Friday, November 26, 2010

The Video Nasty Diaries - The House After The Last House On The Left

Hello. I'm Scout and I'm a completist. This has gotten me into trouble over the years. I mean how often do people really mean "author of one great film" when they say Great Director? I could have been spared The Brothers Grimm, The Raccoon Princess, Bitter Moon and so much more if only I hadn't been endlessly compelled to delve further into the recesses of some of my favourite director's minds. I could have sat out the fucking extended cut of 1900, but no! Five and a half hours of my life....gone! I also could have been spared some of the least interesting/wrongly bolstered horror films of the 70s and 80s if only I didn't feel compelled to watch everything that was banned by the British Board of Film Classifications in the 80s under a summary ban that would later be dubbed the video nasties scare. In an effort to fight perceived obscenity, the board went to video stores all over the country confiscating video cassettes and slapping hefty fines on vendors. Now, while it's certainly interesting to examine what films were banned and why, the reasons all boil down to the simple fact that the BBFC were full of shit. Censorship in any form is regressive and counter-productive and the video nasties were no exception. By banning these films for poorly executed scenes of graphic violence (Bloody Moon) mixed with bizarre scenes of awkward sex and drug use (The Witch Who Came From The Sea) all they were ensuring was that kids would be impressed by the "BANNED IN 31 COUNTRIES" sticker on the box when it eventually found its way into the public's hands. The director of public prosecutions didn't watch half of these films (hence the now semi-famous story of the police snagging a shipment of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas believing it was pornography - a mistake also made by Doctor Venture) and before the likes of Mary Whitehouse were sent packing, the video nasties would start eating themselves. when rumours circulated that when the ad campaign for Cannibal Holocaust backfired, the British distributors called in a raid on their own movie so they could regenerate publicity for the film by having it banned. Controversy could sell the unsellable; it could certainly sell shit like Frozen Scream and Don't Go Near The Park. Furthermore, sometimes all you needed was the promise or even the hint of controversy to tempt viewers. Today we'll see how the influence of even the lowest trash can be pervasive if the promise of scandal is going to put asses in seats. Specifically, let's just look at the influence The Last House On The Left had on the exploitation circuit in the late 70s when it made it's way to Italy.

Night Train Murders
by Aldo Lado
We see two parties making their way to the same train out of Berlin. The first is a pair of girls leaving for christmas break. Lisa is the more prudish of the two and by far the cuter of them (Laura D'Angelo made precious few films and this is the only one available in the states as far as I can tell) and Margaret is a little more adventurous. The other pair are thieves who can't quite decide if they're greasers, hippies or, as we'll find out, murderous gremlins. They are also two of the ugliest men in a country that produces some of the ugliest men on the planet at a time when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting an ugly guy. Flavio Bucci and Gianfranco De Grassi are fucking hideous, which is really a feat on Aldo Lado's part because they've looked presentable in other films. Flavio Bucci was even half-cute in Suspiria but here as Blackie, I can't think of a less appealing human face. Anyway, they soon find themselves sharing a compartment with Lady on the Train (which is all the name she gets), an aristocrat who talks in half-formed platitudes. This is one of those movies where people go ahead and just announce the theme of the movie at the first opportunity so they can get to the stabbing and raping sooner. It's the screenwriter's way of clapping his hands and saying "Well that takes care of that!" Anyway Lady on the Train, or Lott, as I'll call her from now on, takes Flavio into the bathroom for a sex scene that I wanna say was aiming at slapstick comedy, but who can say?There are far more zooms than I thought possible in a train bathroom, so kudos for that, but jesus is this weird.

Anyway, so the train has to make a stop so all of our characters get off and transfer to a mostly empty train. This is where the personality development part of the movie not only stops, but gets erased. So Lott convinces Blackie and Curly (those are the totally awesome names given to the two guys) that what would be a gas is raping and stabbing both the girls, Weasel and Krug style. Then some dude shows up to spy on them and they make him take part in the gang rape, too. Then through circumstances far too stupid to go into, Blackie, Curly and Lott wind up at Lisa's parents' house and then through even more preposterous circumstances they figure out that their three house guests killed the two girls. And, I'll give Aldo Lado this, he skimps on the revenge aspect of this rape-revenge film just like Last House on the Left. Though at least Wes Craven went a little off the rails in that department; Lado just gets it over with, which is really fucking aggravating and unfair, I gotta say. The problem is that Lado assumed that because he has characters stop the action of the movie to discuss crime like they were aliens who'd just learned what happens in earth prisons he could show you the worst shit he could think of and it would all come out in the wash. The biggest tell is that when talking about the depiction of the rich in the movie in interviews, Lado makes constant reference to the middle class, but what he means is the upper class. At no point do we meet anyone who could be described as middle class and if there were someone more upper class in Italy than the Stradis and the neighbors who attend their lavish christmas party, than Lado really should have aimed for them because these people seem pretty Upper Class to me. And furthermore the lower class are presented as evil fucktards, even if the rich are pulling the strings. I'm sorry, that's not intelligent commentary, that's a blanket excuse to be an ignorant asshole. So, if Lado couldn't tell the difference, or didn't care, then he's full of shit and the idea that we should be taking cues from this dickbag is hysterical. Even funnier is that our auteur invited the whole of the Italian artistic community to the premiere and watched in reverent silence as the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Lina Wertmuller walked out in disgust. Lado had a big enough head on his shoulders to get great coverage of the train and more or less seamlessly mix studio shooting with locations and yet fails to make a case for his integrity and morals and thought that any response to his trashy ass movie was a good response.
The way that Blackie and Curly finally kill Lisa Stradi is by stabbing her between her legs. If any image ever defined the ruthlessness of Italian Exploitation Cinema, it's this, in a first wave rip-off of one of the most hated/inappropriately respected films of the 70s. Blackie, Curly and Lott don't learn anything which tells me that Lado and his legion of screenwriters simply didn't get it. Tell me something, why for all the fucking screenwriters attached to every third rate giallo do they always play like braindead rip-offs of better movies? Seriously, when you can't one-up Last House on the Left, you're in fucking trouble. Even with lavish production values and a killer Ennio Morricone score (Lado hilariously tries to make believe that De Grassi is playing the movie's theme on his harmonica when the man clearly doesn't even know how the instrument works) Night Train Murders is nothing but a trip into the sick and irredeemable, something the Italians did very well. In fact, that's just one of the things that Late Night Trains (alternate title) and Hitch-Hike, our next movie, had in common, that they were trips into the sick and irredeemable. For instance they both had Ennio Morricone scores and they were both first-wave Last House rip-offs. Of course Hitch-Hike did Trains one better of actually getting David Hess, Krug from Last House, to basically reprise his role. This was as much a blessing as a curse. Surely anything with David Hess would immediately confuse a public hungry for controversy, but it also meant having David Hess in your movie. Hess is almost as bad as his co-stars speaking in their second or third language. And even though Pasquale Festa Campanile is a little better a director than Aldo Lado, he still can't make a movie that outdoes Last House in shock value.

by Pasquale Festa Campanile
Walter and Eve Mancini are maybe the fussiest and most annoyingly unhappy couple on earth. Walter is a journalist on leave who obviously misses the excitement of chasing revolutionaries for interviews. They're making a roadtrip through Italy...sorry, California, specifically near Barstow. Though, seriously, come the fuck on. Anyway, they stop at a campsight and get good and drunk while hanging out with a group of hippies. Walter gets so drunk that he falls and breaks his arm while trying to berate Eve for one of the many things he hates about her. The next day they pick up Adam Konitz, a hitchhiker who flips out at the sound of the news being broadcast on the car radio. A robbery, you say? Just down the road, you say? Killer still at large, you say? He's in the backseat, you say? Yes, Konitz has double-crossed his partners and made off with the money and now Eve and Walter are his hostages for as long as he feels like fucking with them. Mostly what he does (and Walter and Eve are all too happy to join him) is fucking yap endlessly about whatever the hell pops into his addled brain. We hear his take on the police, on journalists, on crime, on his childhood. My favourite quote, on his life as a criminal: "My head! My Head in the sights of their high-powered carbines! YOU DIDN'T THINK I WOULD DO IT!!! I'm Smarter than you think! You're a phony! You've always been a phony! You always will be a phony!" I realize that doesn't make much sense out of context but it's literally the best part of the film so I thought I'd share it. If you could maybe find it on youtube, you could skip the movie and save yourself two hours.

Pacing, or more plainly boredom, is Hitch-Hike's biggest problem. Hitch-Hike couldn't be any more plainly a rip-off of Last House on the Left and even though it's an example of much more assured filmmaking, to be sure, but it's just interminable. What Hitch-Hike boils down to is a scenery chewing contest between David Hess and Franco Nero. Hess has his histrionic violent outbursts where he rages against things like our "Homosexual society" and that insane laughter on his side. Nero's got his accented world-weariness, which makes him sound like Andy Samberg from that one Digital Short where he's slept with everyone in Ryan Philippe's life, including himself. But really a terrible (over)acting competition can't sustain a movie so fucking long. Campanile manufactures a kind of dusty, hillbilly vibe what with the never-ending music and campfires almost like he was aiming at
Deliverance and hit Toon Town instead. Honestly the film isn't terribly made, it's just pointless. Totally pointless. What the hell was the point of this movie other than to point out that, yes, David Hess characters enjoy sex and murder. But that's written into their DNA. Just look at him! It'd be a surprise if the man weren't a rape hungry psychopath. And yet, despite his being completely unable to act, the Italian exploitation machine wasn't done with him, but we'll come back to that. Let's take a quick detour to the US.
In 1972, Roger Watkins poured a lot of himself into a film he called at the time The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell which was a labour of love and ran an unsupportable 175 minutes. It was the story of a psychopath who recruits some low-life friends and decides to kill some people who produce porn films and stag reels. The revenge motive probably made more sense when the movie was still called The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell or At The Hour of Our Death, another title Watkins tossed around. But in the world of drive-in budgeted movies with drive-in levels of gore and mayhem and especially something with as gross and depressing a moral as Watkins film possesses, At The Hour was never going to see the light of day in its original form. And such was the influence of Last House on the Left that At The Hour of Our Death was rebranded in its image. The Cinematic Releasing Corporation got ahold of it in '77 and shaved just about everything except for the skeleton of a plot and most of the gore. Watkins was livid and distanced himself from the whole mess and in fact didn't know the thing had been released until someone recognized him on the street as "the guy from that sick movie". There isn't much that The Last House On Dead End Street has in common with Last House On The Left except for the graphic violence and post-modernism. But, it's way better and somehow even more full of despair.

The Last House On Dead End Street
by Roger Watkins
Terry Hawkins has left prison an angry, spiteful little man. But, as his endless inner monologue tells us, he's going to do something they won't see coming! That'll show 'em! Somehow! His solution, rent a room and with some shady connections, start shooting porn/snuff films. His connection spent time in an asylum for having sex with a calf while working for a slaughterhouse, so you know he's game. His movies start to gain a reputation which get around to the ears of Jim Palmer, noted porn film producer who's star has fallen. During one of the most heart-sinking sex parties in film history, Palmer shows his latest film to his benefactor who's not pleased. "You're showing me tenth rate porn while your wife is in the next room getting her ass whipped and you have the nerve to talk to me about reputation!" Palmer promises to get some new ideas and Hawkins might just be his answer. Their arrangement starts sleazily enough when Hawkins shows up at Palmer's house and finds his wife alone and before too long the two are in bed. Nancy, Mrs. Palmer, having seen Hawkins films, asks him how he makes it look so real? The simple answer is that it is real. Hawkins' films, you see, are a potent mix of sex and murder that sells very well (which really was the truth in the early 70s). The only difference between typical grindhouse fare/porn is that Hawkins and his crew are actually killing people. And before too long Palmer, his boss and his wife have fallen into Hawkins' clutches. Palmer needed new material for his films; who knew he'd wind up solving his own problem?
It's easy to call The Last House on Dead End Street disjointed and confusing, but it's not Watkins fault. The 175 minute cut probably explained why there are a few voiceover tracks other than the hero's, or why Hawkins felt the need to kill Palmer's boss or why Hawkins had the urge to direct in the first place. What won't be explained is why the film is so unremittingly bleak. Dead End Street is dark. Courageously dark. Clockwork Orange with no charisma, dark. Charles Manson's the main character dark. There's a woman being whipped while in blackface for christ sakes! Can you believe that shit? Holy fucking christ! The film's boldness starts and ends with Hawkins. He is really a punch-in-the-gut as a main character. He looks like Bill Hader in Hot Rod and he's out of his goddamned mind. The last half hour of the movie is dedicated to the surprisingly realistic depiction of three people being tortured and maimed with power tools while Hawkins directs and films it all. It'd be dark enough without the gore being so convincing - I'm 99% sure they used animal parts in these scenes as Michael Cimino hadn't blown up enough horses for that to be banned from film sets yet. But, yeah, it really doesn't get much darker than this and the music lets us know that Watkins understood how fucking miserable a movie he was making and he wanted it to be even bleaker! The ending promises us that Hawkins was caught and he and his band were imprisoned but Watkins thought that ruined the whole film. He's not wrong in that it does take something away from the visceral snuff-feeling of the picture, but it also adds a kind of mysteriousness, almost like comic book villainy to the characters, which means that they stay with you.
Last House on Dead End Street might not be the best thing hidden from the sun but it is a film that is as strong as its convictions. It's dark and clearly didn't have much of a budget but as one of the great 70s mind-of-a-fucking-nutjob movie it really does the job. And it does a lot else well, too. Take the weirdly intimate and awkward conversation Palmer has with his boss as he tries to explain how to sell the mediocre pornographic film he's made with his wife as the star. It's tremendously uncomfortable but Watkins doesn't flinch. The humanity of these sleazy fuckers is put nakedly on display and it's a definite mark in favour of Watkins and his uncompromising vision. In an era where directorial excess runs rampant it's tough to think about watching a three hour cut of Last House on Dead End Street but I'm significantly intrigued by his one directorial effort that if the option ever presented itself, the stupidly stubborn completist in me might just force the rest of me to watch it. That same idiot completist was also running the show when he decided I simply had to watch all of the fiction work of Franco Prosperi, the ghoul behind Goodbye, Uncle Tom and Africa Addio. After all, how truly awful could Last House on the Beach really be? There's no way it'd approach the monstrous reality of Goodbye, Uncle Tom or the sheer witless exploitation of the likes of Mondo Cane. And yet, what fucking moron watches Last House on the Beach when he knows how bad its director can be? Who's got two thumbs, four years of film school and nothing better to do with himself? This guy!!!!!

The Last House On The Beach
by Franco Prosperi
Sister Cristina is in charge of chaperoning a group of aspiring actresses while they study for their exams. Three bank-robbers, blah fucking blah, we spend the whole movie watching three guys rape and torment six women and then about eight seconds on the revenge the ones still alive reap. The first thing to say is that Last House on the Beach is an even lousier movie than Last House on the Left in every respect. The only thing it doesn't have is 'comically' overblown racial stereotypes and banjo music. What it does have is a nude dance show on TV called "Program Babies," terrible continuity, a soundtrack that is on the radio as often as it's underneath the action of any given scene, a shit load of doing nothing by the pool, heterosexual men putting on make-up before gang raping a girl, and chase scenes where both parties seem to be just kinda jogging. It's lazy and seems completely unaware both of the horrid things its characters are doing and of how poor a job everyone involved was doing. Prosperi seemed to sense that he was working with a paltry budget and that his 'best' work was behind him because the phrase "phoning it in" just doesn't do justice to the series of yawns and half-nods that constitute his direction. Not even the usually sturdy Ray Lovelock turns in anything like decent work. He doesn't even have a beard to hide behind. In other words this is the blandest movie about rape I've ever seen. And make no mistake this is all about rape; hell, one of the characters is a nun! Everything's in place to make this the kind of thing Prosperi ousted himself from polite society with in the first place but for whatever reason he brought nothing of his shark-like intensity to the project. I mean on paper, and to a degree in practice, the film is truly tasteless and terrible, it's just that it is executed so lazily that to attack it hardly seems worth the energy. Prosperi had already been declawed by the industry that bred him. Last House on the Beach is a skeleton of a movie that can only offend people who've never seen anything of its type before and by now I've seen so much worse that it's instantly forgettable except when it's exceptionally silly, as when one of the rapists puts on the captive girls' make-up. I'd take issue with the fact that the women do away with their captors with brooms and rakes instead of the fucking guns they get hold of, but then that'd be playing Prosperi's game.
And yet it's not even true that there wasn't power in the subject matter. I had thought that if Prosperi couldn't manage to get me to cover my eyes anymore, maybe no one could. Then I saw House On The Edge Of The Park. I'd been reading about Ruggero Deodato's second-most infamous film since I'd discovered the world of online horror writing around 2004/2005ish, back when I was trying to fill the hours working at my grandfather's biotechnical firm. This film, they all claimed, had teeth. And to be honest I was almost among them. But I realized the only reason I was cringing so bad was that I was watching it with my dad, who, while certainly more liberal than most parents, hasn't been dulled to the inherent motherfuckery of Italian horror films like I have. If I'd watched House On The Edge Of The Park by my lonesome, it would just have been another exercise in pointless "and then this happened" cruelty to no ends because after ten years of rip-offs, Last House's goose has surely been left in the oven and forgotten. But I did see that to the uninitiated, House on the Edge of the Park does have the power to offend. I have to give Ruggero Deodato that if nothing else. Although, it's not like he ever had trouble offending people...

House On The Edge Of The Park
by Ruggero Deodato
Alex (David Hess once again. Kill me!) is a lowlife mechanic who (randomly? habitually? who the fuck knows?) picks up a woman in a cab on the streets of New York, pulls over and then rapes and kills his passenger. An indeterminate amount of time passes and we join Alex once again. He works at a garage with his mentally handicapped friend Ricky. A couple of well-dressed assholes pulls up complaining of car trouble. The last thing Alex wants is to be waylaid by these two - Tom and Lisa are there names - but he changes his mind when he sees that Lisa is played by Joe D'Amato regular Annie Belle. Well, not only does he fix their car after drinking Lisa in, he also decides that it's in his and Ricky's best interest to head to the party the two well-dressed yuppies are late for. He also decides he needs to bring the razor he killed that poor girl from the prologue with him. Let's now pause to say that the scenes of their El Dorado cruising around Manhattan is the last great thing to admire in this movie. Giovanni Lombardi Radice is Ricky is a close second, definitely, but Deodato made great use of his one night of location shooting. Anyway, back to this fucking movie.

So they get to the party and when Lisa isn't leading Alex on (once the man gets naked, you'll have a hard time buying that any Annie Belle character would ever want to sleep with him - he's like 200 pounds of hairy, shameless ham) the rest of the guests take turns ridiculing Ricky and cheating him at cards. Alex gets fed up with their shit and decides he's going to just mess with everyone instead. This is where, I believe, the script was thrown out. Alex and Ricky find themselves in sexual situations with every girl present and at no point does any of it come off as motivated by the story. Alex rapes Lisa, but it's filmed like any soft core sex scene from the previous decade. Then Ricky is instructed to rape one of the other guests, but can't bring himself to do it. A little later she tries to escape and then they do have sex, though it's her idea...? Then a girl called Cindy shows up and Alex rapes and kills her in front of everyone else. And by this point he's humiliated everyone present, but of course our guests get the upper hand eventually and shoot Alex's dick off, but only after he's accidentally killed Ricky who was trying to get his friend to show some compassion. And then we find out what we should have guessed all along, that the girl from the beginning (remember her? You're not likely to if you're seeing the movie for the first time because Deodato does everything in his not inconsiderable power to make you forget you've seen anything other than whatever new horrible thing he's dreamt up) is actually Tom's sister.
Ruggero Deodato has what I call the Rob Zombie problem. He's a great filmmaker at his best, but he has never made a film I'd watch twice. His craft is wasted on some of the most vile pieces of trash that the Italian exploitation industry have to offer the movie-watching public. Starting with Jungle Holocaust, he embarked on a streak of movies that dare you not to flinch that only Franco Prosperi has rivaled, although seeing as how Deodato is personally responsible for every image he created, that stacks the deck in his favour as the better filmmaker. Prosperi went looking for horrifying imagery as often as he thought it up; Deodato was a man possessed by a singular vision when it came to messing you up good. Now this of course makes his movies ever more problematic. He was a better and smarter director than his contemporaries with more skill and care at his command which means he had a greater responsibility. With House On The Edge Of The Park he totally blew it. He took the premise, clearly intended as a Last House rip-off, and decided that rather than make an intelligent post-modern horror film he was going to focus on making single scenes make you queasy or turn you on, and didn't really care how it all fit together. Logistically speaking the big twist derails the whole plot. Why would Tom sit by and watch Alex rape his friends if he had a gun in the other room and was planning on using it the whole time? Why, if everyone was in on it, would they play along for so long even as they were humiliated, beaten and sexually assaulted? The simple answer is that Deodato didn't give a good goddamn about any of that. He was most interested in whatever was happening at that moment and if that didn't work for you, who the fuck cares? In his defense, was anyone going to House On The Edge Of The Park for the subtext? Well, me, but these days I rarely run into people like me who ask more of horror films.
House On The Edge Of The Park is an unpleasant experience, but it's too dumb to be much harm. If you let it, it could probably get under your skin and watching my dad's reaction proves that, but these movies only have so much power and I do think that everyone has a point at which they can no longer be effected, your brain just doesn't allow you to get worked up anymore. It's seen enough! It stops seeing problems and just starts looking for things you like. And while I see that Deodato definitely has skill, I found nothing to like about House, which is a double-edged sword. After all, there are no comical fuck-ups, just upsetting ones that ruin the movie. When your brain looks for joy and finds none, it makes for a long hour and a half, but such is the tragedy of the completist. But, there is hope for us determined nutjobs. For instance, just as I was preparing to write this here confessional, I got word that there was one more Last House rip-off I hadn't seen. It was by Joe D'Amato, of all people, my personal favourite Italianate lunatic and when the summary on IMDB is misspelled, you know you're in for a rare treat. Suddenly the future seemed bright. Joe's take on the cannibal film is easily the most palatable of them all, so natch his Last House rip-off would surely make them all seem small by comparison. This film would restore all that was right and good in the world! It would reunite The Smiths! It would free Leonard Peltier from prison! It would make the Democratic Party stop behaving like such pussies and shove healthcare and equal rights bills up the GOP's ass and into the laps of the American public! And all this from a hardcore pornographic remake of a rip-off of a shitty Wes Craven film!

Hard Sensations
by Joe D'Amato
After an unbearably long credits sequence we meet our heroes, three girls who are being chaperoned by their super hot professor Mrs. Perez to an island for two weeks of relaxation after exams. And seeing as how all the girls are rich, their fathers have arranged for the two burly guys who operate the boat to the island to stay and mind them. Well they could have used three for no sooner have the girls started swimming topless and having pillow fights then three criminals show up on their island having just broken out of the joint! They kill the guards and look like their poised to do more but Clyde, the most levelheaded of the bunch, reminds them that murder, prison break and the remainder of whatever sentences they skipped out on will be bad enough without rape factored in. This holds up for awhile but Bobo, the real asshole of the bunch, can't chill his libido for another second longer and when he decides to shake things up, Mrs. Perez takes the bullet and sleeps with him hoping upon hope that it will keep him from attacking the girls. But soon not even Clyde's handwringing can curb Bobo's various lusts and he and their third companion tie Clyde to a tree and Bobo has his pick of the women. But of course, they've already started planning their escape.

Thank christ and all his angels for Joe D'Amato. The man does smut right! And best of all even the things that go wrong (surprisingly few, actually) they don't particularly matter because this is a filthy goddamned porn film! But, as I don't watch porn for the same reason most of the rest of the world watches porn, I can enjoy its latent qualities! The dubbing in Joe's films is always pretty good and even though people talk in platitudes, they sound less forced and awkward then they would in a Jesus Franco film, at least. And there's even convincing overlap rather than the standard gigantic pauses between any two lines; it almost sounds like real conversation. The script makes sense: Clyde is legitimately smart about their situation and Bobo is as deranged as any of the protagonist of any of the last five films we've discussed. And here's a semi-interesting diversion: one of the escapees is gay. And because Bobo the rapist is the one who's seen as irredeemable, Joe gets in one for acceptance by giving him all the epithets. Bobo only ever refers to his second accomplice as "the faggot" and for once homosexuality isn't a source of derisive laughter, it's just something that separates a rapist from a criminal. Taken together that's almost progressive as these things get, especially because Hard Sensation plays almost like a corrective to The Last House on the Beach.
With Hard Sensation Joe was faced with a dilemma: sex film vs. rape revenge film. The script was a retread of Beach and so calls for a certain level of violence but Joe was a zany humanist first, a lover of onscreen violence second. Frankly I'd love to know what the assignment was because violence definitely didn't win out. In fact if you take out the snapping and threats that start all but one of them and the rape in this film is about the gentlest example of rape you'll find in any movie. Joe didn't quite have the heart to follow through on the violence part of the sexual violence equation, so each rape turns into a straight-up sex scene, not because Joe viewed rape as something you could rebound from or enjoy, but because all he was interested in was filming sex scenes just as Ruggero Deodato was only interested in violence, his commitment didn't extend beyond keeping the plot alive when the clothes came off. The sex scenes are all of the consenting variety, even if afterwards everyone acts like something much worse happened. Joe's attitude toward sex might be called classical; the plot is window dressing and he's not going to let it get in the way of sex scenes his audience could rely on. The raincoat crowd was going to leave happy this time and the horror fans would have to wait for Anthropophagous, but bless him for spinning the most believable of all the Italian Last House clones when he wasn't filming sex scenes! Forgive me for sweeping the issue of rape under the carpet here, but considering that every one of the above films (Dead End Street excluded) treats rape pornographically on a thematic if not physical and very real level, Hard Sensations is almost refreshing. Not just because Joe doesn't make the audience suffer for his art, but because he was the only one of these guys to actually follow through and show sex as it is, rather than lie and use rape as only a justification for the lamest revenge scenes of any film.
And bless him for all the little Joe D'Amato touches that litter Hard Sensation. First of all the sex scenes all take place on the same island as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust. At the start one of the girls reads Playgirl magazine - a first for Italian smut as far as I can tell. The masturbation that follows borrow liberally from the Jesus Franco school of zooming in and out like a goddamned pervy lunatic. And who but Joe could have dreamt up shooting the final rape scene from behind Bobo's thigh? There is just more imagination on display here than in movies with ten times the budget and pretension. If you take all the unbearable self-important bullshit that props up every film in the wake of Last House on the Left, including Last House itself, you have enough talk to prop up a piece of paper. Which is to say, your ideas are fucking nothing if you don't have the intelligence to make anything of them. The reason Joe D'Amato of all people makes these "serious artists" and their serious minded films seem like the tall-talking jagweeds they truly are is that he never once made a bigger deal of his movies than he knew they could support. If you don't understand your subject matter, how could you rise above it long enough to gain any kind of perspective? Joe had no pretensions and so he entertains because it's what he was born to do. He knew there was no point in getting haughty about porn and in the process of churning out a truly staggering body of work bared his soul completely inadvertently. How could you not? It's moments like this that I live for. I know what you're thinking: What the fuck kind of maniac goes this crazy for a goddamned Joe D'Amato porn film? Well, readers, I've seen too many assholes retroactively try and turn their shit grindhouse movies into one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, so for once I'm sticking up for the factory filmmaker, the littlest little guy who never claimed to be anything other than the little guy, if he ever took the time to reflect on his career at all. Christ knows he didn't reflect on the films after he was done shooting once a few things were securely in place. And yet, Hard Sensation is hands down the best Last House rip-off ever made. Go figure. And weirder still I haven't committed to seeing everything he's ever done. Maybe I'm cured...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Horror Within (My Favourite Films Volume 18)

If I had to pick one film to show to an alien race to try and explain the concept of horror, specifically the horror film, I think I’d pick John Carpenter’s The Thing. It can be understood without any significant reading into the zeitgeist that produced it. You don’t need to be an American or have much understanding of the political climate of the early 1980s, you don’t need to have seen the Howard Hawks produced The Thing From Another World, of which Carpenter’s film was an ostensible remake, nor do you have to have read Who Goes There? the story by Joel Campbell, which both films take inspiration from. In fact you don’t need to know much at all; I was maybe 5 or 6 when I first saw The Thing and it scared the Christ out of me but more than that I connected with its desperate story and thoroughly enjoyed repeat visits to the cold Antarctic setting. As with Aliens, another childhood favorite, I could connect with the action in a clear enough fashion, enjoyed the brutality of both the heroes and the villain, the swearing, the creature design, the relentlessness of the story and as I got older came to see it as a film so carefully designed and meticulously constructed that the idea of calling it a horror film doesn’t really do it justice. It is a story of paranoia, of loss, of Lovecraftian terror, of men trying to apply science, reason and finally common sense to the unexplainable, of man’s multifaceted struggle with things he can only attempt to comprehend. Though to be fair it is first and foremost the story of an Alien that really wants to take over the bodies of twelve men trapped in an isolated location who in return really want to kill the thing. Because it is such a simple story, it’s possible to scour it for subtext (Vietnam, AIDS and socio-feminist related readings have all been offered) and while I think that’s a valuable and telling exercise, I’m going to simply judge it in terms of its place in the genre because it is in many ways the ultimate genre film.

The Thing
by John Carpenter
In the endless expanse of the Antarctic landscape, a helicopter and its two occupants chase after a dog. The dog looks back at them as they unload bullets and grenades feebly; it seems to be knowingly outfoxing them. The dog makes it to United States National Science Institute Station 4 before the two men can do much damage. The pilot accidentally blows himself and the chopper up with a grenade and though the surviving man tries to explain himself the Americans at Station 4 don’t understand a word of what he says; he’s Norwegian, you see. They understand when they’re being shot at however and the man is killed by Garry, the military official in charge of the station, when the Norwegian misfires and hits one of the men, Bennings the meteorologist, in the leg while aiming for the dog. The guys take the dog in and begin wondering what it is that would have caused two men to chase after a dog with intent to kill. The men, besides Garry and Bennings, are Norris, Childs, MacReady, Fuchs, Blair, Windows, Palmer, Nauls, Copper and Clark. After stitching up Bennings’ leg, Copper opts to go find the Norwegian camp and gets MacReady, one of the station’s two helicopter pilots to take him there. What they find is chilling, in every sense of the word. Looks like the fellow with one of Garry’s bullets in his crown got off easy; one of the men has cut his own throat with a straight-razor (but seems to have frozen to death before he finished bleeding) and another looks to have been burnt alive, though he doesn’t look all human. They also find a big block of ice that looks to have held something big that was recently extracted. They bring back the burnt man-like mass to camp where Blair attempts to perform an autopsy. Everyone watches in shock and horror as new discoveries are made but no one is more shaken than the dog; it’s almost as if he recognizes the burnt-up mass of flesh. When Clark the vet puts him in with the camp's other sleigh dogs that night, something rather unexpected happens. The dog quickly sheds it’s skin and becomes something unspeakably hideous and gooey as it wraps tentacles around the other dogs. The men burn it before it can lift itself into the rafters with the giant fists it sprouted from its back.

It takes some imagination on Blair’s part to discern what went on but considering that every man in the camp saw the transformation with their own eyes they’re willing to buy just about anything. Blair pulls the creature apart and finds evidence of it trying to look like a dog, like the thing was in the middle of imitating a dog when they killed it. After inspecting some tapes they collected from the Norwegian base, MacReady and Norris head to the spot where they pulled the block of ice from the snow. Not only do they find where it was pulled out, they find the charred remains of a gigantic spacecraft buried beneath a hundred thousand years worth of ice. MacReady draws a timeline which the guys take with a grain of salt; he’s no scientist after all. The Norwegians thaw the thing out, it gets to some of their bodies, they try to contain it by killing whomever it touches (and themselves to prevent being taken over), but it gets out in the body of one their dogs, which tries to occupy other dogs. Though that makes a kind of sense, it’s hardly a comfort to the men at Station 4. How long before the man-thing defrosts and decides it would prefer, as the film’s slogan promises, a nice warm-blooded body to inhabit? And if it can imitate any organism it wants to, how will anyone know who’s human and who’s not? It’s either going to be a very long or a very short winter.
The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film, it is one of the best remakes of all time, one of the best genre movies of all time, features some of the best special effects of all time and one of the most terrifying and interesting premises of all time. Not bad for a little sci-fi/horror movie with three locations, is it? It is superbly crafted to ensure that every scene shocks and surprises and to make sure you never feel at ease. It is only on second viewing do you understand how loaded every gesture is (even the simple act of a dog licking your face becomes foreshadowing in the take-no-prisoner’s world of Bill Lancaster’s script and John Carpenter direction). Every element that would ordinarily damn a film like this (simple sets, the odd bout of pseudo-science, the lack of female characters, the no-nonsense direction, a seeming reliance on effects over characterization [though under scrutiny this turns out to be false]) becomes a strength. The film had few allies upon it’s first release; if the critics of 1982 could see just what’s happened to some of the classics since Carpenter’s film, they’d perhaps have kept their mouths shut instead of trashing a film they didn’t understand. The problem was they were not willing to play The Thing’s game. They wanted a film that showed respect to them and to Howard Hawks’ original; Carpenter’s film does neither on its face. The Thing’s atmosphere is built in to every frame, the performances are invisible, everyone taking a backseat to the crisis on their hands, and the effects are quite gruesome. Carpenter’s characters are not exactly charismatic (though most are likable) and it's only when he kills them off at times you least expect it that you realize how much you like them. In some regards it seems like we have the makings of an Italian horror film; the scenes at the Norwegian camp resemble some gory painting halfway between Fulci and Argento, the Ennio Morricone music beautifully underscoring the action (of all film scores; the simple ‘dun dun’ theme gets the most impact with the least movement), even the characters seem drawn from an Italian film (Windows looks a touch like some Italian character actor, Fuchs like Richard Dreyfuss by way of Al Cliver in The Beyond, Bobby Rhodes would make a career pretending to be as naturally cool as Keith David is here and thanks to all that hair Kurt Russell looks like a cross between make-up man Rob Bottin and Ray Lovelock in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Carpenter had shown his affinity for Italianate visuals and atmosphere in his previous film, The Fog, but The Thing manages to synthesize the visuals of his and his crew’s inspiration (Argento, EC comics, Lovecraft, Hawks; I detect shades of Jaws, but Spielberg and Carpenter were both students of the same generation of teachers) and craft a language all it’s own.

Bottin’s visual effects are unrivaled, even today. Bottin and Carpenter were both wary of staying away from H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien, still fresh in their minds when they began planning the film in 1981. I think it speaks volumes about their various successes that not only does The Thing not resemble Alien in anyway, it completely avoids seeming like a sci-fi movie. I for one have never really thought of it as anything in the universe of Alien (though check out the extra appendages on the queen at the end of James Camerson’s sequel; they’ve got Bottin’s signature writ large; that Stan Winston worked on the scenes with the dog thing I think could be seen as pre-proudction on Aliens) as it speaks a different language. The stories have a lot in common, though Campbell covered the ground in Who Goes There? before Ridley Scott had ever read Dan O’Bannon’s script. First of all, Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography is half-business, half-mood, all great. The gorgeous snowy landscapes and the scenes of the camp at night have a kind of blue-collar poetry about them; this is truly the end of the world. And what was Ridley Scott trying to achieve with his space ship if not the kind of broken down and hopelessly average interiors that Carpenter’s characters dwell in? Also I think that Bottin’s creatures avoid looking earthly in a way no one’s ever seconded. For all the genius behind the design of Giger's titular Alien (of which there was plenty), it does retain a humanoid shape. The only thing human about Bottin’s creations is in their feeble attempt at looking human. The rest is so far from normal, so freakish and distorted that they become works of art in their own right. Everyone from Stuart Gordon to James Gunn has tried their hand at copying Carpenter’s work with Bottin but no one’s come close. The Thing was, by Carpenter’s own admission, all about the monsters. If they weren’t the most fucking awesome monsters you’d ever seen, the film wouldn’t have worked.
The reason I think that The Thing manages to be unnerving when we aren’t staring down the snout of some hoary beast, is because for the first and last time Carpenter and co. had total control over the look of the film; he had it once again on Ghosts of Mars but that film wound up a pale imitation in this and every other regard. Your average cinemagoer in the early 80s had no clue what an Antartic research station looked like so both the drab interiors (with their indefinably spooky corridors and maw-like doors) and the frozen exteriors all set the viewer on edge. The outside looks like a jagged and macabre ice castle in the thick of the falling snow and the lighting design, which was actually perfectly natural, is all manufactured blues and oranges. The frame jumps with strange colours once the action picks up and never rests. The film’s final location, the generator room is a special creation, the camp’s own inferno where the final and most terrible hell-spawn dwells (harking back to Harryhausen as well to every creature we’ve seen thus far). The lighting, all hellish chiaroscuro, compliments the final clash with the unknown perfectly just in time for Russell’s final put-down. The blue-collar aspect is most evident in the dialogue; when not in Hawksian rapid-fire yet lackadaisacal conversation, the men sound conspicuously like a couple of bored, stir-crazy working stiffs. How often do people attempt and fail at that sort of thing? I think Lancaster understood (and Cameron took note) that when ordinary people take on something, their fight becomes your fight in a way it doesn’t if you’re watching he-men or detectives or gladiators taking on something supernatural; they’re more likely to rise to the occasion. Carpenter’s guys don’t want the beast to win but mostly they don’t want to get killed; an impulse I think we can all understand. Even as paranoia mounts and no one’s sure about anything, their dialogue remains refreshingly human. The film’s best lines are gut reactions to some pretty horrifying images; I don’t know whether Keith David, Richard Masur’s Clark or David Clennon’s Palmer has the film’s best line, but almost everyone gets an instantly quotable zinger that would just be so much swearing in any other film. What’s more, upon further inspection, you realize that no line gets wasted. Take the petty argument about who’s going to search for Fuchs with whom; knowing what we do about everyone involved and who turns out to be a thing, it makes perfect sense. The dialogue and Carpenter’s camera miss nothing. In other words the film wastes no time, no words, no glances and no energy; everything helps the action along, everything contributes to the miasma of mistrust and the end soon comes hurdling at us at lightspeed. It is efficient, grisly and creepy, like the organism at the core of the story; and just like the thing of the title it gets under your skin. In other words, it is a horror film par excellence, full of writhing shocks and spider-legged creatures from another world; like the best of Lovecraft it knows no master, plays by no rules and scares you to death, but you keep coming back for more.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Forbidden Love (My Favourite Films Volume 17)

Horror movies have always had champions over the years. In the 1960s small-time filmmakers like Roman Polanski and George A. Romero changed the discourse on the possibilities of the horror film. In the 1980 and 90s, all the taboos were shattered and the realm of post-modernism was opened up. In the 1920s, the makers of German Expressionism broke the mold but in the 1940s, horror had one innovator, one man who refused to make every other kind of ghost story or monster flick. Val Lewton and his division at RKO Radio Pictures turned American horror, which had already started to get stale by 1941, into something imaginative and artistic, akin to the work of Robert Weine and F.W. Murnau. With his protégés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, he crafted some of the most compelling fright films the world had ever seen. The first of his nine horror films is his best and remains one of the most daring and beautifully told stories we have. (P.S. I wanted this to be my 300th film, so be nice to me and pretend, won't you? Thanks terribly!)

Cat People
by Jacques Tourneur
Irena Dubrovna is a Serbian expatriate living on her own in New York City. She sketches a panther in the zoo but isn’t happy with the end result. When she throws her scraps away but misses the trashcan she hits the shoes of Oliver Reed. Oliver, a lonely young ship designer, approaches her and sweet-talks his way into an invitation back to her brown stone; Irena for her part seems more than happy to entertain the handsome Reed. She doesn’t have many friends in the city, in fact she insists on that isolation but Reed is different. He doesn’t demand anything from her, is more than courteous and seems genuinely interested in spending time with the beautiful young Irena. A little time passes and Oliver and Irena are in love, but as Oliver often points out, they’ve never become intimate; in fact they’ve never even kissed. Irena is grateful for the space Oliver has given her and insists she has her reasons. Although in fairness, the first time they met she outlined her fears in the abstract. Irena comes from a village that was raided long ago by King John, who threw out the Mameluks. The people in her village resisted Christianity and embraced devil worship so that when John showed up, he engaged in full-scale slaughter of the heretics. Irena, though she’s reticent at first to talk about it, believes that she’s been cursed by her homeland, that she’s descended from said devil worshipers and that grave things await her should she succumb to her urges. The history is patently false but it’s exoticism was enough for audiences at the time to believe her inherited evil, and I surmise the story had more to do with Lewton and Tourneur’s own exile from Europe than anything else.

Oliver thinks its nonsense but he loves his wife dearly and, a month of sleeping in different rooms after his marriage notwithstanding, he’s going to help his beloved in any way he can. His closest friend and co-worker Alice Moore suggests a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd, to help Irena work through her beliefs and feelings. Irena only goes to one session before she starts questioning whether she wants the curse lifted or not. Judd thinks she ought to seek professional help following the revelation that Irena seriously believes that she’ll turn into a predatory cat if she’s aroused, Oliver is worried sick about his bride, and Alice is brought to tears when her friend confesses how sad he is. When Alice lets slip one day that she has more than friendly feelings for Oliver, things take an ugly turn. Oliver, conflicted about his feelings and the state of his marriage, does not tell Irena, but instead spends more platonic time with Alice. Irena stops working altogether and begins following her husband around growing more suspicious and paranoid by the day. Soon it seems the only thing that brings her comfort is visiting the panther in the zoo. It comes as little shock when Alice begins having run-ins with what appears to be a large four-legged animal that always disappears before light can find it.
Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton were kindred spirits. Both were expatriates like Irena and Tourneur did some of his best work for Lewton as both saw the dramatic potential of shadow, light and insinuation. The first thing to notice about Cat People, before you’ve sided with anybody or got wind of the direction the plot will move, is how deliciously stylized it is but Lewton and Tourneur worked in an era before a fuss was made over these sorts of things. Lewton had very little money and the film is full of budget-conscious trickery that squeezes the most from what they had to work with. There’s the decision to make Reed a designer to make way for an endgame strategy (which, of course, relies on shadows) or how Tourneur and Lewton loaded every frame with feline likenesses and other strange objects. Then there’s the way the two men play with light. Take the first session between Irena and Judd; the way in which Tourneur frames her face is brilliant, if a bit unrealistic. Throughout the film Irena’s hair always sparkles with fill light and her face is never less than beautiful. Though she, like the audience, infers things that may or may not be true, she is still the victim and we must be able to sympathize with her. Enter the stalking scenes. A woman walks alone on a sidewalk at night. Suddenly, something horrifying lurking in the shadows jumps out at her…or does it? The scenes with Alice and Irena aptly playing a cat-and-mouse game set the standard for horror films for a half-century. When Alice starts suspecting that something is watching her, Tourneur works wonders by relying on the viewer’s imagination. Through expert sound design and, of course, those bold shadows some giddily frightening cinema results. These stalking scenes were the inspiration for millions of directors like Bob Clark, John Carpenter, Mario Bava and Dario Argento, who in turn inspired hundreds of other filmmakers. Argento even ‘pioneered’ having a female antagonist in gialli, the genre he worked in at the start of his career. Lewton’s films, with their contrasting light and dark and heavy echoing footsteps, can also seen as brothers to American film noir (I’ve taken to calling them ‘noirror films’), except that they prefigure the majority of those films by a number of years. Tourneur himself would go on to contribute one of the best, Out of the Past, in 1947 (he knew that the sight of a lot of swishing overcoats just made things more gripping). Cat People pre-dates the best-known examples of the genre making its creators all the more innovative. Its innovations are legendary - the production team would repeatedly attempt what they called a 'bus' named after the first real scare of the film. The theory was simple: have the audience anticipate one thing and then suckerpunch them with something else harmless, diffusing one scare with another. Think for a second about the amount of times you've seen that in horror films. Can you imagine cinema without that scare? It's almost ludicrous to imagine that Cat People was the first movie to do that.

It would be one thing if the horror and stylistic presentation were all that worked but Cat People is more than ominous shadows and sounds. Dewitt Bodeen’s screenplay is even-handed and resists many of the temptations of films of the period. The dialogue is nicely downplayed so that the horrific moments really do come as a jolt. Though Cat People could be seen as an inversion of Curt Siodmak’s script for The Wolfman (the movie started as a title, after all, and there’s even a sly silver bullet joke in there), it also uses those elements it cribs in a much smarter fashion. Lawrence Talbot’s curse is always out in the open for us to see; Irena’s is, until more than two thirds of the way through the movie, uncertain. She also has emotion on her side. Simone Simon gives the performance of her life as Irena; if she weren’t so absolutely appealing, her descent into homicidal jealousy would not be nearly the blow to our expectations that it is. Cat People is one of the only films I’ve seen with the nerve to make their villain so patently adorable to mask her being obstinate and unrepentant, but Simone Simon is so masterfully understated that everything she does works. She has a terrifically expressive face that expresses quiet menace and deep emotional wounds equally well. If she were not someone you wanted to take care of, this film would have fallen flat. Imagine if they’d used Jane Randolph in the lead instead of relegating her to the straight woman. 
Then there are the other players. As leading men go, Kent Smith as Reed is actually quite impressive. As a doggedly patient husband, conflicted friend and cowering victim, he does great things. When he and Jane Randolph’s Alice are cornered in their office the fear in his voice is real. And then there’s Tom Conway. Conway is one of my favorite character actors and Louis Judd is probably his best role. He sinks his teeth into the part of sleazy confessor and sells it with everything he has; his elegant voice, his devilish facial features and finally his feline physicality; he leers like a housecat when probing Irena about the nature of her condition. Incidentally, Bodeen’s decision to make psychiatry just as large an evil as old religious beliefs is characteristic of both Lewton and Tourneur films, but consider that these are the days of the Hays Code and Bodeen’s script seems a trifle more scandalous. Similarly shocking is that bare shoulder when Irena cries in the bath after her first transformation and that our heroes are in love out of, in fact in direct opposition to, wedlock. That scene in the bathtub, that moment of vulnerability is rare in portraits of villains (especially in the 40s), but Cat People is about transformation and defying expectations. Irena may be the villain but she has tradition and new-age approaches to wellbeing to blame for her undoing. She has first her fears of a curse to contend with, then her husband’s abandonment and finally the rapacious lust of her psychiatrist. She is a victim as much as the people she terrorizes and I don’t mind admitting that I find her easier to sympathize with than the 'victims'. I think maybe it’s the combined effect of Lewton’s design, the acting and the set design. Knowing that sets were re-used from The Magnificent Ambersons and that the team working here would work together nearly a dozen more times, makes the whole thing feel like the work of a family (the lighting in the film also reminds me very much of my own home, or at least the one in my memory – this wonderful movie has a way of making itself a part of your unconscious). The thing about Cat People is that it has the look and feel of familiarity. The lighting and Nicholas Musuraca's camera remind us of noir and so the film already feels lived-in, though crucially not tired - after all, what other horror film could lay claim to such a clear-headed narrative and such style at the time? Lewton was a master producer and Tourneur a marvelously assured director and the effect is that you feel you've known the film a lot longer than you have. I know that this film has worked its way into my brain and is now as comforting to me as Christmas; it's a memory you never made but has always been there. Cat People is not average by any standards; its semi-gothic design, grim sweetness, subtle yet poignant delivery, believably ordinary and lovable protagonists, unique approach to horror and villainy, and story wrought with preternaturally complex emotional underpinnings are all the sort of thing that horror films as a genre never receive the proper recognition for. Between you and me, sometimes it’s fun to be one of the few people in the know.