Saturday, December 28, 2013

FOLLOWING DREAMS

Recently caught-up with a couple of old CBC St. Kilda school mates Thanis Akritidis and Richard Reynolds for a pre-Christmas Malaysian meal at Chinta Ria Soul in Acland St. Was great to chat about simpler days and all that has happened since. Thanis and I were the big KISS fans at school, even when the band’s popularity was starting to wane in this country and we copped a lot of crap from classmates (Richard was more the studly Disco Stu of CBC rather than a hard rocker). Thanis took his love of hard rock very seriously, going on to write the regular Hard & Heavy column for Melbourne’s Beat newspaper, and fronting several bands, including Knight in the mid-eighties and Frozen Tears in the 90s. 

Listening to Frozen Tears’ 1997 album, Silence of the Night, and you can see Thanis has taken his teenage influences into his music. Silence of the Night is a slickly-produced slice of mostly original melodic hard rock numbers, with a cover of the KISS classic Strutter thrown in. There’s some nice guitar work from John Powers to complement Thanis’ enthusiastic vocals, and some synth thrown in to give it all a bit of a classic 1980s feel. I’d personally like to hear the songs with a bit more meat on the guitar licks and less reverb on some of the vocals, but listening to Silence of the Night made me smile, and it’s always heartening when I see an old friend following their dreams and passions.



TERROR IN THE AISLES

Have been watching Terror in the Aisles, a 1984 documentary on horror/thriller cinema hosted by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen (it's included as a bonus on the US 30th anniversary Blu-ray of Halloween II). It features a nice (and nicely edited) collection of clips, mostly from 1970s/early-80s genre cinema, and pretty much all American titles (though I did spot a brief clip from Suspiria towards the end). Some of the interconnecting scenes of the cinema audience are amusing - I like the sweaty guy in the leather jacket, three day growth and wearing his sunglasses inside the theatre, and the two seedy Chicanos who yell at the screen while watching Jamie Lee Curtis being terrorised in Halloween ("No, no, baby! Get out of there babeeeeeeyyyyy!"). Now I want to re-watch Ms. 45, Alone in the Dark and Vice Squad (and predictably, I don't have any of these films at hand). 


THE FACE OF HORROR

One of the most haunting and nightmare-inducing faces I have ever seen in all of horror cinema - the deceased clairvoyant from Mario Bava’s 1963 compendium horror Black Sabbath (aka The Three Faces of Fear). I can only imagine how disturbed I would have been by this face if I had first seen the movie as a kid (I was in my twenties before I obtained a VHS of Black Sabbath - and even then, that face was horrific enough to me). It’s a superb piece of cinematic make-up for its time, but it’s just one of the many elements that make Black Sabbath such a masterpiece of terror. 

Watching it again at 2am on Boxing Day (filled with more than a little Christmas cheer), the film remains as seductive an experience as ever - dripping with atmosphere, boasting a most beautiful colour palette, and featuring a trio of stories (based on tales by Tolstoi, Snyder and Chekov) that are so tightly constructed and packed with giallo tension (the first segment, The Telephone), gothic horror (The Wurdalak, featuring Boris Karloff in superbly scary form) and outright terror (The Drop of Water, as much a psychological horror story as it is a supernatural one). It’s as effective aurally as it is visually, and even the little gag ending with Karloff adds to the unique charm of the film - it doesn’t diminish the horror of what has preceeded it, but it does help remind us that what we are watching are just dark fairy tales, and for his fans it provides a wonderful little glimpse into how Mario Bava was able to utilise ideas and creativity to achieve so much using so little. One of those rare anthology horror films where there is no weak link.


Monday, December 23, 2013

BAVA'S BOW

Had a watch of Blue Underground’s 2007 DVD release of Mario Bava’s Shock (1977) in the wee hours this morning. This is another one of those films I have previously only ever seen on VHS (I still have my Aussie ex-rental of it on the K&C label, under its alternate title of Beyond the Door II). I believe this was Bava’s last completed film (he died in 1980), and while it may not be the perfect genre epitaph from a man whose unique style, amazing visual flair and re-defining of horror/fantasy conventions resulted in such classics as Black Sunday (1960), Blood & Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Danger: Diabolik (1968) and many more, Shock still has more than enough moments to remind you that a master is at work. 


A paranormal horror in the Stephen King mould, but with a clear psychological edge and a few giallo-esque touches thrown in, Shock seems less like a classic Bava film and more an indication of the style that lay ahead for Italian genre films of the late-seventies/early-eighties. This could be partly due to the fact that Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto, co-wrote the screenplay and directed a number of the film’s scenes for his father (Lamberto would go on to helm such 80s giallo and horror flicks as A Blade in the Dark, Demons, Demons 2 and Delirium). Shock has moments of intense atmosphere, a couple of gruesome killings that still made me wince, and some typically clever (yet simply executed) in-camera tricks which really help elevate the film in terms of style and class. The Bava father/son combination seems to have lent the film a nice mixture of bloody modern horror with old-school ambience and menace.

Daria Nicolodi is wonderful as the female lead, I’ve rarely seen her looking more beautiful and her mental disintegration over the course of the film is handled quite well. As the young boy Marco, David Colin Jr. manages to convey a sense of genuine evil at times, he has a very disturbing, creepy stare, and the scenes of him spying on his mother while she is taking a shower, pinning her down playfully on the lawn then staring at her with a clear sense of sexual menace, and stealing her panties and slicing them up, all help give the film a rather dark sexual kink that adds to its downbeat feel.

The back of the Blue Underground DVD says the soundtrack is by Goblin, but it’s actually by I Libra. It’s terrific though, and certainly sounds a lot like Goblin, and I believe there are some connections between Goblin and I Libra (Italian soundtrack enthusiasts feel free to enlighten). Unfortunately the DVD doesn’t offer English subtitles for the Italian language print, so I had to watch the English dubbed version. Doesn't seem to be on Blu-ray as yet, from what I can see...


Friday, December 20, 2013

PROPHECHY: THE MONSTER MOVIE

When I first saw John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979), I was probably a little too young to really grasp the film’s environmental themes, or even find them of much interest or significance. I was a Monster Kid, and I wanted monsters, not preaching. Rewatching it for the first time as an adult, I find the film’s ecological aspects - along with the major sub-plot involving Native American land rights - to be the most engrossing thing about it, which is good as its moments of horror and scares are pretty scarce during the first hour, and are not always memorable or effective. There is however, a classic over-the-top sleeping bag death, and a genuinely tense sequence where the main protagonists are hiding in a dirt tunnel, listening to the monster’s rampage, and the screams of the people it is killing just on top of them.

The monster in question, an angry giant bear mutated by mercury leaking into the water from a large milling plant, is certainly a gruesome looking creature, though it has no real character to it, and moves a little silly and unrealistically to be genuinely menacing. One of those monsters which is most effective when shown the least. Not one of Tom Burman’s best creations, although the baby mutant bear is great - I felt some genuine sympathy for it.

Robert Foxworth puts in a great, deadly serious and highly watchable performance as the earnest, big city doctor investigation the mutations in the forests of Maine - he’s like a super-intense Robert (Mike Brady) Reed. Providing good support are Armand Assante, Talia Shire and the terrific Richard A. Dysart. The screenplay, and accompanying paperback tie-in, were written by The Omen’s David Seltzer. Filmed in British Columbia, Canada, the film also looks beautiful, capturing some spectacular natural scenery. Would love to see a Blu-ray upgrade of this someday.

The Simpsons paid homage to the atmospheric scene in Prophecy where the monster crosses a river and appears to drown, only to slowly emerge on the other side, much to the horror of the main characters (in The Simpsons, it is Bart who watches in horror as Principal Skinner crosses a river in the same way, while trying to catch Bart playing hooky).

Now I feel like rewatching the other Native American-themed horror movie from 1979, Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing (another film I haven’t seen since its release).


THE NIGHT HE CAME BACK HOME

Universal’s 30th anniversary Blu-ray of Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II (1981) certainly looks wonderful, but the improvement in picture and sound quality haven’t done much to improve my overall view of the film as a pretty lackluster and unexciting follow-up to John Carpenter’s original 1978 classic. It’s good that original stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence returned, but Curtis is virtually wasted as she spends nearly the first hour of the film lying almost comatose in bed, while the indestructible Michael Myers embarks on a killing spree through the halls of the most under-staffed (and under-lit) three-story hospital I have ever seen. Only during the final ten minutes does the film really display and genuine style, tension or mood.

I recall this film getting a lot of negative flack when it was released. I’m sure there were people who had already decided to hate it as soon as they fund out that Carpenter was not returning to direct (he does take co-writer, co-producer and music credits). I think one of the main problems with Halloween II is that there is really nothing, apart from it’s name and established characters, that distinguishes it from the glut of slasher films that had come out during 1980/81. It helps reinforce just how exceptional Halloween was, and how hard it was going to be for any sequel to measure up (though personally I always preferred the trashy fun of the Friday the 13th series to the Halloween and Elm St. films when I was growing-up).
 
 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SMUT PEDDLER


Saturday, December 7, 2013

CELLULOID HORROR

 
Over the past decade, Canadian Kier-La Janisse has emerged as one of the most interesting and insightful genre writers going around. From her contributions to publications like Fangoria and Rue Morgue to her outstanding book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press/2012), Janisse writes with an authority, honesty and freshness that is hard not to get swept-up in.
 
Directed by Ashley Fester, Celluloid Horror is a 2004 documentary which captures Janisse’s crusade to expose the filmgoers of Canada to some of the more obscure, subversive, arty and just plain confrontational extremes of horror cinema, via her CineMuerte (‘Cinema of Death’) film festivals, which she programmed and ran between 1999 & 2005. From Andrzej Zulawski's disturbing 1981 arthouse classic Possession to crowd pleasers like the riotous 1982 Spanish splatterfest Pieces, CineMuerte often challenged its audience into expanding their concepts of what a horror movie is, and garnering a mix of extreme reactions in the process (from verbal abusiveness over choice of films to people fainting over the - admittedly very hard to take - animal footage from Cannibal Holocaust).
 
Barely scrapping by financially, and fighting a lack of interest from much of the local press, CineMuerte nevertheless expands in subsequent years, bringing in guests like cult Eurotrash actor Udo Kier, French surrealist horror filmmaker Jean Rollin, Jorge (Nekromantik) Buttgereit, Buddy (Combat Shock) Giovinazzo, and Jeff Leiberman, director of two of my favourite mid-70s genre films, Squirm and Blue Sunshine. The sequences with Udo Kier are great fun, particularly when he agrees to help doing a live spontaneous voice-over for a film when the subtitles don’t work. The stresses of running a film festival are also clearly evident, from worries that the ailing Rollin might die while in attendance to the usual frantic dealing with sudden sound drop-outs during screenings. Janisse tackles any setbacks or issues the way she approaches the festival itself, with an energy and dogged determination that the viewer can’t help but admire.
 
Like her book House of Psychotic Women, Celluloid Horror is almost as much an insight into Janisse’s personal life and sometimes troubled upbringing as it is a testament to her devotion and love of genre cinema, and the film is all the more involving because of it. Spending her time between two fathers (whom she dubs ‘George C. Scott dad’ and ‘Warren Oates dad’), Kier-La talks of her teenage days spent in reform school (where she was deemed "not crazy but dangerous"), and goes through a marriage and subsequent separation during the course of the filming, leading to some uncomfortable moments being captured on camera (Celluloid Horror is a very personal film in many ways - at her introduction to the recent Melbourne screening Janisse admitted that it’s only been since the publication of her book that she has become comfortable with watching and publicly screening the documentary again).
 
There’s an ample amount of choice film clips included throughout Celluloid Horror - all great clips without doubt, but I found they actually took the pace out of the film and become the least interesting thing about it (I guess it also doesn’t help that we are now much more familiar with the films in question than we might have been at the time CineMuerte were screening them).
 
Celluloid Horror is available on DVD from Breed Productions, in a release that contains a nice selection of extras, including an audio commentary from the director, extended scenes (I love Kier-La’s amusing Sleepaway Camp Vs. Screwballs story), a 30 minute Q&A with Udo Kier, an episode of Urban Rush featuring Kier and Kier-La, Jeff Lieberman’s post-Squirm Q&A, photo gallery and more. The copy I purchased after the Melbourne screening also contained a series of postcards featuring the poster art for the CineMuerte events over the years, and best of all, a cool little microchip installed, so that when you open the cover you hear the voice of Udo saying "Where is Keir-La/ I’m going to kill her!", as well as a couple of other snippets of dialogue from the film. The spirit of William Castle lives...
 
 
Above: Meeting Kier-La after the Melbourne screening of Celluloid Horror on Wednesday, Dec. 4th 2013.

ZOMBIE'S LORDS

Finally making its Australian debut (straight to Blu-ray/DVD in an absolutely bare bones release), it would be hard to recommend The Lords of Salem(2012) to anyone but the most completest horror buff or die-hard Rob Zombie fan. Zombie’s first original live-action feature since The Devil's Rejects (2005), The Lords of Salem contains very little of the violent grindhouse frisson or outrageous comic book characterisations that made Rejects (and Zombie’s first feature, 2003's House of 1000 Corpses) so much fun. Not that I want Zombie to keep making the same type of film - far from it - but this tale of a female radio DJ (Sheri Moon Zombie) caught up in witchcraft in modern day Salem has plenty of visual flair and atmosphere but an uninvolving (and paper-thin) plot, flat characters and a decided lack of scares. Only during the film’s final 15 or so minutes does it really gel and come alive, with a pretentiously cerebral but effectively trippy montage that contains some of the disturbing imagery which the rest of the film lacked.
 
As usual, Zombie fills The Lords of Salem with cameos and bit parts from a number of familiar exploitation/horror faces from the 1970s and 80s, including Dee Wallace (Cujo, The Howling), Ken Foree (Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, From Beyond), Patricia Quinn (Rocky Horror Picture Show), Judy Geeson (Inseminoid), Bruce Davison (Willard, X-Men) and Meg Foster (They Live).
 
Ultimately, The Lords of Salem comes off as an interesting but misguided attempt at experimental/art house horror, and does very little to change my thoughts about Zombie as a filmmaker. He clearly has a genuine love for the horror/exploitation genres, has a decent amount of visual flair, and knows how to dream-up some wild plots and memorably crazed characters. But he desperately needs a good co-writer to help make his plots tighter and his characters more defined (and restrained in places). And I think it’s time for him to ditch casting his wife Sheri Moon in the leading female role in his movies. No offense to Sheri Moon, she looks great and is usually fine when she has help from an ensemble cast, but in The Lords of Salem the film hinges quite a bit on her performance, and she doesn’t seem strong enough to carry a film on her own. Of course, her thinly written character would not have been much help to her - Caroline Williams in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Adrienne Barbeau in The Fog did the horror movie late-night disc jockey thing much, much better.