Friday, October 31, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead (1985)

I have a confession to make: for the longest time this was my favorite Romero zombie movie. It was the first of his films I saw, which probably has something to do with it -though I'd definitely seen bits of Night and Dawn, probably through Fangoria. It came out when I was still in high school and video rentals were just getting going. The one movie theater in town had closed - not that they would have shown an unrated movie to begin with. While Evil Dead was the very first movie I rented, I think Day was in the very next batch of tapes.

I don't think it being the first was the only reason, though, as it remained my favorite of the bunch for a decade or more - long after I'd see the others. There was the gore, of course. The effects remain some of the most well-done of any horror movie - from 'Dr. Tongue' through the exposed brain to Rhode's disembowlment. Tom Savini is at his peak in Day and you can see his influence in every zombie productions since. (Particularly in The Walking Dead - special effects supervisor/co-executive producer Gerg Nicotero's first film was Day of the Dead, where he worked on both special effects and in front of the camera as Private Johnson.)   There was also the dark, introspective, almost nihilistic tone - particularly attractive to me as a depressive, introspective, and nihilistic teenager.

...down the halls of my local high school. Oh, wait, that's me.

But if I'm honest there's really only one reason why Day held the top spot in my affections for so long - and that reason is Bub.

The 80's had a lot of what I call 'character monsters.' In the 30's you had Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, Mummy, and others - protagonists as well as antagonists. In the 80's there was Jason and Michael and Freddy. Monsters that had their own agency - and fan followings. And there was Bub - a zombie, yes, but also a fully realized character who is also arguably one of the heroes of the movie. Out of all the 80's movie monsters, he was my favorite.

As I got older my tastes widened somewhat (though they remain relatively shallow), and Day has fallen out of favor. Night is now my favorite of the Romero films, followed by Dawn. I still love Bub, though. Even as I type this I've got the Amok Time Bub figure staring at me, his reward bucket at his side.

The Medium
I've got the two disk DVD (DiviMax) Anchor Bay release from 2003. It was an excellent release for the time - with a ton of extras, including two commentary tracks, hundreds of stills, a documentary and even a PDF of the 'first draft' script. It still looks very good for a DVD, but if you're thinking about picking the film up in HD, the new Scream Factory release seems to be the way to go, if only for the new feature length documentary. (It also includes the commentary tracks from the Anchor Bay release.)

The Movie
A woman wakes in a white, cinderblock room. On the far wall is a calendar with the month of October showing. All the days have been crossed off. It's October 31, Halloween. She approaches and holds her hand out to touch the picture, an idyllic presentation of a family in a sunny pumpkin patch. Suddenly numerous rotting hands burst through the wall to grasp at her. And she wakes again, this time she's in a helicopter flying low over what appears to be an abandoned coastal city. But appearances can be deceiving...

I want to make a 'watch the hands' joke here.

In some ways this is my favorite section of the movie. The opening bit with the white room/zombie hands is cool and startling, but it's the all-too brief exploration of the abandoned city that really sticks in my head. All those empty streets, the abandoned vehicles, the debris, the alligator. I think this was really the first time the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse was presented - so many films before and since are occupied  more with the apocalypse itself, rather than the results (though I'm sure there are exceptions). The Walking Dead has been great at following up on this, though - and the early episode scenes with Rick in the remains of Atlanta remind me of this sequence in Day.

Zombie apocalypse or San Francisco after the Giants won?

Of course the city isn't really abandoned - it just doesn't belong to the living any more. The new occupants respond to the sounds of people shouting over a megaphone and the dead spill out into the streets, looking for fresh meat. (Amongst these zombies is one of the greatest zombie effects on film - the so-called 'Dr. Tongue' zombie, who has apparently had his face blown away by a shotgun blast - his lower jaw almost gone, his tongue flicking about in the breeze. (I ran an All Flesh Must be Eaten game that included a jawless zombie - one character was gummed and the others almost shot him, thinking he'd been bit.)

Faced with the obvious - that there are no survivors in the city, or at least none that can respond - the helicopter leaves and returns to the military instillation that is their base of operations. It's an underground complex set in a old mine, a place where a ton of things, including boats and old government documents, are stored. This is where the movie settles down into its real story - about a military that wants control, scientists who want to understand, and two guys who want to just enjoy the last dying embers of a world that's already burnt to a crisp.

On the military side we have Captain Rhodes, a high strung commander with only the most tenuous hold on his men and his sanity. His second in command is Steel, a blowhard and a bully. A number of other soldiers round out the unit, including the barely-holding-it-together Miguel.

This is the least shouty picture of Rhodes I could find.

 For the scientists we have the extremely tough and capable Sarah (the woman we met earlier) and Fisher (played by John Amplas, who was also the title character in Romero's Martin). I'm... not exactly sure what it is they do, exactly - supposedly they're looking for whatever caused the outbreak of undead. The lead scientist is a man named Logan, though all the soldiers call him Frankenstein. I know what Logan does - he experiments on zombies. Sometimes he carves them up - there's a memorable scene in his lab that includes a brainstem still attached to a body and a zombie that literally spills its guts - and sometimes he trains them.

"And the good news is... well, there is no good news."

The third group is in some ways the most interesting, but is also the least active in the plot. John, the pilot, and Bill McDermott, the radio operator. They're outsiders both figuratively and literally - they even live outside the underground complex, instead setting up a homey trailer deep within the mine itself. While the other groups struggle to find meaning and reason in a world gone mad both John and Bill are just trying to get by - doing their jobs, but nothing more.

"Why is there no food on this plate, mon."

Most of the film is about the conflict between the soldiers and the scientists. Rhodes wants answers - really, what he wants is a solution to the problem they have, which is that the dead are coming back to life and civilization has gone down the toilet. The scientists are struggling with more basic questions - like HOW the dead are coming back to life and WHY. That is, except for Logan - who really is trying to figure out a solution, unfortunately his research requires a steady stream of 'subjects' from a corral of zombies the military keeps in the mine, and that leads to the inevitable collapse of structure and the deaths of (almost) everyone involved.

I actually skipped a group, and it's an egregious error on my part. The zombies themselves form a distinct fourth group, represented by the one zombie that Logan has managed to train - Bub. The other zombies do what zombies do, mill about aimlessly until a living brain ambles by and then they get real focused. Bub has regained some contact with what he used to be before he died. He tries to shave with a razor, read a book - he even listens to Beethoven with an expression of surprise and, maybe, joy on his face. Bub, in some ways, represents a hope for the future- the possibility of human experience living on beyond death.

Though you can tell he's not quite there because he's skipping to the end of the book.

All the other characters don't seem to represent anything but hopelessness, really. The military just want to shoot their way out of everything, a physical and military solution that has no chance of succeeding. But the scientists are just as deluded - they're looking for an answer where there may be none, assuming that answering a hypothetical WHY is more noble and useful than just trying to get on with HOW. And John and Bill are really the worst - though their point of view seems to be the one Romero favors. And that point of view seems to be "we fucked everything up and even if we didn't God hates us so let's just give up." The sum total of human civilization, achievement and history should be dumped and forgotten. Yeah, there's a lot of absolute crap saved away in deep places as if it should mean something, but there's a lot of good as well. Baby. Bathwater. Whatever man, let's just get high and have babies that we never teach about anything. (And how offensive is John as a character, looking back at it - a lazy, weed-smoking black man from Jamaica? )

As long as I'm aimlessly ranting, WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT CLOWN?

Man, there's just something about this movie that provokes me to ramble about nothing - I guess because that's what most of the movie seems to be about, rambling about nothing. Luckily we get a lot of gory zombie-related goodness in between the shouty bits and an extended zombie assault on the base that provides some of the only comedy available in the film. Bub is awesome and Sherman Howard just kills with his performance - bringing more life and humanity to a zombie than most of the other human characters provide.

The Bottom Line
On one level Day of the Dead is a depressing shitstorm of violence, nihilism, pseudo-philosophical bullshit and indictments of both the military and science. On another it's a thoughtful, introspective look at what humanity means and what, if anything, is worth saving about it. And on yet another level it's a gory zombie romp with a fantastic zombie character and fantastic effects sequences.

I feel like I've been overly hard on Day while writing this - and the truth is it's only in the dissection of the film that I get annoyed with it. As a whole, I still very much enjoy the film - and Bub forever, man. Bub forever.

No, we salute YOU, Bub. We salute YOU.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Frightmare (1974, aka Cover Up)

Frightmare (1974 - AKA Cover Up)

I had this recommended to me by someone on one of the previous 31 Days threads. I have a movie also called Frightmare that my brother Scott gave to me as a gag gift. It looks terrible and I've never even opened the shrink-wrap on it. (It's also known as Paranoid.) There's yet another film called Frightmare from 1983 (aka Horror Star) that also looks to be pretty terrible. I haven't seen it, though I remember thinking the poster looked like that of a kickass heavy metal band (it has everything you want - skulls, snakes, knives and zombies).

Luckily, I also have a copy of the ORIGINAL Frightmare from 1974. This one is written and directed by Peter Walker, who also did House of Whipcord and House of the Long Shadows. I'm happy to report that this is a significantly better film than either of subsequent versions appear to be. (Though, to be fair, I'm only going on reviews and trailers for those films.)

The Medium
I recently found a copy of the 2000 Euroshock Collection DVD for $2.97 at Bull Moose. It's a bare-bones affair with nothing on the disk but the film itself. The picture quality is so-so, with many scenes appearing either washed out or too dark to make out details. Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version in March of this year and it looks significantly better (at least from the stills) and also includes a commentary track, featurette and interview. If you can find the Blu-ray, that looks like the way to go.

This also looks to be available via streaming on Amazon (free with Prime).

The Movie
In 1957 a court commits Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental hospital for a series of horrific crimes. Eighteen years later they're released, and Edmund's daughter from a previous marriage - Jackie - checks in on them from time to time. Unfortunately, she begins to suspect that her mom may be having a relapse...

FYI - she's having a relapse.

Meanwhile, Jackie's half-sister Debbie is behaving badly. She's out at all hours of the night, egging her boyfriend into fights over imagined or invented slights and screaming epithets at her sister. Though Jackie's new boyfriend, Graham, tries to intervene and help Debbie deal with her abandonment and parental issues - but Debbie knows a lot more than she lets on, and she may be very much her mother's girl.

One of the few moments she's not yelling at someone.

Wow. So, low budget to the extreme. Very 1970's. Pacing is a bit weird and plot twists are telegraphed a mile away. And yet... there's a lot more depth than I expected here. There's commentary on family dynamics, particularly in blended families, and poor Jackie finds out just what it's like to be the stepdaughter sometimes. There's an indictment of modern psychiatry and the very idea that anyone with a mental illness can be 'cured.' It's a crap stance, but an interesting one to explore in a horror context. There's the idea that love can be an enabling force, a weakness that allows evil to grow.

And then there's Dorothy. Sheila Keith is just amazing as the mother with an 'appetite' issue. She's at turns violent, kind, wheedling, sneaky, open, fearful, manipulative and maternal. Sometimes all of these in one scene. She brings a depth and gravitas to the role without making Dorothy the least bit sympathetic. In one particular scene she uses a feigned weakness to turn Jackie's father against her, and the look of sly, cunning glee on her face is genuinely disturbing.

This sequence is also pretty disturbing.

Because Dorothy has indeed relapsed. And as she's a psychotic cannibal, that's very problematic. She's placing ads in newspapers advertising tarot readings for the lonely and depressed. She's got tarot cards, a unique ability to read the very lonely, and a power drill. And she's going to use them all (plus a red hot fireplace poker).

Debbie, meanwhile, has started to show signs of the very same tendency. Soon the police are involved and Jackie and Graham race to try and help her. Unfortunately for them, Debbie already HAS help.

"Guess who mom likes better!"

Cinematography is hard to judge, given the quality of the DVD, but it seems some thought has been given to lighting, anyway. Jackie's apartment (and that of her friends) is bright, white and clear. Dorothy and Edmund's farmhouse is dark and lit with firelight most of the time, and it seems to get darker as the film progresses. Acting is above average - with Sheila Keith being a standout, of course, and Rupert Davies bringing his traditional low-key gravitas. Deborah Fairfax and Kim Butcher, as Jackie and Debbie respectively, are not quite at their level - and Butcher in particular has a tendency to yell instead of emote, but they're both charismatic and attractive. Paul Greenwood as Graham is a little too understated, but works well enough as the 'good guy.'

"That's when I knew I was not favorite."

The general presentation is that of an early 70's exploitation film, but the skill of the filmmakers and the performances elevate things slightly.

The Bottom Line
I genuinely enjoyed this film. It's a bit threadbare in spots, but the performances - particularly of Sheila Keith, who I just cannot praise enough - are quite good, the writing is above average for a horror film, and the ratio of plot/action/gore is good enough to keep things moving at a decent clip. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's a surprisingly good exploitation film.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Creepshow 1 & 2

It's catchup time! Monday and Tuesday nights movies were of a theme - Stephen King and George Romero collaborations. No Dark Half, though.


George Romero. Stephen King. EC Comics... well, in spirit, anyway. Creepshow was a staple of Halloween in my teens - one of those films that always got rented (if it was available, that is) around the 31st. It has a certain kind of ghoulish glee that I associate with a childhood love of monsters and horror movies. When horror was fun AND creepy. (One of the reasons I love Trick r Treat is that it seems to embrace that same level of love for Halloween.)

Back in 1982, when Creepshow was released, I hadn't actually seen any EC comics. I think they were out of print at the time, or only available via expensive hardcover reprints. Instead I associated the movie with the more palid horror comics that DC put out in the 70's - The Witching Hour, House of Secrets and House of Mystery. I loved those comics - the illustrated equivalent of a fire-side ghost story - and never realized that they were watered down by the Comics Code Authority until much later, when I finally got to see copies of Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror.

At one point I had the comic adaptation, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, and I just about wore it out reading it. I wish I still had a copy, but it's disappeared in the intervening years - perhaps finally falling apart or maybe just lurking in a comic box in the basement, biding its time until it can lurch forth and... I dunno, give me a paper cut or something.

The Medium
I've got the Warner Brothers DVD release which has the widescreen on one side and a full screen version on the other (both written on a tiny black band around the center hole and impossible to read in dim light). The 'special features' are pretty much the trailer - I'm not calling 'interactive menus' and 'scene access' special. From what I understand the US Blu-ray release also only includes the trailer. I'd love to have some commentary, some featurettes on the creature/makeup design, info on the Berni Wrightson comic adaptation... ah well.

The Movie
I'm breaking this out by segment.

Both the prologue and epilogue feature a boy named Billy and his parents. In the prologue Billy's getting a dressing down by his father for reading horror comics. After a fatherly slap across Billy's face the comics are thrown out. While a self-satisfied dad sits in his easy chair Billy sits upstairs, cursing his father. At the window appears The Creep from his horror comic, beckoning Billy to come closer...

The boy, if I remember correctly, is played by one of Stephen King's sons. Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween 3) is the dad.

"Father's Day"
This starts things of in typical EC comics style, with a wealthy family of degenerates and a family secret. Every Father's day the Granthams get together to remember their patriarch, a domineering and abusive man named Nathan Grhantham. The youngest of the group has a new husband, which conveniently allows for the rest of the family to tell him the tale of Nathan's murder - by his own daughter - many years before.

This is Aunt Bedelia, who arrives late and goes to the old man's grave to drink and curse at him for having her lover killed (the event that precipitated Grantham's murder). She spills her drink on the grave and, seemingly in response, Nathan rises from the ground and sets about killing people and asking - in a literally gravel-filled voice - for his Father's Day cake.

"120 years old and still go all my own teeth!"

This is actually my least favorite segment, but it's still loads of fun. Watching Ed Harris be the hick is a hoot, and the maggoty remains of Nathan Grantham are a memorable effect (as is the Father's Day cake he eventually makes for himself). The segment also establishes the visual theme for the entire movie - bright reds and blues with graphic backgrounds reminiscent of EC comics. Transitions and end sequences are often in actual comic book format and some scenes are even shown with a traditional comic book 'gutter' - the white area around each frame.

"The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril"
A down-on-his-luck farmer sees a meteor crash on his property and goes to investigate. Dreams of selling it to the local college are dashed when he pours cold water on the steaming meteorite, cracking it. He puts the pieces in a bucket - after pouring the glowing contents of the hollow meteorite into the crater - and goes to have a beer and watch wrestling.

Soon he realizes that the fingers he used to touch the meteorite are turning green - growing fuzzy with something plant like. Over the course of the evening the growth gets worse - everywhere he's touched and been. "Not down there!" Oh yes, down there too. Outside, the cabin is becoming overgrown and plant life spreads in a circle out from the crater.

"Did I scratch my ass? Oh God...."

In a desperate attempt to alleviate the itching Jordy jumps into a tub full of water - but that's just what the green growth wants. In the end Jordy finds a way out, but given the weather report the rest of the world may not be so lucky.

Let's just say up front that acting is not one of Stephen King's strong suits. I've always had a soft spot for this segment, though. Watching it again this time I realized a chapter in my Monster War novel - where a lawn comes to life and tries to kill the heroes - is completely inspired by this segment. I didn't realize it at the time, but it's obvious looking at it now.

"Something to Tide You Over"
This segment could also be called "Leslie Nielsen, Super Asshole" - just like Day of the Animals.  A wealthy man finds out he's been cuckolded and takes revenge on his wife and her lover by burying them in the sand up to their necks and waiting for the tide to come in. He even watches the whole thing on remote video. Unfortunately for him, they come back. And it doesn't matter how long he can hold his breath.

"Do you have a few moments to talk about Dagon?"

This one is always fun. Nielsen is a ham sandwich of crazy, but it's fun to watch. Ted Dansen is more interesting as a water-logged corpse than he is as the lover. The makeup effects are great - particularly the spurt of dark water when the zombies are shot.

"The Crate"
A college custodian finds a crate under the stairs and calls a professor, Dexter Stanley, as it appears to be very old. When the two open the crate a monster inside attacks and kills the custodian. Stanly flees, running into a grad student who also ends up being killed by the monster. Even more distraught, Stanley flees to the house of his friend, fellow professor Henry Northrup.

Northrup, a mild-mannered man who is severely hen-pecked by his wife Billie, sees the crate and the monster as an opportunity to rid himself of his wife for good. He sets about cleaning the mess before luring his wife to the college, where the crate - and the monster - wait.

C'mon, that monster is awesome!

This has always been my favorite. I just love monster stories, and the thing in the crate is a great monster. Yeah, upon close look it's just a monkey with sharp teeth - but damn, it's effective. Hal Holbrook as Henry and Adrienne Barbeau as Wilma "Call me Billie" Northrup are pretty good, but Fritz Weaver is fantastic - one of the few times in a horror movie I've seen an adult male actor appear believably traumatized by the goings on.

Also, is it just me, or is this the basic plot for Relic? Just me? Okay then.

"They're Creeping Up on You"
A ruthless businessman, Upson Pratt, who's afraid of germs and bugs spends the night fighting cockroaches in his pristine, hermetically sealed apartment. When the power goes out because of a storm the insects invade in a flood and Pratt locks himself in his bedroom - which is no escape.

This one is always fun as well - unless you're afraid of cockroaches, in which case you might want to skip it. E. G. Marshall plays Pratt so over the top villainous that you're pretty happy when he finally gets his comeuppance. The effect of all those bugs bursting out of his body is a pretty gross.

He is SO not getting his deposit back.

A pair of garbage men - one played by Tom Savini - find the comic from the prologue still in the trash. They look it over and discover that an ad for a 'real' voodoo doll has already had the order form sent. Back in the house Billy jabs away at the voodoo doll as his father screams in pain.

The Bottom Line
Creepshow is always a good time. It's not the best work of either King or Romero, but it's got a sense of wicked fun to it that really captures the comics it's inspired by. As with those old EC comics there's a definite sense of old-testament revenge running through the segments, with bad people getting exactly what they deserve. (Except for poor Jordy, that is.) It doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny, but it's a fun movie to watch while the ghouls and goblins queue up for some candy.

Creepshow 2

Five years after the first Creepshow was a surprise hit at the box office we got Creepshow 2, with a screenplay by George Romero based on short stories by Stephen King.

I haven't actually watched Creepshow 2 since it was released. I didn't like it much, though I do remember croaking "thanks for the ride" to friends whenever they dropped me off. Though the segments were based on existing King stories and something I wanted to see, the general quality and tone of the film was significantly different from the original and had lost most of the 'wink wink, nudge nudge, aren't we having fun with this horrible stuff' aspect as well. It no longer felt like a labor of love - more like a budgetary decision.

The Medium
Creepshow 2 is available via Netflix streaming. The image is fine, but it's not really a movie that demands a high-def picture. In general the cinematography is just above TV movie quality - a disappointment, seeing as the director is the cinematographer from the first film.

The Movie
I'm breaking this out by segments again.

Framing Sequence
The animated sequence this time runs more of a story throughout the film. It follows a young boy named Billy (no relation to the kid from the first film) as he excitedly receives a new copy of the Creepshow comic from The Creep himself (played by Tom Savini). Over the course of the film he receives a venus flytrap in the mail (ordered through the Creepshow comic, natch), runs afoul of some bullies who crush his precious flytrap, kicks one of the bullies in the crotch and flees to a deserted clearing where the bullies are devoured by enormous flytraps. The animation is serviceable, if jerky, and has no real mood or atmosphere to it.

"Old Chief Woodenhead"
This is a terrible segment. It follows an elderly couple who own a general store in a dying town. They've got a wooden, cigar store type indian out front that they call Chief Woodenhead. The local Native American elder gives them a number of tribal valuables as collateral for debt the tribe owes the kindly store keepers. Later the nephew of the elder kills the couple in a botched robbery. Old Chief Woodenhead comes to life and wreaks vengeance on the killers.

Does no one else find this problematic?

This is really annoying on a number of levels, but it's also just not very good. The effects are okay, but there's more time spent waxing poetic about the bad guys' hair then in the stalking and killing. And I have no idea what to make of the whole Native American/White paternal figure/Spirt of Vengeance crap.

"The Raft"
Just FYI, in Maine such a device - a free-floating wooden platform for swimmers - is called a float.

Two young couples head fifty miles into the middle of nowhere to go swimming at a lake in October. Some kind of malevolent oil slick stalks them and kills them one by one.

"Guys I think I'm okay."

This is actually one of my favorite King short stories (though it suffers from Inappropriate Sexy Times in both the print and film versions). This adaptation is... okay. Actually, it's not bad. It's definitely the best of the bunch. It's pretty suspenseful at times and the effects are fairly well done when the creature is attacking. At all other times it looks like a dirty floating tarp. The only likeable character is killed first, which leaves us with jackasses for most of the segment - but they all go in bad ways, so I guess that's okay.

"The Hitch-Hiker"
Wealthy adultress creams a hitch-hiker. Said hitch-hiker then keeps appearing as she goes to greater and greater lengths to rid herself of him. Each time he appears (more and more damaged from her attempts to dislodge/kill him) he mutters "Thanks. Thanks for the ride, lady."

"I'm just going to Brewer - you can let me off at the exit."

This one is okay too. Not great, not good, but okay. The gore effects are well done and the only humor in three segments is found in this one, particularly with the repetition of "Thanks for the ride, lady."

The Bottom Line
There's no heart in this film. While the first one had fun with the concept - lighting and framing and even the general tone of the segments - this one is simply a straightforward horror anthology dressed up with some animation. And it's not even a particularly good anthology. I'd suggest watching "The Raft" and skipping the rest.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

I never even heard of this film until recently. It was apparently released in the US for the first time in 2009, and only sporadically elsewhere in what might have been bootleg versions. It's Argento's third film and is sometimes referenced as the final part of his 'Animal Trilogy' - along with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o' Nine Tails. (There's really no connection other than the titles, so FFoGV can be safely watched without having seen the other films.)

I went into this knowing nothing about it, except that it was an Argento film I hadn't seen. (There are a few, actually, but this was the only one I that was completely new to me.) My enjoyment of the film may be outsized compared to the actual quality (and the quality of later films, like Deep Red or Suspiria), but that's probably a result of watching it so soon after Fulci's A Cat in the Brain. The difference in level of quality and skill was pretty striking.

The Medium
I watched Four Flies on Grey Velvet via streaming. The quality was decent, though not HD. It had the '40 missing seconds' added, but in Italian and without subtitles. If the movie is ever released on Blu-ray in the US, I'll probably pick it up.

The Movie
Roberto is a drummer in a rock band. (All the music is provided by Enio Morricone and there's prog-rock, jazz and some electronic sounding stuff.)  There's a mysterious figure following him around after rehearsals and even during the day. One night he finally confronts the stalker, having followed them to an abandoned theater. The stalker pulls a knife, they struggle and in the melee Roberto stabs the stalker. This is bad enough, but there's also someone else in the theater. Someone wearing a creepy puppet mask takes pictures of Robert standing over the body, holding the bloody knife. Roberto runs, but is soon contacted by the person who took the pictures. They're not going to the police, no - they want to torment Robert, before killing him.

"This was not at all how I saw my day going."

Man this is a stylish film. I know that's like Argento's thing, but there's some really awesome cinematography and framing in this film.  Right off the bat we've got shots from the inside of a guitar, slow spins to reveal people standing outside of windows, and a shot of a fly between two cymbals with the drummer out of focus behind it. It's just so visually interesting compared to Fulci's straightforward compositions. 

Also, that puppet mask? That is damn creepy. I kind of wish it had kept appearing throughout the film, but it's not that sort of giallo.


I'm not sure what to make of Roberto. He seems a likeable enough guy, but he's also willing to cover up his involvement in a man's death. He appears to be somewhat distant and isolated, even from his beautiful wife and his band mates. Maybe that's just the stress he's under, but it ended up having the effect of leaving me feeling distanced from him as well.

"I just feel flat and uninspired, you know?"
"Something feels flat and uninspired."

There's a shot that appears to be a cemetery. Headstones in a white glare, over-exposed. Then the contrast starts to drop, the glare fades... and it's a public square on a middle-eastern country. What we thought were tombstones are actually the curved entrances into the surrounding building. There's a public execution going on and we watch the executioner begin his work. This is a recurring dream that Roberto has and is one of the few potentially supernatural touches in the film - if we take it as a premonition. Though it's just as likely that it's a representation of Roberto's increasing fear and paranoia, mixed with a story told at a party.

The blackmailer invades Roberto's house, leaving pictures of the killing. They even enter at night and almost kill Roberto with a garrote before telling him that they want him to suffer first. At this point I'd be going to the police, murder rap or no, but instead Robert seeks out the advice of God.

Not the God you were expecting, I'm sure.

I don't generally expect a Dario Argento film to be funny. So when Roberto goes to talk to his friend Godfrey and calls out 'hey God!' and there's a burst of music and a chorus singing 'hallelujah!' I almost snorted my drink. There's a substantial amount of humor in the film - between a bumbling mailman, God and the Professor (two homeless gentlemen), and a gay detective. Whether it works for anyone else or not, I actually enjoyed the humor. It's a little jarring, but the scenes - particularly with God and the Professor talking to Roberto at a Funeral Arts convention - are just hilarious to me. (One of the people at the convention tries lying in a coffin only to complain that it's a little too tight. The response of the vendor - "None of our customers have ever come back with a complaint...")

Roberto spends a lot of the film in this exact pose.

The gay detective is way too over the top, but the actor is so good in the role that I can almost forgive the cartoony nature of the presentation. I found myself wishing the entire movie was about this guy on his quest to finally solve a case. He's only around for a short time, though, and he's sorely missed after an unfortunate meeting with the killer. I was pretty impressed that there was a positively portrayed gay character in a giallo in 1971, even if he's almost a caricature.

Roberto, second guessing the 'and expenses' part of the deal with Detective Arrosio.

There are a number of plot twists and turns of course. This is, after all, an Argento film. Murders are highly stylized affairs with inventive and almost beautiful imagery. A maid out to blackmail the blackmailer is in a park full of people during the day - and then she's suddenly alone at night, locked in with the blackmailer (who quickly becomes a killer). A cousin of Roberto's wife is a suspect - until she too is murdered in spectacular style.

And then - oh dear. The 'last image can be recovered from the victim's eyes' crap. This is why I quit watching Fringe the first time it aired.  It's still dumb... but it does look kinda cool, with eyeballs, lasers, glass globes, and a blurry image projected on a circular screen.

Very dumb, but very cool.

The end comes quickly after the reveal of the murderer - there's some crappy pop psychology, slow motion bullet time (decades before The Matrix - though it's pretty limited), slow motion car crash decapitations and more prog-rock soundtrack music than you can shake a stick at. Does it all make sense? Probably not - though it felt more coherent than some of Argento's films.

The acting is fairly decent, if broad, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dubbing. Mimsy Farmer as Roberto's wife Nina is a standout, as is Jean-Pierre Marielle as the detective Arrosio. The final confrontation was marred by the inclusion of several seconds that had been excluded from previous versions of the film. These are mostly part of a sequence in which the killer explains their actions and are all in Italian with no subtitles. So I was left with the impression that the killer had gone crazy because sometimes they just randomly speak in Italian.

"See you in your nightmares!"

The Bottom Line
This is a really enjoyable giallo with all that entails - including elaborate killings, stylish people and settings, and some convoluted plot twists. It may not represent Argento at the height of his powers, but it's still a pretty entertaining film.

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: A Cat in the Brain

The first film of my weekend theme, which was: Films by Famous Italian Horror Directors That I Haven't Seen. Hope to have the second later today - trying to get caught up!

A Cat in the Brain (AKA Nightmare Concert)

A Cat in the Brain is a weird little film, which I know sounds redundant when I'm talking about a Lucio Fulci movie. It's kind of a clip-show - with some of the gorier bits of previous Fulci movies edited in around a framing story about a director that may or may not be going mad. And the director in question is Lucio Fulci - and by that I mean he's playing himself. A simplified highly stylized version of himself, I'm sure, but it makes everything that goes on so much weirder.

I had the film described to me as a proto-meta horror movie, a direct precursor to movies like Wes Craven's New Nightmare. A commentary on both horror movies in general and on Fulci horror movies in specific. Of course I also had it described to me as the lazy 'greatest hits' tour of a hack director out of original ideas, so there's that.

I rented the 2009 DVD from Grindhouse Releasing. Normally this is a 2 DVD set with extras on the second DVD, but I got it from Netflix so it was only the main disk. There are some trailers and a Q&A with Fulci at Fangoria's 1996 Weekend of Horrors. Not sure what's on the second disk, but there's no commentary track on the film itself. The picture is fine for a DVD.

Maybe there's an extra with Fulci's tips on firearms.

The Movie
There's an opening sequence in which someone - presumably Fulci - sits at a large desk, working on something. The camera descends... and suddenly we're inside his soft, pink, bloody brain. And then a cat starts tearing at it. Two cats, maybe. Tearing with their claws and devouring bits of brain.

Given the context of the rest of the film this is an interesting metaphor for the strange and disturbing ideas and imagery that are the obsession of horror film directors. What kind of brain is it that comes up with things like splinters in eyeballs and feeding people to pigs? A disturbed brain, a brain with some kind of creature pulling and tearing. Geez - I'd hate to see what kind of things are playing with my soft grey matter. Probably spiders.

After that we have some clips from Touch of Death, which involves a cannibal. Lots of gory shots of dismemberment. We then see that this is the film Lucio Fulci is working on, and after finishing the last shot (the feeding to pigs scene) he calls for lunch. However when he arrives at the restaurant he can't get past visions of the film - a filet and steak tartar just remind him of the awful things he's just shot. He ends up leaving the restaurant and going home.

"I'm less concerned with the steak Tartar and more with why I dressed in plaid today."

It seems that the horrific visions he creates in front of the camera are starting to infect his normal  life. He starts to have hallucinations in which normal, day-to-day occurrences become terrible recreations of bits of his movies (or new bits - I'll admit to not recognizing every gory moment as being from another film). Worried that he's becoming unstable and losing his grip on reality he goes to a psychiatrist who advises him that he's 'breaking down the barriers between what's real and what you film." Yeah, helpful, thanks doc.

"Trust me, I'm a doctor!"

Pressure mounts on Fulci, as he appears to be filming two movies at once. One of them appears to be a soft-core porn movie about Nazis and sadism, and Fulci questions the point of even making these sorts of films anymore. A German film crew arrives to interview him, but an extended hallucination of shooting another Nazi scene occurs and in the aftermath Fulci finds that he's assaulted the film crew.

Fulci doesn't appear to pulling a lot of punches in this film - he's not out to make himself look good. In the hallucination of shooting the Nazi orgy he's presented as both voyeuristic and even fueling the events - licking his lips and urging the actors on to even more degrading acts. That he looks a little like a bumbling professor most of the time makes those moments when he's acting the degenerate all the more disturbing.

This looks like a selfie gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Soon his psychiatrist has decided to take advantage of Fulci's problem, hypnotizing the hapless director into thinking that the hallucinations are real and that he's descending into madness, committing horrible murders. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist, Professor Swharz, takes out his rage at his wife's infidelity by murdering prostitutes. This... is all pretty ridiculous. The good doctor looks absurd in a hoody and enormous grin. I think he's supposed to be setting up Fulci to take the fall for these, but it's honestly not very clear (Fulci film - should have expected). He even had an epic villain speech where he announces his intentions and waxes about how stupid it is to blame real-life violence on movies - but it's to an empty room, so kinda wasted.

Why is he so happy? He looks ridiculous.

Fulci's visions get worse and worse. Pretty much every mundane thing - a drink, a microwaved dinner, a local girl in a wheelchair - all turn into visions of some horrific moment from his films. (The film clips are all the gory bits and come frequently - they're all low-budget, but entertaining in their own way. The burnt girl in the wheelchair is particularly creepy, though.) Eventually, convinced that the murders he's seeing on the TV are things he's done, he calls a detective friend, presumably to confess. However, the detective is on vacation, so Fulci goes once again to the psychiatrist.

Time to fire the gardener.

At one point he's driving down a road and starts chasing a guy who flees directly down the road, of course, never thinking to move the side into the trees. (I'd give him more crap about that, but I've seen Prometheus.) Hilariously, this guy - who seems to be homeless - recognizes the man trying to run him down and yells "What's the matter with you, Fulci?" Like Lucio Fulci is famous enough that random people on the street recognize him. Like if I was walking and Wes Craven tried to run me down. What's your problem, Wes? And then, just when I'm thinking Fulci only wants to get by and to his destination, he runs the homeless guy over. Like four times.

It's a hallucination of course. Most of the film is of poor Fulci reacting to these horrible scenes he's created. There's a lot of subtext about art and whether the man who creates monsters must be a monster himself, but it's all throwaway - more sub-subtext. While Fulci is honestly horrified to see these things outside of their context - the film set - within the film production context he actively seeks out and revels in them. The film crew that he assaults seems to be pleased to have a Fulci story to tell. And the psychiatrist gets to spout all the dialogue about violence and media. Of course the authorities will believe it's Fulci! He makes those horrible movies, after all.

The ending is abrupt and unsatisfying. Fulci faints at a murder scene and when the police arrive the next morning he fumbles to explain - but they've already caught the real killer, who followed Fulci to the park. It's all wrapped up, but Fulci's problems are never really followed up on - maybe because they're struggles he just has to live with. There's a fun little second ending after that, but the plot line - that I really did become involved in - has already ended, and badly.

"Well, we caught the bad guy. Should we wake him up and tell him?"
"Nah, he looks so peaceful - let him sleep."

The Bottom Line
I was surprised at this film. It really is a low-budget clip show. But it's also an interesting and somewhat fun meta-commentary on Fulci's films and being a person associated with creating horror. It's low budget - I mean it's cheap as hell - but strangely endearing. As with all Fulci, enter at your own risk. But it's definitely an worth a watch.

Monday, October 27, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Last Winter

This is actually Friday night's movie. I'm a bit behind. I have a horror weekend each October where I have friends come over and we play horror games, watch horror movies and eat horror food. Or horrible food, one of those. Anyway, upshot is - I'm behind, hope to get caught up over the next day or so. Meanwhile:

The Last Winter

This is a holdover from the last time we had a DVD subscription on Netflix. I was supposed to get A Cat in the Brain, but that's on a short wait, so they sent this - which has probably been in my DVD queue since it came out.

It was probably the setting that drew me. I'm a sucker for horror movies that are set in the arctic/antarctic or even just during winter. Not sure why - something to do with the alien look and feel to the settings, maybe. Or perhaps it's just that, regardless of what monster or villain is trying to kill the protagonists, mother nature is also waiting her turn to get a knife in.

That Ron Perlman is in it was also a plus. Connie Britton. I like Kevin Corrigan, though it sometimes seems like he's the poor man's Mark Ruffalo.

Gotta be decent with these three in it, right? Right?

I dunno. I think I'd read Dan Simmons' The Terror about the time it came out, so that might have had something to do with it as well. I'm not even sure why I'm trying to track down why I added to my list.

The Medium
DVD from Netflix. Serviceable, but not great. Some extras, including a commentary track. I listened to that a bit, looking for some info on the ending, but it's a bit pompous and boring - at least the section I listened to.

The Movie
The Last Winter is set at some point in the very near future. An oil company has managed to get permission to start a preliminary drilling site in the Antarctic Refuge. The primary setting is a small outpost where the lead team is doing prep work and an impact study. Ed Pollack (Perman) arrives to get things moving so that drilling equipment can come in and they can get started, but things aren't quite right. It's too warm, for one thing. Too warm for the ice roads to be laid down. Hoffman, the lead climate scientist, says that even the permafrost is melting. But Ed isn't willing to take no for an answer, regardless of what dangers may arise from the warming ice.

If it's the middle of arctic winter, shouldn't it be dark like this all the time?

So, decent setup. Your typical isolated base, only reachable by plane. Full of characters broadly drawn and conflicts... also broadly drawn. Hoffman and Pollack are, of course, antagonists. The Company vs the Scientist. (That Hoffman is sleeping with the project head, Abby Sellers (Britton), who had a relationship with Pollack, just adds more friction.) There's obviously something effecting the youngest member of the crew, Maxwell (Zach Gifford), who keeps asking about the capped test well the company made to prove there was oil to be had.

I had high hopes Cthulhu was under this, but no...

There's an art-film feel to things. The music is slow and mostly piano, with a limited number of themes. There's a lot of slow, sweeping pans of desolate arctic landscape that end with the face of someone staring meaningfully into the distance. The director likes to do long, handheld shots following characters in the tight confines of the base (which is really just a bunch of trailers welded together). It's a little flat, a little pat, but there's some gold to be mined out of a climate change horror movie that isn't focused on tornadoes with sharks in them.

Unfortunately, this movie is unfocused and vague. Interesting things are brought up and never fully explored. Maxwell seems to think the capped well is haunted or something, but nothing comes of that. Ravens show up as, maybe, harbingers of something old that's being released from the ice - but they're never used as anything more than set dressing. Maxwell disappears for most of a day and when he returns one of the characters remarks that according to something on his suit (GPS maybe?) he travelled three hundred miles. Everybody looks around meaningfully, but nothing is ever done with that either.

"Hi, I'm a harbinger of... say, are you gonna eat those eyes?"

Weird events start to pile up. It rains in the middle of the arctic winter. Wind storms appear inside research shelters - but not outside. The tracks of a herd of caribou appear from nowhere and go nowhere. A team member has a nose bleed that will not stop. Maxwell disappears and on a video tape he's left some - thing - appears to carry him off. (Nobody reacts to this except Hoffman, so maybe it's supposed to be a hallucination.) Hoffman opines that maybe hydrogen sulfide is seeping out of the ground, causing everyone to have mental issues.

Ghosts reflect infrared. Good to know.

In a briefly glimpsed log entry Hoffman seems to suggest that they've reached a point of runaway climate change. "The Last Winter" may be upon them.

Deaths also pile up. A plane crashes into the camp. Hoffman and Pollack make a last-ditch journey to find help, but there may be something out there in the wastes with them. The spirits of those long dead animals whose corpses make up the oil Pollack is so desperate to get out of the ground? The Wendigo? It's left open for us to decide what really happens. Even a coda with Britton's character in which she wakes up in an abandoned hospital and steps out into a rain soaked parking lot doesn't show or give us any answers.

"Expect departure delays."

To be honest, by then I didn't give a shit. There are a lot of ominous things said in The Last Winter, however it's all presented in such a disjointed fashion that you get the feeling that there's no real coherent vision. That the writer just threw a bunch of terms together and thought they sounded cool.

The whole film is inconsistent. You'll have beautifully framed and photographed shots of desolate landscape and they'll be followed by poorly framed/focused/lit shots of main character interactions. Some of it feels like they gave a camera to a grip and said "you're second unit, give me shots of the kitchen." The acting is low key - too much so. When behavior differences show up they're abrupt and seem to have no organic evolution. People are fine. Then they're crazy. The eerie moments - and there are a few - are placed with little regard to pace or timing. There's really only one good scare, and it should have been followed up on, but is - as a lot of things are in the film - abandoned. As slow as the film is it also feels like it was created by someone with ADD, jumping from one 'cool' idea to the next without building a coherent mood or theme.

"Just stand there until I think of a reason why you're standing there."

The Bottom Line
I really wanted to like this film. It's got some great actors, some good ideas and the occasional eerie moment. Unfortunately the uneven quality just left me feeling annoyed and disappointed. There's a good movie in here somewhere, but I just didn't have the patience to find it. In the end the movie is as ponderous and yet insubstantial as its monster.