Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I've been seeing the 2014 sequel/re-imagining of the same name on my Netflix 'recommended for you' list for a while now, but felt like I couldn't see that one until I'd re-watched the original. The only things I could remember from the 1976 Charles B. Pierce version was the trombone scene and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) getting shot in the face. They were equally traumatic.

Then I saw a documentary by Joshua Zeman (who also did the Cropsey documentary), called Killer Legends. It examined a number of urban legends and their possible connections to real-life crimes. The section entitled "The Hookman" focused on the Texarcana Moonlight Murders - the basis for The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Now I know the movie starts off with the pronouncement that "all you're about to see is true - only the names have been changed," but really - a lot of movies, particularly slasher flicks and 1970's exploitation films - have those disclaimers. Hell, I think The Legend of Boggy Creek - another Charles B. Pierce film - says the same thing. Not to be taken too literally is what I generally thought, so it was something of an eye opener to realize that the trombone scene was based on something that really happened.

Eye opening - and very disturbing.

The Medium
I watched The Town That Dreaded Sundown on Amazon and, in a pleasant change of pace, it was substantially better than I expected. I had seen this originally sometime in the late 80's/early 90's on a VHS tape that must have been dragged through the mud. I wasn't expecting the picture to be quite so sharp or the colors to be quite so bright. It was recently restored for a blu-ray release.

The Movie
The Town That Dreaded Sundown starts with a narrator describing the town of Texarkana, Arkansas in the years just after World War II. We're treated to bucolic scenes of small town life in warm, summer sunshine. Then it swiftly turns to night and a title lets us know that it's Sunday, March 3, 1946. A young man and woman are out parking late at night on a rural lover's lane. They're soon assaulted by a man in work clothes and with a canvas bag tied tight over his head, holes cut for eyes.

"Hold still! My depth perception sucks in this thing."

The scene is fairly well done and disturbing. The acting in the film is generally not so good, but I didn't mind so much as it contributed to the 're-enactment' feel. In fact, as the movie progresses I felt less like I was watching a horror movie and more like I was watching some kind of proto-Dateline NBC true-crime show.

You know, with car chases and terrible comedy sequences starring the director as a hapless policeman.

The Town That Dreaded Your Driving, amiright?

Seriously - I hadn't remembered there being so many scenes of cars barely staying on the road as they careen about the county and the character of AC "Sparkplug" Benson is jarringly inconsistent with most of the tone of the film. It's one half slasher flick and the other half Dukes of Hazzard.

The two young people survive - barely - and the police put a watch on 'lovers lanes.' Twenty one days later Deputy Norman Ramsey hears gunshots while driving some back roads and finds an abandoned car. Charging into the pouring rain he soon comes across the body of a male victim - and then a woman tied to a tree, her back heavily bitten. He barely misses the hooded man, who escapes in a car.

The movie switches between the police and their efforts to catch the killer - including calling in the Texas Rangers - and the killer (known as The Phantom) hunting down his victims. The police segments are not particularly interesting or enjoyable, despite a car chase and plenty of 'comedy.' The murders, on the other hand, have a visceral quality, a rawness that transcends the setting an becomes disturbingly realistic. Almost voyeuristic - thought he bloodletting is kept to a minimum.

The final two murders/attacks are the most brutal, as if the killer was working to a frenzy. In the first, a young couple is waylaid on a wooded lane in the middle of town. The young woman, who plays trombone during a Junior/Senior dance earlier, is killed when the Phantom ties a hunting knife to the instrument and 'plays' it. I'm sort of glad I don't play trombone any more.

How's he even getting a seal on the mouthpiece with that bag over his head?

The last attack sees the Phantom invade a private residence - shooting a man from outside and then shooting a woman named Helen in the head twice. Despite her wounds Helen manages to escape to a nearby cornfield and eventually finds help in a neighboring farm. This leads the whole town to essentially shut down after dark - and to board their windows.

It's still just as distressing to see Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island get shot in the face, by the by.

Shhh, shhhh... go to sleep childhood, go to sleep forever...

The two primary cops - a Ranger named "Lone Wolf" Morales (yeah, that's his name) and Deputy Ramsey - have a confrontation and chase scene with the killer, but it feels tacked on to provide some sort of closure. And there really isn't any. The Phantom is never caught, though his attacks cease. Some people think he was killed. Others that he was arrested for some other crime. The movie suggests he simply stopped - for now - and that he still walks amongst the good people of Texarcana. The final shot is of some shoes - the same ones the killer has been wearing the entire film - as their owner queues up to watch The Town That Dreaded Sundown at the local Texarcana theater.

The Bottom Line
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is surprisingly effective in its murder sequences - less so in other areas. It's still a decent chiller, however, and has moments of real menace. It could use a lot less "Sparkplug," though.

Friday, October 30, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Ring

The Ring
I saw The Ring when it first came out and I remember enjoying it greatly. It was probably the first awareness I had of Japanese horror films and obviously opened the way to a number of US remakes of successful J-horror films (The Grudge, Dark Water, etc.) I actually went out of my way to track down the original film - Ringu - and they've gotten somewhat tangled in my memory. I expected certain things to happen when I re-watched it this time, only to realize that the event or character I was looking for was in the original film.

In the years since I've also read the book the original film was based on (and the first sequel, Spiral). It's significantly different and is more of a science-horror story than a supernatural one. Characters and events from THAT have also seeped into my collective recollection - particularly revelations about the nature of Sadako (Samara in The Ring).

So I was a little confused watching things this time around!

This image from the movie isn't directly related to anything - I just liked the picture.

The Medium
I keep meaning to pick this up, whether on DVD or blu-ray, but just never got around to it. I watched it streaming on Amazon and the quality was average.

The Movie
Two teen girls, Katie and Becca (Amber Tamblyn and Rachael Bella) are having a sleepover where Becca opines that TV is stupid. She then recounts an urban legend about a videotape that if you watch it, seven days later you die. Katie is disturbed, as she has watched the tape. Seven days ago.

"Well, we're bing-watching Ugly Betty, so suck it up."

I always like this bit because they use the standard 'teen in a house with something bad' tropes against you. Amber Tamblyn's character opens the fridge and you just KNOW there's going to be something standing there when she closes it. But there isn't. The person on the phone is her mom, not a killer. The TV stays off when she unplugs it. (A lot of these have been subverted in films since, but I vaguely remember it being of note at the time.)

Katie does die, of course, and whatever her friend sees drives her into a mental health facility. At the funeral for Katie a family friend, Rachel, is asked by Katie's mother to find out anything she can about what happened to her daughter. Rachel is a reporter and she quickly finds out that every kid who went with Katie on a weekend trip has died - and that they all watched the tape.

And they all suck at taking selfies. Hold that phone steady, people.

Katie tracks down the location where the kids stayed and watched the tape because, well, there's no story if she doesn't. (I admit, I'd be curious too.) The tape is a mix of mundane and disturbing images with no coherent story - a woman brushes her hair in a mirror, a fingernail is pulled off by a nail, a ladder falls, stormy waves crash on a headland. Nonsense images. When the tape finishes the phone rings and Rachel answers. A girl's voice says "seven days."

"Seven days until we start charging late fees." Heh. Remember late fees?

Well, that's nicely creepy! In fact, the whole movie is suffused with a sense of dread. (I don't get to use the word 'suffuse' all that often - and it seems to like being paired with 'dread.') The cinematography is very de-saturated, as if all the color has been leached out of the world. It's almost always raining, about to rain, or has just rained. The music, acting and pace are all subdued - the movie spools out in slow motion, like a train wreck you can see happening but can do nothing to stop.

Much of the rest of the movie involves Rachel's efforts to find out where the video tape came from and how to stop the oncoming train of death it represents. This quest takes on some additional urgency when her young son, Aidan, watches the videotape as well. She enlists her ex-husband Noah in her search - after he watches a copy of the tape. They scour images from the tape for clues, leading eventually to an island, an asylum, and a strange little girl who may or may not have been murdered by her parents.

What are YOU looking at?

Though there are twists and turns and creepy moments aplenty, the best part of the movie comes after the supposed ending. I hope I'm not spoiling anything to say that the standard "she just needed to be put to rest" ending is a fake-out. That's not what this ghost, if ghost it is, wants.

Honestly, the ending makes a lot more sense in the books - the tape actually has instructions, though the 'how to avoid being killed' bit at the end is taped over, causing much of the action of the book. It's still damn creepy in the film, however, and Samara coming out of the TV is probably one of the iconic horror moments of the early 2000's.

Luckily I wore my brown pants.

The Bottom Line
In general The Ring is still an eerie and effective horror film. My only issue (beyond my own confusion amongst the sources) is that the director (Gore Verbinski) affects such an emotional distance in how he frames and edits things that I ended up a little disconnected. I wasn't quite as affected as I could have been, if I'd been more emotionally invested in Rachel, Noah and Aidan. I understand why - the emotional estrangement of the characters is an import part of the story - but I think it reduces the horror a bit.

I haven't seen the sequel, actually - is it just a retread of the same stuff? (And shouldn't it have been called Rings, instead of The Ring Two?)

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Kill, Baby... Kill!

Kill, Baby... Kill!

Here's the summary I wrote down as I was watching this Mario Bava classic last night: "Doctor Flinty McChinjaw and his assistant Cheekbones Magee must investigate a spate of murders in Ruraleuropeville, a town full of assholes."

I was in a mood, apparently.

You may want to keep that in mind during this review. In general I enjoy Bava's work, but I need to be in a particular mood to truly enjoy it. I should probably re-watch Twitch of the Death Nerve because I HATED that movie, and everyone I know who's seen it calls it a classic. I didn't much like 5 Dolls for an August Moon, either. On the other hand I really enjoyed Black Sabbath, Black Sunday and Planet of the Vampires.

They fight crime!

The Medium
Amazon Prime again. This was another of a number of 'boxed' movies I've seen on the platform - that is, the entire film has a black frame around all four sides. My awareness of it went away eventually, but it's annoying. The picture quality was also not particularly good and I get the feeling I'd have been much more impressed by the cinematography if I could watch it in high def.

The Movie
My earlier description is flippant, but apt - a Doctor (Paul, I think - I had to look it up, I really do just think of him as Flinty McChinjaw) arrives in a small, isolated European town to conduct an autopsy on a murder victim. Its vaguely late 19th century and he arrives by carriage (the driver refuses to enter the actual town). He's meeting an inspector, but the townsfolk seem none too happy to see him. In fact, a couple of men try to bury the victim before he can 'desecrate' the body.

It's interesting right away, because there's this conflict between the Gothic trappings and the more modern sensibilities of both the doctor and the inspector. Much hay is made of this, with the Doctor repeatedly cursing "superstition" and "ignorance" while the townsfolk try and work around the authorities who simply don't 'get it.'

Because science will be no help here.

"Why do they hate you so, Flinty?"
"No everyone appreciates steely-eyed condescension and moral superiority, Magee."

What's really going on is that the ghost of a seven year old girl is haunting the town, and causing those she blames for her death (pretty much everyone) to take their own lives. The girl's appearances are nicely creepy, with silhouettes, hands on window panes and occasional giggling echos while a ball bounces down an empty alleyway.


The good doctor loses track of the inspector early on and spends much of his time with a recently returned local woman (again, her name is apparently Monica, but I think of her as Cheekbones Magee). Together they investigate the mystery and run a lot - sometimes screaming or looking perplexed. As far as I can tell most of the time they put people into positions where they'll be killed. When McChinjaw removes the protection from the innkeeper's child (citing "science!" and "superstitious nonsense") she ends up being forced by the ghost girl to impale herself. The innkeeper almost shoots McChinjaw, and I kind of wanted him to.

"What are you doing, Notawitch?"
"It doesn't really matter, as McChinjaw will just screw it up."

Some people try to help. The burgomeister, Almost Yulbrynner, and his wife, Crazyhair Notawitch, point him in the direction of the local castle... er, estate, where the old Baroness Graps lives. It's her daughter who's the ghost, you see. And Cheekbones Magee has a connection to the Graps as well.

They all shared a 'my first lobotomy' doll.

The dubbing is mostly terrible, with only a couple of characters managing anything more than a stern monotone. It's been at least a decade and probably more since the girl's death (by horses at a festival) and there's just not that many people in the town. At the rate people die during the film she should have had the whole damn place cleared out in a few months. Maybe Crazyhair Notawitch helped fend her off? The cinematography is grainy and washed out on streaming, but there remains enough of the detail to get a sense that it probably looks tremendous in a good copy.

There are plenty of good things in the film as well - There's some nice framing and set design and parts of the town are like an eerie labyrinth. One sequence where McChinJaw chases a man through a repeating set of rooms only to see himself turn when he finally catches him is wonderfully surreal.

This is where they put a swingset. It's a creepy town, I'm just saying.

The Bottom Line
I wish I'd been more settled down when I watched Kill, Baby, Kill! as I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it is I was able to enjoy some bits of it, while making fun of others. And that name - it really needs to be something else. Even the original title - Operation Fear - doesn't work. Dead Mean Girl, maybe? The Town that Dreaded Science? Ghost Girl Already Hates You?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead

I feel like it's not really Halloween season if I don't watch a Romero zombie flick, but I'm rapidly running out of ones that I like. In fact, this is really the last one I'll probably watch for 31 Days. (I didn't much care for Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead.) Not to say that I was completely happy with Land of the Dead when it came out - in all honesty I was pretty disappointed.

And yet, I'm now hard pressed to say why. It may have had something to do with the release of the Dawn of the Dead remake the year previous . I enjoyed the hell out of that modernization, even if the film failed to make much use of Romero's deeper themes. I was, perhaps, expecting a little of that edge, that frenzied, more modern pace. Maybe I was expecting a bigger budget - and Land was Romero's only studio-produced Dead film - to create a bigger film than what we got. Maybe... ah, hell, it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that I was disappointed - but I still liked the movie.

The Medium
I've got the "Unrated Director's Cut" DVD - just never got around to the blu-ray, and I'm not sure it's really necessary. The unrated version adds back in a few choice bits of gore - like a zombie ripping out someone's naval ring - but nothing that adds to the plot or backstory.

The Movie
Set several years after the events of the previous Dead films, the primary action takes place in and around Pittsburgh's "Golden Triangle" - a real feat, since it was shot in and around Toronto, Canada. Protected on two sides by rivers the city provides enough safety from the dead ('stenches' in this film - why does every zombie franchise have to use a different term?) to allow for civilization - of a sort - to reassert itself. The city has stratified into the haves and have-nots with the rich living in a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green and everyone else living in abandoned buildings, shacks and tents in your standard post-apocalyptic ghetto.

Top-drawer entertainment, however.

In a lot of ways Land of the Dead feels like an eighties film - a thematic cousin to movies like The Running Man, They Live and Robocop. Romero's always used his films as a way to talk about larger issues - consumer culture, urban alienation, societal nihilism - and with Land he's focused primarily on class struggle and wealth stratification, something those 80's films were also concerned about. It's also pretty simplistic in its concerns - the poor are good, the wealthy are bad, and those who attempt to elevate their station betray both their roots and their own survival. I've got no problem with the message - I just wish there had been a bit more subtlety. Of course when you've got Dennis Hopper as your big bad that may be asking for too much.

"Waterworld 2? Yeah, fuck it, why not."

The biggest addition to Romero's Dead cannon here is actually a logical continuation of Bub, from Day of the Dead. The zombies in this film are starting to remember who they use to be - and they spend much of their time acting out old habits and behaviors. An undead band struggles to carry a tune in the old bandstand, a long-dead couple still holds hands as they stagger around town, and Big Daddy, a former gas station attendant, shambles to the pump as if it was still working. In some ways it's almost an idealistic society - nobody wants, nobody struggles and best of all, nobody dies. Again, that is.

"Hey, Mr. Tambourine man..."

Except the zombie society and the human society end up in conflict. In order to maintain the human community, groups are sent out to raid surrounding towns for resources. Their leader is the clean-cut Riley (Simon Baker) - a man whose do-gooder nature is juuuust this side of saccharin. (I mean, he brings antibiotics for the preachers ill son.) His second in command is the more pragmatic - if not mercenary - Cholo (John Lequizamo), a man for whom death is part of the job description - as long as it's not his. We join the story on the night of Riley's last job. He's bugging out - leaving the rat race (and the rats) for the quieter climes of Canada. All he wants is for things to go smooth on his last job.

And of course it doesn't. Cholo isn't out getting food or medicine for the community - he's getting cigars and liquor for the guy who runs things, Kaufman (Hopper). His inattention leads to the death of a young man, which is bad, but the behavior of the group as a whole - running roughshod through the town, shooting zombies and setting fires - inspires the ire of Big Daddy. And this is one zombie you do not want to mess with.

Lequizamo's Cholo is actually my favorite character, primarily because he's the only one that shows any sort of complexity. I like Baker as an actor, but he's so straight-laced in this I'm surprised he's not wearing a white hat. Hopper is just as bad on the other side of things, but he hams up the sleazy CEO shtick so well I tend to cut him some slack. Cholo, on the other hand, is mercenary and self-centered and ambitious to a fault - but he also tries to help people (Kaufman's neighbor), inspires a twisted sort of devotion in his men, and is genuinely hurt that Kaufman doesn't consider him 'worthy' of the Green. He just wants to live the American dream, man!

*Insert Girl From Ipanema Muzak track here*

With his dreams of "movin' on up" quashed, Cholo steals a military truck called "Dead Reckoning" and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green with missiles unless he gets the money Kaufman owes him. (The whole idea that money still means anything in this wasteland is laughable - but hey.) Riley is drafted to take him out before he can do it - which Riley agrees to only to save his friends.

Meanwhile Big Daddy and his growing army of zombies moves steadily towards the bright lights across the river. And they're learning as they go.

Learning just how cold Lake Ontario is in the winter, primarily.

Things get apocalyptic, of course. It's a Romero zombie film. Though the zombies actually have a bit more agency in how things go down than is usual. (I expected more direct human screw-ups to be the cause of zombies getting in.)

The supporting characters are thin, but well handled by Asia Argento and Robert Joy. Eugene Clark as Big Daddy is also a standout - you don't often see outrage, grief or satisfaction in a zombie, but Clark manages it through an iconic makeup. He's no Bub, but he's still pretty good.

My main complaint about Land of the Dead is in how small everything feels. Even when they're shooting exteriors it all feels... claustrophobic. I don't feel the scope or sense of place - if it wasn't for the occasional establishing shot of the Pittsburgh skyline it could be anywhere. Maybe that's the point, though...

The Bottom Line
Out of the first series of Dead films (Diary serves a sort of re-boot to the series) this is my least favorite. I feels too small for the scope of the story and too broad in its message. There's still plenty to enjoy, however - it's a Romero zombie movie, after all.

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies Double Feature: The Abominable Doctor Phibes/Doctor Phibes Rises Again

Sometimes I want nothing more than to see Vincent Price hamming up a storm in Technicolor. This weekend was one of those times. I didn't have immediate access to the Corman Poe cycle films, so a double feature of Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death was out. I DO have both of the Phibes movies, however, so the theme this weekend became Vincent Price Movies With "Doctor Phibes" In The Title.

The Abominable Doctor Phibes
There is a serious dearth of films with organ playing madmen in them - especially nowadays. I love that The Abominable Doctor Phibes embraces this shtick wholeheartedly from the very first scene. The 'good' Doctor has Art Deco surroundings, a mechanical Jazz band, a lovely assistant who is well trained in interpretive dance, the violin and murder, and a taste for shiny capes and robes. And, of course, a talent for elaborate murders based on the 10 plagues of Egypt. Doctor Phibes is a super villain in a world without super heroes. I imagine he's a little lonely because of that (and, you know, that his beloved wife is dead - or mostly so, if the sequel is to be believed).

"No, I will not do 'Piano Man.' Vulnavia, please kill this man with a spoon."

There are opponents, of course - primarily in the form of Detective Trout and Sgt. Schenley of Scotland Yard. Trout does the best he can to solve the murders and bring Phibes to justice, but he's named Trout - it's just not inspiring. He also has a terrible habit of being juuust a little too late to the party - something his superiors are happy to point out. (The one time he's early to a murder it doesn't matter - the victim is killed by a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Yes. I said a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Due to the spirals of the horn they're actually forced to unscrew the poor devil from the wall...)

"On the report he was like this when we got here, right?"

The reason behind all the elaborate deaths - and the most straightforward one is packing a vintage airplane with huge rats - involves the untimely demise of Mrs. Victoria Phibes. It seems she died on the operating table and Phibes intends to visit these plagues on each person who was present in the operating room, culminating with the death of the primary surgeon, Dr. Vesalius. Actually, because the penultimate plague is "The Death of the Firstborn," Phibes actually threatens the life of Vesalius' son.

He also has time to get his dance on.

Phibes is a villain, make no mistake - many of the people who are killed had only the most tangential involvement and cannot seriously be taken as guilty of anything. A nurse's death is particularly gruesome (locusts eat her face, if you want to know) and she probably didn't do anything but swab brows and hand over instruments. Regardless, it IS Phibes we end up rooting for. In a bland and bureaucratic world Phibes is all color and passion, music and motion. He has personality - and most of the rest of the cast does not. Price just lights up the screen - even though he never actually speaks! (Phibes must talk - and eat - through a hole in his neck.)

"This? Oh, just something I picked up at Goodwill. It was 99 cents!"

The final confrontation between Vesalius and Phibes actually presages Saw in some respects - Phibes has locked Vesalius' son on an operating table that is suspended beneath a device that will drip acid on to the boys face in 10 minutes. The only way to unlock the contraption holding they boy is for Vesalius to operate on him to remove a key that Phibes has lodged next to the boys heart. Open heart surgery in 10 minutes for the life of his son.

"I just hope your hands are steadier than when you did my 'facelift' doctor."

In true melodramatic fashion Phibes saves the final curse - darkness - for himself and joins his wife in death. Or does he?

Doctor Phibes Rises Again
The success of the original Phibes movie meant that a second was rushed into production. At one point there seemed to be a concerted effort to make the Phibes films into a genuine franchise - several scripts and titles were bandied about well into the 1980's - but nothing seems to have come of it (until recently - see The Bottom Line).

The sequel takes place three years after the events of the first film, as the planets come into a grand conjunction and Phibes returns to life (this is despite his blood being replaced with embalming fluid at the end of the first film). He apparently has a plan involving an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mountain and a river - the end result of which will be the return of his beloved wife.

Though the same people are involved in the second film it's just not quite as good. Oh, Price is excellent as always - and they allowed for more inflection in his electronic voice this time around. The murders are appropriately garish and gruesome. Some of the sets are really fantastic as well. However, there's just less... heart in it. The reasons for the murders are less compelling and they're pretty damn elaborate for being mostly half-assed at the last minute. Did you know his lovely, mute assistant from the first film is named Vulnavia? You will by the end of this movie, because every time he opens his... tube, he says her name. I liked it better when she was a mysterious presence - unknown and unexplained.

It's nice to see the violin return in the same role, though.

In addition they've inexplicably re-used some actors in different roles - major roles - and it knocks you out of the flow whenever it happens.

Robert Quarry (Count Yorga himself) offers a foil almost worthy of Phibes this time around in the character of Darius Biederbeck. A man with dark secrets of his own. Unfortunately the two actors aren't on screen together until the final scenes.

"Count Yorga? Who is this Yorga you speak of?"
"But it says here on IMDB..."

Though the Egyptian trappings offer an interesting new location for Phibes machination and the jokes are plentiful - if overly broad this time around - the whole of the picture just never rises to the same giddy heights of the first film. The music isn't as good, the cinematography isn't as good and the story - though it has possibilities unexplored - is not quite up to snuff either. It's still a good time, it just suffers in comparison to the original.

"Years from now a show called Lost will reference this moment and no one will get it."

The Bottom Line
Way too much fun, and one of a handful of 1970's Vincent Price films I really enjoy. (These make great companion pieces to Theater of Blood, FYI.) It's obvious everyone had a great time making these - particularly the first one - and I'm a little sad they never got a chance to make any more sequels with Price.

FYI - according to rumor, Malcolm Macdowel is slated to start in a remake, Forever Phibes. While I can't image it being anywhere near as over-the-top glorious as its predecessors, I nonetheless look forward to seeing shiny robes, art deco sets, mysterious but lovely assistants and all the thunderous organ music I can stand.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Saw


I've never seen Saw. I avoided it as a representative (if not the progenitor) of the modern wave of so-called 'torture porn' movies. I just had no interest in watching a film that was essentially two guys having to cut their feet off and other people in similar situations being horrifically mangled. (Which was the entirety of the film, as I understood it.)

Now, don't get me wrong. I love a good splatter picture. Romero's zombie films, any given Cronenberg picture, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Dead Alive, Fulci films, Ricky Oh, the Story of Ricky - you get the gist. But I've never been able to enjoy normal people being, well, tortured. I can watch the head exploding scene in Scanners over and over again, but the dentist drill sequence in Marathon Man makes me squirm every time.

I couldn't look while I tried to post this - did I post it? I did, right? Okay, I'll look... gah!

On the other hand, Saw is kind of a seminal horror film at this point. Also the start of one of the most popular horror franchise series of the current century. That I had never seen it has become more and more of a glaring omission in my horror curriculum vitae. I finally watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre last year after decades of avoiding it - and that turned out to be an amazing film that I wish I'd seen earlier. Could I be misunderstanding the film? Could Saw turn out to be just as much of a classic as TTCM?

The Medium
Streaming on Amazon. I've really been depending on Prime a lot this year, as Netflix doesn't seem to be adding horror movies in October like they use to. Quality was a helluva lot better than some other recent Amazon viewings - not that Saw really needs it.

The Movie
A man, Adam (Leigh Whannell), wakes up in a large, dilapidated bathroom. Freeing himself from a bathtub (he wakes under water) he finds himself chained to large pipes coming out of the wall. Also chained on the opposite side of the room is Lawrence (Cary Elwes), a doctor. In between them is the corpse of a man who has apparently shot himself in the head (a pistol lies near his hand, in addition to a microcassette recorder). They each find tapes in their pockets and, using the recorder, listen to them to discover that someone has imprisoned them and given them instructions. Adam must escape. Lawrence must kill Adam - or his wife and daughter will die.

On the bright side... no, you're right, there is no bright side.

I spent a good chunk of the first 10-15 minutes reflexively wincing at imagined horrors. Waiting for the hammer to drop (or the saw to cut, as it were). Nothing much happens, though - gore wise, that is. Seeing the hacksaws come out was something I expected, and weighted on my mind as the film progressed.

"This is what the hacksaws are for, right?"

"I don't think so..."

Lawrence thinks he knows who has done this to them. A serial killer named Jigsaw, who doesn't directly kill his victims. Instead, he places them in positions where they have to struggle to save themselves. All but one of them has failed his games. And Lawrence was once a suspect.

I like Cary Elwes, but he's really not very good here. He's a bit too broad for the subject matter and the cadence of his speech is a bit off - slipping occasionally into his native English accent. Whannell is a tad better, but doesn't have a huge range. In general the acting is simply passable, with Monica Potter (as Lawrence's wife, Alison), Danny Glover and Michael Emerson being standouts.

"I'm looking for my agent's number. I'm sure it's in here somewhere."

The pacing of the film is uneven. The procedural segments with Glover's Detective Tapp and Ken Leung's Detective Sing are slow and - except for a confrontation with the Jigsaw killer - kill the mood built up by the scenes in the bathroom. There's a scene with the only survivor - a subdued Shawnee Smith - that's really good, however (and that particular contraption is freakishly cool/awful).

"He was the only dentist in my preferred provider list!"

As the movie progresses we learn more about Lawrence and Adam - and their secrets. Flashbacks reveal that neither of them is telling the other the real truth about themselves. Meanwhile, Detective Trapp keeps an eye on Lawrence's house - because he still believes that the good Doctor is actually the killer.

Two days 'til retirement, right?

Things pick up speed quickly as time runs out for Lawrence and Adam, setting in motion several violent confrontations and making sure that a hacksaw is finally used for its intended purpose. I've read a few articles about Saw, but the ending was still a surprise for me (even knowing the actor who plays Jigsaw), so I won't spoil it. It was almost worth it just for that reveal.

Jigsaw is actually a grown up Howdy Doody! Whatta twist!

The movie is pretty well shot and directed, though it feels very claustrophobic - which was probably on purpose. It did make it all feel a bit 'staged' rather than something occurring in the real world. Some of the editing and pacing was problematic and it felt like a first film by a very talented amateur filmmaker. Flashes of brilliance with some technical faults.

Wan and Whannell have gone off to bigger and better things, of course - Wan is actually set to direct an Aquaman film, which should be interesting. They're both still involved in the Saw franchise, which looked to be fading with the release of Saw VI, but had a resurgence with Saw 3D in 2010. Saw VIII is noted on IMDB as 'in production.'

The Bottom Line
To answer my own rhetorical questions: Yes, I was misunderstanding the film - it's a much better and more interesting movie than I gave it credit for. Is it a classic - on par with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Well - no. But it's not bad! I'm not sure I need to see any of the others, though - are there any particularly good installments?

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: 6-5=2

I found myself thinking that I hadn't watched any found footage movies this thread. It seemed like every other movie last year was found-footage (it wasn't). After Kwaidan I was also thinking that I'd seen a few Japanese horror movies, plenty of Italian horror movies, Spanish, British, Korean, Swedish, Australian, French - even a Venezuelan horror movie. I hadn't seen an Indian horror movie, though.

So when Amazon offered up a found footage Indian horror movie it seemed like exactly what I was looking for. Which is how I ended up watching:


Unfortunately, it's not very good. It has all the bad tropes of the found-footage genre without adding much in the way of fresh angles - other than the beautiful landscape. A group of young people - four guys and two girls - head out into the mountainous rural landscape of southern India. One of them is training to be a cinematographer (A DOP, or Director of Photography, as he often says), which explains the camera. Spooky things happen. Some of them die. One makes it back alive and the film is supposedly built around the footage from the camera guy, showing what happened to the rest.

The problems start off right away. For one thing,  the whole movie is dubbed. It's still in Hindi - they just redid everyone's dialogue. That immediately removes the feeling that this is the actual footage. It's also often flat in inflection, which you often get when people are having to redo lines in the studio. The cinematography is also far too good for a found footage film. That's okay at first, but as things get worse and worse the footage should also start being... I dunno, less centered, less in focus, less professional. And it's slow - god it's slow. It takes nearly 45 minutes before anything really interesting happens (a spooky tree hung with skulls and dolls) and another 20-30 before it really starts to get going.

The actors are okay - in the sense that they each have a distinct character that is consistently portrayed - and some of the early scenes are quite funny in a 'young people giving each other a hard time' sort of way. However there's just too much of them goofing off and ragging on each other. They just talk and talk and don't say much. It seems like a third of their dialogue is in English - but it doesn't always match the terrible subtitles. I almost wished I could have turned the subtitles off - I think I could have figured out 90% of what they were saying without it. (And, like I said, it didn't always seem to go with what was being said.)
The actual horror movie bits are a combination of Blair Witch Project noises and weird things in trees added to some Paranormal Activity poltergeist action and actors making weird motions as the camera watches everyone sleep. Very little of it is scary (a moving doll, a suddenly violent character, some distant noises) and it doesn't all fit together. Is it a ghost, a demon, a forest spirit? They could all fit, or none. I'm going with demon - there's a weird claw-print that shows up on someone's back and some possession-related shenanigans.

I went looking for the cast list and found that the version I watched is actually the Bollywood remake. The original film was made even more cheaply made in the Kannada language. I wish I'd actually seen that one, as cheap/raw sometimes enhances the found footage aspect of a film.

I can't really recommend it - though it has a few bright spots in cinematography and sound design.

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Kwaidan

Kwaidan (1964)
I love when something I've never heard of just blows me away with how good it is. It's a rare thing, and I can't really think of the last time it's happened to me. Kwaidan is that good, though, that much better than I expected it to be. It's a movie made in 1964 in Japan that is an adaptation of several Japanese folk tales as written by a Greek named Lafcadio Hearns. It should be a mess. Instead, it's one of the most beautiful horror movies I've ever seen.

The production is heavily stage-bound, with only the occasional location shooting. Fine for interior locations, but for exteriors shot on a sound-stage... well, in general I've found this stultifying in other productions - limiting scope and scale and imposing a "packaged" feeling on a film. Somehow the director of Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi, transcends these limitations - even uses them to give us fantastic vistas that would be impossible on a location shoot. The sky - illuminated by the northern lights - becomes a vista of eyes, following the action just as we do. A snow-swept forest feels just as cold and dangerous as the real thing - yet also poetic, controlled - a work of art.

I don't know, there's just something about the production. It's like a living painting - but it also feels real, more real than real, if that makes any sense. A woman and her children run through a field and the breeze that whips the grass doesn't seem fake, though the background of the sky does. It has the effect of making everything seem slightly heightened - like you're on a slight high.

There are four stories in this anthology. No real attempt is made at a frame - though the last story seems to extend beyond the borders of its own section. I'll break them out individually:

"The Black Hair"
This is actually my least favorite of the pieces - though only because of the length. The final story benefits from its brevity. It's about an impoverished samurai who selfishly divorces his wife in order to marry a wealth woman and improve his status. His new wife is cold, selfish and cruel (we're informed of that fact by the narrator - though to me it seems like she's simply young and reacting to the emotional distance of her new husband) and he finds himself longing for the simplicity of his old life and the warm, uncomplicated love of his previous wife.

Years later he returns to his old house, finding it in even worse disrepair than when he left. He does find his wife inside and they reconcile. He spends the night - only to find the morning brings a revelation that drives him mad or worse.

There's a great auditory note that occurs throughout this piece - the sound of a loom clacking. It works extremely well with the minimal music and is sometimes creepy and sometimes comforting. The pace of the piece is a little slow for me in this modern era, but I still enjoyed it. It also contains the only moment of genuine horror - albeit brief - in the entire film.

"The Woman of the Snow"
And this is my favorite segment. The plot is fairly straightforward and vaguely familiar. A young man and his master are out gathering wood when a freak winter storm traps them in an old shelter. A supernatural creature - The Woman of the Snow - kills the old man, but spares the young man's life, but makes him promise to keep her secret. Years later he marries a woman with whom he has several children - but when he tells her the story she reveals herself as the same creature.

The visuals in "The Woman of the Snow" just wowed me. They're not quite as grand as those in "Hoichi the Earless," but are somehow even more effective for all that. From the initial storm - which manages to feel both real and staged - through fall days and even warm scenes within the young man's hut, the lighting, staging and direction is just fantastic. There's a sequence in which the young man turns his head as he realizes who he is speaking to, and the lighting goes from warm oranges and reds to cool blues over the course of the pan - it's a simple effect, but it's so good. I'll end up picking this up on blue ray just to see this segment in high def.

"Hoichi the Earless"
This segment is about a blind musician, Hoichi, whose is especially proficient at performing The Tale of the Heike - a story/poem/song about a final battle between two clans. One night a samurai arrives to take him to a nearby pavilion where he is to perform this tale for an august personage. Every night he leaves the monastery where he lives and his friends and the priest grow concerned. Eventually it becomes clear that he is performing for the ghosts of those who died in that battle. To save his soul the priest and his acolyte write holy words over his entire body and instruct him to ignore the ghosts when they return. However, the two holy men have neglected a certain part of poor Hoichi's body...

This segment has some beautiful scenes, great artwork, and epic battle sequences. It's the most impressive of the film, though I still enjoy the simple emotionality of "The Woman of the Snow" more. The sets alone are worth the viewing, though. And I, for the first time, gained an appreciation for the Japanese lute - the biwa. Something I've always thought as atonal noise before. It also has some striking visuals in the final few minutes - particularly the image of Hoishi covered head to toe in calligraphy.

"In a Cup of Tea"
The weakest of the segments, "In a Cup of Tea" is at least very short. An unfinished story about a samurai who sees a man in a cup of water, the film offers a potential reason for the story's unfinished state. It involves a cup of tea...

The Bottom Line
While short on genuine horror, Kwaidan is an epic in the visual department. The skill and artistry of the people involved cannot be overstated. It's a bit stiff and formal, but that befits both the time period and the culture. I loved it.