Friday, September 28, 2007

The Bell from Hell (1973): or, He's a Dead Ringer

Now THIS is what is so great about all those dollar dvds and budget public domain sets the Duke and I have become addicted to! For every few stinkers and so-bad-they're-funny freakouts you find, you'll come across some forgotten, unknown gem of cinema, some movie that for one reason or another fell by the wayside but can still jump up and knock your socks off. I'm thinking Messiah of Evil. I'm thinking Castle of Blood. And now, I'm thinking the 1973 French/Spanish production La Campana del Infierno, aka The Bell from Hell.

Borrowing equally from Hitchcock, Bava, and Luis Buñuel, but with a wicked little streak all its own, this is a movie that crawls inside your head and stays there. Great acting, wonderful cinematography, and a story that never lets you get comfortable and always keeps you guessing what will happen next--The Bell from Hell is an unknown masterpiece that I'd never have watched if not for the public domain dvd profiteers who, let's face it, could care less what they put out there. Still, they deserve the thanks of cinematic treasure hunters like us, especially when they preserve booty like this.

We open with a beautifully photographed and puzzling scene in which our protagonist/antihero John is sitting calmly in a cell-like room, waiting for the plaster on his face to dry. He's apparently making a bust of himself as part of some personal hobby--we won't find out the results until later. Once that's all done we learn that John is a guest at a mental institution, from which he is about to be released. Once he's out we follow him on a trip via motorcycle to his old home town, where he reacquaints himself with his aunt, his three lovely female cousins, and an old flame who just married a rich older man with political connections in the town.

John, before he cracks up.

Along the way he takes a job for a few days at a slaughterhouse (quitting when he tells his foreman, ominously, "I've learned enough!"), and also meets with a strange old wood-dwelling hermit and the old man's mute, nubile young daughter, leading to one of many memorable dialog exchanges in the film:

The hermit: "When you were born, already Satan dealt the cards!"
John (smiling in a blank, evil way): "Maybe--but I'LL play them!"

The director(s) keep us in suspense about what exactly is going on with John and where the story is going, but give us just enough intrigue to keep us following along, desperate for the next piece of the puzzle. Bit by bit we learn that John had been confined for allegedly attempting to rape one of his cousins--and indeed, he does have a strangely close relationship with the youngest of his relatives, the gorgeous Maribel Martín (who also made an impression in The Blood-Spattered Bride). The plot is thicker than that, however, as we soon learn that John's Aunt Marta, his legal guardian and mother of the girls, is in charge of John's mother's estate (and riches) so long as John is not "competent." Was John really insane, or did his aunt have him committed so she and her daughters could live in luxury? At times even John seems not to be sure.

That uncertainty haunts both us and the characters and more facets of John's personality are revealed. He is a practical joker par excellence, as demonstrated by a wonderful scene early on where he scares the pants off his old flame's husband with a very creepy and well-timed ghost story. But the jokes turn disturbing when, after telling his old flame how he'd rather rip out his eyes than do her harm, he appears to do just that! Through this we learn not only that John is a master of makeup and disguise, but also that he is more than a little messed up, and more than a little scary because of it.

As the film progresses and John's jokes become more and more pointed, more and more edgy, we begin to wonder just how far he's willing to go--and to what purpose. It all comes to a head when, after some cryptic but fascinating preparations, John invites his Aunt Marta and her daughters to the house for an evening of revelations and surprises, which soon devolves into an amazing unfolding of John's plans leading up a powerhouse conclusion that calls Hostel to mind, more than 30 years earlier. What happens as a result of this evening--and what happens after, just when you think everything's been tied up--has to be seen to be appreciated. I was shocked, delighted, and creeped out--and more important, still thinking it through as the disc finished playing. And even now.

This ain't no party; this ain't no disco.
This ain't no foolin' around!

This is a movie it would be criminal to spoil, so I'll just leave off with the plot summary there. Suffice to say the story is fantastic, and keeps you thinking long after the final strains of music cease. (Just WHO was it that got the last laugh?)

But I can still talk about some of the other things the movie gets right--which is just about everything. The acting is great from top to bottom--Renaud Verley as John is a standout, very cold and calculating, never letting anyone past the flat plastic-like surface of his devilish, impish insanity. The cousins are interesting characters each in their own right, and Aunt Marta is, as one reviewer put it, the very picture of rural aristocratic decay--a theme you'll see played out a lot in the imagery of the film.

And what wonderful imagery! Some truly amazing artistic compositions pepper this film, and the cinematography is so great it shines through the admittedly substandard print on the 50 Chilling Classics set. The repeated imagery of the village church's new bell, which is being hauled to town and installed as the lurid events of John's saga play out, work so well as a metaphorical motif that when it moves from a symbol to an actor in the events, it's quite a shock. Other shots use extreme close-ups of beautiful objects in the foreground to obscure the sordid stuff going on behind it--such as the lovely, vivid red roses pushed right up to the camera as, behind them, John completes the crime for which he was incarcerated. Fascinating, beautiful stuff, and always with a storytelling purpose. When a movie's scenery is as much fun to look at as the focal action, you know the director is an artist.

And about that director: Claudio Guerín famously fell to his death from the bell tower in which the title object was being hung, close to the end of principal shooting on The Bell from Hell. I think it's a real shame--if this movie is any indication, he would have been one of the great ones. But props must be given to Juan Antonio Bardem, who took the footage Guerin shot and edited it together in a tight, disturbing package that grabs you and won't let you go.

The only downside I can think of is one that wasn't the film's fault--the audio on the dvd is very, very bad, so low sometimes it was hard to understand what was being said. Still, it didn't prevent my enjoyment; it just cemented my determination to get a better copy if it's ever fully restored--if it even CAN be, given the state of many of these "lost" films.

But in whatever form, I'm very glad I saw it. Three thumbs, easily. Find yourself a copy. This is one to go out of your way for.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Devil Times Five (1974): or, Our Gang Goes to Hell

Or, It’s Like the Little Rascals, If Buckwheat Thought He Was Rambo, Spanky Was a Transvestite, Darla Was a Nun, and Her Two Sisters Were a Pyro and a Psycho Tot, Respectively.

Boy, this movie was not what I was expecting it to be at all! Looking at the (wonderfully creepy) poster, you might well expect that the film unspooling before you was destined to be some kind of creepy, Village of the Damned or Omen-type thing. Killer kids, expressionless, strangely innocent and menacing, with the well-meaning adults drawn into their cold web of childish, reasonless death. What you get instead is a relentlessly bizarre flick where everyone in it is acting like they’re in a comedy, even though the subject matter isn’t funny and people keep getting killed in gory ways. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but if you saw it, you’d understand.

A van transporting five dangerously insane juveniles from one place to another crashes on an icy road, knocking the driver unconscious and releasing the little devils out onto an unsuspecting populace. Meanwhile, a buff-but-balding boyo is headed up to the mountains with his hawt little blonde wife to spend some time with her rich, domineering father--wonderfully named “Papa Doc”--in hopes of making the young man’s future brighter. Also coming up to the lodge is Papa Doc’s sycophant Harvey and his lush of a wife, and Papa Doc’s verrry loose trophy wife, who goes by the name “Lovely” and has apparently got some history with Buff-but-Balding Rick.

Of course the kids end up at the lodge too, there’s a lot of padding (including an amazing black-and-white kill sequence in the basement that goes on for five-minutes in SUPER SLOW MOTION), and then in the last 15 minutes all holy hell breaks loose as the kids go on a killing rampage that boggles the mind in its inventiveness and what-the-fuckery.

Let me repeat--this is one bizarre, inept movie. According to what I’ve read, the first cut the director submitted came in at 48 mins. Therefore reshoots were done much, MUCH later to pad it out to feature length. This explains why many of the actors sometimes seem to be in scenes by themselves, why the walls in some rooms change colors, and why one of the child actors (future pop star and Tiger Beat cover-boy Leif Garret!) is sometimes inexplicably wearing a huge, BAD wig--he’d had his hair cut between shoots for another role. Wild.

Go ahead, call me Sean Cassidy again.
I fucking DARE YOU!

Still, there’s a lot to love here--the different “psychoses” of the kids are hilarious. One kid thinks he’s a Rambo-type soldier, Leif fancies himself a movie star and in certain scenes dresses up in women’s clothes, the eldest girl wants to be called “sister” and dresses as a nun, one girl has a flamethrower for a lighter, and the littlest tyke seems normal, but turns out alarmingly psycho. Far from being silent and menacing, these kids are literally like Hal Roach's Our Gang from Hell, cracking jokes, bickering, and playing around while they plan the deaths of their elders. And who is the mysterious "George" that the kids all refer to with respect and fear, but who never shows up in the flick? It's a mystery, and one that keeps me awake at night.

The kids are not the only weird thing in this movie, though, not by a long shot. The adults are just as wicked goofy. For instance: an Of Mice and Men–style “Lenny” character (who looks strangely familiar…omg, he's the spitting image of the Duke of DVD!) who is the caretaker and has some...strange moments with the nun kid; Lovely tries to seduce the 'tard, part of a Mill Creek Theme (see also Funeral Home); there's an out-of-nowhere catfight with some fantastic editing (occasioning many literal LOLs); we're treated to one of the most amazing bathtub kills EVAR; and near the end, when the last lone survivor is trying to sneak past the kids to freedom, we get an amazing, totally unexpected “Dude, YOU’RE F*CKED!” moment that made me shake my head in disbelief.

There's something special here going on here, no mistake. Cheesy 70s score, boom mic shadows, alcoholism played for comedy--this flick has it all. I was grinning like an idiot whenever I wasn’t gasping in shock.

Now I don't want to give the impression this is a bloodfest--there’s actually very little gore, and what is there is pretty badly realized--but man, it’s just such a WEIRD movie. The actors play all their lines like they’re in a sit-com, even when it’s wildly inappropriate to do so, lending a surreal, slightly disturbing dissonance, like the sit-com episodes from Natural Born Killers, but not as nasty. Also upping the surreal score is the fact that some fairly big-name stars of the time were in this--there’s Leif, of course, and his real life sister and mother also have roles (mom plays “Lovely,” who is frequently nude; wonder if they used to screen this at family dinners?); Papa Doc is played by country/western singer Gene Evans with broad, hard-edged assholery; pert blond Joan MacCall was apparently a soap star (therefore I call her "TV's Joan"); and the wimpy henchman Harvey who comes into his own too late is played by a nearly unrecognizable Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke!

Dagnabbit! How'd them Dukes find me in gol'durn VERMONT?

Inventive kills, LOL dialogue and acting, and some serious WTF moments make this one a one-stop entertainment shop. 2.65 thumbs, and highly recommended to lovers of the cheesy and the strange. Thank you once again, 50 Chilling Classics!


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Images in a Convent (1979): or, How to Have Fun by Having Nun

What can one say about Joe D'Amato's 1979 film Images in a Convent? Well, lots of things, starting with "ZANG!" Though the action takes place entirely inside the walls of a convent, D'Amato's approach to the subject is anything but "conventional" (see what I did there?) as he gives us a bevy of Brides of Christ whose main devotions seem to be to the løøstful arts.

The story, what there is of it, is briefly told: a Countess or Duchess or something whose father has died is sent to the convent for her own protection, as her løøstful uncle is, well, løøsting after her, both bodily and financially. The girl herself is no angel, as a flashback sequence between her and Uncle Bellybumper shows in no uncertain terms. Will her godless, worldly ways bring the Devil himself to this holiest of convents?

Well, the Devil DOES show up in the form of a young artist and student of statuary, but to be quite honest, he's a little late. By the time he arrives the Duchess has already been molested in her sleep by one of her new sisters (talk about your sound sleepers!), and said sister has been whipped profoundly by her superior, only later to have the elder nun kiss her little boo-boos (and hoo-ha) and make them all better. And it only goes downhill from there. While the duchess's Machiavellian machinations to escape the convent with her statuesque and possibly Satanic lover (presumably so she can get back to Uncle Hornious Doggius) don't help matters any, one gets the feeling that even without her arrival it wouldn't have been long before the whole place devolved into a Bacchanalian orgy of truly Olympic proportions and stamina.

Other things happen as the story unfolds: the duchess tries to gauge the artist's trustworthiness by setting him up with a less experienced but money-hungry sister, with predictable results; the artist tries to force his own Ionic Pillar on the Mother Superior; the whipper and whipee who earlier made whoopee indulge in several more excursions into saintly sadism; and the whipper is later sent on an errand that ends quite badly, if you consider a floppy phalanx of phalluses to the face to be a bad end, which I'm not at all sure she does.

There's some worry about the convent having been built on the site of a pagan temple, and the "unknown god" sculpture that remains seems to exert some diabolical influence. (Why? Why would they build a convent, a house of God, but LEAVE the idolatrous statuary that looks like nothing more than Satan's Sunday portrait?) But really, it's hardly necessary--these sisters were on their way down well before the Devil showed his horned head.

The film was shot nicely with some beautiful sets, and the plot was serviceable to the real raison d'etre of the film, which was to show cavorting nuns. In that it succeeds like gangbusters. The eyecandy is quite nice, the twists of the plot suitably sacrilegious and perverse (the exorcist's fate is quite a good touch, I think), there are some truly surprising and explicit scenes (wooden arts and crafts, the aforementioned violent conquest of Nunia) and after the end credits roll the whole thing makes you want to go take a shower--with a nun.

I give it 2.5 out of 3 thumbs. I wasn't bored, I was titillated, and I had a good time. Bonus for the trailers on the first of the two-disc special edition DVD and for the long-winded but still fun-to-watch-on-fast-forward documentary on disc 2 about the films of Joe D'Amato, whose filmography I'm going to have to investigate further. Definitely one of the most 'sploitative of the nunsploitation genre I've seen, and that's not a bad thing at all.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Ghost (1963): or, Gin and Sin Up Cripple Creek

Let's see what we've got here: Dr. Hichcock [sic], a brilliant but and pathologically unpleasant physician studying the efficacy of toxins in treating paralysis. Crippled by his own experiments, Hichcock is married to cold-hearted, beautiful bitch Margaret (Barbara Steele, doe-eyed and deadly as ever) and under the care of young and handsome but similarly niceness-challenged Dr. Charles Livingstone. Figuring he's not long for this world due to his quadriplegia, Dr. Hichcock is conducting nightly seances with the help of live-in medium-cum-housekeeper Harriet. Further, Hichcock is convinced that nightly doses of the deadly paralyzing poison curare quickly followed the the antidote will shock his system into recovery, and Livingstone is the only physician crazy or unscrupulous enough to administer the regimen. What he's not aware of is that Margaret and Charles are having a torrid, fully-ambulatory affair, and before you can say "Move that glass of antidote a little closer!" she's convinced her boy-toy to cure Hichcock PERMANENTLY so that they can split the estate and live dastardly ever after. But a last-minute change in the old man's will strands them at the estate after his funeral, looking for hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling in cash and jewelry before the solicitors can claim it for the orphan's home. And of course it's not long before Dr. Hichcock starts making things hard on the lovers, seemingly FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE...

With me so far?

About fifteen minutes into 1963's The Ghost (aka Lo Spettro), I thought I had nothing in front of me but 75 more minutes of boredom. There's melodrama and then there's melodrama, and then there's the acting in Lo Spettro. While part of the overblown delivery of each and every line is perhaps a natural consequence of the film being post-dubbed in English--and none too well--still, the dialog and writing were so far over the top as to be annoying, but not quite far enough to be amusing. Hichcock gloating with his evil grin, reminiscing about the olden days before his accident ("I was a MAN then!"), while Barbara Steele absolutely drips disgust and bullies the young Dr. Livingstone around like a schoolboy. A group of unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, and not even in particularly entertaining ways. Who wants to watch that?

But then something happened--Babs and Chuck finally get around to murdering the old man--and director Riccardo Freda finally seemed to find his groove and started hitting it, HARD. While the old housekeeper looks on disapprovingly (her continued employment is a condition of Dr. Hichcock's will), Margaret and Charles look for the missing loot, their passion and patience with each other wearing thin. And then--THEN--the haunting starts.

And what a well-done haunting it is! Sitting in the parlor one night after the funeral, wondering where all the money could be, Margaret and Charles are surprised by the sound of squeaking wheels from the doctor's study! They rush out to the stairway in time to see the door to the study open, and in a wonderful low-angle shot we see the shadow of the doctor's wheelchair creeping inexorably toward the stairs. Then in a scene that presages the pantaloons-filling sequence from The Changeling by 17 years, the chair comes out, empty, squeaking incessantly, and barrels toward them down the stairs! It's a wonderfully creepy scene, and gave me the goosebumps, I don't mind telling you.

Apparently agreeing never to speak of the incident again, Babs and Charlie continue their search. (Really, it never even comes up in conversation. If it were me, I'd be all, "Holy shit! Remember the other night when that squeaky chair came out and freaked up ALL our shit? What the fuck are we still doing here?") After a helpful tip from the housekeeper leads them to believe that the key to the doctor's safe might have been buried with him, the lovers go to the old man's crypt and disinter him in the name of filthy lucre. It's another moody, chilling set piece, and by this point I was totally into the flick, anxious to see what would happen next.

"You want me to do WHAT? Hell no, not for scale I won't."

Well, a LOT happens next. Finding the safe empty, the lovers get increasingly irritated with each other. Not enough to stop rolling in the linen together, though, and Lo Spettro de Hichcock makes his displeasure known by dripping blood on their bedsheets from the ceiling and manifesting himself in the attic as a hanged corpse. Yikes! But when the maid puts a bug in Barb's ear that she found some of the Doctor's jewelry in amongst Livingstone's things, Ms. Steele starts to wonder whether Chuck is playing her for a chump. Her nerves, already on edge, snap, and we get an amazing razor-blade murder scene that literally has the blood flowing down the lens, in glorious Technicolor. WOW.

The ending might disappoint some viewers, both from its clichéd trappings and its implausibility:

>>>SPOILERS>>> (swipe with mouse to read)

Having noticed he was getting better thanks to the curare treatment, the doctor has faked his own death in order to torture Margaret and Charles for having deceived him. He's been behind it all along, bwahahahaha! With the help of Harriet! And now his wife, poisoned by a nail in the coffin and on the brink of paralysis herself, will be put away for the murder of her young lover! Isn't that a hoot?

Unfortunately for the doctor he hasn't counted on his wife's post-murder suicidal thoughts, and his nostalgic taste for Dutch gin will be the death of him...


It's not all great, of course. The print on the 50 Chilling Classics set is in terrible shape, and the acting and dialog never rise above the level of melodrama alluded to earlier, but some truly chilling images and wild scenes (other standouts include a bleeding snuff box and the most amazing use of that famous sampled wolf-howl evar) lift this one above the rest. Barbara Steele is striking to look at as always, and the twists and turns of the plot, while not exactly believable, are nonetheless a hell of a lot of fun.

So I give The Ghost a 2.25 thumb rating, and would recommend it for at least one viewing. It does some things badly but a lot of things well, and what more do you want from a 60s Italian chiller, anyway?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Night Train to Terror (1985): or, How Bull Killed My Brain

Some movies have a very rigid narrative structure, moving inexorably from point A to point B to point C, never getting sidetracked by subplots or unnecessary comic relief scenes, following the story in a straight line until the inescapable conclusion. While this might not offer many diversions, the approach is good for straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling of the sort utilized by directors who have something important to say and need to say it as forcefully as possible.

1985's Night Train to Terror is not one of those movies. It is a movie whose narrative structure is so floppy and loosely defined it would make overcooked spaghetti look like spines constructed of adamantium vertebrae. Constructed from the clippings of 3 other movies that (thankfully) never saw the light of release, this is one big hunk of 80s cheesecake. And while there are a few things here worth watching, such a recommendation should come with the strong caveat that watching the entire movie from start to finish WILL MAKE YOU DUMBER. It won't make you feel dumber, or just confuse you and give you a case of see-sickness (pun intended)--it will literally kill your brain cells and leave you a stupider person than you were when the opening scene rolled. I'm not joking. You have been warned.

But what an opening scene! We open with some stock footage of a locomotive going through the woods, which are some very nice shots, truth be told. Then we cut to an obvious cable-access quality sound stage made up to look like a train, where some of the most amazingly extreme 80s dance/new wave rejects you've ever laid eyes on are rockin' the, car...with the infectious tune, "Everybody's Got Somethin' to Do (Everybody But YOU!)". And when I say "infectious," I mean LIKE THE PLAGUE. You will not be able to get this tune out of your head, no matter how many times you whack your skull with a cookie sheet. It weakens your mind and sets you up for the IQ-assault to come. But hey, at least you're smiling when it happens. The dancing is a sight to behold, as are the fashions. The lip-synching is Milli Vanilli quality, and the smoke machines are in full force, though whether this was for rock-n-roll effects or supposedly the steam from the train, I couldn't tell.

"Everybody's got somethin' to do--EVERYBODY BUT YOOOOOOOOU!"

Next we follow a zomboid conductor to a back room, where God and Satan are sitting by a window, waiting for midnight when the train will crash and send everyone on it to their "final destination." There's some very nice Christmas lighting out the window that's meant to be a starry sky dashing by, and God and Satan trade verbal barbs for a while like old friends who have grown a little irritated with each other. Finally they decide to get down to business, reviewing the "cases" of the people on the train who are going to go up in a fiery cataclysm at midnight. Yes, they're doing some preemptive divvying up of souls. The lights go down, the train window transforms into an LCD flat-panel monitor, and God and Satan (and we) look out the window into another movie, hoping it will be better than this one.

Largely a vain hope, though this new movie does have a few things to recommend it. One, Richard Moll (aka "TV's Bull") plays the orderly at an insane asylum where his main job seems to be strapping big-haired, big-boobied blondes to gurneys naked and pawing them while they shriek for a few seconds. Nice work if you can get it. Anyway, early on we see a very well-realized car-crash scene where our hero and his never-to-be-mentioned again wife go sideways off a one-lane bridge (how'd THAT happen?) into the water. They're rescued by Bull and his disorderly orderlies, all in the employ of a wrinkly one-time glamor queen who's also a mad scientist or something. Apparently they have a side business at the asylum picking up women, harassing them with Bull's black-tee-shirted manliness, and then cutting them up and selling them to medical schools. Or something. It's really hard to follow.

So the hero from the car wreck is brainwashed into going out and kidnapping more babes for Bull to bisect, and he also has an affair with the mad scientist chick, and eventually his conscience awakens and he puts a stop to the whole mess and kills Bull, while the mad scientist chick is lobotomized by some escaped patients who used to be doctors there. Anyway, it's obvious that this was a full length movie that someone took the scissors to and trimmed it down to 30 minutes, leaving us with the aforementioned wonderful Bull scenes (one later where he even gets to tease a victim with a hacksaw, a highlight) and some strobe-light narration that will give you a mental seizure. This one is almost worth watching, or at least fast-forwarding to the Bull bits, as he steals every scene he's in.

Then it's back to the train for a wrap-up commentary by God and Satan, and some more music and dancing from the band. Not "more music" as in "the next song in their set." No, "more" as in "more of the same song." EVERYBODY'S GOT SOMETHING TO DO--EVERYBODY BUT YOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU!!!! Still, it's mesmerizing, what with all the bold primary colors and the spiked hair and the headbands and the weird asymmetrical rag shirts and the mascara. And that haunts my dreams.

The next "case" is a real mind-blower, and the one part of the movie I can actually recommend watching all the way through. We open up at the Dingaling Brothers and Stock Footage Carnival, where we see lots of folks having fun. Then we meet an 80s video model moonlighting as a popcorn seller, who attracts the attention of a sleazy moneybags guy who comes up and buys all her popcorn, then buys her. I don't want to spoil much of this, because your jaw will be dropped for most of it, so I'll just encapsulate the rest of the episode in a few sentences. The girl becomes sleazy guy's mistress, starts an affair with a handsome young stud, and then brings him along to the sleazy dude's next party, where out of nowhere we learn that they're all members of a "death club." Every month or so they get together and face death--in the form of some extremely convoluted Russian roulette-type game, except that it's INSANE. To give you an idea--the first one involves letting a giant, venomous, claymation insect out of a bottle and sitting still while it buzzes around trying to decide which of them if any to sting. It's LOOPY.

The other members of the club are great characters--an aging beauty queen, Jimi Hendrix's less successful and talented brother, and a chubby Bela Lugosi impressionist. As their games go on the original heroine gets crazier and crazier, the sleezoid gets more jealous, and finally it all ends with a hired-gang kidnapping (love those 80s gangs!) and a wrecking ball-roulette game that goes predictably wrong. Don't miss the "shocking" death of one of the club members, which goes on for hours. Must see, start to stop, on this one.

And then we're back on the train, and someone shouts to the band "ONE MORE TIME!" and we're off again. This time there's an added bonus, however, as the song turns into a Muppet Show Ballroom sequence, as the dancers and band members start talking about what they're doing there, and wondering about the strangeness and all. We get them questioning the zombie conductor (sometimes poking their heads INTO the car from the WINDOWS--apparently they were all clinging to the side of the train as it whistled down the track), and we get a wonderful break-dancing sequence that brought tears to my eyes...tears of LAUGHTER. Besides the Bull scenes from the first episode and the entirety of the second, the only must-see scenes are these 3 musical interludes. Really, it's pure entertainment.

Then we come to the last "case," which I'll be honest, I don't even remember clearly, as Bull-induced brain damage was setting in. Bull was in this one too, playing a famous author who had "proved" in his book that God is dead. (Richard Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens?) There's an undead Nazi (the worst kind!), and a concentration camp survivor who wants to hunt him down, and then he gets killed by a Halloween mask, and this Dorian Gray stuff is going on, and then a bunch of stuff happens, there's more claymation when somebody gets dragged off to hell, and the movie ends. Really, I fast-forwarded some of it, and was too tired/stupid to remember the rest, but it wasn't as good as the other stuff.

So all in all, I'd say this is one to watch with the FF button down. Let up when you see Bull molesting blondes, or the 80s band playing/dancing, or for the entirety of the second episode. Otherwise, keep the hammer down. Your brain will thank you.

1 thumb overall, but 2 for the second segment, which averages out to "average" again, 1.5 thumbs.

Note from the HOW COULD IT POSSIBLY BE?!?!?! Files: screenwriter Philip Yordan, who gets the blame credit for this script, won an Academy Award in 1954 for his screenplay for Broken Lance. BELIEVE IT...OR DON'T!


Monday, September 17, 2007

Crypt of the Living Dead (1973): or, Hannah's Got a Crush on You

What a cool, creepy little flick!

Once again Mill Creek's 50 Chilling Classics pack comes through with a movie I wouldn't have watched on my own, but nonetheless found interesting, entertaining, and more than a little creepy. Crypt of the Living Dead, aka Young Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, is a vampire movie with a difference, starring a couple of well-known (to 70s trash-horror fans like me) faces and boasting some strange but periodically very effective cinematography, Crypt of the Living Dead might have benefited from my low expectations going in (as with most movies I like, the internet reviews are generally savage), but as the Duke and I often say, there's no virtue in refusing to allow yourself to be entertained, and this flick gives you more than ample chances.

We open the way every atmospheric, gothic movie about old school monsters should: with a hunchback in a lightning storm. As an intense dude in robes drones in Latin over a massive marble tomb--IN THE CRYPT!--an older man prowls the cathedral above apparently searching for him. When he's startled by the hunchback the elderly expeditioner falls through a hole into the catacombs below, and once he gets his breath back draws that much closer to his goal. Once he finds the tomb, however, he is quickly overpowered by Intense Dude and the Hunchback, who knock him out and stuff him under the tomb, which we now see is raised on four marble feet. As our explorer opens his eyes the henchmen take after the two nearest supports with sledgehammers, and a moment later the tomb falls with a crunchy thud on the chest of our would-be hero. Ouch! Haven't seen that one before!

Next we find ourselves standing by the dock of the bay, watching a young skinny dude with a porn-stache putting ashore at a small fishing village. In a very strong, somewhat creepy scene the young man tries to ask the villagers where he can find the church, but they only scowl creepily and continue mending their nets, while an unsettling music-box score plays in the background. I really think that the outsider going into a creepy, unfriendly village and meeting creepy, unfriendly people is one of the more effective set-ups in horror, and it's done excellently here.

Soon a friendly face appears in the form of Peter (Mark Damon, whose acting I also just enjoyed in the excellent, soon-to-be-reviewed sexy horror The Devil's Wedding Night). We learn in short order that Stache Man, aka Chris Bolton (Andrew Prine), is the son of the professor who got crushed in the crypt, and has come to collect his old dad's remains. Peter was the professor's assistant, helping the old man excavate the crypts while researching for a historical novel he (Peter) is writing about the island. As they head off toward the church we see a familiar malformed face in the bushes: the hunchback watches them go.

(It should be said that it's fairly obvious that Peter was the robed man from the prologue who helped kill the prof. I was never quite sure if there was meant to be some air of mystery about this fact, or if the director hoped to set up some dramatic irony with the character, us knowing he was bad when nobody else did. Either way, I was taken with the atmosphere and story, so I rolled right along.)

It turns out the old man's corpse is still under the tomb, which is so massive and in such an enclosed space that no one can move it. As luck would have it, though, Chris is an engineer, and quickly determines he can set up a pulley system to lift the tomb and pull the pressed patriarch free. But he'll have to do it in two parts--first the lid, then the lower section--which of course means opening the tomb.

That's bad, because the tomb supposedly contains the remains of Hannah, a medieval princess who in the 13th Century was put ashore here in a shipwreck, contracted vampirism, and took over the whole island, converting the entire population into her undead minions. When her fiance Prince Philip arrived to rescue her and found her a bit too bitey for his tastes, he slew all her henchvamps and buried her alive(-ish) in the tomb, carving upon it the warning, "For the peace of the dead, and for the sake of the living, let no one disturb this tomb!" Nice, eh?

Well, it wouldn't be much of a story if they heeded Prince Philip's warning, and before you can say "Great Gobs of Garlic!" Chris has lifted the lid and revealed the body of Hannah to the air for the first time in seven hundred years. To everyone's surprise, not only is she uncorrupted, she's HAWT! While Chris takes time off to woo Peter's sister Mary (also the prof's assistant when she's not teaching at the local school), the villagers get nervous, remembering the lore about Hannah the Vampire Queen. Wolves are sighted in local cemeteries, fishermen's dogs are killed and drained of blood, and Peter keeps acting stranger and stranger.

Crypt of the Living Dead has a pretty interesting story for a vampire flick, and though it's deliberately paced it's never boring. Scenes with Hannah awakening, breathing for the first time after 700 years, are actually well done and a little creepy. Teresa Gimpera as Hannah is a vision, otherworldly and seductive, and manages to do quite a bit with an essentially mute character, imparting her with a malevolence and intelligence that lets you know she's calculated everything. And a scene where she appears in the bedroom of a small girl and stands looking hungrily at the cowering child is really very effective.

The final confrontation is very brisk compared with the slower pace of most of the film, and I found it pretty exciting. Peter tries to sacrifice Mary to Hannah in order to secure the happiness that has eluded him, only to be rescued by Chris. Mary returns the favor when Chris is attacked by Hannah in her wolf-form, and then at the last Chris ignites the Queen of the Vampires and sends her plummeting off a cliff like a goddamned meteorite! But it's not over yet--when the burned vampire arises again to take on a circle of villagers, the makeup and sound FX are really wild (especially the sound FX--listen for the cat howl from hell!), though it leads to the expected conclusion.

Other actors in the flick range from good the not-so-good. The villagers are non-actors and it shows, especially in the deadpan voice of the Van Helsing character, a blind old fisherman who knows a little about vamps and clearly can guess the rest. Andrew Prine makes a meal of the scenery as Chris, and seems to think that to be persuasive, whether in convincing villagers to let him move a tomb or convincing Mary to sleep with him, all he has to do is throw a petulant tantrum and shout at the top of his lungs. Lucky for him this works. On the other hand, Mary is portrayed by Patty Shepard, who is no stranger to weird 70s Euro-horror, nor to vampire queen epics: she appeared as an alluring alien in Paul Naschy's Assignment Terror, and played the seductive and sinister Countess Wandessa in the mmmmmasterpiece The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman. Here's she's great as the headstrong headmistress who can take care of herself, and while it's not clear why she should fall for a whiner like Chris, she's a treat to watch and easy on the eyes. And I thought Mark Damon was excellent as the demented failed novelist Peter, who along with his friend the hunchback is helping Hannah in her quest to re-take the island.

Apparently the movie was filmed in color, but the print I have is in B&W--a web search reveals that other dvd pressings are in color, so I got the shaft in the hue department. Still, despite some very dark scenes, there was some good cinematography here and some interesting mise en scene, particularly when Hannah is on the prowl. I'd be interested to see how the same scenes hold up with the proper colors added.

Anyway, I give Crypt of the Living Dead a solid 2 thumbs up. An interesting story, some cool visuals, and a wild climax make this one worth looking at. Give it a chance, and don't be so stuffy.


Friday, September 14, 2007

From Beyond (1986): or, Feed (Me To) My Frankenstein

You know, they just don't make good mad scientist movies anymore. For a long time, from the 30s through the early 60s, mad scientists were all the rage. From Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll to The Invisible man and onward, the public just couldn't get enough of these figures who dared to dream of godhood, who reached beyond the petty limitations of humanity for something greater. And when they fell short, their failures were just as spectacular as their dreams.

Perhaps the fascination during this era stemmed from the growing feeling that science was going to solve everything. For a while it seemed that in science lay humanity's greatest hope, but also its greatest danger. It was the new black magic, the new religion; something the average person on the street could never hope to understand, but that could nonetheless result in his death and the destruction of the entire planet. Scary stuff, indeed, as the powerful and unknown always is.

Likewise, perhaps the fascination and fear waned as the wonders of science became more commonplace. By the 70s, though there was still the fear of nuclear war and other destructive technologies, it no longer seemed quite so magical or unknown. When you're using microwaves--once scientific mumbo-jumbo suitable for creating scarred radioactive monsters in cinematic labs--to warm up your sandwich for lunch, the idea of Doc Frankenstein's spark-throwing apparatuses is not quite so scary anymore. Though every now and then a terrifying new idea would produce public unease and a few films (gene therapy, viruses run amok, and space exploration are still fertile fields), for the most part the mad scientist working alone in his lab expanding his own vistas of unspeakable knowledge is as quaint to us now as the horse and buggy.

Enter Stuart Gordon, who in 1986 took that horse and buggy, grafted six more legs onto the horse, strapped a couple of jet engines on the buggy, and took her out of a spin. The resulting wild, terrifying ride is one of the director's undisputed masterpieces, and if not the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation, certainly one of the most cinematically successful: From Beyond.

Gordon hits the ground running from the first frame of film, as we see young Dr. Crawford Tillingast (Jeffrey Combs) frantically preparing a Frankensteinian array of computers and alien-looking equipment for a mysterious experiment. He turns on the machine, which resonates with an eerie hum and causes him to clutch his forehead in pain. But the pain is forgotten a moment later, when he sees strange, eel-like creatures swimming in the air all around him--creatures in another plane who share the same space as we do, but whom we can't see and who can't see us. But with the Resonator thrumming, all is revealed, and one of the monsters attacks Combs, leading him to shut it (the fuck) off.

Frightened but excited, he runs to get his boss, the allusively named Dr. Pretorious; horror movie buffs know that the scientist who enticed Henry Frankenstein out of retirment in 1935's Bride of Frankenstein was also a Dr. Praetorius--who might have been an ancestor of this scientist, had the elder doctor not been so obviously, flamingly gay. Our modern Pretorious is most assuredly NOT gay, however; rather he is a sensualist, seeking the ultimate experience. Having exhausted the five senses of this plane with all the deviant sex he could imagine, he's looking for other planes to explore, other creatures to fuck. After all, who wants to eat chicken every day?

"If you want my body, and you think I'm sexy,
come on, Sugar, let me know!"

On learning of Combs's success, Pretorious rushes to the Resonator and flicks it back on, refusing to turn it off even when it becomes clear that something big is coming...FROM BEYOND! Ted Sorel as the good doctor gives a great "mad scientist out of control" performance here, and Combs flees in horror and madness, only to be caught by police (called by neighbors) who, after discovering the doctor's decapitated corpse, take Crawford away on charges of murder.

And then--the opening credits roll!

We next meet Dr. Katherine McMichaels (assayed by the very studious and professional looking Barbara Crampton, in full-on sexy librarian gear), a psychiatrist with unorthodox (even dangerous!) methods--a possibly mad doctor, but of the mind! She takes on Tillingast's case and quickly moves to recreate the experiment that broke his mind in order to find out what really happened to Dr. Pretorious. Accompanied by happy-go-lucky cop and former linebacker Bubba Brownlee (played wonderfully weird by Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead fame), she and Crawford go back, repair the Resonator and repeat the experiment of that fateful night. Only this time there's something else waiting for them on the other side--something with unlimited power and Dr. Pretorious's sick personality--something that for its own pleasure wants to consume their very MINDS...

Stuart Gordon absolutely packs this movie to the top of every frame. The pacing is tight, and there is almost no wasted film, no throwaway scenes. Every minute of the movie propels the plot forward, and the straight-line narrative leaves you little time to catch your breath--you just have to hold on and go along for the ride. And what a ride it is! Jeffrey Combs simply OWNS the role of the young, tormented scientist here, and when the Resonator begins to effect a physical, Cronenbergian transformation on Tillingast, his horror and fascination come through the prosthetics in a very effective way. Vicar-fave scream queen Barbara Crampton is fantastic as well, playing the woman of science who can't help but pursue this dangerous knowledge in the hopes of helping humanity, but who then gets caught up in her own weaknesses, exploited by the now-otherworldly brilliance of Pretorious. (A word about her "sensual possession" scene: ZANG!) And Ted Sorel's performance as Pretorious is a thing of mad beauty, hearkening back to the classic mad scientists of the Universal horrors, but with a modern twist., I completely forgot the caption I was going to use here.

But the thing that really pushes this movie over the top into undisputed classic status is the inventive, sick, mind-blowing practical effects. In a world before CGI, when everything had to be sculpted and built and filmed with inventiveness and ingenuity, this is a tour de force. Almost as if he's trying to out-Cronenberg Cronenberg, Gordon pushes his makeup department (who deserved awards for this) into realms of body horror and ickiness previously unseen on the screen--and not seen since. (The only other movie that even comes close to this, imo, is the great and woefully underseen 1989 flick Society--directed by Brian Yuzna, who was a producer on From Beyond. Coincidence?) The absolutely jaw-dropping final battle between the transformed Tillingast and the mutated Pretorious is a thing that must be seen to be believed--a spectacle the likes of which even Miike can only stand back and applaud.

"Less filling!" "Tastes great!" "LESS FILLING!"

But while this is an effects fest, the script also bears its weight. There's some great stuff with themes of madness and obsession here that pervades the whole production. For instance, Dr. McMichael's father, a brilliant psychologist, ended his life in a sanatorium thanks to schizophrenia--it's this tragedy that drives his daughter in her obsessive search for a cure. Also, her own fear of going crazy underpins her drive, and when she is committed to the asylum late in the movie and set up for a harrowing bout of electroshock therapy, the horror is very deep and real. We understand why these brilliant people are risking everything, and that makes the horrors they unleash all the more tragic and effective.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful original score by Richard Band, great weird synth music, totally in keeping with the weird technology and spiraling insanity. Fantastic stuff, and I'm thinking of buying a CD.

In short, this movie is a one of a kind, gobsmackingly over-the-top, fantastically inventive entry into the mad scientist genre, and possibly the final word on the matter. Highest possible rating. And Mr. Gordon, thanks for the ride!

PS--The special edition dvd of From Beyond: Unrated Director's Cut hits stores next week; it has features out the wahzoo and a high-def transfer from original elements, not to mention previously excised scenes of grue and sexiness. So if you've always wanted to see this, or if you're a long time fan, there's never been a better time to buy! Order now!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963): or, Coffin Joe's Prelude to Madness

After watching José Mojica Marins's 1967 weird-horror masterpiece This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (reviewed on Mmmmmovies here), I was intrigued, excited, and thirsty for more. An ebay search and a few days later I had in my hands what is widely hailed as the first Brazilian horror movie from, Marins's 1963 cult curiosity At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. (Marins has SUCH the way with titles.) I was worried that, having watched the sequel first, I might suffer cognitive disconnect and find myself in a nightmarish world of spiraling self-referentiality and chronological coo-cooity. However, both films work on their own merits, and in the final analysis I think I watched them in the right order, for reasons I'll try to remember to expound in the conclusion of this brief review.

The film opens with its star, Coffin Joe, staring into the camera and looking none too impressed with what he sees staring back at him. He delivers his personal philosophy, just dripping contempt and malice, in a few short sentences. Then we're treated to a very unsettling credits sequence. It's mostly flash-forward clips from later in the movie, but it's done to a soundtrack of screams that seem to come from the depths of the inferno, and the text is animated in cool and off-kilter ways. One thing Marins does both here and in TNIPYC is use the credit sequence to establish mood, and after this one I was ready for an unusual and disturbing flick.

Next we get a crypt-keeper-esque introduction by an old gypsy witch, who warns those who are easily frightened to leave the theater. I love that gimmick; it reminds me of the old Universal flicks. In fact the b&w cinematography throughout is very well done in the atmospheric Universal pictures way, and the sets also recall the Universal glory days. However, what goes on in those sets is something else entirely.

Gypsies give the worst head.

Coffin Joe is the diminutive and malicious (but strangely charismatic) undertaker of a small town in Brazil. Though small, he's scrappy, and when he gets mad no one can beat him in a fight. After winning a card game and finding his opponent too slow to turn over his winnings, Joe breaks a bottle and severs the man's finger with it in a surprisingly gory scene. There are also bloody beatings galore, as Joe does his best to justify the peasants' fear of him.

But they're less afraid of his physical prowess than they are of his blasphemy. In a comical-to-us-now but doubtless shocking scene to staunchly catholic early-60s Brazilians, Joe orders meat on a Friday and, laughing evilly, chews the leg of lamb while penitents go by on their way to church. Later in a barroom brawl he uses the crown of thorns off a bust of Christ to disfigure the face of his opponent! This man is blasphemously bad to the bone, and doesn't care who knows it.

Surprisingly, Joe has one friend, Antonio. I guess they were kids together or something. Anyway, Antonio is unfortunate enough to be engaged to a lovely lass for whom Coffin Joe lusts. After killing his own barren wife with a spider (shades of things to come in future movies), Joe makes advances on the fiancee, with his own wife not cold in the ground. She refuses, naturally, as she's spoken for. So Joe, just as naturally, kills his one and only friend and then rapes the fiancee, so that she will bear his child and make him immortal. She can't live with the guilt, though, and hangs herself, first cursing Joe to lose his soul at midnight.

It turns out that here, as in TNIPYC, Joe's Achilles heel is a hidden subconscious guilt for his crimes, which is manifested in a fantastic scene where Joe prowls through the graveyard, challenging God to come down from heaven, or Satan up from hell, to take his soul and thus prove that they exist. It's an acting tour de force by the debuting Marins, and really a fantastic scene. This is followed by the expected supernatural intervention, as the ghost of Antonio arrives with some very cool and weird lo-tech effects, and it all ends up in a not-quite-nicely tied little bow.

Sorry, Joe, they don't want you. They're too scared.

So how was it? Pretty good, but only a hint at the achievement of TCIPYC. It seems to me that here Marins is still finding his feet, still defining the character, still figuring out what it is he wants to do and how to do it. In the sequel he's got all that under his belt, and he goes for broke. So having seen the second first, I had a better picture of the Coffin Joe character and found him more compelling than I otherwise would have, perhaps. This movie has its strengths, but really it's best viewed as a prequel, I think, to the main event.

That said, this is a solid 2.5 thumb effort, and one you should see. But after This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, in my opinion, for the best effect.

Whoop-whoop! Nyuck! Nyuck!


Friday, September 7, 2007

Slashed Dreams (1975): or, the Feel-Good Rape/Revenge Hit of the Summer

You know, I've wasn't even going to review Slashed Dreams, because like a handful of other movies from the miraculous Mill Creek 50 Chilling Classics Pack (buy yourself one NOW!), this is not in fact a horror movie. Originally titled Sunburst, this Age-of-Aquarius era back-to-nature flick was ruthlessly re-titled on video and made to look like an I Spit on Your Grave rip-off in order to take advantage of co-star Robert Englund's subsequent fame as everyone's favorite dream killer. Like Medusa (George Hamilton as an incestuous Greek in trouble with the mob) and Death Rage (Yul Brynner as a vengeful hitman), this movie is neither chilling nor classic, and so is completely out of place on this set.

But after reading a few dozen seething, hate-filled, absolutely dismissive reviews of Slashed Dreams on the intarwebs, I felt that somebody needed to step up in its defense. Not because it's a great movie secretly awaiting discovery by the erudite few who can appreciate it, but because I felt it was basically a good-natured, harmless, moderately interesting time-capsule that in no way deserves the piles of disdain being heaped upon it. Sure, it may be a little stupid, a little naive, and a little boring, but hey, aren't we all?

The plot goes a little something like this. Fed up with her hyper-insensitive, slightly sadistic fratboy boyfriend, homecoming queen Jenny (Katherine Baumann) dumps him and goes searching for meaning in her life. Inspired by a professor's lecture on "positivity" and "the new Aquarian age" and in receipt of a letter from a former classmate who dropped out to go kick it Walden-style in the remote woods, Jenny and lifelong best friend Robert (Peter Hooten) decide to hell with school, let's go visit our buddy Michael in his little cabin! After being warned by a nutty old shop owner not to go into those dangerous woods, they spend a few days hiking through the wilderness, getting in touch both with nature and with their long-suppressed romantic feelings for each other.

That's pretty much the first hour of this 78 minute movie. A lot of reviewers have savaged the film for this, since nothing much happens except hiking montages, the couple interacting, and lots and lots of very funny 70s folk-pop music. The songs actually do comment on the action, serving as a kind of poetic narration to the kids' difficult but fun trek through the woods. During one long sequence when the hikers are trying unsuccessfully to get up a steep mountainside, we get the actually pretty funny song "Animals are Clumsy, Too," with such insightful lyrics as:

"Next time you hit your head and roll in pain,
Just think about a turkey drowning in the rain!
Animals are clumsy too!"

It's a weird narrative choice, but for some reason I didn't mind it so much. It was almost like a musical, or at least a long-form music video album. But I think what got me was the frankly excellent chemistry between the two leads. Jenny and Robert are a couple of silly, extremely likeable kids, and you can totally believe they've been best friends forever, just from their gestures, expressions, and the way they play off each other. It's really some fine acting from both of them, and even without much dialogue they completely drew me in to their burgeoning romance.

The original, much more accurate poster.

When they finally get to the cabin, Michael isn't there. They settle in to wait for him, enjoying the wonderful scenery and the Walden-like pond nearby. Then they decide to go skinny-dipping together and their sexual tension begins its release, which I was actually pleased to see. Of course you know what that means: it's time for the inbreds to show up.

Danker and
Levón could be hillbillies, bikers, trappers, or just skuzzy dropouts scrounging for mushrooms in the woods. (That's the problem with nature--there's too damn many PEOPLE in it!) It's never really explained, nor does it really need to be--they're just two other people in the world, and people you don't want to know. They menace the nude swimmers and then retreat, allowing Jenny and Robert to consummate their romance in Michael's cabin.

Then, in the part that got it repackaged, the bad guys show up, knock out Robert, and after some monologuing, rape Jenny. It's a strange scene, because it flows very much like a scene from a stage play to me. Levón, scarred and ugly, has a fairly well-written speech about his ugliness giving him power, and how Jenny can't stop what's going to happen. However, when Jenny faints and won't fight him, he can't go through with the assault. He shakes her, pleading, "Come on, fight me! Hit me! Wake up and hit me!" but to no avail. Danker takes over, though, beating and raping Jenny until Levón pulls him off out of, apparently, jealousy. There's a weird dynamic going on between the two bad guys, as we'll see more in a moment.

The rapists leave, and Jenny and Robert are left to deal silently with their scars while yet another narrative song plays over them. Finally Michael arrives, having been hiking for 2 days to gather tea, or something. It's pretty shocking how handsome and young Robert Englund looks here, and his caring, hippie character is also a shock, but he pulls it off well. In fact I'd say the acting is above average across the board in this flick--Danker and Levón included, which may be why I wasn't especially bored.

Here's another part the haters savage--trying to help Jenny out of her emotional shock, Michael tells her to "take some meaning from it," and try to use it to find some "truth." "You have to think about the good things," he tells her, "and drive that devil out of your house!" Some see this as his just saying, "Get over it, girl!" or worse, saying the rape was necessary for her personal growth. I didn't see it that way at all--I just thought he was trying to find a way to help her cope with her bad experience and come out of it stronger. It's the same way people tell grieving relatives that their loved ones' deaths are "God's Will"--it sounds a bit callous, but sometimes it helps people to deal. So I didn't mind Englund's new-agey stuff here.

Robert, guilt-stricken over having "allowed" Jenny to get raped, goes off into the woods with his little hatchet, seeking revenge. He finds the rapists, apparently still bickering about what happened last night. Again, this scene plays very much like a scene from a stage play, but that's not entirely bad--the writing is good in a stagey way, and the weird psychology between the two bad guys--Danker wants to go back for more, accusing Levón of being mad he "couldn't get it up" and "still has that Cheeks disease" or something--which leads to a fight in which Levón hamstrings the beefier Danker with a hunting knife. Ouch!

The odds suddenly even, Robert jumps out and attacks Levón, leading to a long fight between the two that's actually well-staged. Then end up wallowing in a mud-puddle, significantly, and when Michael and Jenny show up, the rapists hobble off into the woods, leaving an exhausted, weeping Robert covered in mud. He realizes it "wasn't even worth it," and he's "ashamed of himself." We get another song about healing, a poetry reading about living through pain in order to arrive at peace, and that's pretty much the end.

Now I can see why someone expecting a horror flick would hate this. It's slow, there's lots of goofy music, and if it's meant to be a rape-revenge flick, where's the revenge? But maybe because I wasn't expecting it to be such--I read a few reviews beforehand--it didn't feel like a betrayal to me, and I was able to watch it a little more open-mindedly. Because what this really is, I think, is a New Age Rape/Revenge flick, in which the spiritual seekers forgo the revenge in the end and are better for it. It's that positivity stuff the prof was talking about. Jenny and Robert find truth not because of the rape/revenge, but because by looking inward they're able to overcome the bad stuff. Or at least I think that's the point.

Some people find that idea stupid and contemptible, and I can see that--like I said, this movie comes off as more than a little bit naive, in a Hair/Flower Children kinda way. But maybe b/c of the mood I was in, I didn't mind--it was a sweet naivety, the kind you almost wish could be true. A time-capsule of a simpler, sweeter time. With rape.

So that's my defense. Not a great movie, but I think a fairly decent one. Good acting from all involved, a fairly good (if stagey) script, a definite sweet side, and a few interesting directorial choices that even if you don't agree with, you have to give props for. Or at least I do.

I give Slashed Dreams 1.75 thumbs--a little above average, and the kind of thing you might be able to enjoy, if you approach it from the right direction. And don't forget: animals are clumsy too.

Positivity. Give it a try.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Happy Birthday, Paul Naschy!

Yes, today is the nativity of Spanish horror icon and Mmmmmovie favorite Jacinto Molina, aka Paul Naschy. In honor of the occasion I'm posting my review of Paul's first starring role, Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, which is amazing and wonderful and awesome.

The indefatiguable Naschy has made dozens of movies in his career and is still working--in fact his latest directorial, script-writing, and starring effort, EMPUSA, is due out next year! Here's a plot synopsis from the movie's very own blog (bookmark it NOW!) that should make any Naschy fan giggle with uncontrollable excitement:

Abel (Naschy), an ex-actor who has become an occultism enthusiast, and Victor, an old sea captain, take long walks on the beach talking about the good old times. During one of those strolls they find the arm of a woman slashed below the elbow, with a rare symbol drawn or tattooed on the wrist. Obsessed by the awesome discovery, Abel decides to take home the maimed arm and investigate the symbol. In an old book of Greek mythology he finds out that it´s the ancient seal of the Empusa, a hybrid being that's a cross between a vampire, a snake and a seagull.
See, lesser filmmakers would stop with the vampire/snake hybrid. Not Naschy, though. No fuckin' way.

The Duke and I are as excited as two Frenchmen who have just invented self-removing trousers about this, and you should be too. So keep checking the EMPUSA blog, the wonderful Mark of Naschy website (your best online Naschy resource), and right here for the latest info.

And happy birthday, Paul!


Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1968): or, Don't Bring a Vampire to a Werewolf Fight

On Halloween Night 2006 I got to sit down and witness the birth of a god. Except it was even better than Venus rising from the waves, Athena leaping from the split skull of Zeus, or a manger-cam showing the bloodied but eerily silent Savior entering the world through Mother Mary's buh-gina: this was FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR! This was the film debut of Jacinto Molina, known ever after to legions of grateful and worshipful horror fans as Paul "Freaking" Naschy, and also the first movie to feature that international horror icon Waldemar Daninsky as a character. (Not to mention being Jacinto's first screenwriting credit.) In this movie we see the beginnings of everything that would make Naschy's later movies tick, from the doomed love affair with the aristocratic redhead, to the internal battle between the cursed man's better nature and his bestial id, to the external battle between the ferocious but still partly human werewolf and more sinister supernatural forces. We even get a little devil worship and sensuality thrown in at no extra charge, though these elements would not achieve and even paradoxically surpass their potential until later flicks like Curse of the Devil and WWvVW. Yes, this movie almost has it all, and what it lacks, it points the way toward for the future. This is where it all began, so if you're a Naschy fanatic (and how could you not be?) it's 91 minutes of joy.

We start out with a prime example of the low-budget charm of most of Jacinto's efforts. Because the American distributors wanted to be able to package their horror films for drive-ins as "theme double features," they needed another Frankenstein flick to go with some piece of dreck (maybe Frankenstein vs. the Monster from Space or something), and so inserted a gleefully nonsensical animated credit sequence to turn this movie (originally titled La Marca del Hombre-Lobo, or The Mark of the Wolfman) into a Frankenstein flick. Get clear on this from the start--there is NOTHING about Frankenstein in this movie. Absolutely zilch. Not even so much as a glancing mention. Everything that ties this movie to Frankenstein happens in the first 2 minutes after the opening credits, all in animated and voice-overed format.

After the title splash of FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR!, we are informed deliciously that the movie is shot in "70mm Chill-O-Rama!" And let me tell you, I can totally feel the difference between Chill-O-Rama and regular 70mm. It's chillier, and much more festive. Anyway, then we get a cartoon pic of the Frankenstein monster, and a voice-over informs us that the ancient family of monster makers, because of their crimes, were cursed with the mark of the werewolf! And so FRANKENstein became WOLFstein! All this while the cartoon monster changes into a cartoon werewolf, and the caption reading "Frankenstein" mutates into the word "Wolfstein." The v-o even repeats it a few times, with the words and pictures flashing back and forth like neon lights: FRANKENstein! WOLFstein! FRANKENstein! WOLFstein!" Having firmly established the link between this flick and Mary Shelly, we're ready to move on.

See you later folks! Enjoy the show!

When the movie proper opens, we're at a costume ball in the mansion of the local Count. The count himself is NOT a vampire, but rather a bully-looking elderly lord joking through his fuller-brush whiskers to a friend of his about their kids, who are dancing together and apparently something of a romantic item. The lord and his friend deliver a lot of helpful exposition while we admire the finely dressed ballroom set and the cool old-style masquerade outfits. Then a strange figure appears in a flamboyantly crimson rogue's costume, complete with pantaloons, a red Robin Hood hat with audaciously long feather, and black mask that fails to conceal the virile masculine handsomosity beneath--yes, it's Naschy, and he looks AWESOME. Of course this stranger heads straight for the young red-haired countess and her boyfriend Rudolph, quickly driving the scrawny lad away by sheer force of manliness. As they begin to dance, we get one of the best introductory lines in any movie ever.

Young Countess: "Who are you?"
Naschy: "Haven't you guessed? I'm His Satanic Majesty!"

Oh, Paul, take me NOW! Right here by the punch bowl!

It's not long before we're at La Casa de Daninsky, learning more about Waldemar (for yes, of course 'tis he) from another pair of old folks delivering useful exposition. This is a device that is sorely underused--like the Greek chorus, whenever you have two old folks talking to each other, you might as well throw in loads of exposition. I mean, they're old, what else have they got to do? The young countess gets exposed to more of Jacinto's powerful pheromones, and it becomes clear that sooner or later she will be his. Rudolph will have to make do with sloppy seconds.

Still, the countess tries to play both sides against the middle, going on a nature walk with Rudolph to the old abandoned castle near Waldemar's property. They decide to explore ("It'll be fun! What could possibly happen to us?") and the door slams ominously behind them. Is it some revenant satanic monk returned from the grave to wreak vengeance? No, it's just Waldemar, who is making sure that the countess gets a chance to compare Rudolph's physique to that of His Beefy Satanic Majesty. Poor Rudolph.

We learn that the family who used to own the property, name of WOLFSTEIN, were rumored to have werewolves in the bloodline, and that Lord Wolfstein even now lies in the crypt, a soon-to-be-familiar silver dagger rooted between his ribs. Contrary to expectations, the group leaves well enough alone, but as Rudolph drives away, petulantly jealous (as well he should be), he nearly runs a pair of gypsies off the road, greatly angering them. (B-Movie rule of thumb: NEVER PISS OFF A GYPSY.) Waldemar shows up a moment later, gallantly helps them out, and suggests they go to Castle Wolfstein for shelter from the upcoming storm. They do so, but quickly show themselves to be gypsies of the dirty thieving variety by stealing wine from the cellar, getting drunk, and planning to rob the grave of the lord of the manor. Predictably one of the first things they steal is the silver dagger from Lord Wolfstein's tomb, with all too predictable results. A werewolf is on the loose, and it's NOT Daninsky!

After a couple of aristocrats are killed offscreen, the Count organizes a wolf hunt to rid the countryside of the scourge. Waldemar and Rudolph end up hunting buddies, and even though Rudolph is very rude, Waldemar still risks his life to save Rudolph from the rampaging wolf man ('cuz that's how Waldy rollz), once again with predictable and tragic results. Now cursed with La Marca del Hombre-Lobo, he and his newly grateful best friend Rudolph must return to Casa Daninsky and chain Waldemar up before the full moon comes.

You think these huge pecs are just for decoration?

Of course THE CHAINS, THEY DO NOTHING! After an interesting transformation sequence (a sort of melting-screen), Waldemar is on the loose. As usual, it's always the peasants who get hurt. A pair of field laborers end up on the wrong end of Waldemar's fangs, in a thrilling sequence where we get our first LEAP ATTACKS, which are also some of the best (at least until the somersault off the balcony in Curse of the Devil, which is the all-time gold standard). The female peasant is mauled and murdered, but the poor male peasant is beaten, has his throat ripped out, and then gets SET ON FIRE. That's Dethklok-style brutality, right there.

The next night we find the countess searching for Waldemar while Rudolph tries to protect her from a knowledge that will only bring her pain. She's persistent, though, and finds Waldemar in the dungeon of castle Wolfstein, locked up, pleading for death before he kills again. They instead do a little reading in the castle library and discover some letters from Lord Wolfstein to a Dr. Mikelhov, who was working with the wolfed-out lord to find a cure before his first death. Though the letter is 40 years old, they try to contact Dr. Mikelhov, who agrees to come and do what he can for Daninsky. However, when the good doctor and his wife arrive in the fog in a wonderfully shot sequence, it's clear something's a bit off about them. Instead of curing Waldemar, the doctor chains Daninsky to a wall while Ms. Mikelhov tempts and seduces Rudolph, revealing just before he falls into her bed a set of bright white fangs.

Yes, they're VAMPIRES. What are the chances, huh?

And then I sang another chorus, and the crowd went NUTS!

So Rudolph becomes the blood-slave of Ms. Mikelhov, the young countess is similarly hyp-mo-tized by the Doctor, and somehow the vamps capture Lord Wolfstein and chain him in the same cell as Waldemar, for who knows what evil purpose. But when the full moon hits both cursed men wolf out, teasing us with the thought of a ww vs. vamp tag team death match. But it's not to be, as Lord Greywolf foolishly attacks Waldemar, and is turned to ww-jerky by the younger, beefier lycan. The next night Waldemar returns, stakes the lady vamp, and finds the coffin of Dr. Mikelhov, who rises from his grave just as the full moon comes up. What timing! LET'S GET IT ON!

But the vampire is too smart to throw down with Daninsky, instead whisking the countess away in the first of the patented dreamlike vampire sequences: very operatic costumes with slow motion and stylized choreography. Waldemar follows in full ferocious wolf-out mode, a nice contrast with the almost ballet-graceful movements of the vampire. The final battle is anticlimactic, though, as Waldemar puts the doctor down like a sick chipmunk and then is pumped full of silver by the young countess for a tragic but satisfying conclusion.

So there's a lot of great stuff here. The cinematography isn't great, with the exception of the vampire dance sequence, but the plot is convoluted and wild, the visuals nicely put-together, and the action pretty constant. Also being able to see the very beginning of the Daninsky mythos is a real treat, and Naschy does spectacularly in his first acting assignment, his charisma just bleeding through the screen. The only thing lacking is the crossing of that line from sensuality to out-and-out eroticism, as this first flick had none of the nudity that would spice up the later Daninsky chronicles. But there is definitely a hint of that here--the female vamp is very seductive, and the gypsy girl early in the movie has a vitality and natural sexiness that cannot be denied. And the countess, of course, is a Eurobabe hottie. (In one particular scene Rudolph and Waldemar find her sprawled atop the vampire's coffin in a pointedly post-coital pose.) And there's lots of great stuff and fun to be had. 3.75 thumbs for this genesis of all things Naschy.

You want a piece of me? DO YOU, PUNK?

There's also a great interview on the DVD where Naschy talks about the movie and some of the difficulties making it, and also claims his rightful credit for coming up with the vampire/werewolf war (the subtitler even uses the term "lycans"--take that, Underworld!). It's poorly subtitled otherwise, though, as when Jacinto is talking about Lon Chaney Jr.'s movies and the character Lawrence Talbot, which the subtitler inexplicably writes as "Lawrence STEWART." Come on, Jacinto is CLEARLY saying "Talbot"! But a good interview and worth watching.


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