Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Flesh for the Inferno

November 1, 2015

Flesh for the Inferno is a menacing and evocative title for a film that works hard to earn it. The twentieth feature by Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin, this is a bit of a break from his frequent focus on tongue-in-bloody-cheek grindhouse throwbacks. It gestures at vintage grindhouse, all right — specifically the sacrilegious splatterthons of Italian maestros like Lucio Fulci — but it takes its premise more seriously than Griffin usually allows. Four nuns confront a child-rapist priest; he shoots one and bricks the other three up behind a wall in their Catholic school. Sixteen years later, the nuns, fueled by rage and revenge, wreak supernatural havoc on a group who’ve arrived to clean up the school.

Indebted though it is to the tone of Fulci and Mario Bava, Flesh doesn’t go in for the bizarre incoherence that Italian horror is notorious for. Griffin doesn’t bring everything to a standstill so he can show off some visual effects or his own twisted imagination; the script, by Michael Varrati, keeps things lean and mean, though not very clean. True to its title, Flesh can’t get enough of gore and ruined meat. The victims, mostly young people in keeping with horror-film tradition, die choking and messy. Some of the movie is gross in a way that will please gorehounds and put off most others, but who else would go to a movie called Flesh for the Inferno? It’s pretty obviously not whimsical and light in the Wes Anderson style.

“This is … brutal,” says a character, and some of Flesh is as self-aware as that line indicates. (Later, someone else comments on how anticlimactic the events are, but that turns out to be misdirection.) Despite that, Griffin and Varrati take a side door into the serious subject of predatory priests. This isn’t Griffin’s first time at the rodeo of blasphemy, of course — he helmed 2009’s zesty grindhouse goof Nun of That, starring Sarah Nicklin, who appears here as an amusingly cynical prostitute. I imagine some Catholics would rather do anything else than indulge Griffin’s church-bashing, while other Catholics, especially lapsed ones, will eat it up.

Griffin’s body of work, which kicked off in 2000 with a criminally obscure adaptation of Titus Andronicus, expresses a love of cinema, particularly disreputable cinema. (After all, he adapted Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s goriest and least prestigious play, not King Lear.) That’s why, as bloody and rage-filled as Flesh for the Inferno is, you can still almost hear Griffin cackling behind the camera. He relishes working in this lurid, sanguinary Italian style, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Personality peeks through, no matter how grotesque or how unpleasant the scenario is, and that’s a rare commodity that links Griffin’s work with the movies and moviemakers he loves.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

October 25, 2015

Generally agreed to be the first Brazilian horror film, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the perfect underseen-in-America Halloween movie. Its director and cowriter, José Mojica Marins, also stars as Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, a robustly diabolical and atheistic mortician who terrorizes everyone in his town. Coffin Joe has long fingernails and favors a black cape and black top hat. In this heavily Catholic town, he enjoys eating meat on Holy Friday, going so far as to force a man in the local bar to chew some lamb. Coffin Joe is obsessed with “the continuity of blood”; he wants a son to carry on his bloodline, and since his wife can’t give him one, he goes looking for a candidate. As you may have gathered, this does not involve gentle seduction and walks on the beach.

At Midnight is the first of a trilogy of Coffin Joe films (though Marins made several other movies featuring the character) whose plot throughline is the anti-hero’s quest for a son. Coffin Joe went on to become something of a favorite (if disreputable in many quarters) icon of terror in Brazil, lending his name or visage to books, comics, TV shows, songs, and even a Volkswagen. Our closest equivalent, I suppose, might be Freddy Krueger, who rose out of American fears of child abusers much as Coffin Joe is partly a cautionary figure demonstrating what happens if you laugh at God and spirits and the local bruja. Brazilian audiences felt safe in vicariously relishing Coffin Joe’s blasphemies and violence as long as it was clear that he would get his comeuppance at the end — which he does, spectacularly.

Of course, “spectacular” is relative when you’re talking about something obviously made on a frayed shoestring; this is the kind of cheapjack film in which an actor must endure real live tarantulas and maggots crawling on his or her face. Despite that, the gore effects (shot in inky black and white) are appropriately gross and wince-inducing, especially for a film that landed only a year after H.G. Lewis’ seminal Blood Feast. Not really a flashy director, at least on this ride, Marins still manages to birth a classically spooky affair with the sometimes-schlocky but lovable aesthetic of a small-town haunted house: skulls, witches, glowing eyes, disembodied shrieking and moaning.

Most of Marins’ cast were non-actors (one of his cowriters, Magda Mei, plays the unfortunate woman who catches Coffin Joe’s eye), but Marins himself gives a performance of epic hamminess, constantly laughing maniacally or screaming in terror of the “inferno.” At Midnight is a lot of fun, but it’s also a serious document of its time and place, a Brazil gripped with fear of God and ghosts; the movie is suffused with that unique South American Catholic mix of religion and superstition. It’s a place where the concept of the Holy Ghost consorts uneasily with that of unholy ghosts. Coffin Joe may be one of the latter; he starts off as a fairly normal mortician and gradually adds terrible qualities, beginning by wanting meat on Holy Friday, until finally he’s drowning his best friend and raping that friend’s fiancée.

Yet the little I know about Marins suggests he doesn’t mean Coffin Joe entirely as a cautionary figure. The character is also a critique of the society that gave rise to him, a heavily paternalistic culture that places a great deal of importance on procreation, especially having sons. Women, of course, are regarded only as a means to that end (remember, a woman cowrote the script). Coffin Joe isn’t just an example of how a Brazilian man can go wrong and doom his soul (he isn’t the one, incidentally, who issues the film’s titular threat); he’s the logical extension of the harsh misogynistic world he lives in. Naturally, this being a horror film, he also drops a tarantula on his wife’s face and smashes someone else in the face with a crown of thorns he rips off of a statue of Christ. At Midnight has been compared to Ed Wood’s loony absurdities, but it’s closer to the surreal grotesqueries of Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or.

Island of Lost Souls

October 17, 2015

H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.


October 11, 2015

The horror of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks is not simply that it showcases “freaks.” It kicks off with a long, gloriously pious text prologue soliciting the audience’s sympathy for the malformed, the mutilated, and so forth. (It was assumed, of course, that the film’s audience was composed of “normals.”) Then, for a good long while, every scene seems to make the same point: that the differently bodied are no different from “normal people” in emotion, in their need to belong, and in their sexual drives. The “normal” audience is thus conditioned to see the “freaks” merely as “normal” people in unusual packages. So we shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps, when the “freaks” end up acting, indeed, much like the violent, vindictive, vengeful “normals” who have forced their hands.

Set behind the scenes of a circus sideshow, Freaks gives us what Stephen King pegged as an E.C. Comics horror story twenty years early. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with able-bodied trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She strings him along, getting jewelry and “loans” out of him, until she learns he’s sitting on a fat inheritance. Then Cleopatra conspires with her real love, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. Hans’ fellow outcasts — who had earlier grievously offended Cleopatra with their wedding-night chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” — band together for ghastly revenge.

The beginning of that climactic sequence boasts a genuinely badass moment Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have filmed: dwarf Jerry Austin snapping open his switchblade and polishing it, followed by “half-boy” Johnny Eck taking out a gun and polishing it, while dwarf Angelo Rossitto plays his flute, unperturbed. Freaks is essentially a melodrama (based glancingly on Tod Robbins’ rather corny short story “Spurs”) that rolls inexorably towards a uniquely powerful and frightening denouement. It’s not that the “freaks” confirm our suspicions about them as inhuman; it’s that they, after spending much of the running time seeming quite amiable, fulfill their potential towards a darker kind of humanity. In true noir fashion, they prove as rotten as almost anyone else onscreen.

After the movie died in previews, a nervous MGM hacked out roughly half an hour, reportedly including a scene in which we see exactly what the enraged performers do to Hercules (castration, rumor has always had it). In the existing film, we never find out what happens to him, which kind of makes it worse, since our imaginations fill in the grotesque details. Part of the horror, for me, was seeing one of the “pinhead” women — previously never seen without gleeful smiles — crawl through the mud after Hercules, her face frozen and numb. The “freaks” are not shown to enjoy their revenge, exactly; it’s just something that must be done. The “straight” world has stomped on their kind once too often. At that point, the movie’s putative heroes, good-hearted “normals” played by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, have been soundly forgotten; they turn up at the very end in a happy coda that feels pasted on. We know the true final shot should be of Cleopatra in her new role in the circus.

Tod Browning, who’d directed a few Lon Chaney vehicles as well as Lugosi’s Dracula, more or less killed his career with this film; he would helm only four more before spending twenty years inactive until his death in 1962. In truth, Browning’s choice of material and comfort with the unusual were always more interesting than his generally stiff direction; someone like James Whale might have found bizarre outsider wit in the story. But where it counts, in that apocalyptic finale and the revelation of Cleopatra’s fate, Browning locked in some of horror cinema’s most indelible images. Decades later, of course, Freaks would find a younger, more appreciative audience on video and midnight-movie showings, influencing filmmakers as well as the Ramones (who misquoted the freak-chant as “gabba gabba” on their 1977 song “Pinhead”). By then, it wasn’t that Americans accepted freaks but that Americans accepted themselves as one of them.

The Green Inferno

September 26, 2015

Ah, what a bracing slice of throwback nastiness is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. This overdue fourth feature from the writer-director of Cabin Fever and the first two Hostel movies takes its time getting to the grue, but when it does, you can see what Stephen King meant when he called it “bloody, gripping, hard to watch.” A husky young man makes the acquaintance of a village of grateful cannibals, and he keeps them busy for quite some time. His colleagues, watching from inside a cage, vomit and scream as the flamboyantly accoutred tribal elder takes his eyes, then his tongue, then each limb, and finally his head. His torso, resembling nothing so much as a huge pork roast, slides right into the communal oven.

Roth has a reputation as a ravenously thirsty gorehound, but in truth he just knows when and how to deploy the money scenes so they count for more; the unfortunate young man’s fate is about the worst thing Roth makes us look at, and even then the editing snips the carnage into digestible bacon bits. Whether cannibalism should be digestible is another question; Roth’s film is openly indebted to Ruggero Deodato’s genuinely disquieting 1980 splatterfest Cannibal Holocaust, which in addition to people-eating is loaded with rape and animals being killed on camera for real. (In the filmmakers’ defense, the animals were eaten after their close-ups.) The Green Inferno doesn’t go nearly as far as a film from 35 years ago did, but then that film wasn’t obligated to nab an R rating and play in a thousand theaters nationwide, as Roth’s movie is.

The set-up gives us a group of campus lefties who fly to the Amazon to save a village from being bulldozed by an oil company. After being threatened by gun-toting mercenaries, our heroes go down in a plane crash, and the survivors are captured by the villagers. Now, I don’t think Roth is saying anything as jejune as “This is what happens when you try to help savages” or “This is why lefties are idiots.” Certainly there’s a huge problem with the way these crusaders go about their business; they are (mostly) not as insufferable as the film crew in Cannibal Holocaust, but there’s something distasteful about how their American privilege leads them into a situation they’re unprepared to handle and fatally uninformed about — looked at with a squint, the movie could almost be a satire of American military intervention.

The script by Roth and Guillermo Amoedo plants a lot of Chekhov’s guns early on, all surrounding the innocent-faced main character Justine (Lorenza Izzo): a flute necklace, a lecture on female genital mutilation, and, perhaps most obscurely, a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s anguished epic Betty Blue tacked above her bed back home. (Well, that film had an eye-gouging in it, too.) Justine is recognized by the tribal elder (whose brute ministrations apparently out her as a virgin) and by a little tribal boy as someone special, someone not to be snacked upon, but what? A bride for the fearsome village bad-ass, maybe? The storytelling could be clearer at times, but the fear on view is always accessible.

Roth, like King, knows that horror has no business being politically correct. Its job is to deal harsh slaps to the nerves, to the lizard brain. It cuts through the hypocrisy of someone who, say, volunteers for organizations to aid the homeless but who might be frightened by a chance encounter, after dark alone in the city, with an actual homeless person. Fear doesn’t mix well with social conscience. The Green Inferno isn’t without humor, some of it perfectly ghastly (a stomach-challenging visual gag involving tattoos, for example), but Roth isn’t some callous prankster, either. The terror here has more to do with the ancient feeling of being in a place one doesn’t belong — think of Bluebeard’s admonition to his latest wife — than with xenophobia. Those who consider Roth an obnoxious gore-bro, horror’s answer to Tucker Max, will find little in The Green Inferno to sway them. But if you believe, as I do, that he’s trying to do more with the genre than just pay gleefully bloody homage to his ancestors, enjoy the meal.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

August 16, 2015

valerieweekofwonders2Grown-ups want to scare kids away from having sex too soon. Fairy tales are loaded with this agenda, and so are any fable-inflected movies about a young innocent’s fearful introduction to adult sexuality — David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Marielle Heller’s current Diary of a Teenage Girl. To this list we might add Jaromil Jireš’ Czechoslovakian surrealist gem Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which shares with Stephen King’s Carrie and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps a certain menstrual dread: when the girl becomes a woman, blood flows, and not just the expected blood.

Valerie, like the actress who played her at the time (Jaroslava Schallerová), is thirteen. She lives with her grandmother (Helena Anýžová) and pursues an odd relationship with a young man (Petr Kopriva) who may or may not be her brother. There is a horrid-looking vampire skulking around called the Polecat, and Grandmother seeks to sacrifice Valerie to him and become a vampire herself so as to gain eternal youth and get back together with her former lover, a repulsive priest who tries to molest Valerie. This bedtime story, with its knife-edged sexuality and nightmare logic, is decidedly not for children, though it uses what we would call adult themes to illustrate what children know instinctively anyway.

The visuals are positively swollen with metaphorical import, starting with the early image of a daisy dappled with blood. At one point, Valerie comes right out and says she’s asleep and dreaming, but that just seems like a reassurance to the more insecure viewers in the audience. Why do we demand that everything in a movie, especially one as elliptical as Valerie, make literal sense? Sometimes a movie is a story; sometimes it’s a song or a poem or a sketch. The story at the heart of Valerie is somewhat emotionally convoluted, premised as it is on yearning and dread. We may fear for Valerie, but she seldom fears for herself; she tells herself she’s dreaming, and therefore none of this is “really happening” to her, but she also could be aware that she’s in a fairy tale.

One thing Valerie knows, that all children know and grown-ups wish they didn’t, is that adults can’t be trusted. This is why Grandmother is all too willing to sell her granddaughter’s soul, and why the priest wants Valerie’s body. The movie isn’t saying anything as boring as “all grandmothers and priests are bad”; it’s more that grown-ups have their own angels and demons, incomprehensible to children on their side of the sexual equator. (In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, adult male sexuality is likened to the chittering of chthonic insects.) To understand grown-up madness is to cross over into it forever and to lose the magic of childhood, symbolized perhaps by Valerie’s enchanted earrings, which she’s always in danger of losing or having stolen from her.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and it’s full of nightmarish supernatural creatures and bizarre human behavior. Sexuality here grins and feeds and infects. It drives adults crazy, makes way for the sleep of reason that literally produces monsters. Valerie is a horror film, sort of, in that it touches on carnal terrors, but for Valerie herself it’s all a strange but wonderful journey — hence Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not Her Week of Trauma. The world surrounding Valerie is populated by corrupt men and weak women, who drain each other’s lifeblood figuratively. Valerie hasn’t quite entered that world yet; she sees it through a scrim created by being half in childhood and half in womanhood, so therefore she sees it as we see it through the film — jumbled and chaotic yet serenely menacing and darkly erotic. We see it all through Valerie’s unfrightened gaze. Like the best fairy tales, Valerie is voluptuously suggestive, a bit dangerous, and perfectly legible on its own subterranean terms.

What We Do in the Shadows

July 19, 2015

The secret of the great mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which comes to DVD this week, is that it would almost be as funny if it weren’t about vampires. But the vampires here, along with various werewolves, zombies, and the occasional human, are written so sharply and with such pungent idiosyncrasy that the comedy goes far beyond what you’d expect from a supernatural farce at this late date. The movie was written and directed by New Zealand comedians Jemaine Clement (of the musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, who also play two of the vamps, and their approach is generous, even affectionate. Everyone in the movie is allowed to be interesting, to seem as though they have inner lives and experiences outside the film.

Clement’s Vladislav is your typical lordly, disdainful goth vampire, but with odd insecurities and frailties that take him down a peg — since going up against a nemesis he calls The Beast, Vlad has never been the same. Waititi plays what could be considered Vlad’s opposite, Viago, an affable and conciliatory vampire — Michael Palin forty years ago would’ve played Viago to the hilt, and Waititi has some of Palin’s bluff friendliness, which in the context of vampirism is hilarious. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest of these vamps, who all live together in a grungy flat; Deacon used to be “a Nazi vampire” and is now stringing along a human familiar (Jackie Van Beek) who yearns for eternal life. Finally, there’s the hissing, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham), who’s eight thousand years old and exists in the flat’s basement.

The movie’s joke — that these vampires are essentially just idiot flatmates like the blokes on The Young Ones — deepens when regular guy Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is turned into a vamp by Petyr. Nick can get the other vamps into nightclubs they previously couldn’t get invited into (a great detail), but they prefer the company of Nick’s human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford), who works in IT. For some reason, the entirely boring Stu charms practically every supernatural being he comes across, and one can’t tell when he’s been hypnotized into being oblivious to unearthly events and when he’s just too dull to respond to them. The more often we see him, bland and potato-like, in the background of shots featuring bloodsuckers and zombies, the funnier Stu gets.

Yet this isn’t a hip, cold comedy: Because our vampires care about Stu’s safety, we do too. What We Do in the Shadows pokes gently relentless fun at the mope-rock self-seriousness of vamps, goths, self-styled outsiders, without really attacking what they are. The sensibility is Christopher Guest’s democratic mockumentary vibe by way of the self-parodic pomp of Morrissey. The unsmiling Vladislav actually has reasons to be gloomy, but that doesn’t seriously affect the fun. The budget was obviously low, but the few visual effects always pack a witty punch, particularly when two of the vamps get into a “bat fight.” If you thought it was no longer possible to mine the vampire film for fresh laughs, and even for unexpected pathos, you have a treat in store.


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