Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

This is exactly the kind of schlock that used to get played on Creature Feature after midnight on Saturdays when I was a kid. I probably even saw it back then. It's got all of the elements of a B horror movie: a washed up Hollywood star (Cameron Mitchell in this one and so many others), spoooooky theremin music, lots of scenery-chewing, and a story so dumb it would only be convincing to a child. As a child, I might have seen it and been convinced.

The story is that someone is kidnapping Hollywood stars and drugging them so they remain paralyzed and then using them as figures in a Hollywood Wax Museum. Who's doing this? Former Hollywood make-up artist Vincent Renard (Mitchell), that's who! The movie lets us in on this secret five minutes in. About ten minutes in, they explain why: he was in love with an actress (Anne Helm), but the fat fuck producer Max Black (Berry Kroeger) also loved her and mutilated him with a flaming cocktail (in full view of an entire party of people who apparently didn't notice how intentional the attack was).

Well, old putty face probably could have kept porking the actress, but decided instead to work at the wax museum, which for no apparent reason allows him to work with a giant vat of boiling wax uncovered in the basement. In fact, that vat of wax, which is akin to big bubbling vats in classic schlock films, is the single best thing about the movie. Probably second place would go to the go-go dancers shaking their goodies to a hip band called the T-Bones about halfway through. Vincent trolls the go-go club for victims, Max trolls the club for pussy, and otherwise the scene has nothing to do with anything, but was probably a career high point for the T-Bones.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
The worst parts of the film are an idiot security guard who's here for comedic effect, and especially Mitchell's dialogue to the paralyzed victims, which just goes on for-fucking-ever. If this thing was shot in more than a weekend, they wasted time. Also, if these "wax figures" are alive, how long can they last until they starve to death? It's not like the guy is feeding them. Probably a crapping wax dummy would arouse suspicion anyway. Finally, there's a huge subplot in which two detectives try to solve this big mystery of where these actors are disappearing to- they don't suspect that it could be the batshit crazy, mutilated weirdo with a serious grudge against the studio who just happens to be putting up really lifelike figures of those actors in his wax museum almost immediately following their disappearances! Nobody even suggests that might be in poor taste! I mean, if there were two detectives on the force who weren't fictionally brain dead, the whole movie would have been over in five minutes.

Man, what a crappy movie this was!

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The first time me and my baby saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in a drive-in, she said, "Ya know, it's too good to be a bad movie, but it's too bad to be a good one." I dunno. It's grown on me quite a bit since it was first released in 1986. To give you an idea what a different world it was back then, I first saw it in another drive-in (pre-sweetheart) on a double bill with Day of the Dead. No fucking shit. No way you'd see a bill like that today, when even the drive-ins are chains. (Me and my baby saw it during a closing show when our local drive-in got bought out by some idiots who show nothing but multiplex movies now).
It was about this point in its run that the Muppet Show got really weird...
Anyway, Texas Chainsaw 2 seems like a bit of a mess the first time you see it. Filmed under high pressure circumstances with the Golan Globus clock running down and a script being frantically typed out by L.M. Kit Carson and slid under a hotel room door, the movie sort of falls apart in the third act, which is dispiriting because Texas Chainsaw Massacre is basically a perfect film. The second film loses me though, nearly every time. At the point that Dennis Hopper is running around the abandoned theme park and screaming like an idiot and the film is recreating the dinner set piece from the first movie, I usually tune out.

The exact opposite of safe sex.
Okay, but let's go back a bit. The opening sequence, in which two yuppie punks in a car get chainsawed by Leatherface in a monster truck driving backwards over a bridge is just as awesome as the description makes it sound, even if the effects by make-up Elvis, Tom Savini, got chainsawed out by the MPAA (which make no fucking sense, Tobe, because the movie went out unrated). It's a really brilliant set piece that shows off Tobe Hooper's development as a director. In fact, the entire first act, in which Texas radio DJ Stretch (played with real spunk by Caroline Williams), investigates a series of chainsaw massacres that have been plaguing Texas for years with the help of Sheriff Lefty (Dennis Hopper, drunk as fuck, apparently), and runs afoul of the cannibal family from the first flick, is great. Even if the movie never bothers to explain that Platehead is supposed to be the brother of the dead hitchhiker from the first film, Bill Moseley still does a great, if not legendary, job in the role. Not to mention Leatherface pretending to fuck Williams with a chainsaw, one of the best sequences in the series.

I think one of the problems with the film is that they actually had a sizable budget this time around, which might have taken away some of the hunger that fueled the first movie. The theme park set is great and the design is gorgeous, but you get the feeling that they shot a lot of things and cut out half of them. Hooper has talked about doing a director's cut to put back in some of the gore effects that he needlessly cut (given the movie was released unrated anyway), but it doesn't entirely cohere anyway.

Also, Lefty's a pretty thin character. He's the Uncle of the kids in the first movie and wants revenge, so he buys a big chainsaw and goes to get revenge. That's about it, really. Revenge is one of those themes that looms large in drama all the way back to Greek theater, but here it's just another element in the insanity. Once everyone gets to the abandoned theme park the film goes a bit crazy.

But, as my friend Aaron at the Zed Word blog pointed out to me this time I saw it, it's also really wonderfully demented nonetheless. Jim Siedow returns as the Chef who can't take no pleasure in killing. Moseley is great as Vietnam vet Platehead, whose metal head plate is financing this whole operation. Then you have Dennis Hopper running around and chainsawing the joint while screaming "I'm bringing it down!" And the effects by Elvis Savini are pretty frigging amazing. The film seems to just let these insane people act nuts, which would be good enough, but Hooper works in some of his favorite visual motifs, such as lots of weird lights everywhere and chases to nowhere. And there's even a sort of weird quest theme as well as a coming of age love story.

Which brings me to a sudden realization: if Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a near perfect horror film, maybe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 should be seen as a near perfect midnight cult film.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

So, we've all seen this horror classic hundreds of times. What can you possibly say about it at this point? Thanks to the cool dementoids at London, Ontario's Vagrancy Films, I got to see it again on the big screen recently in all it's celluloid glory.

Out for a stroll
Well, the first thing is it really is a lot scarier on the big screen with that pounding mono soundtrack. I've known quite a few people who felt a bit let down when they first saw Texas Chainsaw. That title and that opening credits crawl make you think it will be the most gruesome thing you've ever seen and really the only bit of serious gore, arguably, is the chainsaw connecting with Leatherface leg at the end. It's totally different on the big screen, though, where the filmmakers are totally assaulting your senses for most of the running time. They really pulled out all the stops with this one.

It's also a bit like a fairy tale. The children shouldn't have wandered into that old house in the woods where the witches live and eat children. The girl has to fight to escape from them after they have her over for dinner and try to eat her.

Texas Chainsaw Assacre
It's also a bit like a found document- the cinema vérité look has been imitated dozens of times, but there really are scenes here that look purely accidental or totally off-kilter, while adding to the tone of the film. The scene with the empty lake is unnerving for no apparent reason, but it just builds to one of the best murder scenes outside of Psycho. And note the subtle current of eroticism that only adds to the tension before the climactic murder.

Nope. It's from "Hour of the Wolf"
Visually, TCM reminds me a bit of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, another horror film about a dinner banquet at a menacing house back in the woods. Bergman was fairly popular with this generation of horror filmmakers and was, in my opinion, the greatest horror director ever not to be recognized as one. Check out the scene in Hour where Max Von Sydow goes running through the fairy tale horror woods and compare it to the expert chase scene in TCM. At the least, the two movies would make an interesting double feature.

Everything about TCM is expert though. For Tobe Hooper, this movie must have been a mixed blessing because it was his first hit and wound up being an iconic horror classic. It's a damn near perfect film too. Even the crippled brother Francis, who is annoying as hell, works in this movie because he's just another element in gradually ramping up the tension throughout the film. There's nothing reassuring or comforting in TCM; it's like a vice that slowly tightens on the viewer. You can watch the movie several times without catching its skewed sense of humor.

The hills are aliiiive...
Has there ever been a better ending to a horror film than the iconic chainsaw dance in TCM? It's one the purest expressions of madness on film and a pique so fevered the film can go nowhere but to black.

For Tobe Hooper, though, the problem is you can only go down from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He's made some surprisingly great movies, with my second favorite probably being Eaten Alive, and there's a sort of visual continuity to all of them- he has plenty of shots of people running through the underbrush and disorientingly bright lights, for example. Many of his movies play like demented fairy tales. He's also particularly adept at filming madness and mania. Yet, he doesn't really seem to get the accolades that other genre filmmakers have. Maybe it's time for a serious reexamination of his body of work.

But end with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's as self-assured a film as you're ever going to see, and if you see it on the big screen with a hushed audience, one of the scariest.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Unholy Rollers (1972)

It was sort of a thing for exploitation filmmakers in the 70s to try to capitalize off of trends that were popular with the young people they were trying to get out to the drive-ins to watch their movies. Hence there were flicks like The Van about customized vans and The Unholy Rollers about roller derby girls. This probably would not work as well today; it's hard to imagine Facebookin'! or Cell Phone Fever being nearly as cinematic.

Roller derby, however, is back in force. Our local team, the Hammer City Roller Girls, are kicking all sorts of ass, and trend-chasing acting robot Drew Barrymore has made a recent flick about roller derby with less bare breasts and more of a female empowerment message than the old flicks- sort of "roller grrrl" let's say. Roger Corman 's version, Unholy Rollers, takes a totally different approach. Here, there's less in the way of female empowerment and more in the way of female dis-enshirt-ment.

The story concerns Karen (Claudia Jennings), a spitfire worker in a dog food canning plant who starts a fight with her pawing boss and quits, putting her and the kooky gearhead couple, played by Candice Roman and Alan Vint, who live with her and screw all day into a predicament. In order to do something with her life, Karen joins the Los Angeles Avengers, a successful roller derby team run by some sleazy managers and popular with a crowd that's out for blood. Much of this is played for corny Mad Magazine style laffs and the team isn't exactly noble, but Karen's supposed to be out-of-control. Too much success. She shoots a gun at people from the back of a boyfriend's motorcycle, and yells at her teammates a lot, and then finally loses her marbles and starts smashing everybody like the Hulk. Because she can't put the team first, they strip her nude in a bar and trash her new car!

The movie never goes too long without displaying some female flesh, staging a roller derby sequence, or having Jennings freak out. The derby scenes are pretty well shot, if a bit badly lit, and edited by a young Martin Scorsese in a way that packs in a lot of action. There's also a great supporting cast, with exploitation luminaries like Collins, Jennings, Betty Ann Rees and Roberta Collins in prominent roles.

The big problem with the movie is the main character is a loony asshole for most of the flick. Jennings plays Karen as a chick who takes no shit, even when people really aren't giving her any. We get some indication of why she's this way when the film introduces her lower class mother, but suspect Mom is right when she calls her daughter crazy. Her character doesn't really change much over the course of the film- she's raging pissed at the beginning and out-of-control pissed at the end. It's more a story of lunatic empowerment than anything else. Definitely worth seeing if you're a derby fan- again the derby scenes are pretty good, although the Avengers only ever seem to take on one other team!- or a fan of exploitation actresses though.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Superchick (1973)

As we all know from popular mythology, stewardesses are like sexual buccaneers, sailing the skies in search of sexual conquests, with a different partner in every port. Whether or not this is true (and, oh lord, do I wish it was!), Superchick has fun with the idea. Granted, it's corny as hell, and in no hurry to get to a plot of any sort either.

The story plays as a sort of picaresque with stewardess Tara B. True (television actress Joyce Jillson), as a sort of harlot-in-disguise. By day, she dresses as a sort of frumpy stewardess. By night, she's got a different man in every city: a rich surgeon who's afraid of germs and barely touches her in New York; a beach bum playboy (Tony Young) in trouble with the mob in Miami; a teen idol pop singer (played by Timothy Wayne Brown) in Los Angeles. These are the main men in her life, but she also has a date with a friend of the pop singer that ends in a drug bust, a fling with a pervy old Hollywood actor (played with real relish by John Carradine), and does her part for America by fucking a marine in the airplane bathroom. Incidentally, she's also skilled in karate and beats up some bikers and the mobsters who want to make her a hooker.

I've noted before that brief period in the early 70s when a good-natured sort of free love was popular in the culture and exploitation filmmakers quickly realized the exploitative potential for stories about hip, swinging, sexually-promiscuous young women. The films have an appeal today, when hardcore porn is freely available, because they have a sex-positive message and actually seem to really like their female main characters. Tara, not surprisingly, gives the obligatory speech at the end extolling the virtues of a young woman living in the moment and making love to whoever she wants to; you can almost imagine the horny filmmakers chomping their cigars and panting, "right on, sister!" in the background.

It's interesting how the virtues of these movies come with time. Superchick is a goofy movie with subpar Borscht belt style jokes and really slow plotting. Nevertheless, it's also got an easy going positivity about female sexuality and a strong female lead, which aren't exactly easy to come by in our supposedly more enlightened age.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

Well, everybody has to start somewhere and James Cameron started with a film about flying piranhas, which when you think about it is actually a lot cooler than the one about blue, alien cat-hippies. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a bit to be desired and it's not really clear how much of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning Cameron actually shot. But, it's nice to see that our most pretentious living filmmaker started with crap about flying piranha fish.

The original Piranha was a Roger Corman produced Jaws rip-off that was helped along quite a bit by being directed by Corman protege Joe Dante, a director with a real flair for the campy, cartoony, and comedic. Dante injected a weird, anarchic sense of humor to what could have been just another Jaws clone (one of many for Corman) and created a cult classic. He established the sense of humor that has carried over to the Piranha remakes, although with less of a focus on T&A as the new films.
A piranha fish with wings

The sequel was directed by James Cameron, another Corman protege, and retains some of the sense of humor of the first film, while not being particularly funny. There are some goofy characters at the beachfront resort setting of the film, such as a Jewess who falls for a nebbishy dentist, an older woman who wants to screw younger men, and a dork who gets cockteased by some cunty women, but as you can tell from these descriptions, most of the comedy is pretty lame and unfunny. The producers supposedly shoehorned this stuff into the film against Cameron's wishes, although the movie needs comedy, which isn't exactly his strong suit anyway if you remember the lame, unfunny shtick with Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. He's no Woody Allen. Luckily, piranha that can fly don't really need a punchline.

"I can fly! I can fly! It's off to Neverland!"
Anyway, it's a beachfront resort and people start getting killed by piranha fish that fly out of the water and bite their necks. The piranha with wings were created, naturally, by the military as "the ultimate weapon." In every movie in which the military tries to design the ultimate weapon, it always goes wrong, which is supposed to warn us of the dangers of aiming too high in designing weapons. Why not go for making the most mediocre weapon you can? They're less likely to go awry. Also, at what point in the military LSD research was someone in Army intelligence high enough to suggest that sticking wings on piranha would make the ultimate weapon, or was the brass high enough to agree to that? Finally, would someone please make the war movie in which the terrorists in Iraq are defeated with flying, carnivorous fish? Wouldn't that have made The Hurt Locker a much better movie?

Anyway, the military boat full of flying piranha went down off the coast, but the military doesn't seem too concerned with getting it back. Meanwhile, at the unfunny shtick resort, there are a few serious characters, namely  Anne (Tricia O'Neil), the scuba diving instructor, and her son Chris (Ricky Goldin), who are living there following her separation from police chief husband Steve, played by Lance Henriksen in the Roy Scheider role. This is an early appearance for  Henriksen, grizzled actor extraordinaire, if not America's leading bard of grizledry, and he does a decent job. He's clearly still in love with his wife who is shtupping a young biochemist who knows what's really going on here. Meanwhile, their son goes out with a hot chick in a boat and has to be saved from the rampaging piranha. Oy!

"Excuse me, you're holding up the line!"
Trouble is the fish don't really rampage all that much. Cameron apparently started as a special effects director on the film and there are some pretty neat scenes of schools of piranha attacking underwater, random people getting bitten on the neck by the fish, and one pretty great "spawning" scene of the tourists being assaulted by flying piranha on the beach, but otherwise it's not exactly thrilling and the direction is so inept that there's never any sense of danger. It's also frequently dumb- in one ridiculous scene Henriksen  can't figure out how to pick up his kid with the helicopter he's flying and decides to use a nearby boat instead, which means one thing- jumping out of the chopper and letting it crash into the ocean nearby, killing the kid instantly. He couldn't just use the skids to pick them up like in every other movie?

Cameron has said the producer, Ovido Assontis, was constantly hovering over him, questioning his every decision, and that he eventually had to break into the editing room to cut his own version of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which is also floating around, so to speak. Supposedly, the main bone of contention was the comedic scenes, because clearly a flying piranha movie should be played very seriously. Also, they fought over the color of the scenes shot from the piranha point-of-view- Assontis wanted the silly hot pink in the film, while Cameron wanted red- clearly an important plot point. Luckily for us all, Cameron would eventually make a few good movies, earning him the chance to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his dream of dopey CGI cartoons about blue, hippie cat-aliens.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I guess I'm the dissenting view here.

Fangoria's review of The Cabin in the Woods ends by telling us that horror fans will absolutely love the film, something I've found to be true with my horror fan friends. Certainly, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and will likely pick up the DVD. The review also tells us that some reviewers will mistakenly call it a "horror spoof," when it's really not. Let's be honest, it is pretty funny though with plenty of extended comedy bits. I agree that it's not spoofing or making fun of the genre. But, let's also be honest about this: it's really not a horror movie. It's more like a sporadically frightening comedic fantasy. It's definitely very clever and well worth seeing, but let's not get carried away with comparing it to the great horror films because, while it's pretty great, it's still not a horror film. Or, at least, it's not horrific.

Most of the reviews I've seen thus far have gone out of their way to avoid discussing the main "secret" of the movie. The problem is that's also the whole premise of the film, so it's hard to discuss The Cabin in the Woods at all in any serious way without disclosing its secret. Here's what I'm going to do: I will openly discuss the whole movie, including secrets, after the following picture. If you do not want the "secret" given away, stop reading at this point
Sexy girl about to make out with a stuffed wolf's head.
Okay, Cabin in the Woods is about four college friends who go to a creepy, old cabin in the woods for vacation. They consist of the brainy, virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), the alpha male athlete Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his slutty girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the brainy love interest Holden (Jesse Williams), and the stoner comedic relief Marty (Fran Kranz, who steals the film). If this setup sounds totally familiar, it should. The movie is more more self-aware and arch than it lets on at first. Unfortunately, once it informs the audience that the filmmakers know just how cliche all of this is, it doesn't stop letting us know for about an hour. It's more annoying than Scream in that way.

See, (and this is where you should not be reading if you haven't seen the movie), a shady, high-tech, governmental organization is manipulating everything that is happening inside the cabin from a bunker below, which includes using hormones and other drugs to manipulate the kids into being more virginal, slutty, brainy, alpha male, or foolish. Why? Well, okay, I won't give that away, although it's worth noting that everything does make sense in the end in a way that's pretty satisfying and more than a bit Lovecraftian. The point is, while we're watching the kids go through standard horror movie plot mechanics, the underground bunker is also watching them and commenting upon those plot twists. In other words, it's really fucking meta.

A bit too meta. I spent the first hour of the film really wishing I could be engaged by the storyline, but unable to do so because of all the cutaways to the N.A.S.A. types in the bunker. Most of their scenes were pretty funny- there's a great bit in which they're all betting on what monster will attack and kill the kids- but it's hard to be scared when the movie keeps pulling you out of its main storyline to remind you how cliche that storyline is, and to subtly mock the idea of being scared by this sort of thing. I mean, we all know that certain horror movies can be totally idiotic in their plot points- why don't the kids ever listen to the creepy old local who warns them not to go into the woods? Why do they always split up and make it easier for them to be picked off one-by-one? But, you know, one way to address the problem of cliches is to use them and comment on them frequently, while another would be just not to use them at all. 

Now, okay, to be fair, this movie is really not as annoying as Scream for one good reason- the commentary on the cliches, in this case, comes wrapped up in a serious storyline that the movie commits to wholeheartedly. As the Zed Word review puts it: "the meta-story is not delivered with that dull post-modern sense of ironic detachment. The Cabin in the Woods commits to its world and its story. It has heart (and plenty of guts to go along with it)." Okay, fair enough, and totally accurate. If you're familiar with the work of Joss Whedon, who wrote an produced, this isn't a surprise- Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a commentary on horror conventions, but a totally serious work of storytelling in itself. Whedon commits to his imaginative worlds and the dude really is a cut above the average fanboy.

The problem is that he's a really funny guy too. The main storyline, in which zombies of dead frontier fundamentalists stalk and kill the kids gets scary at times, and we understand that they're always in genuine peril, but it's still a little bit too funny. Then, in the third act (and, oh god yes, does this film have three very clear-cut acts), the shit really hits the fan in a series of scenes that will have horror fanz jizzing (or jilling) in their pants. It is very clear that these guys are serious fans of the genre themselves as there are plenty of inside baseball references. But it's also a hell of a ride. For me, the third act payoff made the movie, while the first two acts verged on killing it.

No surprise that the slut was my favorite character.
My advice would be this: the first and second acts should have been compressed into one act, while the third should have been a full hour of the movie. That would have been mindblowing. Also, while I'm okay with horror movies made by horror fans, the market is totally saturated with them in the post-Tarantino years. I often wonder why so many horror movie reviews laud this fact: "Don't worry- this one was made by real horror fans!" Um, great, but The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were made by filmmakers with a more developed and well-rounded sense of art, life, and the world than just being really up on the genre- I'd choose them over Hatchet in a second. Furthermore, I sometimes like horror that's a bit clueless about anything but scaring us. Fear is best when it's primal and subconscious and, to get to that place, you have to turn off the self-awareness. Horror filmmakers need to stop thinking of horror films as being movies first and foremost and start drawing from the horrifying world outside of movies. That way they can get back to scaring the living shit out of us.

Don't get me wrong- this is one of the smartest and funniest movies I've seen in some time. And genre fans will love it. But, I feel like people going to see horror movies do want to be scared, and so that's the main question. No, it's not scary for the most part. Funny and thought-provoking, but not scary.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Exposed (1971)

In the supplementary material on the DVD, director Gustav Wiklund makes no bones about his movie Exposed (Exponerad, also known in the US as "The Depraved" and the charming "Diary of a Rape") being "garbage," and that's pretty much right, but it achieves a certain haunting quality, probably in spite of itself, due to the lead performances and some of the weird turns of the plot. In general, I find many Swedish movies have this quality, and I can't tell if its due to the influence of Ingmar Bergman or the bleak weather.

I first heard of this film via its unbelievably sleazy trailer, which was included on one of Rick Sullivan's Gore Gazette trailer compilations. "In The Depraved, you'll see scenes that were never before put on film... The Depraved is banned in 23 countries because of its nudity and sexual activity... If you are shocked or embarrassed by total nudity and sexual activity you are urged not to attend. The Depraved is a film that had to wait for the permissive 1970s before it could be produced." Yowza! Did we mention nudity? Also, do you think anyone saw that trailer and took seriously the urging not to attend? You'll notice that the trailer makes the film look like the most... well, depraved movie ever made.

Is it? Nope, but it is plenty sleazy. The film tells the story of Lena (played by Christina Lindberg), a young girl who believes she has been blackmailed and forced into sex with strangers by an older man, Helge (), who she let take some nude pictures of her. The thought of what could happen to her if her parents or teachers saw those pictures is tormenting her and she seems to be severely cracking up. This is where Christina Lindberg's performance is pretty good. Some claim that Lindberg's popularity endures due to her large breasts and cute face. Having a deeper insight into Lindberg, I'd note that her ass is also beautiful, if only to elevate the discourse. Seriously though, she's got this disconnected and disturbed quality to her that works well in movies like They Call her One-Eye and Exposed- she looks like she's being victimized even when she's not. Of course, in most of her films, she is being victimized.

Here, Wiklund does something subversive with the narrative because it's never clear that Lena is being victimized. We see her in the beginning meeting up in a field with her boring boyfriend Jan who smacks her for her relationship with Helge, but are not clear about that relationship. Then she gets picked up by a nice and hilariously optimistic couple while their car radio announces her abduction and soon she hallucinates her rape at their hands. In fact, she's a bit like a perverse Walter Mitty because she's frequently imagining being raped or killed in various ways. The couple apparently just wants to hang out at her family cottage, run around naked, and fuck- my kind of people- but they also apparently have nothing to do with the story.

What's sort of interesting about the movie is that we're never clear about what the story is- is Helge a brutal pervert who's blackmailing and stalking Lena, as she seems to think, or is it that she was sexually curious, attended one of his orgies, let him take pictures, and now can't handle that he's in love with her and that she's clearly kinkier than she wants Jan to know? If you watch the movie with both options in mind, it's sort of an interesting take on a young woman's sexual psychology, wrestling with kinky urges in a placid society.

Or, it's just a badly-made movie whose narrative is confused. I do think we're supposed to be a bit mixed up about the plot because of all the hallucinations before we know what the plot is supposed to be, but you can never tell with these sorts of movies how much was planned and how much was created in the editing. Certainly, the pace of the film is weird anyway- after all, the first third of the movie is the subplot with the happy naked couple who then disappear and have no bearing whatsoever on the story! As you might guess here, the movie doesn't exactly hurry up and get to the point and it's not nearly as interesting as the trailer. But, again, there's some good psychological weirdness going on there and Lindberg is as lovely and naked as ever.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kiss of the Tarantula (1976)

Basically Willard with spiders, Kiss of the Tarantula features a female social misfit with pet tarantulas that do her evil bidding. I'm struggling to think of anything else it features. Mostly that's it: there's a shy loner with pet spiders that kill people. This could not have been riveting stuff in the drive-ins of 1976.

Spider-bitch is played by Suzanna Ling, who really should have made other movies because she was lovely and actually does a fine job in a role that asked for very little. The movie starts with creepy 70s shot-on-film scenes of a little girl wandering around in the woods and playing with spiders. Her name is Susan and her father is a mortician. Unfortunately, her mother is sick of spiders, sick of the morgue, and sick of her husband, which she announces angrily about five minutes in. She's also screwing Susan's cop Uncle and planning to kill off her husband. Little Susan overhears this and sics a tarantula on Mom, which kills her, although it seems to be via heart attack, which I suppose is intended to explain why nobody finds a spider bite on her. You can't actually die from a tarantula bite, although we know from The Beyond that they can eat your face, so that can do it. Here, everyone seems to die from heart attacks. Also, nobody ever seems to just swat the spiders that are crawling on them and making them have heart attacks.

Anyway, a few years pass and young Susan is a blossoming young woman who still likes spiders and is pretty hot, which makes it a bit odd that the local boys all pick on her. She does live in a mortuary and like spiders, but really! Her cop Uncle wants to bone her though, since he's lonely following the death of his brother's wife, but Susan's not having it.

Luckily, one Halloween night, a young boy gets up the courage to call Susan and ask her on a date. Naturally, Susan thinks her blossoming young vagina is going to experience the pleasures of a good pounding. Instead, some idiot dudes show up hoping to steal some coffins from her dad and bully her and, in the process, they kill one of her pet tarantulas and then chicken out and run away. Apparently, young men in the 70s had no game whatsoever- again, Suzanna Ling is a very hot chick and you stomp on her pet spider instead of trying to make time with her? Way to go, Horshack

Anyway, Susan follows two of the idiots to the drive-in where they're making out with some non-spider-owning girls in their car and she does what creepy girls with tarantulas do best in these movies: letting loose spiders to do her evil bidding. This seemingly takes forever, since spiders aren't great at hitting their marks, and finally the horny teens realize they're covered with tarantulas and freak out and die and shit. Their deaths are very tragic, painful and time-consuming.

After that, she has to kill anyone who figures out her secret, keep her spiders alive, and not get porked by her uncle. A few people die in some very painful ways, including a young girl who gets strangled in a scene that reminds me once again that a 70s PG rating was a lot different from a pussy 2010s PG. That's pretty much the movie. Susan doesn't exactly have a character arc and she even seems to forget about the spiders towards the end. It's all pretty tame stuff and probably could have played as a TV movie-of-the-week. Pretty dull.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Beast Within (1982)

I saw The Beast Within when it first came out on video and I was but a horror-loving pre-adolescent whose parents paid no attention to what he was renting. All I remembered from it years later were some gory images, a particularly silly storyline (I could even pick up on that at age nine), and a transformation scene towards the climax that ODs on bladder effects. So, when I saw the VHS tape at Shock Stock, I had to pick it up. The verdict? It's a better-made film than I remembered and actually gorier, but it's still really silly.

Young Michael (played with conviction by Paul Clemens) is a medical anomaly. His metabolic system is in hyperdrive and he's lying in the hospital dying. His loving parents (played by Ronnie Cox and Bibi Besch) suspect that this has something to do with the hulking mutant that raped Mom after their car broke down on their wedding night, putting the beast within her, so to speak, and creating Michael. Hoping to help the boy, they return to the shit-hole Southern town where all of this took place and start asking questions that, of course, strike the town elders (who are seemingly all played by Sam Peckinpah regulars) as nosy. Meanwhile, Michael gets up and goes on the lam. Apparently, he's okay, except for his dreams about an old abandoned farmhouse with something locked in the basement and his need to kill people in gory ways. Puberty's a bitch.

In between getting painful headaches that cause him to kill and having these nightmares, Michael falls in love with a young girl named Amanda (Katherine Moffat) whose papa is an almost-comically goony redneck (John Dennis Johnston) and naturally wants to shotgun him. The parents, meanwhile, are discovering that this has something to do with this guy Billy Connors who raped the wife (and then died?) and the murders are connected because all of the people getting killed are from the same family. Also, Michael is apparently haunted by the cicadas whose life-cycle involves laying dormant for seventeen years and then shedding their skins. Like the dead rapist, Michael has a kinship with insects...

See what I mean? It's hard to discuss this plot without it getting silly. Because the big reveal is that Michael is sure as hell going to shed his skin and turn into a rubber monster, just like a cicada. We'll get to that in a second, but please see if this plot makes sense: Billy Connors was fucking some redneck's wife, so the redneck shot he,r and chained Billy up in the basement, starved him, and then fed loverboy her corpse. This, naturally, turned Billy into some sort of beast-man and he broke out, raping Besch and impregnating her. Her offspring, Michael, now, has the desire to kill off the members of the family that chained up Billy. So far, so good. Now, as he reaches seventeen, he's going to turn into a rubber monster and go on a rampage because his dead raping father loved cicadas- and that's where it gets silly.

The transformation scene, incidentally, is the highlight of the film with Tom Burman inflating Clemens's head like a rubber balloon. It's pretty cool 80s latex effects that will make you exclaim "fuck CGI!" if you're anything like me. It does require the suspension of belief that everyone basically stands around and watches this happen for an eternity without popping the kid's head with a pin. But, compared to accepting that the offspring of a rape turns into a cicada-monster, that's not much of a stretch!
In all fairness to the filmmakers, their film apparently got edited to hell by Universal and the original cut probably made more sense. The direction is pretty good and reminiscent of those old horror films where they tried to put you on edge through long, quiet scenes of people walking around dark buildings alone.
But, still, a movie in which the killer kid felt a kinship with cicadas would make sense and have a certain poetic logic to it- having him turn into a rubber cicada-monster via inflate-o-head? It's really hard not to find that a little silly.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ruby (1977)

Piper Laurie hams it up as a southern belle haunted by her dead boyfriend in Ruby, a southern-fried possession flick that's more entertaining than it has any right to be. It also has a lot less possession than you'd guess from the ad campaign, which features 70s actress Janit Baldwin making some really creepy expressions, but happily it has plenty of other weird shit.

In the 1930s, gun moll Ruby Claire's lover Nicky was gunned down by her gangster boyfriend and the Dade County Gang down in the bayou in a neat opening scene that reminded me vaguely of Creepshow. As he sinks beneath the swamp, Nicky vows revenge and, simultaneously, Ruby goes into labor with his brat. Now, Nicky never knew that Ruby didn't set him up, which is an important plot point because he haunts her, but she sort of deserves it anyway.

Why? Well, she pretty much put the Dade County Gang to work in her drive-in movie theater where she's living in the 50s. She's living in decadent Southern Gothic luxury with her old man, the gang, and her mute daughter (played by Baldwin) and is played by Laurie as a sort of Southern Norma Desmond. We learn at some point that Ruby was once a movie actress and nightclub singer, but has since gone to seed. Unfortunately, not enough is made of this- it would have been cool to see more flashbacks to her old moll days or a drunken rant about the new drive-in movies. The 50 foot woman stayed big; it was the pictures that got small!

Anyway, the movie is basically a ghost story for the first two thirds. The mobsters all work at the drive-in and get killed off in creative ways by an invisible assailant. A highlight is the goon who gets shoved in the guts of a coke machine, which then delivers a cup of blood. In the third act, the film switches to a possession story with Baldwin acting a bit like Linda Blair and a bit like the horny dead mobster who wants to get back together with Ruby and, meanwhile, hoodlums keep dying and Laurie wanders around the drive-in lot drunk at night.

I know what you're going to ask and, yes, it's about as silly as it sounds, which is why I found it enjoyable. Making matters even more confusing, director Curtis Harrington got fucked on the ending of the film- his was more romantic, which makes sense because it is a movie about a woman who's in love with a ghost, so it makes the most sense for her to kill herself somehow. They replaced this with Piper Laurie getting drowned by a skeleton, which just looks cheesy as hell. Also, there's a whole other version of the flick going around with the TV edit, which had entirely new scenes shot and directed by Stephanie  that reportedly don't make a fuck of a lot of sense. I'd go with the VCI DVD (with commentary but without the later Kiss of the Tarantula double feature) and drink a few beers before watching because it's a loopy hoot.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Abby (1974)

I've said before that it's pretty hard to make an original movie about exorcism since the rite itself isn't going to be changed much, nor is the story arc: someone gets possessed, exorcised, and un-possessed. For this reason, all of them seem like ripoffs of William Friedkin's classic and they pretty much all are ripoffs. So, it's a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided to sue American International over this one, which is basically the Exorcist with a black cast, and not all of the other Exorcist rip-offs. Now, of course, since we've happily given up on the idea of a horror film being original, it would be taken in stride and the Abby "reboot" would be ready by next summer.

The lawsuit was successful, incidentally, and AIP pulled Abby from theaters. It's been hard to find on DVD, but I have my sources. Yes, it's a total rip off of the Exorcist, but an entertaining one with an all-black cast.. Clearly, the idea was to make a blaxploitation Exorcist- AIP even wanted to call it the Blackorcist- but it's better than a blaxploitation Exorcist has any right to be.

The Exorcist begins with a priest unearthing a statue of the Babylonian Pazuzu. Abby begins with a black priest and archaeologist (played by Blackula himself, William Marshall) heading to Nigeria (or a cave proximity) and unearthing a statue of the Nigerian demon Eshu. He's a sex spirit so he blows them all over the cave, so to speak.

Eshu hightails it to Kentucky to possess the priest's daughter-in-law Abby, played by Carol Speed. It would have made more sense to possess the priest, but why question the motives of Eshu. Also, William Marshall being turned into a horn-dog by a sex demon would be less entertaining. Finally, when you think about it, the Exorcist doesn't make a fuck of a lot of sense in this area either- demons are apparently really into American girls!

Abby and her preacher husband are an annoyingly perfect couple and everyone around them comments on how perfect they are. This includes her loving mother who hangs around them and smiles a lot about how wonderful is "the love of a good man." Clearly, the bitch needs to get a life. And then you have her brother who also hangs around talking about how perfect they are. Now, I do appreciate that this is a blacksploitation flick in which the black characters are portrayed as intellectual, morally-upright people, as opposed to the jiving comic relief in so many of these movies; but damn is it hard to relate to people who you basically want to see get possessed from the start!

Thankfully Eshu finally shows up and Abby starts masturbating loudly in the shower. The demon makes Abby behave like a lascivious, bitchy slut, which is perhaps shocking, but for viewers like myself also hilarious. She kicks her husband in the dick when he tries to make the moves on her. She interrupts a couple's Biblical study by tearing open her shirt and yelling, "I'm going to fuck the shit out of him right now!" She throws her wedding ring out the window and goes down to the local bar to fuck every man she meets. In other words, my kind of girl!

None of this is particularly scary, although there are some creepy bits with Eshu's face getting superimposed (just like in the Exorcist) and Speed making some godawful expressions (just like in the Exorcist). The plot basically follows that of the Exorcist, with Marshall exorcising the demon from Abby in the local bar. Interestingly enough, director William Girdler also made the satanic sacrifice movie Asylum of Satan as well as the indescribably weird and goofy Exorcist rip-off The Manitu before dying in a tragic helicopter accident (well, mostly tragic- he did make Grizzly!).

This is the biggest problem with these Exorcist clones: you know how they're going to end. Don't get me wrong- watching Carol Speed get possessed by a sex demon and behave like a horny slut is probably more entertaining than all of the Exorcist. But Friedkin's movie is still one of the best horror flicks of all time. It's like making Black Citizen Kane or Gone with the Black Wind or Wild Blackberries or the Black Godfather- oh, wait a second.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

House of Exorcism (1975)

In some circles it would probably be blasphemous to review this version of the Mario Bava film Lisa and the Devils, which is cut up and reassembled into House of Exorcism, destroying Bava’s original vision in the process. House of Exorcism is definitely one of the weirdest money-driven mutations of a horror film ever to be produced. It’s about 2/3rds Bava’s original move and 1/3rd a whole 'nother plotline that was shot a few years later to capitalize off the Exorcist. In the process, at least twenty minutes was lost from Bava’s film and horror fans feared his original vision was lost forever until a full print finally turned up. That version is far superior to this one, but House of Exorcism is definitely one of the weirdest flicks you’re likely to see.

Bava’s original film was a dreamy, atmospheric gothic horror flick about a young student, played by Elke Sommer, on a class trip who sees the devil painted on a fresco and then runs into his double in an Italian workshop- played by Telly Savalas, naturally- before getting a lift that takes her to an old mansion with a screwed up rich family- Mom is blind, the Son (who strongly resembles Al Pacino in Scarface) keeps his dead wife in his bead, Telly Savalas is the butler, Italian exploitation stalwart Gabriele Tinti is the chauffeur, and everyone seems nuts. Meanwhile, the couple she hitched a ride from are bitter and the wife is screwing around, which isn’t terribly surprising since wives in Italian exploitation films are always screwing around. Before long, of course, people start turning up dead. In one particularly morbid touch, a dead body is too tall to fit in his coffin, so his ankles are broken. For some reason, Mr. Savalas makes dummies of people in the house, which explains what he was doing in the carpenter’s shop earlier in the film.

However, Bava’s film didn’t do very well in Italy and nobody wanted to pick it up in the states. So, the producer added a long subplot in which Sommers’s character is possessed by the Devil and has to undergo an exorcism in the hospital. This is all used as a framing device: she gets possessed while on the class trip, taken to the hospital, and for no clear reason, relates the story of the mansion to the priest who is exorcising her. The possession here is actually more entertaining than the Exorcist: Lisa does acrobatics, delivers lines like “I am the asshole of the world!” (to which someone in the theatre yelled out “That’s Brampton!”) and turns into a hot nude woman (the priest’s dead wife or something) to tempt the exorcist. All of this is a straight up rip off of the Friedkin movie and only gets away with it by also being straight up batshit. Bava, nevertheless, objected to much of this material and walked off the movie, trying to convince Sommers to come with him!

Even more confusing, the mansion story seems to be set in a much earlier decade, giving the impression that Lisa was reincarnated. Really, it makes no sense that she went through that whole ordeal and then went on a class field trip where she was possessed. And who the hell is Telly Savalas playing in this movie: the Devil, a doll maker, a butler, Kojak, or what? Even worse, the revamped version cuts entire sequences out and shuffles others around weirdly. As one moviegoer in the Vagrancy screening put it, when the film returns to the streets of Rome towards the end, “What?! This makes even less sense now!”

It’s all ridiculously confusing and never really makes complete sense- sort of the David Lynch version of the Exorcist. If you go in with no idea that the film is actually a Frankenstein’s monster version of an earlier movie and an entirely different flick, you’ll feel like you’ve been taking drugs when you see it. But, that’s not exactly a bad thing.

Legend of the Psychotic Forest Ranger (2011)

Does the world need another send up of slasher movies, given that so many slasher films post-Scream already have their tongues in their cheeks? Actually, do we need another one after the 1982 send up Student Bodies? Probably not, but it sure helps that this one is fairly amusing and has a good eye for the details of those eighties stalk-and-slash epics that made so many of them so cheesy in the first place. The filmmakers do a good job of picking out bits of dialogue that we’ve heard a million times without notice and giving them a humorous spin. They're also good with little background gags.

The psychotic forest ranger in question is played by Aaron Corbett as one of those guys who takes his job way too seriously. In credits footage, it’s explained that he was studying for the seminary and decided to do God’s work as a forest ranger instead and went missing after a horrible fire. In keeping with the slash film tradition, the back story doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a good character and the filmmakers are already trying to rally support for more psychotic forest ranger films, which one supposes hearkens back to the slasher film convention of franchising the shit out of characters. That got old pretty quickly as I recall.

The nice thing about this flick is that it doesn't hammer you over the head with the jokes; it's a lot more wry than the Not Another ____ Movie school of "Hey! Here's the joke! Look here!" parodies. There were three gags that I liked quite a bit. The first has to do with the characters- the film is about a group of friends heading into the woods to celebrate graduating from high school. We have a jock, his prankster buddy, an uptight and paranoid brunette, and her vain and shallow friend, which is basically the group of friends in all these movies. About halfway through, they run into another group of friends: a jock, his prankster buddy, an uptight girl, and her vain, shallow friend. In the second gag, as their friends go missing, the group comes up with increasingly implausible explanations for what's going on, one of which has to be dramatized because it's so convoluted. Finally, there's a nice running joke in which characters turn off the radio bored right when the newscaster is announcing really pertinent information.

For the downsides, well, I would have enjoyed it if they'd featured some of the rampant and irrelevant-to-the-plot nudity of those slasher flicks; I' m guessing it's harder to get your friends naked on screen in the era of internet screen captures. Also, the gore could have been a bit more plentiful or even semi-realistic without hurting the proceedings. Finally, we all know how I feel about digital video, although of course a film with this low a budget isn't going to have access to film.

As you can imagine, alcohol serves as fuel for these proceedings- the amount of booze you consume beforehand will determine how long you find this funny. I was about half-lit during the Shock Stock screening, so I was laughing almost through the second act and it picked back up in the third. It’s definitely a very amusing homage to slasher flicks and I’m pretty sure fans of the genre will get a kick out of it. I also suspect it will reward repeated viewings.

But, if we’ve learned anything from the Scary Movie series, it’s that you can only return to the well so many times with this stuff. The filmmakers have shown a sure hand with their material on this one and it would be great to see what else they can do. Unfortunately, while the filmmakers have said you can head to their Facebook page (of course) to show support for more psychotic forest ranger films, they haven’t one for, “It was funny once, but now try something different.”

Deathsport (1978)

Yet another in the million or so films from schlockmeister Roger Corman, Deathsport features David Carradine in a loincloth; it actually features other things as well, but mainly you’ll remember David Carradine in a loincloth and bikes blowing up frequently. It’s the future after the apocalypse and the world looks like the deserts outside of California thanks to a nuclear war and the fact that it was cheaper to shoot in the deserts outside of California. The nuclear war and the collapse of all civilization has led to people reverting to the norms of pre-medieval barbarian tribes, which it tends to in these movies, although you’d really think people would try to recreate their own lost society, as opposed to pretending they’re at the Renaissance Faire. Anyway, David Carradine plays Kaz Oshay, son of famed warrior Oshay, and wears a loincloth, which again is a critical point.

Carradine is out romping about in the California deserts when he gets captured by some dudes in white suits on hopped-up dirtbikes. The guys also capture Claudia Jennings, who plays Deneer, member of a nomadic tribe. In the process they also capture the rest of the tribe, but a brat along with them gets captured by some desert mutants, so that’s a subplot as well, although a very small subplot because Allan Arkush probably didn't want to deal with the difficulties of directing a kid.

Claudia Jennings
Anyway, Deenan, Kaz and his loincloth are taken to a walled city, which is ruled over by a dude who’s losing his marbles from radiation poisoning and his goon Ankar Moore, played by Richard Lynch, who is afflicted by the same laryngitis he has in every movie. Realizing that Kaz and Deenan are great warriors, the authorities torture them, using super high-tech devices that mainly involve flashing lights and strings of beads hanging from the ceiling and offer a handy excuse to show Claudia Jennings naked, not that I’m complaining.

When our heroes try to escape, they’re forced to fight in the “Deathsport”, a sort of gladiatorial joust on the “death bikes”, which are those retrofitted dirt bikes- retrofitted for death! Note: There will be no death refunds for anyone arriving after the designated starting death-time. Anyway, they defeat a bunch of death-guys on death-bikes and Lynch sets off the landmines that cause a whole bunch of shit to explode in fireballs, including a number of death-bikes. Corman likes blowing shit up in his movies and, as noted in the documentary Corman's World, he likes using a motorcycle until its trashed and then blowing it up- hard logic to argue with. Unfortunately, you're not gonna get a death refund that way.

Jennings kills the king during her naked torture using only her powers of nudity and Carradine escapes during the Deathsport and they both go on the lam. Lynch probably could take power now and forget about the two of them, but he’s a bit bonkers too and, besides, the movie would be pretty short otherwise.

After that, there are a lot of battles in which the dirt bikes blow up really easily. Clearly they're called "death bikes" (or "destructobikes", I forget) because they blow up really easily. One would imagine it was not a masterstroke of intelligence to send out an army in bikes that explode really easily though. There are some cool Raimi-cam shots taken from the front of the bikes and a battle with clear plexiglass swords that look pretty nifty. Actually, a lot of this movie seems to have been devised with the intention of looking super neat-o cool, which is nice if you're either below the age of 11 or really drunk.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Viva la Muerte (1971)

Viva la Muerte doesn’t seem like such a shocking film when you’re watching it, but afterwards, most of the storyline recedes into the distance of your memory and what’s in the foreground is plenty horrific. A surrealist classic about the deep psychological toll of fascism, Viva La Muerte is more horrific than most of the films discussed here because its terrors are internal as well as external- the film shows how fascism controls the body through state violence, while colonizing the mind along with it. There’s nowhere to escape.

Fando (Mahdi Chaouch) is a young boy whose father was arrested for treason during the Spanish Civil War. The film shows his laconic days with his mother, playing around the house, and finally coming upon information that he cannot quite understand: his mother turned in his father as a traitor, resulting in his execution. The family unit ate itself and the rest of the film depicts the boy’s fantasy world in a shocking and surrealistic style.

Made in 1970 by playwright and Jodorowski collaborator Fernando Arrabal, the film was shot in France standing in for Spain. It’s not exactly an overt attack on the fascists, who only make brief cameos riding around in a jeep playing official announcements: The war is over! Traitors will be rounded up and shot. If necessary, we will kill half the country! Viva la muerte! But the critique is deeper because the little boy’s psychological life is hopelessly corrupted, grim and ultraviolent- like fascism itself.

In a sense, Pan’s Labyrinth told a similar story about the fantasy life of children under Spanish fascism, but Guillermo Del Torro’s film is a bit too taken with its fantasy elements. Fando’s dreams are vulgar and horrific: his father is buried up to his neck in the ground and run over by horses, hooded and dragged, whipped, tied up in a cage and shit on by his wife, and shot by her with a cannon, naked children carry a dead body through the streets, the boy’s piss drowns the city, eyes are gouged out and eaten by a laughing general, a priest is fed his severed testicles, a pagan priestess covers the boy with spaghetti, and other horrors take place. Nuria Espert’s performance is unbelievable here- playing a mother wracked by religious and state-enforced guilt in one part of the film and, conversely, Mother Mary, and a lascivious bitch in the other, she flagellates herself, abuses her child, and in the most shocking scene of the film, rolls around in the blood of a cow killed and butchered on film and sews up a priest in its carcass, while passionately kissing him.

Some of the fantasy scenes are shot in a clearly fantastic style- colored lenses, possibly shot on video, and with children’s music playing. The boy’s burgeoning sexuality seems somehow mingled with death, warped by the world around him. The society seems fixated on pain and punishment and there’s a suggestion that there’s a continuum between the old Pagan rituals, their Catholic replacements, and the norms of Fascism. Everyone in the country seems fixated on suffering and vengeance. It is not a pleasant movie- many unpleasant things happen in the film; but filtering it through the eyes of a child serves to soften the shocks a bit and the surrealist atmosphere helps as well. It’s almost pleasant in places, but it’s lingering images and implications are deeply disturbing.

Sisters of Death (1977)

Man, is this movie boring! It’s also fairly stupid, but it’s not as if that’s stopped me before. In this case, though, I was checking the timer every thirty seconds and trying to resist the urge to fast-forward the whole time. Some people just like punishment.

The story begins promisingly enough: the “Sisters”, a sorority presumably, are initiating two girls into their order with a fake game of “Russian roulette” that goes horribly wrong. This is why most sororities stick to making pledges ingest vast quantities of booze and frat brother jizz. Anyway, the bullets are supposed to be blanks, but one’s a live round, the girl gets an untimely aeration, and that’s that.

Jump forward seven years and the sisters have gone about their lives. Judy (played by exploitation stalwart Claudia Jennings) is a model having an affair with a politician’s son. Sylvia (Cheri Howell) is a prostitute, apparently. Penny (Roxanne Albee) is in a hippie religious cult. Diane is a sluttish hippie. Francie (Sherry Alberoni) is a wacky slut. All of them have received invitations to a seven year reunion. None of these back stories will come up again for the most part.

The reunion is certainly mysterious- two hired dudes show up and drive them to a secluded ranch that seems to be deserted. None of them seem terribly concerned about the totally inexplicable situation in which some stranger, who was clearly not in their sorority, invited them to a secluded ranch to throw them a reunion. Also, none of them have that shooting on their minds. Clearly, the filmmakers either thought that young women are really stupid, or just did not think the plot through; probably the latter.

The two dudes have hung around, hoping to get laid. The girls initially don’t believe their story about sticking around to protect them, because really what could there be to fear in an abandoned ranch where a mysterious stranger has invited you for a party seven years after the group of you killed a girl?

Long story short: Edward Clyburn (Arthur Franz) the father of the dead girl has invited them to el rancho to get revenge. There’s an electric fence around the ranch, blah blah blah. And he just sort of hangs out for the next half hour, playing a flute. Somehow he keeps hiding from the girls, who start dropping like flies. The hippie cultist gets strangled. One of the slutty ones gets stabbed. This also makes little to no sense because Clybourne is supposed to be trying to suss out the killer and her accomplice from the group, but killing off the girls doesn’t exactly help with that.

The movie has its moments, such as when one of the dudes brilliantly runs into the electric fence. There's also an inadvertently hilarious scene in which two girls argue over one taking a shower. “Francie, I really don’t think you should take a shower!”

“Cleanliness is next to godliness, right? So I figure, if I’m next to Him, Clybourne won’t get next to me!” She gets stabbed with a pair of scissors, thankfully.

One could maybe see where this could be suspenseful, but the direction is lackluster and the script leaves open vast expanses of nothing in particular happening. Also, the girls are so stupid it’s hard to care if they get killed. If you’re wondering (of course you are) there’s no nudity and the gore is minimal and more like ordinary effects than special effects. There was a surprise ending that actually was a surprise, but only because everything that went before was so unsurprising.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Satan's Slave (1976)

A Norman J. Warren movie that is considerably more coherent, if a bit less loopy than Terror, Satan's Slave (a.k.a. "Evil Heritage") tells the mildly horrifying story of an old English estate where there are Satanic shenanigans going on.

We begin with a Satanic ritual going on, complete with a nude girl on an altar, a dude in a goat's head mask, and the promise of reincarnating a dead witch. Then, we're suddenly taken to a country estate, where an American cutie is being wooed by an English-type fellow, who suddenly turns into the Second Earl of Rapesbury and tries to have his way with her before smashing her head in a door. Yipes!

And now we're in a flat with the lovely Catherine (Candace Glendenning) and her boyfriend lying in bed. For the count, we've now seen three nude women in less than ten minutes. Not that I'm counting, of course. But she's cute. And young Catherine is leaving with her mum and dad to go visit her Uncle and cousin who she's never met, right around the same time as her birthday, and she's having weird premonitions about it- none of this should be seen as foreshadowing!

We expect the trip to go poorly and indeed it does as dad gets a sudden pain in the head that causes him to drive the car into a tree. As Catherine runs for help, the car explodes and she basically sees her parents burn to death. The Uncle Alexander (played with real aplomb by Michael Gough, who was Alfred in the Tim Burton Batman films) and her cousin Stephen (Martin Potter), who we've already seen smash the noodle of a bird he was trying to rape, along with Stephen's long-suffering wife (Barbara Kellerman), take Catherine in and try to get her to relax. Of course, seeing your parents burn to death before your eyes can be troubling, but no harm, no foul after all.

Unfortunately, our little drama queen starts having nightmares about naked witches being whipped by priests and naked girls on altars being fucked with crucifixes (okay, sexy nightmares), and starts thinking that all of this might have something to do with the deceased witch Camilla, to whom she is related. Some of this might sound familiar from Vertigo and the Blood Splattered Bride.

At any rate, the plot thickens as Catherine and Stephen, the Lord Douchemere, start doing the old rumpy pumpy and she develops feelings for him. She wants him to leave for London with her, in spite of there being no obvious chemistry between them, or between him and human beings. Also, there's her boyfriend back home, but luckily he's walked off a roof and gone splat unbeknownst to Catherine. Nevertheless, this is all clearly leading to a Satanic ritual climax of some sort, and it's not clear that she will realize this before it's all too late.

Warren does a good job of holding this all together, whilst indulging in his taste for graphic bloodletting and female nudity. It's not a particularly fast-paced movie and the midsection drags considerably, but there are a few creepy scenes and a nice twist ending. Since it's available in a Crown International boxset containing twelve movies for about six dollars, it's well worth picking up.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sugar Hill (1974)

Holy shit! This is the 100th review on Rufus's House of Horrors!

Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, Sugar Hill is a highly memorable soul cinema take on the zombie genre with a pretty unbeatable premise: the mob killed her man, so she sent zombie hitmen after them! I'd been waiting to see this one for years, having owned the poster for over a decade. Finally, I got my dirty little hands on a bootleg edition (I know, I know, but I've yet to come across an official DVD release) and it did not disappoint, much.

The film begins with a fairly authentic-looking voodoo ceremony scored to a decent soul number entitled "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" with the haunting refrain, "She do voodoo on you!" The dance is being performed at a bar down somewhere in the Bayou. It's not exactly the Copacabana, but for some reason a bigwig named Mr. Morgan wants to buy it and has sent his goons in fairly outrageous suits to rough up the owner Langston. We can tell that Langston is a tough customer, in spite of his glitter tuxedo, and we can also tell he's in love with his woman Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marki Bey), who is pretty much from the Pam Grier school of Blacksploitation foxy mamas.

Sadly, she's not great at conveying sorrow as we soon discover when Langston runs afoul of the goons. Proving that their violence extends past the color schemes of their suits, they jump Langston in the parking lot and beat him to death. Sugar finds her man and emotes terribly. But, she's got more than bad emoting in mind- she wants revenge, which she gives away through foreshadowing dialogue to her ex-lover and current detective Valentine stating her desire to "watch them each die one by one, slowly."

What sort of revenge? you ask. Shit, you should have listened to the theme song! Sugar goes to the old voodoo woman Mama Maitresse, who conveniently lives in her family's run down mansion and calls for some voodoo helping. Mama asks Sugar the pertinent question, "How strong is your hate?" to which she replies, "As strong as my love was, my hate is stronger" and we're ready to go. Before you can say, "she do voodoo on you," Mama's conjured up the voodoo god (yeah, I don't know) Baron Samedi (which sounds an awful lot like... oh, crap!) and his zombie army, who all have grey skin and cool silver eyes and look like badass robots. Naturally, Sugar promises her soul in exchange for the zombies killing her enemies.

The Baron is played by Don Pedro Colley in top hat and tails and with a scenery-chewing sense of delight. The silver zombies are a cool bit of design, although they seem to be constantly covered in cobwebs, which is a bit distracting. Bey does a fairly good job in the title role; she's better at playing angry and badass than howling in despair. As is the norm in these movies, she sets about administering vengeance to the honkey jive ass crackers.

Morgan, the head cracker, drinks liquor and calls his underlings horrible things like "pigeon head". His racist trophy wife Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) hates Sugar and takes part in a hot girl fight with her that seems to have no bearing on the rest of the plot. I've never entirely understood why karate was so central to the blacksploitation genre, but, hey, who's complaining? The storyline is pretty much summed up by the poster- the mob took her man and now she's getting revenge with her zombie hitmen. Trust me- you know what you're getting with this one and Paul Maslansky's direction is fairly unobtrusive. There's little gore and no nudity, which is a pisser. It's one of the few 70s PG movies where the rating doesn't seem too far off.

But, you know, that's not much of a gripe. It's really hard to really dislike a movie with soul music, at least three actors taking part in a scenery-chewing competition, and a scene in which a mobster is menaced by a floating severed chicken foot. I'll keep the poster.