Pazartesi, Ekim 29, 2007

Day 29: 31 Days of Halloween

Witchfinder General (U.K., 1968) * * *
D: Michael Reeves

Now here is an altogether different kind of horror film. Sure, it's part of a short-lived horror subgenre--the sadistic witch-torturing film--but it's unique in that the "horror" is in what it reveals about the depravities of which all humans are capable, be they heroes, villains, or mesmerized onlookers. On the surface, it is almost an historical adventure of the Sir Walter Scott variety. During the days of Cromwell, the dashing soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) rides to vengeance when his woman, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), is raped and abused by the witch-hunting "lawyer"Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell). To the stirring "Romanza" by film composer Paul Ferris, he rides after his enemies with a sword at his side. But this is after half an hour in which he is absent, and we brace ourselves while Sarah's uncle is falsely accused, tortured, nearly drowned, and finally hanged. Even more squirm-worthy is her exploitation by the chauvenist Hopkins, who agrees to trade her uncle's life for a night with the girl--until he later learns that Stearne has raped her, thus apparently devaluing the bargain. Reeves spares us little, and while there would be more graphic and sadistic films of this variety, he does mind focusing the camera upon the piercing of needles and the flowing of blood. Richard only arrives when the witch-hunter's work is complete, and Sarah is emotionally decimated. It is then that, rather than turn Sarah away as spoiled goods (which she clearly expects), he grabs her by the hand, drags her to the desecrated altar, and before God marries her and vows his revenge. For a spell, the film flirts with Sergio Leone: when he confronts Stearne in a tavern, you half-expect Ennio Morricone whistling to rise on the soundtrack. Instead, there are a few twists and turns, bloody betrayals, and close-calls--even a brief meeting with Oliver Cromwell himself--before a showdown in a dungeon that finds a way to both deliver the expected vengeance and sour the triumph by making it unexpectedly brutal and shocking. The film ends in hysteria and screams, as though the torturing by the Witchfinder General has never ceased. Although this is a pulpy treatment of the witch-hunt theme, several steps below Arthur Miller, the Joans-of-Arc of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, and even the overlooked Czech film Witches' Hammer of a year later, it is nonetheless an impressive example of what an intelligent horror film can be. Vincent Price, as always, delivers an impeccable performance, but this is the rare occasion in which the material rises to meet him.

Cumartesi, Ekim 27, 2007

Days 22-26: 31 Days of Halloween

Inferno (Italy, 1980) * * 1/2
D: Dario Argento

The second in Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (begun with Suspiria, and recently, belatedly concluded with Mother of Tears: The Third Mother [2007]), Inferno is actually the film which establishes that there is a trilogy, much as The Empire Strikes Back informed you that you were only two-thirds of the way through the whole story. Unfortunately, Argento retreated from the supernatural fairy-tale mode, and after Inferno made the (admittedly superior) Tenebre, a more traditional giallo mystery. Inferno does not feature any of the characters from Suspiria, but is stylistically similar (using sharp blues, greens, and reds), features another scene of a young female student travelling by taxi through the pouring rain into the apparent mouth of Hell, and, of course, has another powerful witch at the center of its story. It also has explanatory narration that Mater Suspiriorum, the "Mother of Sighs" of Suspiria, was only one of three powerful sisters living in different regions of the world. One of them lives in Rome--which we visit for the first half of the film--and the other, Mater Tenebrarum, is in New York. (The concept of the three sisters comes from Thomas de Quincy's Suspiria de Profundis, Wikipedia informs me.) The crucial flaw of Inferno is that, despite all the exposition, Mater Tenebrarum has almost nothing to do with the plot. In fact, there really isn't a plot. There is a tight, involving first half, in which we explore a flooded but lavishly furnished subterranean lobby in New York and a grandiose but sinister library in Rome, and in which two young women are stalked, in parallel, by unseen killers. Soon a young music student (Leigh McCloskey) flies from Rome to New York to save his sister from dark forces, and they both become entangled in the clouded history of the decrepit apartment building where she lives, which is somehow tied to the Three Mothers. This is what plot I could grasp. What Inferno actually becomes is a series of showstopping setpieces barely linked together. It is one stalk-and-kill scene after another, filmed with Argento's trademark operatic intensity. Some of these are quite spectacular, particularly in the film's first half, but as Inferno wears on, it's best appreciated as an experimental film. It follows dream-logic, and is, really, one nightmare followed by another. All of the deaths are somehow similar, but some of them make no logical sense (one murder in Central Park might as well have been directed by Luis Bunuel). Is this praise? I have no idea. But by the time the "villain" of the piece finally reveals herself, she has been rendered completely irrelevant. Incidentally, the grating prog-rock soundtrack by Keith Emerson is a major let-down, and can't touch Goblin's classic Suspiria score.

Dead of Night (U.K., 1945) * * * 1/2
D: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer

This is an excellent British anthology film--one of the earliest--that isn't exactly "horror," although it plays with those elements. Like several notable films from the 1940's (The Uninvited springs to mind), it's an exploration on how the supernatural fits into a world that's become more psychoanalytic than psychic. The linking narrative, which cleverly circles back upon itself during the ending credits, depicts strangers summoned to a country estate; one of them declares that he's had a dream that they would meet, and recognizes all of them. His dream is able to predict the events which subsequently happen, and while the guests become intrigued, they begin to discuss their own brushes with the supernatural. The stories escalate in incident, beginning with the slight (a man who has a premonition which ultimately saves him from a fatal crash, and a girl who belatedly realizes she's encountered a ghost) and building toward more developed narratives. In one, a man sees a different room when he looks into a recently-purchased antique mirror, and worries that he's either losing his mind or falling under an evil influence; it's absorbing, although ultimately it doesn't go anywhere interesting. In the penultimate segment, we drastically shift gears into Ealing Studios comedy (this is, after all, an Ealing film): Charles Crichton's witty tale of two golfers who value their sport above life, which is why, when one cheats on a bet and wins the girl they both love, the other returns from the grave to haunt him. The final segment is the one everybody remembers: the story of a ventriloquist and his evil dummy, Hugo, who may or may not have a mind of his own. This story is told by a doctor, so naturally its ending features a "logical explanation," although it's also a pretty disturbing one.

Night of the Demons 2 (U.S., 1994) * * 1/2
D: Brian Trenchard-Smith

The sequel to a film you really shouldn't see, Night of the Demons 2 is one of the last notable direct-to-video/cable gore films, a golden period that stretched from the mid-80's to the mid-90's, before this Cinemax-enabling market began to retreat, ultimately replaced by the current, inexplicable trend of hip-hop/gansta slasher films, almost all of which have titles that end with "in Da Hood." The modern variety of direct-to-DVD horror movies are shot on video, and have a homemade look, with abysmal acting. We're in that kind of world now, folks. So it's with pure nostalgia that I rewatched Night of the Demons 2, recently rereleased on DVD by Lionsgate in a washed-out, cropped transfer. But, look--it's shot on film, the actors were at least recruited out of community theater (as opposed to your friends' basement), there's actual "wit" and "character development," and the sum is actually enjoyable. You could say that it's a B-movie that knows its place. No new ground is broken--large swaths of Fright Night and The Evil Dead are freely "borrowed"--but if you're in a certain kind of mood, and of a certain age (say, your early 30's) and gender (male), the sex-and-gore-fueled Night of the Demons 2 hits the spot. Besides, there's a climax in which a nun with "nunchucks" and an amateur exorcist with a Supersoaker stocked with holy water stage a raid on a haunted house; there's even a final monster battle that doubles as a Ray Harryhausen tribute, replete with effective stop-motion animation! And the future Mrs. Ben Stiller is in it! Bon appétit.

Scarecrows (U.S., 1988) * *
D: William Wesley

Recently released on DVD by MGM, the 1988 B-movie Scarecrows has been deemed a "cult classic" by--well, the back of the box--so I thought I'd give it a rental. The premise is so pulpy you wonder if Larry Cohen dreamed it up: some ex-military commandos stage a big heist, and while making their helicopter escape with some hostages, find themselves setting down in a big forest occupied by a solitary farmhouse and dozens of scarecrows. Some of those scarecrows come to life, and the mercenaries are brutally slain one by one--and stuffed with straw, and stitched together again, and brought back to life as zombies. "Bullets don't hurt 'em, man! They don't do nothin'!" Okay, I'm not sure that that's a direct quote from the film, but imagine that it's the only line in the film, and repeated over and over. It's kind of like that, for 90 minutes. Actually, the idea isn't bad (clearly inspired by James Cameron's Aliens, of 1986), but the acting is pretty awful, the characters (in slasher movie tradition) do lots of very dumb things, and the execution lacks suspense. Whenever the scary-lookin' scarecrows strike, the film switches to slow-motion, completely diluting what should be a savage and frightening moment. There's also a ludicrous conclusion involving a grenade with, shall we say, a very contained explosion. Rent if you're desperate for movies about scarecrows killing commandos.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D (U.S., 1993/2006) * * * 1/2
D: Henry Selick

Has it really been fourteen years since The Nightmare Before Christmas came out? I feel very old. At the time it was a groundbreaking animated film, with its elaborate stop-motion puppets (in the tradition of George Pal), not to mention its demented use of horror elements in what's ostensibly a Christmas tale. The director, Henry Selick, quickly cornered the market on stop-motion puppets, and went on to do James and the Giant Peach (1996) as well as sequences of Monkeybone (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). He's currently working on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. This film, however, remains his calling card, partially because of its completely original style, and partially because it was the perfect meeting of imaginations between Selick, producer and designer Tim Burton, and composer Danny Elfman, who also provided the singing voice for spindly protagonist Jack Skellington. At the time, the film's flaws were picked over by some critics, and they are obvious: Elfman's songs are just OK, and the plot is paper-thin and drags in places. In retrospect, oddly, this sounds like nitpicking. The film has held up extraordinarily well, with its perverse, ghoulish sense of humor, timeless animation style (by contrast, CG animated films have aged very poorly), and lack of anachronistic or pop-culture jokes. The film has now undergone an expensive process to transfer this 2-D film into "Digital 3-D," and as our local Point Ultrascreen Theater has been upgraded with digital 3-D projection, Madison audiences are now being treated to a visually stunning mini-spectacle. The Burtonized landscapes have an extraordinary depth of field, and the tactile qualities inherent in the methods used (Selick's little models) create the feeling that you're watching a magical animated diorama display. Maybe I've grown cynical about the state of American animated films, but Nightmare's a modern classic by comparison.

Pazartesi, Ekim 22, 2007

Day 21: 31 Days of Halloween

Black Sheep (New Zealand, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Jonathan King

This horror-comedy from New Zealand--no, it's not directed by Peter Jackson--takes the most absurd premise it can think of (killer sheep) and applies it to the survival horror genre. It might sound like a can't-lose idea: New Zealand, after all, is known for its copious quantities of sheep, and it's bound to provide for some stunning location shooting; there's also the fact that writer-director Jonathan King enlisted the prestigious WETA Workshop (The Lord of the Rings) to contribute creature puppetry. But Black Sheep, surprisingly enough, comes off as a little tired and cliched. There have been a glut of absurdist horror comedies recently--Killer Condom is already eleven years old, folks--so it's not enough to simply propose an off-the-wall premise. You have to make the premise immediate and compelling, which Black Sheep fails to do. Another major problem is that it's a little too polished (although the sheep effects, even if they were provided by WETA, look charmingly low-budget in spots): the cinematography is stunning, and there's a full orchestra score by Victoria Kelly which completely diffuses any possible tension by being self-consciously "quirky" and pleasant. In its grander moments, it even seems to evoke Howard Shore. Listen, we all know Lord of the Rings revitalized the New Zealand film industry, and that's a great thing. But Black Sheep possesses none of the relentless, go-for-the-throat instinct of King's idol, Peter Jackson. Even the token explicit gore feels pat. You need to get the feeling that the director believes in his story, but the touch is too light, the humor too self-satisfied. The filmmakers get points for trying, but they didn't try hard enough. (Incidentally, for a straight-faced take on a similar premise, see 2005's Isolation, a movie about killer cows. Not very good either, but still...)

Pazar, Ekim 21, 2007

Days 18-20: 31 Days of Halloween

Sick Girl (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Lucky McKee

You see, for a while there was this series called Masters of Horror, and horror fans worldwide were really excited about it. It was to be a one-hour anthology series devoted to the so-called "masters of horror" (a group of genre directors that would gather in L.A. occasionally for dinners and conversation), and it was to be on Showtime, so there would be no censorship. The first season debuted in late 2005, to a mixed-but-optimistic response. Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) contributed the season premiere, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," which was pretty good, and fairly creepy, but no better than your standard Tales from the Crypt episode. Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) received more enthusiastic reviews--particularly from H.P. Lovecraft fans--with his faithful Lovecraft adaptation, "Dreams in the Witch-House." But then there struck a tremendous divide between critics and genre fans. While fans reeled in disappointment with the Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) episode "Dance of the Dead"--it had been thought Hooper might be making a "comeback" until he actually came back, with this and The Toolbox Murders--the installment "Homecoming," directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), and depicting what might happen if American soldiers of the Iraq War started returning from the dead, played at Cannes to glowing reviews. Film Comment fell just short of declaring Dante's anti-war satire a masterpiece. It seemed that this was the only episode most critics watched, however; fans--who may or may not have responded to the left-wing politics of "Homecoming," grew increasingly grouchy about what their idols were contributing to the anthology series. I wasn't one of them: I enjoyed most of the first year of Masters of Horror, and only found the second to be a tremendous disappointment (despite genuinely "masterful" episodes by Joe Dante, John Landis, Brad Anderson, and Stuart Gordon, whose work stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the episodes that season). One of the highlights of the first season was an episode by a novice director few would call a "master of horror," except perhaps Roger Ebert, who was one of the champions of his first film, May. The director is Lucky McKee, whose trademarks, in his short career, include strong female characters asserting their individuality against strict, conformist hierarchies. In May, that was the title character (Angela Bettis) attempting to retain her quirks in a brutal dating scene; she eventually decides to assemble her idealized boyfriend by hand. In The Woods, his second feature, it was a teenage girl versus the prim witches of her secluded boarding school in the 1960's. And in "Sick Girl," his Masters of Horror short, it's Angela Bettis again, this time as Ida Teeter, a young, lesbian entymologist who can't find a date who will tolerate her enormous pet insect collection. Unexpectedly, Misty (Erin Brown, aka "Misty Mundae"), the girl who always hangs out in the lobby, not only likes her but likes her insects. This is less of a coincidence than it seems, as the plot pans out, but in the meantime--and for practically the first forty minutes--it's nothing but a swooning love affair between the two, each with their considerable social awkwardness providing a small barrier between their unrestrained lust. Well, that's most of the first forty minutes: there's also the small problem of Mickey, the gigantic insect which Ida has just received in a package from an anonymous donor. While she struggles to identify the creature, it gets loose in her apartment and nests in her pillow. It bites Misty, to truly bizarre results. McKee's film is a satire with some horrific elements that only lately press upon the narrative. He's clearly more concerned with the relationship between Ida and Misty, which is both steamy and very funny. He also makes some very sharp points about the current social conflict between queer culture and the "mainstream"; as gay men and women gain greater confidence and raise their visibility, society at large--in particular an older generation--seems less willing to accommodate them than it had seemed to promise. Old prejudices also die hard. The chief villain of "Sick Girl" is the elderly landlord, who, when she learns that Ida and Misty are lovers, automatically shields her granddaughter from them. "All this time you were looking at her like she were a piece of meat!" It's to McKee's credit that when this villain is disposed of, it's not a cathartic, crowd-pleasing moment, but an ugly reckoning of which Ida disapproves: the granddaughter is now orphaned, and this microcosmic society is still damaged. He does provide an idyllic happy ending, a proposed utopia, in the final scene, but it's the ultimate inversion of the traditional nuclear family.

Night of the Demon (U.K., 1958) * * * *
D: Jacques Tourneur

Released as Curse of the Demon in the U.S., I viewed the original cut--both are available on a quality DVD in the States. Tourneur was the one-of-a-kind director of The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, both for producer Val Lewton, who in the 40's sought to make a new kind of horror film, psychological thrillers with a focus on character and unseen fear instead of monsters. Night of the Demon (not a Lewton film) has it both ways: there's a monster at the center of the narrative, but only glimpsed at the beginning and at the end of the film. The rest is a film noir-ish mystery, with Dana Andrews--Mr. Film Noir himself, and veteran of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends--playing a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic who likes to debunk superstitions. His skills are put to the test when he investigates a murder, and confronts Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a Satanist who places a curse on Andrews, giving him three days to live. There are some neat sequences here which heighten the creep factor, even in minor moments such as when Andrews peers into the dark depths of a hallway while nervously walking to his hotel room. And the big supernatural moments--a confrontation with an entity in Karswell's study, a demonstration of Karswell's abilities during a children's party, and of course the final confrontation on the railway tracks--are handled with such wit and class that this film is elevated above most of its genre. Progammers note: it would make a superb double feature with Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (U.S., 1971) * * *
D: John D. Hancock

In the rarified hippie horror genre, one of the best is this Paramount-distributed sleeper from 1971. Three exiles from New York City buy an apple orchard in the country; one of the group, Jessica, is battling mental illness, and was recently released after an extended stay in a hospital. She's shaky and without confidence, just this side of an emotional wreck, but determined to reintegrate herself into society. She also needs to reassure herself that what she witnesses is real (her thoughts are voiced on the soundtrack throughout the film), which is why she grows increasingly perturbed when she begins to see things which cannot be real: a ghostly figure in a wedding dress in the cemetery, a dead body in the woods, and something human lurking in the deep, dark waters of the lake. To further her mental deterioration, there's also a love triangle that she's witnessing from the outside: a red-headed drifter who's seducing both her husband and their friend. Is there a dark supernatural secret in this country town, or is there a plot to drive Jessica into insanity? The first two-thirds can be slow-going, with a few unintentional laughs, but an unsettling mood begins to dominate the story until it builds to a suitably and satisfyingly spooky finale. Kind of a minor cult classic.

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) * * * *
D: Dario Argento

An acknowledged high-watermark for the horror genre, Argento's Suspiria is his best film and his most artistically successful. It's the first in his "Three Mothers" trilogy, each a horror fairy tale centering on a different powerful female witch hidden within contemporary society; the second film is Inferno (1980), which I will be re-watching shortly, and the third is Mother of Tears, which debuted at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and will, I suspect, be going straight to DVD in the States. Suspiria is about Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who arrives at a prestigious dance school ridden with mysterious deaths and disappearances. Aided by her friend Sara, she begins to investigate the secrets of the school, through whose corridor stalks a killer--but she also begins to succumb to dark magic. Suspiria is notable for its stark Technicolor design: the school is painted in hues of red, blue, and green, which alternate like a spinning color wheel, but also signal changes in emotion and anxiety. Although the film is explicitly violent and almost unbearably intense, it's also a fable, in which the "children" are subjected to nightmarish treatment by the adult/authority figures, all while lost in a deep, dark woods. (Note that in the opening scene, as Suzy Bannion leaves the airport to find a taxi in the stormy night, she passes a simple poster that says "Black Forest"; shortly thereafter we enter that black forest, figuratively and literally.) I accredit much of Suspiria's richness to Daria Nicolodi, Argento's wife at the time, who co-wrote the film with him; but it is Argento who adds the cinematic flourish, from the aforementioned color to the nightmarish staging (I particularly love the curved hallway in the climax, around which Suzy creeps, never knowing when she will be suddenly stumble into something) and the sweeping camera movements. I first saw this film at a midnight screening in Salt Lake City several years ago. The print was battered beyond belief, the colors faded, the soundtrack screeching. It was a "grindhouse" experience, really. But the film was completely effective, undiluted in its essence.

Cumartesi, Ekim 20, 2007

The 100 Greatest Horror Films

Criteria (Defining a “Horror Film”):

I. Terror Vs. Horror

Some critics have made a peculiar distinction between the “terror” film and the “horror” film. Presumably terror is interested in generating a visceral tension and reaction, whereas horror is to leave you aghast. To me the distinction is academic; in general usage, both are given the umbrella label “horror,” and both will be included here. However...

II. Thrillers Vs. Horror

...there is a “thriller” genre which is often distinct from the “horror” genre. For example, crime thrillers starring Ashley Judd hunting down serial killers would not be included in the “horror” genre. However, Silence of the Lambs and the other Hannibal the Cannibal films are typically included in the horror genre, perhaps because of the focus on the more grand guignol aspects of the story. Because Silence of the Lambs is so often included in “Best of Horror” lists, I decided to leave it eligible for this list; the fact that it didn’t make the list has more to do with my personal taste and the greater enjoyment I have for the films that are included. But then, it seems to me contradictory that David Fincher’s seminal Se7en is often excluded from horror lists. Is it because the villain spends much of the film off-screen, the story focusing instead on the hunt for him? The distinction between “thriller” and “horror” is still very intangible. Alfred Hitchcock is the master of the “thriller,” but most of his films are not considered horror, with three notable exceptions: Psycho, The Birds, and Frenzy. I considered these films eligible because of the contributions they made to the horror genre in general. There also needs to be, I think, a focus on the murder rather than the investigation. This distinguishes it from a standard mystery. An Agatha Christie mystery might feature a horrific crime, but the “whodunit” aspect is given greater prominence. In a horror film, the murders are given prominence, with the intention of generating a feeling of fear and personal jeopardy in the viewer. In the case of Se7en, I excluded it because it would open the doors to including a number of suspense films more tenuously connected to the horror genre, despite the fact that there is a significant horror aspect to the film: Fincher models his storyline on Dante’s Inferno, a tour through a modern urban Hell. On a different day, in a different mood, I might have included it; on the other hand, when I look at the list I compiled, it seems to strike more closely at what “horror movies” are about.

III. Influence Vs. Effectiveness

I quickly realized the major problem in compiling a list of the greatest horror films ever made: defining “great.” Does it mean the most famous? The most influential? The most scary? Frankenstein (1931), for example, is not frightening. Its horror seems quaint. But this is because the film has aged; there is no such thing as a “timeless” film, although sometimes we’d like to think so. Everything is of its time in a fundamental way. We are told that Frankenstein, when it was first released, caused theater patrons to scream and faint. It also provided an iconic template for Mary Shelley’s story, to the point that if you asked a contemporary child to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s monster, he or she would place bolts in the neck. Naturally, this is one of the “greatest” horror films, even though it may not be as scary to a modern viewer as a Saw sequel. There are less important “great” horror films that pre-date modern horror, of course, and you’ll see dollops of them on this list. I have a great love for Hammer horror, Universal classics, and Val Lewton movies. Not every one of these movies may be as vividly remembered, and they may no longer be “scary,” but they are nevertheless sterling examples of the genre. Also note that a horror film does not have to be “scary” to be effective. A prevailing since of dread, or, to a lesser degree, a Gothic atmosphere, a creepiness, or a morbid focus on death and dismemberment (such as the Frankenstein films) all can make for an effective horror film. A final problem might be an influential horror film which is not very good. Now we enter the realm of Herschell Gordon Lewis (the godfather of gore). Frankly, I wasn’t interested in including films that I didn’t think had an inherent quality beyond simply being remembered as being the “first” to do something. All the films on this list are worth watching. “Great” means that something isn’t just important, but is better than good.

IV. Comic Horror Vs. Horror Comedy

This is a simple matter of ratios. If the film is mostly comedy, it is ineligible; if it is mostly horror, it is eligible. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a comedy that uses Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man as punchlines. An American Werewolf in London, on the other hand, is, as Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide puts it, “not a spoof, but a full-blooded horror film that happens to have a sharp sense of humor.” Following strict adherence to this guideline, it is with great regret that I had to exclude Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (The Fearless Vampire Killers), despite the fact that it is a better Hammer horror movie than most actual Hammer horror movies.

V. Monster Movies and Science Fiction

On one end of the “monster movie” spectrum strides Godzilla, King Kong, and the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: giant monsters that terrorize cities and squash civilians between their toes. At the other end, there’s the immediacy and body-horror dread of Ridley Scott’s Alien or David Cronenberg’s Shivers. And somewhere in between is Jaws. It’s easy to classify monster movies featuring vampires and werewolves as horror—they’ve become synonymous—but it’s considerably more challenging to find room for Godzilla and company, since it would then allow for all the atom-age monster films like Them and maybe even The Incredible Shrinking Man. I’ll admit there is no good solution, as the genres have become inextricably linked: if you need a good monster to terrorize people, outer space or atomic radiation is as good an explanation as any. The recent Slither, for example, has a science fiction basis (the parasitic creature is an alien from another planet), but few would dispute that the film, with its focus on body mutations and grisliness, is a horror film. My decisions here are subjective and tailored to the design of this list. I have excluded atom-age monster movies as I think that’s a subgenre best given over to science fiction. Since that means no Godzilla, I have excluded all giant monster movies in general (no King Kong). These films were more about spectacle anyway. But I have included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film whose basic premise—the enemy may have taken over the minds and bodies of your friends and neighbors—has been exploited to great effect in horror films. Again, if the film was meant to generate unease, dread, or frights, it belongs in the category of horror. However, I have been careful to not go overboard with including films containing strong science fiction elements. It just so happens that many of the greatest horror films are also among the greatest science fiction films, reminding us that, in genre storytelling, fear is just another facet of fantasy.

Finally, this list will be updated and rearranged as I see more films and/or change my mind about the order.

The 100 Greatest Horror Films

1. Psycho (1960, D: Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, D: Roman Polanski)
3. The Exorcist (1973, D: William Friedkin)
4. The Haunting (1963, D: Robert Wise)
5. Nosferatu (1922, D: F.W. Murnau)
6. Suspiria (1978, D: Dario Argento)
7. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, D: Tobe Hooper)
8. Alien (1979, D: Ridley Scott)
9. Bride of Frankenstein (1935, D: James Whale)
10. Jaws (1975, D: Steven Spielberg)
11. Dracula (1931, D: Tod Browning)
12. Frankenstein (1931, D: James Whale)
13. Don’t Look Now (1973, D: Nicolas Roeg)
14. The Thing (1982, D: John Carpenter)
15. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, D: Robert Wiene)
16. Night of the Living Dead (1968, D: George A. Romero)
17. The Innocents (1961, D: Jack Clayton)
18. An American Werewolf in London (1981, D: John Landis)
19. Cat People (1942, D: Jacques Tourneur)
20. Freaks (1932, D: Tod Browning)
21. The Birds (1963, D: Alfred Hitchcock)
22. The Wolf Man (1941, D: George Waggner)
23. Night of the Demon (1958, D: Jacques Tourneur)
24. The Devil Rides Out (1968, D: Terence Fisher)
25. The Shining (1980, D: Stanley Kubrick)
26. Kwaidan (1960, D: Masaki Kobayashi)
27. The Wicker Man (1973, D: Robin Hardy)
28. Black Christmas (1974, D: Bob Clark)
29. Dracula (1958, D: Terence Fisher)
30. Dawn of the Dead (1978, D: George A. Romero)
31. Peeping Tom (1960, D: Michael Powell)
32. Halloween (1978, D: John Carpenter)
33. Repulsion (1965, D: Roman Polanski)
34. The Seventh Victim (1943, D: Mark Robson)
35. Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966, D: Mario Bava)
36. The Thing from Another World (1951, D: Christian Nyby)
37. Brides of Dracula (1960, D: Terence Fisher)
38. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, D: Terence Fisher)
39. The Mummy (1932, D: Karl Freund)
40. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, D: Jack Arnold)
41. Curse of the Werewolf (1961, D: Terence Fisher)
42. Onibaba (1964, D: Kaneto Shindo)
43. Santa Sangre (1988, D: Alejandro Jodorowsky)
44. I Walked with a Zombie (1943, D: Jacques Tourneur)
45. Mad Love (1935, D: Karl Freund)
46. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, D: Don Siegel)
47. The Host (2006, Joon-ho Bong)
48. Evil Dead II (1987, D: Sam Raimi)
49. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, D: Rouben Mamoulian)
50. The Tenant (1976, D: Roman Polanski)
51. Profondo Rosso (1975, D: Dario Argento)
52. The Devil’s Backbone (2001, D: Guillermo del Toro)
53. The Phantom of the Opera (1925, D: Rupert Julian)
54. Fright Night (1985, D: Tom Holland)
55. The Legend of Hell House (1973, D: John Hough)
56. Kiss of the Vampire (1963, D: Don Sharp)
57. The Evil Dead (1981, D: Sam Raimi)
58. Eyes Without a Face (1960, D: Georges Franju)
59. Spider Baby (1968, D: Jack Hill)
60. Audition (1999, D: Takashi Miike)
61. Vampyr (1932, D: Carl Th. Dreyer)
62. Re-Animator (1985, D: Stuart Gordon)
63. The Uninvited (1944, D: Lewis Allen)
64. Ringu (1998, D: Hideo Nakata)
65. Shivers (1975, D: David Cronenberg)
66. White Zombie (1932, D: Victor Halperin)
67. Videodrome (1983, D: David Cronenberg)
68. The Hills Have Eyes (1977, D: Wes Craven)
69. Black Sunday (1960, D: Mario Bava)
70. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967, D: Jose Mojica Marins)
71. Hellraiser (1987, D: Clive Barker)
72. Session 9 (2001, D: Brad Anderson)
73. The Mummy (1959, D: Terence Fisher)
74. Taste of Fear [Scream of Fear] (1961, D: Seth Holt)
75. Paperhouse (1988, D: Bernard Rose)
76. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, D: Wes Craven)
77. The Dead Zone (1983, D: David Cronenberg)
78. Nosferatu the Vampire (1979, D: Werner Herzog)
79. Carrie (1976, D: Brian DePalma)
80. Carnival of Souls (1962, D: Herk Harvey)
81. Planet of the Vampires (1965, D: Mario Bava)
82. The Blair Witch Project (1999, D: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)
83. Spirits of the Dead (1968, D: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini)
84. House on Haunted Hill (1959, D: William Castle)
85. Misery (1990, D: Rob Reiner)
86. Bedlam (1946, D: Mark Robson)
87. The Ninth Gate (1999, D: Roman Polanski)
88. May (2002, D: Lucky McKee)
89. The Old Dark House (1932, D: James Whale)
90. 28 Days Later... (2002, D: Danny Boyle)
91. House of Wax (1953, D: Andre De Toth)
92. Dagon (2001, D: Stuart Gordon)
93. Ginger Snaps (2000, D: John Fawcett)
94. The Fly (1958, D: Kurt Neumann)
95. The Omen (1976, D: Richard Donner)
96. From Beyond (1986, D: Stuart Gordon)
97. The Masque of the Red Death (1964, D: Roger Corman)
98. Candyman (1992, D: Bernard Rose)
99. Shadow of the Vampire (2000, D: E. Elias Merhige)
100. Cronos (1993, D: Guillermo del Toro)

Çarşamba, Ekim 17, 2007

Days 15-17: 31 Days of Halloween

Two Thousand Maniacs! (U.S., 1964) * 1/2
D: Herschell Gordon Lewis

I've long considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool horror fan without having seen any films by legendary gore-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis, so for this month-long marathon I thought I'd sample his product. I chose Two Thousand Maniacs not because I was a 10,000 Maniacs fan in high school, but because I've always been haunted by the description of one of the murders of the film--a man trapped in a barrel with exposed nails sticking into its interior, bouncing against them bloodily as he's rolled down a hill by rednecks. Yes, that scene's in the movie, along with another in which a woman is held to a table by the town mayor while another Southerner chops her arm off, and another in which a woman is smashed by a giant boulder that's dropped on her bound body, after the titular maniacs release it by tossing a rock at a dunking-booth-style target. It all comes from Lewis' demented mind. Filmed in Florida, but set in Georgia, it tells the story of a handful of Northerners who are lured into town for the centennial of something--the end of the Civil War, they figure, but actually the residents are marking the memory of their ancestors' massacre at the hands of Union soldiers. (I'm telling a white lie to hide the big "twist" ending, which you can figure out anyway, but never mind.) Slowly these tourists are separated and slaughtered in carnival-like games for the amusement of the bloodthirsty townspeople. What makes the film notable is its use of explicit and lingering gore shots, revolutionized by Lewis in his previous outing, Blood Feast (1963). But also notable is the fact that the film is so widely known while being so obviously terrible. The acting is a few notches below Manos: The Hands of Fate. When dialogue is looped, it seems to be coming from another dimension. The staging is also inept, although occasionally fascinating: the slaughter scenes are filmed as though they were a magic act in a particularly perverse children's show. Which is basically what Lewis is after, I think: he is, really, the kind of kid who would put on a magic show for all the other kids on the block, and saw his sister in half and add lots of ketchup to scandalize the neighborhood. In this film he's a showman, a carnival barker, and he lures you into the tent, grabs the cash, and runs. What you see inside the tent is almost beside the point. There's a germ of a good satire here. It opens promisingly with images of confederate flags fluttering in the wind, and some of the townspeople setting up a fake "detour" sign to lure in their prey while, on the soundtrack, we hear a folk song that might be described as Southern Power. With a better script and decent acting, this could have fit easily into that subgenre of horror films that explore America's uncomfortable cultural divides--think such socially-aware pictures as Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A remake could only improve on the material, but one suspects its moment has passed.

An American Werewolf in London (U.S./U.K., 1981) * * * *
D: John Landis

My admiration and outright love for this film grows each time I see it, and I've seen it dozens of times. It's one of the greatest horror films ever made (my list of those, by the way, is forthcoming). In 1981 Landis was at the peak of his career, coming off the successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. He was thought of as a comedy director. But An American Werewolf in London was his dream project--he'd written the script over a decade before. While there are plenty of moments of Landis' trademark humor and satire, it's a very straightforward genre film. Two American college students, hitchhiking across England, are attacked by a wolf in the moors. One of them, Jack (an excellent Griffin Dunne), is killed. But David (David Naughton) survives, and is taken to a London hospital where he suffers from persistent nightmares and ultimately a visit from the undead Jack, who warns him that he'll turn into a werewolf and kill others unless he kills himself first. Landis has an attention to character detail that elevates American Werewolf into the classier ranks of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Jack and David are convincing as friends, and even when Jack becomes a rapidly-decomposing corpse, he manages to retain his familiar demeanor ("Have you ever talked to a corpse? It's BORING.") while finding time to deliver grave prophecies. Naughton is just OK by comparison, but nonetheless convincing as a naive young man; it helps that he's flanked by Dunne and Jennifer Agutter, as radiant as she is ubiquitous in British productions of this period. This is her best role. Since the plot requires a long delay before David becomes a werewolf, Landis cleverly packs jolts into the narrative before the big reveal, and they're genuinely shocking. The transformation scene itself won the first Oscar for Best Makeup, and it couldn't look much better if done today with CG augmentation; the visceral, revolting quality would probably be lost, as would the immediacy of the effects: what you are seeing is really there, really happening, as his bones stretch and contort into new shapes. Nothing, however, is more shocking than the first, effects-free pangs, shot in a single take, as David, reading a book calmly on an armchair, suddenly screams horrifically, springs from the chair, clutches at his body, and rips off all his clothes. Incidentally, Roger Ebert panned the film, declaring the ending disappointingly abrupt. He apparently wanted a more action-packed conclusion. The film ends when it does because there's nothing more to say. It's a splash of cold water. It's a shivering waking from a nightmare. And, in Landis' hands, it's a punchline.

Pazartesi, Ekim 15, 2007

Day 14: 31 Days of Halloween

Dracula's Daughter (U.S., 1936) * * 1/2
D: Lambert Hillyer

The first time I saw Dracula's Daughter, about two years ago, I loved it and thought it was some lost masterpiece of Universal Horror. But now that I've watched it again, I almost wonder if my earlier overreaction was due to the fact that I was plowing through all the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man franchises at once, and Dracula's Daughter is certainly better than the "House of..." and "Son of..." monster mashes Universal made in the 40's. It's a good film, but not a great one; a great moment it stumbles across, like an amateur bowler who, out of sheer clumsiness, manages a strike, and saves himself from a lousy game.

Made five years after the Bela Lugosi/Tod Browning classic, Dracula's Daughter surprisingly picks up right where the former film left off, as Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is arrested for the murders of Count Dracula and the asylum patient Renfield. Rather than calling Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, and Dr. Seward as witnesses of the defense, Van Helsing summons Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist who can vouch for his sanity, but instead gets so caught up in his colleague's story that he begins to think one Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) might be a vampire as well. He's right, as we know; Zaleska recently journeyed from Transylvania to London to dispose of Dracula's body through Catholic ritual, hoping it will exorcise her own vampirism. That's what makes this Dracula film so unique: it really has no villain, since the vampire doesn't want to be one. Since the exorcism doesn't work, she resorts to psychiatry, so convinced by Jeffrey's arguments that any addiction can be overcome by human will. He asks that she put herself to the test, and this provides the movie's centerpiece and its most fascinating scene: the Countess, wishing to paint a portrait, asks her assistant Sandor to fetch her a subject off the street. He finds a young, pretty prostitute (well, she's most likely a prostitute--in this Code film, you have to read between the lines). The girl is brought to Zaleska's apartment. Zaleska is immediately infatuated with the girl, but tells her that the neck and shoulders must be bare. The girl replies easily she has no problem with that, and as soon as Zaleska sees her neck...she is overcome with lust, of either the blood or sexual variety. Fade to black.

It's difficult to make a vampire film in which a bite doesn't equal sex, which is why every film in which one male vampire bites another male vampire is deemed "homoerotic." (See Fright Night or Interview with the Vampire, in which it's intended, or every B-movie in which it isn't.) What makes this scene so fascinating is that it doesn't even attempt to be a straightforward "horror" confrontation between monster and victim. It's overflowing with sexual desire. Not until The Vampire Lovers (1970) would a lesbian theme intrude as prominently into a horror narrative (although that film, with its R license [i.e., X licence], couldn't touch the eloquence and repressed eroticism of this scene).

Admittedly, without the seduction scene it wouldn't be much of a film. There is very little horror or general horror atmosphere; it's not until the protagonists finally come to Castle Dracula in the climax that we're struck to see an amazing Gothic set with cobwebs flooding its corridors--so this is the world of Dracula, after all. Everything else is drawing-room mystery, without even a mystery. If it was a few years earlier and Tod Browning took the reigns, or a few years later and Val Lewton produced, we might have something here. But Dracula's Daughter is an oddity: a minor gem among the Universal series for its offbeat quality, but minor by most other standards. Its rote touches--clumsy comedy with the Scotland Yard detectives, quasi-snappy banter between Jeffrey and his gal Friday (a very good Marguerite Churchill)--look more tired by comparison to the unusual angle of the plot and the hints of sexual deviance. Oh well, at least the film exists, and the Wolf Man doesn't show up for a wrestling match.

Perşembe, Ekim 11, 2007

Week Two: 31 Days of Halloween

Cronos (Mexico, 1993) * * *
D: Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro's first feature quickly launched his career as one of the masters of horror fantasy. It's the story of an ancient, mechanical device sheathed in gold and containing blades for legs, elaborate clockwork, and, somewhere deep within, a horrifying, vampiric insect. When Jesus, an elderly clock repairman (Federico Luppi), gets "stung" by the device, he gains immortality, as well as a consuming addiction to blood. He also becomes the target of a wealthy, ruthless collector (Claudio Brook), who hopes to beat his cancer by using the device, and promptly sets his thuggish son (Ron Perlman) to get it at any cost. It's a slight story that benefits greatly from del Toro's sure-footed and stylish direction. The film is also infused with touches of sensitivity and humanity, such as the time and attention given to Jesus' peculiar granddaughter, who helpfully tends to him even when he rises from the grave as a bleached member of the walking dead.

Spider Baby (U.S., 1968) * * * 1/2
D: Jack Hill

This film was a revelation. Jack Hill is best known for his collaborations with Pam Grier--Coffy and Foxy Brown. Spider Baby is an earlier work, a very low-budget horror film saved by a whip-smart script and unexpectedly excellent performances. It's a camp horror film that contains tension, but is also wryly self-aware. (If you added songs, it would be the perfect Rocky Horror prototype.) A tightly-knit clan has been living in a rotting house while suffering from their own degenerative disease, brought on by generations of inbreeding: we are told that the disease causes mental deterioration and ultimately physical deformity. Sisters Elizabeth and Virginia are in the early stages, but already have become homicidal maniacs. Their guardian, Bruno the Chauffeur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), cleans up after their messes, and seeks to protect them from the outside forces who come to break them apart. Spider Baby was actually shot in 1964, which helps explain why the Howes, the grinning, game suburbanites who come to visit, seem to have emerged from a 1950's Leave it to Beaver era, rather than the age of flower power. But given the savage satire the film contains, Spider Baby still manages to feel timeless. Remember: don't volunteer to play the "spider" game.

Black Sunday (Italy, 1960) * * *
D: Mario Bava

I've been dipping into Mario Bava for the first time, and having just seen the superb Kill, Baby...Kill!, I decided to go back to the Bava film that is considered his most influential: Black Sunday, recently reissued in a box set of Bava restorations. This is the film that begins with Barbara Steele being condemned as a witch, tied to a stake, and then subjected to a spiked mask that's driven into her face by a giant swinging hammer. Yikes! Although it's shocking, and gooey-gory in the early Hammer Horror sense, I was surprised to see how much the film owed to Dracula, from the haunted carriage ride through a foggy landscape to the scarring that a crucifix causes when it's pressed against the undead's flesh (this, in particular, taken from Hammer's version of the story). It also borrows from Fu Manchu-style cliffhanger thrillers with its secret passages and a pit of sharp spikes. The best scenes take place in a cobwebbed tomb, a shadowy necropolis with Steele's perfectly preserved corpse visible behind a glass window in her coffin, her face riddled with black holes!

28 Weeks Later (U.K., 2007) * * *
D: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

This clever sequel to Danny Boyle's sleeper hit 28 Days Later immediately establishes a sense of realism and cruel, tragic logic in its harrowing opening scene; it's the film's greatest weakness that it can't sustain that realism or logic throughout, but succumbs to meet traditional zombie-movie expectations as the plot unfolds. Still, there's a hell of a lot to admire here. The apocalyptic plot of the original film--a fast-spreading "rage" virus is turning Britons into violent, mindless killers--is now extended to show what life in the United Kingdom is like "28 weeks later," when the plague has decimated most of the country, leaving a protected security bubble in a section of London--much like the "Green Zone" in Baghdad--where the American military helps protect the last remaining uninfected. Director Fresnadillo (Intacto) gets excellent, believably human performances from his cast, including Robert Carlyle as a haunted father, Catherine McCormack as a scientist researching the "rage" plague, and Jeremy Renner as a sergeant who decides to go AWOL when he's ordered to fire freely upon a crowd of civilians being attacked by the infected. There are some impossibilities in this plot which are hard to ignore, which is a shame, but on the whole it's an amazingly tense, politically-aware thriller with a suffocating feeling of inevitable doom.

Slither (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: James Gunn

Slither begins with an image from countless sci-fi horror films: an asteroid is crashing to Earth, bearing an alien cargo. Sure enough, soon a slimy egg is opening and Grant (Michael Rooker), the redneck husband of Starla (Elizabeth Banks), the local hottie schoolteacher, becomes infected with a mind-controlling alien. He gains an affinity for meat. He sprouts spiked tentacles from his chest. He impregnates a girl, whose body swells to the size of a house. And out of her comes lots and lots of giant slugs. For all of its deliberately revolting prosthetic effects and KY jelly (and cautiously-applied CG), Slither is, in its heart, an old-fashioned monster movie, and a very enjoyable one. Nathan Fillion, of Firefly and Serenity fame, is excellent as a laid-back sheriff who harbors a secret crush for Starla, and takes these new, formidable challenges as they come. Any film that features a melee with a mutant deer is worth your 90 minutes.

It's Alive (U.S., 1974) * * 1/2
D: Larry Cohen

It's Alive is probably the most representative of Larry Cohen's films: it has an easy-sell premise guaranteed to win over movie investors (a killer mutant baby!), plus touches of wry social and political satire that rarely announce themselves, but are woven inextricably into straight-faced thriller conventions. But It's Alive isn't quite successful. There's a superb opening stretch, as the Davies (John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell), an expecting couple, travel to the hospital with a slight spring in their step; it's their second child (their first is eleven), they know the procedure, and they're optimistic about the changes to come; then something goes wrong in the delivery room, and Frank Davies arrives at a bloody scene--and the baby is gone. It's the beginning of his child's murder rampage, which is, naturally, a completely ludicrous idea, and a major challenge for Cohen. He almost gets the tone right; there are laughs, but it's not a comedy. Still, the premise that there's a killer baby on the loose is never believable, and the scenes in which the child "strikes" are (a) too infrequent, and (b) utterly unconvincing. There are two sequels!

Black Christmas (Canada, 1974) * * * *
D: Bob Clark

Black Christmas is why the horror genre was invented. It's equal parts urban legend and campfire story, with a premise convincing enough, and so completely involving, that you might feel a little uneasy when the story's over and it's time to turn out the lights. The plot, by now, sounds stale: a killer is on the loose over the holidays, leaving creepy phone calls at a sorority house and killing off its occupants one by one. But this was 1974, four years before John Carpenter's Halloween formally started the slasher-film craze. Black Christmas does owe a little to the Italian giallo thrillers of the late 60's and early 70's, and just a bit to Dario Argento and Mario Bava (as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, of course), but somehow it feels fresh, with its realistic dialogue, believable performances, and observant humor: three traits missing from so many films in this genre. Plus director Bob Clark--who would go on to Porky's and, yes, A Christmas Story--concentrates on building suspense and dread rather than easy-sell exploitation elements. There's no nudity or sex, and although the killings contain intense violence, there's not really any gore (nor do the scenes last very long). Clark would rather let his camera linger on telephones from which a deranged voice is whispering, or the shocked but fascinated expressions of the girls who listen. Skip the remake: this is one of the most effective horror films you'll ever see, and the beginning of a counter-argument to Roger Ebert's recent assertion that there will never be a list of "Great Dead Teenager Films."

Cuma, Ekim 05, 2007

Days 4 & 5: 31 Days of Halloween

The Call of Cthulhu (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Andrew Leman

A 45-minute short, The Call of Cthulhu is a cleverly executed Z-budget epic inspired by the famous and influential H.P. Lovecraft story. In what you would call a labor of love, Andrew Leman, taking an absurdly ambitious (and devotedly faithful) script by Sean Branney, has perfectly transposed the cosmic-gothic horror of Lovecraft into the world of German Expressionist-styled silent film, replete with title cards, painted cardboard sets--the lot. The plot involves an ancient death cult being suddenly revived globally as an evil god begins to awaken on an island recently emerged from the bottom of the ocean. Leman and his crew had a very tiny budget from which to work. By choosing to make his film in the style of a 1920's silent film, the ambitious scale of the story becomes contained, and the format's limitations become strengths. Similarly, the audience's expectations become tempered: you don't expect a 1920's horror fantasy to contain eye-popping special effects, just pleasingly abstract sets, simple in-camera visual tricks, and dark, angular shadows. You also don't need to worry about delivering the proper pronunciation of "Cthulhu." Despite the self-imposed boundaries, the technique also allows Leman and Branney to faithfully adapt Lovecraft: they can build some miniature sets and some cardboard ones, create a simple matting in the computer, underlight the sets, and utilize old stock footage for montage sequences, and voila: an epic Fritz Lang would be proud of. There's even a stop-motion monster in the finale. While Call of Cthulhu cannot ultimately be more than what it is--a neat little hat trick--it also has all the homemade charm of an early Kenneth Anger or Guy Maddin film. If you're a Lovecraft fan, it's required viewing, and will have to satisfy your appetite until Guillermo del Toro finally does his version of At the Mountains of Madness.

I would have blogged about that yesterday, but my internet connection was down; still, there's little to say about today's Halloween-related activities, since I went to see a screening of Sansho the Bailiff (****, by the way) at the Cinematheque. However, I did squeeze in a few issues of the Marvel Comics Tomb of Dracula when I got home. This is the series created by Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan that become a short-lived hit in the 70's, eventually spawning the Blade film series (vampire-hunter Blade was a secondary character in the comics). Read the series--collected in four paperback volumes--for Colan's draftsmanship, not Wolfman's writing. Wolfman, despite the excellent name, had a tendency toward meandering plotlines and numbing repetition. (Typical action scene: Rachel Van Helsing dives at Dracula, who pushes her away; then Blade does; then Frank Drake does; then Rachel Van Helsing again...) But Colan is a true master of comic book art, and he elevates the series to a classy level it didn't really deserve. Truly in the spirit of the Hammer horror films of the 60's, which is why I'm a sucker for the series anyway, and it's suitable October reading.

Çarşamba, Ekim 03, 2007

Day 3: 31 Days of Halloween

Death Proof (U.S., 2007) * * * *
D: Quentin Tarantino

Grindhouse remains one of my favorite films of the year (I'll place it a close second after David Fincher's Zodiac), but it's also quickly become a rarified experience, as the complete, double-feature, faux-coming-attractions-filled, three-hour-plus version was a financial flop, and withdrawn in favor of two separate video releases for Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Well, both are now "director's cuts," with plenty of deleted scenes added back in, but there's no excuse to withhold the complete Grindhouse experience from those who didn't have a chance to see it in the theaters. Oh, all right. Those who didn't see it in the theater are suckers and deserve all the pain they get. Grindhouse played brilliantly as a late-night movie with a packed house of semi-drunk cinephiles, hooting and hollering at all the carefully-arranged pseudo-scratches on the print. I loved the whole package, but suspected strongly that Death Proof was the real gem; now, in its "international" or "Cannes cut" version, and unreeling at about an hour and forty-five minutes, I'm happy to see that it's an even better film. And freed of the baggage as the bottom half of a double bill, supporting its own weight and without the sagging attention of an audience that's already just sat through a mindless (though hilarious) zombie-fest, the chitter chatter of Tarantino's Faster-Pussycat females can be better appreciated for its languorous rhythm and melody, and one can more easily see how, like a concert maestro, he guides his characters casually but inexorably toward climactic moments of intensity and violence with impact all the greater because of the calm that came before. He up-ends the expectations of the slasher film, not just in mechanical details--the weapon is not a knife but a car--but, more critically, in the overall structure and the treatment of the victims. There is no familiar Freudian reasoning to the mayhem--the sluts get killed, the virgin triumphs, etc.--but instead the writer-director's unending sympathy and admiration for all his women, which makes the deaths twist all the more sharply. Plus it has one of the most hilariously over-the-top cathartic finales you'll see, which plays to genre conventions while perversely inversing. I have "Chick Habit" playing in my head right now. It's a sweet aftertaste.

Salı, Ekim 02, 2007

Day 2: 31 Days of Halloween

Today I bought a collection of short stories, Lost Worlds, by Clark Ashton Smith, the contemporary and colleague of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and one of the more influential shapers of horror fantastique. I read two stories (well, so far, before checking in here dutifully), including "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros." Here is a sample passage.

The basin, I have said, was very large; indeed, it was no less than six feet in diameter by three in depth, and its brim was the height of a tall man's shoulder from the door. The three legs that bore it were curved and massive, and terminated in the likeness of feline paws displaying their talons. When we approached and peered over the brim, we saw that the bowl was filled with a sort of viscous and semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color. It was from this that the odor came--an odor which, though unsurpassably foul, was nevertheless not an odor of putrefaction, but resembled rather the smell of some vile and unclean creature of the marshes. The odor was almost beyond endurance, and we were about to turn away when we perceived a slight ebullition of the surface, as if the sooty liquid were agitated from within by some submerged animal or other entity. This ebullition increased rapidly, the center swelled as if with the action of a powerful yeast, and we watched in utter horror while an uncouth amorphous head with dull and bulging eyes arose gradually on an ever-lengthening neck, and stared us in the face with primordial malignity. Then two arms--if one could call them arms--likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw that the thing was not, as we had thought, a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself had put forth this hideous neck and head, and was now forming these damnable arms, that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of claws or hand!

Pazartesi, Ekim 01, 2007

Day 1: 31 Days of Halloween

Severance (U.K., 2006) * * *
D: Christopher Smith

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and October my favorite month. It's a special time of year, when little children dress up as blood-drenched psychopaths and their parents smile on approvingly. Alas, October is only 31 days long (although the retail chains might make you think otherwise), so to make the most of the holiday this year I'm making sure to celebrate every single day, on this blog, in my own small, obsessive, patently pathetic way. But first: a horror film! A new one! Severance played as one of the midnight movies in last year's Wisconsin Film Festival, and I came THIS CLOSE to seeing it (indicating very close); I believe it was between this and El Topo, ultimately, and the choice for me was obvious. But it's a shame I missed seeing this British comedy-thriller on the big screen, because it seems obvious on a home viewing that it would play well with a beery crowd. Employees of a weapons manufacturing company head off into the dark forest of Eastern Europe for some empty-headed "team-building" exercises (including paintball). Instead they run into a group of bloodthirsty survivalists who begin picking the team off one by one. I often heard this described as a comedy, but make no mistake that it is a horror film, Hostel-style torture scenes intact. There's also violent attempted rape and a vivid immolation scene. It is a horror film and a tense one--but it also finds moments of irreverent character observation, and one of the most strangely delightful resolutions to a decapitation you're ever likely to see. It's whimsical, shall we say. It's a whimsical decapitation scene.