Monday, December 20, 2010

What's Black and White and Blood Red All Over?

Natalie Portman in Black Swan, of course! I scurried down to Chicago last weekend just as the film was opening in Grand Rapids, only to drop in on Landmark Century the first chance I got and see what I'd been missing. How fortunate that I had the weekend away from my computer, thus rendering me unable to speak too hastily, because amidst such fervor (and this film has whipped up a bona fide typhoon of fervor) it can only be healthy to step aside and speak with a little clarity.

So we all know where I stand, I loved this. It was rapturous, which is something so few movies aspire to be (perhaps a good thing, I don't know), and the sheer tenacity of the performances, of the direction, of the cinematography, it made for a furious onslaught of passion and horror the likes of which aren't to be found in any corner of cinema. It is the most obvious of films. The colors and symbolism scream at you, the dialogue brings every thought to a roaring boil, and the credits assure you that all this is according to plan, as it casts the players in both character names and their balletgorical alter-egos. But great cinema has never held fast to the sober line of subtlety. Must I innumerate the countless films built on overarching themes and broadly sketched archetypes. From Greed, to The Seven Samurai, to Network, to There Will Be Blood and oh yeah, the granddaddy of all ballet films, The Red Shoes, movies have long carried the torch of mythic storytelling, where characters at their core embody ideas, and the whole plot unfolds on the field of the impossible. Black Swan knows this game, and Aronofsky is playing on steroids.

I will come back to Aronofsky - he's the off-screen partner in this mad-minuet - but the star here is Natalie Portman, and not even the blood-drenched cinematic cacophony of the proceedings can cut down her impact. It's a fearless performance, and one that caught me entirely unaware, because nowhere (even amid the marvelous ensemble of Closer) has Portman indicated she was capable of this. She is born into the film from a world of dreams concocted in the comfort of her bed, and over the course of two hours plumbs the depths to the point where the dreams become nightmares become reality, only to confine her once more to a mattress not unlike the one she woke up on. Her character, Nina Sayers, is the model of self-destructive passion, but also of rebellion and paranoia, and her fall from grace is so damn unnerving because Aronofsky would seem to have built everything around Portman's wholly organic performance.

There are other players of course, and to their credit they re never shamed by the virtuoso lead, but rather succeed quite magnificently in their supporting capacity. My second favorite performance was Vincent Cassel, playing the Boris Lermontov to Portman's Victoria Page, and if he's no Anton Walbrok, he can be forgiven. His impresario, Thomas Leroy, both terrifies and beguiles Nina not by stifling her, but by dragging her out of the womb she so adamantly refuses to leave behind. Mila Kunis, who I harbored doubts on since her snippets in the trailer, turns out to be a revelation, and I hope this is a sign of great things to come. Barbara Hershey is terrifying as the most smothering of mothers and between her and Winona Ryder's limited appearance as a ballerina in the twilight of her career, they ignite a powerful fear within Nina, the doom to eventually fade away as they have unless she can somehow break the cycle. And in the final 15 minutes, she breaks it spectacularly.

There's also the stark cinematography, steeped in mirror images and conducted by the gifted Matthew Libatique; and the gloriously Grand Guignol art direction, where hues light, dark and sanguine battle it out for prominence; and Clint Mansell's masterful accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's flawless composition. All come together under Aronofsky's maverick orchestration. Here is a film of profound assurance, one that bucks its head at those predisposed to dismiss entrenchment in the body genres and through niether fearing nor analyzing the cliche, carries these conventions into uncharted territory, insane though it bloody well is. It is in many ways the opposite of Inception, a film that wants so badly to be daring, but is ultimately too concerned with offending the casual movie-goer that it settles for something less. Black Swan doesn't give a damn if you love it or hate it, and it's reputation I suspect will thrive for decades off such passionate debate. There's another film like this, one that I'm on the hate it side of the debate, but for that reason can all the more appreciate its status as a sacred object; it's called 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Damn, I just stumbled into hyperbole, didn't I? No, I don't mean to suggest that Black Swan belongs among the pantheon of all time great movies. Even if it did, I would need several more viewings and a few years in between before making such a brazen statement. But it is very good, insanely good, scarily good, and it's a rare fusion of explosive performance and visionary direction that set it well apart from the rest of the year's output, for better or for worse. Cassel explains to Portman within the film that perfection comes not from treading safely and knowing all the right moves, but from also from instability, from spontaneity. This is Black Swan's own brand of perfection; it trips in places, but gets back up with increased vigor, and as it bounds forward toward its exhilarating climax it does achieve a kind of transcendence, at least for those still on board.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Film Review: Micmacs

Business ought to be booming around here with end of the year releases opening left and right, but that's precisely the problem; left, right and not middle America. Grand Rapids has yet to see the likes of Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, etc.

Somehow though, it did manage to pull in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's little-buzzed latest, Micmacs, so I assuaged my lack of awards contenders with this unexpected release, which certainly seems like a blip on radar's everywhere, because I've seen as many reviews for this as I've seen West Michiganders clamoring for Rabbit Hole or Blue Valentine. For those living elsewhere, that number is nil.

Micmacs is a Jeunet film, no bones about it. It is unfortunately a little more City of Lost Children than Amelie, but without the freaky nightmare-scapes, and would have benefited from a stronger central character like his more recent films can boast. As Bazil, a hapless video store clerk with a bullet in his brain, Danny Boon isn't entirely uninteresting, but he lacks the luminescence of Audrey Tautou and the brilliant mugging of Dominique Pinon that carry his best films to success (yes, perpetual player Pinon is in them all, but more of him is never a bad thing). Bazil has at his back a flock of misfits, sort of like Team Inception but with less prized skills, and they're all just as charming as they are haphazardly existing together. As the one-time record breaking human cannonball, Pinon is the best of the bunch, but Omar Sy's wisdom spouting Congolese translator(?) fits Jeunet's wacky world to a tee.

It's a fun and rather frivolous group, but the real juice of the movie comes from their persistent attempts to take down two powerful arms dealers, played to comic perfection by André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié. Both play their parts with a prickly brand of evil and since they're very much the twin specters hanging over the film, they also come away with the most fleshed out characters.

So Jeunet is back after a few years off since the wonderful A Very Long Engagement, and while this one wasn't quite up to snuff with his best, it's nice to see such a visionary mind at work. His affection for silent cinema and physical comedy doesn't go unappreciated by me, and few directors today are as daring and inventive with the camera as he is. Needless to say, if you're not already a fan of his, this will not a convert make. I thankfully am, and so it was nice to see something a bit out of the usual box play here in GR.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The 800 Club

There's nothing like a movie-watching milestone to add a little context to your obsession. Last night after watching John Ford's often overlooked Western Rio Grande, I opened my trusty Excel sheet and checked off my 800th movie from the list of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. Today, I think that calls for a moment of reflection. The list exists in a big red volume that to date has seven editions, the one I'm working from being the oldest (I believe). Mine ends with Kill Bill Vol. 1, whereas the current one ends with Paranormal Activity (automatically invalidating it, no?). I would guess that I've actually seen 800+ from the updated version, given how top heavy it is, but I'll fill in my later gaps in due time. You can find this year's incarnation here.

Here's my abbreviated history with this list. Four years and several months ago, I was just starting film courses at Michigan State, just starting to post at Culturish, and just starting my dependency on netflix. To navigate these far-reaching corners of the entertainment world, I needed something to lean on, and this list became my crutch. It got me through the classics, it introduced me to countless favorite directors, and it certainly had a hand in making me the freakishly star-eyed cinephile I am today. In September 2006, I had seen 119 films from this big red bible. If you do the math, between then and now, that amounts to a metric-fuckton.

My point - that I can't recommend this list enough. Sure, it's far from perfect, and if you're looking for a more accurate assessment of greatest films of all time, then I recommend swinging by They Shoot Pictures, but everything you need to open your eyes to the frickin' possibilities of movies is right here. Some of the recent additions aside (forgivable, because it takes at least a decade to begin seeing films in context) this is a tremendously well balanced list. It places blockbusters alongside arthouse alongside avant garde and generally finds sterling examples from all camps concerned. It doesn't omit any classics, which are the entries I gravitated toward for the first few years, and from there offers recommendations spanning more decades, countries and film movements than you're likely to find on any other list.

Ther lion's share of my favorite films appear here, but not all, which isn't much a point of contention since I often first became aware of the directors thanks to the list. The Scarlet Empress doesn't make an appearance, but Blue Angel and Shanghai Express are, and those movies undoubtedly ignited my von Sternberg obsession. Mulholland Dr. got bumped from a recent edition, but I suspect it will return, as it's finally settling in as the definitive David Lynch film.

So he list is the perfect way to expand your cinematic horizons, a gateway drug to greater things, from the fairytale decadence of Jean Cocteau films, to the dark visions to Kenneth Anger, to everything you need to ride the Czech and Iranian new waves. I've been sprinting lately toward that magical 800 number, but hell, I don't even look at the list much these days because it did such a damn good job of opening my eyes to what's out there. I suspect that it will take some time to polish off the last 201, partly for availability, but mostly because my interests now are positively sprawling. That's all I could have asked for. At the end of the day, I can complain about what they added or what they left off, but I wouldn't feel entitled to had I not sat through the hundreds of fantastic recommendations the list does make.

Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 Horror Awards

30 titles taken down almost painlessly (Jacob's Ladder, Female Vampire, I'm looking at you), which means it's pointless awards time here at The Library of Babel. Last year's winner was Antonia Bird's cannibal soiree Ravenous and favorites predating these awards were Deep Red, Repulsion, and Eyes Without a Face. I will say that this was an excellent crop of horror, but I'll spare any more commentary and leave you with the nominations/winners/and other assorted titles.

Best Male Performance
John Amplas - Martin
Runner Up: Andrew Keir - Quatermass and the Pit

Best Female Performance
Deborah Kerr - The Innocents
Runner Up: Julie Harris - The Haunting

Best Creature
The Demon - Night of the Demon

Best Villain
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu - The Vanishing

Best Lesbian Vampire Movie
The Vampire Lovers

Best Evil Child
The Unborn Baby - Who Can Kill a Child

And now for some nominees...

Best Director
Roy Ward Baker - The Vampire Lovers
Nobuhiko Obayashi - House
Ji-woon Kim - A Tale of Two Sisters
Guy Maddin - Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary
Roman Polanski - The Fearless Vampire Killers

And the winner is...
Roman Polanski - The Fearless Vampire Killers

Best Death
Death by piano! - House
That's what you get when you try to drown weird kids who make friends with prepubescent vampires - Let the Right One In
Hungarian Colonel Sanders finishes things at last - Martin
Karswell that ends well - Night of the Demon
The kids that get clubbed with the boat paddle - Who Can Kill a Child?

And the winner is...
Death by piano - House

Scariest Moment
Amy cornered beneath the funhouse - The Funhouse
Theo and Eleanor trapped in the bedroom - The Haunting
The final Scene - The House With Laughing Windows
Girl spends the night in the ruins - Tombs of the Blind Dead
Rex finds out Saskia's fate - The Vanishing

And the winner is...
Theo and Eleanor trapped in the bedroom - The Haunting

The Final Countdown!
10. Night of the Demon

9. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

8. The Grapes of Death

7. A Tale of Two Sisters

6. Who Can Kill a Child?

5. The Vampire Lovers

4. Lizard in a Woman's Skin

3. The Fearless Vampire Killers

2. House

1. The Haunting

It's In The Trees! It's Coming!

And so October ended, and all total, I had caught up with 30 horror films, just one shy of my goal of one per day. So the extra titles in my netflix cue (that means you, Blair Witch Project) and those backed up on my shelf at home (The Terror, Jingoku) will have to go into time out for a while, because I'm just a bit tired of all the creatures and curses and killers and even, yes, even the lesbian vampires.

But not so tired that I can't wrap up the month with my final four reviews, with the rundown followed by my second annual horror awards. This last batch was probably the most varied featuring a 50s B-movie classic, a tense Danish thriller, a Hammer vampire film, and hands down one of the most brilliantly bizarre movies I've ever seen. I'll go in that order.

Night of the Demon (Jacques Tournier, 1957)
So that's where the audio sample that kicks off "Hounds of Love" comes from. Bonus points for being referenced in one of my favorite songs, not to mention the perfectly calibrated restraint that keeps this film so damn creepy. I've always liked Tournier as a director - he knows how to accomplish a lot with a little - and this is his finest I've seen so far. The demon itself, glimpsed only briefly in the opening scene, is terrifying, and we never linger on him long enough for the meager budget to show its seams. The threat remains very real, especially in the scene where Dana Andrews flees for his life through the woods, pursued by the pulsing ball of light that we know materializes as the monster. And there's Peggy Cummins too, not in a role as wonderful as hers in Gun Crazy, but it was still nice to see her again.

The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)
It's only in the final act that The Vanishing becomes a horror film, but horrifying it absolutely is, even if the surprise at the end of the line has been beaten to death lately. Which isn't to say it was the first film to go there (and yes, I'm probably being needlessly evasive) - hell, I was immediately reminded of Poe's The Cask of Amontillado - but for all the mounting mystery surrounding Rex's missing girlfriend, the grim answer he foolishly seeks is surprisingly worth the buildup. It all succeeds because of Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, whose calculating killer Raymond Lemorne belongs on lists of great cinematic villains. Unsettling, but not particularly threatening to look at, he bottles a deranged psyche that gets explored on a level most murders aren't allowed. More fascinating still, he's a formidable foe when facing down Rex, but we see Raymond hard at work sharpening his wits, learning through his failures how to pull of the perfect abduction. Oddly, the unknown we fear is not Raymond himself, but the fate of his victim, Rex's girlfriend Saskia. This question drives the entire film, a masterpiece of suspense that I suppose even Hitchcock would have admired.

The Kiss of the Vampire (Don Sharp, 1963)
The third and final Hammer film on my roster may not have quite had the bite of the first two (The Vampire Lovers and Quatermass and the Pit) but it does nicely support their reputation for doing vampire movies better than just about anyone. There's no Christopher Lee her, nor Peter Cushing, but the cast all turn in decent performances and the Gothic overload of the sets and costumes is enough to keep things interesting. There's also a vampire ball, not as splendid as Roman Polanski's staging, but still, vampire's dancing - who can resist? And that picture, none other than our hero, sporting the latest in devil masque fashion and getting soused at the ball, probably because vampire's are very cliquish and left him on the sidelines. It doesn't bring anything new to the vampireverse, but I liked it plenty and will definitely have more Hammer queued up next year.

House (Nobuhiko Habayashi, 1977)
Seven bouncy young schoolgirls spend the night in a haunted house and are picked off one by one by mysterious forces. House is an oddly conventional plot disguised in a film that is essentially Wonderland on acid, complete with a fiendish cat that signals impending doom. It's some amalgam of storybook sets, off-the-wall editing tricks and scatterbrained anime, and the film runs the course from Looney Tunes antics to goofy melodrama to musical interludes to legitimate horror. It belies definition, surely easy to dismiss from American eyes, but my God, what manic fun this was, one of the few films that ever felt really delivers on the "a little bit of everything" motto. Seriously, there's some killer kung-fu here, and drop-dead gorgeous visuals (haunting though they often are), and one unlucky girl being consumed at great length by a vicious piano. Moreso, somewhere in all this there are actual moments of poignancy, which escape mawkishness thanks to the schizophrenic nature of the rest of the film. It aught to be a big ol' mess, but it's not nearly, probably because it's at least consistent in its craziness. Great film or not, that's hard to pull off.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Death By Lizard-Women, Blood Thirsty Teens and Psychic Insects From Mars

It's been another memorable week in October as the horror hits keep coming (but not without a disappointment too). On the slate was a horror/sci-fi classic, an under-seen vamp flick from the king of zombie movies, a hallucinatory PTSD thriller, a giallo and the haunted house film to end all haunted house films. Also, there was a little bit of vampiric lesbianism. Just a little bit.

Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
I've been slacking on my classic universal monsters this year, and this one came highly recommended so I decided to give it a whirl. It attempts to pickup right where Dracula leaves off, which makes plenty of sense although it comes off a bit hokey when they treat the Count's body as an important prop without ever showing it. A stronger film would have shed these heavy ties to the original and gotten going that much quicker (especially considering it's barely over an hour as it is). But once Dracula's daughter takes over, the pace picks up and we get a few memorably creepy set pieces, the strongest being when she seduces a young model in her studio. It could have used a bit more substance, but I liked it, and it was a welcome break from the more obvious scares of the post-60s horror films I've otherwise been binging on.

Martin (George Romero, 1977)
Another vampire flick, and a very cool one if I do say so myself. This has (understandably) slipped under the radar thanks to Romero's famous zombie films, but it's just as good and at times, I thought, even better. Martin is a teenage (not really, not even close) who is in fact a vampire, despite the lack of fangs, distaste for garlic and daylight allergies. He goes to live with his uncle (actually cousin), who for the sake of this I will call Hungarian Colonel Sanders, but their arrangement isn't ideal because Martin wants to be free to drink all the pretty girl's blood and Hungarian Colonel Sanders wants to drive a stake through his heart. Which is to say, this was a blast. Best of all was the ridiculously intense break-in scene halfway through, where Martin stealth maneuvers through a house and brings down a shrieking girl and her meathead boyfriend. Yet another great vampire film from this October's batch.

Jacob's Ladder (Adrien Lynne, 1990)
Adrien Lynne is a schlock director trapped in a Hollywood budget and it turns out that makes for some truly abysmal movies. This is especially true of Fatal Attraction (there are few films I hate more than Fatal Attraction) and it remains true for Jacob's Ladder. Let's not blame the acting. Tim Robbins, who I like far more than my opinions of his movies would show, does what he can here, but the script is just a series of cheap shocks and plot twists piled onto a story that is simple, but frankly, dumb. There's not a worse twist than "It was all a dream" (although M. Night will no doubt find one sooner or later) and so its especially migraine inducing when this happens multiple times here. Which of course overrides basically everything else that happens, not that it will stop me complaining about it. It takes my least favorite horror film convention - no one believes the main character who must try to convince the world what happened - and draws it out ad nauseum. It also loses any scary edge the hallucinations might have had because the film feels too polished. For all I know, this would have been palatable on a lower budget, but not here. This is Hollywood at its worst. Also, once you know how they came up with the title, it becomes amazingly lame.

Quatermass and the Pitt (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
Another terrific Hammer horror film from the late Roy Ward Baker. The budget is low, but the direction is seamless and the acting never veers into camp. An ancient (otherworldly) evil is unearthed in the London subway and scientists and military men clash over the proper handling of the bizarre spacecraft they discover. It's got Julian Glover as the villain, which is always a good sign, and Andrew Keir brings the perfect measures of wonder and outrage to the titular Professor Quatermass. Some of the props are what you'd expect from low-budget horror (the insect creatures especially) but others, like the horrifying devil projection in the sky, are very well done and sent a good number of shivers down my spine. I also loved the abrupt ending. The shot held over the closing credits is restrained, but such a perfect cap to the film.

Lizard In a Woman's Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1971)
Perhaps the best giallo I've come across (ok, except for Deep Red), which I would consider high praise even if others would not. There's no lizard here, just a serial killer and a whole lot of hallucinatory drugs. The later lead to some extraordinary dream sequences that we're among the highlights of the film, although so was the lengthy chase through the bizarre mega-church or wherever she found herself in before stupidly stranding herself on the roof. Lucky for her, guardian angels carry sniper rifles and she escapes with a minor stabbing. My, that was a cryptic rambling, but it's kind of a cryptic, rambling film, and I kinda loved it.

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
It comes so so close to being a total masterpiece that I'm just going to get the bad out of the way upfront and then start singing praises. Robert Wise is far from a great director and he clearly doesn't trust his audiences enough, which is why he saddles Julie Harris's otherwise pitch-perfect Eleanor with obnoxious internal voice-over at every turn, spelling out the thoughts she already (as Claire Bloom plainly puts it) wears on her sleeve. It's a blunder that I was quite miffed about as I was watching, but have since settled down over, because honestly, there's so much good going on here (which Wise deserves heaps of credit for) that I honestly can't stay mad.

The Haunting is the haunted house film if there ever was one. It doesn't need to kill characters to build momentum nor do ghosts or monsters ever need to pop out of the shadows. There's nothing, essentially, to see - and that's absolutely terrifying. Acting from the four principles is strong, and each builds an interesting relationship with the others, although Russ Tamblyn never really connects as much as he could have. But the show belongs to Harris and Wise's ghosts behind the scene. In Eleanor's most intense moments, the camera closes in, quick and throbbing so that you don't dare blink, and her feeling that the house is closing in around her becomes mutual. Doorknobs turn, noises sound off and the walls seem to breath fast and heavy. It's a very disorienting film and despite spending nearly the entire film trapped within the house, we never quite get out bearings. And I love gothic mansions, haunted or not, so imagine my sheer marvel at this one. Yeah, my quibbles seem more and more insignificant when I think back.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Never Let Me Go

OK, I'm putting the brakes on this horror marathon to cycle through my thoughts on the film I saw last night, which judging from the lack of buzz this is creating, could seriously use a cheerleader right now. The film is Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, and currently the most unexpectedly devastating movie of the year. And if I'm going to discuss this at length (and that is the plan), it's going to be impossible to stave off spoilers for too long. You get one more paragraph, which hopefully will be enough to convince you to see this film.

You may have seen the posters - two young friends (lovers, in a way) running down a bleak pier - a pretty if uninspiring sight, and hardly a hint as to what the film is about. Nor should it be. That Never Let Me Go becomes something more than a love story set against the backdrop of dreary British vistas is best discovered when the movie means you too, roughly 1/3 of the way through the storyline. Even before this staggering revelation, a cloud hangs over the film. It never goes away. We follow three main characters, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, from boarding school into adulthood, and by the time the child actors of the first segment of the film have been succeeded by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightly, we both know and feel deeply for them. The performances are exquisite, weathering the unrelenting storm of the film with measured bits of optimism and joy. Mulligan, for the second year running, gives one of the year's best performances, and both Knightly and Garfield would also find their way into the Oscar race if there was any justice (alas, there won't be). But the film is heartbreaking, and I mean that in the deadly serious Dancer in the Dark/Grave of the Fireflies sense of the word, so approach looking to have the sunshine sucked out of your day. If that sits alright with you, then get to the theater and watch one of the best films of the year.

So what's going on? (spoilers, they start now) Well, although slyly masquerading as a story of young, fragile love, Never Let Me Go is actually science fiction, and honestly one of the best forays into the genre that's come out in recent years. The characters are clones, raised in seclusion from the rest of society at a boarding school and groomed into safe, healthy adults who's destiny in life is to act as organ donors for a society flourishing thanks to medical advances. In withholding this back story at first, the film (as well as the source material) gives viewers the chance to see these students as humans first and foremost, a distinction which they find themselves fighting against all their lives. That is, apparently, how the rest of society can sleep at night, convinced that these donors are somehow lesser creatures, and even as they resist such, they're weighed down by the worst inferiority complexes imaginable.

Never Let Me Go then becomes about courage in the face of impending death, which comes after two, three, sometimes four transplants leave you unable to carry on. It's honestly more horrifying than any film I've watched this month, because instead of making light of death, it forces you to contemplate it, and there's not much scarier than that. Presented as an alternate history, it also raises the idea of an alternate humanity. From childhood on, these donors are raised on different ideals, and even as they leave school and mature together, their actions and decisions (and lack thereof) are informed by what they've been taught humanity is. The performances bear testament to this, never more so than when the characters make a foray into the real world, visiting a diner and wandering the streets. If they're vaguely sheeplike, it can be blamed on years of isolation from the rest of society, and left to wander in a world where everyone is supposedly different from them, it's no surprise that they cluster together.

And yet after everything else, it's still about love, an eternal kind that Kathy and Tommy seem to experience, and that underscores more than anything their humanity. There's a chilling moment near the end, where nearly 20 years after their days at school, Kathy and Tommy see their old headmistress again. Although now wheelchair bound, she looks no different from how they knew her long ago, surely to the credit of these medical advances. And yet Tommy is visibly weary from two transplants, and Kathy carries a debilitating cynicism with her. They're closer to the grave than the old headmistress is, and they all know it. It's not about morality. We see too little of the other side of society for any cost/benefits analysis to be made. But we do believe in their humanity, there's little question of that, and the muted yellow screen that closes the film gives us a final time for reflection on our own.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Infected Porn Stars, Vampire Bowie, and Zombies in France

Back again with a delicious update filled with poisoned zombie wine, strangers with candy, strangers with rabies and still movie lesbian vampires. This is the party that never ends.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Ji-woon Kim, 2003)

A spellbinding film that unfolds almost entirely in the confines of an old house, where two young girls take on an evil stepmother and other mysterious forces. The detailed exploration of the house makes for a very contained feel, one that serves the insulated narrative well. There’s some shocking and brutal moments and a whole lot of mounting dread, and in a particularly anemic decade for horror, this one does leave an impression. The only trouble, and I plan to address this on further viewings, is that things get confusing, really confusing, near the end. But if I’m left to sorting out the details on my own, I still prefer that to have everything neatly spelled out. Curiousier and curiouser this one is, and plenty creepy too.

The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin, 1978)

If the French have one weakness, it’s for wine, which is why this film about contaminated grape juice turning all merrymakers into zombies must have brought the entire country to its knees (should’ve thought of that, Germany, huh?). A bit too episodic to feel definitive, it’s still a killer entry into the zombie genre with a glorious ending that I saw coming, but couldn’t wait for. The final moments are particularly chilling, where the gorgeous photography is at its eeriest. And as for French zombies, they aren’t especially frightening, but they do have a feral taste for female flesh, which usually happens after they stare longingly for some time as puss oozes down their forehead. It must be a European thing.

Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)

Leave it to David Cronenberg to craft one of the great outbreak films. Everything begins when experimental surgery following a motorcycle accident leaves Marilyn Chambers (in a rare, non-pornographic role) thirsty for blood. She begins ravaging the countryside, zombiefying the decent folk of Canada, culminating in Montreal being locked down under marshal law. Cronenberg’s film lacks a strong central narrative, but it thrives on downward spiral of Chamber’s character, the ripple effect of her feedings being felt far and wide. Bleak and depressing, Rabid offers few moments of relief, although there is some comfort in knowing this is a Canadian affliction, and they can just wait and see what happens when they try to cross the border.

Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)

It’s been some time since I’ve seen The Ring, but I do remember liking it, though how much my crush on Naomi Watts played into that I can’t be sure. But if memory serves, this original classic wasn’t bastardized too badly, and if Naomi is nowhere to be found, her predecessor Nanako Matsushima is equally strong, plus there’s the perpetually pensive Hiroyuki Sanada tagging along as her ex-husband. I appreciated how readily it embraced the supernatural, and unlike so many horror films, valuable time is not spent telling the main character she must be crazy. Basically, spooky shit is happening here and everyone knows it. Furthermore, we’re spared all the false alarms and cheap shots that have become genre staples lately, which alone is enough to garner my respect. A damn fine piece of J-Horror.

Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1991)

Candyman aspires to be something greater than it ultimately is. It’s one of the few horror films I can think of that actually has a thesis, that urban myths are dynamic things and adapt to whatever environment they’re carried to, but like The Dark Knight, there is danger in demanding to be taken too seriously, and Candyman loses track of its point for too long, even if it does wrap things up nicely at the end (and like The Dark Knight, it feels the need to declare its thesis, here embarrassingly in the form of a graduate thesis). But contrary to my ramblings above, there’s a lot here that does work. The bird’s-eye panoramas and the pulsating Phillip Glass score evoke Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, a nice touch that highlights the power myths have to connect across society. There’s also black Captain Hook, the Candyman himself, who makes for a decent urban legend – his successor at the end, not so much – and all in all, it is nice to see a mainstream horror film aiming high, even if it doesn’t quite deliver.

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)

Tony Scott directed this? I’ve got a new respect for him. The film is dark, stylish and raw, an impressive feat of direction for someone who, like his vampires, has not improved with age. Well, he went a bit overboard on the doves, but it was in the harmlessly hokey John Woo kinda way. Honestly, what could go wrong with a lesbian vampire movie starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve? Oh, right, Susan Sarandon, horribly miscast and utterly lacking in the allure that the role demands. It’s a paltry complaint, but it does weigh on the second half of this otherwise refreshing take on the vampire movie.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Quick Bites

A mini-update. I have five more films in the can, and probably will add another tonight, but time is short, and I'm sneaking in two reviews.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
I stand aghast at how underrated this film is. Sandwiched in Polanski's canon between Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, two of the greatest horror films of all, it must be easy to dismiss this. But if The Fearless Vampire Killers isn't exactly scary, it just might be the definitive horror comedy - spoken with all reverence to Young Frankenstein, Gremlins and Shaun of the Dead. Jack MacGowran and Polanski himself comprise the titular duo scouring wintry Transylvania for fanged foes. It's a comic match made in heaven, hitting some hilarious highs with MacGowran's Professor getting stuck in the castle window, and their short-lived undercover stint at the vampire ball. There's also Sharon Tate, staggeringly beautiful and perfectly at home in Polanski's goth-comic wonderland. The movie is one hilarious set piece after another and surely ranks among the great vampire films, and I will forever more devote myself to spreading the word on this one.

Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)
Despite a helluva buildup and the terrifically terrifying scene in mannequin land pictured below, this was a bit of a let down. The opening half an hour is masterful, with a Pandora's Box type feel as a woman forsakes her travel companions and ventures into an abandoned settlement on her own, unwittingly disturbing the undead Knights Templar hanging about the ruins. But the suspense gets squashed as soon as these mummified creatures make an entrance. The downfall of low budget horror is showing too much, and the unseen threat of these guys was more horrifying than the reality. Alas, not all that it could have been, but well worth a look, especially for devotees of 70s foreign horror.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Female Vampire and other kid-friendly horror films

It's been all vampire lesbos and demon children for me this week, as I hit new highs (and uncontested lows) of Horrorfest 2010.

Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988)
Although it's not exactly terrifying, I'd still file this under horror. It's an exceptionally inventive tale of a young girl who creates a simple fantasy world from pencil and paper, and gradually begins interacting in her hand-drawn world. Things take a sinister turn when she pencils in a menacing father-figure and both her and the boy living in the drawing find themselves in danger. Gorgeous art direction makes her fantasy world all the most unsettling, and much of the suspense comes from never knowing what could lurk behind the corner. It was dark in places, but also warm and sentimental - a bit more than I usually go for, but the sheer imagination behind it made up for that.

Female Vampire (Jesus Franco, 1973)
Franco is not known for his wholesome filmography, but I (perhaps unfairly) expected a little plot to go along with the flesh. In fact, this is essentially just a medium-core porn flick masquerading as a vampire movie (she wears a cape, I guess) and not a particularly engaging one at that. I'll chalk it up to Franco, who seems perfectly content splashing around in the trashy erotica pool, which is a shame since great films and lesbian vampires are not mutually exclusive, as I will get to shortly. To be fair, his only other film I've seen was Vampire Lesbos, another disappointment, and I haven't given up just yet. But things are not looking good for the Jesus.

The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970)
That, my friends, is how you make a lesbian vampire movie. Granted, Hammer knows what they're doing, and having a cast that can act their way out of a paper coffin helps, but this felt fresher and sexier than usual. Not to knock Drac, but it's always nice to see some of the classic female vampires get screen adaptations, in this case, the lusty Carmilla, no stranger to female neck. Peter Graves shows up as a tireless vampire hunter, but this has quite an ensemble, with everyone slipping comfortably into Hammer's gothic studio atmosphere. Between this and Daughters of Darkness, I'm ready to dub the early 70s the golden age of sapphic suckers.

Who Can Kill A Child (Narcisso Serrador, 1976)
Beyond a doubt, the most outright disturbing horror film I've seen this year. Here's the premise: a vacationing couple find themselves on a remote Mediterranean island where the only occupants appear to be children. Turns out, this is because the children have gone bonkers and murdered all the adults. Logically, there's going to be trouble, and with a setup like that, horrible, socially unacceptable things are going to happen. And they do - but not until late enough in the film for you to wonder whether it has the stones to follow through with the concept. The build-up though is concerned with stranding you on this darkest of streets, and it's enough to tie your stomach in knots. One particularly graphic scene finds a crowd of urchins overwhelming an old man and turning him into a human pinata, and from that point forward, the malicious grin on every child's face is truly terrifying. And the ending, it's enough to make you lock your children in their room every night, and maybe premeditate several ways to fend them off should they bare their teeth.

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002)
I've said it before and I'll say it again, movie lovers are fortunate to have someone like Guy Maddin, whose work is something of an alternate cinematic history. It's no surprise then that his take on the age old Dracula story is presented not just as a silent film, but as ballet, a brief and breathtaking one at that. Set design, choreography and music swirl together in an icy, spellbinding hour, timed perfectly so as not to wear out its welcome. Scary it ain't, but it is a vampire movie, one unlike any other you're bound to see, and it reminded me in a way of Haxan; a bit silly, but sufficiently spooky to fit right in at Halloween.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Deborah Kerr had never watched Who Can Kill a Child, so she didn't know that the way to deal with possessed children is to kill them quick as you can. So she spends most of The Innocents scared out of her mind while being framed by some of the most stunning cinematography of the decade. She's like the anti-Mary Poppins, governess of two children who walk all over her and pull spooky stunts that make her head spin. It's a mesmerizing movie and actually holds a few genuine jump-from-your-seat moments. Kerr, as always, is sensational, and this was my favorite performance of hers outside of her Powell & Pressburger collaborations. And again, that cinematography is marvelous, just look at the image below.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This Week In Horror

Without fail, I get a late start on what's supposed to be a month of mind-numbing, threshold shattering, horror porn - an annual smattering of blood, broods, spirits, serial killers, ghouls, giallo, cannibals, lesbian vampires (I swear, they are inescapable) and whatever else falls into the yearly pot. So each October I strike some balance between catching up on horror classics I've never seen and tracking down the old, the underrated and the unacceptable from the closet of horror films past. By the time November 1st rolls around, I'm dizzyingly desensitized, but not without having a few more favorite horror flicks to add to my endless recommendation list.

I've been at this now for a week, and before things pile up any further, I'll spew some thoughts on the six films I've caught so far.

Let's Scare Jessica To Death (John Hancock, 1971)
Pictured above. This will sound like a back handed compliment, but this was a good tame way to break into a month of horror. But consistently creepy is often better than occasionally terrifying, and like Jessica herself, Hancock's film hangs on the edge of sanity. Zohra Lampert is plagued by all manner of spooky shit, which on the one hand makes her mental deterioration all the more dire, but it also throws a bit too much into the mix. This is everything but the kitchen sink horror, with vampires, tribal etchings, family curses, scary old people, eerie photographs, and an ominous cello case; there's just a few too many threads here, and they don't all successfully merge. Overall though, it's well worth the look, and it set the pace for the string of effective and unsettling films I would follow it with.

Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1977)
Does this man terrify you? Because he terrifies me, although it's more in the way he stares you down like you're a bacon cheeseburger trapped in albinoland. He might be the scariest thing about Alice, Sweet Alice, which is saying something since it involves a sweet little girl who just might be a pint-sized serial killer. The film sports some down-right dingy art direction, which adds nicely to the ambiance, although the twists seemed too obvious to me to sincerely impress. But still, just look at that man. Look at those eyes. How can you say no?

Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
With the American remake having just hit theaters, I'm officially behind the times on this one. In my defense, I netflixed it the day it came out on DVD, only to hear about all the subtitle woes and ship it back until the studio corrected the problem. They did, and I finally caught up, and to all the hype I have to say I'm just a little bit baffled. Shot with icy-cold beauty, it's certainly a welcome variation on vampire love, but it has these ridiculous slips every now and then (the body bursting into flames is overdone, and Jesus Christ, what the hell were they thinking with the cat attack?). But yeah, it's still one of the better horror films from the last decade, not high praise, but there's a lot to like here, and now I'm curious how the remake addresses some of my problems with the original.

The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)
Carnivals and cannibals - those are the two ultimates in creepy for me - and Tobe Hooper gives us his take on one of those here. The Funhouse almost wastes its first half in run-of-the-mill teen horror territory, but I'll vouch for the setup being worth the payoff. Once these blazingly stupid high schoolers decide to spend the night in the funhouse, things get good and dark soon enough. Because, let's face it, animatronics are terrifying, as are people who wear scary masks because their real face is even scarier, and those are the things that The Slut, The Jock, The Virgin and The Pothead have to contend with inside this nightmare maze of death. The final confrontation in the bowels of the funhouse is especially suspenseful, and whatever its shortcomings, this did it for me in the end. Definitely more Texas Chainsaw than Poltergeist, which is certainly a good thing.

The Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
Easily my biggest horror blindspot, it didn't disappoint me, although its lofty place among scary movies is a little misguided. The concept carries the film. Don't go to sleep is a frightening mandate, and Craven wisely doesn't overdo the dreamworld, which keeps the films instability eerily unpredictable. Funny enough, it's Freddy himself that's the letdown. He flails around like a drunken scarecrow and instantly knocks the chills out of me whenever he surfaces. But his kills as observed from reality are fantastically excessive (as seen in the pic) and are worthy highlights of the film. Glad I finally got around to it.

The House With Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)
By far the bleakest film so far, and commendable for managing to go through obvious motions in less than obvious ways. By that, I mean that I called most of the twists here, but they still took me by surprise when they came about, and damn did they manage to make my skin crawl in the process. A painter arrives in an Italian village to restore a sinister painting in the local church. There's another thing that terrifies me, disturbing religious iconography, and that's essentially the springboard for some grisly murders and troubled town history. Creepy townfolk begin coming out of the woodwork and pretty soon our protagonist painter is up to his neck in a local mystery. So far, it's the best of the lot, and I'll try to catch another Pupi Avati film before the month is up.