Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dead Genesis (2010)

I wonder if George Romero watches very many of the dozens of zombie movies that are coming out these days. It's got to be hard to keep up with all of them- I can't do it- and you know he gets sent plenty of DVDs. At some point, you start to get zombie burnout. It's even less likely that he'll be reading this, but if so, hey George- this one's pretty decent!

Dead Genesis starts after the zombie apocalypse that these movies take for granted we know all about: the dead are rising with no explanation to eat the living and can only be killed by a shot to the brain. They probably could have given some explanation for all of this, but a montage of news reports is meant to suffice, and we pretty much know the drill. Besides, the movie actually begins with a brutal five minute sequence in which a character kills his zombie wife after she eats their son. It's definitely an attention-grabber. One of the old saws of screenplay writing is to capture your audience with an exciting first ten minutes and they seem to have followed that rule.

The actual story is about a documentary filmmaker (Emily Atalo) who's documenting a group of zombie hunters in the field. The group is a sort of renegade militia waging the "War on Dead" for the folks back home. It's a pretty interesting set up because it could be easily transposed to a story of a reporter embedded with a group of marines in Iraq, but the filmmakers don't exactly hit us over the head with the metaphor. Granted, there are plenty of satirical elements, such as an anti-war on the dead group and some pointed lines about the zombie hunters in the field protecting our freedom, but if you choose to view it as a straightforward zombie story, it certainly works that way too. Clearly, they're taking a cue here from Romero, whose best films work both as metaphors or as straightforward genre pics.

The reporter soon finds that the militia, pushed to the breaking point in the field, is able to dish out as much inhumanity as the zombies and her pro-war film turns troubled and ambiguous. S0me characters are revealed to be decent and just; others turn out to be scumbags, and most are in some gray area in the middle. In the end, the film comes closer than most recent horror movies to dealing directly with the current war, which is strange considering that it's been one of the longest in American history. Why aren't more horror filmmakers trying to comment on the war or terrorism, instead of trying to ape the 70s? And this one is very much a movie about America- really satirizing America- in spite of having been filmed by Canadians in Canada.

Problems? Well, it's a microbudget horror movie, which means we get plenty of scenes of characters in the woods behind someone's house in order to conserve resources. Some of the characters are pretty stock: it was guaranteed that the militia would have one tough-as-nails female, one guy who is playing cowboy, and a world-weary introspective guy with the soul of a poet. It's also guaranteed there will be at least one scene where a likable character will be bitten by a zombie and their comrades will have to kill them. And, yes, a few people will definitely get surprised while resting momentarily by zombie attacks. Finally, because it's microbudget, expect that some of the actors will be bad. It comes with the territory. One last beef: the shaky-cam in this movie is stomach-turning. I know that directors feel that using a handheld camera gives the "you are there" effect, but it really doesn't, unless you happen to be there and have Parkinson's. It's probably okay on a television set, but when projected on a big screen it was nauseating.

Serious note to aspiring low budget filmmakers: You can make a functional DIY steadicam for about thirty bucks. Do that. Please.

But, if you like zombie flicks, you'll probably enjoy Dead Genesis. It has some gruesome gore effects and is one of the precious few that effectively uses its supernatural storyline to really explore contemporary real world themes. That and its depth of characterization give the story real resonance after the final credits.

Friday, October 28, 2011

I Saw the Devil (2010)

After showing up Hollywood action flicks with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Ji-woon basically showed up Quentin Tarantino by making a frenetic, stylish, over-the-top, and grisly revenge epic that has something Tarantino's last three revenge epics lacked altogether: a sense of moral seriousness. In a lot of ways, a movie like I Saw the Devil shouldn't work as well as it does- it's tone shifts wildly from somber tragedy to cartoonish violence in a way that should alienate us. But it does work, largely because it never loses sight of the underlying sense of loss and sorrow. Its protagonist is a recognizable human falling apart under the weight of his loss. By contrast, Beatrix Kiddo is a pop archetype and already feels dated and hackneyed. This is the real story.

Revenge is, of course, a story as old as the Athenian tragedians. A dish served best cold it might be, but it makes server and eater sick alike. No good deed of vengeance goes unpunished in the Greek tragedies and Ji-woon is as cruel and penetrating as they were in showing how the desire to get revenge for a horrible misdeed can make the victim as horrible as the perpetrator. Ji-woon has called the film an Oriental Western and it reminds me of a Western like the Searchers and just how Greek the Westerns were. So, a Hellenic-Oriental Western!

When her car breaks down, a young woman is abducted, tortured and beheaded by Kyung-chul (Choi min-sik) a middle aged serial killer in a truly horrifying opening sequence. Her fiance Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hyun), who talked with her on the phone right before the killing, is haunted by the killing and takes time off from his position as a federal agent to track down the killer and pay him back for the killing. Planting a GPS tracker on him, Soo-hyun plays a game of hunter and prey, letting him go repeatedly to track him down again and torture him some more.

But, the serial killer has plans of his own and doesn't like being screwed with. Choi min-sik (from Oldboy) plays the killer as a sort of irritated, tired, asshole who thinks he has the right to do as he pleases to others. A scene in which he torments a poor secretary builds a great deal of tension, beginning with the mere sense that he just doesn't care about social niceties.

Gradually, Soo-hyun follows suit, moving farther and farther outside of the law in his attempt to transfer some of his crushing pain to Kyung-chul. He is warned that "revenge is just for movies", but can't seem to change the direction he's headed. When Kyung-chul finally tries to turn himself into the police, Soo-hyun won't let him! An attempted telephone intervention scene in the third act gives the story a surprising gravity. But the action is as frenetic as anything in The Good, the Bad, the Weird- a stabbing scene in a moving car is absolutely eye-popping. It is clear why Kim Ji-woon has become a cult favorite director.

Aside from being a tad long, I can hardly recommend this movie enough. It's shocking, brutal, strangely funny, action-packed, and surprisingly moving. More importantly, it has something that Tarantino's revenge epics lack altogether: it has a perspective.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Vampire Happening (1971)

If you remember the sex comedies of the 60s and early 70s, you'll remember that they all hinged on a very basic hypothesis: men are frequently flustered by sexy women with hilarious results. The comedy level increases as we get to more important and stuffy men, so a laborer who is distracted by a passing woman's boobs and drops wet concrete on a coworker's head is funny (provided he's not killed instantly), but a vicar who keeps inserting "breast" and "boobies" into his Sunday sermon because the same busty woman is in the front row is absolutely hysterical. For some reason, breasts tend to be highlighted over all other female body parts in these movies, which is fitting as they're the funniest.

The Vampire Happening operates largely along these lines with a Hollywood starlet arriving in Transylvania to claim an inherited family castle and finding out that her Baroness ancestor is in a coffin in the basement along with lots of torture devices and in pretty good condition considering she's been dead for over a hundred years. Both of them are played by the gorgeous Pia Degermark and the director Freddie Francis takes every possible opportunity to feature her body prominently in the film.

The story becomes a sort of dueling harlot farce. The actress is sexed up and has fun flashing the local priests and seducing everyone in the vicinity with a wang. Meanwhile, her lookalike vampire ancestor is seducing the same men but trying to suck their blood (there is a joke about the one differing because she sucks the men, yes). Then you have an older butler trying to stake the vampire and two slutty Catholic schoolgirls next door trying to get it on with some monks-in-training. In the meantime, priests, vicars, and various others get hilariously distracted by women's breasts. At a certain point, I was reminded of the joke Rick Sullivan used to make in the Gore Gazette about movies having more bared tits than a twenty acre dairy farm.

Freddie Fancis was better known as a cinematographer on films like Glory and Scorsese's Cape Fear, so the film looks beautiful and the castle is an awesome set. Degermark looks beautiful too, of course. The problem is the movie's never actually, you know, funny. Nor is it scary, of course. Unless you find Benny Hill sidesplitting but a bit too highbrow, you might want to skip this one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

One of Lucio Fulci's most enjoyable movies, Lizard in a Woman's Skin tells the sordid tale of Carol (Florinda Bolkan), a wealthy barrister's daughter and respectable society woman with a disturbing problem: she keeps having wet dreams about screwing the hot bohemian chick (Anita Strindberg) in the flat next door during wildly surrealistic orgies. Admittedly, most of us wouldn't consider that much of a problem, but it becomes more so after Carol makes what her analyst considers a breakthrough by dreaming about killing the neighboring harlot, who then actually turns up dead. Damned Freudian psychology always makes shit worse!

Carol has other problems, including the fact that her husband Frank is screwing his secretary. Then she spots two hippies from her dream walking around London, chases them down, and finds they have no recollection of the killing. The police focus their investigation on her and she gets locked up, but soon there are hippies showing up to snuff her. Is there an evil conspiracy trying to ruin her life? Or is this a story about the psychological damage inflicted upon a woman by sexual repression and upper class hypocrisy? Maybe a little bit of both!

Lizard in a Woman's Skin is sort of Fulci's psychedelic mod mystery flick and two things help him here: the Swinging London setting, which allows for him to slip in his usual surrealistic weirdness, and the mystery plot, which forces him to stick to a coherent narrative. The Ennio Morricone score is great too, of course. I don't know that I'd consider most of Fulci's movies to be giallos, although this one definitely is; and I'm not actually a fan of most of his movies. Granted, City of the Living Dead holds a special place in my heart as the first horror movie my parents let me watch (at age 8! Thanks Mom and Dad!), but Fulci has an irritating tendency to shoot gore scenes with extremely long closeups that start to resemble the boring snatch shots in porn flicks. The problem with filming someone getting killed in slow, long closeups is you start wondering Why the hell are they just sitting there getting killed? Here, the gore is minimal and therefore more effective. There was a scene with some mutilated (fake) dogs that was a bit barf-inducing, but otherwise it's more like a real movie.

Even better, the LSD shenanigans allow Fulci to cram in lots of wacko style and filmmaking bravura. At one point, he pays homage to Francis Bacon's famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. At another, a trip through a crowded train becomes a crowded orgy! The hippie LSD party is a particular highlight. And you also have plenty of female flesh on display. What else could you want? (Maybe a bit less talking and police procedural stuff, but otherwise it's fun.)

The Shrine (2010)

Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is a journalist whose work is consuming her life and driving away her boyfriend Marcus (Aaron Ashmore). To make matters worse, her editor keeps giving her fluff pieces to work on instead of the hot lead she'd rather investigate: a backpacker who went missing in rural Poland. Luckily we saw him get crucified by some weirdo cultists in the opening scenes, so we know he's come to no good. Anyway, Carmen's ambitious and drags Marcus off to Poland to investigate with her and a younger gumshoe (Meghan Heffern), without telling anyone where they're going.

Before long, our cute 20-something Americans (in reality, Canadians with Canada standing in for America and Poland- we're the chameleon of countries!) are traipsing around hickski-ville Poland and having run ins with bizarreski Poles in a small town where the priests are menacing, the hickskis are more menacing, and there's a creepy plume of black smoke billowing in the distance. As they wander to investigate, they discover it's more like a wall of fog enveloping everything- a nice creepy effect. Inside the fog, they come across a big Pazuzu-style demon statue that bleeds motor oil out of its eyes and seems to have a strange power over the girls. Here, things start to pick up.

The Shrine is a solid little horror movie that's more of a "slow burn" than a "wild ride". It's got plenty of nice touches, like leaving the voluminous Polish spoken unsubtitled so we don't know what's going on, or using primarily practical effects, which have more weight and solidity than the digital sort. When it gets gory, it does so with vigor. Shit gets all fucked up.

In general, the movie starts out in Hostel territory (minus the commentary on globalization), passes through Children of the Corn/ Black Sunday land, and spends the third act in Evil Dead-ville with a big stop in Exorcist Town. It's not to say that the thing's unoriginal- there's enough unique touches that you don't feel like you're watching a rip off- but it's a genre film and, as such, is more concerned with hitting its beats than making deeper points about religion, culture clashes, or anything else. It's written at about the level of a comic book. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I just don't understand why we can't get relatively solid genre pictures like this into actual theaters instead of sending them right to DVD? Isn't it more fun to watch them with friends in a theater after a few beers?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blackula (1972)

Okay, so Blackula (the black Dracula) is not as scary as Dracula, but is probably better than Chackula (the Chinese Dracula) and Spackula (the Spanish Dracula), neither of which actually exist. There was a Blackenstein, however, and a Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, and at some point I'm going to film a Blummy: the Black Mummy. His bandages are black because he doesn't wash them. In the early 70s, enterprising exploitation chiselers decided to cash in on the overwhelming demand in the black community for more rip offs of the classic horror characters, but black. This film was one of those films.

In Blackula, we learn that Dracula (Charles McCauley) was a bit of a racist along with being a vampire. He screws over an African prince Mamuwalde (played by the suave William Marshall) visiting Transylvania to get Europe to abandon the slave trade (which Transylvania had fuck all to do with) and meeting with the Count, who apparently wants to screw his cute African bride (Vonetta McGee). When Mamuwalde balks at this, the Count bites his neck and locks him in a coffin to suffer for eternity without blood.

Jump to the early seventies when a couple of interior decorators buy the coffin for their home and Blackula pops out to suck their blood before heading out into the L.A. streets to bite a sassy taxi driver and fall in love with a hot young girl Tina who looks just like his late bride. By an amazing coincidence, the investigator trying to solve the crimes, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is Tina's brother, although he's getting no help at all from the Man. Soon, Tina and Blackula are in love, but they can't be together.

Of course, if you remember, pretty much all those old Universal monster movies were about thwarted love- Dracula, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and finally Frankenstein were made horrible by not being able to have a go with their desired mates. Here, it's society that's trying, as usual, to stick it to the black (vampire) man. The race aspect actually gives the society's monster theme an unusual level of resonance. Mamuwalde was a prince in Africa who had everything stripped from him by a white devil, was shipped to America in a boat, and is now hounded and oppressed by the authorities over his understandable rage. Fuck if there's not resonance there.

Blackula is not a particularly gory film- its PG rating is about right. And you might have noticed that it's more than a little illogical. It's more like a kid's movie or something you'd see uncut on TV. But, here at least, the combination of a classic monster and a blacksploitation flick works pretty well.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

After I moved to Canada, I learned a whole other way to look at movies: are they openly Canadian or secretly Canadian?

A ton of movies are shot up north, either by American or Canadian production companies, and the difference seems to be between ones like Juno or Meatballs that don't acknowledge their Canadian parentage, and those like The Fly that don't exactly hide it, which stirs the pride of Canadian genre fans. My Bloody Valentine is an example of the latter: on more than one occasion, I've heard it described as the "Canadian slasher movie". Now, having first watched the movie in America, I never noticed that it isn't set in an American town. It always looked that way to me. But, for Canadians, it's obviously set in Canada. Basically, the accent that Americans can't quite place is from the maritime provinces instead of New England, and it actually is meaningful that everyone drinks Moosehead in the film- very meaningful. This is what Canucks see as most characteristically and unmistakably Canadian- the beer!

So, I'm going to take their word for it. My Bloody Valentine is a slasher film set in a working class Canadian town (obviously!) defined by its coal mine. Years ago, there was an explosion in the mines that made one the one surviving miner eat his dead colleagues and go crazy (and one thing is for sure about slashers: they just can't let shit go!), and so he put on the scary miner outfit and started a killing. He killed the foreman who left the mine early for the Valentine's Dance and killed the dude on Valentine's Day and he has a thing against the Valentine's Dance (another thing about slashers- they pick a holiday and really watch their calendars!). Now it's the 1980s present day and they're thinking of holding another Valentine's Dance. Those damned fools!

On top of this, you have a love triangle going on. T.J. left the shit hole town for California (no mention is made that he went to another country. Just saying) to make it big as a professional flautist (just kidding) and now he's back with hat in hand to work in his dad's mine. Lisa, his old girlfriend has since shacked up with his old buddy Axel, and now she can't decide which dick she wants. So the two friends are fighting over her throughout the movie, pussy being scarce in Nova Scotia, and meanwhile the Mayor and Sheriff are trying to handle the series of killings that just keep happening and trying to find out if that crazy miner is still in the mental institution or not.

A lot of people say that My Bloody Valentine is their favorite slasher film and I can see the appeal- you've got a good small town romantic drama set in a working class milieu, a clever psycho on the loose story, and lots of nifty gore effects by Thomas Berman and his crew. The effects, incidentally, were only recently released via Lion's Gate DVD; the original film was hacked to bits by the ever-cowardly Paramount Pictures in order to appease the MPAA. There's also a great folk song about the killer over the end credits. And, frankly, after all the dumb suburban brats getting killed in slasher movies, it's fun to see blue collar kids with blue collar problems for once.

The problem, for me, is that the killer looks cool, but he's yet another faceless psycho for the most part, and the main characters, while not as insipid as the usual slasher victims, aren't that interesting. I don't really care which dick Sarah chooses, although we all know she's going to pick her first love in the end. Ultimately, slasher films are hard for me to get into because they're so formulaic that I know exactly what's going to happen next for 90% of the running time. I'll agree though that My Bloody Valentine is much better than average (unless your average is Halloween). Way to go, Canadians!

Savage Intruder (1970)

The Savage Intruder starts with a great credit sequence of the decrepit and rotting Hollywood sign panning down to a severed head and hands lying in the dirt below. It's a nice visual commentary on a Hollywood studio system that knows where to bury its bodies. Also, it introduces us to a serial killer who is slashing up older women in the Hollywood Hills, which makes sense because the young ones run away a lot faster in the usual slasher flick. It's a wonder nobody thought of this before. He's played by David Garfield, son of screen legend John Garfield, and we see him follow an old lady home from a bad and cut her up in her bathroom early in the film so there's no mystery about that. The opening scenes, though, are both pretty grim and gruesome, setting up a tone that the movie doesn't really maintain.

Instead, the film shifts into Hollywood Boulevard/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mode as the young punk slasher, Vic, turns his attentions to aged former movie star Katherine Parker, played by real life elderly ex-movie star Miriam Hopkins (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde among others). Her glory days solidly behind her, now she spends her days in a vast and creepy mansion drinking heavily and imagining she's at the gala balls that have since ended. Introducing himself as Laurel N. Hardy, the hippie slasher gets a job as a personal assistant for the old biddy, which we know won't go well.

The movie plays up the arrogance of the 60s generation against the decrepit glamour of 1930s Hollywood. Vic gets under the skin of the house matron played by Gale Sondergaard and into the panties of the Asian maid Greta who he calls "my little fortune cookie". He also shoots up and hallucinates about running down a cool endless day-glo checkerboard hallway to a room where his mother is having a sexual rendezvous with five guys before the child Vic chops her hand off with a hatchet. Mamma was a whore and a lush and now Vic kills older matronly women- Freud would get it. Throwing a spanner in the works, Katherine jumps his bones and falls in love with the young punk. Cue the acid rock!

So psycho Vic's plan is to turn the old bat into a sugar mamma and he's willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. Instead of being a "savage intruder", he's really more of an opportunist with a psycho streak and a genuinely creepy character. Katherine, meanwhile, is a delusional alcoholic in the Gloria Swanson mode. She was always big; it was the killer hippies that got small! Things get sufficiently gory in spots and really weird in others. In one great sequence, Vic takes Katherine to a hippie drug party where she encounters a drug pushing midget, black and gay stereotypes, crazy wallpaper, and the cast of Laugh-In basically. In another, she gets drunk at the late night Christmas parade and bitches to a television reporter about the "queers" on Hollywood Boulevard.

For about the first hour, this contrast between the psychedelic generation and the older lonely booze hound works pretty well. Like The Night God Screamed, the older set's fears about the hippie creeps are totally justified here! The gore effects are surprisingly good, considering it was filmed in 1969. Eventually, though, it starts to run out of steam, right about the point Vic starts holding Katherine hostage. The last half hour really repeats itself. One also the unmistakable feeling of having seen all of this before in some classic movies. Also the last half hour really repeats itself. (Ba-dum-tish!) Anyway, it's still worth a rental if you've ever wanted to see a gorier drug era version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Actually, it's not on DVD, so you'd have to find a place that rents VHS, or rents movies at all anymore. God, now I feel like an old timer!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jungle Warriors (1984)

Jungle Warriors begins with overhead shots of a jungle, appropriately enough, and a rock song about needing "your heat" that is notable mainly because the singer, Marina Arcangeli, could kill small animals solely with the power of her horrific singing. Soon we're watching a gang of guerrilla rebels blast up a jungle camp at the bidding of drug lord Cesar Santiago (played by Paul Smith, Bluto himself) who tortures a dude, promises to protect his family and then snaps his neck very unconvincingly. As if Smith isn't a great enough villain, he has a femme fatale sister Angel, played by 80s B-movie queen Sybil Danning, who's apparently sharing bodily fluids with him.

Into this domestic drama tromps a bunch of 80s fashion models with big hair heading into the jungles of South America to do a hot photo shoot that looks to be in la mode de Sears. Their annoying manager, meanwhile, tries to pick up South American chicks with 80s pickup lines like, "I got Quaaludes, I got cocaine... any game you can name, any amount you can count." As if this wasn't enough brilliance for three movies, John Vernon shows up as a Chicago mobster looking to do business with Santiago and chew a lot of scenery.

You can see where this is going: the models' little plane is shot down by Santiago's men, they make their way through the jungle for a while, get taken prisoner, and some rapes and tortures ensue at the hands of bisexual femme fatale Angel and a bunch of big guerrillas, including one dude in an E.T. tee shirt! The gang rape scene is also unique for being considerably more exciting than anything that happens in the first hour or so of the movie. Things pick up towards the end, when the models fight their way to freedom and lots of shit gets blowed up real good.

So, this is basically a sexploitation actioner with an all-star cast of overactors. Paul Smith looking pissed! Sybil Danning looking naked! John Vernon laughing hysterically at every occasion! Woody Strode smiling! Dennis Hopper cut out of the movie for drug problems! By comparison, the heroines are colorless. And, weirdly enough, for a movie with such bad acting firepower, the whole thing is sort of boring. The sex and violence come fairly late and it takes forever to get there. You feel like you're in the jungle and getting nowhere fast.

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the great filmmakers in the history of cinema and his best known film, The Trial of Joan of Arc, is arguably also a horror film about the terrors a society can inflict upon its scourges. It's also remembered for its destabilizing and intense close-ups of faces seemingly lost in space. Renee Maria Falconetti's performance in that silent film is legendary in fact. In Vampyr, his actual horror film, there are less close ups, but one close up in particular, of actress Sybille Schmitz as Léone a young woman enthralled by a vampire and dwindling away in her sick bed, is chill inducing. I often prefer horror movies made by non-horror directors because they bring in influences outside of the genre while quite often going for broke and trying to scare the daylights out of us.

Vampyr was made on the dawn of sound films and shot in three different languages; as a result, Dreyer used very little spoken dialogue and constructed an image-heavy, nearly silent movie. It plays like a very bad dream. Drawing loosely from J. Sheridan Fanu's ghost stories, Vampyr shows us a young man, Allan, who we are told is obsessed with the supernatural, coming to an inn where an old man enters his room on the first night to give him a letter to be opened on the event of his death. Wandering outside, he follows a series of beckoning shadows leading him to an even stranger castle where he spies through a window as the lord of the castle is murdered. Staying for a rest, he discovers that the younger daughter is slipping away to a terminal illness- it turns out she's being drained of her blood by a mysterious figure late at night. When Allan opens the package, it turns out to be a book on vampires.

This, then is a classic 19th century style tale of the eerie and uncanny. It's very effective partly because of how the uncanny events follow dream logic and also because Dreyer has an eye for surreal imagery. His silhouette camera tricks are very clever and quite often he frames things in ways that aren't quite right although it's not immediately apparent where they're wrong. It's a strange and slow-moving movie, even for the era, and might not be immediately accessible for modern viewers. Some viewers complain about falling asleep while watching the movie, which is appropriate because it's already like a dream. It feels as if anything can happen and Dreyer will break any rule of filmmaking. It's also a fascinating film because you can't just watch it and follow along from the start. Instead, you have to learn the logic of the world depicted based on what Dreyer is showing you or not showing you. For that reason, it's still a thrilling movie, both from a technical standpoint and because it's so creepy.