Monday, 30 July 2012

Happy Birthday Mario Bava!

Mario Bava with Jacqueline Pierreux (Black Sabbath)
Undisputed Master of Italian horror cinema Mario Bava would have turned 98 years old today. Sadly, Mr Bava passed away in 1980 at the age of 65, but he left behind an astonishing body of work. Specialising in darkly beautiful Gothic Horror, Bava also dabbled in genres as eclectic as sword and sandal peplums, science fiction (Planet of the Vampires), comic book adaptations, psychological thrillers and is generally heralded as the man responsible for kick starting the giallo (later popularised by Dario Argento), with his morbidly exquisite films The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace.
He also had a tremendous influence on the contemporary slasher movie, with his wickedly humorous whodunit, Bay of Blood. Taking the body-count template of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None), Bava created a staggeringly violent, though elegantly lensed shocker that would have an overwhelming impact on the likes of Friday the 13th and its bloodied ilk.

Born in 1914, Bava began his career as a cinematographer in 1939 before taking a seat in the director’s chair for I Vampiri, co-directed with Ricardo Freda, in 1956. Generally regarded as the first Italian horror film of the sound era, I Vampiri was initially Freda’s production, but Bava stepped in to finish directing, as well as continue his role as cinematographer and SFX artist, when Freda walked off the set halfway through production. Bava worked again with Freda on Caltiki – The Immortal Monster before making his solo directorial debut with Gothic masterpiece Black Sunday. Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s story Vij, the macabre and romantic Black Sunday – AKA Mask of Satan – featured the funereal beauty of Barbara Steele in a creepy duel role and was an international hit. It also heralded Bava’s unique brand of sexualised terror as evidenced in later titles such as Whip and the Body, Black Sabbath, Baron Blood, Kill Baby Kill, 5 Dolls for an August Moon and Bava’s personal favourite, Lisa and the Devil.

Working as director, screenwriter, special effects artist and cinematographer on many of his own atmospheric and aesthetically stunning titles, as well as others (including Dario Argento’s Inferno), Bava’s final film came in 1977 when his son Lamberto scripted Shock. The distressing tale of a woman who spirals into madness when she returns to the home she formerly inhabited with her abusive husband, Shock features a jaw-dropping performance by Daria Nicoldi and is awash with striking and unsettling images and effects only Mario Bava could have envisioned and realised.

Happy Birthday Maestro Bava.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Audiodrome #10

This month’s Audiodrome focuses on Johan Söderqvist’s chillingly beautiful score for Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. Based on the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the story concerns Oscar, a lonely little boy, and his tentative relationship with Eli, an odd little girl who turns out to be a centuries old vampire.
Söderqvist’s score gently chills the spine with icily subtle moments of terror, and thaws it out again with richly melancholy themes performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. It utilises spine-tingling sounds such as electric guitar played with a bow and a bass waterphone to eerily beautiful effect.

Head over to Paracinema.net to read my full review and listen to an excerpt of the score.

While you’re there, why not order yourself a copy of Paracinema issue 16. There’s an abundance of in-depth articles on the likes of Ken Russell’s The Devils, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, found footage and mockumentary horror, disaster movies, French Science Fiction and my own article on Val Lewton’s last film; a spooky western!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dark Mirror

2007
Dir. Pablo Proenza

When her family moves into a new home, photographer Deborah (Lisa Vidal) gradually begins to suspect sinister things are stirring from the house’s past. She catches glimpses of shadowy figures and doorways that aren't there in the mirrors and reflective surfaces. When she talks to her new neighbours she discovers that the previous owner, a famous artist, vanished in mysterious circumstances. Deborah is further convinced something evil lurks within the house as everyone she photographs dies in unnatural circumstances. Is poor Deborah experiencing a nervous breakdown? Or are there actually evil spirits trapped in the glass surfaces of her new home, waiting to pounce into our world?

The mirror has featured heavily throughout horror cinema as a source of danger and fear. Psychologically speaking they are often used to address ideas revolving around the fear of one’s self and psychological breakdown. A common visual motif in films in which someone is suffering from psychological issues is to show them looking in a shattered mirror, signifying their shattered psyche, confused identity and warped view of the world. To echo Dr. Frank Mandel in Dario Argento's Suspiria: Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds. In overtly fantastical narratives mirrors can also act as spooky gateways to other dimensions and realms from which demonic forces can enter our lives. Ideas such as these stem from all sorts of superstitions and urban myths throughout the world and are touched upon in Dark Mirror.



Hauntingly ambiguous, the film is not only a moody, lo-fi ghost tale; it also works well as the study of a lonely woman’s increasingly fractured mind. Deborah has a hard time readjusting to her new life in LA. Her husband works long hours, her new neighbours are weird, she feels a distance forming between her and her young son and her hopes of working as a professional photographer are constantly dashed. The odd occurrences are initially explained away when it is suggested they are figments of her bored and frustrated mind. When her estranged mother comes to visit, she tells Deborah that the cut glass throughout the house is, according to traditional feng shui, used to trap evil spirits and prevent them from entering the home. Spooky.

A modestly budgeted film, Dark Mirror relies on few locations, the main one being Deborah's new house. Boasting myriad cut glass windows and mirrors, it resembles a jewel box; a sort of supernatural glass house. The cinematography by Armando Salas utilises shadows and light to rather elegant effect and imbues the film with a distinct look and atmosphere. The rippling light reflected on walls from the cut glass windows is eerily, shimmeringly beautiful. Given the unsettling mystery surrounding the glass and mirrors in the story, this provides a suitably ominous atmosphere throughout. That much of the horror actually happens during daylight hours, and is created by sunlight sparkling through ornate glass, also enrobes the film in an odd and distinct atmosphere.

Director Proenza maintains an air of ambiguity to keep us engaged as events unfold; all the while kindling a foreboding and slow-burning tension. At times the film has a distinctly European feel due to the quirky direction and camerawork. This is exemplified in the scene where Deborah photographs herself in the bathroom mirror and as she is startled by the flash, Proenza cuts to a shot of the light from the flash as it appears to travel through infinite reflections cast in the mirrors of the room, seemingly awakening something in the house as it emerges out through a mirror in an adjoining room. The moment defies logic but conveys a sense of menacing mystery. The director laces proceedings with striking images such as the sight of the neighbour’s body sinking into a pool of blood on the floor, and perfectly exploits in-camera visual trickery to enhance the suspense. He is particularly innovative in the direction of the scene where Barbara is chasing Eleanor through the house by following her reflection in the many glass surfaces and mirrors.

While Dark Mirror doesn't exactly break a lot of new ground, it is still a thoroughly decent thriller with an intriguing central mystery that benefits from often strikingly beautiful and odd camera work. As it reaches its increasingly fraught climax, there are more than a few moments of atmospheric intensity, while the tragic and ambiguous ending proves hauntingly effective.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ginger Snaps: Unleashed

2004
Dir. Brett Sullivan

Horror sequels can usually be a bone of contention with most audiences and critics. Often times they reek of cashing in on the success of their predecessor and commonly they simply rehash the original plot with an emphasis on upping the ante and the gore factor. It is a rare thing to find a horror sequel that not only matches the original film in terms of quality and originality, but that also expands and further explores the original story with credibility.

Ginger Snaps ended with Brigitte (Emily Perkins) putting her werewolf sister Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) out of her misery, but not before she was also ‘infected’ with her lycanthropy. Brigitte had discovered a ‘cure’ and when we last saw her she held salvation in her hand: a syringe of Monkshood (Wolfsbane). For all we knew she could have injected herself with it and went on her not-so-merry way. The film had a fairly closed ending that resolved its story nicely, though the fate of Brigitte of course had room for further - and in this writer’s humble opinion, welcome - exploration. Whether or not it merited a sequel is debatable. Luckily, Unleashed emerges as a fiercely individual beast, fearlessly breaking new ground and exploring the mythology created in the first film. It begins with the revelation that Brigitte has been living a nomadic and reclusive life ever since she killed her sister. She has also been desperately trying to keep her own inner wolf suppressed by injecting herself with Monkshood. Allusions to drug addiction and self-harm are rife throughout the film; Brigitte cuts herself to see how quickly her wounds heal and bases her self-medication on this information. We come to understand that unfortunately Monkshood is not a cure; it simply slows down, and prolongs, the unavoidable process of lycanthropy.

After a narrow escape from a lustful alpha-beastie, Brigitte collapses and awakens inside a drug rehab clinic, her stash of Monkshood confiscated and her burgeoning lycanthropy threatening to burst to the surface of her already weary and fragile body. Confining the story to this location really gives the film a sense of desperation and claustrophobia as the stakes are consistently stacked against our luckless heroine. Throughout Ginger Snaps, the titular character may have been the one undergoing a monstrous transformation, but Brigitte was also experiencing a transformation of her own. Hers may have been the least horrific, but it was no less traumatic as she eventually found it within herself to step out of her sister's shadow and in a bid for independence - and survival. We rooted for both sisters, but it was Brigitte whose plight we could perhaps empathise with the most and Unleashed really gives Emily Perkins the opportunity to explore the character further and unleash some seriously good acting chops. Here Brigitte is more desperate, cynical and worldly wise; but her determination to stay alive and maintain her own identity is as resilient as ever.



While the screenplay by Megan Martin is nowhere near as sly in its double-edged wit as Karen Walton’s, it at least has the guts to branch out and explore other concepts within the story. Whereas Ginger Snaps served as a subversive metaphor for burgeoning womanhood, Unleashed takes pot shots at conventional psychiatry and seems to suggest that post-puberty adulthood is subsequently where the real darkness and desperation lies. One memorable scene deftly blurs the lines between dream and reality and adds a heady helping of sexual anxiety and Sapphic undertones as Brigitte is made to join an encounter group with her fellow patients. As they lay on their backs they begin to masturbate and as things become more intense, Brigitte’s sedated inner lycanthrope makes an alarming appearance as she begins to transform on the brink of climax. This is perhaps where Unleashed ventures closest to ideas of the ‘monstrous feminine’ and transgressive sexuality explored in the original film. As much as Unleashed continues with its predecessor’s body-horror narrative, it is as much a psychological horror story in its depiction of desperate characters existing on the fringes of mainstream society.

Unfortunately few of the intriguing characters it adds to the mix aren’t really explored, with the exception of Ghost (Tatiana Maslany), a strange orphan girl with a penchant for comic books and arson, and the dashing but dangerous orderly Tyler (Eric Johnson), who strikes a deal with Brigitte to supply her with a stash of Monkshood; this is fine though, as Brigitte is as ostracised in the clinic as she was outside of it and is wary of getting close to anyone. There are also infrequent appearances by Ginger which remind us of the bond the sisters shared, but her role here is peripheral as she coaxes Brigitte to give in to her increasingly primal urges from beyond the grave (or as a figment of Brigitte’s increasingly distraught psyche).



Unleashed has a much grittier tone due to the location, though the bleak mood is just as strong – if not stronger. Gone is the cosy orange suburban glow that bathed proceedings in the original, in its place is an icy coldness and slow-burning hopelessness. While there are several gory and highly taut set pieces, they’re not just there for the sake of gratuity; they are part of the story and serve to highlight the ever nightmarish situation Brigitte finds herself in. The constant, mainly unseen threat of the male werewolf stalking her opens up but never fully explores something that was suggested in the original – that others have found themselves in the Fitzgerald sister’s situation and have also succumbed to the monstrously feral ways of lycanthropy. The threat of this particular beast is always in the background of the story, which increases the foreboding atmosphere and maintains tension. We discover it has been dogging Brigitte for some time, so even if she does manage to escape the clinic – the ‘haven’ of which has already been breeched by the monster – she will still have to face it when she gets out...

While there is a certain tragic inevitability in Brigitte’s fate, in so much as it mirrors that of Ginger’s, Unleashed takes a further dark twist regarding it that seems cruel given how much we’ve invested in the character. In the abnormal reality of the film however, it works quite well and could arguably be described as ‘happy.’ Especially if one takes into consideration the comic book motif that comes into play with the character of Ghost… Unleashed follows a very offbeat trail, particularly in terms of its narrative and pacing, but it is a worthy follow up to Ginger Snaps that should surprise and enthral.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Flesh and Blood Show

1972
Dir. Pete Walker

A group of actors rehearsing a play in an old abandoned seaside theatre are menaced by a homicidal maniac.

When it comes to British horror cinema, writer/director/producer Pete Walker is often sorely overlooked. Beginning his career making mischievous soft-core sexploitation movies, Walker would later progress to deliberately antagonistic, subversive and antiauthoritarian shockers such as Frightmare, House of Whipcord and House of Mortal Sin. Amongst the bare breasts and splashy gore of these films were scathing social commentaries on British institutions such as class, family and the legal system. Unapologetic, violent, exploitative, strangely thoughtful and always anti-establishment in their outlook, Walker’s later films were controversial, not only because of the extreme content, but also because of their reflection on the darker, seedier underbelly of British society. Walker’s first tentative venture into the horror/thriller arena came with Die Screaming Marianne, featuring Susan George as a young woman on the run from her father, a corrupt judge. However it was with The Flesh and Blood Show that the director would really take the plunge into the murky depths of shock-cinema…

Unravelling as a sort of proto-slasher flick, The Flesh and Blood Show exhibits a few traits of the then still-to-be-established subgenre, such as its cast of sexed-up, nubile young people, the isolated location and the lurking killer ready to off the vestiphobic cast one by one. There are also several red herrings and shady characters that could well be capable of carrying out the grisly deeds. Like so many slasher films after it, Walker’s film follows a Ten Little Indians who-dunnit format; it is also rather gialloesque in its unveiling of the killer and his/her motives, as their obsessive psychosis stems from a past misdeed which they are doomed to relive over and over. When the film was first released, the flashback depicting the original crime was conveyed in 3D.



The most successful and frankly irresistible aspect of Walker’s film is the setting. The majority of events play out in an old run down theatre at the end of a pier. The establishing shots of the location are immensely moody and really articulate its remoteness and isolation in a small, misty, out of season seaside town. Inside the theatre await long shadowy hallways that disappear into pitch blackness. The sounds also provide an unsettling atmosphere. A low wind moans through the draughty corridors, water drips constantly from old pipes and ancient floorboards creak under the weight of the dark secrets enfolded within the building. Unfortunately a lot of the action is hard to follow because the location is so dark, and matters become confusing as it’s is hard to differentiate between the various characters as they tentatively, and in the case of the women, usually nakedly, explore the vast, spooky confines of the building.

Alfred Shaughnessy’s screenplay exhibits a number of slyly reflexive tendencies which initially toy around with what is real and what is not. The opening scene sets the precedent as a young naked woman answers a knock on her door in the middle of the night to a man with a knife in his chest. When she responds by screaming he proceeds to fall about laughing as it’s revealed he is an actor who has just finished working on a horror film and was playing a joke on her.



While Walker does get a number of things right – the creepy setting, the spooky atmosphere, the grim tone and the intriguing premise, The Flesh and Blood Show soon stumbles around as unsure and confused as the characters in the dark theatre. The script meanders and breaks any tension it has mustered. While writer Shaughnessy takes the time to establish the characters and Walker layers on the moodiness with a trowel, it’s all quite wasted by a convoluted plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. With a little tightening up; the script could have been really sharp and shocking. The pacing is also rather uneven and any suspense generated by certain scenes in which characters wander around in the dark unaware of the danger they’re in from a heavy-breathing psycho is eroded by too many other moments in which they stand around and discuss how creepy the theatre is, rehearse their play, take off their clothes, go out to the town to get coffee or complain about the chilliness while wearing very little. Much talk of Theatre Group 40, the mysterious company that summoned the actors to the theatre, is sadly unexplored until the end.

While The Flesh and Blood Show may provide mildly exploitative entertainment, for a film with a title such as this, there’s too much flesh and not enough blood, and the overwhelmingly creepy locale and premise is sadly wasted. Still worth checking out though for fans of Walker’s later, more bloodily realised titles.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Theatre of Death

1967
Dir. Samuel Gallu

AKA Blood Fiend

The investigation into a number of grisly murders in which the victims bodies have been exsanguinated, leads detectives to a creepy Parisian theatre specialising in horror productions. Could someone at the theatre be responsible? No! Surely not!

Opening with a scene in which an attractive young woman is forced onto a guillotine and decapitated in front of an appreciative audience, only for her to emerge alive and well from behind the theatre curtain to accept her applause, Theatre of Death is intent on letting us know from the outset that all will not be as it seems. The lines between what is real and what is not twist and turn throughout proceedings. Setting the story in the real-life Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris is an inspired choice. Between the years of 1897 and 1962 it specialised in the production of deliberately shocking and lurid plays, the raison d’être of which was to depict bloody scenes of murder and torture on stage to titillate and terrify audiences.

Amalgamating aspects of Phantom of the Opera (a shadowy figure skulking behind the scenes of a theatre production), typical vampire movie traits (victims found drained of blood) and the slightest hints of possession movie conventions (hypnotism, meddling with the past), Theatre of Blood is always intriguing though at times feels a little haphazard. Gallu imbues proceedings with deliciously Gothic flourishes such as secret passages behind bookcases, eviiiiil hypnotists, damsels in distress, individuals dogged by their past, hooded killers, grisly murders and the creepy theatre setting itself. There are also a few creaky clichés, including portraits with spy-holes in the eyes and cobwebby dungeons beneath the titular venue, but they only add to the film's spooky charm. Various stalking scenes are filmed with a handheld camera, lending events an off-kilter immediacy. The film even boasts a giallo-esque killer, decked out in a long black coat, fedora hat, black leather gloves and utilising a strangely shaped blade to stab their victims and drain them of blood.



The cast is initially headed by an impressively imposing Christopher Lee. When we're first introduced to him, he is creeping around a series of hidden passages spying on the cast and crew of his theatre production. These scenes are ripe with a sleazy and menacing voyeurism that automatically fingers Darvas as a sinister figure to be wary of. That he’s meddling in a new acting technique that involves hypnosis also casts suspicion on him. That and the fact that he's played by Christopher Lee! Unfortunately Darvas goes missing half-way through proceedings and the film flounders a little without Lee's steely gravitas. The brief scenes depicting the vampiric murderer stalking and killing their prey (off-camera after a freeze-frame on the victims screaming face) feel tacked on as they’re slotted in-between the already intriguing shenanigans at the theatre, but their presence is justified by the twisted reveal at the end.

The central mystery is sustained well with an abundance of red herrings and mysterious disappearances to keep us guessing who the culprit is. Actress Dani (Lelia Goldoni) is revealed to have suffered a nervous breakdown, her pretty roommate Nicole (Jenny Till) has fallen for sinister Darvas, the police surgeon (Julian Glover) courting Dani has had to stop practising surgery due to an ‘incident’ in his recent past. Everyone is coloured with just the right amount of ambiguity to suggest their potential involvement in the gruesome crimes. There are also hushed whisperings of the fate of Darvas' father who went missing years ago, his body never found. Shades of The Picture of Dorian Gray abound when it is suggested that perhaps Darvas Jnr and Snr are one and the same… Darvas wrote 12 plays, but the twelfth one has not been performed yet. Could it hold a clue to the ghastly murders? With so much going on Theatre of Death is oftentimes a little overwhelming, and all the expository dialogue doesn’t help. The pace picks up and the plot strands are pulled together as it nears its climax though.



One of the stand out moments occurs when the cast gather to rehearse a new script inspired by the Salem witchcraft trials. Nicole is hypnotised and appears to be channelling the actions of someone from the past as she advances upon Dani with a red hot poker. Are ghosts from the past possessing the actors in order to relive past macabre events on stage? A number of tantalising theories regarding the killer’s modus operandi are suggested, such as a sexual bloodlust, a macabre syndrome or a desire for eternal life. The genuinely surprising twist not only unveils the killer, it also reveals that their bloodlust is a morbid but natural disposition due to a traumatic Donner Party-like experience in their childhood when they were fed blood by their mother to ensure their survival in the wilderness.

Upon second viewing Theatre of Death is actually peppered with crafty clues and allusions to what is going on. Pay particular attention to the huge painting over Darvas’ fireplace, depicting a mother feeding her enfant.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Mummy’s Shroud

1967
Dir. John Gilling

When a group of British archaeologists uncover the secret desert tomb of a child Pharaoh outside Cairo, they invoke an ancient curse and the murderous wrath of a mummy...

If the above synopsis sounds familiar, that's because it is. The Mummy's Shroud boasts a typical mummy movie narrative in which a group of stuffy British archaeologists go snooping around in a Pharaoh's tomb and one by one are violently killed by a mummy - in this case, the faithful servant of the child prince whose burial place they desecrate. It was the third mummy movie made by Hammer. Director Gilling and writer Anthony Hinds don't really bring anything different or unusual to the tale, as it unravels (sorry) in the most stringently conventional way. Gilling's prior Hammer titles The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies were much more interesting, offbeat and effective horror films that at least tampered with convention and expectations. While the predictability slightly hinders the plot, there are at least several effectively handled and atmospheric moments of tension throughout. The titular creature is relegated to the shadows for the most part, as are the various moments of violence.

It begins with a lengthy narration-heavy prologue depicting the early years of the child prince Kah-to-Bey, who flees into exile with his faithful servant Prem after his father is murdered in a bloody coup. When hiding in the desert, the prince's small band of followers eventually dies, including the prince himself who is buried by Prem. Throughout these scenes the film's low budget is obvious but not distracting. Once the story moves to the 1920s when the tomb of the prince is discovered, the action becomes somewhat sporadic and further diluted by the overly talky scenes that bookend it. Events shuffle along at a somnambulistic pace with scene after scene of characters standing around sweating in khaki suits, mopping their brows and uttering expository dialogue in an unmistakably British - re: stiff upper-lipped - manner. Despite this, the dialogue is as colourful and wryly humorous as what you'd expect from a Hammer production. The film also contains all the usual harbingers of doom you'd expect to find in a traditional mummy film, including crystal ball reading clairvoyant Haiti (Catherine Lacey, The Sorcerers) and her sinister son Hasmid (Roger Delgado), the guardian of the tomb. It is they who instigate the mummy's rampage by reciting text from a mystical burial shroud.



A number of strikingly lit scenes, such as those in the clairvoyant's creepy boudoir and Harry Newton's darkroom possess an infernal, Bava-esque atmosphere. Scenes play out in limited locations which heightens the sense of claustrophobia as the story progresses. By the time the archaeologists realise that they're in danger because of their involvement in the excavation of the tomb and their increasingly panicked attempts to buy their way out of the city become the driving force of the story, events hang heavy with a clipped and quietly sweltering desperation. After the majority of the group are murderlised by the mummy - which usually sneaks up behind its victims and crushes their skull/throws photo development solution in their face/flings them from a high window etc - the third act picks up the pace when the surviving characters finally take action and attempt to stop the killing spree.




The cast is populated by familiar Hammer faces such as Andre Morell (Hound of the Baskervilles, Plague of the Zombies, Camp on Blood Island) as the dignified but doomed leader of the expedition, Sir Basil Walden, and Michael Ripper (The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies, Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) as the harassed and put-upon Longbarrow. Indeed, Longbarrow is the only character who evokes any kind of sympathy due to Ripper's effectively endearing performance. Other characters aren't given much to do, and the admittedly attractive hero and heroine (David Buck and Maggie Kimberly) are a little bland.

While The Mummy's Shroud sticks rigidly to convention, it still provides creepy entertainment with a touch of that unmistakable Hammer class; even if it is one of their lesser titles.