Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972): or, How to Get A Head in Life

If you've been paying attention at all, then you know the undying and slightly disturbing passion that the Duke and I have for the movies of Paul Naschy, the charismatic and tireless actor/writer/director born Jacinto Molina and called "The Lon Chaney of Spain." His Waldemar Daninsky Werewolf saga is rightly hailed as one of the most entertaining series of films in the Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie canon, and anyone who loves both the ridiculous and the sublime has no reason not to be a full-fledged Naschy fanatic. The character of Waldemar Daninsky--a good man cursed with both La Marca del Hombre-Lobo and sexual irresistability to women--is one of the most admirable tragic heroes in movies, for my money.

But Jacinto is not without his dark side, oh no. It's not all tragic curses and noble quests against villainous vampire women and witches. In 1972's Horror Rises from the Tomb, Naschy shows us his dark side and then some, but without sacrificing the outrageousness and fun that are his trademark.

In Horror Rises from the Tomb we witness the origin of Alaric de Marnac: the vile, Satan-worshipping, witchcraft-practicing, blood-drinking, flesh-eating, knight-killing, baby-sacrificing, booty-slapping MACHINE that Naschy created as the dark yin to Waldemar Daninsky's formidable yang. Everything that makes Daninsky so great and tragic--his nobility, his kindness, his emotional depth, his cursed remorse--finds its opposite in de Marnac. In fact the only things de Marnac and Daninsky share is the incredible and irresistible manliness that any character played by Paul Naschy must indeed possess. That, and the fact that the babes just can't stay away.

We open the movie, as we so often do, with a procession of armored knights on horseback, as seen through a close of bushes and tree branches. It is winter, and the plants have lost their leaves, giving us a better view through their barren, bone-like limbs. In the rear of the procession is an ox-drawn cart containing the shackled magnificence of the Nasch. His glower, glare, and maleficent defiance of his captors is chilling, even from our hiding spot in the bushes. It makes the viewer glad he's chained, though still a little nervous, for what shackles could possibly contain such evil?

They're on their way to the Hangin' Tree, where a sentence of death against de Marnac and his partner in crime Mabille is about to be carried out. The reading of the charges is just fantastic, as all those I listed above and more are trotted out--what a laundry-list of crimes!-- while de Marnac sneers pridefully at his "accomplishments." Of course before they get around to carrying out the sentence the foolish kniggits give the unrepentant warlock a chance to spew a vitriolic curse at them, their anscestors, and his own twin brother, who grins down from one of the horses, scarred on one side of his face. This is reminiscent of the brothers from Vengeance of the Zombies, except in this case the scarred one is not the villain (though to be fair, we've nothing to convince us the brother isn't ALSO a bastard). Alas, that's all we'll see of the Marnac twin, as Jacinto probably rightly concluded that 3 Naschys in one film was just too much for the world to bear.

"That's right. I ate a baby. Want to make something of it?"

The whole execution scene is very well-executed (ha!) as de Marnac is beheaded and we get to see a particularly nice head-roll using one of the better prosthetic heads I've seen in movies of this era. Then they strip Mabille buck nekkid and hang her upside down from the tree, tarot-card style, to whip and torture her a bit before her own execution. Of course this allows HER to spew curses for a good five minutes as well. You'd think the inquisitor would say, "Hey! Somebody shut her up, for God's sake!" But they just never learn.

After some great organ music over low-rent opening credits, we flash forward to modern day Paris, or at least stock-footage thereof. In what is undoubtedly the same office used by the doctor in the sequel Panic Beats (watch for a future review!), a painter is working on his latest creation. He is interrupted by a friend, the beefy and swaggering Jacinto Molina himself, who invites him out to drinks. When the arrive at the drinkin' place the painter is reunited with his old flame, and immediately (I mean IMMEDIATELY) tries to suck her ribs up her neck. Get a room, you two! In the intro scene we learn that Paul is a witty but womanizing cad--a really great role for him.

On a lark they go to a seance (always a good idea), where the spirit of Alaric de Marnac is summoned and tells them the location of his and Mabille's tombs on Paul's ancestral estate. Of course that sort of thing can't go uninvestigated, so the friends agree to take a long weekend to check it out.

The seance scene is GREAT, lots of good camera angles and trickery, and some fine acting by the medium and Paul as the spirit of evil. Later, back in his studio, the painter starts working in a hypnotic frenzy, unaware of what he's painting until he stops to see it's a headless body holding the bloody head of de Marnac in its fist. In a truly creepy moment, Alaric appears as a floating head above the painting, dripping blood onto the picture and laughing evilly. Of course the painter dismisses it all as a dream, and tells no one.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

On the road to Paul's estate, the friends are waylaid by highwaymen, naturally.* The painter proves himself useless in a scrap, but Paul kicks enough ass for the both of them. Just as he's got things under control, a mob of villagers shows up and summarily executes one of the robbers with a shotgun! This is really a showstopper sequence, as Paul and Co. negotiate renting a car with the head villager while the rest of the posse goes about getting ready to hang the other robber, and another takes the fallen criminal's ear as a souvenir for his girlfriend! A more sadistic mob you will not see in the annals of cinema.

* (The attack by highwaymen is a recurring motif in Naschy's films, and one wonders whether some event in his past led him to keep revisiting it in film after film. Sadly no mention of it is made in his excellent autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolf Man, leaving Naschy scholars to guess and conjecture.)

From there things play out predictably but satsfyingly. They arrive at the estate and quickly find the remains of de Marnac and Mabille. Just as quickly one of the villagers is enslaved by black magic and brings both evildoers back to life, so they can rise horrifically from the tomb. Another great scene ensues as they take de Marnac's disembodied head and reattach it to his body--a recapitation, if you will--again, with some of the best use of a prosthetic head I've seen, cutting it back and forth with the real head of Naschy almost seamlessly. They sacrifice a Eurobabe to bring Mabille back in a fantastic and chilling ritual, and then Mabille and Alaric go on a romp for 7 full moons, seducing and murdering villagers and being as evil as possible until the painter and Paul discover the amulet of Thor's Hammers (?) that is needed to overcome the black magic of de Marnac. But will they prevail?

I loved this movie, of course. Paul's look is great throughout as de Marnac--very pale skin and dark stylized evil beard, with his crazy eyes workin' overtime. There's plenty of Euroflesh on display too, and one scene where de Marnac disrobes that will have you aghast and Paul's washerboard-style abs, not to mention the Hairy Pecs of Doom. The gore is great as well, with beheadings, lashings, slashings, and more than one chest-ripping heart-extraction. There's even a chilling zombie attack late in the movie, as de Marnac's victims now serve his evil wishes.

"Hi, we're lost. Can you tell us how to get to Manchester?"

There are some great shots as always from director Carlos Aured, including a beautiful death scene with bright red blood flowing down a bank into a running stream. Add some real sadism and preversity going on and it's enough to keep any fan happy.

But what's really great is the way that you're never sure who the protagonist is--for a while it's the painter, then Paul, then the daughter of the caretaker of the estate, then the painter again, until you really don't know who to follow. Several scenes where you are conditioned to expect a rescue (one of the main chicks is captured by the witches and held for quite a while in preparation for a Black Mass), let's just say you don't get what you are led to expect. Evil triumphs when you expect good to intervene, and keeps you guessing as to what exactly will transpire. The disorientation is delicious, and one of the best things about the flick.

Other good things:

Best Use of Nightgown in the Movie: the obligatory nighttime walk through the castle, with see-thru nightie over black undies. Zang!
Undeniable sign you're watching a 70s Euro Horror flick: a grief stricken teen wears a miniskirt to her father's funeral. I LOVE EUROPE!

So another Mmmmmasterpiece from the filmography of Paul Naschy. DeimosDVD has put out a fantastic special edition (with commentary from the Man Himself!), and it should really be on every horror fan's shelf. 6 thumbs, easily. Surrender to de Marnac, and may God have mercy on us all!

Can't sleep. Paul will eat me.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Finis Hominis (1971): or, I am the Zé, the Truth, and the Light

"If something exists, it is because there is a reason for it to exist."--Finis Hominis

Let it not be said that José Mojica Marins, the mad genius behind the Coffin Joe series of films, is concerned only with the seedy, evil underbelly of society. Such a narrow focus would impose far too stringent a restraint on the director's expansive, all-encompassing vision. While perhaps few have captured (and even induced) such pure, direct-to-the-cortex blasts of gibbering evil insanity than the self-taught Sultan of Sao Paulo, Marins has also spent some time thinking about the flip-side of that equation--the good to the evil, the yang to the yin. The results of that consideration are presented to the thirsty masses of his fans in another Marins masterpiece, 1971's Finis Hominis (aka The End of Man).

The story is quickly told: a naked man emerges from the sea and wanders through the city of Sao Paulo, leaving mystery and miracle in his wake. Though he speaks little, his enigmatic nature and the reports of his powers lead many to hail him as a messiah, eventually setting off a spiritual reawakening (not to mention a media firestorm) throughout Brazil.

After a series of adventures (some of which the man, having taken the moniker "Finis Hominis," is a direct actor in, some of which he is only tangentially involved in), he announces his intention to return from whence he came, and gives a farewell speech detailing his philosophy and the reasons for his coming. Then, true to his word, Finis Hominis returns to the place he came from, leaving he world better and the people happier behind him. Of course we get to SEE where he came from, which gives the audience a bit more to chew on after the final credits roll.

Though this film does not partake of the same mind-crippling evil as the Coffin Joe films and the brain-broiling insanity of Awakening of the Beast, it does share with those films the indelible stamp of their maker's taloned hand. Like those other movies, Finis Hominis concerns a powerful, charismatic personality who largely by force of will is able to transform the world around him and change the way people perceive their existence. And just like Zé do Caixão, Finis Hominis is intent on showing the viewer the essential truths of life, however ugly or insane or even beautiful they may be.

Finis Hominis: The End of Fashion

But even if a viewer is not open to the deeper truths Marins is putting forward here, every viewer will leave the movie with one undeniable truth cemented forever in his brain:

Brazilian people are WHACK.

The narrative structure of Finis Hominis is very similar to that employed in Awakening of the Beast--which is to say, there's not much structure at all. It's more a series of shorts tied together by the central figure of Finis Hominis himself; in this case, most of the shorts involve FH emulating the acts of Jesus in some way--making a lame woman walk (hilariously, in the first few minutes), saving an adulteress from being lynched, healing the sick, etc. However, it's important that FH never claims supernatural powers, never mentions God--he presents his teachings as truths available to everyone, and never concerns himself with the afterlife, concentrating instead on the here and now. He's a godless messiah, but nonetheless good or powerful for that.

Not all of the scenes are direct biblical analogs, however. The most powerful sequence comes near the end, and seems to be drawn from a biographical incident in Marins' own life, about which I've read before. A woman and her lover plan to kill her husband in a very unorthodox way, but don't count on the fact that he's subject to cataleptic seizures. Before the poor sod can be buried alive, Finis Hominis comes to the rescue just in a nick of time.

"What is this? Oregano? Jesus, guys, I was just sleeping!"

The camera work here is great and innovative, as usual. And of course it wouldn't be a Marins flick without the boundary-pushing sex, and FH is no exception. The adulteress FH saves early on is indeed guilty, as we get to see her committing adultery very energetically from a variety of unusual angles. Later, when the aforementioned woman and her lover are going at it, we get some stunning angles and compositions, and the fact that she weeps during sex is used during an incredible funeral sequence to keep the other mourners from realizing she's not mourning her "dead" husband as a widow ought (this truly must be seen to be believed). Also, a memorable shot of a naked Zé standing at the top of a staircase looking down on a surprised woman coming up is, I'll say it, iconic.

Also worthy of special mention is the music. This soundtrack has everything: strange, ambient sounds with weird echoing moans and laughs; action-score, "Mission Impossible"-type tunes; bubble-gum Brazilian pop music; carnival music played on a calliope; classical pieces including the Hallelujah chorus; and finally a memorable and head-spinning muzak rendition of "Raindrops are Falling on My Head"! Somehow, though, this piecemeal approach works. A truly memorable score to a truly memorable movie.

"Why yes, I'm deathly afraid of spiders. Why do you ask? ...Hey, what's going on down there?"

I will say that the pacing of the movie baffled me a little at first--it seemed to start out running, then slow down considerably, to the point I was almost thinking it was losing steam. I should have known better, though, as it finishes very, VERY strong with the love-triangle thing I mentioned, Finis Hominis's farewell address, and the very effective ending.

While not a horror movie but rather a meditation on religion, messiahs, and ultimate truth, I would place Finis Hominis up there with AotB, almost as a companion piece to it. It has certainly given me an even deeper appreciation of the art and philosophy of José Mojica Marins. Praise be to Zésus Christo!

Rating: every thumb in the house. Thou shalt not steal, except in order to see this movie. God will be forgiving, and the Vicar absolves you in advance. Go now, my children, in peace, and don't play with the dog.

Note: Finis Hominis has not as yet received a DVD release, and was previously only available in a Something Weird Video VHS version from the 80s. This review is based on the dub of that version, which is visually somewhat lacking. You can find it, though, if you know where to look. Let's hope, for the sake of our souls, that after Marins' new movie comes out in 2008 we'll get a pristine dvd release stamped from the original negative.

Way too cool for Sunday School.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blood Gnome (2004): or, Kick Me In My Puppet Balls, Baby!

I had been under the impression for years that a certain artifact dating from the 14th century was out of my reach. This artifact contains many, um, items shall we say, that I am interested in procuring. I speak, of course, of the Ossuary of Ollantaytambo, a relic of such
power it makes one dizzy to think on it. So much blood from the various cantors and clergy were spilled upon it, its power must vibrate the very air. The vessel was last known to be in the possession of a certain splinter group of Templars currently residing near the La Rochelle region of France. Had I known it would fall into my lap while on a trip to Peru for the Conference of Birds I would have packed more lightly.

But, I digress. Upon opening this treasure (after performing De Profundis of course), I was delighted to see that my theory had proven correct. The ossuary was nothing more than a chrysalis for the birthing of Blood Gnome. Blood Gnome... the words rolled off my tongue like the honeyed tears of 1000 orphans. At last I would gaze upon its wonders and perhaps despair... or perhaps to swoon in ecstasy. Let us begin.

Blood Gnome looks like it was filmed on a $200 camcorder that the producers (I use that word lightly) bought at a Wal-Mart seconds before shooting was to begin. It features actors and actresses whose sole quality for getting to be in the film was that they could breathe. And perhaps to show their tits. You see, Blood Gnome "stars" one of cinema's greatest treasures, star of countless Skinemax late night softcore "I wanna see some boobies!" movies, Julie Strain! Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Julie is mere a bystander here, apparently told to show up for the bondage scenes and display her assets.

Did I say bondage?! Why, yes I did mister! You see, Blood Gnome is a movie about the wild, wonderful world of BDSM. It seems this dominatrix has gotten a hold of a way to make some drug from the, uh, fetuses of a demon that she has trapped in a box, and, uh, she's using a drug dealer to sell her product, but then she kills him, and there's some invisible Blood Gnomes running around, and, well as you can see this movie is so jumbled I'm still not sure what I watched.

Let me break it down this way: There's a nerdy forensic investigator who used to be married to this hot blond, somehow, and he's coming to grips with her death by suicide, which incidentally he keeps a photo of on his wall. While investigating the murder of a dominatrix and her slave, he is introduced to Divinity, a dom who knew the deceased and wants answers. Turns out, Divinity is also a slave to the main bad chick dom who keeps the demon-in-a-box drug factory thingy. Still with me? Yeah, I thought so. See, this is about where I poured a large-ish dram of 25 year old Macallan.

Despite the nonsensical plot, BG does do a few things right. The Gnomes themselves seem to be brought on by ingesting the drug, from what I could tell, although they do just show up on their own sometimes. Anyway, they actually look creepy, in a rubber-doll-is-creepy sort of way. The effects of their attacks are also well done. Since they are invisible for most of the movie you only see their claws digging giant red cuts into people, which is actually done fairly well. When the BG's tear up their victims you really get a good show, and it readily becomes apparent where the film’s “budget” went.

When the forensic investigator discovers that the BGs can be seen using an infrared camera, we are treated to one of the best fight scenes put to film. I shit thee not, I literally cheered out loud, when a half dozen BGs attack our hapless investigator, and he proceeds to fight them all hand-to-hand, culminating in the most awesome rubber puppet kick to the balls in the history of human thought. At this point the movie had totally redeemed itself and I just sat back, sipped the Macallan, and smiled, for I had truly discovered a treasure few had witnessed.

The rest of the movie went along swimmingly, and included an overly long BDSM scene in which Julie finally showed her talents, as did Divinity and a host of semi-hawt chicas. We also get to see a balding, overweight cop get flagellated with a cat-o-nine-tails, which reminded me of the last party the Vicar threw. We also learn that BGs can use instant messaging via the Interwebs, a fact of which I had previously been unaware. We also learn that it is bad to taunt a BG, and that BGs are disturbingly easy to kill once you reveal their presence.

Gently placing the film back inside the ossuary, I closed the lid and handed the vessel to a eunuch in my employ. I may not ever gaze upon the cinematic brilliance that is Blood Gnome ever again, but at least I can sleep peacefully, knowing that it is in my care now. In the end, I must give Blood Gnome a very solid 2 thumbs. Should you ever chance upon a copy (for I know that certain groups in the Orthodoxy have copied it in the past), please do watch it, if for nothing else than to see a Blood Gnome get kicked in the wedding tackle.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Amityville II: The Possession (1982): or, My Demon Brother

Like most kids growing up in the 70s (or at least most of those who were into horror movies), I was fascinated by the story of The Amityville Horror, the supposedly true story of the Lutz family and their trials and tribulations in the most maliciously haunted house in America. The bestselling book by Jay Anson was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, scaring folks out of their bedclothes from coast to coast and even in foreign countries. The 1979 movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder was a massive box office hit. And the sinister "face" of the house has become iconic shorthand for everything a threatening, demon-possessed house should be. When a house that looks like that says, "GET OUT!"--brother, you better listen.

But while that phrase and other parts of the Amityville legend have become enshrined in the cultural haunted house nomenclature--the "Indian Burial Ground" explanation, for instance--the legend itself has not aged well. The "true story" of the book has been exposed as a hoax. The glow of the film's boffo B.O. has dimmed as subsequent generations discover that despite one or two effective set-pieces (the rocking chair in the little girl's room, the horrifying red-eye pig-squeal at the upstairs windows) the film is actually a plodding, boring, melodramatic mess. Yes, the film has found, much like its female lead, that the passage of time can be cruel.

But then there was its sequel, Amityville II: The Possession. Released three years after the original, this movie drops all pretense of creepy verisimilitude and goes straight for the gut, cranking up the paranormal activity, turning the perversity dial to eleven, and tossing enough goopy gore effects at the screen to satisfy even the most jaded Mad Movie Connoisseur. Where part one now plays as a staid, slow-moving relic in which nothing much really happens, A2:TP shows like a freight train on fire barreling past a malfunctioning crossing alarm in the middle of a schoolbus caravan. And like that train wreck, it's definitely worth a long, fascinated look.

Taking as its source another of the few effective set-pieces from the first film--the horrific opening murder montage when Ronald DeFeo systematically killed his entire family (including two young siblings) with a shotgun in the Amityville House before the Lutzes moved in--A2:TP opens with these previous owners taking possession (ha!) of their dream home. The family, inexplicably renamed "Montelli" for the purposes of this film, is made up of a high-strung religious mother (Golden Raspberry-nominated Rutanya Alda), an abusive greaseball father (prolific character actor Burt Young of the Rocky series fame), angelic tots Mark and Jan (Brent and Erika Katz), budding vivacious teenager Patricia (a scrumptuous Diane Franklin; see also the 1985 John Cusack comedy Better Off Dead), and sullen chicken-chested eldest son Sonny.

Jack Magner plays Sonny with effective wounded menace; early scenes where he angrily but powerlessly cowers before his slap-happy dad--even before they get into the house for the first time!--tell you volumes about his character and dramatic situation. Not since Oedipus has there been a young man more likely to murder his tyrannical father, and Magner inhabits the role admirably, getting just the right mix of beaten-down goodness and mind-twisting anger boiling just under the surface. While his loving sister and disturbingly affectionate mother anchor him to his control for the moment, you can tell he just needs a little bit of tipping to go screaming over the edge.

"Did you say, 'Ge Tout'? Sorry, I don't speak German."

Of course the house they just moved into specializes in pushing those teetering on madness over the brink, and wastes no time putting the screws to Sonny. The Montellis have barely set foot in the house before the spirits who dwell there start acting out, announcing themselves with a self-opening secret door to the famous "Red Room" (and dumping sewage and flies on the hapless moving guy who invesigates it) and a ghostly grope of Mrs. Montelli, which lets Rutanya Alda start her hysterical crazy-eyed acting style early and stick with it throughout. In fact the speed and intensity of the haunting here is fairly shocking--you wonder how they were even able to buy the place without it spitting blood out the wall sockets and slamming windows on their noses during the open house. I guess, like Shirley Jackson famously wrote, "some houses are born bad." At least it's not boring.

We get a few more dysfunctional family-establishment scenes, all of them great. Sonny and Patricia share a strange moment in his room, as the younger sister pretty much comes on to her brother with a lithe ballet soliloquy. (Zang.) Later at dinner there's more slapping from Dad and screaming from Mom, with much crying and gnashing of teeth from all four children. Some ghostly knocking at the door leads Daddy to go grab one of his many shotguns (FORESHADOWING!) while upstairs levitating paintbrushes make obscene graffiti on the walls of the tots' room. When Dad threatens to belt the kids for the painting, Mom steps in and gets the strap for her troubles. When Burt chases her all the way down to the basement, spanking her all the way, Sonny steps in, grabs a rifle, and threatens to blow Dad's head off with it. Rutanya takes the gun and cries "What's happening to us?" But you can't help feeling what's wrong with this family was wrong well before they moved in.

Most of the family goes to church to meet Father Adamsky (James Olson), but Sonny stays home and starts getting messages through his Walkman encouraging him to kill baby kill! In one of the scenes that stuck with me in the 80s, Sonny reclines on the bed and his bare chest deflates dramatically, ribs sticking up and out, in a gross and wonderful practical effects scene. Guess he's possessed now, all right!

I've mentioned the perversity of the film, and those who have seen it will have no trouble remembering exactly what I'm talking about. We get another scene of Sonny and Patricia together in which Patricia talks explicitly about their parents' sex lives, how she doesn't think "Mommy likes to do it" anymore, and it makes Daddy mad. "I hear them arguing about it," she says. That's gotta make it hard to sleep. Diane Franklin plays the budding nymphette extremely well, and it's clear in this scene and others that her affection for her older brother is tinged with her burgeoning sensuality, lending an uncomfortable erotic undercurrent to their scenes together.

Later, fully under the demonic influence of the house, her brother suggests they play a game of "photographer," where he pretends to be the camera man and she the model. Patricia readily poses for him on the bed, and when he suggests she remove her nightgown, she all-too-readily accedes! Things quickly go from icky to creepy when her brother pulls a pair of her dirty panties from his pocket, explaining he got them from the laundry. Before you can say "Hotel New Hampshire!" Sonny and Patty have broken several BIG Old Testament laws, and the familial corruption is complete.

"Why are you looking at me so funny, bro?"

Meanwhile Mom has asked Father Adamsky to bless the house, letting the priest in on all the dysfunction going on at the Montelli abode and giving him the first glimpse of the evil spirit that's now directing Sonny's every move. His Godly Spidey-Sense tingles more when Patricia brings her sins to him at confession, saying memorably that her "friend" does these things with her just to hurt. "To hurt you?" he asks, concerned. "No," she replies. "To hurt God!" Ho-lee shit. Or un-ho-lee, in this case.

So we're about an hour in to a 100-minute movie when Sonny finally demon-Hulks out and takes the shotgun to the whole fam damily. We're treated to some pretty grody demon-transformation makeup as Sonny kills his parents first, chases down the younger siblings (a very chilling sequence), and finally penetrates his sister with buckshot, for a change. This sequence is very unlike the same one in the earlier movie, where it was an enigmatic plot point that DeFeo shot each family member in his or her bed, where they seemingly stayed put despite the multiple shotgun blasts in other parts of the house. Still, it works here, and the practical effects on Sonny's face are pure 80s-horror goodness.

With still forty minutes run-time to go we switch our focus entirely to Father Adamsky, who now wants to exorcise Sonny and the house. The narrative loses a little steam and believability as the priest defies his church superiors and the law to bust Sonny out of jail and take him back to the house for the ceremony. But things pick up again when Sonny escapes and the priest must hunt him down through the increasingly rambunctious house--slime down the walls, rivers of blood flooding the basement from the Red Room, and other surreal and strangely effective scenes of horrific haunting. It culminates in a priest vs. demon confrontation that features an incredibly graphic and goopy makeup effect for Sonny's "final transformation" and a straight-from-The Exorcist rip-off resolution that will still leave a Mad Movie fan with a smile on his face. The final shot of the strangely un-destroyed house with a "For Sale" sign swinging out front, like a trap re-set and waiting on the next victim, is a fitting conclusion to an hour and forty minutes of fun.

Though I remembered quite a bit about this movie from my previous viewings in the 80s (mainly the Exorcist-esque makeup and the incest subplot), there was an awful lot I'd forgotten that I found myself enjoying a lot this time through. The sheer energy of the haunting is a welcome change and keeps things from ever getting too boring, and the perverseness and dysfunction of the family (anchored by Burt Young's wonderfully slimy performance as the Montelli the Elder) are really something to see. Jack Magner is great as the demon-possessed killer, and Diane Franklin as the naive nymph sister is similarly affecting. I didn't even mind the departure from haunted house to exorcism territory, as it was just the kind of kitchen-sink cheese that lovers of 80s horror eat up with both spoons. At the end I found myself sated and content, and willing to pronounce this far and away my favorite of the entire Amityville series (though if you've seen any of the other sequels, that may seem like faint praise).

So 2.5 thumbs for this cool piece of fright film from the early 80s. If you haven't seen it in a while and are in the mood for some nasty, goopy nostalgia, you could do a lot worse than to give it another look.

But for the love of God: GET OUT...of the clothes hamper! She's your sister, dude!


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965): or, Death Wears a D-Cup

"Ladies and Gentlemen: welcome TO VIOLENCE!"

So begin's Russ Meyers' 1965 cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a movie camp cinema icon John Waters says is "beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future." While not everyone--okay, maybe not anyone--shares Waters' peculiar cinematic sensibility, there's no denying that Meyers' film possesses a strange, almost alien power, undiminished more than forty years after it was made.

It's a movie that's not only critic-proof, but actively antagonistic to criticism. Like its protagonist/antagonist gang of Amazonian thrill-seekers, it laughs in the face of your rules. It refuses to behave. It's mad, bad, and dangerous to know. It's a threat, and it means business.

In fact, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is almost not a movie--it's a manifesto, a new mythology. Varla, Rosie, and Billie, with their larger-than-life attitudes, their heedless insatiable lust for thrills, and their murderous unconcern for others, would not be out of place among the fickle gods of Olympus, or clashing with the warlike deities of Asgard. These are not women walking across the screen--they are gods and heroes, and this is Meyers' Odyssey.

Come along for the ride.

After an amazing opening narration warning viewers to beware "dangerous packs of women!" we are thrown into a go-go club where rapacious, dog-like men are shouting at the women on stage to "Go-go, baby! Go-go!" The men don't seem to be enjoying themselves particularly--rather, there's a violence in their exhortations, a desperation in their eyes. What is clear here is that for all their bluster and bravado, these men are not nearly as powerful as the women who are driving them to frenzy--women who, as the movie goes on, we will learn are even more powerful and frightening than we can imagine.

Next we find ourselves out in the desert, watching the three girls from the go-go club as they race their powerful sports cars up and down the lonely arid highway. The roar of motors is mixed with their wild laughter, and Meyers establishes the fast-paced, kinetic visual style that has since been imitated and parodied by the likes of Waters and Quentin Tarantino, among others.


The girls are led by Varla (Tura Satana), a terrifying Amazon with straight black hair, a black jumpsuit, and the high black boots of a dominatrix. Her stylized, cat-like eye makeup and stone-cold, contemptuous sneer immediately establish her as a woman you do NOT want to piss off. Her major domo is Rosie (Haji), an exotic beauty with a Mario Brothers-level Italian accent that will have viewers laughing when their mouths aren't agape. Rounding out the group is Billie (Lori Williams), the vivacious blonde who isn't shy about testing Varla's authority.

After a few turns the girls head off to a time track in what looks like a salt lake bed, stopping along the way for Billie to take a fully-clothed swim (the opposite of skinny-dipping, but strangely no less erotic) and to engage in a catfight with Rosie in the sand that magically disappears from their clothing a scene later. Varla watches it all with magisterial contempt, like Genghis Khan suffering the frivolity of his horde. These scenes seem less designed to establish character than to build a world for these characters to inhabit--one of violence, sexuality, and frenzied reasonless activity in the name of "getting your kicks." Oh, what a wonderful world.

If you know anything about Russ Meyer you'll know that he's perhaps most infamous for his obsession with larger-than-life women bearing larger-than-life breasts, and here his infamy is honestly earned. Varla, Rosie, and Billie are nearly always shot from low angles, which makes them seem gigantic, towering over the viewer, and also accentuates the size of their frankly astonishing breasts. In the days before implants the shapes of these women are truly amazing, and the way Meyers shoots them turns their bounteous femininity into something both beautiful and dangerous. You get the feeling that each of them, Varla most especially, could crush any man like a bug under her heel, and their enormous breasts are simply manifestations of that frightening, alluring power. These are not women you desire--these are women you surrender to.

I give up, Varla! Please don't hurt me!
(Okay, maybe just a little...)

It's not long before the Pussycats are joined at the time track by Tommy and Linda, two straight-laced, wholesome, All-American kids who have no idea what danger they've just fallen into. Tommy wants to see if his fine-tuning on his car will result in a faster time around the track, which leads Varla to scoff at someone who thinks he can win anything racing against a stopwatch. His virility called into question, Tommy accepts Varla's challenge for a race around the track, which she wins by fighting the only way she knows how--dirty. Afterwards Tommy ill-advisedly confronts Varla, which leads to an amazing fight scene between him and the Amazon goddess that ends when Varla puts her boot to the vanquished male's back and snaps his spine like a dry stick! Linda faints and the Pussycats dispose of Tommy's body and car and take it on the lam, bringing Linda along for an unclear sinister purpose.

When they stop for gas in the next town, Varla sees a hugely muscled hulk of a young man carrying his crippled father back to their truck (after loading a fifty-gallon drum of gasoline as though it were a sack of pecan shells). She learns from a helpful grease monkey that the old man used to work for the railroad and was crippled in an accident when he tried to save a young woman from being crushed by a train. The muscleman is his son, nicknamed "The Vegetable" because despite his god-like physique he is completely retarded.

The Vegetable just loves the smell of...oh, never mind.

The attendant further informs the girls that the old man is rumored to have lots of money from the railroad settlement, doesn't trust banks, and lives out in the desert miles away from anyone; furthermore, he's such a crotchety old cuss that nobody much likes him in town, and "If he disappeared tomorrow, nobody around here would miss him!" Not one to argue with Fate, Varla quickly determines to go out the old man's ranch, find the money, and get back on the road several thousand dollars richer. Linda will serve as the lynchpin to a convoluted cover story that is neither believable nor important. The important thing is for the girls to get out to the ranch, and that's exactly what they do.

But the family at the ranch are not to be innocent victims. We learn quickly that the Old Man, embittered by his paralysis, is using his musclebound son to exact a perverse vengeance on all females, as presumably the barren, junk-strewn wasteland of the ranch is also strewn with the corpses of unfortunate women. "We're payin' them back," he tells the Vegetable, "Each woman a payment!" The Old Man's older son Kirk (Paul Trinka, who sounds a lot more like Paul Anka) is not involved in the scheme, but only stays on at the ranch out of a feeling of duty toward his father and protectiveness for his massive, mentally challenged younger brother.

So that's the plot--Varla and the Pussycats try to weasel the location of the money out of the Old Man and his sons while Linda tries to escape from her captors' clutches, only to find that the Old Man is nowhere near a savior. There are many great set-pieces in here, from the Pussycats' scheming while showering at an old water tower (!) to Rosie's attempts to seduce The Vegetable (Yet another instance of retard seduction!) to both Varla and Linda throwing themselves at the kind-hearted but weak Kirk, with varying levels of success. But the best of the lot is an absolutely amazing dinner scene that lacks only the cannibalism angle to rival the perverseness of Tobe Hooper's dinner scene in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Truly a weird, wild movie, and a visual feast.

The old man's reflexes were too slow; the girls
already had their buttocks cocked and loaded.

It all barrels forward to an expected confrontation and resolution, but the plot here is much less important than the individual scenes and images that make it up. Meyers frames every scene like the panel of a comic book, with the girls usually in the positions of superheroes--again using the low angles and long-perspective shots to make them seem 10 feet tall and bulletproof. It's hard for me to tell whether Meyers was consciously imitating superhero comics with his camera work, or if comics since have imitated Meyers, but either way, it's gorgeous to look at. In fact, if there hasn't been a graphic novelization of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, I will tell you right now that it's LONG overdue. Hell, just take stills from the movie and add speech bubbles. Bang, you're done.

And I haven't even mentioned what would be inside those speech bubbles! As I said before, Meyers is not telling a grittily realistic dramatic tale here; just as everyone looks larger than life, the dialogue also smacks of superhero comic exposition, with some of the campiest, most quotable lines in movie history. For instance:

Varla: "I never try anything. I just DO IT [...] Wanna try me?"

Tommy (after Varla karate-chops his wrist): "You got a weird sense of humor."
Varla (defiantly): "Try again--I get funnier!"

Grease Monkey (staring at Varla's cleavage): "That's what I believe in--see America first."
Varla: "You won't find it down there, Columbus!"

But I really can't do justice to the music of this movie's dialog in textual form. If you've ever enjoyed the cadence of character speech in a John Waters movie or guffawed through the hilarious Girls Will Be Girls (also highly recommended), you'll recognize immediately what those filmmakers were imitating and parodying. But here it's played straight, and is a hundred times more wonderful. The off-kilter dialog, the comic book visual sensibility, and the smoldering, dangerous, completely perverse sexuality of the whole thing just leaps off the screen like a race car off the starting line, right into your face and heart.


And enough cannot be said about Tura Satana's legend-making turn as Varla. She is not only the most wickedly funny, frightening, and powerful female villain I've ever seen on film--she's easily in the top three cinematic villains of all time regardless of sex. By the end I found myself rooting for her because of her refusal to accept anything less than everything she wants, and for her ruthlessness in pursuing her single-minded goal. Powerful, sexy, pitiless: Meyers was trying to start a new religion, I think, and Satana--Varla--is his goddess.

This movie defies rating. There's so much more I could say about sex-role reversal, gender antagonism, De Sadean notions of vice vs. virtue, and many other topic that could fill a dozen movie books. Suffice to say it's essential, required, absolutely unmissable, and the apotheosis of what a Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie should be. See it at your earliest opportunity, by hook or by crook. And bow down at the feet of your new gods.


Monday, December 3, 2007

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974): or, Yule Be Sorry

If you're like me, you probably don't "get" the whole Santa Claus-killer thing. I mean, it's good for a laugh, and it's transgressive to take this jolly old St. Nick figure that all children know and love and turn him into a slavering bloodthirsty maniac--I get that. But once you get over the "Hey, it's Santa Claus, and he's pissed off!" factor, where else could you go? It just seemed to me a one trick pony, albeit festively draped in tinsel.

As such, I've generally avoided watching Santa-themed slasher flicks. Silent Night, Deadly Night, To All a Good Night, and Christmas Evil, though I saw them often on public domain sets and on my local rental establishments' shelves, never reached out to me and demanded I take them home. Not when Humongous or The Gates of Hell was right there beside them, shouting them down. And right there with those two infamous flicks was 1974's Silent Night, Bloody Night, which had the holiday-themed vhs cover and seemed cut from the same cloth. So I assiduously avoided that one too, passing on it for what I thought would be more intriguing, entertaining, original fare.

Oh, if only I could go back in time. Because only now, at this late hour, do I realize at last how cruelly I cheated myself by not snatching this film up at the first opportunity.

In short, SNBN knocked my socks off. It surprised me, waylaid me, hid in the bushes and jumped out to ravage me. Not at all what I was expecting, surpassing in nearly every way any preconceived notions I entered into my viewing with, SNBN is a low-budget creepfest masterpiece. After just one viewing I can say it is CRIMINALLY underrated, insanely unknown, and one of those rare films that was actually able to make me genuinely frightened.

Not that I want to over-hype it or anything.

In perhaps one of the most unfortunate cases of false advertising ever, viewers have been led to believe that SNBN is one of those aforementioned Christmas-themed horrors, when in fact the Christmas season is a very incidental aspect of the plot, probably only written in to capitalize on all those holiday thrillers for marketing purposes. But there is not a Santa Claus to be found here, and very few Christmas trees and strings of lights. What we have instead is a taught thriller-cum-slasher that owes more than a little to Hitchcock, prefigures many of the best horrors to come, and has a visual flair and style that should have fanboys raving about its influence on no less than Stanley Kubrick for his 1980 masterpiece The Shining, which this film predates by at least 6 years. In short, it's a movie all horror and suspense fans should see. Like, NOW.

I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, as I think a viewer will be all the more gobsmacked if he goes in knowing as little as possible. So here's a bare-bones summary: the movie opens at the New England mansion house of the Butler family, circa 1950, when patriarch Wilfred Butler inexplicably returns home and immolates himself on the estate lawn. Or does he? Another figure, hunched in a shawl, was there, but who this is will remain a mystery until the final frames of the film.

Ripped from the headlines.

The house is left to Butler's sole surviving heir, his grandson Jeffrey, who lives in California. The younger Butler hires a lawyer to sell the house for him, and it is this lawyer we follow into the small town and learn some of its history. He deals with the town council, a group of menacing folks including John Carradine as a mute newspaper editor, and tells them his client's plans; the city is very anxious to buy the house, especially at the price Jeffrey wants.

Afterwards, the dashing lawyer takes his young mistress out to the Butler house for a little Yuletide tryst. (A brief scene where he talks on the phone with his young daughter, and then wife, while his beautiful young fucktoy waits in the car, tells volumes about both character and dramatic situation.) We get to know the lawyer and his mistress, watch them settle in--but little do they know someone else is in the house!

In an exciting early scene we see a maniac escape from an asylum--all from the maniac's p.o.v., in a very well-done set-piece, cracking guards with a monkeywrench and stealing a car--and we know that whoever he is, he's arrived before the lovers. We get some fantastic shots, again from the maniac's p.o.v. as he runs through the house, which reminded me so much of Kubrick's famous Big Wheel™ dolly shot in The Shining that I had to check the film's release date. While the lovers plan their future and have dinner, the suspense builds slowly, unbearably, as we wonder how our silver-haired philandering protagonist will discover the uninvited guest, and what will then happen.

Life getting you down? Try Adultery™!

Well, if you've seen Psycho, no points for guessing that he discovers the maniac’s presence seconds before he discovers his own mortality, in an absolutely amazing and brutal homage to that famous shower killing. Unmoored from our supposed hero, we're reeling for a little while until we settle on the mayor's daughter, a lovely young woman home alone wrapping presents while her father goes to the capitol to get the funds to buy the Butler house and tear it down. Who should show up at her door but Jeffrey Butler, fresh from California, apparently locked out of his own house by the missing lawyer he hired. But is he really who he claims to be? And what is the deadly secret that makes the town council so intent on the destruction of the Butler house? And who is the maniac who has taken up residence there, menacing the mayor, sheriff, and old newspaper man with cryptic phone calls?

To say more would be cheating. Take my advice and don't look up too much info on this one before you get to watch it. The Hitchcockian homages continue, and director Theodore Gershuny (Gesundheit!) is smart enough to let the film geek in you think you have it all figured out before pulling the rug out from under you in a startling final few minutes. Very few film climaxes have left me with goosebumps on the back of my neck, but I'm adding SNBN to that short list. Really, I can't believe how good this is.

The print on the 50 Chilling Classics pack is in pretty bad shape, with lots of specks and damage, but you can still see underneath it all some amazingly good cinematography and camera work, with some innovative and more importantly meaningful camera movement and lens shifting. Another highlight is an extended sepia-toned flashback near the end that could be a wonderful short film in itself, with strange smudged shadows and almost silent-movie-esque zombie figures (not really zombies, but again, no spoilers--suffice that they're zombie-like). The acting ranges from good to excellent, with no one really dropping the ball. And the script--well, it kept me in suspense, and on the edge of my seat, and knocked me off it with a bang at the end. So kudos there.

Sorry--does it bother you when we do this?

Even when the movie breaks "good movie" rules, it still worked for me. There's a lot of novelistic (i.e., narrative) voice-over work early and late in the flick, which usually I cant stand; but here it's coupled with intriguing images and has enough of the unreliable in it to keep you paying close attention and to increase the unease that pervades the film. The extended flashback I alluded to goes on for a good 10 or 15 minutes, which ordinarily would stop a movie cold--but the visual style of it is so fantastic, and the story it's relating so interesting in itself and doubly so with the viewer applying the truths of the past to what's been going on in the present, it just pulled me right on through. And that ending--man. I thought I had it figured out, but then, a footstep on the stairs...

Another 6-thumber from Mill Creek. Great stuff, and I'm so glad I saw it. It's a shame movies as good as this get lost and forgotten, but wonderful that, even in a beat-up form, folks like Mill Creek are keeping them in circulation. It's like a Christmas present, all year long.


(PS--looking for images I found out that SNBN has it's own extensive fan site, with more information than I thought would exist about the flick all collected and handy. If you love the movie as much as I do, check it out.)


Related Posts with Thumbnails