Monday, December 20, 2010

Sugar Hill (1974)

This review is part of Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club.

When a white mobster kills a black nightclub owner, they did not count on his fiancée Diana 'Sugar' Hill and her zombie hit men. That's pretty much the entire plot of this entertaining and atmospheric horror movie, which is one of the few post-Night of the Living Dead zombie movies to feature traditional voodoo zombies.

Sugar Hill is one of AIP's attempts to cash in on the blaxploitation market and the horror movie market at the same time (see also my review of Blacula). In terms of story it's a standard blaxploitation revenge tale, but the mise-en-scène is pure horror.

As soon as Sugar takes counsel from her friendly local Mambo, Mama Maitresse, and the two of them call up voodoo loa Baron Samedi, things get kicked up several notches. This sequence is probably the best in the movie, as the two women go trekking through the woods, passing some stock footage of alligators and snakes, until they come to the part of the forest where the smoke machines live. There they call on the loa Baron Samedi and ask him to help them. In exchange for the promise of payment, he raises his army of the undead and puts them and himself at Sugar's beck and call.

These zombies are the real stars of this movie. They look wicked cool, covered with dust and cobwebs and with scary silver cat's eyes, wielding machetes and really relishing the slaughter of the evil white gangsters. Sugar Hill has one of the great "zombies rising from the grave" scenes of all time, and whenever they show up the movie really delivers.

The gore is very light, but the zombie kills are pretty sweet anyway. My favourite was the guy who was done in by a zombie massage (no happy ending), but the guy getting fed to the pigs was pretty cool as well. There was also a disembodied hopping chicken's foot in one scene, which I heartily approve of.

Marki Bey is initially unimpressive as Sugar Hill, but she goes through a remarkable transformation when she turns into a vengeful death machine. Her most astonishing scene is when she heads to the lair of head mobster Morgan (played by Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry. She is poised, elegant and superior; the idea of the scene is that she turns on the class and shows up these white thugs, and Bey owns this scene. It's as if she's woken from her own zombie curse, and she remains impressive for the rest of the movie.

Don Pedro Colley is also pretty terrific as Baron Samedi, playing him with just the right amount of ham. He looks the very image of the voodoo loa, which is cool because voodoo is one of the most badly misrepresented religions in movies. I'm not saying that this is a movie that Houngans and Mambos will be playing after a night at the Hounfour, but at least they got Papa Ghede right, even when he's disguised as a dock worker, a taxi driver or a scarecrow.

The rest of the cast is less impressive. Richard Lawson plays Sugar's ex-boyfriend, who happens to be the cop on the case, and he appears in a series of uninspired scenes with clunky, badly-delivered dialogue. But the scene where Sugar decides to take him off the case is hilarious.

Sugar Hill may not be one of the great horror movies of the '70s, but it's respectable and it's great fun. Too bad it's so hard to find.

Here is the theme song, Supernatural Voodoo Woman by The Originals, from Motown.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972)

Roberto Tobias, a drummer in a rock band, has been noticing a man following him for about a week. When he sees the man late at night after a band practice, he follows and then confronts him in an abandoned theatre. The man pulls a switchblade, and in the struggle he is stabbed and seems to die. As Roberto stands over the body with the bloodied knife in his hand, a spotlight is turned on him from the gallery where a masked figure starts taking photographs of him. He flees, but soon he starts receiving packages from the mysterious witness - the dead man's wallet, photographs of the murder, and worse. He confesses everything to his wife Nina, who urges him to run away with her, but he refuses as he's scared that he'll end up in prison for murder. Then their maid discovers what's going on and tries blackmail; when she turns up dead it's clear that Roberto and Nina are caught in a trap that neither will be able to escape unscathed.

On the advice of his friend God (played by slapstick comedian Bud Spencer) Roberto hires Gianni Arrosio, a flamboyantly gay private investigator who swiftly manages to uncover the identity of the blackmailer. Poor Gianni should have realised that if you want to survive a murder mystery, you need to do that right at the end of the story...

This is a fascinating movie. In some ways it seems slapdash and inconsistent, and there are some dreadful comic relief bits that really don't work, but even these scenes are closely linked to the movie's thematic concerns. It has an elaborate visual style that at first seems gratuitous but which turns out to be centered around revealing the themes of the movie. The murder mystery itself is extremely difficult to work out, cheats several times and requires the killer to pretty much be a mind-reader, but its resolution really clarifies everything that the movie is doing.

It's very much the transitional movie between his first movies, which were stylish but very tightly written and plot-driven, into his later movies, which were much more personal and often abandoned conventional plotting in favour of his visual and thematic obsessions. This is blatantly signalled in the scene where Roberto enters the theatre at the start - the camera passes through several layers of deep red curtains, in anticipation of what was to be his breakthrough movie three years later...

In short, this is the movie which reveals that Dario Argento's main influence is less Alfred Hitchcock, as is commonly presumed, and more Michaelangelo Antonioni. It even references (and parodies) the ending of Zabriskie Point. This connection to Antonioni would become even more clear when he made Deep Red.... but we'll get to that in a few weeks.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a movie about gender, sexuality and repression; as with every Argento movie it's also about perception, and how what you see is not necessarily the truth. I'm going to give away a few salient points now (including the identity of the killer and what really happened in the opening scene) so if you haven't seen the movie and want to watch it without foreknowledge, now is the time to stop reading.

Watching Four Flies a second time was more interesting because knowing that the opening scene was a setup and that the "murder" was fakes with a trick knife and a blood bag, and that the killer is actually Nina, makes everything play very differently. As the final scene reveals, Nina was raised as a boy by an unhinged father, and is played by the androgynous American actress Mimsy Famer, who is spectacular in the role. This makes the scene where she kills Gianni in an unisex toilet very interesting; usually a scene of a gay man being killed in a toilet would seem homophobic, but not this time.

Gianni is actually the smartest and most sympathetic character in the whole movie, and although his mannerisms are rather stereotyped he is a vast improvement over the gay stereotypes in most movies of the period. Four Flies actually puts Argento at three for three in featuring sympathetic gay characters in his movies, after the art dealer in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the rude yet likable Dr. Braun in The Cat o' Nine Tails, and according to Argento's biographer Alan Jones he wanted to make a movie with only gay characters but the idea was vetoed by his producers.

Comic relief scenes involving a mailman delivering pornography to the wrong address are cringingly unfunny, but serve to highlight the sexuality/repression theme - especially as the person who receives them in error is a sexually repressed woman who is later revealed to be secretly in love with Roberto.

Speaking of Roberto, he is a very unlikable and even obnoxious character. After seemingly commiting murder, his only reaction is fear of being caught. He treats Nina very badly (which, as it turns out, plays directly into her obsessions) and thoughtlessly cheats on her with her young cousin. He lashes out at the mailman, mistaking him for the blackmailer and gives him a sound thrashing before realising his mistake.

Like Nina, Roberto is an androgynous figure, and despite the homophobia he displays upon first meeting Gianni (in a scene that playfully challenges the audience's own homophobia) many of his interactions with other male characters have a homoerotic subtext to him. It's interesting that, as played by David Brandon, he closely resembles Argento himself.

Nina's motivation for tormenting Roberto turns out to be very twisted indeed. She seduced and married him specifically because he bears a very close physical resemblence to her dead father. He had died while she was committed to a psychiatric institution, so she was looking for someone to torment and murder in his place. In the end, as she is about to kill him, he is saved by divine intervention as God actually bursts into the room and chases her off!

God himself is an interesting character. He's sourced from the novel The Screaming Mimi by Frederic Brown, which was the uncredited source material that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had, er, borrowed from. He's a big burly man with a black beard who lives in a shack by the river and lives off raw fish. He's actually introduced with a chorus of "Hallelujah," in an example of the movie's ham-fisted sense of humour. Like many homeless people in movies, God is deeply philosophical. He has a sidekick called The Professor, who constantly quotes from the Bible. I must confess that I'm unsure of the exact significance of these irreverently religious figures.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet stretches this kind of giallo about as far as it can go. It's pretty clear that Argento was unlikely to want to continue in this vein, and with his next movie he moved out of the thriller genre entirely for the only time in his career to date, with the spectacularly unsuccessful The Five Days. However first he was engaged to produce and host a series of four thrillers for the Italian television netowkr RAI, called The Door Into Darkness, and ended up writing and directing two of these himself. In the manner of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, these were to make Argento into a genuine star in his own country, and we'll look at the first of these next week - The Tram, which was actually based on an episode he cut out of the script of his first movie.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dead End (2003)

On Christmas Eve, a family is driving to Grandma's when the dad decides to take a short cut. Soon they find themselves stalked by a woman in white and a mysterious old car, and the audience hums the Twilight Zone theme.

Scary pram

Dead End is engaging and fun, though derivative and predictable. Most viewers will guess the "twist" very early on in the movie, and nothing happens that we haven't seen before. But the characters are engagingly written, with some great mean dialogue, and the actors ham it up shamelessly. Ray Wise (Robocop, Twin Peaks) and Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters) are particularly fun.

He's not saying what you'd think he'd say

It's a very small cast movie and mostly set either in a car or on the side of the road, but writer/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa keep things chugging along at a decent pace. There's only a minimal amount of gore, and what there is tends to be played for laughs and/or pain. A nice atmosphere of isolation is maintained throughout, and the sound design have plenty of "Did I just hear that?" spooky noises.

Happy holidays!

More than anything else, Dead End is a black comedy. The dialogue is peppered with clever lines, all sold very broadly by the cast. One of the funniest scenes is gore that we DON'T get to see, when somebody needs to retrieve a cellphone from a mangled corpse.

It's for you

All in all, Dead End is an inoffensive little movie ideal for renting at Christmas to watch with the family. It's not scary or gory enough to turn most people off, and your own Christmas disasters are likely to pale next to the Harringtons'.

Written on Monday to be posted on Wednesday. Think ahead, kiddies.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971)

A middle-aged blind man and a young girl overhear a snatch of a conversation involving blackmail. Soon they discover that it involves a break-in at a prestigious medical institution. They start investigating, with the help of a journalist, and soon the bodies are piling up.

The Cat o' Nine Tails is a fairly standard murder mystery, co-written and directed by Dario Argento, who seems determined to set it apart from his previous movie, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Unfortunately what he has mostly done is to remove all of the most interesting and distinctive elements. Without Argento's trademark obsessions, and with a far less distinctive mise-en-scène, what's left is mostly a fun but forgettable giallo. There are plenty of twists and turns and an amazing amount of red herrings, but nothing that really gets its fish-hooks into you.

There are still some points of interest, both conceptually and visually, and they mostly have to do with the theme of perception that runs through many of Argento's movies. This one is very concerned with the eye. Arno is blind, and when not wearing dark glasses Karl Malden is very good at suggesting this with a far-away stare. The presence of the killer is always signaled by huge closeups of his retina. A key clue is provided by a photograph which is incomplete; the full version contains a clue at the very edge of the frame - at the edge of perception.

Eye of a killer

Some bizarre editing also adds to the fun. Most intriguing is the scene towards the start where the break-in occurs. We are watching Arno assemble a crossword puzzle (he has an interesting braille device for doing so) when suddenly we start getting quick cuts of the break-in in progress. Arno looks alarmed and goes to check on Lori (the young girl under his care - we never find out the precise nature of their relationship) before opening the window and "looking" out. His apartment overlooks the Institute - but of course he cannot see anything. The killer, having just dispatched the night watchman, looks up just in time to see Arno's shutters closing again.

This sequence strongly implies a psychic vision, as if Arno's lack of sight has opened up other avenues of perception, but it is never referred to again. But it's an interesting first glimps; psychic powers would become important in some of Argento's later movies.

That relationship between Lori and Arno (who she called Cookie "because he's sweet") is vaguely troubling. Arno says that he has no relatives and she has no parents so they need each other. Is he her uncle, the brother of one of her dead parents? He's been blind for 15 years and she is well under 15 eyars old; who decided that a blind bachelor would be the best person to raise a young girl? There's a lot of physical affection between them, most of it from him; it could all be seen as innocent, but later in the movie we find out that two other characters who are father & daughter by adoption are in a sexual relationship.

Arno and Lori - dodgy or not?

It grows even more troubling when you look at Dario Argento's strange screen relationship with his oldest daughter Asia (who was not yet born when Cat o' Nine Tails was made), and it certainly adds something disturbing to the movie.

There are red herrings galore, and almost every character is a suspect at one point or another. The chief suspect, almost from the beginning, is Dr. Braun, a German scientist who is blunt, rude and (it is eventually revealed) homosexual. Gay characters tended to be villains in movies like this, and when the idea of the killer having a chromosonal imbalance (the dreaded XYY, which had already been dragged out in movies like Twisted Nerve) is revealed the audience is lead to believe that Braun is the most likely culprit. However the movie presents its gay characters with more respect than is normal in a movie of its vintage, as was the case with the gay art dealer in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. They are still clichés, but at least they are sympathetic clichés.

The cinematography is by Erico Menczer, who is a craftsperson where Bird cinemotographer Vittorio Storaro is an artist. There are still some cool shots of staircases, and the camera prowls restlessly in some scenes, but the startling compositions of the earlier movie are missed.

Fortunately the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is top-notch. Working with orchestrator Bruno Nicolai, as he usually did when scoring a giallo, Morricone provides a score driven by an ominous pulsing bassline that helps to propel the movie forward. A good amount of the movie's atmosphere is provided by this score.

The acting is good throughout. Karl Malden is great fun as Arno, and James Franciscus is solid as reporter Giordani. Eurohorror mainstay Rada Rassimov has a good role the fianceé of one of the victims, though Catherine Spaak's role as the daughter of the Institute's head is under-written, though she does get to drive like an absolute maniac in one terrific scene. Best of all is Horst Frank, clearly relishing his role as Dr. Braun. Spaak and Horst also have amazing early '70s hair.

Love your hair!

One big downside to the movie, though, is that the main characters are basically nosy bystanders. In almost every other Dario Argento movie, the protagonist is inexorably drawn to the murders so that it becomes an obsession. In this case we have a reporter trying to get a story and a guy who "likes puzzles". The personal involvement is deeply missed.

The other main downside, other than the lack of visual splendour, is that the murder setpieces are not very interesting. Apart from one great scene involving murder by train (which has a great cynical topper when the reporters abandon photographing the gruesome body to concentrate on a starlet who has arrived on the same train) they are mostly a series of unconvincing garrottings. Some murders even happen off-screen. Given that the murder scenes are where Argento's movies usually excel, this is very disappointing.

The only good death scene

The movie is also quite frigid, possibly because Argento usually does express sex through violence in his movies. There is one sex scene, and it's startlingly cold and unerotic. This might be partially because there's no obvious chemistry between James Franciscus and Catherine Spaak, but it's also filmed in a startlingly cold manner. I suspect that Argento simply had no idea how to film a normal sex scene.

No chemistry

I have to say, though, that the ending is wonderful. It takes place on a rooftop, with both of our heroes individually confronting the killer. I won't give it away except to say that it refuses to play it safe, with at least two characters left with an ambiguous fate. There seems to be an implication that with all the different cans of worms that Arno and Giordani have opened, even the apprehension of the killer won't contain the chaos that has been unleashed.

If you compare Cat o' Nine Tails to a giallo from, say, Umberto Lenzi or Sergio Martino, it looks pretty good. If you compare it to the movie Argento had just made, and to the other gialli he made in the 1970s, it looks pretty weak. It's all a matter of perception.

Click for a bigger version - I dare you

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two late '80s slashers

The late 1980s was a dismal time for horror movies. The video shelves were clogged with sequels and rip-offs. Too many of them were deliberately bad, as if poking fun at your own half-arsed effort somehow magically made it good. Too many characters had the same surnames as horror movie directors; too many villains made Freddy Kruger/James Bond/Arnie wisecracks.

Here are just two of these movies.

Doom Asylum (1987)

A guy who had his face cut off during his autopsy after being in a car wreck that killed his girlfriend now lives in the abandoned hospital and carves any visitors up with surgical tools. One day, a punk band and some random teenagers decide to hang out there for no discernible reason. It does not go well for them.

This movie is just terrible. Every character has one trait that they then proceed to annoy us with until they get killed off. There's the undecisive one, the one who spouts psychobabble, the one who collects baseball cards, the one who can't shut up about how cute that guy is, the one who cackles maniacally after every sentence... The only entertaining one is the cackler, a punk singer played by Ruth Collins.

Ruth Collins is in the middle, preparing to cackle

Patty Mullen, who was so hilarious in Frankenhooker, has nothing interesting to do here as the "final girl". Her talent for physical comedy only comes through sporadically. Kristin Davis (later of Sex in the City) is pretty irritating as the psychobabbler. Nobody else is worth mentioning, including whoever played the killer.

There are some good gore scenes.

Rapunzel, apparently

Kristin Davis, star of Sex in the City

Driller killer

This little piggy...

I have no idea what a hospital has one of these machines lying around, nor what one of these machines is

Every now and again the movie cuts to the killer watching some old British horror movies starring Tod Slaughter. Even with this padding the whole thing doesn't quite crack 80 minutes.

This movie looks better than the one it's featured in

As terrible as this movie is - and it is entirely terrible - nostalgia makes me not want to hate it. I watched too many of these sorts of things to count as a teenager, and quite frankly many of them were a lot worse. Igor and the Lunatics, Unhinged, Final Exam, Surf Nazis Must Die, Breeders, Necropolis, Nightmare Sisters, Creepozoids, Night Train to Terror, Curse of the Screaming Dead, Hobgoblins, Ghoulies, The Demons of Ludlow, Welcome to Spring Break, Slaughter High, Pieces, Deadime Stories, The Tomb and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama were all worse than Doom Asylum.

But lots were better.

With a poster like this, how can it lose?

Intruder (1989)

Some kids are in a supermarket working late for some reason, when someone starts killing them off in very creative ways while the directors goes nuts trying to stuff the camera into everything he can find.

Shopping trolley POV

Telephone dial POV

Stuff that's being swept off the floor POV

Writer/director Scott Spiegel co-wrote Evil Dead 2 with Sam Raimi, but his attempts to match Raimi's visual style are pretty weak. Speaking of Sam Raimi, he's an actor here alongside his brother Ted and Danny Hicks, both also from Evil Dead 2, so it's kind of a reunion.

There is plenty of gore.

This is a much better movie than Doom Asylum. Despite the poor choices of "interesting" shots it looks more stylish and has lots more atmosphere. The acting is better. The humour is more effective (or at least less embarrassing). But there's nothing really special about it.

These two movies made me nostalgic for those teenaged days when I would rent every single thing in the horror section, just in case. One is terrible, one is mediocre, but I enjoyed the short time I spend with them. I would not recommend them.