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 ), 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.