Archive for the ‘horror’ category

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.

Naciye

March 20, 2016

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You don’t truly appreciate a standard film technique used competently until you’ve seen it used ineptly. Take flashbacks. Used well, they can change up or unify a movie’s tone as well as strengthening theme and character, and they do this without confusing the audience. And then you have a film like Lutfu Emre Cicek’s Naciye (soon to get a limited release after some festival activity last fall), which almost seems to be a lesson in how to use flashbacks to baffle the viewer and for no other purpose. This gory Turkish horror film, whose only lively bits are clumsily- realized murders, also pads itself out egregiously in the telling of a fairly simple tale: A woman, the eponymous Naciye (Derya Alabora), has been illegally living in a house for years, and when anyone threatens to dislodge her, she goes berserk.

Leaving aside the perhaps overly literal question of how Naciye’s squatting and killing have gone unnoticed by the cops for decades, we follow a young couple — a pregnant woman and her boyfriend — as they come to live in the home, which they don’t realize is occupied. This couple, and especially the woman, are obnoxiously miserable, so we don’t care very much whether they live or die. The suspicion arises that the script makes the woman pregnant so we’ll care about the fetus, at least. The woman walks around the house endlessly, noticing details that indicate someone else has lived there recently and may still live there. Meanwhile, Naciye lurks in the home, sometimes aided by a mysterious man, or is it two men?

The flashbacks, dumped into the narrative with no particular motivating incident, are supposed to clarify things but end up muddying them considerably. We see Naciye as a girl whose mom, I guess, cleaned the house for a man who, I guess, routinely raped her. This trauma led to Naciye staying in the home forever, and there are other familial twists. None of which have much relevance to the main narrative. About the only point of interest is the movie’s critique of its culture’s misogyny, a concern that links it to a far better Turkish film, the crude but harsh and elemental Yol. The pregnant woman’s boyfriend seems to try on sexist attitudes for size, maybe because he remembers his father or even grandfather saying the same things. The movie isn’t sexist: we see here, in a horror/thriller context, how hatred of women blooms out of fear of them. The men here have no power — the women carry life (literally) or death.

But that makes Naciye sound so much more interesting than it is. Slow and repetitive, with the flashbacks done in the same bland, unemphatic style as the contemporary scenes, the movie feeds a few people to Naciye to stab full of holes, then to bury (is this place so secluded that nobody notices corpses being rolled into graves in broad daylight?). The film runs only 78 minutes but feels twice as long, and seems to have just enough story for a film half as long. Lutfu Emre Cicek does have an eye; the widescreen compositions speak elegantly of isolation. But the story he’s telling with those images overstays its welcome and outlives our patience. It’s yet another calling-card film like It Follows, not born of the genuine fear and obsession that distinguish real horror, but out of a desire to make something “cool” inspired by one’s betters.

Flesh for the Inferno

November 1, 2015

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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

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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

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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.

Freaks

October 11, 2015

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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

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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.


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