Author Archive

Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932)

October 31, 2010

I’m going to end the  horror countdown with an eerie vintage black&white whisper rather than a slicked-up bloody slasher bang.  Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is one of my favorite silent(ish)* films, at once both arcanely ancient and avant-garde, and I love giving in to its gauzy ominous spell this time of year.  Dreyer’s  images and shot compositions defy both the cinematic conventions of his time and ours, which lends a deeply unsettling characteristic to this early tale of vampiric drama.

In pursuit of his occult studies, young, wide-eyed Alan happens by a forlorn hamlet, steeped in death and mist.  Almost immediately upon arrival he’s approached by a hoary old man who in fear for his life and his daughters’ draws Alan into his confidence in hope that the young man will be their salvation, as nobody else seen thus far is to be trusted.  Seems that all the other villagers have been culled from a Goya painting, especially the country doctor who is cagily harboring a vial of poison and an ungodly arrangement of facial hair.  

Although this sounds like a solid plot set-up I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that this film is in any way substantially plotty.  Vampyr‘s immense strength is the sinister, oneiric atmosphere that arises from the accumulation of deeply striking images softly piling onto one another in a dread quietude.  As you watch Alan wander through this film its as if slipping into the hazy netherworld ‘twixt wakefulness and dream. 

*Vampyr is not technically a silent film, although that was Dreyer’s intention. However, dialogue is very limited, and so much of the development driven by text, that it pretty much is silent anyway.


May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

October 29, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Although May’s titular leading lady, played to chilling pitch-perfection by Angela Bettis, stands in the same pantheon as such deeply damaged cinematic girls as Carrie and Carol from Repulsion… the film is something altogether unique and engaging, a strange, unsettling concoction of tones and genres.  It starts out as an inky black comedy where we’re almost invited to laugh at Angela Bettis’ assortment of tics and issues both emotional and physical but as the movie edges into its gruesome final act (an ending long seen coming but still no less effective) the viewer’s assessment of May becomes a mélange of conflicting feelings…I’m not quite comfortable with the pity and sympathy I have for her, but they’re there all the same.  May is a girl who is too weird for the movie’s microcosm of society that ostensibly wallows in oddity and the macabre but understands the difference between appreciating it from a safe distance, and the horror being internalized.  Its heartbreaking to see May encouraged, embraced…”I LOVE weird!”, they all say… and then immediately turned out as a freak the moment that she thinks she’s finally made a profound connection.  But then again, they’re right.  May is scary as shit.

We’re first introduced to May as a child, alienated from the other kids because of her overbearing mother’s insistence on her wearing an eyepatch to cover up her lazy eye.  She is gifted with a friend, a creepy doll with sunken, forlorn eyes named Suzie, but forbidden to take Suzie out of her glass box.  “She’s special!” May’s mother insists.  May grows up to be quite the alluring beauty, obviously a kook at the onset and obsessed with people’s ‘pretty parts’ but keeps just enough of her thoughts and fancies and neuroses hidden within that she attracts attention both from a scruffy gent she falls for hard, and from her sexed-up lesbian co-worker (hilariously played by Anna Faris, whom I adore).  However, once it becomes apparent that May’s version of weird trumps theirs, she’s pushed away, and May’s fragile, tenuous grasp on sanity finally splinters like glass.  And then comes the final act, which I shan’t spoil.

The film is great fare for this countdown ticking to its conclusion, as the horrifying finale is set on Halloween night, but more importantly because it exists on the outside fringes of public cinematic consciousness (Poor Lucky McKee can’t really catch a break today).  It’s a highly enjoyable, blackly funny film but it leaves you with a dark sadness and sympathy for the poor demented girl who just wanted a friend, which is quite a feat.  Many horror films can scare you but not many can make you care.

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

October 28, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

The 2000s have produced only two movies that have scared me to the point of trauma: Verbinski’s The Ring which I saw opening night in theatres, and Neil Marshall’s The Descent which I saw last night, cowering behind pillows.  I woke up this morning, still scared…which makes for immediate grounds to enter it into the horror countdown.

A group of intrepid, thrill-seeking female friends reunite in the Appalachian mountains for a caving adventure and to support one of the women, Sarah, who lost her husband and young daughter in a car accident.  There’s much chatter amongst the women, a small subplot that hints at the late husband having an affair with one of Sarah’s friends but really, this doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that these women descend into a monstrously large and labyrinthine cave system that, as they will soon find out, is unmapped by man.  And they get lost, trapped.  And then the creatures appear. 

Frankly, this movie didn’t need a bunch of bloodthirsty, slimy pearlescent Gollums picking off the ladyflock to be scary; the frights that come along with their creeping entrance into the movie are your cheapest horror jumps ‘n bumps.  However, you’re gonna fall for them anyway because of the spell cast by the overwhelmingly smothering horror that the film carefully develops in the first hour.  Shrouded in blackness broken only by headlamps, the women wedge themselves through impossibly narrow cave tunnels as they wend their way through the system, only to find out after the harrowing collapse of their exit route that the ringleader of the group has led them into a cave system that is uncharted, ostensibly to give them the eventual glory of ‘discovering’ it for themselves.  As the weight of the true peril of the situation hangs heavily on them, panic rises up…both theirs and ours.  And then the cavethings show up to lead the proceedings more along the lines of your rote horror film formula.

This isn’t a perfect film, but it is un-be-liev-a-bly terrifying.  I’ve never, ever seen a movie so effectively manipulate everyone’s inherent, even dormant, claustrophobia so well.  Neil Marshall, I am duly impressed.  And traumatically scared.

Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002)

October 27, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

I love Eli Roth.  I love his smug face, cheeky smirk, his arrogant wink.  And I love his debut feature Cabin Fever, which chronicles the eventual demise of a group of college kids camping in a cabin in the woods by an aggressive flesh-consuming virus.  I know in some circles admitting such is akin to sporting a John Wayne Gacy tee and bumping off some neighborhood pets, but I’m going to unabashedly carry on because I feel he is often unfairly maligned for his films, a handful of which are some of the most enjoyable and well-crafted horror flicks to come out of the 2000s, in my opinion.

Roth’s more (in)famous film, Hostel, has almost been entirely co-opted as a portent that society is rotting from voyeuristic bloodlust and the mere act of watching Hostel (never mind enjoying it!) implicates the viewer as complicit in the plot’s grotesque perversity.  Oof!  There have been films that I might personally condemn as being utterly soundlessly depraved but Roth’s films, especially Cabin Fever, are bursting with a deliberate trashiness, a stylish self-aware breezy sleaze that is both inspired by and is in homage to the energy of the grindhouse pictures upon which Roth feasted growing up and into his own as a filmmaker.  Sometimes a good, clean, funny, gory romp through the woods with some dumb co-eds getting picked off one by one by a flesh-eating disease is exactly what we need!  Especially when it’s so splendidly cinematic.  Eli Roth is a very fine director, with an eye for excellent angles, composition and editing.  I know it sounds odd to say, considering the nature of the film, but I don’t see any overarching and alarming sadism in Cabin Fever, there’s not that steely-edged hardness that makes your stomach curl like a strip of paper held up to a flame….rather, you’re churning with queasy delight when an infected girl decides that now would be a good time to shave her legs.

Anyway. I hope you enjoy Cabin Fever.  I think its loads of horrific fun.

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

October 26, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

While it’s more a drama than a straight-up scary flick, Roeg’s supernaturally tinged tale of a married couple mourning the loss of their daughter encroaches quietly with such an ominous foreboding atmosphere  that the terrifying coup-de-grace of an ending just about does one in; it out-horrors most horror films in terms of mood and shock.  The setting is Venice- but not at all a Venice usually shown on film; it is a deserted, shuttered city on the brink of winter, shrouded in grisaille, silent but for the lapping of water on the cold, ancient stone.  The parents, played with dignity by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, relocate for a restoration project to Venice after the drowning death of their daughter, Christine.  In their new setting water is pervasive, always there to reflect the glimmers of associative memories of the young girl slipping beneath the surface of their homestead pond in her carmine red slicker.  One day, the specter that hangs over the grieving couple materializes into tangible form in the eyes of a blind clairvoyant and her sister, who share a vision of a laughing girl in red with the wife.  She finds excitement, happiness in this sight, and feels alive and at peace after many months of a gnawing dull emptiness.  Rational Sutherland greets it first with a heavy-hearted skepticism but then with suspicion as his wife takes to spending more time with the women, and thus the film winds forward as he feels a mounting unease which he cannot understand, unease about his safety, the clairvoyant women, and the constant flashes of a figure in a carmine raincoat he sees just out of the corner of his eye.

Nicolas Roeg was a cinematographer before he began directing films, and his images and editing show an impressive personal style that for another narrative would be somewhat heavy, but fits this story perfectly, poignantly.  It’s quite a feat of filmmaking, and will fill you with dread and horror like the best of ’em.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

October 21, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

No one films more stylish, lurid cinematic murders than Dario Argento circa the 70s.  In his heyday, the big daddy-o of Italian giallo horror had an astounding eye for visual grandeur that to me was unmatched by his contemporaries; sadly, this gift seems to have drifted away from him later in his career.  But Suspiria, for all its wooden acting and titter-inducing dialogue, is an enduring masterpiece of highly aestheticized, overwhelmingly baroque horror.

On a quintessential ‘dark and stormy night,’ a dancer by the name of Suzy arrives at a  most prestigious ballet boarding school in time to witness a tremendously terrified girl tear away from the premises into the woods.  Time isn’t long for this lass, as we soon find out.  Once ensconced in the school under the tutelage of instructors such as an intimidating madam who smacks of Miss Trunchbull in appearance, Suzy notices odd things occurring, secretive comings-and-goings, girls that know too much! suddenly and suspiciously turn up missing.  When Suzy delves deeper into the history of the school, certain information comes to light that leads to the conclusion that it is run by a coven of witches!  And so it goes.

Although you can’t help but smirk a few times, Suspiria’s actually kind of  a spook.  The atmosphere of suspense created in Argento’s masterful camerawork and lushly colorful set design is richly heightened by an incredible aural landscape courtesy of Goblin, a group with which Argento frequently collaborated.  A pulsing gothic synth, tensely trilling melody, and demonic hisses really accentuate the horror and bring the cinematic experience totally over the top.  Whether or not Suspiria scares, it’s certain to dazzle with its artful drench of primary colors and scintillating music.


Note: Halloween Horror Countdown will continue next Tuesday.

Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)

October 20, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Dead Alive, although bursting with blood and gristle, has no hell-bent intention on scaring you.  It exists solely to immensely amuse and disgust with its goopy blend of comedy and anarchic carnage.  It’s a picture in the vein of the best of early Sam Raimi, as gory-goofy-gross and infectiously enthusiastic as Jackson’s later LOTR films are solemn and staid.  Multiple times during the course of the grandly Guignol ride you’ll suddenly become aware when you surprise yourself with a loud bout of laughter, that your jaw has been hanging slack for some time.

The plot starts a’rollicking when a bizarre rat-monkey creature is captured and flung into a zoo, where it has the opportunity to bite the hideous mother of our main character Lionel, as she’s smarming about trying to ruin his date with the sweetly winning Paquita.  A forewarning: not at all a film you want to watch with your momma.  Mom becomes infected, then zombified, and proceeds to spread the illness around town until the film crescendos into a maelstrom of chaos, zombies, autonomous digestive systems, lawnmowers,  and barrels & barrels of blood.

This film practically twinkles with a most deliciously gruesome and vivid, boundless imagination; it’s incredible to think that the mind that birthed the epic trilogy of Middle Earth was responsible for such a movie.  I can’t quite imagine the studio heads watching a scene where Lionel beats up the horrendous mutant zombie spawn of an undead nurse and priest and then entrusting Jackson with hundreds of millions of dollars.  However, Jackson’s brand of good-natured outrageously deviant genius is just irresistible, I guess.  Enjoy, and try not to vomit!

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

October 19, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

During the 60s and 70s, Roman Polanski directed three masterpieces of psychological horror that are loosely bound together due to the similarity in setting and themes: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant.  While Rosemary’s Baby gets the most acclaim out of this informal ‘Apartment Trilogy’, so named because each of these brilliant studies in paranoia and mental breakdown occur behind the closed doors of urban apartments, my favorite of the three is Repulsion.

The film starts with an eyeball opening credits sequence -literally- and this particular eyeball isn’t too keen about being under such scrutiny.  It’s both a nod to Hitchcock (peep the opening titles of Vertigo) and a great way to immediately place us in close confines with Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve.  After the credits she’s presented in her staggeringly luminous, whispery beauty but it’s quite apparent that something’s off with the lass.  The film unrolls very slowly, quietly, luring you further into the damaged, fragile mind of Carol until you’re trapped with her just as she is trapped with herself, cowering in her apartment with a festering skinned rabbit while her sister is on holiday.  Carol’s crippling fear and repulsion of men, and of sex, is a burden she has obviously carried since youth but it finally breaks through her vacant mind and filters into every nook and cranny available. Her fear first manifests as cracks in the walls of her shadowy flat, and then much more.

Repulsion ends ambiguously and chillingly, a slow zoom onto a seemingly banal old photograph of Carol’s family.  The final shot as the zoom focuses in inspires a terribly haunting emptiness, tempered around the edges with horror and sadness.  You won’t likely forget it, ever.

Hausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

October 18, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

On October 26th (just in time for Halloween!) I invite you to burn out your retinas and fry your brain in the lysergic delirium of this unhinged id-ridden kitsch horror-comedy cult gem from ’70s Japan!  It’s never been released in America, so I imagine most readers are in for quite a treat as they watch this for the first time.

The uh, “plot”, if one can pin anything down in this hyperkinetic heap of non sequiturs, concerns a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirl dwarfettes with fairyfloss names like Melody, Sweet, Fantasy, et cetera…who have their summer vacay plans ruined so the central figure of the group, Gorgeous, steps up and writes to her distant, aged aunt and asks if they can all descend upon her house for a spell.  As it turns out, staying in the house is cool for cats but not so much for Gorgeous et al, what with the murderous decor and her aunt’s propensity to dine on virgin flesh.  With a soundtrack just as kook and schizo as the film’s plot and texture, it proves a giddy assault on at least two senses…although I am sure there’s potential for more to become involved.

At the very least, if this isn’t your cuppa, you can solemnly state that you’ve seen nothing like it before.  But I bet you’re going to love it.

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

October 15, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Up front, I am going to state that Antichrist is not a film for those with weak stomachs.  The violence, both emotional and physical, brutally guts you over the course of this undeniably audacious film while you remain frozen to your seat, breathless, helplessly immersed in Pure Horror.  Lars Von Trier has said that he made this film while under the influence of an overwhelming depression, and goddamn does it ever show.

However, this oppressive horror of which I speak comes more from the craft of filmmaking than it does the plot.  How Von Trier implements the elements of cinema is monumentally affecting and brilliant, and continues to weigh uncomfortably heavily on the mind long after any residual upset over the thematic material.  His painterly, sylvan landscapes into which Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg tuck themselves away to ostensibly overcome the crippling guilt and psychological disturbance caused by the death of their child are masterfully infused with an atmosphere of such dread and menace through manipulation of sound, mise-en-scene, and cinematography.  It is a true cinematic feat, this movie, one that is technically dazzling and deeply frightening.

However, the question of whether or not the content is as profound as its form is a divisive matter.  I tend to skew toward the side that finds the plot somewhat…silly… a messy mishmash of half-cocked ideas, dripping with import and symbolism, and unable to escape a sickly ochre stink of rank sensationalism.  However, that is not to say that it hasn’t provoked a lot of very thoughtful discourse, especially from critic Roger Ebert, who at Cannes called it ‘the most despairing movie’ he has ever seen and then proceeded to spill copious amounts of ink in sorting it out. Antichrist wouldn’t leave him be.

All this is to say, proceed with caution! But please, by all means, proceed. I’m not sitting here today still puzzling out the Meaning of It All but I *am* sitting here shivering in remembrance of the incredible nightmarish cinematic experience, and that for me makes it a deeply worthwhile film.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

October 14, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

The Innocents is a truly elegant spook of a film, one of the most poetically, exquisitely shot black & white films I’ve ever seen.  It’s not just a horror movie, it’s a profoundly beautiful piece of cinema, an artifact that whenever I have the pleasure of watching, reinforces my love of film above all other arts.

Inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, it tells the tale of a young, sheltered woman (played masterfully by the great Deborah Kerr) who is hired to be a governess for two young children by their emotionally and geographically distant uncle in light of the death of their former caretaker.  The only stipulation is that she must maintain full and sole authority over the (orphaned) children and must never contact him about them.  The young miss takes the job and ensconces herself in the sprawling august estate and in the charm of the children.  However, increasingly secretive susurrations between the children…strange sights in the gardens and in the mansion…as well as the peculiar unfolding story about the death of the last nanny all convince Kerr’s character that there is a malevolent presence about that has infected the children.

To say the film is genuinely scary is certainly a subjective comment but I tell you, it’s genuinely scary. The magnificent sinister atmosphere of the film begins even before the studio logo: There is simply blackness on the screen immediately upon pressing “Play,” blackness that lingers uncomfortably about half a minute before the Fox logo appears.  All the while suspended over this blank noir is a song, “Willow Waly,” sung with tremulous childlike fragility like something wafting from an eerily ensorcelled music box.

I dare you not to love this movie, and I dare you not to be scared.

Zombi(e) AKA Zombi 2 (Lucio Fulci, 1979)

October 13, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

If ever you encounter someone trying to push Zombie on you, the kicker is always, “A zombie fights a SHARK, man!”

Well, that’s my sell-line too, and if that doesn’t whet your interest then perhaps this is not a movie for you.  However, if the idea of the reanimated dead tussling with a tiger shark appeals to your sensibilities, you will be well-served by the hilariously ludicrous and gory plot devised by a true maestro of schlocky horror, Lucio Fulci.

A little untangling in regards to the title(s), and Zombie’s place in the grand living-dead scheme: Although zombie movies had been appearing sporadically on the screen since the 30s, George Romero revolutionized the genre with his directorial debut, 1968’s seminal classic Night of the Living Dead. A decade later he directed the next in his ‘Living Dead’ cycle, Dawn of the Dead, which brought him continued success and much critical acclaim. This one bore the international title of Zombi, so in a shameless bid to glom onto the success of Romero’s film Fulci ‘suggested’ that his film was a sequel of sorts by entitling it Zombi 2. Whether or not that brought more interest, Fulci’s career was revitalized and Zombie effectively vaulted him into the amaranthine pantheon of cult icons.

So what fills up the other 80-odd minutes when there isn’t interspecies fisticuffs occurring? Well, there’s the awesome score from Fabio Frizzi which while certainly cheesy in some respects will be rhythmically humping your mind for days, some Fulci-brand eyeball gore, healthy helpings of T&A, some island disease epidemic hokum, and a whole slew of the living dead parading about in various stages of detailed decomposition.  No subtexts, political undercurrents, fine, precise acting- just good(bad), old-fashioned, outrageous zombie mayhem.

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

October 12, 2010

Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Kwaidan is at once one of the most meticulously crafted and staged films of classic Japanese cinema, but also one of the most odd, untraditional, unsettling.  The opening credits sequence immediately signals its peculiar, mesmerizing quality…glorious swirls of ink pulsing, undulating in a heightened pale silence punctuated by an occasional tinny trill that travels up your spine and sets off screeching violins under your dermis.

The film unfurls in 4 different segments, each adapted from the Occidental collector of Japanese ghostlore Lafcadio Hearn’s turn-of-the-1900s anthology of the same name.  Each segment has its virtues: The Black Hair soaks in shadows, unconventional angles and imminent dread, Woman of the Snow constricts your capillaries with its oppressive iciness and perfected-to-affect lighting; Hoichi the Earless overwhelms with its grandiose architectural and artistic construction, and In a Cup of Tea intrigues rather than frightens, a very modern curio of an ending.  Together they create a toweringly eminent epic of traditional Japanese horror that stands as proud, bold, and unique today as it did in 1964.

After the hours of watching Kwaidan are over (yeah, it’s long), certain dazzlingly expressionist images, the austere biwa music and a quiet, masterful sense of suspense will linger with you ’til the end of days.

The Woods Will Never Tell

October 1, 2010

My brother and I went hiking in the backwoods of Maryland recently. It was brilliantly sunny, nothing in the sky but some circling turkey vultures as we stepped through the forest. We sheared through a thicket and found ourselves presently in a clearing, or, what was once a clearing….the forest had evidently taken notice of a lengthy lack of human presence and begun to silently encroach on what was once its domain. In the center of the now-overgrown clearing was a red barn and a modest shuttered house, both abandoned and both in the beginning stages of dilapidation, no doubt aided by the gathering army of vines and tendrils of ivy snaking up the sides. My brother was bent on investigating further but both were curiously locked: a rusty ferrous lock on the barn-door, unyielding entrances on the abode. We didn’t loiter long after; there was something just so sinister about the abandoned barn. The whimsical Charlie Chaplin-esque face it was sporting turned blank, eldritch and aged, when you caught it out of the farthest corner of your eye.

We left, strains of Tom Waits’ Murder in the Red Barn lingering on the meager breeze…

Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

September 21, 2010

There is a virulent strain of contemporary French cinema that quite frankly repluses me with its particularly savage yet highly aestheticized shows of pathological sexual ugliness, utter lack of humanity, and sadistic visceral violence. This exteme incarnadine undercurrent seems to manifest mainly in flat-out horror films: Martyrs, Inside, High Tension, etc., but other genres are not immune to the trend. Consider, for the purposes of this post, Gaspar Noé’s most (in)famously flagrant film, Irréversible . Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve most likely heard of it and the atrocities within. Seems to exist solely to hold the prize number-one spot on the derelict brooding college freshmen’s “Fucked-Up Movies to Watch” list.

Sometimes though, for whatever reason, there is something worthwhile to be found amidst the abhorrence and surprisingly to me, Noé’s new piece Enter the Void proves deeply worthwhile…in a certain respect. My interest in movies about the endless cycle of fucked-up people interacting with other fucked-up people in a vortex of meaninglessness and emptiness has waned to almost nothing over the years, but this film’s visual spectacle is Un. Matched. I have no idea how Noé actually constructed certain scenes or images; the camerawork and imagery is so stunning, so innovative, that all I can do is blankly marvel at the incredible sensory cauchemar unfolding on screen.

Like a dream though, the film is destroyed by too much scrutiny into content: I’m letting you know now, it’s terribly over-repetitive, showing a handful of “key” scenes over and over until all emotional impact dissipates. At times it is monumentally stupid and naive, and at other times…just plain ole dull. Scribbled in fat, blood-and-semen-stained capital letters Noé spells out basic, elementary statements about life, death, whatever…it doesn’t matter. Just give in and let your mind absorb the thrilling visual display and you will be occupied for days with hazy, lurid reflections of the trip. For all the ugliness in the story (and there is a lot), I’d plug myself back into the Void in a second, just to have the cinematic experience again.

Apparently, the dude is in the process of pairing down the film from the 161 minute (!!) version I saw at a midnight screening, which I think bodes well for future intrepid filmgoers, especially if he hacks off some of the scene repetition which really causes the movie to drag. However, whether its some bloated version or a “nicely” tightened package, the film merits your attention for its unprecedented visual flair.

Anticipating Attractions

September 14, 2010

At the brink of Oscar-bait open season, I have already found my most anticipated film of the year’s remainder, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.  The sexylectrifying trailer posits Natalie Portman as a tetchy terpsichorean who stresses herself into a sort of hallucinatory (or is it??) metamorphosis when sensuous ballerina Mila Kunis threatens to usurp her precious position as Swan Queen.  It conjures up impressions of a dark and twisted, girls-all-grown-up sorta sequel to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence with undertones of Suspiria and The Fly mixed into the lurid celluloid concoction, so of course I am sold.

Watch the trailer for yourself: It’s either going to be enormously, entertainingly silly or….its going to be a goddamn masterpiece.  I don’t see any other option here.  At the very least, this movie promises heady Kunis-on-Portman action, an enticing proposition to which even I am not immune.

The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)

August 23, 2010

Whenever news arrives of an illustrious talent’s passing, especially if his or her work has left an indelible imprint on my heart, in a split-second I have a vivid flashback to the circumstances that led me to discover such a talent in the first place.  Immediately upon hearing of jazz legend Abbey Lincoln’s recent death, I recalled a gorgeous scene of Lincoln swathed in carmine red against a backdrop of richly hued blue, belting out a vibrant gospel song in Frank Tashlin’s oft-overlooked masterpiece The Girl Can’t Help It. Although Abbey only graces the cinematic stage briefly, her presence and charm and lovely voice caught my fancy, even in a film filled to the brim with shimmering musical acts and lovely ladies. Enjoy for yourself:

Even if this performance was the only worthwhile tidbit to glean from the film I’d still be grateful, but luckily that is not the case: The film’s an exuberant knockout. It’s got a lot of what they call ‘the most’.  Its frothy plot concerns a cigar-fellatin’ bigwig mobster, Fats Murdock, who can’t see marrying his girlfriend until she’s “someone,” so he hires musical talent scout Tom Miller to make a star out of the dame, who shh! secretly wants nothing to do with fame.  This girl being Jayne Mansfield though, Miller falls for her hard. Comedic plot points set in motion, the movie can now commence to charming your heart out and delighting your ears with the numerous musical acts flecked throughout.

Rarely is there an actor-director pairing more harmonious than Mansfield and Tashlin.  Although they only did two films together she seems essential in his cinematic fabric, which is highly informed by his past as a successful animator.  With her cartoonish, improbably stacked body and heaving bazoongas (40-18-36, fellas), impeccable comedic timing, and the slightest whiff of meta* to her performances, she teetered on the tightrope between self-satirization and self-celebration (*Mansfield was in reality an incredibly intelligent ladyfox who cunningly cultivated her sexpot image, and the film definitely acknowledges this in a wink-wink way).  In Mansfield’s cartoon curves and persona is manifest the tone of the movie as a whole, which straddles biting satire of the music industry and 50s values and yet celebrates them all the same.  The satire is there, palpable, but the film is awash in happiness; there is undeniable, uninhibited pleasure felt in the music in the film and the sincere sweetness of Mansfield’s performance.

So for Abbey Lincoln… for the CinemaScope-size smile the film leaves slapped silly on my face…Thanks, Frank.


Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô, 1964)

August 5, 2010

A couple of years ago whilst nonchalantly browsing in the film section of Borders I suddenly came face to face with the cover of Onibaba, the image of which lords over this post.  I knew nothing about the film, had never even heard of it, but at that moment I knew I needed it.  A glance at the back description confirmed this.  In case you haven’t yourself already been sold on the cover art image alone, I’ll give a teensy set-up to further whet interest:

In merciless war-ravaged medieval Japan, a wretched old woman and her daughter-in-law are tenuously bound together by the belief that their man- son and husband, respectively- will return to them from the war.  Clawing at survival in the meantime, the two ambush and murder errant samurai in cold craven blood and sell their belongings.  Wouldn’t be a stretch in this setup to see that the guy they’re pinning their salvation on ain’t coming back alive, but another man comes into their miserable life and shatters the strained balance struck between the two females.

This is a balls-out masterpiece of Japanese New Wave Cinema. Everything about it this film is so raw, primal… everyone is stripped bare (literally) by desperation and fear and the basest modes of survival to reveal that when devoid of harmonious society, underneath the mask of humanity there’s nothing but corruption and evil.  If you boil down the movie’s activity to its elemental basics, you’d get Eat, Fuck, Murder.   The film unfolds so ominously, slightly shifty eyes progressing into simmering distrust, into betrayal and then death…all under the almost oppressive feeling of stagnant, sweltering atmosphere.  The gorgeous black-and-white chiaroscuro cinematography drapes the action and characters in darkness as black as their souls.  It is an immersing, cynical, and ultimately horrifying cinematic experience.

My last note on it is in appreciation of Asian cinema and it’s instrumental use of flora. I suppose its not surprising given the emphasis placed upon nature in Japanese aesthetics and Shinto tradition that Japanese filmmakers utilize foliage exceedingly well, but Onibaba stands as one of the best examples of this.  One of the more memorable elements of the film is the setting, the two women live among the tall grass in a reedy swampland.  Throughout the film much attention is paid to the swaying and undulating of the grasses, moving sinuously like the writhing bodies bedded down within.  When the score gives way to natural silence, the wind rustles through the grass in an eerie susurration, thousands of whispering grass blades portend of the end when all will again be quiet, the perversion of humanity passed.

Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

July 12, 2010

There exist certain films that -how I finish this thought is patently absurd, but just hear me out- apparate silently out of a misty celluloid ether onto the screen: oneiric enigmas with seemingly no provenance that sway so far under the mainstream, you marvel that you ever unearthed it in the first place. Innocence is one of these certain films. Silly to say, I know, obviously it was directed by (a very talented) someone, starring other someones including a moderately famous French actress, adapted from a literary source, etc etc… but you sense not a one of these ties that bind while watching it. Maybe you catch my drift, maybe you don’t. Either way, Innocence is a stunning film.

The film’s opaque yet delicately gossamer plot concerns life at a secluded and idyllic… yet foreboding…. orphanage where girls in white frocks and age-accorded colored ribbons are schooled and groomed by two mysterious young teachers to be the epitome of harmonious femininity. The even-more mysterious Headmistress comes once a year to see a ballet performance given by the “blue ribbons” and selects one girl to take away with her. The girls themselves have a hierarchy and tend to each other. There are joys, friendships, punishments, deaths, and many secrets. While it may be sparsely plotted it is dense with rich content and symbolism, exploration of the ideas of subjugation, gender and social politics, puberty, innocence (natch). However, its greatest success perhaps is its simplest: the depiction of the fragile and often odd nature of a prepubescent girl’s tender consciousness, especially as seen in the first hour. It’s handled with such quiet confidence and maturity that it is startling at first but then profoundly compelling and immediately recognizable (being that I was once upon a time a prepubescent girl myself).

Speaking of, when I was but a pupa in the rural thickets of Maryland I once was larking about in the woods after it had rained and went further from my house than I’d ever gone before. I stumbled upon the boundaries of another’s property, a florist, I supposed. From my vantage point in the heavily shaded woods I saw a clearing dotted with two greenhouses, so I investigated. I stepped up to one of the steamy rain streaked windows and peered in, beholding the vividly verdant botanical display inside. Even though I was stricken with an uneasy feeling that I would be caught for “trespassing”, one of my mild childhood neuroses, I snuck inside and luxuriated in the intoxicating aroma and moist hothouse warmth. I plucked a single flower, something so decadently crimson and regal that I was certain to be ashamed if my mother spotted me with it. Immediately after this pluck, I dashed out and ran at top speed all the way home through the woods, an exhilarating mixture of dread and excitement coursing through my veins. Even as I was racing away, my precious purloined flower clasped close to my chest, I felt as if in a beautiful static stillness, like running in a dream.

Such is the experience of Innocence.

You, The Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

July 7, 2010

You, The Living is a peculiar potpourri pot of a film. With his signature idiosyncratic style and intense attention to detail, Roy Andersson has crafted an intertwining series of perfectly polished and fine-tuned vignettes replete with the most sad-sack Swedes imaginable, all vulnerably expressing in their little segment a bleakly deep despairing malaise. But- it’s a comedy! Of sorts. Not everyone’s cuppa, the particular streak of Scandinavian absurdism that runs through You, The Living is so deadpan that it may rub the wrong way but if you’re hip to the joke that is life you’ve got a treat coming, I promise. Andersson has a great talent for visual composition spangled with flecks of humor, such that he can almost be likened to Jacques Tati in this respect. His knack for making deceptively simple-looking visual gags that make you wonder why indeed you’re so delighted is remarkable. The recurrent appearance of a sousaphone in the film for example, is followed in tandem by a grin although god knows what’s funny about a sousaphone. The humor isn’t found just in the imagery on-screen though; even the cadence and rhythm of the Swedish language is used to comedic effect in the film. Not a single shot is left inchoate, every element is thoughtfully considered.

Humor aside though, the aesthetics alone will impress: the film looks like it was created with a painter’s brush rather than a cinematographer’s lens. For all it’s grotesquely misshapen Swedish characters it’s a pretty, pretty picture. Dreaminess by way of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, mixed with a storm cloud.

If you don’t mind setting awhile with some truly sorry Swedish persons and sharing with them their travails, dashed hopes and beautiful melancholia, you may find a lot to appreciate within this film. Watch it preferably with an apocalyptic thunderstorm raging outside.

The Duke Rides Coach

June 29, 2010

The summer blockbuster season invariably sees me dragged out to increasingly distressing dreck, but because I am impelled by the bonds of blood or friendship I routinely find myself in the 3rd aisle of a megaplex, sitting next to some babbling Little Boy Blue and staring up Tom Cruise’s left nostril, silently questioning said bonds. Confronted with a CG-eyeful of jejune starlets, crunching, clashing metal, and continuous mind-numbing salvos, I get the overwhelming desire to go film-fetal: that is, return to the tender, nascent years of cinema and submerge myself in some black & white goodness.  However, summer does sometimes necessitate spectacle, and if I’m in the mood for sweeping vistas, harrowing chases and rugged heroes, I am wont to pull out a classic (if not THE classic) Western, Stagecoach.  John Ford’s 1939 film marks the birth of the 20+ year long John Wayne-John Ford working relationship; this was the film that made Wayne a star.  The Duke as Ringo Kid is given one of the best character introductions in cinema: once you witness that zoom upon his face, although that craggy mug he wears in later years is pretty much the quintessential face of Wayne branded in America’s collective consciousness, it’s like you’re seeing him for the first time, the Original Heroic Male.

The film’s merits don’t lie on Wayne alone though…those that are stuffed in the stagecoach wending perilously to its destination in spite of the dangers ahead are all richly human characters, and the script is steeped in that bygone blend of danger and lawlessness, old-school manners and honor.  John Ford’s direction is impeccable and fluid, the stunts are hair-raisingly impressive….and I daresay it is more entertaining at its core than any of the stolid epics served up at the local Regal.  Although the stagecoach is far from a safe haven for those along for the ride, the film makes for a fine cinematic sanctuary when I want to ease my soul during the height of the summer movie season.

The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1969)

June 23, 2010

The Honeymoon Killers is a true relic of that bygone era of low-rent B movies, but manages to transcend the trappings of grindhouse genre cheapies while all the same delighting in the sleaze and the muck like the best (worst) of ’em. The movie tells a fictionalized tale based on the case of the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers, an unlikely pairing of the unctuous Latin stud Raymond and aggressively abhorrent Martha and hoo-boy, is it ever a fringe film. Like Hitchcock by way of early John Waters.
Seeking some kind of companionship through a “friendship club”, Martha falls into correspondence with Raymond, whom she eventually discovers is a slick hot-to-trot hoodwinker strumming the strings of naive lonely hearts one after the other and then wrenching every last penny piece from their purses. However, Martha & Raymond form a sickly symbiotic relationship and he ushers her into his swindles, which turn progressively dirtier and deadlier as the film bumps and wheedles along. It’s certainly not a movie for everyone, especially those who aren’t willing to dip into such a tatty pitch-black atmosphere, but if you take a chance on it you may just find your mind blown. For what it’s worth, its admirers are in fine company: François Truffaut called it his favorite American film.
A word about the transfer- this is gonna be one of the worst-looking films you’ve ever seen on dvd. Grit smudged deep into the crevasses onscreen, abrasive snackle-crack-pop sound…however, stay any initial disgust because you’ll be amazed at how well the ‘quality’ of the production values dovetails with the content of the story.  Frankly I’d be heartbroken if someone magicked a freshy-fresh crystal-clear print of this out of the ether, it would completely destroy the total experience.
In closing, a Martha bon mot to whet your appetite even further for this film:
“Not only are you pregnant, you are disgusting! You’re the hottest bitch I’ve ever seen!”