet. 

This is but one of the movie’s many accomplishments; Black Narcissus is a beautiful, frightening, incredibly moving, electrifying motion picture, with a cast that is flawless and a pair of skilled filmmakers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) at the helm, turning out what I consider to be their masterpiece. 

The story centers on a group of Anglican nuns, who have been invited by the Rajput (the ruler of the local community) to establish a school and hospital to serve his people. Given a building (a former harem) situated on a sheer cliff in the Himalayas and under the guidance of their newly appointed Mother Superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the sisters get to work immediately. 

Despite the warnings of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an aide of General Dilip Rai (played by Sabu, star of - among others - 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad), that the customs in this area of the world are different from anything they may have experienced before, Sister Clodagh and her order are determined to make a go of it. It isn’t long, however, before troubles with the locals, combined with the beauty of their surroundings, causes the sisters to lose sight of their objectives, and question whether they made the right decision taking up residence in this remote corner of the globe. 

The nuns and their experiences in this far-off land is what gives Black Narcissus it’s energy, with each sister experiencing a strange combination of sexual repression and spiritual conflict that seems to be compounded by the picturesque environment. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh takes her position quite seriously, yet the beauty of this area reawakens memories of a past romance (which we see several times in flashbacks). As for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), she falls in love with Mr Dean so deeply that she begins to see Sister Clodagh (who deals with Dean on an almost-daily basis) as a potential romantic rival for his affections, and it’s more than her mind can handle. Even Flora Robsen’s Sister Philippa, the senior sister among them, is taken in by the landscape and the simplicity of the people.

The palace, which serves as their home, was built years earlier by the then-Prince for his harem, and Sister Clodagh and her order had hoped to transform it into a holy place, an institute of learning and care that would bring the indigenous population closer to Christ. But the ghosts of the building’s past are strong indeed, causing a spiritual crisis within each and every one of the good Sisters. 

The performances are superb, from Deborah Kerr’s controlled yet emotional turn as Sister Clodagh to Kathleen Byron’s occasionally maniacal take on Sister Ruth. Also quite good in a supporting role is Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl caught stealing who is brought to the convent and turned over to the sisters. Equally as remarkable is the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his work here (Cardiff shoots a late scene in a bell tower in such a way as to make it positively nerve-racking). Black Narcissus also netted an Academy Award for Alfred Junge’s Art Design and Set Decoration, both of which convince us that we’ve been whisked away to an exotic locale. 

All of these elements - along with its profoundly emotional story - work in unison to make Black Narcissus an undisputed classic of the silver screen. 
Rating: 10 out of 10 - add it to your collection immediately!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Animation

A trio of Animated Films.

1. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The oldest surviving animated feature-length movie, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a spectacle of the highest order, a film of incredible imagination that, almost 100 years later, is as entertaining as ever. Using her own brand of silhouette animation (in which cardboard and lead cutouts are manipulated, frame by frame), Reiniger relates the amazing story of Prince Achmed, son of the Caliph, who is whisked away to foreign lands by an evil magician’s flying horse. With the Prince out of the way, the Magician intends to kidnap Achmed’s sister Dinarsade and make her his wife. But with the help of a clever witch and Aladdin’s magic lamp, the Prince hopes to not only rescue his sister, but win the heart of Pari Banu, a beautiful island maiden he met during his travels. The fact that The Adventures of Prince Achmed was made in 1926 is itself impressive, but with animation that is so rich, so detailed, this film is an absolute wonder to behold; even the opening sequence, in which Reiniger introduces the main characters, had me in awe. Add to this a jam-packed fantasy tale that features flying horses, demons, and magic lamps, and you have a film that you simply have to see to believe.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Point (1971)

A 1971 TV special (the first animated movie ever to air in prime time on U.S television), The Point is narrated by Ringo Starr (who voiced the home video release; Dustin Hoffman narrated the original broadcast version) and is based on an album of the same name by singer / songwriter Harry Nillson (whose music makes up a large portion of the finished film). In The Point, a father (Starr) tells his son a bedtime story about a young boy named Oblio (voiced by Mike Lookinland, aka Bobby in the popular TV series The Brady Bunch), a round-headed child living in a village of pointy-headed people. As the law of this land states, anyone without a pointed head must be banished forever. So Oblio and his dog Arrow are sent away, and during their travels they encounter a series of strange individuals, all of whom teach Oblio the value of being different. Directed by Fred Wolf, The Point is a curiosity; a breezy, well-paced movie that may look rough around the edges (the animation style is dated), but thanks to some memorable characters (after he’s banished, Oblio meets, among others. a creature made entirely of rocks and a man with three heads) and its timeless message of acceptance, this little oddity still has the power to entertain.
Rating: 7 out of 10

3. When the Wind Blows (1986)

Devastating. Having just watched director Jimmy Murakami’s animated film When the Wind Blows, that’s the only word that comes to mind, the only description I can offer as to how this movie affected me. It is a devastating motion picture. Based on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows is the story of Jim Bloggs (voiced by John Mills) and his wife Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft), an elderly couple that resides in a small village in Sussex, England. The news is reporting that war between the Soviet Union and the west is imminent, and England could be rocked by a nuclear attack at any time. Having picked up several pamphlets the last time he was in town (which offer advice on how to survive a nuclear blast), Jim prepares his humble abode for the impending strike, while Hilda, who remains skeptical that such precautions are even necessary, tries her best to support him. When the bomb does hit, Jim and Hilda remain upbeat, but are they truly prepared to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war? Both Mills and Ashcroft do a masterful job behind the mic, infusing their characters with warmth and personality to spare, and there are moments in When The Wind Blows that will have you laughing out loud (As Jim follows the instructions laid out in the government pamphlets, which includes painting the windows white, Hilda angrily chastises him for making a mess). The animation is also superb, with Murakami employing different visual styles throughout (two brief dreamlike sequences - set to the music of Roger Waters - were really quite brilliant). But it’s the later scenes, when Jim and Hilda show their naiveté, that will stay with you long after When the Wind Blows has ended. Though it’s not an easy film to sit through, I wouldn’t for a minute want to deprive you of the experience.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, October 29, 2020

#2,520. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

In the long history of horror films, there have been a number of unusual monsters, but none quite so strange as the creature that looms heavy over this 1977 entry. Its monster is a bed. More specifically, a bed that eats people, and from what I can gather after watching this bizarre motion picture, the damn thing never seems to get its fill!

Situated in an abandoned house and with its lone companion being the spirit of an artist trapped behind its own painting (who also acts as the film’s narrator), the bed is possessed by a demon that, a century or so earlier, fell in love with a mortal woman. The bed was initially crafted for them to make love on, but his beloved died, and in his grief the demon remained inside the bed, doomed to devour every human it came into contact with, some of whom use the bed for the purpose for which it was originally intended (i.e. - they have sex on it). But when the bed lets its guard down, the artist sees a chance to possibly end the carnage once and for all.

A low-budget horror flick, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is one wacky movie, in both its story and its structure (the film is divided into segments titled “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner” and “Snack”). Most of the audio appears to have been recorded in post-production, with very little live sound (the artist narrator, played on-screen by Dave Marsh , is actually voiced by Patrick Spence-Thomas), but as crazy as it all is, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is also kinda cool in a strange way; to devour its victims, the bed absorbs them, and we see the poor unfortunates floating in a liquid of some sort (presumably the bed’s “stomach acid”). There’s a smattering of blood (one woman’s throat is cut by the crucifix necklace) and some pretty good humor as well (a teddy bear is swallowed by the bed and begins to bleed; and at one point the bed has a case of indigestion and drinks a bottle of Pepto-Bismol for relief).

Shot in 1972 but not completed until 1977, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats has a history as unusual as the film itself; its writer / director, George Barry, tried selling the movie to distributors in the late ‘70s and then again in the early ‘80s, when home video started coming into its own. Both times he failed to secure a deal. Then, about 20 years later, Barry was searching the web and discovered his movie had been pirated: it was made available in the UK and Australia, where it had become something of an underground favorite, all without its director’s knowledge. And while it’s definitely rough around the edges, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is just odd enough to deserve its cult status.
Rating: 7 out of 10 - Yeah, it's weird, but watch it anyway

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Nordic Horror

Five movies from Europe’s northern regions that will get your pulse pounding!

1. Antichrist (2009)

So what kind of movie is director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Well, to answer that question, let’s jump forward to the film’s end credits, specifically those relating to the “research assistants”. Each of von Trier’s researchers was apparently given a specific subject to explore, and among them are Heidi Laura, who researched misogyny; Thomas Christensen and Astra Wellejus, who delved into mythology and evil; Trine Breum studied horror films; Poel Lubicke explored the subject of Theology; and Simo Koppe had the pleasure of researching anxiety. So based on that credit grouping alone, you can guess that Antichrist is going to be a bleak, emotional film, which is exactly what von Trier delivers. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are brilliant as the grieving couple who, to deal with a tragic loss, head into the woods, hoping the isolation of their cabin retreat will help them mend their failing marriage. But what they encounter instead might just destroy them forever. There’s a genuine chemistry between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, which makes where the story ultimately goes all the more troubling, and the black & white photography, coupled with von Trier’s use of slow motion, is breathtaking (even when what we’re seeing is so very disturbing). Antichrist is a dark, chilling movie about the nature of loss and grief, a beautiful motion picture that will shake you to your core. And I’ll never look at a piece of firewood in quite the same way again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Day of Wrath (1943)

Though more an historical drama than a horror film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath casts a spotlight on 17th century witch hunts, a subject most genre fans will likely find appealing. Anna (Lisbeth Movin) is the wife of local pastor Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the lone priest in their tiny village. Anna’s mother was once accused of witchcraft, and as a reward for saving her mother’s life, Anna married Absalom (Absalom refused to condemn the old girl for witchcraft). Trouble arises, however, when Martin (Preben Lerdorff), Absalom’s adult son from a previous marriage, returns from abroad. The moment they meet, Anna and Martin are attracted to one another, and soon after they begin an affair. But is it love or something more sinister that has drawn them together? Dreyer, who also directed my all-time favorite silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, establishes an ominous tone right at the outset of Day of Wrath, which he then maintains for much of its running time. In addition, the character of Anna remains an enigma throughout; seemingly naïve and innocent as the film commences, she grows more manipulative, more daring, once Martin enters the picture, and because of this we’re never quite sure what’s motivating her. Does Anna love Martin, or is it witchcraft that caused this attraction? It’s here that Day of Wrath sets itself apart from movies like The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Haxan, films that clearly depict the witch hunters themselves - and not the so-called witches - as the true force of evil. In Day of Wrath, Dreyer looks at it from both sides, and we, the audience, are left to make our own judgments about what’s really happening. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is a classic, and is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

3. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman often delved into dark subject matter; his The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left, and his dramas occasionally crossed the line into horror-esque territory (Even Fanny and Alexander featured a handful of supernatural sequences). With Hour of the Wolf, the legendary director dives headfirst into full-blown horror, and true to form it’s psychological in nature. Artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) live on a small island. Johan has been experiencing terrifying visions as of late, but it isn’t until he meets some of the island’s other residents, including Baron Von Merkens (Erland Josephson), that he begins to comprehend the true nature of the horrors that haunt him night after night. The jarring camera movements and sudden cuts Bergman employs throughout Hour of the Wolf are unlike anything I’ve seen from him before (all of which enhance the horrific story he’s telling), and the director’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist once again proves he’s a master of black & white, with startlingly beautiful shots and sequences. Add to this the superb performances by Bergman regulars Von Sydow, Ullmann, and Josephson and you have a must-see motion picture (though to be fair, I have yet to watch a Bergman film that wasn’t one).
Rating: 10 out of 10

4. Marianne (2011)

The most interesting aspect of director Filip Tegstedt’s 2011 film Marianne is its lead character, Krister (Thomas Hedengran), a teacher who, since the tragic death of his wife, has been having terrible nightmares, which may be the source of an evil entity that’s tormenting him as he sleeps. Played quite well by Hedengren, we sympathize with Krister through much of Marianne; on the surface, he seems like a nice guy. But as revealed in the opening sequence ( a flashback of 10 years or so), he’s also a bit of a heel; he cheated on his wife, and for a time left her and their young daughter Sandra, who, now that she’s a teenager (played by Sandra Larsson), resents the hell out of him. Krister did eventually return to his family, and in so doing spurned yet another longtime lover, the titular Marianne (Viktoria Satter)! So even as we root for Krister to reconcile with Sandra, we understand that he may very well deserve the terrors that the ghostly presence brings his way each and every night. The mystery of who or what this ghost is - and why it has been visiting Krister - is easily figured out well before the final reveal. Yet I’d still recommend you check out Marianne; it’s a slow burn that sometimes favors family drama over horror, but with enough creepy moments to keep you on your toes.
Rating: 8 out of 10

5. Thelma (2017)

Thelma (Eili Harboe), a repressed young woman who spent her entire life under the watchful eye of an ultra-religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), moves to Oslo to attend University, and there befriends Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As their friendship grows, Thelma develops deeper feelings for Anja, an attraction that may account for the sudden reemergence of Thelma’s epileptic siezures, a childhood condition she thought was under control. But is this newfound love the true cause of Thelma’s physical ailment, or is it all in her mind? Despite its more horrific elements, 2017’s Thelma is a beautiful motion picture; kudos to director Joachim Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who employ numerous long shots throughout, perfectly establishing the sense of isolation that plagues their lead character through much of the movie. In addition, Thelma features a positively chilling opening sequence - set sometime in the past - where Thelma, as a child, accompanied her father on a hunt (this scene changes our perception of Thelma’s relationship with her dad, essentially clueing the audience in on something that even Thelma herself doesn’t know). Eili Harboe is amazing in the title role, portraying a shy, demure girl who slowly comes out of her social shell, yet feels nothing but guilt for doing so, all the while never realizing the awesome power she possesses. Thelma is not a fast-paced movie by any stretch, but is so incredibly engrossing, and told with such skill, that I was completely immersed in it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, October 15, 2020

#2.519. Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

Set during the depression and featuring gangsters, vampires, and an innocent girl at the center of it all, 1973’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a very strange - albeit hugely entertaining - motion picture.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural relates the story of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), the 13-year-old daughter of renowned gangster Alvin Lee (William Whitton). With her mother dead and her father on the run, Lila has been taken in by the local Reverend (played by writer / director Richard Blackburn), and every Sunday she sings like an angel during his church services.

Lila’s near-idyllic new life is turned upside-down, however, when she receives a letter in the mail telling her that her father is dying, and wants to make amends with his daughter before he passes. Believing it’s the right thing to do, Lila sneaks off one evening and makes her way to the town where her father is hiding out, only to find herself at the mercy of a vampire named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who, with the help of her countless minions, plans to keep Lila prisoner for as long as she possibly can.

As directed by Blackburn, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural has the look and feel of a made-for-TV picture, and at times even comes across like a Disney-esque feature (though more along the lines of Something Wicked This Way Comes than The Apple Dumpling Gang). Yet, despite this, I was still surprised to learn this fantasy / horror film was only rated PG. Aside from the bloody killing that opens the movie, when Alvin bursts into the bedroom and murders his wife and her lover, most of the men young Lila encounters (including the Reverend who acts as her guardian) lust after her, even though she’s only 13 years old! There’s also a frightening scene involving a bus ride (through a dark forest) that likely scared the hell out of kids who saw this movie back in 1973.

When all is said and done, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a solid horror flick, with decent performances (especially Lesley Gilb’s turn as the title character), ominous set pieces, and a well-paced, engaging story. My only advice to the parents out there is that you take its PG rating with a grain of salt; there’s a good chance Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural will prove a little more than your youngsters can handle.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (A film horror fans will enjoy).