Sunday, November 30, 2014

Growing a Backbone

When he found out how much we liked Pan's Labyrinth, our friend Curt suggested we watch its brother-film, Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001). It is another horror story set in the Spanish Civil War, but the orphan in this story is a young boy.

He is delivered to an isolated orphanage by Republican fighters who don't even tell him his father is dead. He doesn't seem too thrilled to be there, but is fascinated by the unexploded bomb in the middle of the orphanage courtyard. That's not the only unexploded ordinance around either. Soon, he is confronted by a vision of a drowned boy that no one will talk about.

Conditions in the orphanage are rough, with barely enough food to go around, and no way to buy more. It's run by a noble old scholar and his bitter, one-legged wife, with the aid of a dangerously handsome young man. The war, which the Republicans are losing, is on all of their minds. But the children are more concerned about each other and the ghost.

Once again, we find a child confronted by great evils - a world of ghosts and spirits, and the greater evils of the war. The movie has many moods, but mostly spread between quiet and noisy terror. The ghost story is very satisfying, but there are no happy endings.

Both of these stories reminded me of the desperation and surrealism of the Spanish New Wave cinema - in particular, Spirit of the Beehive. We got that from Netflix as well, but the disc was shattered on arrival. Hope to have that review for you soon.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Graved Invitation

I know Halloween's over, but Ms. Spenser wants to keep watching scary movies. It turned out she hasn't seen The Uninvited (1944), so here we go.

Ray Milland and his sister Ruth Hussey are bumming around the Cornwall coast and find a deserted old manor. They fall in love with it when their terrier chases a squirrel up the chimney. They impulsively buy it for a suspiciously low price, and find out that a woman had died there. Her daughter Stella (Gail Russell) has a strange attachment to the place. And that's not the only strange thing going on.

This is a very atmospheric ghost story, but a rather romantic one. There are some frights, but they are mostly cozy frights. The scariest room of the house is the studio, which Milland makes into his music studio. There, he composes Stella by Starlight, the theme made popular by this movie. So he couldn't have been too uncomfortable there.

In fact, Milland does a lot of clowning around in this film, considering it is a ghost story. Gail Russell is a bit haunted, or at least a touch neurotic, but she's so lovely, it's hard to be scared. The scariest thing in the movie is Cornelia Otis Skinner, playing the fierce woman who may have been a little too close to the dead woman. She now runs a sanatorium, a cathedral-like pile, where young Stella is to be locked up for her own good.

Mostly this is a romantic movie - it reminded me of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that way. I think it will cause more sighs than chills.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Water, Eyes and Mirrors

Ms. Spenser had never seen Minority Report (2002), but she had listened to the epic Filmsack podcast. So I queued it up.

Minority report is Steven Spielberg's take on a Philip K. Dick story. In the future, murder has been eliminated in Washington D.C. The Pre-Crime Unit arrests anyone who is going to commit murder in the future. Tom Cruise is a top pre-crime cop with a troubled past. His son was abducted and murdered before pre-crime was a thing. So he is very big behind this program - until the precogs forsee that he himself will commit a murder in a few days.

Of course, he runs. As the cop in the movie says, "They always run." That gives us a good action movie with Tom Cruise jumping from futuristic car to futuristic car, etc. It also shows him trying to blend into the crowd in a world of pervasive surveillance and advertising that recognizes you personally by your eyeball iris pattern. And yet, he has no problem getting away. I guess people hadn't really taken the whole surveillance state concept on board in 2002.

A couple of things:
  • This is a great looking movie. Aside from all the future tech (this movie probably popularized the idea of a gesture computer interface), there are some great visuals; scenes drenched in light with the highlights blown out in halos around Cruise. Reminded me a little bit of Kubrick, also reminded me that director Spielberg is a hell of a director.
  • I had forgotten how goofy this movie could be - there are several scenes of pure slapstick, and in some pretty weird places. I wonder if this was meant to be a Phildickian touch: He could be pretty silly.
  • The Filmsack podcast sort of focused on the question of the symbolism of water in this movie: Was it intentional, did it have a pay-off, was it even there? All I can say is, yes, water, mirrors and eyeballs, all repeated motifs. I can't say if the symbols pay off, but, as mentioned above, it looks great.
Note that I still don't think much of Tom Cruise as an actor. He must be really fun to work with or something, because he keeps getting great roles. But he gets some great backup here, like Colin Farrell (Total Recall reboot) as the fed investigating the Pre-Crime Division to see if it should be expanded nationally. Or Max von Sydow as the professorial head of Pre-Crime or Lois Smith as the woman who developed the process and now plays with mutant plant life. Samantha Morton's precog pulled into the world of now ("Is it now?") really sells it, too. She doesn't depend on seeing the future to get them out of too many jams, but when she does, it is very Dick, like, say, Paycheck

There's a lot of Dick in this movie, unlike, say, Bladerunner, or either Total Recall. Cruise is a bit of a druggie due to the loss of his son, and estranged from his wife - both common Dick themes. The whole predestination question is treated respectfully, so the philosophical theme is more or less left intact, even if Dick let it play out differently in the source story.

But I wouldn't recommend it because it is authentic Phil Dick. I recommend it because it's a good looking spectacle action film, with a creamy Philip K. Dick center. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cowboys and Dinosaurs

I can't believe I hadn't seen The Valley of Gwangi (1969) until now. My only excuse is that it was hard to get hold of for a while, at least on Netflix. Since it is still scary movie season, I though it would be a good creature feature.

It starts with a little Mexican Wild West circus. When cowboy James Franciscus meets up with the circus, their star act is a tiny eohippus - a living prehistoric proto-horse. The local gypsies (sure, gypsies in Mexico, why not) know that the Forbidden Valley holds many such creatures, but, you know, forbidden. Still, Franciscus and a proto-family including fiery circus owner Gila Golan and little Mexican orphan Curtis Arden form a posse to go in and bring out some cool monsters.

And boy do they find monsters! This is the beauty part: Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animated a bunch of cool dinosaurs, and pitted them against each other, against cowboys and even a T-Rex v. elephant fight in a bullring. These are not only as cool as Harryhausen's usual, but the addition of cowboys somehow makes it iconic. I never realized that cowboys and dinosaurs had to go together, but it's obvious now. I now understand some of the images I've seen in underground comix come from.

In conclusion, did anyone else notice anything ... interesting ... about the slit in the rocks that takes you to the Forbidden Valley? Yeah, us too. The way they forced them selves through was a little disturbing.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Her Hair was Perfect

I don't know why I queued up She-Wolf of London (1946). I guess it was Halloween horror season and I was in the mood for an old black-and-white. Roderick Heath of This Island Rod had given it a pretty positive review, but -SPOILER- he spoilered the heck out of it. Worse, I assumed we'd never watch it, and spoilered it for Ms. Spenser. Oh well, it was still kind of fun.

It is set in an old dark house in London next to Hyde Park (I guess - these studio park sets look all alike to me). June Lockhart (yay!) is the sole heir to the Allenby estate, and the curse - the curse of the werewolf! She is getting a bit worried, what with the savage murders taking place nearby, the blood on her hands when she wakes up, and so on. Her harridan guardian, the guardian's beautiful daughter and the creepy housekeeper are all trying to keep her out of trouble. Or are they?!?

But I can say no more. Read Rod if you want spoilers.

This is a late Universal horror, with a lot of atmosphere and no budget. Also, not much horror, unless you think about some of the murders. About on par with some of the lesser Sherlock Holmes movies, or maybe a Charlie Chan. Which I like too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hammer On

As I mentioned, I have not watched any Hammer Horror films (or Amicus, for that matter). I'm not sure Dracula A.D. 1972 (made in 1972, of course) was the best way to start.

After a brief, revisionist death of Dracula at the hands of van Helsing scene, the movie takes place in the "present" - 1972, swinging London. A bunch of hippie freaks are hanging around the rock band Stoneground, who are actually pretty good. This is a bit of a digression, because they don't show up after the first party scene, but I kind of liked them.

Any way, one of these freaks, Johnny Alucard, played by Malcolm McDowell-lite Christopher Neame, decides to hold a black mass to raise Dracula from the dead. With the help of some heavy psychedelic rock and Caroline Munro's naked body, he succeeds.

So, Christopher Lee walks again - but he doesn't really get much screen time. He turns a few of the freaks, and they do the terrorizing. One of the the freaks, Stephanie Beacham, is the grand-daughter of the present day van Helsing, Peter Cushing, so he gets involved.

And a good thing too. Cushing is the best thing in this show. Lee's Dracula has a nicely cold, monstrous style, but isn't really to compelling. Also, not a lot of screen time (and such small portions!). So it really comes down to how much you like watching movies about scumbag hippie freaks.

In conclusion, I guess I liked it. Needed more Stoneground, though.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Black and White

In my search for a scary movie for Ms. Spenser, I queued up The Woman in Black (2012). I knew very little about it, other than it was a the first new Hammer Horror film since forever, and it was Daniel Radcliffe's first big post-Harry Potter role.

It was also the first film I picked that really scared Ms. S.

Radcliffe plays a solicitor with a young son, a dead wife and many unpaid bills. We first meet him holding a razor to his throat. I was never sure about how good an actor he was when he was playing a young wizard, but the look in his eyes as he gazes into the mirror in this scene really says something.

His job requires him to go to a village to settle a will by selling an old creepy mansion. His boss lets him know that if he can't close this deal, he is out of a job - a bit of a callback to Drag Me to Hell. The villagers are not friendly, but they have an excuse: The village children keep killing themselves in rather horrible ways.

The film combines slow, gripping horror and jump scares with more subtle tingles, like ghosts seen over a character's shoulder that disappear in the next shot. The atmosphere is wonderfully dismal. There are white-out fogs on the marsh, lonesome graveyards, horsemen out in the mist, old letters with horrible secrets, and of course, a woman in black - and even one in white.

Since we haven't seen any - any - of the old Hammer Horrors, we can't say how this fits into the oeuvre, but it certainly hit the spot for us. Truly chilling.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Horror Weekend

Ms. Spenser likes a good scary movie much more than me. She wanted me to get serious with the scaries for the Halloween season. So I got a grip on myself, screwed my courage to the sticking point, and started queuing.

After watching Joe Dante's late career horror film, I remembered that Sam Raimi had done the same thing: Drag Me to Hell (2009). I wasn't sure how scary it was, but had heard something bad happens to a kitten - that makes it pretty bad in my book.

Alison Lohman plays a farm girl who has moved to LA to make a new life. She is working on her hick accident, she has a rich, smart boyfriend (Justin Long) and she is trying to get ahead at the bank she works at. She is trying to get a promotion and has to prove she is tough, so she turns down a mortgage extension for an old gypsy woman. That bad move earns her a curse.

It starts with a few flies and some creepy non-diegetic noises. She starts to lose it at work and with Justin Long's snooty parents. She looks to storefront psychic Dileep Rao for help, but he's a bit out of his depth.

Now, this movie is pretty scary - the old gypsy, with her clouded eye and snaggled, removable teeth is horrifying. But kind of funny too, like when she gets her teeth knocked out and tries to gum Lohman's face off. You know, a Sam Raimi movie. The only thing missing is a Bruce Campbell cameo. So I survived pretty well, but:
  • I was kind of hoping Justin Long would get done in
  • I'm still upset about the kitten
The next night was a bit more serious: Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006). I've been hearing about this for a while, and, although I was nervous, I still wanted to see it. Set around the end of the Spanish Civil War, it stars Ivana Baquero as a dreamy little girl who loves fairy stories. Her father was killed in the war and her mother is pregnant by a Falangist captain. The captain has summoned them to his headquarters in an old mill. In an ancient labyrinth by the mill, Baquero meets a nature spirit, a faun, who explains that she is a fairy princess and must complete three tasks to regain her kingdom.

The story mixes the horrors of war and the horror of ancient myths. Del Toro is equally at home with both. His monsters and fairies are scary, his soldiers and rebels more so. The movie is full of little tricks, symbols and mirrors: gears, labyrinths, keys, feasts and so on. It also had a number of odd references back to Drag Me to Hell, like insects, cloudy eyes and coats in a particular shade of blue. Coincidence, I am sure.

For Sunday, we wanted to go a little more sophisticated, so we picked the Thai ghost story, Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls Past Lives (2010). A woman and her son visit his uncle in the Thai countryside. His kidney is failing and the spirit world is coming closer to him. The ghost of his dead wife drops by for dinner, and no one seems too shocked (although Uncle Boonme is embarrassed because she is still young and he has aged). His son drops in as well, but he has become a ghost monkey, a yeti-like creature with glowing red eyes. And so on.

This is presented in long, slow, uneventful takes. The camera lingers on an empty room, or an ox, or a few people sitting quietly - lingers for a long time. This can be beautiful and meditative, and it is also annoying and self-indulgent. There is some humor, some wonder, some beauty, also a bit of boredom. Not scary at all.

So, one horror-comedy, one horror-fairy tale, and one unscary art house film. I need to try harder before Halloween.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

As the Worm Turns

The Lair of the White Worm (1998) might have been pretty terrifying if it wasn't so silly. Possibly silly isn't the right word - I believe that Ken Russell's work must always be referred to as "outrageous"

Let's see if I have the story straight: archaeologist Peter Capaldi, digging in the scenic English village of D'Ampton where he discovers the strange skull of a giant reptile - but not prehistoric: He finds it along with Roman artifacts. At a party thrown by Lord D'Ampton (Hugh Grant), he gets the story of the local monster, the D'Ampton Worm, via a catchy folk rock tune. But most importantly, he meets slinky Amanda Donohoe, local playgirl, who teaches him to play strip Snakes-and-Ladders.

There's no doubt about it: The Donohoe dame is up to no good. But can Capaldi and Grant stop her? And will her weapons involve hallucinatory visions of nuns being raped by centurions while Christ looks down from the cross? Will Capaldi fight back in kilts? Come on, it's a Ken Russell film. What do you think?

I went in thinking this would be lurid and disturbing. Lurid, yes, but really more of a horror comedy than horror. And a lot of fun as that.

And I just realized the Peter Capaldi is now the twelfth Doctor.