Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Expulsion of the Devil (1973): or, When Fridges ATTACK!

Juan Luis Buñuel's 1973 film, Expulsion of the Devil (Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse, literally "At the Meeting of the Joyous Death"), could be called a "slow burn." It moves through its tale of poltergeist activity plaguing a young family in their isolated rural home with absolutely no music (except of the incidental sort, as when a character listens to a radio or a record player in the scene), and spends a good deal of time contentedly watching the family work and play--the father at his commercial drawings, the mother at her magazine articles, and the children exploring the grounds of their new home and interacting with the occasional guest. For the most part, it's a quietly effective, slow-moving film.

However, when the paranormal starts happening--as happen it must, since this is a ghost story, after all--it happens hard, fast and loud, and with a fairly consistent regularity. Windows break, tables come to life and wreck entire rooms, and even household appliances go on the offensive, battering the characters with an amount of ectoplasmic energy seldom seen this side of Amityville II: The Possession.

The set-up is fairly standard for movies of this subgenre. A family takes advantage of an unbelievably good deal on a house they would never be able to afford if priced at market value, whereupon supernatural hijinx ensue. In this case the family is made of up commercial-artist dad Marc, magazine writer mom Françoise, and their two young children, a son and a daughter. While the boy is perhaps six or seven years old, the main focus is on 14-year-old daughter Sophie (teen model Yasmine Dahm), caught as so many characters in these movies often are between her innocent girlhood and her sexual coming of age. Sophie is clearly a Daddy's Girl, listening to music with him while he works and pumping him for info about his forsaken dreams of being a Real Artist.

Harsh, but fair.

While Sophie's relationship with her father is warm and affectionate, her relationship with Mom is a bit less so. Françoise paints the kitchen and trades emasculating barbs with Marc about their comparative incomes, ordering the children out to play so that she can maybe work a little on the writing that bought them the place before starting on a dinner of her specialty, Martyr Souffle.

We spend a fair amount of time getting to know the family and watch them settle into their new abode, and for a while only a mysteriously overturned paint can hints at anything out of the ordinary. Later the young brother's lead soldiers suddenly break themselves into pieces, and Marc finds his drawing table (and latest commission) covered in a layer of mud. Tensions start rising as the parents think--perhaps understandably--Sophie is acting out her displeasure at the move.

The first real supernatural manifestation occurs a night or two later, when her brother has a nightmare and Marc, hoping to get a little housewarming done IYKWIM, instructs the tot to sleep in his sister's room. Sophie is very displeased. "I don't like to hear him breathe!" she gripes, but her father obviously values her preferences less than his own carnal needs. Furious, Sophie waits until her brother is snoozing and then heads upstairs and flings the door of her parents' bedroom open, interrupting them just before Marc can bag his baguette and proving what a drag it is to have no privacy. She storms down the hall with her father hitching his pants up in blueballed indignation, when suddenly rocks begin crashing through the windows of the upstairs hall, in an extended rain of stones and broken glass. A shot of Sophie standing haughtily in silhouette while her father ducks and covers hints that there may be something other than vandalism afoot.

"Couldn't you wait 2 minutes? I had almost achieved 'Le Shocker'!"

After having the windows repaired by some local workmen, Marc and Françoise drink wine outside while awaiting the arrival of a friend of Marc's from the city, who is coming out to spend the weekend. While lounging they discuss sending Sophie to a boarding school next year, which Françoise says will "give them more time together." Still thinking with Little Pierre, Marc readily agrees. Meanwhile in the living room Sophie admires her reflection in a full-length mirror, startled (as we are) by the fact that her mirror image doesn't quite match her movements, and wears a slight, unsettling smile that is NOT on Sophie's own lips. Suddenly a table from the patio begins to quake, and then flies through the front door like a cannonball, smacking into walls, wrecking furniture, breaking windows, and making it halfway up the stairs before finally falling inert! Marc and Françoise have little time to reflect on the episode before Marc's friend arrives bearing much-needed wine.

Yasmine Dahm is perfectly cast as the girl coming into her young womanhood, just learning the power of her looks and sexuality. Flirting with Marc's friend and subtly badgering her folks, Sophie goes from naive childish charm to overt sexual limits-testing in a real and believable way. Shortly after she's sent upstairs to bed all hell breaks loose again, as the kitchen comes to life and attacks the boorish guest: pots and pans flying, tables tipping over, and finally the refrigerator itself flying out ot pummel his face with the door! The friend leaps out a window to escape the rampaging appliances, cutting himself badly and finally inspiring Marc and Françoise to seek help.

Cold spot, or just Frigid Air?

In this case help comes in the form of another friend from Paris, this one a TV producer who runs an Unsolved Mysteries-type show for which the family's "haunting" is perfect. He assembles a crew and heads out to the now-empty house to see if they can capture a ghost on film. Of particular note is the sound technician played by a young and bearded Gérard Depardieu!

We get more leisurely character work as the crew settles in, sets up their lighting, and chooses bedrooms. Nothing supernatural occurs, so they all just smoke, cook, and play cards. They're soon surprised by the arrival of Sophie, who has snuck out of the hotel where her family is staying and hitchhiked back to the house because of her interest in TV. The producer friend admonishes her and calls Marc to come get her, while a few of the TV crew ogle her and she basks in the attention. Even the producer notices her short skirt and long legs, though he quickly shakes off his Lolita fixation--for the moment.

Not bad for a start.

With Sophie back in the house, things start happening quickly. Gérard is forced by invisible powers to submerge his hand in boiling water, and thereafter becomes quite skittish and panicked about the evil spirits in the house. A priest and his troupe of girl scouts show up on the doorstep, having camped at the previously abandoned house the last few years. The TV crew allows them to stay, and during an after dinner play the girls put on, a child's toy ball comes rolling down the stairs, Changeling style!

Things go into overdrive when Marc arrives, too late to go back into town for the evening, and thanks to the now cramped quarters must share a room with his daughter. The priest mentions something about historical poltergeist cases that were all strangely focused to pubescent girls, putting the last puzzle piece in place. After another creepy un-matched mirror sequence in which Sophie's double looks ever more malevolent, Sophie provokes her dad to argument and then appears in the producer's bedroom and attempts to seduce him--but is it Sophie, or her supernatural double? The answer comes fast and loud, leading to a truck overturned by some sentient trees, Gérard freaking out and kidnapping some girls couts (who take a surprising revenge), and Sophie utilizing her strange powers for chaos and destruction.

The French version of Reading Rainbow was somewhat different.

As I said way up in my intro paragraph, much of Expulsion of the Devil proceeds at a comparatively slow pace. The lack of music gives the whole movie a quiet, leisurely feel that makes the explosive supernatural episodes that much more shocking. The connection between Sophie's coming of age and the violent "haunting" scenes is never made explicit--certainly not pounded into your head like a sledgehammer as it would be in an American remake--but for me the subtlety was appreciated and effective. (A scene where the TV crew "sees" the priest in bed with a couple of his charges, only to burst in and find him innocently reading the Good Book, is creepy and underscores the movie's sexual theme, specifically Sophie's mischevious perversity.) The movie boasts only one real showstopping OOGA-BOOGA scare, but the pervasive unease leading up to the creepy unexplained happenings nonetheless kept me on the edge of my seat.

Director Juan Luis Buñuel does a good job with the material, building character and layering on the clues until the final bang-up flee-the-house scene. He comes by his filmmaking savvy honestly, as his father, Luis Buñuel, is widely considered one of the greatest directors in cinema history (and famously worked with Salvador Dali on the seminal surrealist silent short Un Chien Andalou (1929).

On the bright side, at least Pierre had stopped bedwetting.

Some viewers might find the proceedings rather dull when there aren't housewares flying hither and yon, but I found the acting, the character development, the sexual subtext all very engaging. It's also interesting to speculate whether the film influnced 1982's Poltergeist, which seems to consciously echo it at times. In any event, it's an interesting, somewhat restrained horror flick that I think holds up well. 2.5 thumbs.

"Send me to my room. I dare you."


Monday, March 29, 2010

DVD Review: BIGFOOT (2006)

When I went down to the PO box recently and found this latest Troma treat waiting for me, I was perhaps unreasonably excited. After all, just think of it: Lloyd Kaufman and company entering the world of Sasquatchsploitation? Visions of a Tromatic skunk-ape danced in my head, and I looked forward to a Toxie-meets-Night of the Demon (1980) romp that would redefine the limits of good taste when it came to b-movie Bigfoot goodness. The fact that the largest review pull-quote on the dvd was the Cleveland Free Times gushing, "Reminiscent of JAWS" (no exclamation point!) only perversely added to my excitement.

Alas, it was not to be, as Bigfoot (2006) is not a Troma-produced flick, but rather a labor of love from writer/director Bob Gray, filmed on location in Ohio and only picked up for distribution by Troma. Shot on video using mostly local actors, Gray's movie is obviously a labor of love and he's to be applauded for getting it finished and congratulated for scoring the distribution deal. Unfortunately, that's about all the enthusiasm I can muster.

Let the Stink-Off Begin!

Booted from the military after punching a superior officer for abusing his underlings, single falther Jack Sullivan (Todd Cox) returns to his his hometown of Mentor, Ohio, with wisecracking daughter Charlie (Brooke Beckwith) in tow. He soon hooks up with old friend and now-sheriff Bob Perkins (Gray) and starts and romance with cute park ranger Sandy Parker (Liza Foster), whose school field trips have been marred recently by several mutilated deer carcasses. Crazy old man George Hobson (Van Jackson) claims it's the work of a Bigfoot who's lived in the area for years, and thanks to urban sprawl is losing his habitat. When the creature starts putting humans on his menu, Sullivan, Perkins, and Parker get closer and closer to a truth they can scarcely believe.

Let me just say that Bigfoot is not a bad movie, particularly considering its shoestring budget. The idea of a suburban Bigfoot is silly on its surface, but is executed with mostly a straight face and passable explanation in the script. The Bigfoot make-up is particularly well-done, and the few gore scenes are respectable when taken on that famous sliding scale.

Squatch in the Hood

The cast, which seems to be mostly local talent, is engaging enough. Cox is not your typical leading man, and while his line-readings are often stiff, it kind of plays to his tough guy character. (A late nod to Rambo as he suits up to fight the beast is kind of smile-inducing.) Gray, directing himself as the half-comic, half-dramatic character of Sheriff Perkins, is also okay. There are even a few standouts in the cast. Child-actor Beckwith makes an impression as Charlie, at least until the movie forgets about her around the halfway mark. (Her jealousy of her father's girlfriend and grudging acceptance worked for me.) Foster is attractive and very good as the park ranger/love interest, giving off a genuine good humor and compassion despite her irrepressible Midwest accent. (For example, upon discovering a mutilated deer she exclaims, "Oh my GAD!") And Van Jackson is entertaining as the Crazy Ralph analogue, and gets a fun final scene in the confrontation with the monster.

The problem is that Bigfoot, which as I say is not really that bad all things considered, still does nothing to distinguish itself from the pack of indie DTV movies of which it's a part. The performances are okay but nothing spectacular. The monster suit is good, but that'll only take you so far. The humor is inoffensive and good-natured, but not particularly memorable. The direction is capable but pretty static. (Although a few scenes in "Sasquatch Vision" led to chuckles, as the 8-foot-tall monster would have had to be crouching in sparse underbrush only a few feet away from the characters, completely unnoticed!) As a whole, the movie is just kind of there. It never sinks to the bottom but also never goes over the top, and as a result comes off as kind of bland.

Little-known crypto-fact: Bigfoot can resist the lure of neither gravel pits nor roadside flares.

In its press materials for the DVD, Troma calls Bigfoot "the movie that started the Sasquatchsploitation craze!" This means that either the PR people have confused Gray's labor of love with the 1970 flick of the same title (in which the creature kidnaps some women and fights bikers, apparently--now THAT'S Squatchsploitation!) or else hope the prospective DVD buyer will do so. The DVD extras consist of a trailer, a photo gallery, director's commentary, an engaging 10-minute "making of" feature (complete with a cryptozoologist stretching to make it seem plausible a Bigfoot could appear in Ohio), and the usual array of Troma trailers.

I can't really hate Bigfoot, because I can see Gray and his group put a lot of work and sweat into it, and it's nice to see that sometimes movie dreams come true. However, I also can't really recommend the movie unless you love DIY cinema and have a thing for any and all things Bigfoot. 1.25 thumbs.

"You tell Patterson I'm comin'...AND HELL'S COMIN' WITH ME!"


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Grapes of Death (1978): or, Gateway to Rollin's Realm

Conventional wisdom has it that The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins de la mort) is Jean Rollin's most "accessible" film. With its tale of a rural village in France suffering a bio-zombie outbreak thanks to some experimental insecticide sprayed on the local winery's grape harvest, the 1978 film follows a much more traditional, easily digestible narrative structure than much of Rollin's Expressionist lesbian vampire oeuvre (see previous MMMMMovie Reviews Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire), and is many kilometers away from his more surrealist modern efforts (e.g. Fiancee of Dracula, reviewed by the inestimable Tenebrous Kate here). More straightforward and less gorgeously brooding than the director's other zombie opus, Vicar-Top-Five mainstay The Living Dead Girl, this movie finds the director largely stepping back from his trademark style and trying his hand at a Romero-style horror ride.

Except, not really.

Under the credits we see a group of field workers, cloth masks over their faces, spraying a vineyard with insecticide. Upon returning to base, a worker named Kowalski complains of fever, difficulty breathing, and a pain in his neck. The winery boss Michael tells the slacker to get a drink and get back to work, noting offhandedly that they're expecting new masks tomorrow that will be "completely airtight." That's pretty much all we get as explanation for the upcoming plague of terror, but like the toxic waste barrels in the crypt in Living Dead Girl, it will have to suffice, since this trip out Rollin's not wasting any time!

The Biohazard Bandits strike again

Next we find ourselves on a train barreling through rural France, where Michael's fiancee Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and a pretty blonde traveling companion talk excitedly about their future plans. Elizabeth is going to the vineyard in the rural village of Roublais, while her friend is continuing on to Spain. Both find it unusual and a little unsettling that apart from them the train seems entirely deserted. Nearing Elizabeth's destination, they take turns freshening up in the train's washroom, where Elizabeth leaves her friend to go back to their car and brush her luxurious locks in anticipation.

At the next stop a man boards the train, whom we recognize as the stricken Kowalski, probably on his morning commute to work. His eyes glassy, he stumbles past compartment after empty compartment, finally lumbering into Elizabeth's and flopping down on the opposite bench. We quickly realize something's not right with the fruitpicker, as a large spot on the side of his neck and face begins seeping blood! Elizabeth watches in terror as the spot pulses and grows bigger, in a bit of body horror and grody effluvia that's still effective. In obvious pain but still dazed, Kowalski attacks Elizabeth, causing her to escape the compartment in search of her friend. Of course the zombified Frenchman has already murdered the blonde in the W.C., so Elizabeth pulls the emergency stop cord and flees train, running down the tracks from her would-be killer. Kowalski gives half-hearted chase, but then sits on the tracks and buries his face in his hands.

Not Noxema-clean

Heading through a tunnel and then over a fog-shrouded railway bridge (an absolutely gorgeous shot from cinematographer Claude Bécognée), Elizabeth finds herself in a strange, mountainous region which also seems weirdly deserted. Eventually she finds an abandoned-looking house, and when her knocks at the door go unanswered she forces her way in, surprising the place's occupants, an old man and his beautiful young daughter. As she explains her situation and begs them to call the police, the country folk only stare at her blankly. She notices an ugly sore on the old man's hand, which he quickly hides, then tells her the phone and car are both inoperative and she'll have to stay the night. The daughter sends her upstairs to a room, where Elizabeth discovers the corpse of the girl's mother, her throat slit! The girl quiets her screams and tells her the old man has gone crazy, having killed the mother in a fit of rage. They resolve to escape together.

Things don't go well on that score, as the old man thwarts their attempt, ripping his daughter's clothes off before skewering her with a pitchfork in a gory, well-done FX scene (you can see the girl's rib cage going up and down around the tines as she gasps her last--still not sure how they managed that). Grabbing the keys to the car and running for her life, Elizabeth is blocked at the gate by the murderous dad, now also covered with pulsing, suppurating sores, who begs her to run him down before he kills again. She obliges, driving through the craggy landscape that is absolutley covered with ruins. In these ruins she runs into another pus-laden victim of the plague, who begs her for help and bangs his head on her car window, leaving a sticky splotch of gunk on the glass.

Having failed to make money guerilla-washing windshields, Pierre decided on a different approach.

Abandoning the car and fleeing on foot again, she soon meets an ethereal blind girl who fled the main village the night before when "the fighting started," and has now become lost. Accompanying her back to the village, Elizabeth finds a scene of apocalyptical carnage, houses burned out and bodies littering the ground. The blind girl breaks away from Elizabeth to find her brother, who like the other plague victims seems confused and frightened, but unable to control his violent tendencies, even against his beloved sister. Taking the Romero Barbara-gets-eaten-by-her-brother trope one step further, Rollin has the blind girl's brother engage in a monstrous act of sacrilege and mutilation, made all the more chilling by the perpetrator's emotion-wracked wails as he carries it out. (Later he goes even one step further, with the brother's good-bye kiss to his sister's disembodied head.)

As the village's inhabitants come out of the stonework in a full-scale zombie attack, Elizabeth finds shelter with a seemingly unaffected townswoman, gorgeous Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie, who has holed up in the mayor's house. While her often-nude body is unmarked by the plague, her strange mannerisms and mysterious smile put Elizabeth (and the viewer) on edge. Soon the two flee and are rescued by a pair of hunters from the next town who've come to put down the zombie menace, and Brigette reveals more flesh and the true intentions behind her seeming kindness.

Lahaie: Not Just a Pretty Face

The two men and Elizabeth make their way to the winery at Roublais, with young hunter Paul (Félix Marten) and older, crotchety cuss Lucien (Serge Marquand) trading barbs on what it means to be patriotic, with reminiscenes of fighting the fascists in WWII. When they get to the winery and find it seemingly deserted, they manage to get through to Paris and learn that a helicopter is on the way. The men drink and smoke to celebrate, but Elizabeth goes in search of her fiancee, and of course finds him for a heartrending and somewhat shocking denoument.

I always feel like I should get myself an arts degree before I try to talk about one of Jean Rollin's movies. And this is not in any way a dis--it's merely to say that the director's films pack such a visual and emotional punch for me, seem so layered in illogical but nonetheless powerful imagery and narrative, that I don't feel equipped to talk about them in a way that would do justice to the feelings they inspire. I know many modern viewers are turned off by Rollin's usual lack of narrative continuity, his obsession with certain images, and the "dream like" ideal that some read as artistic pretension; but for me the director hits much more often than he misses--though I can't always explain why, particularly to those coming to his work for the first time.

That won't stop me trying, though.

A Bridge into Another World?

The Grapes of Death is definitely the most straightforward of Rollin's films I've seen in a narrative sense. It follows the standard zombie apocalypse storyline of "hero/heroine is separated from loved ones by zombies, then goes through hell to get back to them," and never strays too far from that plot. It's also probably the goriest Rollin flick I've seen: the body horror of the zombified/Crazies-ed townspeople is gross and effective, as is the emotional turmoil they display while fighting their murderous urges. The aftermath of the zombies' attacks are also very good--the Grand Guignol is evoked a couple of times, with one corpse showing a popped-out eyeball dangling by its optic nerve, and the fate of the blind girl both pre- and post-decapitation is a little hard to take, even for this seasoned viewer. Of course the fake head could have been better, and once or twice I'm pretty sure I saw a "corpse" breathe, but these are minor quibbles overall.

Despite its surface straightforwardness, there were other touches that seemed to be striving to evoke the dream-like expressionism of Rollin's earlier, more personal works. It's significant to me that the train on which Elizabeth arrives is almost deserted, as if she's on some kind of lonely dream journey. The shot of her crossing the railway bridge in the fog, I thought, could signify her "crossing over" into an otherworldly realm--a world of ruins, abandoned chateaus, burned out shacks, a world where pale crags dot the landscape like tombstones--it's clearly a Realm of Death.

Landscape, or Cemetery?

I found the acting styles more realistic here than in some of Rollin's earlier works too--at least among a few of the characters, and in a way that I think is significant. While the inhabitants of the Realm of Death have the same hypnotized, glaze-eyed stares of many of Rollin's other characters, the "living" here (Paul, Lucien, pre-infection Michael) seem natural and believable. In fact, it's this subtle difference that makes Brigitte Lahaie's performance much more memorable--though she looks like one of the "living," her mannerisms mark her as a denizen of the dream world.

Grapes of Death is therefore a great place to start for anyone wanting to get into Rollin's work but made wary by his reputation for surrealism and dream logic. It has notes of those elements, but also a linear story and goopy gore that any horror fan should find comforting in its familiarity. It also has some of the gorgeous compositions, poetic imagery, and stylistic flourishes that could give a novice a grounding in what to expect from the director's more "out there" works--a sort of fog-shrouded bridge from our world into his. For that reason--and because I fucking love Rollin--I give Grapes of Death 3+ Thumbs. See it!

Some more great images from Grapes of Death (1978):

Gateway to the Realm of Death

Pascal: Beautimus

The French are justly famous for their hospitality to tourists

Looking Beyond

Brigitte in a Symbolic Pose

Head joke here would be incestuous

Just because she's so purty

"Excedrin! Give me strength!"

Don't Cry (Blood) for Me


Monday, March 22, 2010

Psychomania (1973): or, Do You Wanna Be in My Gang, My Gang, My Gang?

I admit I did a double-take upon pulling up the imdb entry for today's movie, Don Sharp's 1973 British living-dead bikers flick Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers). It was that "1973" that pulled me up short--by its style, tone, and decor, I'd have guessed the movie was at least 4-5 years older than that, certainly older than George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the Hell's Angels incident at Altamont, factors which it seems to me would have had to inform any movie made after them that dealt with a) rampaging motorcycle gangs or b) zombies. Incredibly, Psychomania wraps both these things into one movie--it's about a living dead motorcycle gang, for Pete's sake!--and yet seems strangely uninformed by either of those seminal events.

As a result, for me the movie has a sort of antiquated, frankly naive charm about the way it presents its ne'er-do-well gang of rebellious youth, a motorcycle gang more in the mold of 1953's The Wild One than more modern, super-violent movie bikers (though to be fair, Brando's crew would still kick these guys' asses) , and the rather blase, un-zombified, un-gut-munching take on what it means to come back from the dead. Unfortunately, as it is in life so it is in movies: charm will only take you so far, and eventually you have to make with the goods.

"I iz a Zombi! Vroom-vroom! Raaaarrr!"

The movie starts out very promisingly, with a series of credits-sequence shots showing a group of leather-clad bikers around a fog-shrouded circle of stones. We learn later that this Stonehenge-like ancient monument is known as "The Seven Witches," and legend has it that these are the remains of a coven who broke their deal with the Devil and were punished by being turned to stone. The moody cinematography and slow-motion riders deliciously called to my mind the Blind Dead's famous riding technique from Armando D'Ossorio's famous series, but with iron horses instead of fleshy ones.

We soon learn that our bikers are part of the tantalizingly named gang "The Living Dead," a group of mod-era miscreants who stalk the motorways with their skeletal-font jackets and wonderfully designed skull-face helmet visors, searching for any excuse to run squares off the road and cause whatever havoc they may. The group is led by stoical thrill-seeker Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), whose Mother (Beryl Reid) is a rich widow and a dabbler in the occult. Tom is a spoiled, amoral brat, whose lack of compassion for anybody or anything distresses his good-girl biker mama Abby (Mary Larkin). After Tom interrupts a graveside make-out session with Abby in order to capture a Satanic toad, his flustered girlfriend admits, "Sometimes you scare me, Tom!" The stone-faced Wild One spits back, "It's not me that scares you--it's the world!" No, I'm pretty sure it's just you, frog-licker.

Having got all the kicks he can from a life of privelige and random acts of vehicular homicide, Tom is now bored to the point of suicidal thoughts. Abby is afraid to "cross over" with him, despite his seemingly nonsensical assurances that "We'll come back!" Turns out Tom has an inside line on immortality thanks to his parents' occult interests--his father apparently had discovered the secret to returning from the dead, though the old man bungled his sole attempt years ago, thus leaving Tom without a strong male role model and precipitating him into a life of bike-riding and peace-breaching. Anxious to shuffle off his mortal coil to ride for kicks through the Undiscovered Country, Tom grills his indulgent Mum for Dad's secret.

Some families tiptoe around the Elephant in the room. Tom's prefer to lounge around the Decapitated Spaceman.

After discussing the matter with her suspiciously occult-savvy manservant Shadwell (George Sanders in his last film role), Mum gives Tom a key to the room where Daddy died, which has been shut for 18 years. Once inside Tom finds himself face-to-face with a full-length mirror that shows him visions from the past, as he sees his mother, dressed as if she's on her way down the shops for the day, standing in the center of the Seven Witches and summoning The Devil, then cheerfully signing away her first-born son (who is nearby in a cute little bassinet) to his Diabolic Majesty in exchange for...something. That part isn't clear. At any rate, horror of it all causes Tom to faint dead away, but when he awakens and hears Mum and Shadwell talking about the secret of living death, he quickly jumps up and heads out to have a go.

The secret, as it turns out, is elegant in its simplicity: in order to return from the dead, you simply have to BELIEVE that you will--but really, really believe, without a shred of doubt in your skull. (Apparently Tom's dad hesitated at the moment of death and so was lost.) With the courage that can only be gained through intense boredom and pants-stretching arrogance, Tom summons his gang for another rampage, this one through a shopping center downtown, where the Living Dead crash through vendor stalls, knock over bread sellers, joust with stolen umbrellas, and generally run the gauntlet of street-chase slapstick gags until the cops show up--check that, the COP (the constabulary could apparently only spare the one)--to chase them off. The Living Dead lead the copper on a lively hunt until, on a long bridge crossing the Thames, Tom screams toodle-oo at life and crashes over the side to his watery grave.

Tappin' that ass like aquarium glass

Sobered by the death of her morose sweety, Abby goes to the Latham estate to ask Mum if the Living Dead can bury Tom "in our own way." Surprisingly--and hilariously--the gang's "way" is to bury their leader on his bike in a grave that's clearly a few inches too shallow. While Tom's corpse sits bolt upright and holds onto the handlebars like...well, Grim Death (what did they do, nail him there?), the rest of the gang don Hippie Clothes and throw flower wreaths into his grave, while one of them sings a plaintive and earnest folk song that producers were doubtless hoping would be a hit single, "Riding Free." With lyrics like "They tried to clip his wings just like a instead of standing still, he chose to DIE!", I don't see why it didn't burn up the charts!

So why would the Living Dead fish Tom's bike out of the river, presumably restoring it to working order and filling the tank with gas, then just bury the mean machine with him? If you guessed "So that he can come bursting out of the grave with tires squealing to wreak his vengeance upon the living!" then give yourself a biscuit! Because of course that's exactly what happens. Trailing grave dust, ZomTom starts living his death to the fullest by running down a pedestrian, killing a gas station attendant, and then staging a massacre at his local pub--but not before telephoning his Mum and Shadwell with the good news. Neither seems at all surprised that he's made it back, and are quite excited to hear he's coming home dead--it's like The Monkey's Paw in Bizarro World.
"How do you birds feel about...necrophilia?"

Once ZomTom reveals himself to the rest of the gang and further informs them that once you're dead you can't be hurt, the bikers can't fling themselves off bridges fast enough--all except Abby, who is still reluctant to cross over, despite her boyfriend's proof of concept. The scenes with the other bikers doing themsevles in for immortality are some of the more entertaining ones in the movie, as one leaps into the river bearing Jacob Marley-style chains, another drops off an overpass into oncoming traffic, and another decides to go out from 15,000 feet via a purposefully thwarted skydiving attempt! I guess it's a good thing coming back from the dead reconstitutes your bones from powder and slaps your brain back inside your skull for you, what?

So what do you do once you're immortal and invulnerable? Well...pretty much the same things you did before, only MUCH HARDER. The gang goes on another shopping centre rampage, this time killing pedestrians and destroying an entire Sainsbury's Grocery Store (in the most vicious scene, red-jacketed femme fatale Jane [Ann Michelle] lines up and revs through a baby stroller, to the mellifluous wails of the occupant). Later Tom lays out his plans to his Mother and Shadwell--he plans to kill judges, teachers, policemen, anyone in authority, forever and ever. Shadwell gasps incredulously, "You mean the entire Establishment?!" Sure, if that's all you got.

It's the "Don't Go Out Like a Punk" death montage!

He's no dummy

Unchain My Heart
"I regret nothing!"
World's Cutest Speed Bump

Like I say, Psychomania is not without its charms. For one thing, it's a very groovy movie, with all the mini-miniskirts, mod fashions and psychedelic furniture you could want. (The opening shots of Mrs. Latham's parlor are particularly envy-inducing for anyone with a taste for the groovy.) The version of the motorcycle gang mystique here is, as I say, kind of old fashioned even for 1973, but kind of charming for all that.

The acting is fairly good--standouts are Larkin as the confused Abby, Henson as bored and amoral Tom (I was detecting notes of Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange), and Michelle as the wildcat Jane. Pug-nosed, baby-faced Denis Gilmore is the best of the bikers as the psychopathically vicious Hatchet. And of course George Sanders is excellent as Shadwell, who clearly is more than just the butler at the Latham estate.

"Whattaya fancy tonight, Viv?"

The main problem I have with Psychomania is that, given its subject matter and ESPECIALLY given its production year, I'd have expected a little more in terms of horror-y goodness, and it's just not there. Most scenes take place in broad daylight--even the graveyard resurrection--and would have benefited from a darker, more gothic atmosphere. The zombie bikers suffer absolutely no ill-effects from dying--no rotting, no loss of memory or personality, not even a lowering in body temperature. (In fact, the only side-effect seems to be increased arrogance and insufferableness.) The murders, what few of them there are, are mostly bloodless, and there's no sex or nudity to speak of, just TV-style British innuendo. Worst, a good portion of the movie is made up of long riding/chase scenes, which are exciting and well staged the first time you see them, but quickly wear out their welcome.

I began to wonder at one point whether the flick might have been intended as a kind of campy farce--the point exactly was when the last 4 bikers get put in glass sideways-oriented morgue drawers that look more like refrigerator salad crispers and all wake up at the same time to surprise the coroner. But if there were supposed to be laughs here, they're underplayed as much as the horror and violence elements, which results in a rather boring last half-hour. The ending, when one might have expected a little dust-crumbling or flesh-rotting for one's money, is a severe anticlimax.

Femme Fatality

Psychomania is fun in its way, but really could have been a lot more. It's worth seeing at least once, but no more than that. 1.75 thumbs, or 2 if you really like the mod era.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Demon Lover/Demon Lover Diary (1977, 1980): or, American Movie Goes to Hell

Before I take you to your regularly scheduled post, I have to give a major shout-out to the excellent and encyclopedic Bleeding Skull ( After an absence of too many months, those guys are finally updating again, bringing hungry fans like me more entertaining and informative reviews of the most obscure and awesome trash cinema you could imagine. That site was and continues to be a huge inspiration to me in my movie reviewing efforts, which is to say I shamelessly rip them off at every opportunity. Imitation, flattery, etc...

Today I'm ripping them off even more brazenly than usual, as their post on the first movie under discussion and excellent article on the second were the direct cause of my seeking said movies out. I'm so glad I did, and I hope you will be too.

The Demon Lover (1977, aka The Devil Master) is the kind of big-dreaming, gloriously inept movie that always makes me smile, sometimes with but mostly at the bravely deluded people involved. A standard "hippie devil-cult leader summons a demon for revenge on the Judases in his flock" tale, it was supposed to be the filmmakers' ticket out of their car parts factory jobs and into the Dream Factory of Hollywood movie-making. Unfortunately a lack of funds, resources, and basic talent prevented it from becoming the "masterpiece" director Donald G. Jackson and producer Jerry Younkins envisioned.

But fortunately for trash movie fans and serious film students alike, documentary filmmaker Joel DeMott brought her camera along when she and her cinematographer boyfriend Jeff Kreines traveled to Michigan for the shoot, for which Kreines had agreed to serve as DP. The resulting film, Demon Lover Diary (1980), records the sometimes hilarious, sometimes depressing, and often even frightening ways in which production on The Demon Lover went wrong, and is itself a priceless document of the pitfalls of independent movie-making.

First, our feature presentation:

"Hi, I'm Laval, and I'll be your Devil Master this evening."

We open at the estate of cult leader Laval Blessing (Christmas Robbins, actually producer Younkins in a long flowing wig), where a bunch of wacked out hippies are gathered to get their kicks with the help of booze and devil worship. Upstairs Laval tries to convince a young cult member to participate in an orgy in order to "release energy" in order to summon a demon to do their bidding. When the nubile acolyte refuses and calls the other cult members to her aid, the whole occult study group falls apart, leaving Laval with one drugged-out Devilbabe with whom to work his magic. Turns out that's enough, as he's able to summon the demon anyway, which he then sets loose to get revenge on his former followers.

As the bodies start to pile up, a local police detective starts looking into the cult in an attempt to get to the bottom of these strange, savage murders. He gleans some information from a "white magic" cult with whom his wife has some ties, and then gets a hot tip from Damien, a disgruntled former cultist who is convinced Laval is behind it all. It comes to a head with a few former cult dudes and the detective descending on Laval's rural hideaway, only to fall victim to the Devil Master's mind-control powers in a (sort of) shocking bloodbath of horror. But when the demon demands his due, Laval finds out that Demonic forces are (surprisingly) not to be trusted.

Frank Zappa: the Stunt Man Years

Everything about The Demon Lover is an out-and-out mess. The intrusive synth-heavy score was either composed by one of the filmmakers or by his 10-year-old Casio-addled brother. It's shot poorly, the sets are badly lit and laughably dressed, and the cast full of non-actors have exactly two modes of expression: either deadpan cue-card reading or top-of-your-lungs shouting. The script doesn't do them any favors either, as it's hard to imagine even Laurence Olivier or Christopher Lee being able to make anything out of the howlers they're given to recite. A few of my favorite examples:
  • "Charlie, get the candles out of the trunk where we keep the magic paraphrenalia!"
  • "I have tried to convey my sincerity! The world is full of shadow people moving and going nowhere! You're all so full of such bourgeois shit, you'll never be free to tap the power inside of you! Magic can offer spectacular results, but you must be willing to assert yourselves ALL THE WAY!"
  • "What a bummer! How can we have fun if we don't get drunk and do somethin' scary?"
  • "I mean death is,'s like a really heavy thing!"
  • "Would you like a Bloody Mary, detective?"
    "No thanks, I've already had a Bloody Pamela, a Bloody Elaine, AND a Bloody Janice!"
  • "Well if there's no hassle, let's go inside the castle!"
The flick also suffers from some pretty obvious padding, as when we get 10 minutes of Laval sparring with his Karate class and thereafter engaging in a barroom brawl with his dojo-mates, in a laughably-choreographed scene that has fuck-all to do with the plot. The only slightly redeeming thing about the movie are a few almost-effective effects scenes, as when one victim gets splattered over the hood of a car (driven by a friend who's either controlled by the devil or having a wild epileptic seizure) or the bloody aftermath of the dudes' self destruction. Also, the Demon costume is pretty fun in a Halloween Express kinda way, though the heavily distorted voice they use sounds more like Mel Blanc than Mephistopheles.

"Hey guys, can you tell me how to get to the Dio concert?"

In short, The Demon Lover has all the trash-movie qualities you love to laugh at, and almost none of the flashes of inspiration that sometimes make such efforts viewable. Despite the obvious ambitions of the filmmakers, at the end of the day it's embarassing as a piece of filmmaking and a complete failure as a horror movie.

On the other hand, Joel DeMott's Demon Lover Diary succeeds, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a sort of horror movie. In fact it starts out almost exactly like The Blair Witch Project, as we watch Joel and dumpy lover Jeff Kreines packing up for the trip to Michigan to shoot the flick. We seldom see Joel herself on camera, but she narrates for us, both through the film itself and periodically through a conversational and effective voice-over. They seem like enthusiastic, slightly pretentious kids, excited to be getting out of the city for a while and having the opportunity to work on a real-live feature film. Their friend Mark accompanies them to donate his talents as sound man.

A little something for the ladies

Their enthusiasm is short-lived, however. As soon as they roll into Michigan they call director Donald Jackson, who expected them to arrive days earlier. After a terse phone conversation (we only hear Jeff's side, of course), Jackson fires Jeff and hangs up. Clearly baffled, the couple continue to Younkin's house, which is to double as production headquarters. The director has calmed down a bit, but the tension is still palpable, and it's clear that things have got off to a rotten start.

What's also clear is that Donald Jackson is a grade-A creep of the "might in fact be a serial killer" kind. Laying out the plans for the production, Jackson never misses an opportunity to make Jeff feel uncomfortable and Joel unwelcome, and his odd way of speaking is frankly unsettling. Here we also meet Younkins, who we learn has helped finance the film by purposefully cutting off one of his fingers for the $8000 insurance money! The group argues for a while about whether Joel should stay at the house to answer phones while they pick up the rented filming equipment, ramping up the tension even more.

Director Donald G. Jackson: Am I Demon?

The equipment rented and everyone finally ready to start shooting the next day, Jackson takes the three kids to his parents' house, where they'll be staying while they work on the film. Jackson's mother is a sweet-talking country lady, but also a devout Christian--therefore Jackson forbids them to talk about the movie's plot, which his mother would strongly disapprove of. Also, he tells Ma that Joel and Jeff are married, another deception to smooth things over, and one which Joel is vocally uncomfortable with.

Once production starts, thinks go south with alarming speed. Jackson has drastically overestimated their shooting efficiency, and they quickly fall behind schedule. Younkins takes over directing the cast while Jackson concentrates on shot framing. Distractions abound, as the director takes off seemingly every other day to talk with local press about the "masterpiece" they're filming, pushing them further off schedule. Filming goes disastrously, with an improvised whipped cream fight threatening to destroy their rented camera, Younkins voicing loud disapproval over Kiernes' lighting set-ups, and the actors betraying their astonishing lack of skill at every turn. Jackson's sweet-talking mother shows her mean streak, blowing a gasket about the mess in the lodger's room and complaining about the noise they're making when they come in late. The tension, already palpable, becomes nearly unbearable.

Behind the Scenes on Demon Lover

Of the small number of people who have seen Demon Lover Diary, many compare it to the 1999 documentary American Movie, and there are certain similarities. However, where Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank come off as lovable idealists pushing toward success, Younkins and Jackson seem more like deluded sociopaths spiralling toward failure, and taking everyone around them along for the ride. Jeff quickly sees that the movie is going to be a disaster, and contemplates leaving before Jackson offers them $1000 to stay and finish (they'd originally agreed to work for free). Worse, when news gets back to the factory that Jackson is filming a movie and not on sick leave, he runs the risk of losing his job. Totally obsessed with the movie, though, he bets all his chips on it, mortgaging his house and risking the welfare of his wife and three kids; Joel worries aloud for the children's future.

As in American Movie they meet some other eccentric characters along the way, such as the make-up man/actor who alternates living with his wife and one of his three girlfriends. There are long talks about marriage, about poverty, about lack of sleep, as the whole crew quiclkly succumbs to exhaustion. Jackson's megalomania runs unchecked, and the already troubled production suffers more for it. Eventually they find themselves--rather incredibly--at the home of rock legend Ted Nugent (!), where they borrow some of the rocker's arsenal of firearms for a climactic scene. Jackson's insistence on using live ammunition worries the crew, and rightly so.

At Home with The Nuges

As I said earlier, the movie starts out like Blair Witch Project, and by the time things started to go wrong, I found myself thinking that, if it were a fiction film, by the end of the movie these protagonists would be running for their lives from their crazy director. It turns out I wasn't far off--when Joel and Jeff try to get Jackson to sign a contract promising their cut of any profits, you can almost feel the curtain of coldness drop between them, and this is soon followed by a genuinely surprising and chilling climax.

Demon Lover Diary is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at an ill-fated production, and at the personalities and problems involved in any creative project. Joel DeMott's narration and editing move the story along very skillfully and briskly, in sharp contrast to the haphazard editing and pacing of Demon Lover. She also betrays some East Coast condescension fo the Midwesterners with whom they're working, which comes through as a kind of warts-and-all veracity. While I did wonder if some of the scenes were restaged, in the end it didn't really matter--perhaps they achieve through a little fudging what Werner Herzog has called "ecstatic truth." Even if not, they've made a gripping documentary.

Younkins shows off his battle scars

Demon Lover is a 1.25 Thumb-worthy failure, but the documentary of its making is something else entirely. If you've ever wondered what kind of person makes movies like Demon Lover, this is the answer, and it's more entertaining and frightening than the movie itself. Picture American Movie as directed by Andy Milligan, and you're close. Demon Lover Diary is an unknown documentary classic. 2.75 thumbs.

Nota bene: while DeMott went on to make only one other movie, the 1983 documentary Seventeen, Donald G. Jackson actually had a little better luck as a director. There are 33 credits on his imdb page, including the Troma sequel Class of Nuke 'Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown (1991), the tantalizingly titled Lingerie Kickboxer (1991), and Roddy Piper-starring cult classic Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) and its sequels. Dreams do come true?

Bonus links:
Bleeding Skull review of Devil Master (Demon Lover)
Bleeding Skull's excellent feature article on Demon Lover Diary
Bleeding Skull's review of Joel DeMott's second feature, Seventeen (1983).

Also, thanks to Kitty of Killer Kittens from Beyond, from whose March 2009 review I shamelessly stole the excellent poster graphic. ;)


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