Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Dracula Sucks: my new podcast

Hi everyone, it's so long since I updated that I have no idea if anyone checks in here anymore!

I just wanted to let you know that I have a podcast now. It's horror related, it's called Dracula Sucks, and you can find it here. I'd be stoked if you gave it a listen. I'm only two episodes deep so far but I've got plenty more coming, one per week.

Let me know if you're keen for me to blog here again too!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Raising Cain (1992)

"I am what you made me, Dad."

Dr. Jenny O'Keefe seems to have it all. She has a successful career in medicine, a beautiful home, and a caring husband who has taken time off his own career as a psychiatrist to look after their young daughter. But her husband, Carter Nix, has been acting strangely lately. His attitude towards their daughter seems to have shifted from parental love into obsession, almost as if he's studying her, and he's been exhibiting swings in mood and personality. Perhaps that's why she is so quick to jump back into the arms of her former lover Jack Dante when he unexpectedly reappears in her life. And perhaps it's why she's been having these terrible nightmares.

In fact, things are much worse than Jenny imagines. Carter's tyrannical father, long thought dead, has come to town and brought with him Carter's identical twin brother Cain. Carter has found himself ensnared in his father's bizarre baby-kidnapping plans. Of course he's a good man at heart so there are boundaries he won't cross, but Cain has no such moral qualms. When the brothers find out about Jenny's affair with Jack, Cain comes up with a sadistic plan to take care of both of them in one go. And that's when things start to get really weird.

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.


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.)