Like riding a unicycle downhill or trying to extemporize a coherent alibi after four pints of Guinness and no dinnner*, making a good Lovecraft-themed movie is hard to get right. Of course it stands to reason--since Uncle Howie's literary universe is packed to its rafters with unnameable, inconceivable horrors, the merest glimpse of which are enough to send his verbose, racist, woman-fearing protagonists into the pit of gibbering insanity, the translation from page to screen would have to be difficult, if not impossible. That's why the most successful Lovecraft-flavored movies have either taken H.P.'s words as a starting point to be spun off into the director's own ideas (see Stuart Gordon's output) or eschewed adaptation entirely and come up with their own tales tinged in Lovecraft's apocalyptic Elder dread (see John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness). Though many have tried and found themselves sadly unequal to the task, filmmakers keep going back to Lovecraft's dark regions in the hopes of one day getting it right.
Mariano Baino's 1993 creepfest Dark Waters (aka Dead Waters) may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film.
We begin with a beautifully shot, wordless prologue set at an island convent located precariously on the cliff overlooking the (Baltic?) sea. A young girl rushes into a nun's cell to hand her a strangely carved stone seal bearing the image of a clawed, fanged, inhuman beast. As the terrified nun scurries outside with the mysterious artifact, the surging ocean threatens to invade the convent, welling up through its cliff-cave catacombs and soaking the icons with ominously dripping brine. An angry wave crashes through the cathedral, destroying it. Outside, the young nun rushes lemming-like to the cliff, and when startled by an Evil Dead-style POV shot, plunges over the side in terror. Both seal and nun shatter on the rocks below, and the storm abates. The remaining Brides of Christ gather up the shards and secret them in the catacombs in separate boxes and enclaves, never to be joined together again.
Yeah, as if.
Twenty years later, British girl Elizabeth (Louise Salter) comes to the island seeking her roots. She's discovered her recently deceased father had been making regular contributions to the convent's coffers, and wants to know why. The locals she encounters on the bus and in town are weirdos right out of Innsmouth--she encounters at various times a bug-loving hobo, a fisherman with a voice like concrete through a meat grinder, and the fisherman's friend, a Gollum-esque cretin with a taste for extremely fresh sushi. ("Don't mind him," the Slavic fisherman croaks. "He keeps the other freaks away!") Elizabeth is dropped at the island by said fisherman and informed that the next boat won't be coming by for a week. Plenty of time to lounge on the beach and catch some rays.
Through flashbacks we learn that Elizabeth's friend Teresa had been at the convent before in the nunnish capacity, and had written Elizabeth about her familial connection to the convent, prompting her visit. Sadly, before her friend arrived Teresa discovered part of the seal in the catacombs and met the expected fate: stabbed to death by a rampaging psycho nun! The girl dropped the fragment in her death throes, however, apparently allowing the evil to infiltrate the nunnery's Intimate Bathing Water Supply and causing all sorts of craziness later.
As a guest of the convent, Elizabeth starts asking questions, hoping to learn more about her mother, who died in childbirth. The Mother Superior assigns friendly, fresh-faced English-speaking sister Sarah (Venera Simmons) to be Elizabeth's guide. It's not long before Elizabeth is in the convent library reading about the pagan goddess who in legend once inhabited the island: "She who was, and is not, and yet is." Just the sort of thing Howie P would dig, if it wasn't being spouted by a bunch of people with vaginas.
the weird villagers, the psycho nuns, and the evil lurking in the caves the sea has blasted into the cliff. You don't have to be a horror film scholar to figure out that the nuns will fail in their mission to keep the Evil from returning, and that Elizabeth's heritage will make her either the world's savior or its ruin.
First-time director Mariano Baino comes right out of the gate with style to spare, and his movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The use of light and shadow, smoke and fog and rain (this has to be one of the dampest movies I've seen in a while) give the flick a creepy, dreamlike atmosphere that's very effective. He also puts together some beautiful imagery: the leaking cathedral with its crucifix dripping seawater, cross-bearing nuns on the cliff silhouetted by the setting sun, the catacombs with their hundreds of flickering tapers. In fact, the director's painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.
The horror elements are handled well here too, and also beautifully shot. The creepy villagers elicit more than one shiver, particularly the offhand, threatening strangeness of the de facto tourist information clerk who gives Elizabeth the shipping schedules and handles post office duties for the convent. (When we first meet him, he seems to be butchering a human carcass in the back room, and even offers to let Elizabeth watch for a price. Later he's significantly feeding entrails to the seagulls.) The requisite blind wise woman is a visual cliche, but again handled well. (Blindness is a recurring theme, as supposedly anyone who has seen the evil is struck sightless. The old woman, the Mother Superior, and the mad monk in the catacombs who blindly paints prophetic or at least clairvoyant canvasses depicting death and horror, have all seen too much.)
a crucified zombie nun hanging over two sweet-faced little girls, and the Mother Superior's goon squad who march the darkened hills with blazing crosses, setting fire to any hut that might contain information Elizabeth needs. Cool stuff.
Not as cool are some iffy effects in the final confrontation, including the least convincing body-horror suit I've seen outside of a Toxic Avenger flick. However, Baino does get props for keeping the main baddy in the shadows or glimpsed through cracks in the wall, which amplifies the effectiveness of what would have otherwise been a silly pile of latex puppetry. Also props for taking the yonic symbolism of the caves and the goddess figure to its extremes in that final confrontation, with the multi-titted bodysuit and some very suggestive folds of flesh on the demon/goddess.
Dagon, a film which I believe had the same Lovecraft source in mind as this one.
Baino's only other directing credit on imdb is a short film from 2004, which is kind of a shame, because Dark Waters really showed a lot of promise. Beautiful cinematography, well-handled tension, creepy atmosphere and more than a few chills make this one a winner. 2.75 thumbs.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
As a hardcore or even softcore Paul Naschy fan, you come to expect certain things when you sit down to watch one of the Mighty Mighty Molina's movies. Mad monsters, gorgeous Eurobabes, every genre trope that can be squeezed into an hour and a half, and megadoses of testosterone from the Man Himself sufficient to power the International Rugby Union Football Association for three seasons and a World Cup. This is what you expect, and this is what Naschy delivers, time and time again.
But a painstakingly researched historical epic addressing issues of poverty and class/gender inequality set against one of the darkest examples of zealotry run rampant in Western history? THAT you might not reasonably expect.
But then, this is Inquisición (1976), Naschy's first directorial effort.
Naschy, as you might be aware, is Spanish.
I'm sure you can take it from there.
UPDATED! Now with Color-Fast screengrabs!
Next we cut to a craggy, desolate Iberian landscape, where we meet Bernard de Fossey, Magistrate of the Spanish Inquisition--Naschy, naturally. Flanked by a couple of ecclesiastical flunkies and toting a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, de Fossey rides across Europe, flushing out witchery and Satanism wherever it may hide--kind of like a medieval Batman, except even more inclined to maim and dislocate the joints of his adversaries in order to get information.
A brief but very well-realized stop in the plague village allows Naschy the screenwriter/director to show off some of his historical research--nice details include the uniform of the officiating monk and the death houses marked with a large red X. It also affords the opportunity for the first of many many gratuitous boob shots, as de Fossey and his young sidekick examine two topless victims of the scourge. Convinced that the presence of the plague is a symptom of Old Scratch's influence in the area, the Inquisitor heads down the road to the city.
Meanwhile, Catherine (Daniela Giordano), the daughter of a local aristocrat, is making out with her boyfriend Jean (Juan Luis Galiardo), unbeknownst to the girl's father. We learn that the girl has opened her treasure box to the young rogue, and is rightly worried about the whole free dairy/bovine purchasing conundrum. Uncowed, John promises his devotion, and says he'll marry her just as soon as he gets back from a business trip to Toulouse. Catherine doesn't seem udderly convinced.
Back home, Catherine's dad's house is crawling with boobalicious babes in cleavage-accentuating period gear, among them her sister Elvire (Julia Saly, who would rock the house as Countess Bathory in Naschy's 1981 flick Night of the Werewolf) and servant girl Madeleine (Mónica Randall). Also on hand is scruffy monocular peasant Rénover (Antonio Iranzo), who does odd jobs for the master and has a roving eye for the two beautiful sisters. When de Fossey and his possey show up, dad welcomes them in with open arms, and Bernard falls in lust at first sight with Catherine, which is the sort of thing that just never ends well in these situations.
With a powerful outlet for their personal gripes and grudges, it's not long before the peasant classes start flocking to de Fossey, accusing their friends and neighbors of witchcraft. One of the most creative accusers is ol' Stinky McOne-Eye himself, who after spying on four bodacious servant girls skinny-dipping in the river (zang) runs to the Magistrate and somehow makes it sound like something evil. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, and next thing you know the fanatical Inquisitor has the girls naked and sweaty, one strapped to the rack and another belly-up to a wheel of whirling blades. Of course they quickly start singing like Beverly Sills, confessing to all many of deviltry if it means getting out of the dungeon and on the bonfire already. Bernard is more than happy to oblige.
Catherine's father's surgeon Émile (Eduardo Calvo) serves as the voice of modern-day reason here, explaining to the superstitious patriarch that the real evil in their midst is poverty and feelings of powerlessness. Unable to control any aspect of their own lives, subject to disease, famine, and the whims of an all-powerful church, the desperate populace might well turn to an imagined Satan if it means the chance at some kind of self-determination. Women are especially likely to make a grab at such power, since they have even fewer rights and protections. Catherine's dad doesn't buy it, but it's clear that Paul has an axe to grind here against the evils of a totalitarian Establishment kept afloat on the backs of the poor--which could reflect his own experiences as a child in Franco's Spain, in addition to the likely ambivalence toward the church itself.
When Jean is waylaid by highwaymen (what are the chances?) and brutally murdered on the road back from Toulouse, Catherine falls into a deep depression that de Fossey's sanctimonious advances do nothing to ease. In a dream she sees a faceless man paying the robbers to assassinate her lover; convinced that this is a vision from Jean's spirit, she pledges herself to find out who the real culprit is. Her servant Madeleine just happens to be friends with the one REAL witch in the village, Mabille (Tota Alba) who initiates her into the service of Satan with the promise of power and vengeance.
The movie hasn't exactly been action-packed up to this point, a couple of stand-out "interrogation" scenes aside, but once Catherine throws in with Mabille's crew, Naschy jumps into the fantastique with both feet. In a dream, Catherine travels to a very crowded Sabbat, where a goat-headed Satan oversees a blasphemous feast. Later she attends another dream ceremony in which Satan--now a handsome, bearded gent in a red cape and skullcap (Naschy, who else?) has her stretch out naked on a stone slab and promise to become his "living altar." The foggy studio sets and odd lighting give these scenes a very nightmarish feel, and first-time director Naschy handles them well.
Also notable here is the level of historical detail Naschy packs into the flick. Whether it's the previously mentioned plague village, the morality play a troupe of mummers performs in the town square (complete with a dwarf jester--that's class, people), de Fossey's fiendish methods of interrogation, or the blasphemous costumes in which the condemned are dressed prior to burning, everything is painstakingly researched and as accurate as the budget would allow. Further adding verisimilitude is the fact that, according to the indispensable Mark of Naschy website, the copy of the Malleus Maleficarum Naschy studies in the flick was actually a museum piece he got on loan--which is way cool, I don't care who you are.
With all the pieces in place, things start to go south for everybody involved. In a final dream, Satan reveals to Catherine the identity of Jean's killer: Bernard de Fossey himself! Totally on the Satan-Bus now and bent on bloody vengeance, Catherine seduces the clergyman in order to ensure his damnation, and de Fossey, being as virile as a musk-ox, can hardly say no. Meanwhile Rénover gets greedy and tries to rape Elvire, revealing his motives for condemning all the beautiful girls, which are about what you'd expect.
This was Naschy's first directorial effort, and it doesn't seem quite as go-for-broke as the stuff we're used to seeing him in. Whether this was a function of first-time director's reticence or his desire to treat the subject with historical seriousness is unclear, but the result is a flick that tends toward the overly talky. However, this leisurely pace makes the slam-bang torture and Satanic ritual sequences stand out in even more stark relief, so maybe it's just what was needed.
In other ways, Naschy the director is not reticent at all. This is definitely the most BOOBTASTIC Naschy flick I've seen yet, with more female flesh on display than you can shake yer Holy Water Sprinkler at. Sure, a couple are plague victims and a few more are being tortured, but in terms of quantity and overall quality, you can't fault it. Naschy is remarkably un-hands-on for the most part, though he does get a nice love scene with Satanic Catherine near the end. Effects-wise, the goat-head Satan is a standout, and the most gruelling interrogation scene includes a truly shocking bit of nastiness that I really shouldn't spoil for you. You'll know it when you see it, believe me.
As for Naschy the actor, he turns in a really great performance as the conflicted man of God, sadistic and fanatical on the one hand, at war with his manly desires on the other. A scene where he prays to God for strength (including some bare pecs and self-flagellation for the ladies...and the Duke...) is quite effective, and seems to imply an equivalence between his appeal to a supernatural agency for self-determination and those of the women pledging themselves to Satan. And his final scene, disgraced and shaven-headed on the pyre, looking heavenward with regretful tears in his eyes--well, it's some of the finest acting in his career, for my money.
In the final analysis, Inquisición strikes me as a very personal statement on the part of Naschy as a filmmaker, combining his passion for history, his love of the fantastique, and perhaps even his own life experience into a successful historical drama that even non-Naschy fans can enjoy. While not as much off-the-wall fun as the monster mashes he's rightly revered for, it's a good film and worth a look for fans of the Price/Corman classic Witchfinder General and other flicks of that ilk. And for Naschy fans, Paul delivers the goods and a fantastic performance. 3 thumbs up from me--it's not had an official stateside release yet, but get yourself a collector's copy off the Internets and enjoy.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo) is having one of the worst days in the history of bad days. Out of work for over four months and having just received a notice of eviction from his dilapidated rat trap of an apartment, the psychologically disabled Vietnam vet also has to contend with his nagging, ex-prostitute wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) and their 1-year-old baby boy, a squawling mutant whose Edward Munsch looks are the result of Frankie's exposure to Agent Orange. As if that's not enough, on his progress through the squalid streets of mid-80s Staten Island Frankie runs into friend and junkie Mike (Michael Tierno), so desperate for a fix he's willing to use a stolen police-issue pistol to commit armed robbery, and local crime-lord Paco (Mitch Maglio), to whom Frankie owes money and who threatens to turn Frankie's wife out again and sell his kid to pervs on the black market in order to work off the debt. Suffering depression, feelings of helplessness, and a wicked case of PTSD, Frankie feels his grip on reality loosen with every step he takes.
Oh well, it could be worse. At least it's not raining.
Working on a shoestring budget with equipment and actors he'd borrowed from the film school where he taught, director Buddy Giovinazzo caught lightning in a bottle with Combat Shock (1986, originally titled American Nightmares), crafting an bleak, artful study of nihilism and the devastating personal cost of war. Add some surprisingly effective in-camera effects, a smattering of well-shot gore, a dash of surrealist nightmare and an incredible performance from the director's brother in the lead role, and you've got a movie that is both a fascinating document of its time and strangely timeless.
"plot" of Combat Shock--basically all that happens is, Frankie has a nightmare, wakes up, heads out the door and walks the streets all day, meeting many of the city's similarly hopeless denizens and coming face-to-face with his demons before returning home for an expected but nonetheless devastating conclusion.
Over the course of several flashbacks to Frankie's time as a soldier in Vietnam, we learn that he deserted after his platoon was involved in the massacre and mutilation of an entire civilian village. Separated from his men and captured by the Viet Cong, Frankie was a POW for two years, beaten and tortured daily, even suffering maggots in his open wounds. Mentally destroyed by his experiences, he is discharged from the service. Back home, Frankie has a falling out with his father because of his love for Cathy, and as a result no longer speaks to the old man.
However, the strain of poverty and hopelessness has wreaked havoc with Frankie's happy marriage. Starving and scared, Cathy takes out her considerable rage on Frankie, presenting everything from their child's deformity to the broken toilet as further proof of her husband's worthlessness. She wants Frankie to call his father for help, but Frankie is too proud to swallow his years of bad feeling. After a shouting match underscored by the mutant baby's weird, otherworldly wails, Frankie storms out of the house and into the streets.
What follows is a kind of Progress Through Hell, as every encounter Frankie has leaves him feeling more helpless and seeing fewer options. Paco and his goon squad beat Frankie up and threaten his family; Mike the Junkie accuses him of betrayal for not giving him money for drugs, then heads off on his own desperate and badly-ending odyssey; an odd encounter with a case worker at the unemployment office (a young Sam Raimi lookalike with Frank Zappa and Dawn of the Dead posters in his office) provides no comfort; and a meeting with the young children of a streetwalker shows how little hope there is for the future. As repressed memories from Viet Nam come bubbling to the surface, Frankie snaps and carves a bloody path of vengeance that leads him back to his apartment, where he must "save his family" in what is still a shocking and gruesome scene.
Making a virtue of necessity, director Buddy Giovinazzo shows himself very inventive with the limited resources at his disposal. The movie is very episodic in its structure, with Frankie's encounters interspersed between long sequences showing him walking across the blighted urban landscape that he calls home. Giovinazzo cops to stretching the walking scenes out to pad the run-time, since "the script was light," but the scenes of desolation have a cumulative effect over the course of the movie's hour-and-a-half runtime. They establish so completely Frankie's world and point of view, by the end you can understand Frankie's assessment that there's no way out that doesn't involve blood and lots of it--and maybe not even then.
Giovinazzo also manages to make the Viet Nam scenes (filmed in a sewage drainage ditch near a Staten Island mall and in the director's mother's back yard), if not exactly believable, at least passable. The subjectiveness of the protagonist's point of view helps out here too, since the flashback and hospital scenes have a faked staginess that can pass for the unreality of a nightmare if you let yourself get pulled in. Quick edits and creative in-camera effects (such as projecting scenes of the VC massacre onto Frankie's face in a darkened room to illustrate his descent into final madness) also heighten the intensity and effectiveness of the flick. A sometimes funky, sometimes droning synth soundtrack by the director is also notable.
As for the gore--we get lots of nice juicy squibs, a VC massacre including a bisected body, and a cringe-inducing scene where Junky Mike, lacking a needle to deliver his drugs, instead uses a rusty coat hanger to pop a vein and pour the drugs in directly. And the conclusion includes a scene John Waters famously called "the most disgusting thing I've ever seen on film"--so there's that to look forward to.
In the commentary on the DVD, Giovinazzo admits he was greatly influenced by both Scorcese's Taxi Driver and David Lynch's Eraserhead, and both those influences can be seen here--the former in Frankie's climactic bloody rampage, and the latter in the Dunlan's mutant baby. A $140 hand puppet based loosely on the friendly alien from Spielberg's E. T., the baby's odd looks and otherworldly squeals turn Frankie's domestic life into a waking nightmare. Giovinazzo says he might not show the baby were he to make the movie today, but added to the heightened reality of other scenes, I thought it worked.
Picked up for distribution in 1986 by Troma Pictures, Combat Shock flopped on its initial release, partly due to MPAA-required cuts and the mis-marketing of the flick as a Rambo-style actioner by Troma. It gained a second life on the underground VHS tape-trading circuit, though, and its international notoriety enabled its director to move to Berlin and make movies there, sadly unseen by most of us stateside.
Making up for its initial fumbling of the material, Troma has made Combat Shock the flagship of its new TROMASTERPIECE DVD Collection, and have done a stellar job of it. The 2-disc set includes both the theatrical release version and the director's cut American Nightmares version, which of course includes more gore and weirdness. The theatrical version includes commentary by Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit, director of the infamous Nekromantik. Though Buttgereit had nothing to do with Combat Shock, he and Giovinazzo are best friends, and the warmth between them comes through in the commentary. The track itself is full of interesting anecdotes, technical tidbits, and comments on the actors--all worthwhile, entertaining stuff.
Also included is a 30 minute documentary featuring independent filmmakers and fans discussing the effect of Combat Shock on the underground, which is very informative and a lot of fun. (Apart from the cool history lesson, it's neat to play "Who's Baked?" with the interviewees. Hint: Jim VanBebber.) A few interviews repeat a lot of the information included in the commentary, but it's neat to hear star Rick Giovinazzo, who never appeared in another film, talk about his powerhouse performance. We also get several of Buddy Giovinazzo's short films (some of which are interesting), a short feature on the locations used in the film as they appear today, and a few other tidbits. Troma haters will be pleased to know that while president Lloyd Kaufmann does appear in a few of the interviews, he respectfully eschews his customary "introductory skit" for this particular film.
Combat Shock is a weird, fascinating document that's been giving an applause-worthy release by Troma Team. If you love a good nihilistic post-war movie and crave something a little different, you won't go wrong with this one. 2.75 thumbs.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
That's right, parishioners and subjects--it's anniversary day, as MAD MAD MAD MAD MOVIES turns two years old today! I guess it might be time to start thinking about potty training...
On behalf of the Duke of DVD, let me say we've been having a blast sharing our cinematic wisdom with you week after week, and we look forward to bringing you piles upon piles of steaming, fragrant movie magic in the future!
For a trip down memory lane, why not visit the posts that started it all?
The MMMMManifesto: wherein the Duke and I lay out our movie-watching philosophy; our first post ever!Thanks to all our loyal readers and followers--we love you, carnally!--and don't go away: we're just getting warmed up. :)
Vengeance of the Zombies (1973): the movie that started a lifetime of Paul Naschy fascination for the Duke and me, making it the first-ever review on the site was a no-brainer.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Barbara Crampton Week: FINALE!
Greetings, Parishioners! It's the Vicar of VHS here, stepping out from behind the usual obfuscation of text in order to bring you this glorious, multimedia capper Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies' Barbara Crampton Theme Week!
From 2005 to 2008 I wrote and edited for the horror magazine City Slab, which was published out of Seattle. The magazine is sadly defunct now, but we did some good work there that I'm still very proud of. At any rate, in 2007 I went to the FearFest Horror Convention in Mesquite, Texas, ostensibly to drum up interviews for the magazine-- but really I had one goal that I focused on with laser-like precision: to meet and talk to Scream Queen extraordinaire Barbara Crampton, star of such mad movie favorites as From Beyond, Castle Freak, Chopping Mall, and of course 1985's Re-Animator, wherein her fearless performance had a far-reaching formative influence on legions of pimply, pubescent horror fans of the era--not least your ever-lovin' Vicar. That I managed to do so without having a heart attack, slobbering all over my convention pass, or collapsing in a heap of quivering, worshipful goo is, I think, a testament to my consummate skills as a journalist.
Unfortunately we never used the resultant interview for a City Slab feature, but I held on to the audio file all these months, my favorite souvenir of my trip to that deliciously smoke-flavored Dallas Suburb. And today I'm proud to present it to you, as a pyrotechnic closing entry for our wildly successful Barbara Crampton Week. So without further ado, please enjoy my EXCLUSIVE 2007 interview with the central figure in the dreams of countless undersexed horror nerds and the ruin of God knows how many VCR rewind mechanisms, the lovely and talented Barbara Crampton!
Click the player below to listen in wonder!
If you prefer to put a little Vicar in your pocket (or if the streaming has issues), you can download the interview mp3 from here: http://rapidshare.com/files/256679055/crampton_interview_final.mp3. It's free, you just have to wait a minute. ;)
ETA: Don't be thrown off by the crap editing immediately before we talk about Barbara's daytime TV work--though it seems nonsensical, it's actually part of a deeply personally meaningful system of symbols and resonances akin to David Lynch's most nonlinear storytelling. ART, people. :P
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Barbara Crampton Week: Episode Two!
Greetings dearest friends, it is I, the Duke of DVD, spilling forth like a bloated fetus from the womb of opulence to enthrall you with another journey into the depraved minds of mmmmad movie makers, where the men are insane and the freaks (particularly those from castles) engage in bloody cunnilingus with sleazy Italian prostitutes. No, I’m not talking about the Vicar’s last garden féte; I’m instead referring to the stunning genius that is Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak.
Following the success of Gordon’s epic Re-Animator, Gordon decided he needed to crank it up a few more notches and make a movie bereft of the laughs in Re-Animator instead focusing solely on the horror, which Castle Freak has in spades. Our movie opens with a wrinkled old hag preparing a meager meal of bread and few sausage slices. After giving her cat some milk, she travels down to a dungeon. Seems she’s got herself a freak, a Castle Freak no less, and of course before a Freak can eat he must be whipped. Taking a cat-o’-nine-tails off the wall, she does just that, whipping him bloody, before finally feeding him and locking the door.
As she’s leaving, she grabs her chest and sags a little, the whipping having taken a lot out of her. She moseys back up to her bedroom and suffers what appears to be a heart attack, but not before kicking the cat-o’-nine-tails up under the bed, next to a giant wooden phallus and a copy of the Vicar’s autobiography, “Browneye For The Corpulent: A Vicar’s Tale”. We then flash forward a few weeks to meet the Riley family, freshly arrived in Italy. It seems the old hag was none other than a Duchess, who died without any immediate heirs, thus leaving the hapless John Riley (Jeffery Combs) to inherit her castle.
What a castle it is! Castle Freak is shot almost entirely inside and around a real Italian castle, which happened to be owned by the head of the studio fronting the movie, Full Moon Entertainment. The massive edifice has dozens of rooms, a stocked wine cellar, and plenty of Freak storage. Riley arrives with his wife Susan, played by the scrumptious Barbara Crampton, and his blind teenage daughter Rebecca, played by the slightly decent-looking Jessica Dollarhide. Riley wastes no time in trying to cash in on his inheritance, quickly grabbing a clipboard to begin writing down what all he can sell.
He takes Rebecca with him and together they explore the castle. It is revealed rather quickly that John and his wife are on the outs, but the cause is not immediately known. Patience, dear readers! Exploring the castle, the daughter and dad team discover lots of sheet-covered furniture, lots of paintings with skulls in them, and a withered old housekeeper, who informs them that supper will consist of boiled cabbage and week-old bread. Whilst exploring, John finds an old photo album, which quickly engrosses him. His neglect allows his blind daughter to roam off in search of the origin of a scratching noise she keeps hearing.
Turns out it’s the old Duchess’s cat, a tabby feline with a penchant for meowing every 3 seconds. Following the kitty, she descends into the dungeon, where she discovers the Freak’s cell. Not being able to see, she is overcome with fear and flees, waking the Freak in the process. While he’s too late to try and make a grab for some teenage meat, the cat isn’t so lucky. The freak devours most of the cat, and thus pumped up with the power of the other other other white meat, he quickly bites his own thumb off in order to free himself from his shackles (leaving one hand still chained). It doesn’t take him long to bash his cell door down after this. The Freak is free!
Meanwhile, after having another argument with his wife, we see why John and his woman are currently sleeping in separate rooms, though his wife is obviously struggling to forgive him. Seems John, a lover of strong drink, drove his car into a tree, only he happened to be transporting his daughter and young son at the time. The daughter ended up blind, and the son ended up dead, a fact that his wife can’t forgive. The housekeeper also catches us up on the local castle lore. Seems the Duchess had a son named George and a husband who was also prone to drinking. In a drunken bender, poor Georgie is killed, driving the Duchess to murderous extremes.
Now that the plot devices are explained, let’s get back to the Freak. Seems his living in a dungeon and being whipped at dinner time for all his life hasn’t helped his complexion any. One of the first things he does is smashes a mirror in a hallway in the castle upon seeing his reflection. Riley chalks it up to expanding wood, but we know wood won’t be expanded until later. That night, the Freak sneaks into Rebecca’s room and pulls the covers off her to gawk at her nubile young body. She awakes, and senses someone in the room. Screaming about it to her parents only brings admonishment.
John begins a search of the castle, just to make sure. This brings us a fantastic scene where John goes through a previously visited room where all the furniture is covered by sheets. The Freak impersonates one of them using a sheet of his own and mimicking a chair, to great effect! While searching, John finds the family wine cellar and the family crypt. In the crypt, he sees poor George’s ossuary, and is stunned to find that young George looks just like his dearly departed JJ! He drags his wife down to look, only to discover the picture is missing! One quickly figures out that not all is as it seems in this castle, oh no!
Seeing a picture that reminds him of his son, not to mention having the feeling that he’s constantly being watched (he is, by Le Freak), Riley goes straight to a nearby bar in the small village near the castle. He first drinks enough booze to poleaxe a team of oxen, and then picks up the first Italian poon he can lay his eyes on. Dragging her back to the castle, they raid the wine cellar. One bottle of Chateau du Fuck 1932 later and they are both randy as barn owls.
What follows is a fairly graphic sex scene in which John numbs up the hooker’s breasts and then proceeds to do some Olympic-level muff diving. The Castle Freak shows up to enjoy the show from the cheap seats, his addled brain filling with sexual desire and deviancy. After giving the wench a good rogering and paying her off, John collapses in his own filth while the prostitute makes her way out of the castle. Before you can say “Don’t worry, it’s me Casper,” the Freak jumps out, wraps a sheet around her head, and drags her off to the dungeon!
Remember that shackle that the Freak left on his non-maimed arm? He starts putting it to good use. First he shackles the prostitute to himself and starts kissing her as best he knows how. He doesn’t have much to go on, since his only exposure to kissing was seeing a drunken, sweaty Jeffery Combs rubbing his lips all over a hairy Italian hosehound, but he seems to get the general idea. The chick, sensing that her only way out might be to appease this grotesque creature, starts to act like she’s a little into it. She pulls back his ghost sheet and we get an image that will likely haunt my dreams until the end times. Gordon should be drawn and quartered for forcing the viewer to see the mutilated genitalia of the Freak. He’s missing his penis oh yes, but even more unfortunately for the viewer is that he retains his coin purse, which resembles a weighted, graying grouping of kiwi. Hairy, wrinkled kiwi.
After witnessing the horror of the Freak’s dangly bits, she grabs a nearby wine bottle and cuts the Freak’s arm. Enraged, he holds her up on the wall, rips her top open, and bites off her left nipple! This shocking bit of violence is only a warm-up for what’s about to happen. The next day, the cops show up, looking for the prostitute, who was seen leaving with John but never arrived home afterwards. Taking this as the last straw, Barbara loads up the car and kid and tries to leave, only to be told by the cops that she needs to stick around while her husband is investigated.
Elsewhere, the housekeeper can’t keep herself from snooping, and finally shuffles down to the dungeon to see what’s what. Walking into the Freak’s cell she is greeted by a sight indeed: the Freak, on all fours, messily eating pussy once again, only this time it isn’t the feline version! There’s just as much blood, however. The Freak doesn’t like this interruption and immediately whips the housekeeper to death with his loose shackle. This attack, I must admit, is brilliant in its brutality. Just when I think this film can’t shock me any more, it manages to do so.
John is meanwhile becoming more and more manic. Accused of murder, and knowing good and well that something isn’t right with this whole “George” story, he enters a new stage of paranoia-fueled rage. Grabbing a handy shovel from the closet, he leads the cops and his wife down to the family crypt, whereupon he opens George’s casket, finding it empty! It seems that young George didn’t die at all, and is instead none other than the Castle Freak! Through flashbacks and musings of old housekeepers, we can piece the puzzle together. The Duchess, overcome by her husband’s idiocy, assumes all men are evil penis-wielders and must be punished. Unfortunately, poor Georgie is the target.
The cops of course aren’t buying John’s story. He’s taken to the police station while two other cops are left to stand guard for Barb and the kid. Very quickly the cops are dispatched by the Freak. One is choked using the Freak’s handy shackle chain, the other has his face bitten off. The cops dealt with, Le Freak runs through the castle, sheet billowing, balls swinging like some Great Dane in the park, straight to Rebecca’s room. He knocks Barbara’s head against the doorframe and absconds with the blind girl.
Arming herself with a kitchen knife, Crampton looks like she means business, and heads off to save her daughter. Meanwhile, John is still at the police station, but escapes after getting the jump on one of them. He hurries off to the castle. Mean-meanwhile, the Freak has shackled young Rebecca up to the wall and tries showing her the picture of himself, stolen from the crypt. Not realizing she can’t see, he gets angry and starts to disrobe her. Leaving me at half-mast, he’s interrupted by mommy, who, in an attempt to distract du Freak, hurriedly unbuttons and opens her shirt, giving us a quick teat shot that reminds us why we love Barbara Crampton so very, very much. Suitably distracted, the creature doesn’t notice the knife until it’s sticking in-between his shoulder blades.
Fleeing in pain, the Freak jumps out a window but quickly recovers and begins to give chase as Barb and blind girl flee. Sack flopping, he bellows as he pursues, finally cornering the girls on the roof, in the rain no less. John arrives just in the nick of time and begins a final showdown that I fear I just can’t spoil. Your assignment, dear readers, is to watch Castle Freak and bask in the glory.
To sum things up, I fucking LOVED this movie. It really contains none of the black comedy of Re-Animator and is instead a brutal, disturbing movie that will stick with you for a while after viewing. The effects used to bring the Freak to life are fantastic, castrated penis and all. The performances are top notch as well. Jeff Combs really comes to life, growing increasingly manic as the movie goes on. The underlying concept of the movie is fantastic as well. A grieving Duchess, a tortured Freak whose only crime was to be born a man, bloody Italian cooter munching, knife-wielding Crampton-capades: what doesn’t this movie have, I ask?!
Even though Crampton doesn’t really get naked much at all, we still love her for this role. She plays the anguished wife well, bouncing back and forth between hate for her husband and forgiveness because she really does love him. All of that flies out the window, however, when he bangs a hooker in the family wine cellar. Not sure what the big deal is--I mean, he’s a man isn’t he? He has needs! Combs rocks it as John, as I said, and the girl does a decent job being blind. Jonathan Fuller does a fantastic job as George the Castle Freak. He hisses with rage and pain believably, and knows just the right hunched gait to affect in order to make his pendulous testicles sway hypnotically.
With more than enough brutal nipple biting, shackle swinging beat-downs, and cat-eating to spare, Castle Freak should have nothing less than top honors: Three Thumbs Up.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Barbara Crampton Week: Episode One!
There exists, although its numbers are very few, a class of movies that approach cinematic perfection. Films in which every directorial and scriptwriting decision appears to have been the right one, in which the cast seems perfectly suited to their roles from the star right down to the nonspeaking extras, where the slightest change in editing or music or set design would necessarily be for the worse. Casablanca. The Godfather. My Life as a Dog. These movies approach the apotheosis of their genres, and stand as shining monuments of their creators' genius to which others can only aspire. Movies that are, for all intents and purposes, perfect.
Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) may well be the perfect B-movie.
If you were a horror geek coming of age in the 1980s, as I was, Re-Animator hit you like an atom bomb. With its mix of mad science, incredible effects, hilarious black humor and sex sex SEX, the movie couldn't help but impress itself inexpungably on the brains of an entire generation of horror fans. It made a horror superstar not only of its director, but an instant icon of Jeffrey Combs for his legend-making performance as Mad Scientist nonpareil Herbert West, and a Scream Queen par excellence and permanent Vicar's Happy Place-resident of Barbara Crampton as the plucky, innocent, and fearlessly naked damsel in distress Meg Halsey. It didn't hurt Richard Band's reputation as a horror-score composer, either.
I'd wager it's hard to be a horror fan worth your salt these days and NOT be intimately familiar with the movie's plot, but for the benefit of those under the age of twenty who've been weaned on PG-13 horrors and needless remake/reboots, here's the Readers' Digest version: kicked out of medical school in Sweden after a shocking pre-credits experiment goes awry and leads to his mentor's eyeballs exploding out of his head (could have happened to anybody), neuroscientist prodigy Herbert West (Combs) transfers to Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his research. Needing a place to live and work undisturbed by prying eyes, West answers a "Roommate Wanted" ad posted by clean-cut med student Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott), who just happens to be dating Megan (Crampton), daughter of Miskatonic U's puritanical Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson). West wastes no time getting on the wrong side of the college's eminent neurosurgeon and grant-machine Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who also has a creepy-old-man affection for Meg. When West uses his dayglo-green chemical reagent to re-animate Dan's dead cat and draw his roommate into the wonderful world of Mad Science, it's not long before neon-accented, goopy-gory hell breaks loose.
In my previous gushing review of Stuart Gordon's follow-up to Re-Animator, the also-gobsmackingly-wonderful Lovecraft-inspired From Beyond, I marveled at how Gordon never seems to waste a single frame of film, instead packing every minute of screentime with more symbolism, resonant images, and forward-thrusting fun than dozens of lesser films contain in their entire runtimes. In Re-Animator, Gordon and frequent collaborator/scriptwriter Dennis Paoli similarly hit on all cylinders, never spending time on anything that won't come pay off in spades later. The economy with which Gordon fleshes out his characters, for instance, is a master class of show-vs.-tell movie-making. In twenty minutes he's not only introduced all the principals and deftly established their motivations and eccentricities (West's mad genius, Dan's fear of/desire to conquer Death, Dr. Hill's egotistical narcissism) but he's also given us at least two memorable gore scenes--the pre-credits disaster and Dr. Hill's lecture on cranial autopsy techniques, which also wittily and wonderfully sets up West and Hill's antagonism--and a glorious love/nude scene from Ms. Crampton--a scene that also is not gratuitous, but serves to impart necessary information to the audience about her character and her relationship with Dan.
When Dan goes to Dean Halsey to tell him about West's groundbreaking discovery, the Dean's overly harsh reaction makes sense in light of his previously established puritanical bent and his feeling that no one is good enough for his daughter, least of all an irresponsible med student exposing her to a madman's experiments. His loans revoked, his relationship with Meg in a shambles, and his dream-career in jeopardy, Dan suddenly has a vested interest in helping West procure subjects for his experiments--if he can prove the prodigy has indeed conquered brain death, the Dean will have no choice but to rescind his punishments. Of course things go terribly, horrifyingly wrong in the morgue, and a rogue musclebound corpse murders the Dean before Cain and West can neutralize it. West sees the Dean as a perfect test subject, and Cain agrees because he doesn't think Meg would see him the same if she knew he was partially responsible for her dad's death.
The slavering, brain-damaged beast the Dean becomes makes Dr. Hill the Big Man on Campus, and also starts him wondering whether West really has re-created life. Blackmailing the young scientist into handing over his notes and reagent so that he can steal the glory, Hill is distracted by a microscope slide long enough to allow West to decapitate him with a shovel! (I'm going to go ahead and call a spade a Frankenstein-reference.) Unable to resist a fresh corpse, even in pieces, West injects both parts with his reagent. Of course like so many mad scientists before him, he has CREATED A MONSTER! Dr. Hill, toting his own head under his arm, escapes the scene, leading to a confrontation in the hospital that will involve an army of re-animated corpses, proof courtesy Dean Halsey of the persistence of personality after death, and the most re-wound/re-watched minute of videotape in the history of horror movies, courtesy the smokin' hawt Ms. Crampton and an absolutely monumental visual pun.
I've seen Re-Animator many, many times now (certain parts of it even more than others), and it never fails to sweep me up in its breakneck pace, amazing practical effects, and fantastic sense of gallows humor. Jeffrey Combs, in the role he was clearly BORN to play, just freaking OWNS it from frame one, investing his line readings and mannerisms with such delicious arrogance, intelligence, and MADNESS that most viewers would not be surprised to find out the actor actually had a basement full of bubbling beakers and body parts where he spends his hobby time. (He doesn't...as far as I know.) A scientific cipher for most of the movie, he inhabits the character so thoroughly that his one moment of real humanity--when in shock from the undead cat's attack, he plays an ill-timed joke on Dan and collapses in nervous laughter--is less "out of nowhere" than a surprising look behind his mask of SCIENCE. A tour de force performance than I never tire of watching.
I never used to be as big a Bruce Abbott fan as many reviewers, but over my last few viewings I've come to appreciate the quiet intensity he brings to the "Everyman" role, how his desire to do good gradually leads him into more and more outrageous situations as the script's fiendishly constructed domino pattern tumbles around him. And David Gale incredibly matches Combs parry-and-thrust in the Mad Scientist Wars, making you believe that below that calm, intense surface lies a world of madness and horror just waiting to be tapped. And when it IS tapped via West's impromptu craniectomy and ill-advised chemical jump-start, you believe there's no limit to what this madman will do. And you're right.
(Deleted scenes and commentary on the special edition DVD of the film reveal that originally there was a lengthy subplot to do with Hill's Svengali-like mental powers, which enabled him to hypnotize other characters like a snake and was meant to be the explanation for his ability to think and speak post-death when everyone else became an inarticulate zombie. Gordon wisely decided that "there was enough going on in the movie already," and cut all those scenes. It's a testament to the intensity of Gale's performance that his incredible willpower is more than evident without it, and that I for one never questioned his personality survival.)
I've waxed poetic (and otherwise, IYKWIM) about Barbara Crampton's performance in this movie more than once on this site, but it bears repeating: she is a wonderful actress at the top of her game here, juggling Meg's devotion to her father with her love for Dan in a believable, dramatic way--a subtlety of performance that many a lesser actress would have overlooked, opting instead to be the spoiled teenager counting her father a villain and her boyfriend a hero without further depth. She establishes her Scream Queen worthiness with several ear-piercing shrieks and facial expressions that would make Evelyn Ankers proud to call her "sister." And her bravery and devotion to the cause of practical effects-horror is well-documented. Barbara, I love you. You made me the man I am today.
Re-watching the flick for this review, I picked up on a lot of images and techniques that had escaped me before. Gordon never misses an opportunity for a resonant image and often quotes early scenes later in the movie to subtle but wonderful effect. For instance, in Meg and Dan's initial love scene, Dan pulls the covers up over his head and rises from the bed like a sheet-covered corpse; it's all playful and giggly here (though Meg is clearly disturbed as she laughs), but of course is a direct foreshadowing of later events, when Meg will be similarly menaced. More fun that that one are the trio of "Wall Splat" scenes--first when Dan flings his zombie cat against the wall, directly echoed by the muscular zombie tossing Dean Halsey at the bricks (even down to the blood spot!), and capped by the zombified Halsey pitching Hill's head at the wall like a fastball! If you don't cheer every time, get out of my club. And a regular recurrence of extremely effective over-the-shoulder POV shots serves to put the viewer in a given character's place, further immersing the audience in the film.
I said at the beginning of this rave that Re-Animator may be the perfect B-movie, and I stand by that. The essence of a B-movie, in my opinion, involves its bigger-than-life intensity, its ability to excite, thrill, and perhaps terrify, and a certain childlike glee that would seem indecorous in an A-list feature. Re-Animator has all these in spades, and its sheen has not dulled in the twenty or so times it's passed my eyeballs. Of course there's no accounting for taste, and there may well be some of you out there who don't understand all the hubbub I and other fans make over a silly little sci-fi/horror movie from the 80s, pointing out occasionally iffy effects (like the cat-puppet and Dr. Hill's dickey-o-flesh), questionable motivations ("Overdose theory"? WTF?), and the like. If so, allow me to take this opportunity to say: fuck you.
To rate this movie properly, I would need to collect all the thumbs ever lost in shop classes and industrial accidents, stitch them all togehter into some kind of gigantic Koosh-style Thumb Ball, and inject it with Herbert West's reagent to set it a-wigglin'. In short, Off the Thumb Scale. Watch it again; you won't be sorry.
Come back Wednesday for Crampton Week, Episode Two: The Duke of DVD's take on another Gordon/Combs/Crampton mmmmmasterpiece!