Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

I don't know much about the Chinese ghost story tradition, but I do know that there are not a lot of straight-up Chinese horror movies. Ghost movies from China & Hong Kong tend to blend elements of fantasy, kung-fu, romance and comedy.

Of these movies, my favourite is A Chinese Ghost Story, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung. It tells the story of a hapless tax collector (Leslie Cheung) who takes shelter in a deserted temple, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost.

The movie involves an evil Tree Demon, a vengeful Taoist priest, Sam Raimi-style camerawork from the point of view of an extremely long tongue, the most comically unthreatening zombies of all time, a song & dance interlude about the power of the Tao, plenty of slapstick comedy, and a surprisingly moving ending. Small children might find parts of it frightening, but the emphasis is on slapstick comedy and romance.

This tradition of combining kung-fu with horror movies seems to date specifically to the 1974 movie Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which attempts to marry the British Hammer Dracula movies with the Hong Kong Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies; it was co-directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker and Shaw veteran Chang Cheh, and co-starred Peter Cushing with many kung-fu stars. This movie featured both vampires from the Western tradition and hopping vampires from Chinese folklore. But the cycle properly begins with director/star Sammo Hung's 1980 movie Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which places a far greater emphasis on action and comedy.

A Chinese Ghost Story strikes me as being superior to these earlier movies simply because it integrates the disparate elements with more confidence. The movie slips from being potentially spooky to laugh-out-loud funny with apparent ease, and even manages to get serious in its final act without a jarring shift in tone. The performances of Leslie Cheung as the tax inspector, Joey Wang as the ghost and the great Wu Ma as the priest certaily help here.

I really need to learn more about Chinese mythology before I can speak about movies like this with any authority. All I can say for the moment is that this is a tremendously fun movie that I've watched many times.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Whip and the Body (1963)

Here's an example of two kinds of ghost story that I like a lot: the returning lover, and the "ambiguous ghost". It's also an Italian movie, and I'm all about Italian horror movies. It's co-written and directed by Mario Bava, probably the greatest of all Italian horror movie directors, and it features top horror star Christopher Lee. To top it all off, it was a very controversial movie in its day and was cut to shreds in most countries when it was first released, to the point where it was apparently incomprehensible.

If released now, it would probably be rated PG.

The Whip and The Body is Gothic horror in all senses. It's a period movie (though as with many of these things, the period it is set in is ambiguous) and it features a crumbling old castle, secret passages, doomed love, unsympathetic characters, delirium, suicide, murder, and unmotivated coloured lighting.

The story involves the return of Kurt (Christopher Lee) to the family home and the disruption this causes. Kurt's former lover Nevenka (played by stunning Israeli actress Daliah Lavi) is now married to his brother, who is in love with another woman, Katia. The housekeeper, Giorgia (Bava regular Harriet White Medin), is still grieving the loss of her daughter, who had committed suicide after being seduced then abandoned by Kurt. Of course, Kurt's return awakens old passions in Nevenka, and the thoroughly hissable Kurt revels in the chaos he is causing.

So far, so whatever. But what made this movie so controversial (and still makes is quite unusual) is that Kurt and Nevenka's relationship is openly sadomasochistic. A good four years before Luis Buñuel's brilliant Belle de Jour, The Whip and the Body features a woman with vivid masochistic fantasies as its protagonist and puts the viewer within her viewpoint.

As a movie of its time, it is not terribly sympathetic to its sadomasochistic couple even as it mines them for prurient interest. Kurt is portrayed as a vile and utterly self-absorbed villain, and Nevenka is shown to be mentally ill. Tony Kendall as Nevenka's husband and Ida Galli as his unrequited love interest are probably supposed to be the audience identification figures, but Dahlia Lavi and Christopher Lee dominate the movie, with performances far more memorable than any of the supporting cast, so that despite their obvious defects we are far more interested in them.

But then again Heathcliffe and Cathy were not terribly sympathetic either, and people just love Wuthering Heights (which was definitely an influence on this movie), so audience sympathy is obviously a tricky thing.

Before long, Kurt is murdered and the movie becomes a combination of whodunnit (far too easily guessed) and romantic ghost story, as the shade of Kurt seems to visit Nevenka in the night, filling her with a combination of terror and desire. Is that the sound of his horse-whip, or is it just the trees lashing against the castle walls?

Incidentally, Lee apparently has a clause written into his contracts that he will not be required to perform scenes of a sexual nature or even to kiss on the lips. (Which hasn't stopped directors like Jess Franco from some creative editing to put him into outrageous scenes.) Either this clause was not present in his Whip and the Body contract or he chose to ignore it, as his scenes with Lavi are about as steamy as you could get at the time.

As usual, Bava's mastery of the camera turns the movie into a visual feast. As well as co-writing (with Ernesto Gastaldi, master of kinky Italian horror) and directing he is the uncredited cinematographer and the camera operator, and he also executed the matte paintings and other special effects.

This almost makes up for the slightly cheesy score by Carlo Rustichelli, which sounds like something out of a soap opera. Others (such as Bava's biographer Tim Lucas) praise Rustichelli to the skies, but compared to other Italian genre composers like Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Riz Ortolani, he doesn't sound interesting to me.

There are several notable plot holes in the movie, and I didn't find the ending terrinly satisfying. The biggest problem, however, is that Christopher Lee did not dub his own voice on the English-language track. (Everyone except for Lee voiced their own role on the Italian-langue track.) Lee has a particularly commanding voice, so this is a real pity.

It's also not really the best introduction to Italian horror or to the films of Mario Bava. There are actually two other Bava ghost stories that I like more (the mind-bending, if dreadfully titled, Kill Baby Kill! and the utterly terrfying "Drop of Water" segment of the anthology film Black Sabbath), both of which I intend to get to later in this series, but when Kate visited me recently, she saw the dvd cover of this movie and wondered what the hell I had been watching (and it does indeed look lurid, as demonstated below) so I thought I would do this now.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Changeling (1980)

I was recommended to see this by a friend who claimed that it was so scary, when watching it by himself he actually had to turn it off.

I did not watch it by myself.

The Changeling is one of those ghost stories where someone has a terrible family tragedy, then finds themselves living in a haunted house. The haunting is unrelated to the tragedy, but the fact of it seems to have drawn the ghost to the bereaved person.

This is a good movie, highlighted by a strong performance from George C. Scott in the central role. He plays a character whose reaction to a haunting is not to run screaming into the night, but to try to do something about it. When he hears the strange noises and witnesses the strange phenomena, he does not write it off as impossible, but rather he assumes there is a ghost and goes out of his way to find out what it wants to try to lay it to rest.

As I'm sure everybody knows, a changeling is a creature that is left in the place of a real child which has been spirited away by beasties. It's sometimes used to describe non-supernatural child swapping as well, and it's the latter definition that's appropriate here. (This is a supernatural ghost story, but there are no other kinds of beasties except in a metaphorical sense.)

I did not find this movie as gibberingly terrifying as my friend, who will remain nameless. Part of this might have been simply because I was watching it in good company, but I also think that it was quite clear from early on that the ghost was not actually a threat. Compared to a vengeful ghosts in movies like Ring and Candyman, this one is gentle.

The movie followed genre lines to the point of being somewhat predictable, but I didn't mind. It was well shot and spooky, featured an effective score, and was nicely acted by a very capable cast. I didn't think it was as exemplary as its reputation suggested (it had been talked up in reliable horror movie tomes such as Stephen King's Danse Macabre and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies) but it was solid and entertaining.

Out of the handful of stories I've looked at so far, this was probably the most traditional ghost story. The ghost is of a specific person; the protagonist is trying to put right something that was terribly wrong; there are guilty family secrets and an unpunished murder; sinister characters start to tell the protagonist something, but stop after letting something slip that they shouldn't have; there are plenty of knockings, objects moving by themselves, and mysteriously shattering pieces of glass, etc.

According to wikipedia the story was based on true events. Aren't they always?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poltergeist (1982)

"So I'll watch Poltergeist," I thought. "It's rated PG, it's written & produced by Steven Spielberg, it's kiddie horror. There's no violence, nobody dies, it's a ghost story. Should be good for a laugh."

Holy shit. This movie seems specifically designed to cause nightmares. Did I forget that Spielberg previously directed Duel and Jaws? Did I disregard that director Tobe Hooper was best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I'd seen it before, but obviously I forgot about the clown, the tree, the scene where the guy looks into the mirror and sees...

I'll backtrack. I didn't forget about any of these things at all, but Poltergeist is certainly more relentless than I remember it being. The story involves a bland '80s American family living in a boring house in a cookie-cutter suburb, whose lives are invaded by ghosts that first create a little fun, then maliciously target their children, especially their five-year-old daughter.

Spielberg touches abound throughout the movie (there was considerable controversy about how much of the movie was really directed by Hooper) from the lovable family dog to the huge amounts of then-impressive special effects to the general "sitcom-America" setting. There's also a heavy dose of the sadism that was particularly prevalent in his movies of the '80s, including his propensity to do horrible (though non-lethal) things to kids, and of course his usual complete lack of sexuality.

It seems to be a 'message' movie to a certain extent: the parents voted for Reagan (or at least read books about him) and smoke dope around their kids, the dad is a real estate agent, and they are perfect examples of '80s consumers. There is a definite sense that they are being punished for all of this. I'm all in favour of ghosts that torment Right-voting capitalists, though your mileage may vary. It also seems relevant that the kid-snatching ghosts come out of the television.

It's a contemporary ghost story in more ways than one. One interesting thing about it is that the haunted house is actually very new. According to the back-story, the house was built five years earlier and this is the first family that have lived there. There is an explanation for where the ghosts are coming from, but it's very unusual to set a ghost story in a house without some kind of Terrible Past. Even Hill House, a mere 80 years old, has plenty of nastiness in its relatively short history.

Speaking of that Shirley Jackson story, Poltergeist is yet another descendant, as it features a team of supernatural detectives getting out of their depth. But those characters are here played mostly for laughs.

All of this is secondary to the fact that this is the movie where that scary-looking tree outside your window, and that incredibly creepy clown doll that you really wish your aunt hadn't given to you, really are trying to kill you. The movie seems to be saying "Hey kids, you know how your parents said that all those things you're scared of are really harmless? Well, they were lying. Good luck sleeping tonight!"

So we get a scene where the father insists that the horrible gnarled tree right outside the children's window is actually wise and benevolent and looking after them - immediately followed by a scene where this same tree crashes in through the window and tries to eat a ten-year-old boy. This kid (played by Oliver Robins) does the best job of looking terrified that I think I've ever seen in a kid actor, and he does it a lot throughout the movie. Heather O'Rourke, who plays the 5-year daughter Carol Anne, is much more relaxed; even when things get really extreme, she seems more anxious than afraid.

There's a lot of black comedy throughout, from the death of the budgie right at the start to the EC comics gruesomeness towards the end. For a PG movie, this sure has a lot of disgusting images.

I should probably hate Poltergeist in a lot of ways, not least because the trend of big-budget thrill-ride effects-driven jokey-gruesome Boo!-horror movies can be traced directly to it. But I don't. It's a lot of fun. It's the fun of a rollercoaster, and none of the scares cut very deep. It won't stay with you for long. Unless, of course, you have a big scary tree outside of your bedroom window, in which case you're on your own.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Candyman (1992)

The opening credits show aerial footage of Chicago accompanied by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass; once they are finished, the first thing we see in Candyman is bees. Lots of bees, in close up. Then we hear the Voice. Deep, dark and resonant, it whispers seductively.

"They say that I will shed innocent blood. What is blood for, if not for shedding? With my hook for a hand, I will split you from your groin to your gullet. I have come for you..."

Not exactly love poetry, but in the voice of Tony Todd that's exactly what it sounds like. Todd plays the title character in Candyman, and though he has very little screen time he dominates the entire movie. His physical presence is majestic, but it is that voice that you remember.

The story centres on Virginia Madsen as Helen, a graduate student studying urban legends. She hears about a particularly gruesome one centered in Cabrini Green, a notorious real-life housing project, involving a spirit who appears when you say his name into a mirror five times. She sets out to find the truth behind the legend, which leads to her running foul of a particularly brutal local gang. But an urban legend needs people to believe to give it power, and soon Helen finds that there are scarier things than tough kids wielding meathooks.

Candyman is often described as a slasher movie, and it certainly spills more blood than most Friday the 13th sequels, but to me it's a ghost story through and through. The Candyman is not out for revenge, although his backstory gives him plenty to be vengeful about. He is more of a romantic figure. "Be my victim," he says to Helen, but he says it seductively, hypnotically. (And in fact director Bernard Rose would hypnotise Virginia Madsen before playing each of these scenes, and she does appear to be in some kind of altered state in these moments.) Helen's investigation threatens his very existence, as it could take away his mystique, which is his very power. But he does not merely want to take her life - he wants her to surrender to him completely.

"Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?"

This is an unusually intelligent and beautiful horror movie. The elegant cinematography by Anthony B Richmond and the score by Philip Glass blend perfectly with the combination of urban fairy tale and realistic horror put together by writer/director Bernard Rose. The movie is based on a short story by Clive Barker, called "The Forbidden", and in my opinion this is one of the rare examples of a film adaptation being superior to its literary source. Rose's decision to set the movie in Chicago (instead of Liverpool) and to add the socio-economic & racial/class elements was a master stroke, as was his interpolation of real urban legends. The method of summoning Candyman is borrowed from mythology put together by American street kids, in particular the legend of Bloody Mary; there's a brilliant account of these here.

There's also a strong element of ambiguity to the movie, and it's certainly possible to claim that the supernatural elements may all be in the main character's head. I counted exactly one instance where this interpretation does not quite work, and even that could be explained away without a lot of effort. Virginia Madsen has probably never been better than she is in this movie, which puts us in her head for almost the entire running time; she carries the movie, and as much as Tony Todd elevates things when he appears, the movie wouldn't work without her.

But all these elements of romance, social significance and aesthetic beauty do not stop Candyman from being a particularly savage and frightening horror movie. Many characters within the movie tell ghost stories of their own, some of which are dramatised, and most of them are extremely gruesome. The movie supposedly had to be heavily cut to avoid an NC-17 rating in the US; I don't know if we got the uncut version over here, because it's hard to imagine it being much bloodier. And of course for all that he is majestic, awe-inspiring and even sexy, Candyman himself is quite terrifying each time he appears.

I recommend Candyman without reservation to anyone who likes horror movies.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ghostwatch (1992)

Ghostwatch is a seldom-seen one-off show broadcast by the BBC in 1992. It was so controversial that they pledged to not repeat or release it for at least ten years, even though its viewing figures broke records, and to this day it has still never been repeated. A dvd was put out on the 10th anniversary in 2002 - by the British Film Institute rather than by the BBC - but this is now out of print and selling for outrageous prices on the internet. As far as I am aware, the show was never played outside of the UK.

Ghostwatch aired as part of a series of one-off plays. It is a fake documentary, presented by real British celebrities playing themselves, in which a television documentary team goes to a house where a particularly nasty haunting has been happening for years, in an attempt to prove once and for all that the supernatural really exists. Legendary presenter & interviewer Michael Parkinson hosts the show from the studio, trying to be earnest but clearly skeptical; former Blue Peter presented Sarah Green is in the house, with the family; Red Dwarf star Craig Charles is outside the house, unable to hide his sarcastic contempt for people who believe in ghosts; and Green's husband, bland presenter Mike Smith, looks after the viewer call-in phones.

The show is a slow burn, playing nicely between Parkinson's good-natured "I can't believe I'm doing this" cynicism and Green's cheerful but slightly worried enthusiasm. There is also a British parapsychologist in the studio, and a video link to an American skeptic. There are phone call-ins from audience members (some of them apparently genuine, some definitely staged) and Craig Charles gets some disquieting interview footage with residents.

Then all hell starts to break loose, and by all accounts people all over the UK believed that they were watching a real-life horror story unfolding right before their eyes. The parallels with Orson Welles's infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds are obvious: despite being presented in a drama slot, with a scriptwriter's credit right at the start, and a "starring" rather than "presented by" credit for Michael Parkinson, people were so sucked in by the story and by the professionalism of the actors that they thought it was all real. And when people started calling in claiming that the poltergeist activity was leaping off the screen and into their homes, no amount of amused mockery by Parkinson could persuade the audience that it wasn't real.

This is bravura stuff. The script by Stephen Volk (who did not impress me with his work on Gothic or The Kiss) strikes just the right balance between the skepticism and the gullibility of different characters. The introduction of an element of genuine fraud at one point is a master-stroke, faking out the audience brilliantly. Director Lesley Manning does a terrific job of making it all look like it's really happening live, though it was not actually all shot in one go. Parkinson's genial, reassuring presence in the studio actually makes the scary bits more effective, and Green's children's show demeanour make her the perfect person to be right in the thick of it; when she gets worried, so do we.

The backstory of the ghost contains the kind of button-pushing guaranteed to worry a British audience, especially elements of baby-killing, animal mutilation and paedophilia. The appearences of the ghost itself are superbly managed and almost always completely ambiguous.

The storyline, of an investigative team into the supernatural getting more than they bargained for, obviously harkens back to The Haunting of Hill House. Similar ground was also covered by the BBC in their production of Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Stone Tape, which I will be tackling soon. the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper movie Poltergeist (also coming soon to this blog) is another obvious reference point.

Here is the blog of Dr. Lin Pascoe, the fictional parapsychologist featured in the show.

Next up in this series, a ghost story that is not usually regarded as such, containing a whole lot more gore and violence than everything so far combined, and its link to the urban legends of Miami street kids. In the meantime, stay away from mirrors...

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Fog (1980)

The Fog was writer/director John Carpenter & writer/producer Debra Hill's follow-up to their incredibly successful 1978 movie Halloween. For this movie they decided on a complete change of pace, going for a spooky and completely non-violent ghost story. However, during post-production they decided that this approach was not successful and went back to add more violent scenes (as Carpenter would also later do with Halloween II). The result is a patchy movie with lots of great atmospheric scenes punctuated by violent climaxes.

For all its problems - and it has many - The Fog is one of my favourite horror movies. It starts with John Houseman telling a ghost story to some children, sitting around a camp fire. It has an excellent cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Nancy Loomis, Hal Hartley and Adrienne Barbeau. Most of the characters are named after people Carpenter had worked with on his earlier movies, like Dan O'Bannon and Tommy Lee Wallace.

Mostly because of those reshoots, the ghosts in The Fog are not content to loom menacingly and say "Boo!" They are armed with swords, hooks and other such weapons, and they clearly relish using them. They are also plenty gruesome to look at: they are supposed to be the spirits of drowned lepers, and they are decayed, green, maggot-ridden and generally disgusting. Makeup effects guru Rob Bottin (who later did his best work on another Carpenter movie, The Thing) does a great job here and also gets to play ghost leader Blake.

One of my all-time favourite horror movie setpieces comes early in the movie, when three drunken fishermen find themselves confronted with a ghostly galleon pulling up next to their boat. It's the scene where I think the atmospheric stuff and the violent stuff meshes best.

As with Halloween, the movie features female characters who were gutsier and more independent than was usual at the time, especially in genre movies. Together with Sigourney Weaver in Alien this helped to make American horror movies into a genre where a strong female lead was the rule rather than the exception, to the point where it was identified as a cliché known as the Final Girl (first named as such by Carol J. Clover in her fascinating book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film). Strong female leads are still rare in Hollywood, and horror movies are still a common exception.

John Carpenter provides the score himself, as he usually does in his own movies, and it's one of his best, based around a haunting piano melody. The photography by Dean Cundey (also a long-time associate of Carpenter) is excellent; I'd say that these are the two elements that most strongly contribute to the movie's success, though committed performances by the strong cast (especially Barbeau & Hartley) certainly help.

Barbeau is Carpenter's best heroine ever, a solo mum running a radio station and a lighthouse on her own and capably fending off both unwelcome suitors and marauding ghosts. Holbrook lends weight to what would otherwise be dull exposition scenes, his hushed tones turning them into spooky moments in their own right.

If you're not too worried by awkward shifts in tone and uneven plotting, I'd highly recommend The Fog. Just don't make the mistake of picking up the 2005 remake, which I was unable to get through without wanting to use the dvd as a frisbee (I lasted about fifteen minutes). Horrible, horrible stuff. Also, don't confuse it with James Herbert's novel of the same title, a full-strength gore-fest that has nothing in common with this movie.

There is a book of The Fog, which I've spent quite some time looking for. It's written by Dennis Etchison, one of the best horror writers of the last 50 years, and is apparently based on the earlier, pre-reshoot version of the movie. Etchison apparently managed to make the story tie up more neatly than the movie does, and this novelisation has a very high reputation. He has a gift for atmosphere and dread that seems to be perfect for this story.

Here's the trailer. I wanted to post the opening scene, where Houseman tells the story, but it's been taken down.

Guess I also need to put in an image so that I have a thumbnail for Facebook. Tempted as I am to use a sexy photo of Ms. Barbeau, I'm going for this one instead.