Thursday, 26 February 2009

Dementia 13

AKA The Haunted & the Hunted
1963
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Troubled couple Louise (lovely, lovely Luana Anders) and her husband John are staying at his family castle in deepest, darkest Ireland. The family have gathered for the annual memorial service of John’s sister and the reading of his mother’s will. Taking a midnight jaunt in a row boat, Louise and John discuss his mother’s will, they argue and he reminds Louise that if he dies before his mother, she will not see a penny of the inheritance. As she tries to persuade him to talk his mother into changing the will, he has a heart attack and dies. Louise sees the opportunity to worm her way into her mother-in-law’s favour and tips John’s body into the lake, later faking a note from him stating that he had to return to New York on urgent business. She hatches a plan that involves driving the mother insane by making her believe that her dead daughter has come back to haunt her and will therefore be more easily persuaded to change her will. All does not go according to plan though as a deranged axe murderer begins to hack his way through the disintegrating family unit gathered at the gothic castle.

Francis Ford Coppola, like many directors, cut his cinematic teeth working under Roger Corman. Persuading the producer to let him direct a horror film in Ireland where they had just completed filming The Young Racers, Coppola and Jack Hill knocked out the script for Dementia 13 in a matter of days. Using left over cast and crew from The Young Racers, they set about filming what Coppola would later regard as his directorial debut (he conveniently forgot about his actual debut a dodgy skin-flick called Tonight for Sure). When Dementia 13 was screened in cinemas, it was preceded by a hokey William Castle-like gimmick in which audiences had to take the 'Dementia 13' test to ascertain whether or not they were of sound enough mind to be able to withstand the film's horrific brutality and thrills.



Essentially a violent variation on Les Diaboliques, Dementia 13 is about one character’s ruthless desire to drive another to insanity for selfish gain. Their efforts to do so drag up dark family secrets that have murderous consequences.

The moody and intriguing opening with the arguing couple in a boat in the middle of a lake contains one of the film’s most striking moments. After Louise pushes her husband’s body in the lake, she also chucks in his transistor radio. It continues to play gurgled rock’n’roll tunes as it sinks further into the depths of the lake after John’s body. This scene has an eerie beauty and unease that much of the rest of the film struggles to live up to.

As Louise packs a suitcase full of things she believes her husband would have taken with him to New York, her internal monologue fills us in on her scheme to gain her husband’s inheritance. A nicely morbid touch has her absent-mindedly wonder if her husband ‘will rot underwater?’
We are also introduced to the other members of the family: the sensitive and somewhat fragile brother Billy (Bart Patton) and his moody and prone to angry outbursts sibling Richard (William Campbell). Richard’s fiancée Kane (Mary Mitchel) also arrives from America to stay with the family. And then of course we have the imposing lady of the house, Lady Haloran (Ethne Dunne). Deeply affected by her daughter’s untimely death, this morose matriarch ensures the memory of Kathleen forever hangs heavy over the house like a death shroud. The sinister family physician Dr Caleb (played by the always splendid Patrick Magee) also comes to stay when Lady Haloran suffers from a dramatic swoon at her daughter’s graveside.
An effectively creepy scene unfolds as Louise investigates Kathleen’s room, untouched since her death six years ago. Coppola fills the scene with shots of sinister looking toys including a wind-up chimp with a hatchet. Nice. Gathering some dolls, Louise makes her way to the pond where Kathleen drowned. Lowering herself into the murky depths, in another eerily shot underwater scene, she submerges the dolls so they will later float ominously to the surface and startle Lady Haloran. Louise herself is startled when she sees what looks like Kathleen’s body and an underwater shrine. Thrashing her way to the surface she is then startled and somewhat graphically butchered by a dark figure with an axe. This is followed by the rather raw and unsettling image of her body being dragged away. Unceremonious to say the least.



Coppola’s obsession with the dysfunction of the family unit is at play here as much as in later films such as something called The Godfather. The director’s interest in how people are able/unable to co-exist in a family unit and the things they do to each other out of love and selfishness is really at the heart of this film. Suffocating loyalty to family and dark secrets returning from the past to ruin chances of a happy future also pumps through the heart of Dementia 13. The troublesome relationship of several brothers is also a theme Coppola would return to again. It is interesting to see how Coppola addresses such notions in light of the films he would eventually go on to direct.

Another wonderfully evocative scene that highlights the sometimes oppressive atmosphere of families and family homes occurs when Kane rebukes Billy for sitting alone at night getting depressed when he should be in bed. Billy gives her a moody speech about how the deaths of so many ancestors still press down upon the house:
‘Have you ever been to my bedroom? You have to go down a corridor where no one has lived for the last fifty years. Up a flight of stairs where my great grand uncle or someone, fell and broke his neck. Then go past the spot where my grandfather died of a heart attack. I’d rather be depressed here than up there.’ Ok Billy, point taken.

Every now and again something will happen or someone will say something to remind us that despite all the American accents, we are still in Ireland. A visit to the local pub provides us with vital information about the identity of the killer, the reason why our irish brother's have American accents (they were privately educated in America you see) and also with the sight of some old Guinness posters. Dr Caleb also utters the immortal line: ‘Drink’s the only road to survival in this climate.’ Ne’er a truer word spoken by a pretend Irish person, doc. Several characters that exist on the periphery of the story, such as Simon the Oirish poacher, say things that apparently Irish people say all the time, such as: 'By the beard of Finn McCool!' I half expected someone to pipe up and say 'ye'll never get me lucky charms.' They didn't. An early scene also takes us into an Aer Lingus airport where we are even greeted in Irish - 'Céad míle fáilte!' Maybe its just me, but I thought this was one of the most thrilling moments of the whole film! Yup. I think it was just me. Apparently the idea of an early variation on the slasher film, set in Ireland, doesn't really excite anyone else. Anyway - I digress.

The score, courtesy of Ronald Stein, adds to the atmosphere of lunacy and treachery. An unhinged harpsichord melody, punctured at intervals by throbbing brass, layers on the tension like a sonic trowel. The film is also peppered with little nursery rhymes that take on a more sinister nature as events unfold, such as: ‘Three sons who will marry and all go away, But little Kathleen will here always stay’ and ‘Fishy, fishy on a hook. Daddy caught you on a hook.’

An atmospheric little semi-slasher, gothic melodrama with enough intrigue, atmosphere and arresting images to hold attention throughout its erratically paced running time. I wonder if Coppola likes Guinness...

Eyes Without a Face

1960
Dir. Georges Franju

Famed surgeon Dr Génessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) is horrifically disfigured in a car accident caused by his reckless driving. The guilt of his own careless actions, and the despair and pain they have caused his daughter, have drove him to abduct young women, surgically remove their faces and attempt to graft them onto Christiane’s own scarred face. When Christiane realises what her father is doing, she decides that the time has come to show him that he cannot control everything…

This was Franju’s feature film debut. Preceding it was a series of short films and documentaries, notably The Blood of the Beasts, a documentary about an abattoir. While not the first film to follow the exploits of a deranged surgeon, Eyes Without a Face was certainly the first to do so in such a poetic, provocative and literate way. It addresses notions of identity, morality, obsession and hope. Written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, writers whose earlier work such as Celle Qui N’Etart Plus and D’entre les Morts had been adapted for the screen as Les Diaboliques and Vertigo respectively.

The opening scenes, accompanied by a deranged and carnivalesque-organ score courtesy of Maurice Jarre, capture the imagination and our attention almost immediately, as we see the doctor’s assistant Louise (Alida Valli) driving cautiously along a dark road and dumping a female body in a lake. The maniacal fairground music and the dastardly deeds of this striking and alluring woman are instantly engrossing and continue to bewitch as the film weaves it’s darkly spell.




Quite shocking for its time and still rather graphic even by today’s standards, the film contains a number of gruelling clinical operation scenes depicting Génessier performing surgery to remove the faces of several women. We see him mark the contours of the face with a pencil; cut the flesh delicately with a scalpel, insert forceps tenderly around the severed flesh and gently remove the whole face. These scenes are powerful and more than a little uncomfortable to watch and perhaps due to their brief intensity, linger long in the mind afterwards.




The still images that depict the disintegration of Christiane’s new face when her own skin tissue rejects it are sobering and utterly tragic. The futility of the doctor’s attempts adds gravitas to Christiane’s hopeless situation. Scob’s performance as the doomed Christiane is remarkable. As her face is covered by a sinister and featureless mask throughout the film, all we see are her incredibly expressive eyes conveying a whirlwind of emotions.

The use of juxtaposition within the film is startling and really adds depth to the characters and the situations they find themselves in: the renowned doctor who helps and cures his patients - all the while unable to help his own daughter; the obedient and down-trodden servant who befriends young women only to lead them to their deaths; and Christiane: on the outside a monstrous looking creature who must wear a mask, while behind the mask lies a helpless and sad young girl, victim of circumstances she had little or no control over.

The pacing of the film is rather languid, but it still manages to draw you in with its captivating atmosphere of melancholy and longing.
Argento regular and widow of Fritz Lang, Alida Valli, is the doctor’s assistant. A former patient of his, she abducts young women to repay him for his remarkable reconstruction work on her scarred body. The pearl necklace/choker she wears not only hides her own hideous scars, but also serves as a constant reminder of her subservience to him – she is as much his pet as the dogs he keeps locked in the basement. When her death comes it is shocking in its honest brutality and wields a certain pathos given her situation. She, while to a lesser extent, is as much a purgatory dwelling creature as Christiane: they dwell in a shadowy existence, hidden from society, with only their own pasts and scars for company.

The film is not all weighty morbidity, it also exhibits a mortiferous and dark humour that slinks to the surface on occasion, such as when Génessier examines Christiane’s new face and tells her to ‘Smile. Not too much.’

The various scenes with Christiane wandering ghostlike throughout the gigantic house have such an intense visual poetry and haunting quality to them. Such moments recall similar scenes in the work of Jean Cocteau, such as La Belle et la Bête and Orphée and are breathtaking in their ethereal surrealism and moodiness.
Christiane is essentially a ghost: doomed to wander faceless throughout the duration of her sheltered life, unable to help herself or communicate with the outside world. She is a tragic figure and this tragedy is highlighted during the films final moments as she wanders out into the gloomy forest accompanied by fluttering doves, seemingly to continue her lonely and spectral-like wanderings alone… she might be physically free of her overbearing and obsessive father and his ghastly experiments, but she will never be free from the scars she bears: a constant reminder of her father and what he did to her.

A haunting and powerful film that digs as deeply and softly under the skin as the scalpels wielded by the crazed surgeon who lurks in its dark heart.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Stigmata

1999
Dir. Rupert Wainwright

The religious significance of pigeons! Patricia Arquette as a Saint! Gabriel Byrne’s furrowed brow! Jonathan Pryce as a stereotypical, English-accented, Vatican Priest coverer-uper of miracles (boo hiss). All lovingly filtered through MTV aesthetics and strobe-light editing, with enough dry ice and back-lit rain to give Ridley Scott a run for his money, Stigmata has it all. And a positive message about how personal religion can truly be, to boot.

Fast-livin’, free-lovin’ Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) has it all: a spacious apartment with minimalist interior, a cool job as a hairdresser (sorry, hair technician) in a snazzy salon in Pittsburgh, an eclectic mix of funky friends and ethnically diverse clubbing buddies and an uncanny knack for somehow managing to sustain the expense for all this while she works as a hairdresser, sorry, hair technician, for a pittance. After her mother posts her some rosary beads that belonged to a recently deceased Priest, Frankie begins to exhibit explicit signs of the stigmata – wounds on her body that mirror those inflicted upon Christ when he was crucified. The Stigmata are usually only suffered by the devoutly religious – but Frankie is a fast-lovin’ atheist. What gives? Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is dispatched by the Vatican to alternately furrow his brow and grin cheekily and to disprove miraculous phenomena. When he realises that Frankie’s newly acquired affliction not only interferes with her hectic social life, but also has no logical explanation, he agrees to help her. But only after she flirts with him and gives him a trim. Our intrepid duo eventually discover a vast conspiracy within the Vatican to cover up religious texts written by Jesus Christ Himself and completely contradict the structure and organised religion purveyed by the Catholic Church.




The film opens with Kiernan going to South America to study a statue of the Virgin Mary that has cried tears of blood since the death of a renowned local priest. He also discovers that the doves living in the church have been acting oddly. They flutter about and their feathers waft ethereally around the beautifully lit interior of the building. A young boy suddenly pinches the rosary from the priest’s coffin and sells it to a tourist who sends it to her fast livin’ atheistic hair-technician daughter in Pittsburgh.

We go immediately from the sobriety and quite creepy atmosphere of this prologue to a blasting techno soundtrack and a series of epilepsy inducing shots of a city and Patricia Arquette doing ‘everyday person’ stuff. Like lighting a cigarette and sexily smoking it, sharing a laugh and giving some money to tramp (she IS just like Jesus), going to work and sharing a laugh with her sexy colleagues and then partying hard and going home to do sex to her sometime sexy boyfriend. Testament to director Wainwright’s skill as a filmmaker, he really gives us so much information in this opening music video, sorry, montage and really fleshes out Arquette’s character. She might be an atheist and drink too much, but deep down inside she really is a caring person who could easily de-power the Catholic Church and put an end to oppressive organised religion. Characterisation on the head of a pin this is not! And Pittsburgh IS the modern day Gomorrah.

I was really affected by Bladerunner and watched The Crow a few too many times and had fallen for all the moody lighting and aesthetic delights of other such flashy films, I fell head over heels in love with Stigmata (I blame the over-use of the religious significance of pigeons). Whereas those films actually had intriguing stories to tell, the visuals in Stigmata are seemingly only there to distract you from the fact that there isn’t really anything going on with the story.
It would seem Wainwright was deeply influenced by the opening credit montage of Se7en and just thought how cool it would be to make a whole film like that.




Instead of a potentially slow-burning and brooding affair, we get bombastic MTV visuals, over-exposed lighting, pigeons in slow motion, an overwrought Arquette flailing around seductively, and enough heavy-handed Roman Catholic iconographic imagery to sink a very large heathen ship. Oh, and candles. Lots of candles. Candles feature in almost every scene, and aside from making Frankie’s luxurious apartment a bit theistical looking, they just look so moody and pretty.

When Frankie experiences the ‘attacks’ that inflict her stigmatic wounds, the editing becomes more frantic and the images of her writhing around in agony are spliced with shots of a hammer driving a large spike through a hand or blood flowing backwards. It just screams ‘hey look at this – its really profound! But goddamn, does it all look mighty pretty. Wainwright has taken a potentially enthralling story with theological debate and some interesting points about the potential danger of organised religion, a LOT of religious symbolism and pigeons as doves, and pummelled it all through a vibrant music-video type filter; complete with freeze frame edits, slo-mo, jump cuts and every other kind of cut known to man (and maybe one or two not known to man, it all happens so fast its hard to tell). The result is unsurprisingly, a really long music video about a girl who might be a saint. Or something. Fortunately, a rather intriguing subplot involving the highly secret movement within the Vatican, whose main goal is to disprove miracles and keep important texts written by Jesus himself hidden from the world lest they debunk the power of the Church, is never explored, lest it detract from the onslaught of pumping visuals and heavy-handed symbolism.


The not so subtly emerging love story between Frankie and Father Kiernan feels tacked on and completely unnecessary and there does appear to be an eerie subtext about the inherent creepiness of motherhood, but this is never explored. Or else I’m just reading way too much into what is otherwise a very shallow film that just looks really cool.

Heavily compared to The Exorcist upon its release, aside from a vaguely sinister prologue set in an exotic location and the fact the story is about the possession of a young woman, the two films could not be more different. There IS also the exorcism scene towards the end of Stigmata where Frankie writhes around in a huge bed infront of an open fire and spits insults at the Priests by her bedside before the room is consumed by CGI flames, but this doesn't even come close to the power that the same scene in The Exorcist wields. While The Exorcist was supremely creepy and unsettling, Stigmata is loud, brash and an exercise in pure style over substance.




As mentioned, the religious significance of pigeons is of utmost importance in this film. Frankie takes a solitary bath in her exquisite apartment, adorned in candles naturally, and is interrupted by one of the feathery creatures. As its feathers float serenely into her bath, she suffers her first stigmatic experience and blood flows sexily from her bath tub. Arquette eventually begins to prance around in a white sheet with some pigeons perched on her shoulder. I think we are supposed to marvel and maybe even get a few chills because of how much she resembles St Francis of Assisi or something.

The soundtrack is largely made up of some rejected Smashing Pumpkin’s tracks, all drum machines and plinky-plonky synths, with some songs by the likes of Bjork and Natalie Imbruglia thrown in to keep it contemporary.

Stigmata will always have a very special place on the video shelf in my heart. It is many things to many people: infuriating, profound, colourful, dumb, provocative and touching. And features more religious significance of pigeons than you know what to do with. Lets hope that the alleged forth-coming sequel delivers the goods in as sexy and strobe-lit a package, albeit a straight to DVD package, as this one.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Paracinema Issue 5


Ladies and Gentlemens,
the latest issue of Paracinema is now available to order...

Amongst the many lurid delights to be found dwelling within its beautifully designed pages and yearning to be touched-up by your filthy paws are Behind Dark Glasses: The Not-So-Hidden Messages in They Live by S. Patrick Gallagher; Royale With Seduction: The Gothic Heart of Pulp Fiction by Molly Griffin; and something called Vicious Cunts: Transgressive Sexuality & Monstrous Femininity in Ginger Snaps and Teeth, by someone called James Gracey. Sounds like someone with WAY too much time on his hands if you ask me.

Click here to purchase a copy.

Random Creepy Scene # 338: The After Hours


Mannequins have been used to supremely creepy effect many times before in horror cinema. From Mario Bava’s early giallo Blood & Black Lace, with its lavish fashion house peppered with dress makers dummies, to 1979’s eerie Tourist Trap with its bizarre roadside museum chock-full of the uncanny dummies, it is fair to say that mannequins are officially creepy.

An early episode of the Twilight Zone called The After Hours, also utilises the spooky plastic people to shuddering effect, and then it manages to do something genuinely original with them too…

Anne Francis stars as Marsha White, a perky gal about town who enjoys nothing more than shopping and browsing in expensive boutiques. Mooching around a colossal department store looking for a gold thimble for her mother, Marsha is taken to the 9th floor by the elevator operator: a floor that does not appear on the elevator gauge. When she reaches the 9th floor Marsha is greeted by a socially inept saleswomen, who shows her the only item on the floor: a gold thimble! Thinking about how strange all this is, Marsha purchases the thimble and decides to get the flock out of there. Noticing the thimble is damaged, Marsha tries to return to the 9th floor to exchange it but is told by all she encounters, including the manager, that the store does not have a 9th floor. Thinking she sees the saleswoman, Marsha marches up to her to demand an explanation only to realise that the saleswoman is in fact a mannequin. Marsha believes she is going insane, and while waiting in the manager’s office and attempting to calm herself, she becomes locked in the now deserted store. Panicking, she flees from floor to floor as bodiless voices call out to her as she catches fleeting movements amongst the stores many mannequins. Unnerving stuff, to be sure.

*spoilers ahoy*

Ending up back on the 9th floor, Marsha is gradually surrounded by mannequins who come slowly to life and greet her, reminding her that she is also a mannequin and that she has just returned from her annual 30 day vacation to the world of the living…

I came across this effective and highly creepy little story, with a bittersweet sting in its tail, when I purchased Volume 2 of The Twilight Zone on VHS in a charity shop.
Of the other episodes (including Time Enough at Last, The Changing of the Guards and The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), this was by far the most atmospheric and unsettling. The scenes featuring Marsha cautiously wandering around the deserted store are incredibly eerie. The host of initially menacing mannequins and whispering voices are chilling in their simplicity and Marsha’s transition from simply concerned to absolutely petrified, is a convincing one.


‘Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are she'll find it, but there are even better odds that she'll find something else, because this isn't just a department store. This happens to be… the Twilight Zone.’

Here's a link to some thoughts on other sinister moments in cinema involving mannequins...

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue

1965
Dir. Jorge Grau

AKA
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Don't Open the Window
Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead
Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is an Italian/Spanish co-production, largely shot in England with a mostly English cast by a Spanish director. Still with me?

George (Ray Lovelock) is a groovy Antique Shop owner in swinging sixties Manchester. He shuts up shop one fateful weekend to head off into the English countryside to fix up an old house with some friends. On the way his motorbike is accidently reversed into by Edna (Cristina Galbo). She agrees to give him a lift to his destination, after she has been to visit her wayward sister Katie. George insists on driving Edna’s car, what with her being a female driver and all, he wants to ensure they get to their destinations without reversing into anyone else along the way.

And so begins a night of terror for George and Edna. Hunted not only by an ever-growing horde of the living dead shuffling across the countryside, but also by the police, headed by a tough talking Oirish Inspector (Arthur Kennedy), who believe George and Edna are a couple of hippy, Bonnie and Clyde-alike Satanists who are responsible for a gruesome death.



Upon its initial release, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue was condemned as a video nasty. However, despite some genuinely grisly moments, wildly uneven acting, atrocious dubbing and stop-start pacing, the film does contain a few interesting and thought-provoking elements.
For one, it takes a distinctly Ecological approach to explain how and why the dead are returning to life. Ok, while the scientific explanation offered for this in the film is completely laughable (an ‘ultra-sonic radiation omitting experimental insect and parasite destroyer’, which looks suspiciously like a combine harvester with a large aerial on top, is revealed to have effects on ‘primitive nervous systems’, such as new-born babies and the recently deceased, causing both to become flesh-hungry monsters), watched in today’s current climate of eco-awareness and Green-consciousness, it acts as a sort of cautionary tale warning of meddling with nature for our own gain. Sort of.




As mentioned, there is some gob-smackingly bad acting in this film, but it doesn’t interfere too much with the later tension and creepiness. Arthur Kennedy as the Oirish Inspector provides much unintentional hilarity with his dated ‘observations’ on city-life, hippy culture, sexuality and drug abuse. Indeed, the police aren’t really painted in a very flattering light in this film (even for a horror film) and one can’t help but be reminded of counter-culture clashes with police in the sixties.

Many of the idyllic locations are shot in such a way as to render them quite sinister. The early scene in which George leaves Edna to go and ask for directions, echoes a similar moment in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Instructed to stay at the car, Edna is attacked by a staggering vagrant, who turns out to be dead. Locked in the car as the salivating zombie bashes on the window, Edna’s plight is genuinely alarming.
Since no one else saw the attack, they assume Edna is a bit crazy and patronise her into silence.




Another standout scene occurs when Edna’s heroin-addicted sister Katie is interrupted from shooting-up by the same dead vagrant who attacked Edna. Running to her creepy boyfriend Martin, who appears to be holding her at an isolated house against her will, and likes to photograph things in the middle of the night, she witnesses his graphic murder at the hands of fore-mentioned dead vagrant. The attack is captured on Martin’s camera; every time the flash lights up the scene, we see the gruesome events in tantalising snippets.

The soundtrack consists of a heavy and pulsating heartbeat that really helps build tension, particularly in the later scenes in the graveyard and the hospital.
The make-up and special effects are top-notch and really quite stomach churning and when the pace eventually picks up, proceedings become rather engrossing.
Given the unintentional hilarity of some of the scenes, notably the opening shots of a naked woman sporting a huge afro, running through the streets of Manchester, breasts bouncing frenziedly, and a scene featuring the biggest walkie-talkie EVER, this is a film best watched from the bottom of a wine glass. And this is no bad thing at all. Really.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Fearless Vampire Killers

1967
Dir. Roman Polanski

AKA Dance of the Vampires
The Fearless Vampire Killers… Or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck

Polanski’s pastiche of Hammeresque vampire films opens as any other vampire film at the time: two eccentric ‘outsiders’ seek refuge in an inn inhabited by superstitious locals and an abundance of garlic bulbs hanging everywhere. The mere suggestion that these two inept gentlemen are searching for the castle of famed fiend Herbert Von Krolock is enough to frighten the simple townsfolk. The sort of madcap shenanigans that ensue set the tone wonderfully for a film that, while largely a comedy, still manages to muster a sharp bite (sorry) and a dark edge.

Polanski himself plays Alfred, the loyal and somewhat long-suffering assistant to vampire killer extraordinaire Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowern). Abronsius has no one but himself fooled that his ‘façade’ of ineptitude and incompetence is actually a wily foil to conceal his status as a legendary Van Helsing-alike, tracking and destroying the Un-Dead. The duo are the Laurel and Hardy of vampire slaying, and their buffoonery often ensures they end up in more danger than avert it.
When Sarah (Sharon Tate), the voluptuous daughter of the innkeeper is abducted by head vampire Herbert Von Krolock, our intrepid duo set off to rescue her. Except that it’s probably too late, but they’ll attempt to rescue her anyway.





The production design of the film is flawless. Wintry landscapes, a crumbling castle, snug inns and creepy crypts are all utilised to conjure up a wonderfully evocative atmosphere throughout proceedings. A sense of chilly isolation and hopelessness is as abundant as the scenes featuring snow-coated lands and bleak skies, promising nothing but more snow to cover tracks and seal doom.

One of the most memorable scenes deposits Alfred, Abronsius and Sarah in a ballroom full of dancing vampires. Thinking that they have finally outwitted their captors and with their escape route in site, the final steps of the dance they are involved in brings them in front of a huge mirror: despite being surrounded by festive and frolicking fiends, the trio are the only souls reflected in the glass.

The quirky characters are completely at home in this film and never seem strained or unbelievable. From the genteel and rather disinterested Von Krolock and his lonely and overtly fey son, to the recently-turned-Jewish-vampire, who is immune to the sight of a crucifix, each character, while decidedly odd, is fully formed and compelling in their own way.




Polanski wrote the script with regular collaborator Gerard Brach, and the pair do a fine job of balancing comedy and horror, without favouring one over the other. Indeed the rather pessimistic climax of the film belies its charm and wit, and yet somehow seems completely appropriate and in keeping with the odd mood.

Polanski’s body of work is largely made up of dark and unsettling films, and while they often have humorous or comedic elements, none have come closer to pure slapstick comedy than this. Charming, slightly creepy and lighted-hearted fun.

Random Creepy Scene #116: Prince of Darkness


John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a woefully underrated and highly moody horror flick from 1987. After the discovery of a giant canister containing an eerie green and swirling mass under a church, a group of students specialising in Philosophy, science, theology and linguistics are invited by the troubled priest (Donald Pleasance) who discovered the canister, to investigate it. They realise that the lurid green liquid inside is Satan himself and that the only way to open the canister is from the inside…

Soon, the liquid begins to seep out and possess the students, one by one. Meanwhile outside, a group of menacing street urchins led by Alice Cooper surround the church and the remaining students must barricade themselves in, unaware that they are in as much danger, if not more, from their own group inside.

The collective dream shared by the students is, for this reviewer anyway, one of the most memorable, creepy and quietly unsettling images presented in a horror film.

A static-hewn shot of a shadowy figure lingering sinisterly in a doorway backlit with spectral light, is perhaps the film’s most striking and remarkable image. As we slowly approach, the figure gradually begins to emerge ominously from the darkness… While we never see the figure fully emerged, the quiet menace these scenes evoke is unshakable. It turns out that these images are somehow being broadcast from the future and filtered through the collective subconscious of the group of students. It would appear that if they don't succeed in preventing Satan from emerging from the cylinder, he will overcome them and enter the wider world as broadcast from the future. The soundtrack during these moments is made up of distressed radio frequencies and dead air, fizzling in and out with blips of broken and inaudible words broadcast over seemingly empty airwaves. Chilling, to say the least.

The film hangs heavy with an air of dread, gloom and pessimism, it comes as little surprise that Carpenter includes it in his unofficial ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, also comprised of The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Interview with composer Marco Werba


I recently conducted (no pun intended) an interview with Marco Werba for Little White Lies.
Werba has just finished completing the score for Dario Argento's latest thriller Giallo. Click here to read the interview with the delectable Mr Werba...

Click here to listen to some of Werba's music from the forthcoming Giallo. Indeed, why not check out some of Werba's other film scores by clicking here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Skull

1965
Dir. Freddie Francis

Amicus Productions was set up as a rival to Hammer Horror in the sixties. Many of its films took the form of creepy, and maybe even a bit knowingly silly, portmanteaux tales of insanity, revenge and grim death. Some of their more well known titles include Torture Garden, Scream And Scream Again, I Monster and The House that Dripped Blood. The Skull is a pretty typical example of their output, an atmospheric, thoroughly ridiculous, but nonetheless entertaining slice of gothic schlock.
The story follows Peter Cushing as Dr maitland, a collector of odd and bizarre artefacts and transcripts, who goes a bit insane after acquiring the skull of the Marquis de Sade. What's not to love?

Directed with notable flair by Freddie Francis and based on a short story by Robert Bloch, The Skull unfolds at a languid pace. Untypical attention to characterisation is lavished upon Cushing’s Dr Maitland as he sinks deeper into despair and insanity. Cushing is a credible actor and he holds his performance together well, as a subtle study in mental breakdown and obsession.

Opening with a moody, and rather rudimentary sequence, in which a phrenologist exhumes the coffin of the Marquis de Sade in order to extract his skull to study it, the rest of the film follows the journey of the skull as it brings death and insanity to all those who encounter it. It is soon revealed that the Marquis de Sade was possessed by an evil spirit who took up residence in his skull when he died. The spirit continues to practise dark masses and wield unfathomable power over all who coven it.



Christopher Lee also pops up in an utterly thankless role. He buys some grotesque statues at an auction and claims to have been nearly driven insane when he too owned the skull of de Sade. Of course his warnings fall on deaf ears as Cushing continues to furrow his brow and attempt to procure the skull for his collection.

The film is peppered with bizarre and obscure point of view shots, particularly those from inside the skull itself. We as the audience are also privy to vantage points such as the view from inside a coffin, a room from behind the fireplace and the view from a cabinet after the glass has been shattered.




There is a rather effective dream sequence (or is it?) where Cushing is harassed in his own home by two men who claim to be the police. They bring him in rather hostile fashion to a deserted building where he is greeted by a crazed Judge who forces him to play a game of Russian roulette. He is then thrown into a room with poisonous gas billowing out of several air ducts. As if this wasn’t bad enough, events continue to grow more nightmarish and illogical as the walls of this room begin to close in. I’m guessing the last thing you’d do if you found yourself in a situation like this is to do what Cushing does: start waving your arms around, causing the gas to billow out even further into the room. This sequence is perhaps one of the most striking and provocative in the film. Maitland’s anxiety and helplessness are deeply unsettling and he seems to exist in a place where no one knows where he is, or even cares about him.

The film really excels as we near the climax: Maitland is tormented in his own home by the ever restless skull as it breaks out of its glass cabinet and glides ominously around after him, forcing him to almost murder his sleeping wife. Maitland wanders mindlessly throughout his house, confronted by the grinning spectre at every turn. The image of the levitating skull, while quite silly, is still a striking one.



A number of quite significant plot holes are left gaping as the film ends: what exactly was the significance of the statues Lee’s character simply HAD to have? Was that a dream sequence when Maitland was forced to play Russian roulette? Of course, in not providing satisfactory conclusions to these matters, it doesn’t hamper the enjoyment of watching The Skull, if anything it adds to the illogicality and nightmarish events. And in a film where the skull of the Marquis de Sade is possessed by an evil spirit and rips peoples’ throats out after driving them insane, you can’t really expect there to be an air of logic or rationale, can you?

Little Otik

2000
Dir. Jan Svankmajer

Little Otik is the troubling tale of a childless couple whose desperation for a baby pushes them to the brink of sanity. In an attempt to alleviate his wife’s distress, Karel offers her a tree stump which she accepts as their offspring. Eventually however, they realise to their horror that the stump has a voracious appetite that can’t be quelled by milk and carrot soup alone… it longs for something slightly more chewy and meaty. And so their nightmare begins…

Svankmajer is renowned for his groundbreaking and innovative use of stop-motion animation in his films. Many of his surreal short films comprise mainly of his experiments in this medium. Recent works however, have seen Svankmajer experimenting more with live action and a more restrained use of stop-motion animation. Little Otik is one such film.
Svankmajer imbues his animated creations with so much life and character, more so in fact than those of his human/live action characters. Indeed Little Otik seems to highlight this trait of Svankmajer’s and even steps it up a notch. The human characters are drawn with the broadest of stokes, however the writhing mass of roots and twigs that make up the ‘baby’ evokes pity and, initially, maybe even some sympathy. Not since Eraserhead has parenthood seemed like such a nightmare.

To begin with, the fussy neighbours assume that Karel’s odd attitude is due to his anxiety about becoming a father. He is portrayed as an ineffectual man, highlighted by his infertility and inability to impregnate his wife. Svankmajer seems to have stripped the human condition down to two things: to feed and to breed.
When Karel presents Bozena with the stump of wood, he seems to be offering her the hope of fulfilling her heart’s desire of becoming a mother. He only succeeds in pushing her further towards insanity. Somehow, in Karel’s absence, Bozena gives life to the piece of twisted root and even suckles it. The scene where Karel returns to their cabin to witness this is eerily tranquil and more than slightly disturbing. His impotent burst of violence only pushes Bozena to compel him to face up to his responsibilities as a father. And it would seem that he wearily accepts his task after all.





Initially it isn’t made clear whether or not ‘Otik’ is actually alive, or if it is just a case of two sad and desperate people allowing their imaginations and fragile minds create a child for them. The opening scenes unfold as the brittle couple envision babies everywhere in their day to day lives. From the startling image of Karel carving open a melon to reveal a baby inside, to the more comical images of mothers and their prams blocking the street in their abundance. Svankmajer soon makes it clear that Otik is indeed alive and constantly craving sustenance. It is the two unfortunate parents of Otik that eventually become the monsters however. Having reared the creature for so long they eventually abandon it in the cellar of the house when it begins to become ‘difficult’ and too many people have started to go missing.


In the latter half of the film, events veer into overt horror-film territory as Otik begins to feed on living things, first of all a cat and then on people, staring with a postman and an interfering social worker. Svenkmajer is strangely careful to represent Otik in a specific light. While a bloodthirsty monster, the creature is still a wayward infant in need of care, attention and guidance. There is a touching moment when the young girl from next door brings Otik some food and toys and washes his roots in a basin full of water before he eats, as he gurgles contentedly. She mutters to herself that his parents ‘deserve to be punished’ for the way they’ve treated him. As unsettling as his appearance is (all swarming roots, bundles of spindly twigs and branches with a hideously toothed mouth and wrapped in baby’s clothes), Svankmajer still shrouds him with a touch of humanity.

Svankmajer’s unsettling obsession with food and images of eating and digestion continue throughout Little Otik as they did in his earlier films. He renders the whole process of eating and consuming food a mindless, futile and ultimately distressingly greedy routine. No one in this film has their appetite sated, no matter what it is they crave, be it a family, a meal or an intimate caress. Waves of nausea emanate from every scene involving mealtimes as we are bombarded with close-ups of mouths slobbering and queasily chewing food and slurping down liquid.




As you watch the grotesque events unfurl, you may become aware that a deeply troubled expression has crept across your face and nestled there for much of the film’s duration. A haunting piece of work, with startling imagery, pitch black humour and food for thought.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Pit & the Pendulum

1961
Dir. Roger Corman

The Corman adaptations of various Edgar Allan Poe stories were perhaps some of the first horror films I ever watched as a young child. Staying up late and secretly watching the little portable TV in my room, with the light on of course, I often discovered these lurid gems of the genre from between my fingers. None however had more of an impact on me than Pit and the Pendulum. While certainly not the best film in Corman’s Poe cycle, it still retains the ability to chill and unsettle in its own unique way. Watching it is pure nostalgic bliss. Adding to the nostalgia and the bliss is the fact that the film stars Vincent Price AND Barbara Steele - and anyone familiar with Behind the Couch should know by now that I LOVE this diabolical duo.

The film is teeming with memorable and startling images, from the moody opening shots depicting a young man making his way along a harsh and craggy shore to an imposing castle in the background, to the warped and dreamy flashbacks and the images of prematurely entombed bodies. Many of these images, particularly the opening shots, seared themselves into my mind. And nightmares. A bleak and mournful atmosphere is instantly conjured and sustained throughout the rest of the film. The creepy score played over the title sequence (eerie shots of multicoloured and lurid liquids gloomily swirling around) of reverberated echoes and distorted, clacking strings is still haunting and unsettling today.




The story itself shares little in common with Poe’s tale, save for the titular torture device used in the finale and the overwhelmingly bleak and hopeless mood.
Writer Richard Matheson would elaborate extensively on Poe’s short story (essentially a mood piece in which the narrator relays his torture during the Spanish Inquisition where he was interred in a dark pit and menaced by a slowly descending bladed pendulum), creating a dark Les Diaboliques type tale involving a melancholy nobleman losing his mind because of the apparent death of his wife. It becomes apparent that he is actually being manipulated from beyond the grave by the deceitful and cruel wife.

Francis Barnard (John Kerr) makes his way to the home of his late sister’s husband Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to learn more of his sister’s death. Whilst there he witnesses Medina slowly sink into depressive insanity as his sister helplessly looks on. He soon begins to realise, his sister’s death was under mysterious circumstances and all is not as it seems…

The film has a few interesting notions of the idea of history repeating itself and the theme of hereditary fanaticism and sadism. Like many of the Poe adaptations, Pit and the Pendulum provides a portrait of the inescapability of one generation from the sins of their forefathers. Medina is still plagued by nightmares of his sadistic father torturing and killing his adulteress mother and her lover. Events hang heavy under an oppressive notion that one cannot escape from the past and must spend their lives living under its shadow.




This film belongs to Price. He not only steals every scene he appears in, he seizes it in his grasp and commands our attention. Yes, he overacts, but who else other than Vincent Price could overact and still manage to gain the sympathy of the audience. I suspect Price’s tongue was wedged firmly in his cheek throughout the course of filming, but in the later scenes, particularly when he discovers that his wife may have been buried prematurely, Price really delivers – his depiction of a fragile man descending into madness is immensely touching and chilling. Price’s theatrical histrionics are inimitable and he is one of only a few actors who can do ‘tortured’ so well: yes, he is utterly over the top, but he is also mournfully compelling to watch and knowingly grandiose.

Price is ably supported by a solid cast including the ravishing Barbara Steele as Medina’s wife Elizabeth, the soft and delicate Luana Anders as Medina’s anxious sister Catherine and John Kerr as Elizabeth’s brother Francis. Kerr spends much of the film, like many of Corman’s Poe protagonists, stomping around and demanding to know what is going on. Of course, all the while, Vincent Price teases and tantalises and disturbs with fragments of ghastly information he lets slip at intervals.

Barbara Steele once again provides a brittle performance and Corman, much like Bava and any other director who utilised her funereal beauty, seems captivated by her striking features, particularly her eyes. Indeed, the last shot of the film, while darkly ironic, still wields the power to linger hauntingly. And its just a close up of Steele’s wide eyes.

The set design and lighting are suitably lush and extravagant and Corman’s camera is rarely still. The overwrought mood appears to have been heavily influenced by similar films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost. All the typical gothic trimmings are here in abundance: the looming castle, the secret passageways, the past returning to haunt the present, the foreign/outsider protagonist and all manner of sado-sexual undertones.

Indeed, it is not surprising in a film where one of the characters apparently died due to the overwhelming atmosphere of dread and decay, that the film drips with palpable gloom and plays out like a macabre purgatory of undeniable misery and lost hope. And Vincent Price.