Friday, October 31, 2014

The Visitor (1979)


"You want my advice, old man? Go back to wherever you came from. This world is not for you."
"It's not for you either, kid."


Oh, Italy. Other countries may make completely bonkers horror movies, but my heart is ever with you. Even when you film in America and fill your cast with over-the-hill American movie stars, that Italian flavour is impossible to deny. The Visitor has it all: dazzling camera gymnastics, psychedelic coloured lights, Franco Nero in a blonde wig as Alien Jesus, a story that rips off two movies from seemingly incompatible genres (The Omen - or more specifically, Damien: Omen II - and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) while remaining its own incomprehensible beast, bizarre death scenes, the lazy use of repeated footage, a soundtrack that goes gloriously over the top at the slightest provocation, under-cranked footage of someone going crazy in a wheelchair, etc. A Japanese director like Nobuhiko Ôbayashi will make something as insane as Hausu on purpose, but Italian directors like Giulio Paradisi (working here under the amazing pseudonym Michael J Paradise) will turn out a movie like The Visitor as an attempt at producing a mainstream hit.


I would like to programme a double feature of The Visitor and Star Crash and then sit at the back of the theatre watching people's heads explode. Anyone who survives will be treated to a screening of Messiah of Evil, probably the closest any US movie has come to this sort of sweaty-lipped delirium.


The great genre movie director Luigi Cozzi (Star Crash, Contamination) once claimed that Italian producers wouldn't ask "What is your movie like?" but rather, "What movie is your movie like?" Because of this, Italian genre movies are particularly derivative in terms of story, often going so far as to label themselves as sequels to unrelated movies. In this grand tradition, The Visitor over-achieves by ripping off several earlier movies simultaneously without any regard as to whether they're compatible in any way. The main inspirations at play are Damien: Omen II (a Devil Child resists manipulation by a shadowy business cabal; both movies feature Lance Henriksen as a conspirator and unlikely "accidental" deaths), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (semi-benevolent alien invaders) and God Told Me To (God and Jesus were aliens). The Visitor features ideas and imagery from all three, tosses in some avian menaces from The Birds, and emerges as its own completely deranged beast.


Many of the most entertaining scenes involve John Huston as the leader of the aliens. After a lovely dream-like sequence in a desert, where he sees a vision of the evil child, his every appearance is accompanied by a bombastic and wholly inappropriate action-movie theme. Huston was in his '70s by the time of The Visitor so I guess just climbing the stairs may well have counted for him as strenuous action. In any case, he is absolutely marvelous here, committing wholeheartedly to his role and selling some of the movie's more bizarre dialogue. His scenes with young Paige Conner, who also excels playing the sinister little girl at the heart of the movie, are especially entertaining and Huston manages to come off just the right side of creepy when he presents himself as a babysitter from "the agency".


The story involves a secret cabal of power-hungry old white men lead by Mel Ferrer who want Lance Henrikson to impregnate Joanne Nail (star of the incredible Switchblade Sisters) so they can have two super-powered evil children to help them control the world. John Huston and Franco Nero (uncredited but seemingly playing Jesus) are trying to stop this, with the help of an army of bald children lurking on the roof of a skyscraper in Atlanta, Georgia. Glenn Ford as a police detective attempts to figure out what's going on, and slap-happy Shelly Winters knows what's going on and seems to be the only one immune to Paige Conner's evil powers for some reason. Oddest of all, Sam Peckinpah stops by briefly (badly dubbed with someone else's voice) as Nail's doctor ex-husband.

Compared to many movies in the "devil child" subgenre, The Visitor is quite restrained in terms of violence. It's more at the High Weirdness end of the scale, so there is no rending of flesh. Apparently Shelly Winters slapped Paige O'Connor for real, but that's the limits of it, except for a wee bit of Fulci-style bleeding from the eyes.

I would highly, highly recommend The Visitor to anyone who enjoys the weird-shit end of the Italian horror spectrum. From the basketball shenanigans at the start to the 2001-style cosmic trippiness near the end, from Franco Nero's particularly resplendent facial hair to Joanne Nail's wheelchair hysteria, from bald children to ceramic bird attacks, this movie gives you all you want from Italian horror plus the bonus of slumming old-time Hollywood stars who seem unsure of how seriously to take themselves.





Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)



"It's all a puzzle, isn't it, Joseph? Like a game of chess, perhaps. The pieces move, apparently aimlessly, but always towards one single objective: to kill the king. But who is the king in this game, Joseph? That is the question you must ask yourself."


Hellraiser was one of the more interesting horror movies of the late 1980s. Writer/director Clive Barker created an enduring set of images for the movie, and imbued the story with an interesting moral ambiguity where the audience was encouraged to be more sympathetic towards the villains (a murderous couple driven by a lust for extreme experiences) than the somewhat bland young heroine. The first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, was more flawed but featured a similar wealth of fascinating, trend-setting S&M imagery. Unfortunately the third movie, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, was an ordinary slasher movie with Freddy-style quips. After the troubled production of the fourth, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Barker (who had produced the sequels to this point and was reasonably hands-on in guiding them) abandoned the series to other hands. Five more sequels were churned out, and now Barker is reportedly writing a remake of the first movie.


In this context, you clearly want to bring low expectations to Hellraiser: Inferno, the first movie made without Barker's involvement. In addition, first time co-writer/director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) brings a more Christian sensibility to the movie, trading the earlier movies' sadomasochistic Faustian bargains for more traditional ideas of sin and punishment. Even more troubling, Craig Sheffer (probably cast because he was previously the lead in another Clive Barker movie, Nightbreed) is absolutely terrible as the smart but troubled corrupt cop at the centre of the story.


If you're willing to overlook these problems, you might find that Hellraiser: Inferno is a pretty good low-budget horror movie in its own right. I suspect that it may have started out as an unrelated script and been shoehorned into the Hellraiser franchise during rewrites. It never really imitates the earlier movies in the series and except for a few specific scenes, it doesn't just slavishly imitate the imagery of the earlier movies. The striking new monsters are more reminiscent of the creatures from the Silent Hill games than from Hellraiser. The noirish atmosphere lends the movie a similar feel to Angel Heart. It's a nice looking movie, and hints at a promising future for its young writer/director (who went on to The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and is currently attached to direct the Doctor Strange movie for Marvel).


The movie opens with Detective Joseph Thorne (Sheffer) playing speed chess against a Professor, and winning easily, while a basketball game rages in the background. Immediately afterwards, Thorne heads to his locker and makes a vial of cocaine appear using sleight of hand, and then disappears it again in the same manner. He uses this technique every time he handles drugs in the movie, including stealing them from crime scenes. The imagery is not subtle, but as this is Hellraiser 5 that is perfectly appropriate. Soon we'll see Thorne amending a police report to reduce the amount of money found at the scene, and then using these appropriated funds to hire a prostitute, justifying this in voice-over as a way of stopping himself from leaving his wife and daughter. He's smug and hypocritical, arrogant about his own intelligence, and he preens in front of the mirror at every opportunity. He's our audience identification figure and it's a while before the movie gives us any reason not to hate him.


I am 100% in agreement with a horror movie that asks us to identify with someone who is morally problematic. In this case, it's softened somewhat by Thorne's affinity for children; he sincerely loves his young daughter, and the moment he realises that a child is caught up in the series of murders he's investigating he becomes obsessive about catching the killer. This doesn't balance out the morally reprehensible things he does in the rest of the movie, but it gives the audience a hook, a reason to hope that he's not beyond redemption.

Spoilers:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ring (1998)


I can never pick an all-time favourite horror movie. There are just too many great choices to pick from the last hundred years or so. But my favourite horror movie of the last 20 years is Ring. There's no serious competition. It revitalized a then-moribund genre and its climax was, in the context of the movie, as frightening as anything I've ever seen in a movie. It did this while being low-key, being set in an identifiable and real-world setting, and without resorting to shock tactics. It presents believable, sensible adult characters and puts them into a terrifying situation from which it seems impossible to escape. It drew on themes and ideas from folklore and urban legend without being cliché, and it created a simple yet iconic horror character whose mere appearance still gives me chills.


There are going to be plenty of spoilers in this entry. Although I doubt that there are many horror fans unfamiliar with Ring by now, you should be warned that I'm going to give away the ending of the story right after this paragraph. I'd rather not spoil if for you if I can avoid it, so if you haven't seen Ring or its inferior Hollywood remake I'd suggest that you stop reading now.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Hamiltons (2006)

A young American family, The Hamiltons, find themselves adrift after their parents die. The eldest son David tries to fulfil the role of the father, but the twins Wendell and Darlene continually rebel against all his attempts to establish authority and the teenage son Francis, who narrates the movie, feels that he doesn't belong at all. Meanwhile, they are kidnapping people and chaining them up in the basement, where they also keep something fierce that they refer to only as Lenny locked in a box.



I like it when horror movies cross genres or subgenres, when they pull the rug out from under the audience with a mid-movie surprise and when they make an effort to create interesting characters and put them at the heart of the story. The Hamiltons does all of these things, and I applaud the filmmakers for attempting to do something different within the genre. Unfortunately it does all of these things badly, so I can't really recommend it.

 Spoilers ahoy from this point.




Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kill List (2011)

Jay is young father who has been off work for a while and is reluctant to get back. Under pressure from his wife Shel and his best friend Gal, he takes on a new assignment that will pay well and won't take him away from his family for long. As Jay and Gal get into the work, unexpected complications arise that cause them to question what they have gotten themselves into. Unable to withdraw from the job, the two men start to realise that they're at the centre of something very sinister, and they that have no idea of the rules or even of which game they are playing.



Kill List has an interesting structure in that it successfully switches genre for each third of the movie. If you went in knowing absolutely nothing about it, for a while you'd probably assume it was going to be a kitchen sink drama, until it transitions smoothly into a crime thriller. The abrupt leap into the last third demands the most from the viewer, though the movie plays fair and hints where it is going very early on.



It's also very light on exposition, which I found this to be a massive point in its favour. At no point do the characters stand around telling each other things that they already know. Instead, we pick up the story naturally, through inference and action. I know that some people were annoyed by the way that some elements remain completely unexplained, but I loved the sense of mystery throughout and firmly believe that being given more information would have weakened the movie. We learn enough to be able to comprehend what is going on, even if the reasons why are left largely to our imagination.



The dialogue is largely improvised by the cast, which isn't always a good idea but in this case works splendidly and helps to give the movie its believable, naturalistic tone. Everyone talks like real people having real conversations, but without becoming staid. Much of the movie's offbeat sense of humour is in the dialogue, with the biggest laughs coming from Irish comedian Michael Smiley as Gal. The entire cast is very good, with the biggest stand-out being Neil Maskell as Jay.


The sound design is also terrific. For example in one scene, where Gal goes into a building looking for Jay, we hear noises that make us nervous about what we are about to see, and similar instances run through the movie. Jim Williams's score lends an ominous atmosphere to several scenes that would otherwise seem fairly natural.

I am going to discuss the ending of the movie at some length, so from here on there will be significant SPOILERS. If you just want to know if I think you should see it, then yes, you should definitely see it.

(If you read past this point and you haven't seen Kill List yet, you will probably be eaten by lions. Otherwise, I am going to assume that you have seen the movie.)


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ghoulies (1985)



We open in the midst of a Satanic mass being conducted by Michael Des Barres (minor rock star, recurring MacGyver villain and ex-husband of famous groupie Pamela Des Barres), who's wearing an impressive set of horns. The mass is attended by white-robed cultists and small snot-encrusted puppet creatures. Des Barres is about to sacrifice his own baby when the mother comes forward to object, placing a protective talisman on it. He is so pissed he takes off his horns and tells cultist and David Lynch regular Jack Nance to take the baby away. He then uses his magic powers to rip the mother's heart from her chest while the puppets (known as Ghoulies) pin her down; unfortunately we don't see the end result but we do hear an amusing "Splut!" sound.



Then we get by far the creepiest moment of the entire movie, when a white-robed Jack Nance tells the baby that it is going to be safe. Cue the credits...



Charles Band is the undisputed king of the Small Creatures Attack subgenre of the horror movie. As producer and/or director of such movies as Puppet Master (which spawned nine sequels), Troll and Demonic Toys, Band's response to an idea like "Dirty Harry in space" would be to say, "Wouldn't it be better if he was six inches tall?" Band's dollmania peaked in the late '80s and early '90s, which I consider to be one of the worst times for horror movies as the genre was dominated by jokey bullshit, and his tiny terrors certainly contributed to the appalling state of the genre. He's still actively cranking out these things, with relatively recent effors like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong leading to sequels and crossovers with each other.



Even the stupidest obsessions have to start somewhere, and as far as I can tell the first time Charles Band expressed his cinematic love for small bitey things was Ghoulies. In this instance he farmed out the directing chores to Luca Bercovici, who also co-wrote the script. This is one of the few occassions where I found myself wishing that Charles Band had directed a movie himself, because Ghoulies is a badly paced movie with no visual panache.



The first half of the movie is taken up mostly by the exploits of Jonathan, the grown-up baby from the pre-credits sequence, after he has inherited his late father's mansion. He's been reading through dad's library, and decides to liven up his housewarming party with a summoning ritual. Nobody notices at first that this works and brings through some ghoulies, but soon Jonathan is regularly putting on his robes and doing black magic, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Rebecca. Soon Jonathan is mind-controlling everyone so that he can rope them into more elaborate rituals. Infrequent and awkwardly placed voice-over narration by Jack Nance explains that he is himself being controlled by his father.



Eventually Michael Des Barres is brought back from the dead while the ghoulies get serious and slaughter everyone. This is by far the most entertaining part of the movie, as the wee beasties make short work of Jonathan's idiotic friends. There's some minimal gore, an arresting scene where Bobbie Bresee throttles a guy with her ridiculously long and prehensile tongue (this scene reminded me of A Chinese Ghost Story), and a genuinely unnerving bit where a life-sized clown doll leaks green goo from its eyes.



It all leads to a climax where everything is made worthwhile for the sight of Jack Nance dressed as a wizard. If you're not turned on by the idea of Henry from Eraserhead in a purple robe and having a magical duel with a washed-up British rocker, Ghoulies probably isn't the movie for you. As a Gremlins ripoff it's no Critters, and as a story of black magic it's no Simon, King of the Witches. Somebody clearly liked it because it managed to spawn three sequels. I guess I have to watch those now. The second is written by Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon) so it may have something going for it.


This has been a Shortening in the tradition of The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I saw Suspiria live

This will probably be my shortest blog entry ever. About ten minutes ago I got home from a quick trip to Auckland to see Suspiria with Goblin playing the score as a live accompaniment. I think I understand what a religious experience is like now.

I'm a terrible photographer, but here is the gorgeous Civic theatre shortly before the band took the stage.