Thursday, February 26, 2009

McNaughton's Tale

The Masters of Horror series was, like the HBO Creature Features and those Stephen King miniseries films on USA: pretty much a waste. Joe Dante's Homecoming, while enjoyable, had nowhere near the production values needed to make it convincing. The rest of them were hemmed in by the same problems and only a few of them had plots worth watching through once you get past the look and feel of a made-for-tv horror film. Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon, both professionals with pretty solid resumes, made very effective use of the nothing they were given. John Landis, Mick Garris, Tom Holland, and William Malone made the same kind of thing they always do, but on half the budget. I've yet to see Peter Medak's, but I'm expecting it be somewhere between his Species II and The Ruling Class. Anyway, the series followed a pretty strict formula despite its disparate directors. They come mostly from short stories or high concepts and they rely on special effects for most of their shocks. Mick Garris and his ilk - the Stephen King made-for-Sci-Fi crowd - are used to working with no budget and so its no surprise their films come out like they do. Haeckel's Tale is just a little different.

Haeckel's Tale
by John McNaughton
A man called Ralston comes to an old witch looking to bring his wife back from the dead. He misses her terribly and because this looks to be the 18th century, these people don't understand how stupid an idea it is to tamper in the realm of the undead. The witch can't deter Ralston's conviction, so she sits him down for a story about Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel was a medical student who believed he could, through scientific means, resurrect the dead. His professor was incredulous and Haeckel's demonstration a little later does nothing to convince him - even though we see the dead girl's eyes open before she bursts into flames on the operating table.

With his Frankensteinian dreams dashed on the rocks, Haeckel is a little distraught and weak. This is probably why he heeds the advice of his crackpot bodysnatcher who tells him there's a magician who can raise the dead without science. Haeckel decides to travel deep into the woods to look for this man, Montesquino. He finds Montesquino performing tricks out of a wagon like a roadside hoax and so continues Haeckel's incredulity, that is until Montesquino brings a dog back from the dead in front of his eyes. A dialogue with the magician later yields little results - Haeckel just wants the old man to admit he's a phony so he can learn his secret. Montesquino leaves him in the woods in the middle of the night, which he soon discovers is unsafe - when he sees a man hanging from a tree with a sign reading "pederast" around his chest! Haeckel finds a cabin just in time for nightfall where a man named Wolfram and his beautiful young wife Elise reside.

There's something seriously sideways about these two. First of all, Wolfram keeps asking the young doctor if he finds his wife attractive and she keeps looking nervously out the window. In the middle of the night a few things happen that could charitably be described as insane. First Elise comes to the window and starts touching herself and barely stops when she finds Haeckel looking at her. Next a man shows up with a package for Wolfram and when Elise shows up she's nursing a baby. Then Elise leaves the house and screams begin emanating from the woods. Ernst tries to get Wolfram to elaborate on some of the weirdness he's just seen, but the old man keeps his mouth shut except to warn against going into the Necropolis nearby. It's safe to say some bad mojo is afoot and that Montesquino is behind it. I won't ruin the ending but suffice it to say it has to do with that baby and the necromancer. When we re-enter the framing story, we become privvy to the identity of the witch, which just makes things a little creepier, but after the big reveal in the necropolis, there isn't much left to gross out of you.

John McNaughton is a name a lot of people probably scratch their heads over. His name always does the same thing for me "I know him, who is that?" McNaughton directed The Hitcher and so will always have horror street cred as far as I'm concerned. Haeckel's Tale is lousy with his wince-inducing nastiness. The first half works well as an atmospheric piece, even if the effects and cinematography aren't great. McNaughton fills the relative silence before we meet Wolfram with all manner of creeps, my favorite being the "pederast". The stuff involving zombies at the end is significant because it's the first time that a crucial kind of zombie relation has been shown with any sort of effectiveness to my reckoning and the character of Elise Wolfram all of a sudden takes on a very new, fascinating dimension. She answers a question I've had for a long time: what might it look like a few months after the end of Rosemary's Baby?

The performances, all save Steve Bacic who really brings everything down with his wooden turn as Ralston, are pretty savory. Jon Polito gets to show off as Montesquino, a character that despite being written by Clive Barker many, many years ago, seems designed for him. Derek Cecil as Haeckel and Tom McBeath as Wolfram make for convincing adversaries. The real gold medal goes to Leela Savasta who is either really desperate to make it in movies or the most patient and adventurous actress since the days of Lina Romay and Carol Laure. I hope it's the latter because I like her in this film a lot - she's fourteen kinds of weird.
Haeckel's Tale is off-putting and definitely made me cringe more than once and I had a lot of fun with it. Easily the strongest entry in the Masters of Horror series - if not the strongest made for TV horror film - I've seen so far. Everything down to the period costume was all convincing and contributed to the miasma McNaughton creates. Despite his hiatus in the world of mediocre cinema (he's directed under the name Alan Smithee if that tells you anything), McNaughton has lost nothing of his power to shock. I hope he gets a bigger arena again soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Zombie Down Under

Zombie Comedies are to a great extent, the bane of my existence. Everyone who's listened to me long enough knows it. Basically it boils down to this: no one knows how to balance horror elements and comedic elements. There are notable exceptions to this rule and they succeed because of one thing, they know how to keep the humour in check long enough to get in an emotional story. Reanimator's story is wild and thrilling, and we get enough time to care about a few characters; Shaun of the Dead is absolutely hysterical until the third act when all of a sudden it becomes Day of the Dead; Fido is a cruel film when you get right down to it, but good god does it mask this cruelty well, in a series of beautiful masculinity jokes. The film that serves as the archetype for terrible zombie comedies (and I'd like to reiterate that I am, it seems, entirely alone in my thinking this) are Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. There have been a few films in recent years that seem to be homages (rip-offs) to this film, The Spierig Brothers' Undead most notably so (which I could watch even less of than its predecessor). I honestly don't get it, I didn't get it while I was watching it, I don't get it now. It isn't fun, it isn't funny, it’s very crass, so incredibly unbelievable, so boringly stagy, so slow and so pointlessly obscene that I had no choice but to simply stare and ponder how exactly anyone thought these were marketable ideas. I'm coming to see that the New Zealand film commission will dole out money for whatever despicable trash comes their way (Bad Taste, Black Sheep, The Cars That Ate Paris, Undead) on the off chance that it comes out like Walkabout.

Dead Alive
by Peter Jackson

Right from the get go it's clear to me that Peter Jackson had a long way to go before The Fellowship of the Ring. If you could look at the acting done in this prologue and then look at, say, Ian Holm and Ian McKellen in their scenes together in Fellowship, and then realize that the same man stood behind the camera, and then not do one of those cartoon double-takes, you're of stronger faith than I. A New Zealander and his aboriginal guides are on safari in Sumatra (Jackson’s obsession with King Kong shows through in that he actually calls the region Skull Island. I wonder how Sumatra feels about this). Anyway these fellows are in the middle of carting a crate back to their jeep while being chased by a dozen or so angry natives who clearly don't want the package taken back to civilization. After narrowly escaping, the guide and his men drive over a bump and the crate falls on the white man. When the others notice the bite marks all over him ("You've got...THE BITE!" - Kill me now!), they get to chopping off everything bitten with a machete, ending with his big head. The level of bonkertude this scene exudes from every pore is everything I despise about amateur horror films. First of all, it's racist. Second, the acting is so over-the-top bad it isn't even comical. Third, the violence is unnecessarily plentiful and poorly executed. Why, oh why do people find this interesting? I don't get how anyone could look at Friday the 13th or Burial Ground and think "You know what's missing? Painfully unfunny jokes. And you know what, the acting's too good!"

The crate does make it back to civilization, more specifically to a suburban zoo someplace else in New Zealand. The story shifts focus to mama’s boy Lionel and his girlfriend Paquita. Lionel is a hopeless social derelict and the only reason Paquita wants to spend time with him is because of one of those prophecies everyone in or around Australia puts stock in. She’s destined to be with him, you see, which is all well and good except that Lionel’s mother hates the little tart and wishes, out of some untold creepy desire, to have the boy to herself. This overprotective nature leads her to spy on the two lovebirds on their date at the Zoo where a certain claymation rat monkey is being housed. Lionel leaves with one monkeybitten mother and no girlfriend at all. Lionel’s mother gets increasingly ill until parts of her body start falling off - in just the first of this film’s many disgusting set-pieces, her ear goes into her pudding and she eats it – not funny. Within the hour she’s become a zombie and her first victim is her nurse. Lionel, being of unsound mind, puts both corpses in the basement and goes looking for a tranquilizer to keep that little mess under wraps. He finds it in the office of an exiled Nazi doctor – not funny.
Lionel's hide-the-corpse game can only go on so long and within days of his mother becoming a zombie, he gives her up to the cemetery. After her funeral, he sneaks to her grave to administer more sedative and is interrupted by a gang of rockabilly thugs (apparently every other country but the States has these – another phenomenon I don’t quite get). The thugs menace our boy and wind up zombies when mom exacts her revenge. They are then combated by a priest who knows kung-fu – not funny. Lionel takes them all home and must act as den mother to the group of the undead he’s accrued. While under his care, two of them mate and produce a zombie baby. Then Lionel’s uncle Les shows up to contest his mum’s will which leaves everything to our mama’s boy. Things really go south when Les throws a party at mum’s house, with Lionel and Paquita inside and the zombies in the basement. What follows is about thirty minutes of people getting torn apart in inventively disgusting ways including with lawnmowers, pliers, spinal cords and by Lionel’s inexplicably huge mother – not funny, not scary, not anything.

Ok…so….look, Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker when he wants to be. Heavenly Creatures, made the year after Dead Alive, is great. Forgotten Silver is really funny. The Lord of the Rings films, whatever else can be said of them, are a lot of fun. The Frighteners, while far from perfect, is as decent as mainstream horror got in the 1990s. His King Kong remake is…well, King Kong. And before all of that, we have Dead Alive…shudder. This film is the opposite of how I want my zombie films to be. It relies on terrible humour related to gore effects and/or jokes that I wouldn’t have found funny as a child and don’t find funny now. I guess I should establish that dead alive is supposed to be a send up of horror films (hence the 1950s setting, the indestructible protagonist and villain, also it’s play on family values and the fact that it’s hero is particularly lame instead of the typical self-assured greaser, who end up as dispensable enemies). In that regard, you could say that Dead Alive is the film for every nerd who’s ever wanted the protagonist of their genre films to look a little more like them (my guess is this is exactly what motivated Peter Jackson – you can’t tell me the guy who made the Lord of the Rings movies isn’t a nerd). This sort of yearning for a horror fan’s horror hero is admirable, I suppose, but that has nothing to do with the resulting film which is a big, stupid mess. I mentioned earlier that I appear to be completely alone in the world of online horror reviewers in my contempt for this film, but here I stand. Everyone who’s opinion I’ve ever sought has confessed undying love for Dead Alive, and I’d like, once and for all, to give a dissenting view.

Everything that most reviewers will tell you they love about this film is what I hate about it. I dislike the gory effects and the way they’re utilized. I dislike the way in which the jokes are lingered over almost pornographically like Jackson’s standing just out of the frame going “get it? Isn’t that funny? Ha!” I dislike the way in which the film dispenses with all of its party guests in the climax because I can’t think of people as indispensable and don’t find their believably grotesque murder funny, which is how we’re asked to treat it after Jackson typically gives us reason not to hate them. Cause then your movie seems more mean and misanthropic than acceptably formulaic. The idea of a film being a never-ending parade of the grotesque is something I think should stay within the walls of Troma studios and when I go to a zombie film done by anyone else, I’d like to see more care put into the script than the make-up. This is a film with the spirit of an Umberto Lenzi movie filtered through a Three Stooges act.

Now, apparently when Dead Alive was released it was not, as I originally thought, met with unbridled horror and perpetual vomiting. In fact, not only did its director live to make better films but people actually walked away with the urge to create films of a similar nature. As if so often the case with knockoffs, these films suffered generational loss and are, if not quantifiably worse than Dead Alive, than at the very least they found even more creative ways to suck. Exhibit A: This next piece of shit.

by The Spierig Brothers

Meteor showers begin pelting the earth and striking people, making them rise from the dead. A woman, a backwoods gun-nut and some other hapless folks are trapped in an old farmhouse when the hoards of the undead begin to prey on the living. The film is essentially a series of setpieces that revolve around said gun-nut and his triple barreled shotgun. I wish I were kidding. After having apparently seen Phantasm as well as Dead Alive, the Spierigs decided that the notion of someone named Mungo McKay carrying three shotguns connected by some dowels was enough to hang a movie on. When Don Coscarelli did it, first of all, he was the first to do it, second of all, he used it conservatively. By the time aliens show up for the denouement, I simply didn't care. But seriously, Aliens? The hell's that about? I’m not sure why no one in the crap cinema game gets the notion of subtlety. After 40 years of extreme gore marking our horror films, you’d think people would look elsewhere. It’s not as though there’s any shortage of it on TV, movies, or cartoons. I don’t mean to say it was the gore that caused my displeasure with this film. Heavens no, it was all in the direction. Every performance is over-the-top stupid, every scene of someone having their head gored is in Matrix-style slo-mo for no reason. The film is full of really stupid trend filmmaking artifice. When you don’t really know to how to spin a yarn worth a damn, you tend to resort to things that have worked in the past. It’s the same with acting, specifically with comedy. Too often people think that you have to resort to physical humour in order to get a laugh, this is not true. You don’t need to fill your movie with bumpkins who get their heads stoved in or with slow motion arms getting shot off if you know your film is worth the money it took to make it.

The film had one thing going for it, and that was a sort o stylish look that they maintain throughout, and I give that more to cinematographer Andrew Strahorn than I do either director. I swear there’s something about films being made by people who tag themselves as the something brothers. Unless you’re the Coen Brothers, stop it! I’m talking to you Wachowskis, Duplasses, McManuses, and especially you Speirigs. All your telling me is that one of you isn’t enough brain power to make a goddamn movie and the results should be the product of two different creative powers at work. If that’s the case, you ought to be ashamed. You don’t see the Dardennes or the Nolans hiding behind a cool working name. I swear this is the product of people watching Do The Right Thing and thinking that they’ve earned their place in the limelight as much as Spike Lee because they’re violent and profane and have ‘style’. This is quite untrue (incidentally, Spike hasn’t made a film worth a goddamn in about 20 years). Put some fucking thought into your movies. You’re not making a music video.

So back to Undead for a second, it’s basically a rehash of every overused cinematic cliché that ‘s plagued (zombie) movies since 1943. Their in the house, they have guns, their stupid, there’s violence, it’s really unsatisfying. And with that, I say good day.

Monday, February 9, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

When I was younger, during the summer my family used to vacation in Martha’s Vineyard (or Island Vacation, as I’ve been known to call it), a little island filled with the rich, a lot of hippies and the vacationing nearly poor (like us). I’m not really a beach person and neither is my dad so what we would do most days is head to the one place that has remained consistently excellent on Martha’s Vineyard (my increasing resistance to dairy making their top-notch ice cream parlours and clam chowder less and less attractive an option as the summers wore on) their independent video store. Island Video may just be my favorite rental place in creation. As a 12 year old I was stoked to see the titles that filled our Psychotronic video guide and the Encyclopedia of Monsters lining it’s racks. There like manna from heaven were battered VHS copies of Chopping Mall, My Bloody Valentine, Ticks, and Italian films I’d never even heard of (I was only 12 and hadn’t yet subjected myself to the rigour of Mario Bava and his followers’ vast canon). So when we returned to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time after a lengthy absence, I knew I had to make my few trips to Island video count. The first trip I filled with a whole mess of foreign films (Salvatore Giuliano, Alf Sjoberg’s Miss Julie, and Before The Rain being just a few). The second trip, the one I’d been saving, I got two zombie films I’d been searching for the better part of two years.

Shock Waves
by Ken Wiederhorn

Nazi zombies. Is there anything that warms your heart more? I think it speaks to this film’s quality as a family film that I was able to watch this with my girlfriend (granted it was only because we were playing a card game and I refused to turn the TV off) Not the usual Italian schlock fest, but in fact an American production shot in Florida with an inventive young director. That’s going to go a long way toward the film’s quality. The first thing we need to understand is that the zombies are not your typical post-Romero shamblers a la Night of the Living Dead, nor are they the runners filling up so many post-28 Days Later straight-to-DVDs. No these are special zombies. If you watch Zombie Lake and wonder why their zombies are so….special, it’s because the geniuses at Flora Film (director Jean Rollin included) saw Shock Waves and paid attention to its zombie’s behaviors. Ken Wiederhorn, as it turns out, is a much better filmmaker than Jean Rollin (so’s half of the world at large, but that’s neither here nor there) and Shock Waves is logically a much better film than its many impersonators. This may or may not be because it had a lot of coincidental things going for it – the presence of real actors, a spooky locale, and decent make-up – as Wiederhorn hasn’t exactly proved himself to be the a reliable director. Since Shock Waves, his biggest success has been Return of the Living Dead part II, which while not as bad as the man will tell you it is, isn’t half as good as part I.

Our story starts at sea. A boat, which we’ll learn to be a not-quite-up-to-code yacht, is experiencing some difficulties. It could be that its captain (John Carradine) is about 115 years old and is no fit state to be taking tourists anywhere. The boat’s sonar and radio are no longer working because of some kind of meteorological phenomenon (the sky’s gone all warped-looking, what else could it be?). Things really go south when their boat is struck by an even bigger boat, nearly sinking it, the captain goes missing and then the boat catches on the shoals of an island (not unlike the Elizabeth Dane, now that I think about it). The crew (which is two other guys, Keith and Hobbs) has to abandon the thing and take the small group of passengers with them. The passengers are Norman and Beverly, a bickering old married couple, Chuck, an out-of-shape bachelor, and an inexplicable gorgeous woman called Rose (more on her later). As they enter the shallows of the island, the captain floats beneath the glass bottom of the boat, dead as every mad scientist John Carradine has ever played. This puts a more sinister spin on what was simply an inconvenience a few hours ago. So with their boat beached, and the captain dead, our crew treks inland to do some exploring.

They find what appears to be a long abandoned resort hotel of some kind. Abandoned for 44 years in fact (the year’s 1977, before you begin scratching your head). Well, there’s a Peter Cushing character here to clear things up for us. Turns out this was a secret resort for the Reich way back when and was to be the launching point for a supreme fighting force at the start of the US’s involvement in World War II, but the boat they were in capsized in the shoals (sound familiar?) when Pete crashed it, terrified of the implications of being caught with a boat full of super soldiers. Now, when our host tells his damp charges to run for their lives, what do you suppose he knows that they don’t? Maybe it’s something to do with the vengeful Nazi zombies beneath the waters that are surfacing at that very moment. These guys were a big, spooky deal. I like to think that they would have been the resultant fighting force if Tsiang the priest from Revolt of the Zombies had sold his zombie soldier formula to Adolph Hitler instead of being killed. Our host wanders off and meets a bad end at the decomposed hands of some moist villains. And when Peter Cushing gets his you know everyone else is pretty well done for. The cast and their hiding places whittle from here.

What makes this film so special is of course its zombies (isn’t that always the case?). With make-up done by Alan Ormsby (star of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, make-up artist on Deathdream) its no surprise that they look great despite the films budget. These guys are a pretty menacing presence in that they run around breaking shit looking for their prey whenever they aren’t administering the beatdown. They don’t just wander either, they move with purpose and can really put on a burst of speed when they sense people are nearby. Ready for the kicker? They can’t see and for once, that means something (unlike Tombs of the Blind Dead). They wear spooky welder’s goggles and mostly operate by listening for movement. When our heroes pull the glasses off an attacking zombie, he becomes disoriented and loses his momentum. And because they zombies freethinking and determined, we’re treated to some suspense, something I had assumed the makers of low budget zombie films had forgotten about by 1977. And because Ken Wiederhorn understands suspense, it follows that he knows a thing or two about characterization and that means we get more than one likable protagonist, a few really effective hide ‘n seek set-pieces and an ending that had me biting my nails despite my knowing the outcome. In other words, Shock Waves has flaws, but it’s about the best drive-in movie you’re likely to find.

And let’s give credit where credit is due. This is behind a reasonable doubt a drive-in film. Filmed in Florida with John Carradine and Peter Cushing? This was made to be seen in the back of an El Camino, no two ways. Both men were paid $5000 for four days work and the hotel they filmed in cost $250 for the entirety of the 35-day shoot. There is virtually no gore and many of the performances are predictable and wooden, but it makes a lot out of a little. What makes this film especially interesting to me, as both a fan of the best and worst kinds of film, is that it features one Brooke Adams before stardom had a chance to come and go. She’s the cute hero in this film, and I for one am curious how all that worked out. Brooke Adams made precious few movies in her career, not the least of which were Philip Kaufman’s excellent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. She went from nothing to something overnight and then faded into obscurity and left a few pretty amazing performances behind her in two of the best films ever made. But before all that, Shock Waves. People can’t often spring out of the world of drive-thru horror, but Brooke managed to. We all have to start somewhere, I guess. She does a great job in Shock Waves, but…its still Shock Waves. Curious. Her performance was just one of a few pleasant surprises to be found in this film.

Don’t listen to me though. After watching both Shock Waves and Paul Lynch’s Humongous, my Girlfriend declined to watch the next film with me.

by David Cronenberg

The apartment building OF-THE-FUTURE has just opened and is taking on boarders. We’re informed of this vis-à-vis the opening voice over by a super confident real estate agent telling a couple of newlyweds about the virtue of this spiffy new apartment complex. As he’s giving his pitch, we see a scientist, Dr. Hobbes, strangling his mistress to death. When he’s certain she’s dead, he cuts her open and pours acid into her guts before cutting his own throat…WHAT THE FUCK? That’s an opening I wasn’t expecting. The scene is treated with a sterile sort of emotional detachment that makes it all the more unsettling (no music, no words from the doctor, white walls, etc.).

Bet you’d like to know why Dr. Hobbes just made your brain shut down, wouldn’t you? Well Hobbes has been conducting experiments, and like those conducted by every cinematic mad scientist, it isn’t exactly on the level, and as his colleague Linsky tells him, he’s out of his gourd. When you hear what he’s up to, you’ll be singing in the Linsky choir, too. Hobbes has been experimenting with parasites. His research has ostensibly to do with transplants, but what winds up happening is that Hobbes contempt for modern man winds up influencing his parasite. Because Hobbes thinks that humans have lost sight of the flesh and its pleasures, his parasite is both a Spanish Fly and an STI. Once the parasite, which is a heinous worm thing the size of a hotdog roll, has worked its way inside you, your sex drive increases and then you become violent and then your brain function vastly deteriorates and you become a violent sociopath hell-bent on killing. Now this doesn’t all come out at once, we have to learn it slowly like the residents of the apartment complex do as they each have encounters with slug victims in varying states of depravity. The apartment’s resident physician Roger St. Luc (there’s a Canadian name for you, eh?) and his nurse Forsythe have to identify and combat the infected people as things rapidly get out of hand. After a number of thoroughly icky scenes, the halls are filled with slug zombies and Roger finds himself outnumbered and outgunned.

Cronenberg deserves props if for no other reason than his refusal to make the same kind of film everyone else was making. Shivers is a much better zombie film than half of those made in the 1970s, resembles none of them and nearly obfuscates the best of them. It’s conscious indictment of modern society feels very much like a precursor to Dawn of the Dead while it’s sober tone and thrilling third act feel like evocations of Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies (that it shares a leading lady and a disease of a sexual nature with the latter film makes the connection hard to deny). The difference between Shivers and The Crazies other than a more cohesive edit is that Cronenberg was giving sexual infection a tangible form and made rape the product of a malicious parasite rather than mental illness – both are fitting comparisons, but Cronenberg’s feels like the more incisive of the two (this is probably because Romero was making a film about the infectiousness of violence and repression and not about sexuality in bourgeois society, which meant he couldn’t focus his film on one topic like Cronenberg could). Anyway, Shivers is about as creepy as zombie films got in the 70s and also as thoughtfully composed. Most films can barely keep it together just being zombie films (Toxic Zombies, Garden of the Dead, Vengeance of the Zombies), and have no energy or coordination left to try and give you a message. Shivers does both. And as usual the man missed the point. The film was given a beating in the press by conservative journalists who felt that the government’s money could be spent on nobler projects than this. Their main issue was with the film’s sexual content and violence, which, granted, were plentiful. The reason they are there is to comment on society, not gross it out. Cronenberg used the most visceral tools at his disposal as an amateur filmmaker to elicit a response from his audience, and because the message went right over conservatives’ heads, they latched onto surface features. You can get behind condemning sexuality if you don’t understand why it’s ludicrous to do so. Post-modern commentary wasn’t something found in your average horror film, so it’s no surprise that critics missed the point – let’s not forget that the press was still reeling over I Spit On Your Grave when Shivers hit them in the groin.

I was surprised to figure out a little later on that this was David Cronenberg’s first proper film. Lacking the scope of something like Rabid, the assured weirdness of Scanners or Naked Lunch or the gore-or-locations mentality of The Fly or Videodrome, Shivers, like The Brood is a little film that feels big. It also has some of the craziest imagery to be found in a zombie film - the ending orgy in the pool being just one of the great visuals this film contains. It’s budget brought about excellent gore effects, which are underplayed by Cronenberg, and some remarkable performers, not the least of which is Barbara Steele. Shock Waves may have had both Carradine and Cushing, but I call that nothing next to the Giallo scream queen showing up in a tiny Canadian production for a first time director. I would have given the film curio points for featuring Lynn Lowry, one of my favorite character actors, doing her PTS shtick, though, unlike her turns in The Crazies and I Drink Your Blood, she has lines this time and proves she’s good for more than that haunting feline stare. Coincidentally or not, she and Alan Ormsby wound up together for Paul Schrader’s Cat People, which Ormsby wrote and Lowry plays a minor role as a prostitute mauled by a panther. I love that horror films are a self-contained family affair. But the real draw for fans of the genre has to be Steele. Listening to Cronenberg, who is something like the Peter Bogdanovich of Horror films, on the DVD’s interview track talking about how they achieved her level of energy is really fascinating. At Steele’s behest Cronenberg would slap her repeatedly until she was sufficiently emotional to do her takes. When one of the crewmembers caught them ‘rehearsing’ Cronenberg nearly had the film taken away from him. But he kept it and made a film that doesn’t want for creepiness, originality and claustrophobia (there’s a bathtub scene that’s been ripped off as many times as Hitchcock’s). And as a nice bonus for zombie history buffs, Shivers represents the first entry in the slug-zombie subgenre, something I’d been curious about since seeing James Gunn’s Slither.

The film itself is a minor miracle. As I was saying, Shivers feels like the work of a crew with ten times the budget. Exuding a professionalism I’d liken to both Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Shivers builds a thoroughly frightening timebomb of a plot and manages to do so in what could be the same set used a dozen times over. We rarely leave the apartment complex and yet Cronenberg’s script makes that a point in the film’s favor as he uses the environment’s few facets to build on the horrific story. He also gives the randomness of things an urgency to it, so the fact that we never know who’s in on it and who’s not is made all the creepier. When finally we’re given that all important scene zombies breaking down doors en masse, it’s really effective as its not only scary, but it heaps on more chaos onto an already scattered story. A much less sloppy film than Rabid, which followed two years later and bears no little resemblance to its predecessor, Shivers lacks a bit of that film’s emotional involvement as it has no male lead with the sympathetic edge of someone like Frank Moor or Art Hindle (who coincidentally plays Brooke Adam’s husband in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). His films are best when we see the everyman thrust into some circumstances that could charitably be described as ‘trying’. Shivers is told like a series of related vignettes, rather than as a cohesive whole, which hints more at Cronenberg being a first time director more than anything, as he never told a story the same way. His films became much more personal soon after and would center on strong male leads in tragic relationships with slightly weaker women almost 100% of the time (he’s only just given a woman as strong a role as a man in his latest Eastern Promises).

Anyway, Shivers is a remarkable film and went on to be Canada’s most successful film at the time and the fact that Cronenberg had only two unsettling student films to his name shows his extraordinary promise; It hints at the many great nightmare worlds to come from its creator. In fact the film has a line of dialogue, fittingly delivered by Lynn Lowry that nicely sums up the ethos of all of Cronenberg’s films:
“I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.”

In its wake Cronenberg and his movie were so lambasted that he was actually kicked out of his apartment (sort of poetic, if you wanna be a smart aleck) and was almost denied future funding to make his next film. And that is scarier than any zombie movie.

Friday, February 6, 2009

You Wouldn't Understand, You're Just A Girl

Good day, class. Today we have two Spanish horror films that, whatever else may be said of them, surprised the hell out of me. The first, a psychotronic film if ever there was one, seems to get off on not making a damn bit of sense. The second, a film by that grandest of B-movie lotharios Paul Naschy, makes pretty effective use of realism and fantasy when it's not being melodramatic and nasty. Both feature acrid leading men tormenting the women around them and both feature plots so ass-achingly complicated that you're not going to be certain what you've seen by the time you've finished watching them. I know I wasn't.

Swamp of the Ravens
by Manuel Caño
Young Dr. Costa is desperately seeking funds for his experiments. Because they require the use of corpses, he, like doctors Cameron, Craigis, and Vornoff before him, has been laughed out of the field of legitimate science and forced to live the life of a recluse in the middle of a swamp. Well, almost. Because he can't get the supply of corpses he needs through the proper channels, he skirts them altogether. This means going out every few days like an urban Dr. Frankenstein to either pick up a girl or convince a homeless guy to come back to his shack in the middle of the titular swamp (there are a load of ravens, in case you were wondering, but damned if I know what they're doing there). As his subjects have a very low return rate, the authorities get involved in that ineffectual way they do. A police inspector comes close to figuring things out a few times, but in the end, things just implode in on our crazy doctor in true Frankenstein Fashion. Costa's assistant at first seems a willing cohort, but she changes horses somewhere during the film's 83 minutes and is the only one left by the time our mad doctor gets his comeuppance, I think.

About now, you're probably wondering what this film is doing here on a sight about zombies, other than to fit into that confusing anecdote I told at the beginning of my Messiah of Evil review. Well, everytime Costa is finished with his experiments, he flushes the corpses out into the bog that surrounds his house. This means about halfway through the film we start seeing the heads of those he's killed surface out of the swamp water and stare ominously at the camera (it's actually pretty effective and spooky). Toward the end, one of them gets up and walks around because a lot of the contaminants Costa's been favoring have made their way into the swamp water which I suppose has the unintended effect of making zombies. I can't really be certain. I can't really be certain of anything. The film, shot in Ecuador, of all places, makes so many detours and languishes over the dialogue in the scenes surrounding the action that you'd think it really meant something, but it doesn't. And because we don't even really know what in Christ Costa's experiments are supposed to prove, even the scenes of the experimentation lose whatever gravity they may have carried in the planning stages.
And if that weren't enough to make the movie a mess, in true psychotronic fashion, director Manuel Caño diverges every couple of scenes to take us to a night club where Costa's girlfriend hangs out. We're treated, in much the same way we're treated to open mic night in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, to the club's biggest draw, a guy who sings to a dummy. I'd like to think they were doing what Ray Dennis Steckler did in his film, just padding the film to make time between the scenes that pertain to the admittedly muddled, if undeniably linear plot. I abandoned this hypothesis when I realized that there is no real plot. There's more scenes of Costa wining and dining strange women and of the detective piecing together his crimes (to no end) than there is of what might be called the story. In other words, the film just kinda hangs out with its characters. We're given scenes of Costa having sex with his dead girlfriend, unprecedented psychedelic freak outs and real autopsy footage out of the blue and as neither fits into the story arch and both take as much time as said arch, the film is about as confusing a trip you're likely to have in front of a screen. I spent most of the film with eyebrows arched wondering what was I seeing. It's like someone made a film about Dr. Costa and his experiments, but lost half of it and gave it to his cousin to finish on the cheap who was really into drugs and rock music and who ran into some stock footage he found totally awesome. The problem is Caño was his own stupid cousin in this instance and his film is really a mess. Swamp of the Ravens is, if nothing else, a gathering point for some of crap cinema's weirdest performers. Look for turns by Bill Harrison from
Deep Throat and Fernando Sancho from Return of the Blind Dead and Ramiro Oliveros from Cannibal Apocalypse. Their characters aren't given names, which I believe tells you something about the script and the film as a whole. With editing, this could have been a real movie, which makes me wonder about a lot of things. How did Manuel Caño even get creeps like Bill Harrison to come to Ecuador to make this film? What was this film supposed to look like? Should I bother asking or should I just write this off to "how things were in 1974"?
You'd never mistake Swamp of the Ravens for Dawn of the Dead, but there's a kooky, drug-addled charm to this film that makes it fun to watch in spite of the fact that on a bet you couldn't figure out what's really going on beneath it's Frankenstein-esque story. What I'd truly like to see is Santiago Moncada's script for this film but something tells me it's been torn up and rolled really tightly. Now if you're looking for a film that knows how to mess with your head while still giving you something like a cohesive story, look no further than Panic Beats.

Panic Beats
by Paul Naschy
I've tangoed with Paul Naschy (née Jacinto Molina) before, in the context of his truly terrible Vengeance of the Zombies. Perhaps aware that that film sucked like few films know how to, he went back to the zombie genre, this time without his sometime collaborator, director Leon Klimovsky. This film, about a man whose inherited misogyny leads to devilish doings, is complex and relishes in some rather slow stolen plot points, but it's as good a film as Naschy ever made. The reason perhaps that it's bearable is because it steals from much better films than his previous efforts. This time we're given a film eerily reminiscent of the remarkable Les Diaboliques. And when you're stealing from Henri-Georges Clouzot, your film simply becomes better by association, even if it's no damned good otherwise.

The prologue, which looks alot like the one from Night of the Seagulls, shows us a night brutally murdering his wife with a flail. Seriously, that's all it is. Flash forward a hundred years into the future where a man, Paul (Jacinto himself), is experiencing some monumental stress. He's being given a collective ass-ache by the four women in his life, his wife Genevieve, his housekeeper Mabile, his old mistress Mireille, and Julie, his new girlfriend. He's taken his wife to the old family home where his mother lives in the hopes of quelling some of her stress. Genevieve has a bad heart, you see, and Paul seems to think the country air will clear her head (if every cinematic doctor in history thinks so, there must be some truth to that old chestnut). He seems like a nice enough guy until you figure out he's having an affair with Julia, his secretary or assistant, or something. I'm not sure what she does, but she hangs out all the damn time and Genevieve isn't immediately suspicious, so she must be getting paid to do something, even if its a cover for her affair with Paul. Whatever Julia's title is, she's no help to Genevieve, who starts imagining snakes and dead people are out to get her. Between his mother's constant nagging, his wife's frequent hallucinations, and his hiding an affair right under said wife's nose, he has quite a bit on his plate. So when old flame Mireille comes out of the woodworks with a scheme to filch money from Paul, he just about loses it. What would Simone Signoret do? I guess now's as good a time as any to mention that the knight from the prologue is Paul's ancestor Alaric de Marnac and there's supposed to be a curse surrounding him that goes something like this: every 100 years, Alaric shows up to revenge his male descendants against the women who make his life miserable (is that significant cause for a 100 year old curse?). I don't think anyone's going to be surprised to learn that the bodies start piling up around now.
The panic beats of the title begin to make sense once you place the story in the context of the film it's ripping off. I think what those were a reference to is the increased heart rate we hear coming from Genevieve when she starts hallucinating. And speaking of those hallucinations, Naschy does something really kind of smart and confusing at the same time with those. When Genevieve's visions become more violent toward the end of act one, and she starts seeing both the living corpses in her bathroom and the ghost of the knight, Naschy counts on the audience assuming it's all part of the plot, per se. Specifically, because he reveals, to absolutely no one's surprise that the knight's ghost is actually Paul in disguise trying to drive her into an early grave, he wants us to believe that the zombies in the bathroom are also part of the plot. They aren't, which leads to the films one saving grace, that the ghost is in fact real and so are the zombies. The first clue comes after Paul and Julia have killed both Genevieve and Mireille and the film keeps going. It makes you think wonder if killing the other women wasn't the point of the film, what is? Naschy then turns his Diabolique rip-off into a bona-fide horror film with the third act in which our protagonist and perceptions change on us in an instant.

Panic Beats feels draggy at times and could have done without a lot of its characterization, but I forgive it because of that conclusion. That this film was based around the idea of a curse which is not only misogynistic, but also petty is kind of a big misstep, but what 80s horror film wasn't petty and misogynistic. But seriously, a knight needs to come back in arbitrary installments to make sure no one's bullying his male heir? It's not like the man's the king of fucking Spain, he's just a guy who can't stay faithful to his wife, who doesn't deserve half of what she gets in the film. Thought it suffers from its really boyish plot which amounts mostly to the daydream of an unhappily married dickweed, the effects are quite gruesome (that business with the flail is especially horrific) and the film is nicely shot. Panic Beats feels like a film with setbacks, not something shot in a series of basements on the cheap strung together with B-roll and predicated upon one special effect (in other words, not Vengeance of the Zombies). This is a film with a budget, mostly capable actors, and a decent twist that springs from the ashes of a recycled's almost like Paul Naschy was really trying. Though I'd like to point something out to people who might be thinking of directing themselves in their own movie in the near future. Having already seen Vengeance, I know what Jacinto Molina looks like with his shirt off and a pair of rather sorry looking goat horns glued to his head. What I never ever in a million years needed to see was Jacinto Molina in a bathtub smoking a cigar. Not ever did I want to see that, and now I have, so directors take note. Don't film yourself nude just because you're the one calling the shots. I know the impulse is going to rear its head, but for heaven's sake don't give in.
I had a lot more fun with Panic Beats than I thought I would and if you've seen all the usual zombie fare and want something else, give it a try. I wouldn't try Swamp of the Ravens without a room of full of friends or a fistful of hallucinogenics otherwise it might stain your conscious.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Incredibly Strange Creature Stopped Living

Crap cinema lost one of its most charming underdogs recently. On January 7th of this year, Ray Dennis Steckler, director and star of many, many no budget films including The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, passed on to the spooky land of Lucio Fulci and Amando de Ossorio. Steckler who acted and directed under the pseudonym Cash Flagg made films that came to typify a sort of filmmaking known as Psychotronic, a phrase coined by Michael Weldon, whose book of the same name focused heavily on movies that mixed horror, painfully outdated zeitgeisting, and rock and roll. He was 70 years old and he will most certainly be missed. Incidentally, George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, was born today.