Wednesday, 27 May 2009

GIALLO exclusive

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Keller - co-writer of Dario Argento's forthcoming thriller, Giallo.

Head over to Cinefantastique and check it out...

The film stars Adrien Brody as an eccentric detective hired by air-stewardess Emmanuelle Seigner to track down her sister (Elsa Pataky), who has been abducted by a crazed psychopath known as Yellow. Yellow is obsessed with mutilating and destroying beautiful things... Will they find her in time to save her life and put a stop to Yellow's devious plans? Find out later this year when Giallo is released.

The film premieres at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Spider Baby

Dir. Jack Hill

AKA The Maddest Story Ever Told
Cannibal Orgy

After the death of their father, the three Merrye siblings Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig) find themselves in the care of their ailing butler Bruno (Lon Chaney Jnr.).

Suffering from a hereditary mental illness as a direct result of an overabundance of inbreeding, dubbed the Merrye Syndrome - due to its exclusivity to their family line - the three siblings are undergoing a startling mental regression, and all have the minds of children. They spend their days playing macabre games around their crumbling mansion as Bruno tries, to varying degrees of success, to keep their existence hidden from the outside world. Those unfortunate enough to stumble onto the grounds of the secluded house meet with gruesome deaths at the hands of the children, who just want to ‘play.’

Their solitary lives are impinged upon when distant relatives Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) come to visit with their lawyer (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel) in tow. Emily has her sights firmly set on inheriting the family property and evicting the unconventional Merrye clan. As I’m sure you can guess, things do not go according to plan and soon all hell breaks loose as the increasingly twisted story lunges towards its suitably nasty conclusion.

Initially titled Cannibal Orgy, Spider Baby was filmed by Jack Hill (apprentice of Roger Corman and director of various cult classics such as Coffy and Foxy Brown, and major influence on Quentin Tarantino to boot!) in 1964 but not released until 1968 due to financial problems. The film was funded with real estate profits and when Californian housing sales plummeted, distribution was put on hold. Over the years the film has built up a cult status, in part due to its lack of distribution and also due to its highly scandalous subject matter…

Shot a couple of years after Psycho, the film makes many references to Hitchcock’s classic and seems to have deeply inspired Tobe Hooper, too. Predating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper’s film shares a number of similarities with Hill’s, in its depiction of an ostracised and utterly unhinged family unit existing on the periphery of society: monsters as much as victims. While nowhere near as devastatingly brutal or distressing as Chainsaw, Spider Baby still packs quite a punch of its own and has a few nasty surprises up its schlocky sleeve.

The highly kitsch and grotesque opening animated credits, accompanied by a theme sung performed by Lon Chaney Jnr., set the tone immediately and resemble something akin to The Munsters or The Addams Family – indeed Spider Baby at times plays out like a darker and more warped version of these oddball TV shows. Infantile, but degradedly so.

The opening scene features an unfortunate mailman (Mantan Moreland) who meets his bloody end when Virginia traps him in a window and insists he play ‘spider’ with her. As ludicrous as this plays out (the sight of the mailman’s legs kicking wildly from the window recall something you’d expect from a slapstick comedy), it is still quite unnerving in its, pardon the pun, execution. The ‘adults as children’ element echoes Dennis Potter’s quietly disturbing Blue Remembered Hills, and the absurdly comical sight of Virginia’s victim’s legs hanging from the window contrast nicely with her violent and unexpected assault.

There is much made about a highway being built quite close to the house and it will either bring them more unwanted visitors, or serve to further cut them off from civilisation and ‘normality.’ This idea carefully highlights how they have been left behind in the dust of the outside world as it progresses without them, and also provides the means for the explosive finale.

Obviously shot on a minimal budget, and despite the fact that various crew members can be glimpsed in reflections or ducking out of shot, the film still looks remarkably provocative. The version I watched was the Dark Sky Special Edition and this version really highlights the stunning cinematography courtesy of Alfred Taylor. Taylor utilised a complex series of mirrors and sunlight to obtain the film’s moody look. There is an overwhelming sense of depth to many of the shots and the soft focus used in certain senses adds to the overall nightmarish feel. There is a lot of day for night photography, but the scenes shot in the genuine lack of sunlight are overflowing with startling shadows and eerie lighting.

Spider Baby displays a knack for in-jokes and a playful self-referential nature. Peter and Ann discuss their love of horror movies, particularly The Wolf Man (which starred Lon Chaney Jnr.) and The Mummy. Before he is murdered by Virginia and Elizabeth, the lawyer is cornered in the cellar and exclaims ‘Now look here! This has gone far beyond the bounds of prudence and good taste.’ This remark seems irresistibly aimed at the viewer and the character appears to be appealing to our craving for freakish cinematic exploits.
Well, Amen, to that! What did you think a film boasting incest, cannibalism, rape, mental retardation and murder would do?!

One scene in particular is charged with a veritable and disturbing sexual undercurrent. Eventually relenting and agreeing to play ‘spider’ with Virginia, her slightly inebriated Uncle Peter is trussed up in a net and fastened to a chair. Soon sobering up, he writhes uncomfortably under her coquettish and down-right inappropriate advances as she veers from sultry seductress to ‘sweet little girl’ with alarming ease. Jill Banner’s performance in this scene is disarmingly raw and unflinching, and chances are you might be as gobsmacked and uncomfortable as Peter is. As Virginia, Banner is alluring, mysterious, enigmatic and completely compelling.

As monstrous as this brood are, they are strangely humanised and even allowed quieter moments in which they reflect, as much as ‘children’ can reflect, on their dire situation. They are portrayed as victims as much as monsters. Quite a touching scene features Bruno comforting the two girls after they have killed the lawyer. Chaney manages to imbue Bruno with such sadness and melancholy. This may be due in part to the fact that the tragic actor was drinking heavily at the time and was extremely ill. He appears blurry eyed and constantly on the verge of tears: his watery orbs tell a thousand untold and devastatingly sad stories.

All the actors display an undeniably chemistry. As the severely infantile Ralph, Sid Haig is both disturbing and comical. The stiff-upper-lipped ‘outsiders’ more than hold their own too. Carol Ohmart plays a similarly devious character as the one she portrayed in House on Haunted Hill. While one chase scene featuring her flouncing around in her underwear is thoroughly ridiculous, Ohmart’s deranged performance remains grounded. Well, as grounded as you’d expect in such an over the top exploitation flick.

As mentioned, there are nods to Psycho aplenty – the various stuffed animals that pepper the ominous house, the dead parental figure still tucked up in bed and referred to as though he were just sleeping, and of course, the ‘weird house on the hill’ and faded grandeur of the appearance of their home. The unhinged ‘Californian’ Gothic of Psycho is ever present in Spider Baby. A weird atmosphere presides over proceedings and remains stifling and provocative throughout. The bizarre and downright quirky sense of humour is deliberately over the top, too. While the film may same tame compared to today’s standards, it still manages to worm its way under your skin and squirm there for some time.

An unforgettable, devilishly irreverent and morbidly humorous film about the ultimate dysfunctional family, cannibalism, incest, mental regression and unconditional love! Check it out, baby.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Creature from the Haunted Sea

Dir. Roger Corman

Bogart-like crook Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone) seizes the opportunity to get his hands on some dosh when Cuba has a revolution. He agrees to help General Tostada and a group of exiled Cuban nationals escape on his boat with a sizeable portion of the Cuban treasury. He then plots to kill the men and blame their deaths on a legendary sea monster. So far, so good. Capetto is joined by his faithful, if rather dim-witted motley crew: gangsters’ moll Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy Jones-Moreland), her woefully inept and highly unhinged brother Happy Jack (Robert Bean), small-time hoodlum and animal impersonator extraordinaire Pete Peterson Jnr. (Beach Dickerson) and ‘mysterious’ deckhand Sparks Moran, who is actually an undercover secret agent (Robert Towne).
What Capetto doesn’t count on is an actual sea monster turning up to throw a major spanner in the works. The stage is set for shenanigans on the high seas, quirky beatnik characters, shoestring budgets, ludicrous acting and one of the shoddiest and downright bargain-basement monsters ever committed to celluloid. Ladies and gentlemens, I give you Roger Corman’s sublimely ridiculous, Creature from the Haunted Sea!

Creature from the Haunted Sea belongs to a group of Corman films collectively referred to as the ‘Puerto Rico Trilogy.’ The other two are The Last Woman on Earth and Battle of Blood Island. Corman went to Puerto Rico to film two movies, but those familiar with the somewhat ‘prolific’ director may not be surprised to hear that he made time to write and direct a third film during his stay on the island. Creature from the Haunted Sea was shot with left over cast members from The Last Woman on Earth and completed in a matter of days. And the fact that it shows, is not necessarily a bad thing. Corman was never one to allow the inconvenience of a low budget or limiting time constraints to cripple his creativity or motivation.

Creature from the Haunted Sea begins with a bang and hits the ground running, opening with a bravura chase sequence, infectious jazz score and undeniable beatnik sensibility. Automatic intrigue ahoy, as a man - Sparks Moran aka Agent XK150 – has a note handed to him by a shoe shiner who then gets shot dead by two thugs who chase after him. When he gives them the slip, he reads the note and eats it before putting on a fake beard and sunglasses and heads to a bar to meet another agent. All this before the credits even put in an appearance. Meanwhile a hard-boiled, noirish voice-over courtesy of our downbeat Agent, fills us in on his secret mission; complete with sharp, witty and knowing dialogue.

Humorous animated titles explain the situation with Cuba and how a revolution has established a new government. Underground groups meet to plan smuggling trips off the island. Corman ensures the story saunters along at a rather brisk pace – there is no room for frills or filler in what initially starts off as a strong and snappy, if a little obvious, plot. The acting is typically and wildly uneven and some of the cast simply give the bare minimum of effort, if even that. Not that this has ever hindered Corman before!

As soon as we are introduced to the characters as they gather on the boat to set off on their misadventure, the film takes a slight detour and decides to have fun with the oddball mismatched smugglers and show that despite the fact the script was obviously thrown together, Corman still has the ability to create interesting quirky characters and audacious situations. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and their enthusiasm proves quite infectious. For now.

As soon as they set sail and Capetto has put his dubious plan into action (taking the life of his first victim with a toilet plunger!), it isn’t long before we are treated to our first glimpse of the sea monster in all its incompetent glory. Looking like a large cucumber with tennis balls for eyes, this fabulously inept creation instantly steals the show. Unfortunately in-between it’s appearances we are left with the increasingly irritating characters as they stumble around from one predicament to another.

With such a slight story, it does seem glaringly obvious that at times Corman drops his no filler approach to the early part of the story and shamelessly starts padding out the already threadbare running time. Clocking in at just over an hour long, this shambolic attempt at an epic still feels far too sprawling. Corman even throws in a seemingly endless scene in which Mary-Belle performs an entire song to bore, sorry, lull the crew of a rival ship into a false sense of security…

Eventually the smugglers get rid of enough of the Cuban nationals to throw the treasury over board and plan to go back for it later. They deliberately strand their vessel on the beach of a nearby tropical island and meet the random and even weirder inhabitants. At this stage events have already begun a freefall into jaw-droppingly absurdist comedy and the story really flails. There is much larking about on the island as some of the crew pair up with locals and bizarre love triangles ensue. Luckily the sea monster seems to sense our impatience and as soon as the crew go diving to retrieve their loot, it strikes. Well, not so much strikes, as sort of pokes and hugs people until they fall down. Apparently dead.

While not a patch on some of Corman’s other early low budgeters such as Bucket of Blood or Little Shop of Horrors, Creature from the Haunted Sea benefits from a knowing and tongue in cheek script. Much of the dialogue, which in itself is utterly priceless, is delivered in a supremely dry and sardonic manner. When Sparks declares ‘And so we sailed off into the greatest adventure ever inflicted on man’, his resignation is palpable.

‘It was dusk. I could tell, because the sun was going down’ is another wry highlight.

Shoe string budgets and thrown together stories have never stifled Corman’s creativity, nor indeed his hectic shooting schedule, and this film is no different from his other work in that respect. Hard to believe though that shortly after this was released, Corman seemingly shifted gears and began churning out his opulent and darkly elegant Poe films with Vincent Price.

An outrageous and campy romp that should manage to raise a wry smile. Enjoy with strong alcohol and tongue wedged firmly in cheek.

Paracinema Special Offer

If you, like me, are watching the pennies, relying on the kindness of strangers, or just in search of a great bargain - why not head over to Paracinema and pick up their premiere issue - for only $5! Go on, you know you want to, you saucy minx. Included in issue 1 is: Into The Green Inferno: Italian Cannibal Films by Tim McLean, Sound And Sountrack: Diegetic Thrills & Chills In Session 9 by Matthew Monagle, Jeffrey's Strange Discovery: Gender, Sexual And Parental Roles In David Lynch's Blue Velvet by Dan Burns and much MUCH more.

So, do it!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Vampire Bat

Dir. Frank Strayer

A small German village is plagued by a number of mysterious deaths, all of which leave the victims drained of blood. The town elders suspect the work of vampires and a number of large vampire bats are spotted in the area. Sceptical Police Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) suspects the work of a psychotic serial killer who needs the blood drained from his victims for some sort of bizarre experiment… Is he right? Well, he’s not wrong.

The Vampire Bat is a surprisingly entertaining piece of schlock that also stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Aside from the big names attached to it, the film’s only other notable trait is that is was one of the first films to attempt to capitalise on the success of Universal’s horror epics Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). It mixes elements from both these films (and a slew of others) to intriguing, but arguably pointless effect. The somewhat loose story ambles along briskly enough and there are a couple of interestingly shot scenes amongst the seemingly endless exposition.

At times the conversations between various characters throw up some interesting connotations. Strayer attempts to conjure atmosphere through lengthy descriptions of half glimpsed terrors and the horrors that have befallen the town. This works to an extent, but the delivery is so wooden, the viewer couldn’t be blamed for allowing their minds to wander a little. Lengthy discussions of vampires, bats and plagues at times build up a nicely gothic atmosphere of dread and suspicion, while peasant superstitions are also pondered at length. The film does appear to have an underlying snobbishness as far as its depiction and treatment of the local townsfolk/underclass is concerned. They are portrayed as idiotic, paranoid, superstitious sheep with no concept of rationality whatsoever. The more affluent figures such as the detective, the doctor (Lionel Atwill), and the doctor’s assistant (Fay Wray) are drawn with slightly less broad strokes. Holding the more middleclass positions they do in the village, they treat those beneath them with impatience and maybe even a little contempt.

‘A madman who kills to satisfy some vile and sadistic urge.’
The backbone of the story is the idea that someone is preying on the fears and suspicions of local lore and fooling people for their own gain. Lots of ‘concerned’ locals gather outside the town’s autopsy theatre (!) and much ‘rhubarbing’ ensues.
The film’s depiction of a small town under siege – locals locked behind doors, frozen with paranoia and fear – builds up a stifling sense of claustrophobia quite successfully.

The rather moody opening sequence with a lamplighter making his way down a street and seeing something ‘bat-like’ move across the rooftops, is subtly chilling.
There is some surprisingly effective camera work courtesy of cinematographer Ira Morgan. At various stages throughout the film the camera adopts the viewpoint of an unseen stalker as it slinks into the bedrooms of various women in the village (doesn’t anyone close their windows when they believe vampires are around?). Looking as though it were almost handheld, the camera creeps through the darkness and right up into the faces of its victims as they waken just in time to see their attacker, their faces frozen in morbid terror.

A particularly startling shot (and bear in mind, this is a poverty row budgeted film) takes place when sceptical Inspector Karl climbs into bed after a particularly hard day of furrowing his brow, being sceptical and smoking like a train. He is situated in the forefront of the shot and is backlit by the moonlight swimming moodily through the window. Suddenly a dark figure looms into frame and climbs stealthily through the window, advancing towards the bed before we fade ominously to black. No music accompanies this scene and events are allowed to unfold in their own time and in their own eerie silence. The absence of music is often quite an effective facet of the film.

‘Murders are being done under my very nose.’
The Vampire Bat is not without cliché though. Every now and again a wolf howls somewhere off screen and various characters look slowly and knowingly at each other as they stop what they are doing to look pensive.

We get our first glimpse of the typical ‘Mad Doctor’ laboratory when Karl goes to visit his girlfriend Ruth who works for Doctor von Niemann. It’s all bubbling potions and test tubes. A vague attempt at humour occurs when a cork pops from a vat as Karl and Ruth kiss tepidly. And that’s as steamy as it gets. Hey, this is 1933, after all.

The Vampire Bat also boasts its own ‘creepy village idiot’ in the shape of Herman (Dwight Frye – no stranger to playing ‘creepy village idiot’ types, Frye also portrayed Renfield in Tod Browning’s version of Dracula). He wanders around as slack-jawed and wide-eyed here as he does in that film too. Everything seems to perplex him and he jibbers on about how the bats are his friends, speaking about himself in third person, you know, the way all ‘creepy village idiots’ do? Before you can say ‘red herring’, Herman is accused of being the town’s resident blood-sucker – the seed germinating from the conversation the lamplighter and the Doctor have about Herman’s strange affinity with the bats in the area.

‘I don’t mind admitting that I’m up a tree. Stumped.’

The film utilises the sets from James Whale’s Frankenstein. One scene rips off, sorry, echoes Frankenstein, as Herman is pursued by an orderly and rather subdued group of extras, erm, i mean angry mob, with pitch forks and flaming torches into the evocatively titled Devil’s Well.

When the Doc seems to be communicating through means of a Bela Lugosi-like telepathy, we know that something sinister is afoot – if we didn’t already know it. Cue lots of furrowed brows, emoting and one sided arguments – ‘It must be! It must be! She’s no better than the rest.’ It transpires that the Doctor has hypnotised his butler Emil (Robert Frazer) and has him flit about town abducting the locals and bringing them back to a secret lab behind a door in the Doc’s regular lab. Emil’s night wanderings are a rip off, sorry, reminiscent of the somnambulistic perambulations of Conrad Veidt as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Wray walks in on Atwill ‘communicating’ with Emil and hears him order the butler to bring Karl to his secret lab. It transpires, as it usually does in these sorts of films, that the Doc has discovered the secret of life and needs to use the blood of the living to further his research. He commits heinous acts in the name of science – Frankenstein-much. An interesting shot in the lab reveals something that resembles a beating heart in a tank of water. Through the water in the tank, we can see a woman spayed out on a table and the doctor attaching various bits of apparatus to her neck. A close up of a jar filling with liquid tells us all we need to know about the doc and his ghastly experiments.

Lionel Atwill usually plays slightly wide-eyed crazed types and he does an admirable job here too. The various shots of Atwill’s twitching face as Douglas throws around various theories about the killer’s identity are well enough handled. The three main players do what they do best and nothing more: Douglas is dashing, Atwill is shifty and Wray is pretty and in need of rescuing. What kind of cop is Douglas, anyway? By the film’s denouement, he seems perfectly happy for Emil to dish out a dose of vigilantism on the mortally wounded doctor and once he has secured Wray’s safety, he leaves the two men to murder each other in the lab. Whatever happened to the criminal justice system and the right to trail?

As mentioned, the film plays out like a compilation of Twenties/Thirties horror: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Dracula, Frankenstein and various other Mad Doctor/Vampire films are all referenced or pilfered from. It doesn’t really have any original ideas, but it does muster a certain energetic enthusiasm that renders it quite entertaining. Even at 60 minutes, it still seems quite long. It is but a slip of a story, but one that fans of old and creaky horror may find to be acceptable.

As The Vampire Bat exists within the public domain - you can watch it here for free. Pour yourself a nice glass of something red, kick back, relax and enjoy.

And remember: "Bats good… they not hurt Herman. You give me apple… Herman give you nice, soft bat."