Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Because I'm Frowning All The Time

No, not the band - the movie Black Sabbath (1964), that the band took it's name from. This is an Italian horror anthology, directed by the master of light and darkness, Mario Bava.

It is introduced by an avuncular Boris Karloff, who will be back soon. The first segment is "The Telephone." Swanky Michele Mercier is hanging about her chic apartment when the phone rings - but there is no one there. She hangs up but it rings again and again. The caller turns out to be her pimp who went to prison because of her, and now he's out and he knows everything she is doing. She calls her best enemy to come over, but she may be more dangerous than the caller.

This is a nice little mood piece, fluffy and frilly like Mercier's apartment, with a few nice twists. It is also an early giallo - those Italian slasher films known for stylish twists like black-gloved killers and sexy victims.

The middle story is probably the best and most famous: "The Wurdulak." A wanderer (Mark Damon) in the Czar's Russia comes upon a corpse with a dagger in its heart. He takes the dagger to the nearest farmhouse and finds that it came from their collection. They tell him that the father was out hunting wurdulak, an undead creature that kills who it loved most in life. When father gets home, there is some concern because he was out past the time limit he himself imposed. Is the father now a wurdulak? Hint: He is played by Boris Karloff.  The story is allegedly based on a story by Tolstoy, but I don't know how closely it follows it.

The last story, "A Drop of Water" is another mood piece. A woman (Jacqueline Pierreux) is at home in a small room with a glass of something, a gramaphone and her knitting. But she is called out to a creepy old mansion where a medium has died. She has been called to lay out the corpse. In the process, she steals a ring, and knocks over a glass of water. Soon, she is haunted by water droplets and the buzzing of a fly.

I liked the setting a lot - the cozy apartment, the creepy mansion, but the water drop/buzzing fly bugaboo was a little too random for me. Neither is that scary and they aren't really linked. Oh well.

Then Uncle Boris comes out to wish us good night, and don't let the vampires bite.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Let Us Prey

Don't know why we decided it was time to watch Predator (1987) - It was something to do with Dolph Lundgren... who isn't in this, so never mind.

It stats with Carl Weathers (yay!) recruiting search and extractions expert Arnold Schwarzenegger and team to rescue a diplomat is the South American country of Val Killme. The team includes quiet scary Bill Duke, loud blustery Jesse Ventura, comic relief Shane Black, and Sonny Landham, the Indian of the group.

They get in-country find another rescue team skinned and hung upside down. They take a revolutionary woman (Elpidia Carrillo) captive and try to figure out what's happening as they start getting killed one by one.

We get a  killer's eye view for some of this - hazy thermal imaging that makes you wonder how the Predator ever manages to kill anything. Then we get to "see" the monster - in quotes because it uses some form of camoflage to blend in with the jungle. Neither of these effects is that impressive, but they are fun and iconic.

There's a nice ensemble feel to the movie, with the various team members getting generous screen time, until they are all dead or safe across the border and it's Arnold vs. Predator, mano a thingo. We get to see Arnold carefully setting up kill box full of booby traps and... I won't spoil it.

Now I remember why we wanted to see this - so we could watch Predator 2 (Pred in the Big City)! Dolph Lundgren isn't in that either, I guess. Also, we'll watch some Shane Black soon. Why not?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mao or Tao?

Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015) is another time-waster - a Chinese martial arts fantasy with nothing in particular special about it, except that it is new.

The Mojin are tomb raiders, but for the people. In times of famine, they are authorized to go into the tombs of the ancients to get gold to buy food for the people. They have practiced this craft since ancient times, learning all the tricks to avoid the traps and possible spirits of the tombs.

Our group includes Kun Chen, the studious, serious guy with the long wispy hipster beard and Bo Huang (Journey to the West), the goofy braggart. The girl in the mix is Qi Shu. After a disastrous raid, they are sort of hiding out in New York, selling dubious antiquities on the street. Dandified Yu Xia, a sort of tomb raiding agent, pulls them back to Mongolia for another try at the treasure. And they will find out what happened to Angelababy, the Maoist cadre that they thought had died in the first raid.

The action and CGI is all fine, very good in fact, but not really special. Two special points are:
  • The Mongolian setting, with lots of throat-singing, yurts, etc. Exotic and colorful.
  • The Communist setting. We see our heroes setting out into Mongolia in a truck full of cadres in green, waving their little red books and arguing the dialectics of grave robbing. 
This is clearly a requirement of the government - to explain the fantastic in materialist terms, to exalt the revolution as opposed to the old imperial ways. It's kind of thrilling, to see this kind of Mao-chic, even remembering the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The politics don't really stand out much, just in one or two scenes. Adds a little spice to a fun but ordinary movie.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine

Although Velvet Goldmine (1998) was directed by Todd Haynes, it is scarcely the Douglas Sirkian melodrama I insisted were his metier. Rather, it is a glittery, decadent story about the rise and fall of Glam Rock.

It is written from the point of view of Christian Bale, a rather beat-down reporter in New York, 1984. He is assigned to do a "Where are they now" on Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). In a flashback we see all the young dudes and dollies heading for his big 1974 show, including Bale and a shadowy figure referred to as Jack Fairy. This is going to be Slade's last show as his alter-ego Maxwell Demon. As he goes on stage and takes the mike, Bale sees that shadowy figure shoot him dead and blow him a kiss.

So right off I'm thinking, it's Eddie and the Cruisers for glam rockers. But no, the whole world finds out that is was just a prank, and Slade slowly fades from the public eye. Bale interviews whoever he can find, each one delivering a long flashback about Slade's early life. Playing the festival in a frock. Meeting crude American thrash-rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Losing his wife (Toni Collette) to a life of gay sex, drugs and decadence. Then vanishing.

We also see Bale growing up in small town England, deeply closeted. We see him going to London, spreading his wings, joining the glam rockers and loving it. We don't see how he wound up a New York media drone, but that beautiful time couldn't have lasted forever.

There's also a series of odd bits about Oscar Wilde being a space alien orphan child and a piece of green costume jewelry that has passed from hand to hand - "Everybody stole from Jack Fairy". A lot of the dialog is quotes from Wilde. This touch of surrealism is nice, keeps you from taking it too seriously.

One of the fun things about this movie is the roman a clef feel. Slade is obviously Bowie, but his name references Bryan Ferry and the band Slade. Curt Wild is mostly Iggie Pop and a little Lou Reed, but there is a touch of Kurt Cobain in his name and hair styling. (Plus of course, Kurt Weill.) The kids waiting to see the Maxwell Demon farewell show looked so much like the kids in the Pennebaker documentary that I'm sure it was used as reference. All this with the gayness turned up to 11.

But, you ask, what about the music? The first cut is Brian Eno's "Needle in a Camel's Eye" from Here Come the Warm Jets. That got us going for sure. There's a lot of Eno, Roxy Music, T. Rex, Lou Reed, and the Stooges, original versions or covers. There's even a cut of Andy Pratt, an obscure favorite from our college days - where is he now? The bands have some real heavy hitters, including Thom York and Thurston Moore. There's a preponderance of dramatic ballads, where we might have preferred more up-tempo rockers, but it's not like Bowie didn't ever sing Jacques Brel or anything.

If you have an sparkel of glitter in your blood stream, you should watch this. I was a fan, but Ms. Spenser was an actual glam girl, and she endorses.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Twelve Dreams

I promised Ms. Spenser a good old-fashioned horror double bill: The Old Dark House/Mr. Sardonicus (1963/1961)? Once again, I owe her a horror movie.

The Old Dark House is a loose remake of the 1932 James Whale  creepy house story, directed and produced by shock-schlock meister William Castle. About the only things he kept were the setting and the name of the family that lived in the house: the titter-worthy Femms. Made for Hammer Films, it starts in a London casino where American Tom Poston is looking for his flatmate Peter Bull. Poston lives in the flat at night, Bull during the day - something he explains several times but can't explain. They make a run up to the ancestral home, but when Poston arrives, he finds Bull dead - or is he?

We meet the whole creepy family, although some are kept locked away. Robert Morely plays the head of the family, a gun collector. Mervyn Johns is the meek religious nut. Janette Scott is the sweet girl who doesn't really fit in, while Fenella Fielding is the nympho black widow type who does. Fielding has a very sexy, husky voice, similar to Glynnis Johns. Lovely name too.

As you might guess, this is a farce, not a horror movie (although there is a body count). It's pretty funny too, and you don't need to have seen the original. They probably overdid the comedy sound effects and silly music though.

Mr. Sardonicus is the real thing. It starts with William Castle with his signature cigar in foggy London introducing the movie. It stars prominent physician Ronald Lewis, who gets a letter from his lost love Audrey Dalton. She beseeches him to visit her and her husband in the tiny country of Gorbsmak, just past Fredonia. It seems that her husband, the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) has a problem, and he thinks Lewis can help. You see, he has a hideous skull-like rictus, like The Man Who Laughed. If Lewis can cure him, he can have the Baron's wife. If not, their brutish man-servant Krull (Oscar Homolka!) will torture her. He has a thing he does with leeches to the maid-servant...

This is quite creepy and justly famous for it's makeup effects. It's also famous for one of Castle's goofy gimmicks - he stops the movie and tells everyone in the audience to hold up their glow-in-the-dark cards with thumbs up or thumbs down. Should the villain be punished or will the audience show mercy? It's no surprise that he only filmed one ending. He sure knew his audiences and what they want.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Unhand that Man! Hold your tongue!

Titus (1999) isn't quite a horror movie, although there are plenty of killings and a bit of cannibalism. It's Shakespeare for goodness sake. But this isn't polite Masterpiece Theater. It's Julie Taymor.

It is based on Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's early tragedy. It is a tale of honorable general Titus coming to great grief after he sacrifices the son of Tamora, conquered Queen of the Goths. But Taymor starts with a boy eating cereal, watching tv and playing with war toys. As his play gets more violent and frantic, he is finally grabbed by a Roman soldier and taken to the scene of Titus' triumphal procession with his Gothic prisoners. He must sacrifice Tamora's son no matter how she begs because it is the Roman way. Even though some of these Romans wear togas, some trenchcoats.

Everything Titus does is out of honor. He rejects the imperial crown because he believes it should go to the old Caesar's son, even though he is a thug who demands the hand of Titus's beloved daughter. He even kills his own son who tries to prevent the marriage. He lives his life by what is honorable, proper, and best for Rome. The result is disaster, revenge, and tragedy. This includes rape and dismemberment, hand amputation, blinding and the climactic dinner scene.

We get Shakespeare's grandeur, the gore of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy, and Julie Taymor's surrealism - in a very different vein than Across the Universe (heh-heh, "vein"). Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, as is proper for film's favorite cannibal. Jessica Lange plays Goth queen Tamora, giving it everything she's got. We also liked Harry Lennix as Tamora's secret Moorish lover.

It plays quite long, but it is always beautiful. Recommended.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Horror Host in the House

Well, it's horror season chez Spenser. It starts with Ms. Spenser's birthday in late Sep, and goes through Halloween. Here's a double bill we kicked off with.

House (1977) is a surrealistic Japanese oddity. It's about 7 Japanese schoolgirls who visit the aunt of one of their number in a spooky house - and they begin to die one after another.

But that gives you no idea of what it is like. And that is hard to describe, except totally nuts. The girls, for instance, all go by nicknames: Gorgeous, Fanta (short for Fantasy), Prof (the studious one), Melody, Kung Fu, Sweet, and Mac (always eating - Big Mac?). They giggle and hug each other and sing songs with Melody, the musical one. They maintain this cute (kawaii) act even while they are being killed off. Their heart-throb is a teacher (played by Kiyohiko Ozaki, a Japanese enka/country singer) who wears big sideburns and drives a dune buggy. Gorgeous' father has remarried, a beautiful woman always seen in slo-mo surrounded by floating scarves.

The special effects and deaths are done in the crudest style, a combination of budget limitations and camp. Like when Melody gets eaten by the piano (SPOILER), one of the girls scolds her for showing her panties.

The soundtrack includes some psychedelic stuff by popular Japanese band Go-Diego. Gorgeous' dad writes film music and says at one point that Sergio (Leone) thinks he's better than Ennio (Morricone). So we're supposed to pay attention there.

Anyway, this is more of a comedy - with a pretty steep body count. When it was over, Ms. Spenser told me, "You owe me a horror movie."

So, we watched Korean monster movie, The Host (2006). This is much easier to describe - a hrrobile monster comes out of the river in Seoul, and wreaks havoc. It is seen from the viewpoint of a Korean family that runs a little snack shop by the river. It's run by an old man and his adult, but not very bright son ("He didn't get enough protein when he was young"), and the son's sweet grade school daughter. The old man's other son is a jobless college graduate, his daughter is an Olympic archer. This family is almost the set up for a comedy, with the witless son offering his daughter a beer to celebrate her aunt's Olympic trials. But then the monster erupts.

It's a great monster, kind of like a weaponized tadpole. It likes to hang from bridge infrastructure by its tail and slither into the water. It gulps people down and spits them out, or carries them away in its tail. There's some very gruesome stuff here.

It also has a great look - almost like a documentary of the Seoul urban riverside, with bridges, overpasses, sewers, and parks. The CGI monster looks great and fits right in. Altogether a superior monster movie with a touch of humor and social commentary. So Ms. Spenser was satisfied.