Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: The Japanese Puppet State of Manchuko, 1945

Anyone who knows me knows that I can stand a lot of things. I routinely seek out films that contain the grossest shit ever filmed. After all, I wouldn’t be here recounting long hours spent watching Zombie, Cannibal, and Serial Killer films if I didn’t have a penchant for the obscene. Sometimes, when I know that there’s a film out there that just oozes indecency I’ll tell myself I won’t see it, but try as I might, I keep coming back to the grotesque. When I heard in my frenzied research after being freaked out by [Rec] that there was a film with a fierce reputation that made Day Of The Dead seem tame and optimistic by comparison, instinct took over. A cursory look revealed that it was about real life torture committed during World War II and some illuminating screenshots showed just how totally sick the whole thing looked. I promised myself I would never have to watch it and moved on to more pressing matters. That was in October 2008. It is now March 2009 and I have seen it. Here’s what I learned that screenshots and infamy claims can’t tell you.

Men Behind The Sun
by Tun Fei Mou

The year is 1945 and we’re brought to a squadron called 731, a branch of the Japanese military devoted to chemical weapons, germ warfare, and biological endurance for lack of a more accurate term. The Japanese have a whole slew of Chinese and Russian prisoners of war waiting to be used as guinea pigs. Dr. Shiro Ishii is the brains of the operation and there’s a good deal of pressure for him to get a few things right before Japan goes under. Ishii is one of those stern Japanese you constantly see in films by Americans, so dead set on his goal that human life is very much a means, not an end. He has already been relieved from this post once before for corruption so the pressure is stacked squarely on Shiro’s shoulders.

For the sake of training, several young boys have been sequestered to be placed in the youth corps. It seems that they had no choice in the matter as their parents were apparently all in tears when they left (this makes sense as no boy in the youth squadron is more than 13 years old). The boys are all prime candidates for brain washing as their all viscous little bastards. They single out a boy called Ishikawa as the brunt of their thuggishness right away, alienating him for the most of his stay at 731. Ishikawa isn’t the only one who the boys detest. Kawasaki, their brawny Sergeant, beats them all soundly at the slightest provocation and it isn’t long before the boys plan to get revenge.

An incident involving Kawasake leads to the true nature of what’s going on and what kind of film we’re about to watch. Kawasake tosses a bouncing ball out into a field when he catches Hashino, one of the youth corps boys, playing with it. Having brought it from home, Hashino isn’t about to let it sit out in a field, so he and some other boys attempt to get it back. The sentries find them and chase them through a nest of plague rats they’ve been keeping and then start shooting at Hashino with machine guns – he runs headlong into the electric fence and dies. The next day at assembly, Kawasaki calls it an ‘accident’ and then chides the other boys for acting like children when they mourn Hashino’s death. If Kawasake seems like a psychopath, wait until you hear what Shiro’s like when he’s in charge.
Shiro’s lunacy is made perfectly clear when he hears that an underling criticized him to their superiors, citing his water purification system as one particular foul up. Shiro responds by making him piss into the purification system in front of the whole of 731 so that the doctor can drink it and prove him wrong. If that’s his idea of having the last laugh, just imagine how fucked the Chinese are. Before the experiments and intrigue begin, Ishikawa meets a mute Chinese boy in the woods who’s survived somehow. Ishikawa finds he has much more in common with the mute boy than any of his barbaric peers. And what kind of prison movie would it be without a few inmates planning an escape (unlike most prison films, they get precisely nowhere).

With the pieces in place, Shiro’s experiments begin. We learn that Shiro has his doctors perform live autopsies on prisoners given bubonic plague. At a nearby prison, we see a Chinese woman separated from her baby, which is then covered in snow by two guards. This is only the start of her mistreatment. Days later they find her cradling a pillow she thinks is her child. They take her to an icy field where she has ice water poured on her hands so that they’ll freeze; Shiro’s doctors pull her skin off in front of the youth corps leaving nothing but bones. The kids start to realize that they may never see their homes again. The experiments continue from there getting more and more intense and destructive. Shiro has an epiphany one day while visiting a whorehouse, one that he thinks he will go down in history for: a new kind of bomb made of ceramic that will spread infection with increased efficiency. Around this time, Kawasake asks Ishikawa to present a young boy for a test, assuring him good things will come of his cooperation. Not thinking, he brings his only friend, the mute Chinese boy. What happens next is ghastly; the boy is given a disease and then they perform an autopsy on him while he is under anesthetic. Ishikawa finally sees why succumbing to barbarism might have its upside if the right person is subjected to it. Before Shiro’s discovery can be tested (a planned test goes horribly awry after all the test subjects escape) Shiro gets word from the high command that he’s got to burn all evidence and close it down. Things aren’t going to end well.

Men Behind The Sun is going to live in infamy until human beings are no longer a species. I’m fairly certain about this. It’s too tasteless to be given legitimacy, covers too sensitive a subject to be given a remake, too polarizing to be given a region 1 DVD release by anyone with a brain in their head (Blue Underground’s more into films that people enjoy seeing, but their release of Goodbye, Uncle Tom keeps me awake at night so what do I know. Grindhouse Releasing might be crazy enough to do it. They gave Cannibal Holocaust a special edition, after all). The people have spoken and this film is infamous. I agree wholeheartedly that this movie is a pretty despicable trip, but there’s something about it that prevents me from writing it off. Like Cannibal Holocaust there’s a deadpan, almost mechanical presentation at work. That the film, like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, moves from icy fields to grey laboratories and basements makes the film consciously impossible to enjoy (not that I was trying particularly hard). T.F. Mou got his start directing worthless exploitation films for the Shaw Brothers that the big Internet consensus has deemed terrible. Having seen Men, I have no desire to see any of his earlier films and so take the masses’ word for it. Moving from exploitation to a film of this gravity (which also does it’s fare share of exploiting) is very different from Pier Pasolini moving from theoretical cinema to a film of this gravity as he did when he made Salò. When you move from exploitation films to historical films that feature so much exploitative content, there’s no way anyone’s going to take you seriously as anything other than a criminal. Men Behind The Sun is a slightly better movie than most people will have you believe, but that doesn’t protect it from its sins, which are many and horrible. If you had seen Men Behind The Sun in Chinese upon its release in 1988, you may have been able to take it seriously as those at the premiere of Cannibal Holocaust may have done before Deodato was arrested. Now that its been relegated to its current status as internet rumour, its impossible to see it as anything other than a timebomb; one sits and waits and asks ‘when will the gore scenes get here?’ It’s tone and content prevent Men from being a straight-up horror film, and so the appearance of extreme gore makes it a difficult animal to identify, but the gore is plentiful and nasty and it makes an already difficult film just about unbearable and yet I found myself less tempted to look away than I had prepared to be.
Here’s why people get especially riled up about Men Behind The Sun: 731 was a real unit and they killed thousands of people. The Japanese were notorious bastards to the Chinese and Russians during World War II. They’re cruelty is legendary and hideous and 731 marks the high (or low) point of that cruelty. They performed live vivisections, gave people syphilis, gonorrhea, and bubonic plague, removed organs from live subjects, removed limbs and switched them left for right, and tested all manner of germ-based and chemical weapons on people. The real Ishii was a megalomaniac interested in being the best (or worst) whatever the cost. He got into Germ warfare because of the attention researchers had gotten after the Japanese division shut down by the Geneva Convention in 1925. He approached work with a sick determination, knowing full well he was doing what he considered to be the opposite of god’s will. When the Japanese surrendered he fled and then went to work for America and was a key player in the Korean War. Thank you, Uncle Sam. We only deal with the best, right?

For a Chinese director to tackle this subject made a certain kind of sense, as it was the Chinese who suffered the full brunt of 731’s sadistic work. However, Mou fell into the same trap that Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopeti fell into and that was making a film whose monstrousness outweighs its supposed message. Men Behind The Sun has a terrifying edge to it, given to it by its reliance on children as main characters and as both victims and perpetrators of violence. Where Mou loses his way is in his gore. His fake stuff had some real kick to it (the scene in the pressure chamber, the aftermath of the bombs, the ice testing, despite its obvious fakery. Seriously I’ve never been as sickened by what I knew to be fake skeletal hands) but when the film was released Mou insisted that he had used real autopsy footage when the mute Chinese boy is given plague and then examined. I’m inclined to believe him because he also filmed a real cat being eaten by rats for no reason and it isn’t really a stretch to think he could do both. Men Behind The Sun thus becomes a film marred by its directors need to shock and it and Mou are unforgivable for that reason. Animals should never die for the sake of entertainment, nor should the dead be treated with such disrespect.
Maybe if Mou hadn’t bragged about his vileness to the press, he’d still be making movies today. In my opinion, there’s enough misery and violence in the world without people like Mou blending the line between fact and fiction. Now, like it or not he’s a whisper on the corridors of blogs with one dark, depressing film that he’ll always be remembered for.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: Funeral Home in Connecticut

Imagine this if you will. You’re at a restaurant and the waiter comes over and asks if you’re ready. You tell him you can’t quite decide what you want. He asks what kind of food you like. “Pasta,” you say. “From where?” he asks. Confused, but intrigued, you give the name of your favorite Italian restaurant. “What else?” he asks. You tell him your favorite cut of meat and its point of origin, your favorite salad and where you ate it last, your favorite sushi roll and where you like to get it from. He listens and writes it all down and then to your astonishment, he produces the items you like from each of your favorite places to eat. Then, as if to deliberately make you angry, he eats it all in front of you and then leaves. A short while later he returns and shits it out for you, hands you the bill, and says “You’re welcome, gratuity not included!” Then the rest of the people who'd been dining near you started alternately laughing, screaming, and saying "No He DID NOT!" That is the closest approximation to my experience watching The Haunting in Connecticut. Writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe padded their script with one genre cliché after another and director Peter Cornwall managed to stage them in exactly the same way they’ve been done before. It was like someone serving digested remains of much better horror films while at the same time making light of cancer, alcoholism, and death. Luckily I had press passes and was spared the profound embarrassment of having to pay the 8 dollars admission price for this farcical bowel movement of a film. Even luckier, I was in a room full of people who voiced their every thought as the film progressed, some much louder than others.

The Haunting In Connecticut
by Peter Cornwall
To make sure that his audience would know right away that this film would be exactly the same as all other horror films, he frames it with a fake interview with concerned mother Sara Campbell. This film is based on a Discovery Channel special in case you were wondering. The events are supposed to be true, but what movie with Haunting in the title that doesn’t come from the Shirley Jackson story doesn’t claim some lame basis in fact? Anyway Sara’s son Matt has cancer and it’s really bumming everyone out. She buys a house in Connecticut close to the hospital that he gets treatment at to make things easier, without consulting her husband, Peter. They move in with….well I know the little boy is the Campbell’s younger son, but who are those two? There’s a woman in her twenties called Wendy who has a daughter that calls Sara her aunt. But no one actually says what they’re relationship is. There’s no way that Wendy and Sara are sisters; they look nothing alike and easily have a twenty year age difference and she doesn’t have the last name Campbell. The little girl would appear to be her daughter, but Wendy looks like she’s in her senior year of college. Also Matt phrases a few things “remember when we were kids?” to Wendy, which would imply that they grew up together, yet she doesn’t appear to be the Campbell’s eldest daughter So….what the hell’s going on?

Anyway, Matt stupidly moves into the basement which they figure out shortly after was the spot where the previous owners of the house cut dead folks up; this was a funeral home, you see; that’s where all the evil stuff comes from. What evil stuff? Well people appear in mirrors and then disappear, Matt has spooky dreams about the old funeral director, they find old pictures of dead folks and a box of eyelids in the floorboards, and Matt’s cancer worsens. When everyone starts seeing weird things, they take action. They don’t move out, though, don’t be ludicrous. This is a movie with the word ‘haunting’ in the title. They’re gonna stare the evil right in the face and say “do your worst, you big nasty ghost!” So instead of getting real help (their kid has cancer, but hell, he’ll live, right?) they call a cancerous Priest called Popescu to exorcise the evil. What he actually does is get rid of the only thing keeping the evil at bay. That in mind, I was expecting unholy CG rage the likes of which would shatter my imagination. What I got was Wendy being attacked by her shower curtain. Then they figure out there are bodies in the wall and Matt tries to burn the house down. Ok, that’s the plot, sure, now let’s talk about the ways in which this film falls flat on its face, shall we? Cause that’s really the fun of this movie.

This is based on supposedly true events and dig a little and you’ll see that the people who investigated it are the husband and wife team who looked into the Amityville haunting, which was also fake. So it makes sense that The Haunting In Connecticut is a haunted house movie that seems so keenly aware that it is a haunted house film. All the genre conventions are here (I mean…like….all of them) and Peter Cornwall makes sure you catch everyone of them, going so far as to repeat a few seconds of the scene over and over again. We have a dysfunctional family, angry ghosts that the protagonists misunderstand the intentions of, a false happy ending, one member of the cast psychically linked to the ghosts and exhibiting the behavior of someone long dead, manifestations in private places (shower, bedroom, etc.), little kids being scared, a priest with shaken faith trying to solve problems to the dismay of at least one person, an attitude of disbelief at first, medical procedures causing problems, a last-minute race to put an end to something, strong religious motif, a scene where they ‘consult the books’, and bodies hidden behind walls. All the stuff our metaphorical waiter was eating in the preface happen to be scenes and plot devices stolen from The Exorcist, Legend of Hell House, The Others, The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, The Ring, The Grudge, Kwaidan, The Shining, and The Beyond. Kind of sad, but at the same time, fun.
What a film made of other films means that whenever it isn’t ripping off elements that worked in other films that by definition won’t work here, Haunting In Connecticut is a fucking hoot. The film is a total scream because the writers couldn’t come up with anything that made sense to fill the spaces between the stuff they were stealing from. Which means we have all sorts of loose ends and ridiculousness like that business with Wendy, the relative with no relations. There’s the scene where Peter exhibits his drunkenness, perhaps the most confusing and comical portrayal of a drunk ever written. The first clue we get is when Peter asks Sara why she lied about the house being a funeral home. Peter says “we can’t build a foundation on lies” and Sara comes out and says “Well that was when you were a drunk and a liar.” He just sort of takes that one, doesn’t really react or anything... Good characterization! Which screenwriting book did that come from? Next time we see him, he’s reminiscing (we’re lead to believe) about the memories of his son. Then out of the blue he’s standing in an apartment we’ve never seen before holding an electric guitar. He tries playing but gets so sad that he smashes the guitar into the little amplifier he’s got and the open beer sitting on top of it and starts crying. It’s a little like those montages in Will Ferrell movies where he’ll show you a few ordinary clichés and then end on something left-field. It’s hysterical. Then he comes home drunk one night; we know he’s drunk because he drives through the fence in the yard. Sara instinctively gathers everyone in her bedroom and they huddle together like it’s a fucking air raid. Peter comes in complaining about the lights being on, of all things. He goes around breaking lights, raving about paying the mortgage and then breaks the door into the bedroom, smashes a lamp and then serenely exits the room. That…actually didn’t seem all that bad. He always break affordable appliances when he gets trashed? Peter’s actions do not justify the family’s reaction at all. Then things just go on business as usual, haunting and all that. The film pauses to become a lifetime original movie for a minute and a half and then returns to its regularly scheduled programming. There’s also the really perplexing bit where Peter sells his antique trust and then blames it on his cancerous kid and his doctor. Peter spends a lot of time just being bitter that his son’s ruining his financial status with his incessant terminal illness. I’m starting to think drinking isn’t this guy’s problem.

And as for Matt, first of all the kid wears a gnomish grimace on his face even when he smiles. Second of all he becomes this terrifying jerkoff halfway through the film and he doesn’t get why his little brother or whoever that kid is, is scared of him. He jokes “be good or you’ll have to deal with me.” But he’s legit the scariest teenaged big brother you’ve ever seen in a movie. He broods and throws things and pushes people and doesn’t apologize or explain himself. Then the film has the all-important library montage which of course has every possible recorded fact about the case of the guy who owned the house and made it haunted. He’s in Matt’s flashbacks, so, yeah…in the library, right. They show pictures of ectoplasm, which don’t get me wrong, would have looked cool if they hadn’t put it on every piece of advertising related to this atrocity. They ruined their only trick. Which means all the film has that’s scary are a few Evil Dead type blink-and-miss-its. They work, but your film needs more than a few of those. I wished they had gone with one of the digressions where they mention that Ectoplasm was reported coming out of lower extremities. So someone had ectoplasm come out of their ass? If Matt had pissed or shit ectoplasm instead of finding corpses in the dining room, I’d be singing this film’s praises right now. Oh and speaking of corpses; the film’s zinger moment concerns bodies piled up like cordwood in the dining room. Nobody smelled that? Even the woman behind me who brought her infant to a horror film called a foul on that one.

Let’s talk cribbing for a minute, shall we? First, I’d like to just point something out to Cornwall, everyone on the planet Earth has seen the image from The Shining where the axe breaks through the door near Shelly Duvall’s face. Did you think you were gonna do it better, Cornwall? Did you really...? We have creepy kids and a malevolent switcheroo a la The Ring. We have pictures of dead bodies and a sepia-toned séance like The Others. We have writing on a pale body like Hoichi from Kwaidan (bet you didn’t think anyone’d catch that, did ya?) and we have some thoroughly Fulcian zombie behavior. First of all it takes place on the sight of some nasty spiritual murders, like Schweik’s in The Beyond. Then we have some sick looking muddy zombies that show up to menace slowly, just like in The Beyond. An admirable choice for a film that didn’t have hopes higher than being an Amityville Horror knock-off. The introduction of Elias Koteas as the cancerous priest is like…sweet music. You knew from the second he arrives toting bags of his own urine around in the Cancer ward that he was going to be the fact-spewing priest who would overcome his illness to do good and that’s exactly who he is and what he does. They even give him a ridiculous fishing hat so when he appears at the end they can paraphrase The Exorcist. I love Elias Koteas and seeing him in this shit is demeaning for both of us; he just isn’t Max Von Sydow and he just can't save a film like this, just as Virginia Madsen isn’t Ellen Burstyn, especially considering she’s being directed to act like Julianne Moore. Oh, hey, does anyone remember The Prophecy? That had Virginia Madsen and Elias Koteas too. Except that film knew that it wasn’t any good and they both walked away with a little more dignity. And you know what else, people actually die in that movie. No one, not even no-last-name Wendy, dies. How much more family-values, 700 club could you get? Add to this the fact that in my screening some guy tripped and fell on his way to the concession stand midway through the film and you have 90 minutes of high hilarity. Seriously, bring your friends and some popcorn and just laugh it up.

Also, I’ve known for awhile that anything with vaguely Christian themes to it will get greenlit in Hollywood, but the writers out and admit that believing in God and believing in Magic are the same thing. Whoops! Elias Koteas’ priest character calls a bunch of the shit going on in the house magic and then combats with a cross, and it doesn’t work. He says the word ‘magic’ and no one bats an eye in a film where everyone prays before eating. Well, hell alright! And as the final kicker, after the haunting is over, after what may be the biggest anti-climax since Amityville Horror, an inter-title tells us that Matt’s cancer went away. The bearded comic book fan sat in front of me rightly snorted and said “so that’s how you cure Cancer!” We all knew, every man, woman, and child, knew that this was the biggest bunch of bullshit. So not only is Alcoholism nothing but a harmless, go nowhere character and tension builder, Cancer is cured by burning your house down and believing in magic. Line Drawn!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: The Sands of Haiti

Ok, so I think I’ve found the man guiltier of cinematic crimes against nature than any of his peers or disciples. Someone who makes Bruno Mattei look like Ang Lee. Someone who makes Andrea Bianchi seem like a good candidate to direct the next incarnation of RENT. Someone against whom even Umberto Lenzi could be pardoned of his worst sins. I’m talking about Franco Prosperi. Franco Prosperi may be the most contemptible maker of films I’ve ever encountered in my many years of watching crap cinema. Prosperi, along with his partner Gualtiero Jacopetti, made Mondo Cane, the faux-documentary that spawned the cannibal movie genre. When that was finished they went on to make Africa Addio, a movie that Cannibal Holocaust would mock when it needed appalling documentary footage to show. When Deodato uses you as a template for contempt, you’ve reached the point of no return. When Prosperi wasn’t making films that capitalized on actual cruelty to people and animals for real, he was simulating it in trash like Last House on the Beach and The Cannibals. He’s also responsible for Invincible Barbarian, a Conan rip-off so boring and cheap that it makes Cave Dwellers look like Krull. Prosperi’s final credits were writing two separate films with the name Cannibal Holocaust 2. So of all the shit he attached his name to, what is the film that I find him most guilty of? What film will they be reviewing when Prosperi enters purgatory? The answer is today's installment of Where I Draw The Line.

Goodbye, Uncle Tom
by Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi

I wish that Goodbye, Uncle Tom was some kind of made up title they ran this under, but Addio zio Tom translates quite literally to Goodbye, Uncle Tom. That just makes this all the more uncomfortable, that they would call it something so aware of its own cruelty and modernity; they knew exactly what they were doing. The film follows an Italian film crew as they go back in time to the Southern United States to witness and take part in the horrors of slavery. They see the whole process from the arrival of slave ships, through their cleaning, inspection, selection, working, breeding, auctioning, beatings, rape, ridicule, and torment. It’s all punctuated by commentary by slave masters, particularly odiously portrayed slaves, a learned black man who’s supposed to be a Fredrick Douglass stand-in, and the filmmakers themselves who ask questions of all of these people. In one rapturously offesnsive scene Prosperi actually has sex with one of the slave girls who keeps calling him “massa” while holding the camera. When the heinousness of slavery is over, they flash forward to a vision of black guerillas that somehow feels just as racist as the depiction of slavery we just sat through. A few panthers murder a bunch of whites while they sleep wearing ridiculous clothing and absurd, ecstatic looks on their faces.

Ok, quick question, one sentence answer, so why is this film completely atrocious? Because despite it’s claim to be an accurate depiction of slavery, Franco Prosperi and co. really did all that horrible shit to real people. Dig into the making of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and you’ll see that it’s directors decided that the only place they could get away with sub-human treatment of human beings for the sake of making money was Haiti. Haiti in the 1970s was sort of like Guantanamo Bay on a national level. The country was led by the sadistic (some say legitimately insane) François Duvalier. Fans of the Arcade Fire will recognize his last name as his reign of terror is name checked in their song ‘Haiti”. Duvalier was responsible for about 30,000 deaths during his 14 year reign as “President For Life” of the small half-island. Duvalier, in one of those ironic twists, was nicknamed Papa Doc. He frequently called himself god and modeled his appearance on the vodou deity Baron Samedi. He terrified intellectuals like the parents of Régine Chassagne, who fled the country leaving it seriously short on doctors and teachers and the country has remained uneducated and ill ever since. Duvalier frequently allotted huge amounts of money into manhunts, including one to round up and kill all black dogs because word had gotten back to him that a scheming dissident had turned into one. He was found and killed a few months after his private militia had murdered every black dog on the island. Why are we talking about Duvalier? Because when Prosperi and Jacopetti needed a place to go to film degradation and subjugation where they knew they could get away with it, they sought out Papa Doc and he said “Come On In, The Water’s Fine, if you don’t mind it being mostly blood.”
So, with Haitian locations set up, Prosperi recruited hundreds of blacks willing to be in the film for a pittance. A few dollars a day could buy you an unskilled laborer who would act like a dog for your film cause he knew of no other way to earn the money. What I’m trying to say is that every one of the cruel things done to the people in this film were really done by Prosperi & Co. All of a sudden the stories of Jacopetti and Prosperi paying governments to postpone executions so they could film them pale in comparison. There’s a reason that Prosperi and Jacopetti are the only credited cast members in the film; they were the only people who gave anything like reasonable consent to appear; they didn’t even bother with low-rung expendable meat like Bobby Rhodes or Ivan Rassimov. They probably never learned the names of any of the people they were torturing. They just did horrible things to people with the government’s cooperation and then brought their film back to Italy and told everyone they were artists. They even got uppity when censors issued cuts, if you can believe that. What really helps atrocity seem worse is Riz Ortolani music to accompany it. His proto-funk rock score is just jaw-droppingly inappropriate. And what’s more, they made this film in response to the allegations that faced them after the release of their earlier Africa Addio. David Gregory, the director of Plague Town and producer of the Mondo Cane DVD boxset, told me that Prosperi's intentions were far from the heinousness you would think while watching the film and that they did honestly set out to right their wrongs. They included the bit about the black power as an attempt to get on the side of black nationalists, but all they did was make it seem like the only thing on Huey Newton’s mind was murdering white people. Why? Cause they’re a bunch of fucking idiots who don’t get anything at all and would film the murder of their loved ones if they thought there was money in it.

Watching Goodbye, Uncle Tom revealed something to me I’d been wondering since I first saw Cannibal Holocaust. I’d been unnerved by that film, and not just the obvious turtles being pulled apart kind of thing. It was in the composition; something about the scenes leading up to the part where Kerman trades the consumption of a human heart for the footage made me really upset. I see now that it’s in the composition. Goodbye, Uncle Tom is shot from the point of view of a man looking in on the world. This means when we see people in cages in scenes that are compositionally identical to the way in which cannibals are shown, I realize I hate the feeling of being a voyeur. There’s nothing more creepy to me than looking at people with no power over themselves stacked like animals or consumer goods. That, a brutal lack of humanity in the depiction of human beings, scares me. It scares me that people can be viewed as anything other than human. Franco Prosperi for this reason doesn’t deserve the same privileges and rights of human beings because he views them as means to an end.
Goodbye, Uncle Tom is the most racist film I've ever seen and is more offensive than any blackface performance I've ever witnessed. If people tell you this is a thoughtful film, they are either unaware of the facts or are in ignorance of them. I believe Franco Prosperi is a bad person who will burn in hell for all of eternity, and as I don’t believe in hell, that’s really saying something. When a film elicits that kind of reaction that's where I draw the line

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Spit On Your Grave

This is not a film post. This is in response to an anonymous criticism leveled at me via a comment on a post more than a year old. Last year on March 26th I posted a review of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. This year on February 19th, someone very angrily asked me if I had taken the film's release date into consideration when I chose to criticize it. He or she then told me that I was spitting on Fulci's grave. It's perfectly within his or her right to say and think this about me and post it here or anywhere he or she chooses, I'd just like to offer a defense now and always of what I do here before I launch into a really despicable chapter of film history, one where name calling is unavoidable.

To the first. Yes, I do take into consideration the release dates of each and every one of the films that pass through these pages. In fact that's a good deal of my analysis, is looking at the films of Mario Bava, Jesús Franco, Lucio Fulci or anyone else for that matter and seeing how the films they were notorious for making stack up against the time. I do believe when there are films like The Entity, Dawn of the Dead, Rosemary's Baby, or The Hills Have Eyes, that the competition ought to have stood a chance of being just as good, budget be damned. The films above and many others were made for modest budgets (certainly they could have withstood smaller ones) and many of them were made outside the hollywood system and yet came out as decently as could have been hoped for. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead are just two examples of films made for comparably no budget and came out classics. It isn't just in the allocation of funds, mind you, it's in the presentation, the realistic performances, expert direction, and story (considered however carefully it needed to be). You don't need a hundred million dollars to make a good film. With that in mind, it comes down, to me, anyway, to the director. So why then is The Beyond, gorgeous and harrowing though it is, so utterly nonsensical while something like The Entity, made for a similarly small budget in the same year, much easier to watch? Why did Fulci make his film so strangely. That is what I want to examine, and those are the questions I hope to raise. The release date of a film is not an excuse nor an edification for its content. The black and white and silent components and maybe even the expressionistic set-design of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari can be explained by its 1920 release date. It's truly bizarre subject matter, dream-like narrative, and excellent performances can not so easily be written off as a sign of the times. Should we simply take the 80s as they come to us, ignore all else and write everything off as a natural product of the times. That is to ignore the individual works of directors and their triumphs inside monetary systems and genre expectations. I don't believe that Just Before Dawn is a typical 80s film in its presentation, even if its story is about as simple as could be asked of a slasher movie. Jeff Lieberman managed, with the help of cinematographers Joel & Dean King, to make a film that transcended expectation. Why and how could he do that in 1981?

To the second, Lucio Fulci's memory is going to live on pretty much exactly like it does now with or without my commentary. Let me say that I know that one shouldn't enter his zombie films expecting standard fare. Like Alain Resnais, Charlie Kaufman, or Dario Argento a hefty grain of salt is needed up front. This is why I gave each of his films the Z rating because they cannot be judged on ordinary film terms. Their failures and successes are on a different plane than those of your run-of-the-mill zombie film and so enjoy a special distinction outside ordinary judgment. How can I hate something I don't fully understand? For the record I enjoyed watching Zombie despite it's failings. That said, I don't think it's completely unreasonable that I have questions and criticisms for his continued abandonment of reality. There were zombie films that managed, in spite of themselves, to make sense. They had Wholeness, if that makes sense. Fulci's films didn't focus on wholeness and thus couldn't fully justify many of the films' more off-putting set-pieces. Anyone who isn't quite sure what I mean, examine Giovanni Lombardi Radice's character in City of the Walking Dead. He exists solely to be the brunt of two particularly galling scenes of repulsive behavior. Also, I'd like to point out that the review of The Beyond was actually pretty even-handed. I don't call him out nearly so much as in my reviews of Zombie or City of the Walking Dead. I even cite Fulci as being the man who brought Italian zombie films to their pinnacle. For better or worse, eurozombie films never got better in the 80s or even late 70s than under his direction. His camera work and zombie make-up are unrivaled after 1978 across the Atlantic and I say as much in my review. I'd also like to state that of all the reviews on the internet, in print in books or magazines or on film, mine may be the most caustic of all of them. The sample at IMDB right now reads like this: Fulci's masterpiece is by far one of the best Italian gore flicks of the eighties. That sound like someone in need of defending? Consider that in the B-Master Cabal alone you can find positive reviews on Braineater, 1000 Misspent Hours & Counting, Stomp Tokyo, and Cold Fusion Video. Well kind of, Cold Fusion didn't have the full uncut version, but the review is still pretty complimentary. You see what I'm saying? Nobody, not me, not anyone, is going around tearing down statues of Lucio Fulci when there are people like Bruno Mattei, Umberto Lenzi and Franco Prosperi to worry about. People who really revel in the torment of animals and human beings, real and imagined. I admit to being scared by The Beyond and for that reason always have a hard time watching it, and you know what else? I don't think anyone who's ever read my reviews has then gone to a video store and paused before picking up anything by him. Have sales decreased because I didn't like New York Ripper? No. I'm offering commentary, asking questions, and attempting to give a new perspective on all things zombie. I've done outrageous things in the name of my love of all things grotesque, so I'll thank everyone to simply consider that an opinion is just that. I'm not spouting the gospel and Lucio Fulci does no more spinning in his grave now than before I saw Zombie. I do not spit on his grave because he had a vision, something most of his peers never imagined having, even if it only lasted a year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Thin Line Between Laughter and Fright

I’m pleased to talk about The Frightened Woman because it allows me to segue into my newest feature here at Honors Zombie. It’s a little series I like to call “Where I Draw The Line”. The line, friends is when I see a movie that is just too much for me to ignore, and you’ll notice most of them involve the holocaust or at the very least use of the word holocaust. I can take a lot of things: I’ve seen women brutalized, tormented, raped, and murdered for the sake of some Italian guys making money. I’ve seen genitalia mutilated, men and women eaten alive by people and animals, children killed, real animals being killed for real, real sex inserted into cheap exploitation films and sex with every conceivable sort of monster imaginable simulated all for the purpose of some Italian guys making some money. So, you may ask, why do I get to draw a line? By rights I shouldn’t cause I sat around and watched these horrible things unfold, but at the same time, there are a lot of adventurous kids out there who think it might be a good idea to see these films. This is sort of like my passing on hard-earned knowledge onto younger generations. If someone could learn from my mistakes, maybe having watched them won’t be in vein. Let’s start with the sickest giallo I’ve ever seen. This is a film with no moral compass that makes sex out to be a weapon to be used however you need it to, so long as the other party doesn’t benefit.

The Frightened Woman
by Piero Schivazappa
In true Roman fashion, it starts with a council of well dressed men discussing the mistake of a subordinate. Things don’t look too good for our man. Next we see a suave peer of the doomed man called Dr. Sayer speaking to an attractive female reporter named Maria. She says she’s missing an article about savage tribes that he says he can supply her with. She agrees to come out to his home in the country that weekend to retrieve it so she can meet a Monday deadline. When she arrives, they begin talking about the tribes and their views on masculinity and femininity and Sayer gets into a lather about how he thinks women should be subjugated for a man’s enjoyment. In the midst of this he overpowers her and she wakes up handcuffed in a plush dungeon. What follows is a series of cruel tests of her strength. Sayer will string her up, humiliate her, torment her, chase her with his car, flay her, and do all kinds of weird shit to her while spouting all kinds of nonsense about masculinity and a woman’s place. She finally puts a stop to it one day by overdosing on some pills; Sayer finds the empty bottle and puts two and two together.

When Sayer nurses her back to health, the movie makes a comically abrupt shift in tone. Sayer decides he’s fallen in love with Maria and that he no longer wishes to torment her. They go out for an idyllic Sunday drive complete with muzak by Stelvio Cipriani that borders on Benny Hill-esque lunacy when they begin chasing each other around the field, frolicking like deer. Sayer stops every few minutes to catch his breath and clutch his heart, clearly not used to behaving like a teenager. He takes her to a castle he knows that was converted into a resort. They attempt to have sex but are interrupted by a dwarf, who is also their waiter. When they get back to Sayer’s house, they go swimming and finally have sex after about 12 minutes of Maria teasing her charge. This involves Sayer dreaming about an enormous wooden sculpture of a vagina situated by enormous colorful legs. I shit thee not. When they finally have sex, Sayer has a heart attack and dies mid-copulation. Turns out Maria was sent to kill Sayer and had done the same thing to his colleague from the opening tribunal.
To give you some indication of what Italians thought of this film when they were making it, one of its alternate titles was The Laughing Woman. I wonder if these guys actually thought they were saying something profound. If you had filmed me watching this movie, you would have been treated to an hour and forty minutes worth of my eyebrows getting higher and higher and higher in an arch of profound confusion and profound disbelief. In my defense, I’d never seen or even entertained the possibility that there were movies about sex assassins that make the films of Eli Roth look like sexual harassment seminar videos shown in office buildings. Let’s just examine the basic outline of this film, shall we? A woman lets herself get degraded by a rich Philippe Leroy who lives in a space-age pad in the middle of nowhere so that she can work him up and then murder him with her vagina. And I thought Teeth was grim. This is why there needs to be at least one woman present in every meeting of any film studio, because not only could they provide the voice of reason in so many cases of high-concept films being passed, they might also have been able to stop depraved shit like this from ever going into production. I just take solace in the fact that writer director Pierro Schivazappa never worked in films ever again. He got stuck making Italian TV for the rest of his career and he’s still there. Looks like the jokes on you, dirtbag!

The film itself is made really well, which makes its heinously outdated subject matter and faux-hip message and direction even weirder. It’s one thing to watch old misogynistic trash and have it look as bad as it feels, but these guys spent some cash on this film. It’s pretty jarring watching Dagmar Lassander as Maria dancing around a Jetsons-esque singles pad with J&B Scotch in her hand and then realizing that a lot of people consented to making this movie. A Lot! Not that I wouldn't drop what I was doing if the chance to see Dagmar Lassander in a see-through wrap was in the offing, but I digress. And this film is such a specific kind of bad, it took writing, production design, and a really heavy handed performance by Philippe Leroy to achieve this kind of bad. Even stranger is that they start out with all the torture and then lull you into a state of complacency so that Schivazappa can turn it all around and make Hello Dolly Italian Style. Then the big reveal makes the whole mess even more hateful than you originally thought it was. How plainly illogical would it be for people to pay Dagmar Lassander to get raped and then kill her rapist? Who in their right fucking mind would consent to that? Thank god I'm not a Gialli completist cause if I had to force myself to watch more of these goddamned things I might go out of my mind in a big way.
How much do Italians actually hate women? Did Schivazappa get abandoned by his mother as a child, cause this is some seriously hateful shit? This friends is where I cross the line. Join me next time when Franco Prosperi earns the title of biggest asshole who ever lived.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Giulio Questi and The Chicken Factory

I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, but I think I may have found the weirdest Gialloever. While I was watching it, that was certainly the thought that kept coming to me as the film unfolded in front of me. What else can you think of a film that when I saw it was shown entirely in black and white with varying yellow, red, and green filters? A film whose music consists entirely of dissonant harpsichord and detuned guitar? A film that takes place primarily in the chicken farm OF-THE-FUTURE? A film that starts with a ménage-a-trois and ends with headless chicken breeding?

Death Laid an Egg
by Giulio Questi
We begin in said chicken farm. The union boys are a little miffed because they’ve been rendered useless by the new machines that run the farm smoothly and efficiently. This means that it’s two owners, husband and wife Anna and Marco, have more time to spend on their favorite pastime: Gabrielle. Gabrielle is a crafty young blonde that Anna and Marco are both sleeping with: the shades of this film in Death Smiles On A Murderer don’t stop there, Gabrielle is played by Ewa Aulin, who played that film’s love triangle vertex, Greta. Now this wouldn’t be much of a film if all was love and harmony at the chicken farm. Things begin in earnest when Marco is nearly killed by a falling wrench in the factory, and the game begins. The next bit of intrigue concerns the fact that someone’s killing prostitutes. It’s probably Marco, because he has a thing for being the last person to see them alive and he wears the all-important black gloves when he's with them. Why else would he constantly look like he’s hiding something? Maybe it’s those experiments he’s performing that Mondalini, the farm’s new PR guy keeps trying to get Gabrielle to steal. Gabrielle is also sleeping with Mondalini, much to Anna and Marco’s displeasure. And let’s talk about Mondalini. He would appear to be some kind of magician or other. At a dinner party that Marco throws, he has everyone partake in some odd game in an effort to expand their consciousness. Don’t ask me.
So, jumping back a few plot points, where do those experiments lead Marco? To the creation of a breed of headless chickens. This ought to increase production, right? Or at the very least give something for Jack Nance to eat at his girlfriend’s house. So with this revelation things start to come tumbling down for Anna and Marco and pretty soon no one has anyone to trust. All in a day’s work for the protagonist of a giallo. The drive-in alternate title this film was given was Plucked. When I was in 4th grade I won the historical fiction contest cause my story about the Boston Tea Party was called Tea’d Off. Maybe Questi was hoping they’d release his film if he gave it a cute title like that. I mean it doesn’t get much cuter than Death Laid An Egg, but Plucked sounds more like a first-wave Nintendo game about cute little chickens. I really can’t think of an Italian film as flat-out weird as this. Headless chickens? Come on, I dare you to get weirder than that! As I said, the fact that the film is shown in a rotating palette of colors, none of which should ever be what you view respected French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant through. I’m not entirely sure what Trintignant was doing in this film!? Best I could tell he’d already made enough prestige films that he would never have to make a film like this for the rest of his life. Maybe he got tired of making films for Rene Clair and Costa Gavras. I guess prestige only pays for so much. Anyway, he’s here and he’s giving it his all, but my, is he out of place! Next to Ewa Aulin and Gina Lollobrigida he just looks bored; Jean Sobieski, father of Leelee, makes good as the sexual svengali Mondalini, but he seems better suited to a Fellini film than a low-budget sci-fi drama like this.
Giulio Questi really didn’t know what to do with his actors. Sort of like Klaus Kinski in Death Smiles, Jean-Louis busies himself doing odd tasks really intensely at the other end of which is a headless chicken. Questi, famous for directing the strangest entry in the Django series (the one with the militant gay cowboys), was better suited and clearly more interested in his bizarre production design, lingering over shots of enormous stacks of bird cages and an assembly line belt that everyone gets a turn riding. Pushing this film into new heights of truly obnoxious absurdity is Bruno Maderna’s avant-garde score. Maderna was a well respected classical musician so it was really no big thing for him to sit down and bang out some mind-blowingly strange music. I hesitate to call it music, because it follows no pattern and the instruments he pounds are all desperately out of tune. When something as frivolous as this came along, my guess is it took nothing out of him to hand in the most jarring bit of percussive sound he could come up with in an hour and a half, take his check and get back to composing symphonies. And yet, I can’t think of anything better suited to footage of flying feathers through a green filter. Death Laid An Egg is truly a masterpiece of the off-putting.

Giallo Fever

Giallos and I didn’t exactly make fast friends. By and large I find them all pretty tedious. The structure is not one I find all that enjoyable: really complicated murder plot involving people whose only defining feature is that they’re all pretty seedy bastards punctuated by squirm-inducing murder scenes. The film I’ve got lined up for today is actually sort of a Giallo, sort of a German offshoot called the Krimi film. It shares a lot in common with two better-known films, Black Sabbath and Bloody Pit of Horror and like Death Smiles On A Murderer it claims patronage from an Edgar Allen Poe story. Having seen both I can say that I like this one better than the films it rips off, but then again, I’m not really the man to talk to about Gialli, I have but a few I can sit through. This is a zombie site, after all.

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism
by Harold Reinl
Like Black Sabbath, it starts with the public execution of a practitioner of the black arts, in this case a Christopher Lee character called Count Regula. First he’s given a spiked mask to wear a la Barbara Steele and then he’s quartered in the town square. Regula is being executed because he killed 12 virgins and was working on 13 when she escaped. 13 and the judge who sentenced him look on in the crowded square as the whips are cracked and Regula’s limbs are given the big tug. Through a pretty good editing trick, we cut to 35 years later where a peg-legged sideshow worker tells a crowd of people about the man and his execution for pocket change. The drawing of his limbs being pulled off is as close to a real quartering as we see. He stops his barking when a man who looks eerily like the judge called Roger (they’re both played by Lex Barker) passes by in a carriage. That night, the man with the peg leg gives him an envelope from Regula. We all know this can’t be right as we’ve just been shown his execution. Leggy gives the same envelope to Karin Dor, who’d just finished being a bond girl in You Only Live Twice, the next day. As if it needed to be said, Lillian Von Brandt looks like 13. The next day, Lex and his carriage pick up a few hitchhikers on their way to the Castle that Regula has invited him to. The first is an overweight priest who seems destined to be our comic relief; blissfully, he stops about halfway into the film. The second is Lillian and her servant Babette after a bunch of masked marauders loot their carriage and kill their driver. Roger picks them all up, much to the chagrin of his driver.
Things get weird that night. After they arrive at the place the priest was supposed to be headed and finds that its been burned to the ground. A weird looking guy leers at them from behind a pillar. When the driver wants to go home, the clergyman pulls a pistol on him; his excuse about dangerous neighborhoods seems pretty flimsy. When they get close enough to the castle (which, let it be said, we never see) the driver starts seeing dead bodies everywhere. They hang from trees and their limbs seem to stick out of trees and the grounds like someone fused them with the foliage. They stop when they see one of the hanged men still twitching and try to help him. The same man who burned the priest’s destination down kills the driver and rides off with Babette and Lillian. When Roger and the priest find a trap door that leads to what I take to be the castle, the game begins. Regula has been sewn back together by his weird looking assistant and he needs the blood of 13 to come back for real. He invited Roger cause he still feels a little sore about that execution and killing a descendant is just as good as killing the real thing to a mummified Christopher Lee. The only way to evade capture is to face the titular torture chamber and its winding hallways, swinging pendulums, snakes, spiders, and skeletons. If the count doesn’t get the blood of 13 before midnight, he’s doomed.

Why do I like this film. It starts with the name, I can tell you that. By god, have you ever heard anything so poetically misanthropic as that? The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism....Mmm mmm mmm. Just rolls off the tongue. The name of this film goes up there with my favorite exploitation and gialli film titles, even though its only kind of one of those films. The reason I don’t call this a proper gialli, is because there is no black gloved killer, there is no real mystery after the midway mark, and though everyone’s motives are fairly evil or at the very least wrong-headed, they don’t come to much. Why is it important that the priest is actually a robber? I mean, it's cool I guess, but it doesn't really do us much. It's not really a proper exploitation film because no one is murdered on screen and no one gets naked, so, it's really more of a funhouse kind of thing than a horror kind of thing. I call it a sort of Gialli because of its wild set-design, its frequent murder attempts, and its zany villain out for revenge. The production is the thing I liked best about this film. The scene where the carriage driver sees the bodies in the misty forest at night is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in an Italian film of any vintage and to me rivals the best moments in Black Sabbath or Suspiria. The plot, however, has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Because this is ostensibly supposed to be a retelling of The Pit And The Pendulum, we have a count and we have the all-important swinging pendulum scene. The problem with this is that Harald Reinl isn’t much with suspense. After you’ve seen Roger Corman’s take on this scene, there isn’t much room for anyone to do better. His film of The Pit and the Pendulum hinges on the success of that scene (and of course Vincent Price’s performance) and Corman’s take is beautifully shot and full of great hallucinatory colors. Price in that ridiculous costume just makes it all the better. Reinl’s scene is flat and lifeless by comparison. He has a few places in the torture chamber where he does good; the appearance of the insects and those great stop-motion bullet wounds are both fun and campy. Christopher Lee does a pretty remarkable job, as always, even though the script doesn’t give him much to do. Squaring off against Lex Barker and Vladimir Medar is a little like Vincent Price squaring off against Nick Adams and Bruno VeSota, but that’s forgivable because Lee really didn’t have to try to act circles around everyone around him.
The plot is fairly ordinary once we get inside the castle (castle, set, same thing) and it stops being a gothic and starts ripping off Bloody Pit of Horror, but I like this pacing and the way it looks. Mostly, it’s just fun and moody and no one gets their hands burned off by a furnace, so I’m happy. It is, all things considered, at least as good as the name would imply.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Horror from Beyond the Grave

I think I’m going to delve into new territory for Honors Zombie. First, a milestone: The first Joe D’Amato film covered in these pages. If I ever track down Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, it won't be the last. It’s also the first straight-up Giallo film covered. Giallo for those of you who don’t know refers to a type of Italian film made from the early 1960s to the late 1970s that featured, in most cases: incredibly complicated murder mysteries, black gloved killers, sexually motivated violence, and a pulpy feel throughout. In Giallos you never know who to trust, who’s really the killer, and you’re almost never sure what why they’re doing it. Giallo comes from the trashy novels that the films plots were lifted from towards the beginning, whose pages were a sort of yellow color (Giallo in Italian: Yellow). Now I’m not sure if they turned that color because like American novels they decay quickly or they’re printed like that, so don’t quote me. Anyway, the Giallo started when Mario Bava made his lurid Blood & Black Lace in 1963 and ended, appropriately enough, when Lucio Fulci, who had failed to make it as a giallo filmmaker, made Zombie, setting off the new wave of Italian horror films. Soon after Zombie, all the giallo makers (Andrea Bianchi, Joe D’Amato, Dario Argento) turned their attention to making films about the living dead. There have been shades of yellow on these pages before (Zeder is nothing if not some twisted reimagination of the genre, what with its winding unintelligible plot; Revenge of the Living Dead Girls has a lot of the genre’s comically evil villains roaming around; Panic Beats, too has a bit of the Giallo spirit to it, but is a little too slick and supernatural to be confused with one of the originals). So let’s look at one that was a sort of preternatural fusion of the two from one of the world’s most prolific directors (I never said he was good, just prolific. What? He made like 260 films. You try doing that!)

Death Smiles on a Murderer
by Joe D’Amato

Like most Giallos, Death Smiles borrows from a prolific horror writer, in this case Edgar Allen Poe. First thing we see is a creepy blonde in period costume (I’m thinking this is probably supposed to be the early 20th century, but what do I know) fellow mourning over his dead sister. He flashes back to the time he forced her to have sex with him (she struggles at first, but seems ok with it after its been done), the time they frolicked in a field and then she ditched him for an old man. Then we flash back to the events that presumably surround her death. That we start with an incest flashbacks should tell you we’re in the hands of a true master of the obscene (Joe later got famous for making a movie where someone eats a fetus, so I guess this I shouldn’t complain. Especially considering we’re about to meet a Klaus Kinski character). So we next see a carriage speeding down a country road and it isn’t a bit surprising when it bollockses up a curve outside of a married couple’s country manor and the driver is killed. The carriage’s sole occupant is the dead girl from the prologue. She can’t remember anything, not even her own name; the crash did a number of her memory. The doctor that Eva and Walter von Ravensbrück call in for their new house guest (Dr. Klaus Kinski) will surely get to the bottom of this for sure; first order: Get undressed! Joe gives us the greatest voyeurism scene in history; Klaus watches as the amnesiac gets into her corset, and the maid watches Klaus watching the girl from the next room. We of course are also privy to the peeping as viewers, making this one delightfully, post-modern voyeuristic menagerie. Anyway, Klaus finds a medallion with her name on it, which happens to be Greta (Wyatt Doyle put it best on his commentary for the film, “If you want to bring something to Klaus Kinski’s attention, put it between a pair of breasts”). Klaus’s next test is, for some reason, to put a needle through Greta’s eye. Don’t ask me. As the maid prepares to leave, presumably because she recognizes Greta, she is tormented by visions of the brother from the prologue and is chased by him across the grounds. She ultimately gets murdered by someone carrying a shotgun, someone unseen.
Klaus returns to his laboratory with the body of the coachmen and he and his deaf mute assistant set about raising him from the dead (how’s that for a nonsequitor). I’d ask why there are rats and monkeys in the lab, but I doubt very much that even Joe D’Amato knew. Set dressing, I guess. Klaus stirs beakers and mixes steaming liquids for a few minutes before the dead man comes back to life and then someone unseen stangles him and his assistant to death. The zombies in the basement setpiece is one that I like to think Joe borrowed from The Bowery At Midnight with that other great European creep Bela Lugosi.

Greta falls into life with the von Ravensbrücks and before long is sleeping with both of them. When Eva finds out that Greta’s sleeping with Walter, she goes mad with jealousy and bricks the younger woman into a room in the basement (thank you, Edgar Allen). And predictably, it doesn’t end there. One evening during a party, Eva sees Great among the guests. Eva flees to her bedroom pursued by a decaying Greta and then she is either thrown or jumps from her window to her death. Now, I was puzzled because I thought that Greta’s vengeangeful spirit had no one left to torment, but I was quite wrong. Who should show up for Eva’s funeral, but Walter’s father, the guy Greta left her brother for in the beginning. She exacts her revenge against him by locking him in a tomb with a zombie. So who’s left? Walter, the butler, and Greta’s brother, right? Can you murder someone in a flashback from a separate flashback?
Death Smiles On A Murderer is one crazy ass film. Joe D’Amato, Aristide Massaccesi to his friends, made all manner of sleaze film in his time under about 30 different pseudonyms so identity is a little difficult, especially when his films show up in severely cut editions, but every bad film buff worth his salt knows a Joe D’Amato film when they see one. It starts with imaginatively plentiful gore scenes lingered over far too long by his camera lens and ends with explicit sex. His films never got tame, they were just edited for international and television distribution. Those with 20/20 vision may recognize the sets from Death Smiles from one of Joe’s other films, Ator 2, or as it was called on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Cave Dwellers. The stairs and the basement where Eva bricks up Greta were both in Akronas’ home. Anyway, Death Smiles is a budget conscious horror film (Klaus is in the film only briefly and he spends most of his time mixing test tubes, but he sure does mix them with purpose!), but it makes the most of what little it has. Berto Pisano's music is excellent and Joe's editing and camera work are pretty good considering he was working as the director while he was performing both of these functions.

The zombies are a welcome addition to the Giallo formula and they are the scariest part of the film; the scene in the tomb is really awesome. Joe’s excessive gore is really not that effective (the scene where a cat claws someone’s eyes out and the maid’s face getting shot off in the beginning are two good examples of what I call Ugly Italian behavior. They seem to relish in the truly disgusting murder of their fellow man and present stabbings almost pornographically. Murder and sex are treated way too similarly for comfort. For further viewing watch Suspiria’s opening scene or the murders by the furnace in Blood & Black Lace). The zombies are also just one more thing that Joe doesn’t ever explain. The nonsensical nature of the plot can help depending on how charitable you want to be to Death Smiles on a Murderer. The film is after all about an amnesiac and someone who goes mad with guilt. Everyone seems to be guilty of something (except Walter who is only guilty of being an ineffectual fop) so it makes sense that all the sinister goings on are presented like the hallucinations of a guilty conscience. When Greta returns from the dead to start killing people, we don’t know if she was dead all along or if it was a relatively new thing. We don’t know why does all the killing before her return from the basement, but by the power of deductive reasoning and the fact that Greta’s the only person left standing by the time the film ends she must be the one who did it. I was sure it was the butler, but I was proven wrong there, too, I think. One can reasonably assume that Greta steals Klaus’ zombie formula and uses it to her own ends, but why? Why does she need to take revenge on everyone? The only person who deserves it is the brother and he’s already gotten his comeuppance when we join the action, we just don’t know it yet. If this seems confusing, try watching the film, then you can join me in total oblivion and see what a blissful place it is. It’s a place that only exists at the end of Joe D’Amato films.

In the coming weeks I'll be visiting my all time favorite Giallos and giallalikes, including a story of a headless chicken factory, a truly mysogynist rollercoaster ride, and the best Christopher Lee film not made by Hammer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Rumour Mill

When you’ve seen the best offings a genre has in store for you, and you start to scrape the bottom of the rumour barrel, you’re gonna be confronted by a lot of weird stuff. Of lasher films, were-thing movies, and kaiju-eiga, this is true; of zombie films, this is an undeniable, inevitable truth. I’ve seen a lot of zombie movies (a LOT!) and they’re all weird by definition, so when you get to the little ones, the forgotten ones, the weirdness gets honed somehow. Why for example do the zombies in The Garden of the Dead begin to dance around as if possessed by some unheard music? Why does everyone act corrupt and sexually violent in Revenge of the Living Dead Girls? Why do we get introduced to half of the plot elements we do in Fear No Evil? Fear No Evil is a weird little film if ever there was one. I liked it for the most part, because it manages to be a lot of things in its limited powers. It manages to seem like a male version of Carrie, a teenage Rosemary’s Baby, an Omen film situated between parts 2 and 3, an Exorcist remake that stays true to that film’s cinema-verite feel and a war-free Deathdream all in one. In fact it feels like a 70s Satan film, and if I didn’t know better I’d guess that it was, but it was made in 1981. One thing it never really gets around to being, however, is scary.

Fear No Evil
by Frank Laloggia

Open on a priest about to do battle with Lucifer; he’s an earthly incarnation of the archangel Rafael and he’s missing his two other archangels; Mikhail is his real-life sister Margeret, is ill and can’t be with him; Gabrielle, he says, hasn’t yet found an earthly form (not born yet). So he chases a rather spooky looking white guy with fangs around a pretty spooky castle set and then impales him with a big not-quite-cross. Lucifer seems undaunted and tells him he’ll be reborn. The change of setting to a Long Island suburb tells us he’s right, as Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are just about to have their boy Andrew christened (Don’t ask me why these two 60 years olds are having children, they just are). At the christening, things go south when little Andrew starts squirting blood in that special way we can only call Stigmata and his mom rushes him out. Over the next 18 years, Andrew will drive his parents apart; he’ll also make his mother thoroughly crazy, and make his dad into a bitter drunk who resents him. His dad tries to mask his contempt, but when his mother collapses in hysterics on Andrew’s 18th birthday and then an iron falls on his wife’s head, he rightly blames the boy; no one’s dead mind you, but I imagine this sort of thing probably happens all the time.

We then move back to our priest; he’s fallen on hard times. He was convicted of murdering the gentleman from the beginning, but Margaret is adamant that he’s innocent as the man in question was no man at all, but the beast! Her only other friend, another priest, blames her for egging him on and getting him into a Christ-fueled mania in which he committed the murder. He’s gonna be important a little later, kinda, so don’t forget about him just yet. Andrew’s dad comes by Margaret’s house one day and they trade naïve and cryptic messages of hope and then go their separate ways.
At school Andrew doesn’t have it any easier; his classmates ostracize him in very weird ways (including kissing him in the shower room to try and…turn him on and prove he’s gay, maybe? I honestly don’t know, but the kid who does it goes into shock due to Andrew's voodoo magic and can’t explain why. Understandably he tells everyone to not bring it up later, but what the hell were you thinking was gonna happen when you French kiss a guy in the shower room? You think it wasn’t gonna be awkward?). He makes Julie, a girl next door type, nervous because she keeps having sexual nightmares about him. Tony, the John Travolta character, tries to get a rise out of him by pointing out he doesn’t do drugs or drink and his cronies fall right in line with him. It isn’t until one day during gym class that Andrew figures out how he might make these kids pay. When he shows up late for class, the way-to-into-it gym teacher puts him in the corner to do push ups while the other boys play dodge ball. While he shouts and gets all lathered up at the sideline, Andrew gets worked up into a demonic frenzy and forces the gym teacher to take one of the balls and throw it so hard at Julie’s boyfriend that he kills him (a first in any horror film if I’m not mistaken). Afterwards Andrew falls into another sort of shock period like after he kissed that guy in the showers; clearly this kind if power is causing him a good amount of stress.

I was beginning to wonder what direction we were headed in until Julie has a dream about the priest from the prologue in the wake of one of her sexual Andrew dreams (Andrew has by now given her Rosemary’s Baby-like coital scratches). The priest leads her to an old woman named Margaret (ha! Now we’re getting somewhere). She seeks out Margaret the next day and it becomes clear that they are destined to come together and defeat the beast! Andrew has by this time been cutting his satanic fangs on neighborhood animals (like Andy in Deathdream), building himself a sort of alter in the family barn not unlike the one from the spooky castle at the beginning. Ok, so we switch over to Margaret’s friend the priest. Apropos of nothing we learn this guy puts on a Passion play on a beach right across the water from (drum roll please!) that spooky old castle. Margaret tries to coax him into nixing the whole thing, but he shall not be moved by this crazy woman and her prophecies. And as if all that weren’t enough in the high stakes game of Satan bating, Tony and his pals decide to steal a boat so they can fornicate in the shadows of…that spooky old castle. When Andrew and his dead animals show up there it almost seems like he just went because everyone else was doing it. He raises an army of the undead, causes everyone in attendance of the passion play to go into simultaneous stigmata and strikes the actor playing Jesus with a bolt of lightning. The battle between Julie, Margaret and the prince of darkness that ensues is kinda lame in comparison to the journey getting there.
I spent so long looking for Fear No Evil that by the time I found it I wasn’t even sure there were zombies in it. In searching for zombie films, you run into a lot of dead ends and rumours, as noted above. For example, read descriptions of Jesus Franco’s The Devil Came From Akasava: I had it on pretty good authority there were zombies in this film. There was a bonkers Spy plot and a very gorgeous, very naked Soledad Miranda in one of her last film roles, but there were no Zombies. I got very close to giving up hope that Fear No Evil had any zombies to offer me. They did eventually show up but they didn’t do much. They kill Tony’s friends and then disappear; they felt like an 11th hour addition just to drive home Andrew’s evilness. Most of the stuff in this film just kinda disappears. Andrew’s dad gets drunk toward the end of the film because he somehow figures out his son is the anti-Christ, a lesson we never see him learn firsthand. Then he kills his wife, who is inexplicably coated in cobwebs and then disappears. We never see what happens to Margaret’s Passion play staging priest friend. We never see what the fits that Andrew keeps going into mean. We don’t know why Julie was chosen as the vessel of holiness that must combat evil or why she dreams of Andrew or why the dreams stop after she meets Margaret. Too many loose ends. It’s a film that derives its energy from stolen setpieces. Like Carrie and Damian, Andrew has a hard time at school and doesn’t fit in. Like Reagan McNeal, Andrew’s eyes turn yellow whenever he goes into a satanic fit and he is double teamed by a pair of ad hoc exorcists. Like the devil to Rosemary, Andrew scratches Julie’s back in a sex dream. Like Andy in Deathdream, Andrew stalks about, kills dogs, drinks blood, and looks very dour. And like The Shining a lot of unexplainable sinister stuff explodes during the climax; except in that film it meant something. Frank Laloggia was too busy stealing from other movies to let his film develop a personality and so it is simply weird.

A good deal of that weirdness has to do with the film’s truly crooked sense of humour. Take for example the really long build up to the joke about Tony’s chest at the end of the film. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Tony offers Andrew some weed and then to point out how green the pale devilchild is he tells him that it won’t make him grow breasts like some people say it does. Later when all the apocalyptic weirdness takes place, Tony looks at himself in a mirror and unbuttons his shirt to reveal a pair of breasts. How are we supposed to take the scene where the actor playing Jesus arrives in casual dress and a prop thorn of crowns and all the children nearby crowd around him like he’s Leif Garrett or something cooing his name? Frank Laloggia’s got a bizarre-ass sense of humour, that’s for sure. It’s little things like this that stop the film from being just another rip-off. There were other things too; the make-up on the demon the first time we see him in the prologue is pretty thoroughly creepy. The soundtrack is probably the best of any film of that period and type. In place of your average Tears for Fears knock-off bands, the teens in Fear No Evil listen to The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, and The Ramones at comically high volumes (Frank LaLoggia is not so lucky. Apparently he listens to synth band Trybe, because they wrote the awesomely bad closing music). The teens in Fear No Evil are also about as close to the real thing as I’ve seen in any high school horror picture. Unlike the “you’re just beggin’ for it” stupidity of the teens from Friday the 13th, Prom Night, or My Bloody Valentine, the kids in Fear No Evil feel like the real thing. Sure they’re stupid and mean and awkward, but they’re a long way from the cartoonish brutality of the kids in your average slasher film. Nobody’s hatred of the protagonist is unfounded or pointedly awful. They act mean to Andrew, sure, but they’re just as shitty to each other, too. In fact when Tony and his gang start dropping I couldn’t help but feel like they hadn’t really earned their bad ends. I was waiting for some pig’s blood or something so I could really get behind their getting munched on by zombies, but nothing like that ever shows up, they just act believably idiotic and then make the mistake of stealing a boat to Devil Castle Island for some nude swimming and making out. Tony doesn’t ever actually do any harm to Andrew, he just makes him the butt of a pretty harmless joke. This is both refreshing and a little out of place. It makes Fear No Evil essentially peerless in its teenager behavior, but it also makes for a conclusion with no punch, no pizzazz or tension.

When Margaret and Julie chase Andrew around the castle and the zombies don’t touch them and the cross thing starts glowing and then Andrew becomes a goatman I really didn’t care how it ended. We get some truly awful lighting effects (I’m talkin’ Tron bad) and the obligatory reading of the bible (“hallowed be thy name,” etc.) and it all just feels tacked on. First of all, these two may be preventing the end of the world, but they were too late to stop like a hundred people from being killed by zombies or spontaneous bleeding and lightning strikes. It was like they’d written a better conclusion but took it out because it hadn’t been done before. Things literally just end; we get a Satan-killing light show and that’s that. Is Julie ok? Who knows. Is the devil really vanquished or did he just go into another baby across town? Who knows. Did the devil leave Andrew’s body? If so, is Andrew ok? We will never know. No closure, no nothing. All in all, I guess I kinda liked watching Fear No Evil and it was interesting to see Zombies in service of the devil for once, even if they don’t do anything. In the end, you’re not missing anything special if you give Fear No Evil a miss. You’re just saving yourself a lot of loose ends nagging at you for the rest of the night.