Thursday, March 31, 2011

#237. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Directed By: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley

Trivia:  This film was believed lost until a complete print was found in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo, Norway

Very seldom in life do things come together perfectly, and the same can certainly be said for the cinema. The silver screen’s rich history is chock full of good films, many of which I would even categorize as “great”. It's a rare occurrence, however, when a seemingly perfect one comes along, an artistic triumph of moving images that stirs you with its power and imagination. 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is, in my opinion, a perfect film.

The Passion of Joan of Arc recounts the trial and subsequent execution of its title character, the “Maiden of Orleans”, an event that was spearheaded by the 15th century  religious and political leaders of France. 

Striving for historical accuracy, Dreyer and his team relied heavily on the surviving transcripts of the actual trial of Joan of Arc; Joan (Maria Renee Falconetti) is accused of heresy for her insistence that God speaks to her. During the trial, the young girl faces tough questioning from bishops and priests, who are convinced it is the devil, and not God, speaking to Joan. 

Yet Joan remains steadfast in her beliefs, and when she refuses to recant her claims of divine communication, she is condemned to death, and burned at the stake.

One cannot discuss The Passion of Joan of Arc without delving into the performance of Maria Falconetti. My assertion that it is a perfect film is due, in large part, to her turn as Joan.  Throughout the movie, Dreyer utilizes extreme close-ups when shooting his actors, and the majority of these close-ups centered on Falconetti. In clear detail, we see the young actress evoke pain and suffering, enough to move even the coldest of hearts. 

As Joan, Falconetti shied away from over-the-top theatrics in favor of a much more subdued interpretation, relying not only on her eyes (which are haunting in their depth of feeling), but also her pouting lips, her head tilts, and even the occasional tear running down her cheek to convey her character's anguish. Her Joan of Arc is much more than the sum of historical texts and transcripts; in Falconetti’s performance, we get a true sense of this unfortunate girl's torment, building to an intensity that is all-encompassing.

My labeling The Passion of Joan of Arc a ‘perfect’ film will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows, yet I firmly believe it to be the case. With this movie, Dreyer transcended standard cinema, rising instead to a level of artistic accomplishment few others ever reach. Perhaps most amazing of all, The Passion of Joan of Arc not only reached that level, but continues to rest there comfortably all these years later.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#236. Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Directed By: Roman Polanski

Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon

Tag line: "Pray for Rosemary's Baby"

Trivia:  It was on the set of this film that Mia Farrow received divorce papers from then-husband Frank Sinatra.

We watch from the end of a long hallway as a couple moves into their new apartment. The electricity hasn't been turned on yet, so they must transport their belongings in total darkness. 

There's also very little sound, save the echo of their own footsteps or the occasional rustling of a few paper bags. Then, suddenly, a harsh voice is heard from the apartment next door, that of an elderly woman calling for her husband to bring her a root beer.

And with this simple opening scene, one of the most thrilling pictures of the 1960's is set in motion!

Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) have just moved into the Bramford, a posh New York apartment building. Because the Bramford caters almost exclusively to the elderly, Guy and Rosemary feel a bit out of place, but new neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) do what they can to make the young couple feel at home. 

In fact, it isn't long after meeting the Castavets that things start going extraordinarily well for Guy; he lands the lead in an upcoming play... after the original actor is mysteriously stricken blind! 

Over time, Guy and the Castavets become close friends, whereas Rosemary can’t shake the uneasy feeling she gets whenever their overly-friendly neighbors are around. 

Shortly after having a nightmare in which she’s raped by a wild beast, Rosemary discovers that she’s pregnant. What's more, the Castavets have taken a keen interest in her pregnancy, and Rosemary wants to know why.

Director Roman Polanski sets an ominous tone right from the get-go in Rosemary's Baby, clueing the audience in on the fact that Guy's and Rosemary’s new home may not be the safe haven they were hoping for. One evening, while preparing for bed, they hear Minnie's voice bellowing from next door. Then, quite unexpectedly, it's replaced by the sound of chanting, as if a religious ceremony had just started. 

The first time we meet the Castavets, they are walking (or should I say marching) down the street, heading home after a night on the town. Once they arrive at the Bramford, the two are greeted by the police. It seems a young woman named Terry (Angela Dorian), who was living with the Castavets, has just committed suicide, jumping from their apartment to the sidewalk below. 

Polanski masterfully squeezes all of this information into the film's first 20 minutes, yet even with such advanced warning that something sinister is at play, it’s impossible to fully brace oneself for the insanity that's soon to follow.

From its fast start to its startling conclusion, Rosemary’s Baby flows along effortlessly, aided in large part by Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning performance as Minnie, the batty old lady whose humorous mannerisms seem more ominous as the story plays out. Yet, ultimately, the credit for the film’s success must be given to Polanski: the director’s pacing never once falters, building such a vivid, fascinating world that our eyes remain glued to the screen throughout.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

#235. Elephant (2003)

DVD Synopsis: Winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant's (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) realistic drama Elephant takes us inside an American high school on one single, ordinary day that very rapidly turns tragic. The story unfolds with class work, football, gossip and socializing. It observes the comings and goings of its characters from a safe distance, allowing us to see them as they are. With each student we see high school through a different experience, a new lens. These experiences range from friendly and innocent to traumatic and deeply disturbing.

Elephant will shake you. Don’t doubt that for a second. Inspired by the tragic killings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, Elephant relies on its almost documentary style to bring a similar tragedy as close to home as we can possibly bear.

It’s a normal day for many students at this suburban High School in Portland, Oregon. They make their way to and from class; visit the cafeteria, the library, and the offices; discuss what they’ll be doing after school; and arrange meetings with each other for later that day. 

But for many, these plans will never come to pass. An unexpected shooting spree will result in the murder of some, while forever altering the lives of those lucky enough to survive.

The events as depicted in Elephant unfold in random order, and at times we watch the same scene play itself out two, maybe even three times, each from an entirely different perspective. John (John Robinson) and Eli (Elias McConnell) bump into each other in the hallway and stop for a quick chat. Before long, they part company, and go their separate ways. John walks outside the school, just in time to pass Alex (Alex Frost) and his friend, Eric (Eric Deulen), who are dressed in army camouflage and carrying large duffel bags. “Get out of here and don’t come back”, they tell John, and John proceeds to warn everyone he comes across that something very bad is about to happen. 

When we next witness this same exchange between John and Eli, it is much later in the film. This time, however, we follow Eli as he makes his way to the library, and because of the earlier scene with John, we know what's happening at that exact moment in the schoolyard.

We know, but Eli does not, and he is in grave danger as a result. 

Director Gus Van Sant uses the repetition of such events to wonderful effect. By re-visiting scenes like the one above, he establishes a timeline that manages to intensify the film’s dramatic tone. We have information that unfortunate others do not have, and we are powerless to help them.

It sounds so cliché to say “it was a day like any other”, but Elephant shows us that this day was exactly that, and the film’s tragic finale is all the more disturbing because of it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

#234. Strange Brew (1983)

DVD Synopsis: What matters most in life, eh? Hockey, donuts and beer? A slab of back bacon? And did we mention beer?  At least, that's what matters most to Doug (Dave Thomas) and Bob McKenzie (Rick Moranis) when they bring the goofy lunacy of SCTV's The Great White North to the great wide movie indoors. (Co-writing and directing as well as starring. Whew!) Strange, it is. And Brew, it is, what with our ski-capped hoser heroes upending the mind-controlling scheme of a diabolical brewmeister (Max von Sydow). Beauty, eh!

We all have our guilty pleasures. 

And when it comes to movies, I have a lot of 'em - dozens and dozens in fact - that I enjoy but simply cannot defend. Yes, they're corny, or sloppy, or just plain bad, but damned if I don't watch them anyway! 

1983's Strange Brew is a perfect example. 

I first saw this movie on cable less than a year after its theatrical run, and I couldn't get enough of it. Now, I'm older, and should know better, but what can I say? The love is still there! 

Based on characters that first appeared on television (in the hugely underrated SCTV), Strange Brew follows the exploits of Bob McKenzie (Rick Moranis) and his brother Doug (Dave Thomas), who love beer almost as much as they love goofing off. 

When a failed movie premiere deprives them of their precious beer money, the brothers scheme to get a free case from Elsinore Breweries, only to wind up as the company's newest employees. 

What the MKcKenzie's don't know is that an evil brewmeister (Max Von Sydow) and his hapless sidekick (Paul Dooley) are working on a drug that turns ordinary people into mindless zombies, easily manipulated to do their bidding. 

The fate of the world hangs in the balance, and it's up to the McKenzie brothers to save the day! 

Okay, if that synopsis doesn't sell you on this film's sophomoric qualities, then there's plenty else to convince you. In order to test their mind drug, the bad guys stage hockey games that pit patients from a nearby psychiatric institution against one another. These patients, who are already on the drug (the brewmeister, it turns out, is also the head of said institution), make their way through a tunnel that connects the institute to the brewery. Once there, they suit up and play on the brewery's skating rink!  There's even a scene where Bob and Doug are the goalies, and get repeatedly pummeled by the zombie-like patients (they never explain how the brothers got into the game, but there you go). 

And yet, in spite the film's cohesive shortcomings, I can watch Strange Brew whenever it's on! 

A bad case of nostalgia might explain my attraction to this film; my brother and I would watch Strange Brew over and over again with our friends. Yet there must be more to it than that.  

Perhaps it comes down to the likability of the film's main characters. Bob and Doug McKenzie - as played by Moranis and Thomas - are genuinely funny, even when placed in the most cinematically ridiculous situations (the entire opening sequence, when the brothers are premiering their new sci-fi film, is pure gold). 

Well, regardless of why I love it, the fact remains that I do. I love Strange Brew, and probably will for many years to come. 

Pity me if you can... judge me if you must... I'm a Strange Brew junkie!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

#233. Cat People (1942)

DVD Synopsis: The studio gave Val Lewton small budgets and lurid pre-tested film titles. Lewton, working with rising filmmakers and emphasizing fear of the unseen, turned meager resources into momentous works of psychological terror. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People  is the trailblazing first of Lewton's nine horror classics. Simone Simon portrays a bride who fears an ancient hex will turn her into a deadly panther when she's in passion's grip

With very little money, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur managed to turn Cat People into a runaway hit for RKO studios in 1942. It would be the first of nine horror films Lewton would produce for RKO, most of which told similarly dark tales, and while there would be a few gems among them, none matched the richness and intensity of Cat People

At the zoo one afternoon, Irena (Simone Simon), a fashion designer born in Serbia, meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a marine engineer. She invites him back to her apartment, and before long, love is in the air. 

But Irena is hiding a dark secret from her past, which will resurface should she and Oliver ever make love. The two are married, and Irena, fearing what might happen if Oliver even so much as kisses her, begs her new husband to be patient, and give her some space. 

Oliver agrees at first, but grows more restless with each passing day. He eventually confides in his co-worker and good friend, Alice (Jane Randolph), who suggests that Irena pay a visit to noted psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). When therapy fails to do the trick, Oliver is at his wits end, and Irena, sensing her husband's irritation, grows jealous of his relationship with Alice. 

This jealousy triggers the very secret that Irena had been trying to suppress, spelling danger for anyone who gets in her way. 

At first, Cat People tackles the subject of Irena's “curse” in subtle ways, dropping hints to the audience that all is not well with this young woman from Serbia. When Oliver buys Irena a cat, the animal wants no part of her, so they decide to return it for another, more agreeable pet. The moment Irena walks into the pet shop, however, the animals go wild, scratching at their cages and making all sorts of noise. The shop's owner (Elizabeth Dunn) tells them that the animals haven't carried on like that since the last time an alley cat was loose in the store, a hint as to the nature of Irena's secret. 

Of course, subtlety gives way to the extreme once Irena's jealousy rears its ugly head. One night, she finds Oliver, who told her he was returning to the office to catch up on work, sitting in a coffee shop with Alice. Angry and hurt, Irena waits outside to follow Alice home. In what is arguably the movie's best scene, Alice is walking along the darkened street, completely unaware that Irena is behind her. Soon, Irena's distant footsteps are replaced by a frightening growl, and Alice begins to fear for her life. It is a tense, frightening scene, and ends with a very clever jump scare. 

Whether the setting is indoors or out, Cat People takes full advantage of the dark. There are shadows aplenty in this movie, all of which contribute to the film's eerie atmosphere, leaving the viewer with a sense that something evil is lurking just out of sight, watching at all times. In Cat People, the darkness takes on a life of its own, and while many genre fans prefer their movies in color, Cat People is one motion picture that's a whole lot better in black and white!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

#232. Sisters (1973)

DVD Synopsis: Margot Kidder is Danielle, a beautiful model separated from her Siamese twin, Dominique. When a hotshot reporter (Jennifer Salt) suspects Dominique of a brutal murder, she becomes dangerously ensnared in the sisters' insidious sibling bond. A scary and stylish paean to female destructiveness, De Palma's first foray into horror voyeurism is a stunning amalgam of split-screen effects, bloody birthday cakes, and a chilling score by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.

Director Brian DePalma has never concealed his admiration for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and Sisters is undoubtedly his homage to the legendary master of suspense.

Danielle (Margot Kidder), a beautiful French actress, meets Phillip (Lisle Wilson) when they both are contestants on a television game show for singles. The two hit it off immediately, and Danielle invites Philip back to her apartment for the night. Unfortunately, they are not alone, for also living in Danielle's apartment is her mentally ill twin, Dominique. In a fit of rage, Dominique attacks the unsuspecting Phillip with a butcher’s knife, stabbing him several times and then leaving him for dead. Grace (Jennifer Salt), a neighbor who lives directly across the way, witnesses the attack and immediately reports it to the police. But when they find no trace of a body in Danielle’s apartment, Grace, who works as an investigative reporter for a New York newspaper, decides to do some digging of her own. The search will eventually lead her to a mental institution, where Danielle’s sinister ex-husband, Dr. Emil Breton (William Finley), has been concealing a dark secret, one that, if revealed, would shed some light on the true nature of the "relationship" that exists between Danielle and her murderous twin.

Sisters is a veritable road map through the career of Alfred Hitchcock, with nods to such Hitch masterpieces as Psycho (the gruesome knife attack that shocks with its sudden brutality), Rear Window (as the police search Danielle’s apartment, Grace watches from across the alley through a pair of binoculars), and even Spellbound (aside from the psychiatric sub-plot, there’s also a revealing dream sequence that works towards tying this complex take together). In unison with these specific references to the Master of Suspense, we get the more generalized similarities: the nail-biting tension of the story, the innocent person pulled into a dangerous situation, and the callous police department that offers little or no help to the heroine. Sisters even boasts a score written by long-time Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, yet through his reverence for the works of the Master, DePalma also manages to throw a bit of himself into the film. By utilizing split screens, brutal violence, and a unique visual style, Sisters proves the best of both worlds; a Hitchcockian thriller that is also, and quite undeniably, a Brian De Palma film.

If you're a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, then Sisters is one movie you definitely won't want to miss.

Friday, March 25, 2011

#231. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Directed By: John Hough

Starring: Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt, Pamela Franklin

Tag line: "For the sake of your sanity, pray it isn't true!"

Trivia:  Writer Richard Matheson toned down the graphic violence and more intense sexual scenes of his novel to give the screenplay for the film a more brooding atmosphere

"It's the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” 

These are the words spoken by Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) when describing the infamous Belasco House, also known as Hell House, to his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt). Barrett, a physicist, has just been hired by aging millionaire Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) to investigate the paranormal activities that, for many years, have been associated with the Balasco residence. Hoping to uncover proof of life after death, Deutsch has recently purchased the house, and wants the stories surrounding it either verified or dispelled. Ann has always accompanied her husband on such investigations in the past, but Barrett believes it would be best if she didn't go along this time. You see, two previous probes into the Belasco's activities ended tragically, costing eight researchers their lives and several others their sanity. 

Hey, they don't call it Hell House for nothing! 

Joining the Barretts during their stay in Hell House are Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a mental medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a physical medium and the only survivor of the first investigation into Hell House twenty years earlier. Due of his previous experience, Fischer is the only one familiar with its history. Owned by Emeric Belasco, known at the time as the “Roaring Giant” due to his impressive stature, the house was allegedly the site of many barbarous and perverted acts, all carried out for the pleasure of its owner. Shortly after a massacre there in 1919, Belasco disappeared, never to be heard from again. But the spirits of those who suffered still linger, challenging anyone brave enough to walk through the front door. Now, with each hoping for a huge payday, the house's most recent visitors must get down to business, and try to solve the riddle of Hell House, a riddle that has baffled countless others for decades. 

The Legend of Hell House is a remarkably entertaining film, and keeps the screams coming in rapid-fire fashion from start to finish. The four protagonists are all strong characters in their own right, and the actors do a wonderful job bringing them to life. As Ann, the dutiful wife, Gayle Hunnicutt remains in the background most of the time, that is until the house starts toying with her. There's also an effective battle of wills between Barrett, a man of science, and Florence Tanner, who believes strongly in the spiritual world. Often bickering, but always professional, Revill and Franklin play off one another nicely, and bring an added level of tension to an already tense situation. Then there's Fischer, the only person who knows what truly lurks in this house. Roddy McDowall's Fischer is a defeated man, whose only wish is to collect his money and escape Hell House alive. He doesn't feel the need to prove anything, because for him no proof is needed; Hell House is pure evil, and he has shut himself off from it. 

The Legend of Hell House does have its share of typical “haunted house” tricks, such as chandeliers falling from the ceiling, doors opening and closing by themselves, and objects thrown around the room by an unknown force. Yet even though it occasionally falls back on the familiar, the way it's all presented comes across as completely fresh, and believe me when I say there's also plenty here I've never seen before.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

#230. Bad Dreams (1988)

Directed By: Andrew Fleming

Starring: Jennifer Rubin, Bruce Abbott, Richard Lynch

Tag line: "When Cynthia Wakes Up. She'll Wish She Were Dead..."

Trivia:  In Mexico, the film was released under the title THE DEADLY NIGHTMARE

What initially sold me on Bad Dreams was its kick-ass trailer. I'd never even heard of this film before, but from the preview alone, I knew I had to check it out. Naturally, I was prepared for the off-chance it wouldn't measure up to my expectations, but I just had to see for myself.  Well, the fact is Bad Dreams doesn't “measure up”, but that's not to say it's without its charms. 

In the mid '70s, a cult group, led by a man named Franklin Harris (Richard Lynch), committed mass suicide, and only a single member, a young girl named Cynthia (Missy Francis), survived. After 13 years in a coma, Cynthia (now played by Jennifer Rubin) wakes up in a hospital psychiatric ward.  To help her adjust to life in the late 1980's, Cynthia attends group therapy sessions, and from the looks of it, she's the most normal of the bunch. That is, until she starts seeing Franklin Harris again, who claims to have returned from the dead to 'collect' her. Whereas Cynthia's driven to the edge of insanity by these visitations, it's the members of her therapy group that start turning up dead. The doctors believe these unfortunate patients are committing suicide, but Cynthia knows Harris is responsible. 

As I said, Bad Dreams does have its moments, many of which involve the members of Cynthia's therapy group. In fact, the film's best scenes revolve, in one way or another, around these characters. E.G. Daily does a fine job as Lana, a quiet girl who hadn't spoken for weeks before Cynthia arrived, and Susan Barnes us also solid as Connie, the former reporter who smokes like a chimney and has a very bad attitude. The best of the lot, however, is Ralph, played to perfection by Dean Cameron. Ralph is an oddly twisted guy, charming one minute and downright nasty the next, who's also prone to self-mutilation (at one point, he stabs himself through the hand, then smiles as he watches it bleed). Cameron brings a disturbing edge to Ralph, and damn near steals the film. If everyone in Bad Dreams were as sharp and engaging as these characters, it would've been one for the ages. 

But, unfortunately, the others aren't interesting at all, and the biggest let-down was Jennifer Rubin's Cynthia. There are times when she's quite good; for instance, she plays fear well enough.  Whenever Cynthia's scared, or screaming her head off, Rubin manages to kick the intensity up a notch, but for the most part, her performance was off-key, and when your lead is weak, it tends to stand out. Even Harris, the madman returning from beyond the grave, never feels like much of a threat. Where he should have been a psychopath, Lynch plays Harris as if he were a misunderstood '60s flower child. These missteps, combined with a clumsy and somewhat ludicrous ending, prevent Bad Dreams from being anything more than your run-of-the-mill horror film. 

Overall, Bad Dreams was interesting enough, and certainly worth a watch.  But the potential was there for it to have been so much more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#229. Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

DVD Synopsis: The TWO THOUSAND MANIACS of a small town celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War by forcing a handful of Northerners to serve as "guests" for a variety of macabre, blood-crazed fun and games. The festivities include a screaming man placed in a rolling barrel lined with nails, a hit-the-bull's-eye carnival game with a pretty gal and a boulder, and a blonde sexpot whose arm is hacked off and barbecued! But before they can slaughter the only smart Yank (Thomas Wood), he and the lovely Terry Adams (Connie Mason, "Playboy's Favorite Playmate") try to escape...

Two Thousand Maniacs! is the second entry in what's become known as director Herschell Gordon Lewis' “Blood Trilogy”. Released one year after the groundbreaking Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! honors the gory tradition of it's predecessor, only this time, instead of a lone homicidal maniac, we're treated to an entire town of bloodthirsty killers!

The citizens of Pleasant Valley, a quaint southern community, are preparing for their Centennial anniversary. Before they can officially kick off the festivities, however, they need a handful of northerners to join in on the fun. 

Setting up fake detour signs on the main highway, they lure six "Yankees” into town, all of whom are informed that they will be the town's honored guests. What these six don't realize, however, is that Pleasant Valley is a town with a tragic past.

Exactly one hundred years earlier, when the American Civil War was still raging, Northern soldiers slaughtered every man, woman and child in Pleasant Valley. Now, the townsfolk are looking for a little payback at the expense of their northern visitors. Two of the “guests”, Terry (Connie Mason) and Tom (William Kerwin), are the first to suspect that there's something's very wrong with this entire celebration. But have they realized it in time to save themselves? 

Unlike Blood Feast, which was short on story and long on gore, Two Thousand Maniacs! takes the time to set up it's tale of bloody revenge. Once the six guests arrive in town, they're treated like royalty. The mayor of Pleasant Valley (played with plenty of bravado by Jeffrey Allen) goes out of his way to make them feel welcome. He sets them up in the local hotel, and even has some of the townsfolk serve as guides during their stay. By dedicating the opening scenes to establishing the story, Two Thousand Maniacs! does take a little time to kick into gear (in Blood Feast, a grisly murder is committed before the opening titles). Rest assured, though, that your patience early on will be well rewarded by way of some very creative kill scenes. In fact, they're so imaginative that I don't dare spoil them for you. 

As a filmmaker, Herschell Gordon Lewis definitely had his weaker points, most of which are on display in Two Thousand Maniacs!.The performances, save a few, are weak, and a handful of technical glitches occasionally rear their ugly head. Early on, one of the female guests, played by Shelby Livingston, is introducing herself to Tom, and though she's standing in the middle of a street surrounded by people, her voice sounds as if it was recorded in a tunnel, an obvious re-dub. 

One thing Lewis could do, and do well, was stage a kill, and in Two Thousand Maniacs, he let his imagination run wild. 


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

#228. Going To Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

DVD Synopsis: Every fear you've ever felt. Every evil you've witnessed. Every nightmare you've ever known... have come together for the first time in one film. Going To Pieces is the ultimate anthology that takes you on a horrifying journey through your favorite slasher films including Halloween, Psycho, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and When A Stranger Calls. Interviews with horror icons John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Rob Zombie, Tom Savini and many more guide you through a series of gruesome scenes from classic films and recent hits. Watch as the history of the slasher film comes alive... if you dare!

On October 23, 1980, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two well-known Chicago film critics who hosted a popular TV program called Sneak Previews, dedicated an entire episode to examine slasher films, which at the time were pulling in millions of dollars. Not even trying to hide their utter contempt for this “new” style of horror film, the two tossed around words like “cruel”, “misogynist”, and “sexist”, and even went so far at to criticize the fans who were packing theaters to see them.

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film is a documentary that takes a long, hard look at both the slasher phenomenon and the artists behind it. We get to see some clips from this Sneak Previews episode, which are presented alongside interviews with the stars and directors of the movies the duo attacked, who, at long last, are given an opportunity to plead their case.

Yet the best defense for the subgenre came from Fred Walton, the filmmaker behind 1986's April Fool's Day. Walton didn't feel the need to defend slasher films at all, summing up brilliantly what millions of fans have been feeling for the better part of three decades: “If you don't like!”.

Going to Pieces provides an in-depth analysis of the history of the slasher craze, which started (its box-office success, at least) in 1978 with John Carpenter's Halloween. We hear from Carpenter himself, who spins a few yarns about what it took to turn a low-budget horror movie into a cultural phenomenon. Yet as important as it was, Halloween was only the beginning of something very, very big.

Going to Pieces dedicates a fair portion of its runtime to reviewing all of the early, influential slashers, such as Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, films that gave horror fans a whole new reason to go to the movies. Of course, as with any pop culture sensation, the marketplace eventually became over-saturated with low-rent knockoffs and sequels, which tried the patience of even the staunchest genre afficionados. Going to Pieces looks at these films as well; it is all-inclusive, and doesn't shy away from any movie, even the terrible ones.

Going to Pieces is a horror buff's delight, a film filled with fascinating insights from both the legends (John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tom Savini) and those following in their footsteps (including Rob Zombie and a handful of others). It is an exhaustive documentary, containing everything you'd want to know about slashers, and maybe a few things you didn't.

If you are a fan, then this is a documentary you simply can't afford to miss.

And if you're not... boo hoo!

Monday, March 21, 2011

#227. Broken (2006) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Simon Boyes, Adam Mason

Starring: Nadja Brand, Eric Colvin, Abbey Stirling

Tag line: "Horror Has A Human Heart"

Trivia:  In Japan, this film was released as JIGSAW: DEAD OR ALIVE

The opening of Broken, a 2006 independent horror film inspired by actual events, offer a quote by Harriet A. Jacobs: “The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of fear”. This provides an inkling of what to expect from the story, but fails to prepare us for just how savage this movie will become. The title sequence of this film, packed with bloody violence, is enough to turn the heartiest of stomachs.

Returning home from a date, single mom Hope (Nadja Brand) kisses her sleeping daughter Jennifer (Megan van Kerro) good-night, then heads to bed. But when Hope awakens the next morning, she is no longer in her bedroom, or even her small apartment. She's in the middle of a forest, locked in a coffin-like crate, with blood all over her clothes.

Hope has been abducted by a mysterious man (Eric Colvin), who is intent on keeping her as his prisoner. Anxious to learn the whereabouts of her daughter, Hope initially plays along with her captor, enduring the physical abuse he throws her way. But it isn't long before Hope, beaten down and with no end to her torment in sight, will do whatever it takes to escape.

Though they are together for the majority of the film, very little dialogue passes between Hope and her abductor, referred to only as "the Man" (he's never given a name). But then, words aren't necessary; we learn all we need to about their 'relationship' just by watching the two of them interact. In an early scene, an unconscious Hope awakens to find herself strapped to a tree, a rope fastened around her neck. She is also standing on a log balancing on a stump, meaning one wrong move and the log will fall, and Hope will die of strangulation. Hanging on a tree directly across from her is the decomposing body of another girl, tied in exactly the same manner. Hope starts to scream, at which point her kidnapper walks up, hands her a sharpened stick and says “cut it out if you want to survive”. The result of this exchange is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film.

The acting is top-notch. Nadja Brand does a fine job as the tortured prisoner who eventually tires of her new lot in life. You can see the initial fear in her eyes, slowly replaced by hatred as the days drag on. The truly great performance, however, is delivered by Eric Colvin as the Man. We never do learn what drives his character to abduct women (though we get the feeling he's an old pro at it). He is an enigma, a twisted individual who nonetheless has a method to his madness. He remains a frightening presence throughout Broken, and we dread him as much as his prisoner does.

Be warned: Broken is not an easy film to sit through. Each gory scene is matched by another featuring mental anguish, which is just as difficult to watch. But if you are up to it, then I certainly recommend this film. Broken is one of the better Indie horror movies I've seen in some time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

#226. Twice-Told Tales (1963)

DVD Synopsis: Vincent Price stars in all three stories, including "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," about a scientist who finds the fountain of youth...and lives to regret it; "Rappaccini's Daughter," the twisted tale of a demented father whose love for his daughter turns poisonous; and "The House of the Seven Gables," the ghostly legend of an ancient cursed family who lived for power...and died for GREED!

What's better than three classic tales of the macabre squeezed into a single film? I mean, what could possibly top that, right? What if I told you all three star the one and only Vincent Price? 

Yeah, that would top it! 

Twice-Told Tales is broken out into three sections, each one based on a different short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorn. In Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, two elderly friends, Alex (Price) and Carl (Sebastian Cabot), make a startling discovery in the tomb of Carl's fiance, Sylvia (Mari Blanchard), who died the night before their wedding 38 years earlier. Leaking from the ceiling of Sylvia's crypt is water that can reverse time, a veritable fountain of youth. Both men drink the water and become young again, but things go badly when Carl decides to use some to revive the long-deceased Sylvia. In Rappaccini's Daughter, Price plays Giancarlo Rappaccini, a scientist whose wife left him for another man many years earlier. Out of anger, Rappaccini locked himself and his infant daughter away in a garden villa, where, in an attempt to prevent his daughter from repeating the sins of her mother, he bred a poisonous toxin into the girl's system, one that is lethal to the touch. Now grown, his daughter Beatrice (Joyce Taylor) has attracted the attention of a young suitor named Giovanni (Brett Halsey), yet her “condition” prevents her from ever being able to touch him. The final tale, The House of the Seven Gables, centers on a 150-year-old curse, one that has plagued every male member of the Pyncheon family for generations. After a 17-year absence, Gerald Pyncheon (Price) returns to his ancestral home to claim his inheritance. However, the curse, and his estranged wife, Alice (Beverly Garland), may just prevent him from doing so. 

While certainly bizarre, I can't honestly say that all three of these tales qualify as bona-fide horror stories, yet I will state unequivocally that each is very well told. Dr. Heidegger's Experiment gives Price a chance to play off another fine actor, Sebastian Cabot, and the two generate a real chemistry together. Rappaccini's Daughter is more of a romance, though Price does do his damnedest to keep the ghastly at least lurking in the shadows with his mad scientist turn. The House of the Seven Gables is undoubtedly the film's most horrific tale; paintings bleed as they hang on the wall, and ghostly groans echo through the halls at night. As Gerald Pyncheon, the last surviving member of a prestigious family, Price is both cold and calculating. Having gambled away the family's fortune, he returns home to locate a hidden treasure, one closely associated with the curse leveled against his family. Using his wife, who seems to have a strange connection with the house, as a guide, he manipulates, lies, and even murders to get what he's after. Along with three separate stories, Twice-Told Tales also treats us to three completely different versions of Vincent Price (four if you count his work as narrator of each tale), and that alone is worth the price of admission. 

Twice-Told Tales may not deliver consistently on the horror promised in it's ads, but what it does provide are three well constructed tales, each equally fascinating, with a true master starring in all of them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

#225. Raw Meat (1973)

DVD Synopsis: When a prominent politician and a beautiful young woman vanish inside a London subway station, Scotland Yard's Inspector Calhoun (Pleasence) investigates and makes a horrifiying discovery. Not only did a group of 19th-century tunnel workers survive a cave-in, but they lived for years in a secret underground enclave by consuming the flesh of their own dead. Now the lone descendant of this grisly tribe has surfaced, prowling the streets of London for fresh victims...and a new mate.

In recent months, I've come to admire the films of director Gary Sherman; whether horror (Dead & Buried) or action-packed thriller (Vice Squad, Wanted: Dead or Alive), his movies have never failed to entertain me. Needless to say, I happily jumped at the chance to check out Sherman's directorial debut, a 1973 horror film titled Raw Meat, and while I definitely found it to be a good outing, this movie does, unfortunately, have its share of problems as well. 

A young couple, Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney), who have just arrived at the London Underground's Russell Square station, spot a man lying on the ground, apparently injured. They report what they've found to the police, who promptly investigate. However, when the police return to the scene, the man is nowhere to be found. As it turns out, the now-missing man was one James Manfred (James Cossins), an important government official, and Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) of the local constabulary launches an investigation into the disappearance. What none of them realizes is that someone is living in an abandoned tunnel behind the Russell Square station, a Man (Hugh Armstrong) who has spent his entire life underground. He's the one behind Manfred's disappearance, as well as a slew of other missing persons reported in that area over the years. Far from any source of food, this Man has managed to stay alive by kidnapping passengers of the underground, and then eating them. 

Having spent the better part of his career playing shifty, dark characters, Donald Pleasance is here given a more comic, lighthearted role; his Inspector Calhoun is forever cracking jokes, usually at the expense of whoever he happens to be talking to at the time. While questioning Alex about the Manfred disappearance, Calhoun tries to rattle the young man by accusing him of planning the abduction himself, and then further antagonizes Alex as he's walking out the door by telling him he should 'get a haircut'. It was a nice change of pace for Pleasance, and he handled the humorous aspects of his character very well.  But Raw Meat isn't all fun and games. Shortly after the scene in which Calhoun questions Alex, we're taken deep below ground, to the abandoned tunnel that the cannibalistic “Man” (as he's referred to in the film's credits) calls home. In one long, uninterrupted shot, the camera slowly glides along the ground, revealing rats crawling over bloody body parts, which are strewn everywhere. Then Manfred comes into view, lying on the ground, where he seems to be in a state of shock. More bodies, in various states of decomposition, are revealed as the action shifts to another room, where the “Man” is kneeling next to the near-lifeless body of a woman (June Turner), who is obviously his mate. With the woman's agonizing groans echoing throughout the tunnel, the camera moves further down the way, finally coming to rest in front of a large mound of corpses, piled one on top of the other. It is a brilliantly choreographed sequence, and all at once we're introduced to the hell that exists behind the walls of the Russell Square station. 

Unfortunately, we don't get enough of these glimpses behind that wall, and Raw Meat definitely suffers as a result. Aside from the wonderful sequence I just described, the movie doesn't give us much of a chance to learn more about the “Man”. Instead, we follow Inspector Calhoun as he confers with scientists and colleagues, and sits at his desk, going over papers (he's investigating a disappearance in the underground, yet he never so much as visits the site until the end of the film). We also check back in several times with Alex and Patricia, the young couple from the opening scene, even though they have little to do with the story as it develops (again, until the ending). Much of the time Raw Meat spends above ground would have been better spent below it, giving us more insight into the “Man” and his isolated existence. As it stands, we get a quick glance now and then at what his life is like, but not enough to answer all of our questions, and I found myself, at times, growing impatient. For me, the real story was in that tunnel, and I definitely feel that Raw Meat missed a golden opportunity by not taking us there more often. 

If you're looking for the definitive Gary Sherman horror film, I would recommend checking out the excellent Dead & Buried. While Raw Meat is certainly not a bad film, it doesn't quite measure up to some of the director's later work.

Friday, March 18, 2011

#224. The Beyond (1981)

Directed By: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

Tag line: "Behind this doorway lie the terrifying and unspeakable secrets of hell. No one who sees it lives to describe it. And you shall live in darkness for all eternity."

Trivia: The zombie rampage was done at the insistence of the film's German distributors, whose movie market was going through a zombie craze

Lucio Fulci's The Beyond is a horror fan's delight. Featuring ghosts, demons, zombies, and even a dozen or so carnivorous tarantulas, odds are you'll find something to your liking in this very creative, very potent horror film. 

New York native Liza (Katherine MacColl) has just inherited an old Louisiana hotel, which she plans to renovate and re-open to the public. But one of the workers she hires to fix the place up stumbles uipon an ancient secret: the basement of this hotel houses one of the seven gates of hell, which is inadvertently opened. 

With the help of the local doctor (David Warbeck) and a mysterious blind girl (Cinzia Monreale), Liza must find a way to close this gate before its evil can spread throughout the city, causing the dead to rise from their graves, 

The Beyond is a near-flawless marriage of several horror sub-genres. At times a creepy supernatural tale (the call button for room 36 constantly lights up at the hotel's front desk, despite the fact nobody has occupied that room for 60 years), The Beyond will also satisfy gore hounds, with blood and carnage aplenty. While working in the basement, a plumber (Fiovanni De Nava) accidentally breaks through the wrong wall, and before he can figure out what happened, a hand thrusts out of the freshly-made opening and grabs hold of his face, squeezing the life out of his body and one of his eyes out of its socket. 

There's a lot going on in The Beyond, and you never know from which direction the next scream is going to come. This is a film with very little “down time”; each scene holds the promise of a new scare, and damn near every one of them delivers. 

Released in 1981, The Beyond is the middle chapter in what's been deemed Fulci's “Gates of Hell” trilogy (starting with 1980's City of the Living Dead and concluding with 1981's The House By the Cemetery). Widely regarded as not only the best of these three movies, The Beyond is also one of its director's finest films.  

So if you should find yourself with nothing to do on a lazy weekend afternoon, might I suggest a “Fulci Double-Shot” of Zombie and The Beyond, two excellent horror flicks made by a filmmaker at the very top of his game.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

#223. Masters of Horror: The Black Cat (2007)

DVD Synopsis: "Perversity," wrote Edgar Allan Poe, is "the human thirst for self torture." Jeffrey Combs delivers an electrifying performance as the legendary writer driven to debt and drunken folly by a world cruelly indifferent to his poetry. But is it his beloved wife's agonizing death by consumption or her deranged pet feline that will soon trigger the scribe's most ghastly acts of madness? Director Stuart Gordon and longtime collaborator Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator, Dagon, Castle Freak) co-wrote this grisly exploration of horror fiction's dark genius, condemned to a living hell of illusion, insanity and beyond by The Black Cat.

Here's one all you fans of Edgar Allan Poe are sure to enjoy. Directed by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror series, The Black Cat is an excellent film that brings to life a dark period in the great writer's career, a time when, despite his hardships, he found the strength to compose one of his most famous short stories. 

The setting is Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. Famed writer Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is suffering from a severe case of writers block. With mounting bills, no money to pay them, and a sickly wife (Elyse Levesque) to care for, Poe turns to the bottle for comfort. But when his wife suffers a severe attack from the consumption that plagues her, Poe must stop drinking and start writing, a task made all the more difficult by the constant interference of his wife's troublesome cat, Plato. Pushed to the brink of insanity, Poe takes his frustrations out on poor Plato in a heinously violent manner, yet this grisly deed might just be the inspiration the great writer has been searching for. 

The Black Cat goes to great lengths to recreate this tragic period in Poe's life (director Gordon, himself an aficionado of Poe's work, has stated that every character in the film is based on an actual person from the writer's life), and I was honestly blown away by the impressive attention to detail. Yet the true center of The Black Cat is the performance delivered by Jeffrey Combs. His Poe is a flamboyant drunkard, an arrogant writer whose only saving grace is his immense talent, and a weak-willed man whose sole reason for pressing on is the love he has for his dying wife. Combs shines in nearly every scene, and shows he's just as adept at comedy as he is tragedy (there's a very funny scene that takes place in a local tavern, where Poe makes a drunken bet with the bartender, played by Patrick Gallagher, that he can stand on one finger). While director Gordon and his crew must be congratulated for the realistic sets and costumes, Combs' turn is the glue that holds The Black Cat together. 

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to tour the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site in Philadelphia, which was established in one of the many houses Poe resided in during his years in the city. As we toured the basement, the guide was quick to point out several similarities between that space and the one Poe himself described in The Black Cat, which is one of the tales he penned during his stay in this house. That tour set my imagination to spinning, and thanks to Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs, everything I imagined that day, and more besides, has been vibrantly brought to life.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#222. Cemetery Man (1994)

Directed By: Michele Soavi

Starring: Rupert Everett, François Hadji-Lazaro, Anna Falchi

Tag line: "Zombies, guns, and sex, OH MY!!!"

Trivia:  Tangerine Dream was originally supposed to do the soundtrack, but a scheduling conflict prevented them from doing so

As Cemetery Man opens, Francesco (Rupert Everett) is on the phone. There's a knock at the door.  Francesco opens it to find a well-dressed man (Vito Passeri) standing in front of him, holding a briefcase. 

Under normal circumstances, this guy would have had all the makings of a door-to-door salesman, but there's something odd about him; along with the dirt caked on (and under) his fingernails, ants are crawling all over his ear. 

We're not quite sure what's wrong with Francesco's visitor, but he is.  

As quick as he can, Francesco pulls a gun and shoots this stranger through the head. He then nonchalantly turns back around, picks up the phone, and carries on with his conversation. 

You see, Francesco works as a watchman at his town's cemetery, and one of his chief duties is to make sure the dead stay in their graves, something they've been quite reluctant to do. In order to keep panic from spreading throughout the town, Francesco quietly puts a bullet in the head of every waking corpse (he calls them 'returners'), after which his dim-witted assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) reburies them. 

Keeping the dead in their place has become a full-time job for Francesco, and he's content with what appears to be his lot in life. That is until She (Anna Falchi) enters the picture. A recent widow, She visits the cemetery each and every day, placing flowers on the fresh grave of her beloved husband. Francesco becomes obsessed with this beautiful widow, and strikes up an affair with her. 

For the first time in his life, Francesco is in love, and the world suddenly seems like a happier place. But can this new romance survive a re-appearance by the woman's dead husband (Ronato Donis), who we might assume, even in his zombie-like state, would be none too happy to find his wife in the arms of another man? 

This is but one of the many tales woven into Cemetery Man, a film filled to its breaking point with characters, situations, and a hell of a lot of imagination.  

Shot in Italy by director Michele Soavi, Cemetery Man is a horror/comedy with a distinctly European flavor, one that brings a very dream-like atmosphere to the entire film. In one of the movie's best moments, Francesco is making love to the widow near her husband's grave. As their passion mounts, the camera tracks below ground to reveal the husband has "returned", and is clawing at the sides of his casket to break free.  He eventually does escape, and, once above ground, attacks the lovers, taking a bite out of his widow's arm moments before Francesco bludgeons him with a cross. As with many such moments in Cemetery Man, there's an otherworldliness to this whole scene, and we get a sense that it all could have just as easily been a figment of Francesco's imagination. 

A lot of the humor in Cemetery Man is hit or miss: a dead biker (Allesandro Zamattio) inexplicably breaks out of his grave riding his motorbike, and there's a strange romance involving Gnaghi and a severed head that is amusing but never develops into much. 

Yet even these moments work towards building the film's metaphysical persona, and we're often left wondering if what we're seeing is real or not. 

Ultimately, it's a moot point; in the fantasy-laden world of Cemetery Man, things are as 'real' as they're ever gonna get!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#221. The Mummy (1932)

DVD Synopsis: Boris Karloff’s legendary performance has become a landmark in the annals of screen history. As the mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, he is accidentally revived after 3,700 years by a team of British archaeologists. It is revealed in a flashback that he was a high priest, embalmed alive for trying to revive the vestal virgin whom he loved, after she had been sacrificed. Alive again, he sets out to find his lost love.

What was it about Boris Karloff that had directors thinking of the walking dead? Karloff rose to stardom in the early 1930’s by playing Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature constructed from the body parts of deceased criminals. In 1932’s The Mummy, the great actor returns to the realm of the dead as the mummy Imhotep, an Egyptian High Priest who, after 3700 years, rises from his grave. Just imagine what Karloff might have brought to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  It’s enough to stagger the imagination!

The year is 1921, and British Archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just uncovered the mummy Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian high priest condemned to death 3700 years earlier for sacrilege against the Gods. When Sir Joseph’s assistant reads aloud from a forbidden scroll, the mummy (Boris Karloff) is brought back to life, and promptly disappears into the vast Egyptian desert. Ten years later, Sir Joseph returns to Egypt to assist his son, Frank (David Manners), who is also an archaeologist. Searching for a discovery to rival his father’s, Frank jumps at an opportunity presented by a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bay, who promises to lead the young man to the hidden tomb of an ancient princess. As it turns out, this princess is the lost love of the mummy Imhotep, and Ardeth Bay is none other than Imhotep himself! Once his princess is unearthed, Imhotep will stop at nothing to ensure that she is also resurrected, to join him once again in the world of the living.

Like many of Universal’s horror films of the 30’s and 40’s, the success of The Mummy comes down to the performance of its star. Boris Karloff was an actor who, even when playing a creature, generated a level of sympathy for his characters. In Frankenstein, he was a monster, but only because others saw him as one; in truth, his monstrous behavior was a direct result of the actions of those around him, who both feared his creature and hunted him like an animal. In The Mummy, Karloff's High Priest Imhotep murders several people, and tries to kill even more, yet we learn that he is doing so for love. A well-staged flashback shows us exactly what happened to poor Imhotep all those centuries ago; how he sacrificed not only his life, but also his very soul, for the love of a woman. Even when playing the villain, Karloff finds a trace of humanity in the role, making it impossible to condemn him entirely. 

As with many of these old horror movies (such as the original versions of Dracula and Frankenstein), The Mummy has obviously aged, and is no longer as frightening as it might have been to it's contemporary 1930's audience. And yet this film still have something to offer us. If you go in expecting chills and screams, you'll walk away disappointed, but, if you instead sit back and take in the atmosphere, the style, and the performance of its stars, you’ll find The Mummy to be a genuinely entertaining experience.