June 23, 2017

MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS


Robert J. Emery's 1974 film MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS begins peacefully enough with 20-something Karl doing a relaxing bit of fishing off an idyllic Florida pier. As a thunderstorm rolls in, Karl packs up his belongings and heads off home, unfortunately not making it back before the rain starts pouring down. He enters his home, saying a nice hello to his wheelchair bound mother. He apologizes for getting the floors wet, dutifully offering to clean them right up. Upon entering the kitchen, Karl comes across a stray cat that has somehow made its way into the house. His feline phobia raging, he chases the cute little bugger away. Frazzled and upset, he confronts his mother. When she refuses to answer him, he beats her to death with a fireplace poker.

Only he doesn't. His mother isn't there, just a dime store mannequin sitting in his mother's dusty old wheelchair. Karl's mother died well over a decade ago, beaten to death by her husband with the very same fireplace poker Karl now has in his hands. Karl collapses in fright and anguish, his emotions going haywire. The arrival of his older sister, Anna, soothes his nerves. She asks him to go change his clothes and lay down, sensitive to the fact that her brother is clearly having another one of his regular episodes, the unavoidable fallout from witnessing the brutal death of his mother all those years back.

Karl complies, changing and resting in bed. But then he hears his sister in her room. Sneaking into the hallway, Karl masturbates as he watches his sister sit nude at her vanity. An accidental bit of noise draws her attention and Karl quickly makes his way to his bedroom, pretending to be asleep. After his sister checks on him one last time, Karl finally calms down enough to catch some shut-eye.

The next day, Karl decides to do a bit of skinny dipping at the ocean. That's where he meets Tony, a handsome, motorcycling drifter. The two become fast friends. Tony even gives Karl a few motorcycle lessons. Despite his obvious mental issues, Karl is every inch the polite, personable fellow. He invites Tony back to his home for dinner. Though their initial meeting is rather tense, Tony and Anna finally hit it off, with Anna explaining the history of her family and why her brother, polite though he may be, can sometimes be a bit erratic. The night ends with Tony and Anna making love, an act that does not escape Karl's attention. 

Later that night, Karl has another episode, a horrible bit of night terrors that leaves him all but catatonic. When Tony tries to calm him, Karl attacks, only stopping when Tony knocks him out cold. In the morning, Tony wants to leave, but Anna convinces him (practically begging him) to stay. She's lonely and over her head. Tony, who is actually quite the decent guy, gives in, offering to stay not only for Anna's sake but for Karl's as well. But Karl isn't as pleased with this turn of events as Anna is. In fact, Karl is reaching a breaking point. Tony is beginning to act more like a father than a friend and for a guy like Karl, that means trouble. 

MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS was not the original title of this film. Emery's little shocker was released under the title SCREAM BLOODY MURDER, only receiving a title change when it came time for VHS releasing. By that point, Marc B. Ray's SCREAM BLOODY MURDER, a cheapo exploitation flick about a father-killing creep with a hook where his hand should be, had already been released to market. If you ask me, MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS is a much more suitable title, even if does promise a clumsy bit of hokum. And a clumsy bit of hokum is not what this film is. Not by a long shot. 

It's rare that I find myself utterly knocked out by a relatively unheard of 1970s horror film. Not to sound like a braggart, but I've been watching horror movies with a devout fervor since childhood. Chances are, if I haven't heard of a film, it isn't going to be worth hearing about in the first place. MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS is a film I never saw on the shelves of my local video rental store. It isn't a film I ever heard talked about at conventions, or on podcasts, or, well, anywhere. A rudimentary search online turns up relatively few mentions of the film (though to be fair, there might be more out there, but they're getting lumped in with the other film titled SCREAM BLOODY MURDER) and even my die hard exploitation loving friends had no recollections of ever seeing it in the wild. And that's a damn shame. We live in a day and age where absolute garbage is getting sparkling 2K remasters and deluxe Blu-ray home releases. Yet MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS is relegated to VHS rips floating around private trackers, robbed of any real chance to earn the following it so goddamn well deserves. 

Now I understand that what I just said might come across as a bit hyperbolic. You might think I'm simply exaggerating to make up for two straight weeks of bad reviews (which is all bad movies deserve, damn it). But no. I'm not exaggerating. MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS is a damn fine little film, one that desperately needs to be rediscovered and released back into the wild in a form that doesn't look like dog shit.

It reminds me a bit of Pete Walker's FRIGHTMARE. It's a film about a family poisoned by a violent past, all but condemned to repeat it. It's a small film with a small cast, perfect for a more intimate, psychological affair. The family dynamics are spelled out within the first 15 minutes. A boy unable to get past his mother's death. A sister who tries to fill that motherly role. A sick boy who is one step from spiraling downhill. A passive aggressive enabler who refuses to get him help, if only because that would mean losing what little purpose she has in her life. The introduction of Tony exasperates both Karl's possessive desire to keep Anna (the friend, the mother, the sex object) to himself and Anna's self destructive martyr complex. The fact that the film ends in disturbing, entirely devastating violence is a given, but the film is far more concerned with psychological violence, both self-inflicted and other-inflicted, than the physical.

It's the kind of film armchair psychologists would have a field day with, loaded with symbolism both Jungian and religious. It flirts with guilt, with repression, with co-dependency, with lust and psychosis, and it does it all with a straight face, only descending into the land of hamfisted cheese during a few brief dream sequences (gelled lights and dutch angles galore). This is not a film you half-watch with distracted bemusement, eagerly awaiting the next bit of histrionics. This is a film that unravels slowly and deliberately, imperceptibly crawling deeper under your skin with every passing moment. The bloody finale packs a punch, not because the violence is unusually strong or convincingly portrayed, but because it was avoidable. Like FRIGHTMARE, there is a real, tangible sense of tragedy running though the film. Karl and Anna are both victims of a single crime, locked in perpetuity, endless victims and victimizers, forever repeating a cycle of self-flagellation and mutual abuse.

No, this is not a cinematic classic. It is cheap, rather dull in terms of direction, with a score that sometimes sounds like it was pulled straight from MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE. The acting however is quite good, especially from Nick Kleinholz, here starring as Karl. In my review of THE THIRD EYE, I talked a bit about Franco Nero's performance as the mad, murderous Count and about how an over-the-top performance of movie madness can ruin the tone of an otherwise serious film. Karl is not your stereotypical movie madman (well, in motive he is but…). Looking a bit like Jeffrey Donovan crammed into Eddie Deezen's body, Kleinholz's performance is far more subtle than you would expect, especially from a cheap 1970s psycho-horror film with the title MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS. His performance is just the right mixture of sympathetic and overbearing, the perfect flavor of wacko. It's comparable in both texture and technique to John Amplas' performance in MARTIN. That's how good it is.

The rest of the cast is uniformly fine as well, though no one was going to be winning an Oscar. But the real star is Emery, a director I only knew from his action schlock fests RIDE IN A PINK CAR and THE FLORIDA CONNECTION, two films I didn't really like. I have to give the man all the credit in the world. With MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS, Emery created one of the finest low budget psycho-thrillers I've seen in a very long time. I really was blown away by just how effective this film was, how it worked its way into the back of my brain and just started pushing buttons. When the film was over, I felt a mixture of sadness, disgust and genuine fascination. MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS is a film I will definitely return to over the years, quite possibly in another review. There's a lot to chew on here, but unlike most low budget films of its kind, this one won't leave a horrible taste in your mouth.

June 21, 2017

THE GIALLO PROJECT - THE THIRD EYE


Truth be told, there isn't much giallo in Mino Guerrini's THE THIRD EYE. Or at least not much of what is commonly thought of as giallo. The film fits comfortably into the Poisoned Past narrative type. It deals with a young, rich man driven to insanity and murder by a woman under his employ. It's the kind of giallo that wasn't made much in the 1970s, with the decade all but consumed by the Amateur Detective narrative. There is no mystery to be solved in THE THIRD EYE. The killers are out in the open, their motives crystal clear. Guerrini trades the more common murder mystery tropes for those of the Freudian psycho-sexual thriller, swapping the antagonist/protagonist roles to give us a movie about a murderer, rather than a simple thriller about murder.

Franco Nero stars as Mino, a twenty-something Count living in a large villa somewhere in the Italian countryside. Around him orbits three women. There is his mother, a woman who seeks to control him, Marta, the maid who secretly loves him, and Laura, the woman he will soon be marrying. Laura wants Mino to move away with her, away from his domineering mother, but Mino refuses. Frustrated, Laura heads off home, unaware that Marta has severed the break lines on her car. Mino takes off after her, leaving Marta and his mother home alone. While he is gone, the two women have a bit of a spat, one which ends with Marta pushing Mino's mother down a flight of stairs before strangling her to death. Things don't end well for Laura either. Unable to stop her speeding car, she plummets down the side of a ravine, dying in the crash.

Mino returns home to grieve over Laura's death only to be faced with the police. They inform him of his mother's “accident”. And just like that, Mino begins his downward spiral. As time goes on, Mino becomes more and more unhinged, eventually bringing a burlesque dancer home with him just so he can strangle her in his bed, a bed also adorned with the preserved body of Laura. Overhearing the racket, Marta investigates. She finds Mino in shock and comforts him, even offering to help him clean up his mess. Maybe a bit of hydrochloric acid would make this all go away. But in exchange for her silence, Marta demands that Mino marry her, placing her at the top of the food chain where she feels she belongs. After all, her father damn near ran the estate for decades. But an unspecified amount of time (and an unspecified amount of victims) later, a new complication arrives in the form of Laura's identical twin sister, Daniela. With that, the film descends into bloodshed.

It's obvious within the first 15 minutes that Guerrini's main inspiration for his film was Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO. All the signs are there. The dead father. The domineering mother. The peephole in the wall used to spy on sexual proclivities. The poisonous codependency. Mino's taxidermy hobby. All ripped from Hitchcock (also, the arrival of Daniela on the scene is as much a nod to Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Hitchcock as it is a useful device for drawing the film to a close). But it isn't just visual and narrative homages. Along for the ride is the same kind Freudian psychobabble, the kind most modern psychologists laugh at, that Hitchcock loaded into PSYCHO. As a result, the psychology side of things sometimes feels a bit too corny and simplistic. Mino doesn't really go mad. He goes movie mad, with his insanity revealing itself through laughing fits, bulging eyes and periodic sobbing. When these moments happen, its almost as if THE THIRD EYE becomes some other film entirely. 

And that's because THE THIRD EYE is actually a damn fine bit of calculated filmmaking. It's a somber, almost hypnotic film, one with a subdued, borderline claustrophobic atmosphere. For a film made in 1966, some of the more darker moments, like the gutting of a bird or a last act fatal stabbing, are really quite disturbing, easily matching some of the more memorable horror-esque moments from the best of the 1970s gialli. Nero's wide eyed theatrics whenever he has to slip into Mr. Hyde mode run so counter to the environment they're set in, that they just come off as, frankly, quite idiotic.

But then you have Marta, played by the wonderful Gioia Pascal. She is every inch the monster Mino is, directly responsible for the murder of Laura, indirectly responsible for every woman Mino brought home with him. Pascal's performance easily places her among the top giallo villains of all time. While Nero goes ham with his mannerisms, Pascal chills the blood with little more than an unblinking stare. Her performance is understated and controlled, delivered with a diamond cutter's level of precision.

And really, you could extend that praise to both Guerrini and his creative team. Outside of Nero's movie madman moments, there isn't a single missed beat in THE THIRD EYE. Not a single misstep. At 98 minutes, the film is paced perfectly, never wasting its running time on half thought through subplots or extraneous characters (I believe there are only eight or nine speaking roles in the entire film). If you're looking for a model of efficiency, look no further.

THE THIRD EYE did well at release, probably bolstered by Nero's quickly rising star power. The same year Guerrini's film hit the theaters, Nero landed a box office hit with DJANGO. THE THIRD EYE would go on to inspire more than a few gialli of the 1970s, most obviously Emilio Miraglia's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE, a film which uses enough of Guerrini's narrative that it probably should be classified as a rip-off (though a damn good one). But the oddest film THE THIRD EYE influenced was Joe D'Amato's nasty vomitorium, BEYOND THE DARKNESS.

You could probably go as far as to label D'Amato's film a remake. Very little was changed. All the core narrative developments are there, as is the Freudian psycho-nonsense. The subtleties have all been gutted though (pun intended) and replaced with nauseating violence, and the overall experience is more blackly comedic than quietly disturbing, but… It's all there. Just don't mistake BEYOND THE DARKNESS for a decent substitute. THE THIRD EYE is a damn fine film, one of the best gialli of the 1960s, and is not to be missed by serious fans of the filone.


THE THIRD EYE
(Il terzo occhio)

Director: Mino Guerrini
Writer: Mino Guerrini, Piero Regnoli
Starring: Franco Nero, Erika Blanc, Gioia Pascal, Olga Solbelli, Gara Granda
Production Location: Italy; Panda Societa per L'Industria Cinematografica
1966, 98 minutes

Narrative Variety: Poisoned past
Murderer(s): 1 Male, 1 Female
Murderer(s) Role: Count (Male), Maid (Female)
Murderer(s) Motive: Madness, jealousy
Victims: 1 Woman (strangled), 1 Woman (automobile accident), 1 Woman (strangled), 1 Woman (strangled)
Murderer(s) Death: Female (stabbed)


June 17, 2017

TOWER OF EVIL


Two fishermen, middle aged Hamp and his elderly father, land on the shores of Snape Island, a rocky outcropping home to a towering, rundown lighthouse. As they make their way to the lighthouse entrance, they come upon a grisly discovery. A naked male corpse lying face down in a puddle next to a disembodied arm. And the discoveries keep coming. A decapitated nude woman lying in a stairway. A hippie pinned to the wall by a golden lance. Hamp's father, however, finds something entirely different in a small closet upstairs, a nude woman, screaming in hysterics. She stabs the old man to death before running full speed out of the lighthouse, only stopping when Hamp delivers a sharp blow to her forehead.

The woman's name in Penny. The man in charge of her care at the hospital tells us that she is completely catatonic. Utilizing a strange hypnosis machine, he is able to pull some information out of her regarding the deaths of her friends. Penny tells us about an “evil” they encountered on the island. The cops write it off as hogwash, eagerly awaiting Penny's coming about so they can nail her with murder charges.

A short time later, a small team of researchers and antiquarians head to Snape Island. Hamp offers to take them. Truth is, he's the only person in the area willing to take the journey. Hamp has a history with the island. It's where his brother, his sister-in-law and their child all died, disappearing into the sea, never to be found. Along for the expedition is Brent, a private investigator unconvinced of Penny's guilt. The rest of the party includes Dan, Nora, Adam and Rose, four archeologists, all of whom are romantically entangled. They're heading to the island to find out why that hippie was found with an ancient Phoenician artifact rammed through his abdomen. They theorize that a Phoenician sailing vessel must have crashed or been stranded on the island sometime in the past, leaving behind a treasure trove of golden artifacts and maybe even a temple devoted to the Phoenician god of fertility, Ba'al.

Within a couple of days, things start to go south. Brent vanishes for hours at a time. Someone destroys their boat and wrecks their radio. Hamp's sob story of a missing brother begins to spring leaks. A withered, messy corpse turns up in the living area. Clearly, they are not alone on this island. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Penny is beginning to remember more and more...

For half of its running time, Jim O'Connolly's TOWER OF EVIL is great, gory fun. Released in 1972, the film is a proto-slasher, a mixture of sex and violence built on a shaky foundation of horror movie logic. Fans of the sub-genre will no doubt delight in the constant “let me go investigate this strange noise alone” moments, the juxtaposition of naked flesh with spilled blood, and its willingness to push rationality aside for a good gory gag. The first chunk of the film also has a definite giallo influence to it. The question of who committed the murders is very much an open question and the way the film cuts between the expedition party on the island and Penny at the doctor's office, her memory slowing returning, seems to set up a mystery thriller in which we learn that someone on the island is not who they say they are.

Alas, that isn't the case here. Penny's story is dropped less than half way through the film. Yes, we do in fact find out who committed the murders and no, it isn't someone in the expedition group. It's some random third party, a man who looks a bit like the world's worst Eegah cosplayer. So why do we even bother cutting back to Penny? Why do we even need to see what happened on the island before our expedition party assembled if it doesn't have any impact whatsoever on the story? Everything related to Penny and her friends should have been cut together as a pre-credit sequence, not spread out through the first half of the film. It's misleading, damn it, because all of its gruesomeness promises not only an impact on the narrative, but also a third act bloodbath the likes of which you have never before witnessed.

But in the same way that Penny's misfortunes are really just one big MacGuffin, the bloodshed that occurs within the half is just a big tease. Once our expedition party settles in for their first night, the film becomes a long, dull slog devoted entirely to relationship squabbles and sexual frustrations. I'm not sure why the filmmakers think we would rather watch intolerable 40-somethings smoke weed and screw instead of watching likeable 20-somethings smoke weed and screw, but that is literally what the film offers up in lieu of slasher movie theatrics. Oh, and melodrama. Tons and tons of melodrama. And call me crazy, but I honestly didn't give a damn that Adam and Rose used to date and want to date again but Nora won't give Adam a divorce even though she clearly loves Dan who is currently dating Rose but Rose is unhappy with Dan because Dan isn't like Adam and BLAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

I don't give a shit.

But there really isn't anything else to give a shit about in TOWER OF EVIL until just after the one hour mark. At that point, the slasher movie stuff kicks back in with folks biting it left, right and center. Unfortunately, the producers blew their effects budget filming the opening murders so every attack by our hairy, drooling killer is a bloodless exercise. You can actually feel the movie running out of energy as it goes along. The pacing gets slower and slower. The acting gets less and less precise. The score becomes more and more subdued. Even the finale, a chase and fight between a woman and a deformed maniac amid a fiery inferno, feels like a yawn.

There are things I appreciate about TOWER OF EVIL. For example, I'll take a naked Candice Glendenning any day of the week. The presence of Jack Watson is always welcome, too. I love the set bound environments. I love the concept of a madman wandering through a vast network of underground caves on an island mainlanders consider haunted. But for every one thing TOWER OF EVIL does well, there are two things it does poorly. There are simply too many bad decisions being made, like the trading of mystery for melodrama or not properly utilizing its dual narrative set-up. It's an “almost” film, the kind of movie you watch and then wince about after. Not because it was terrible, but because it was all going so well before BOOM it just fell right on its face. And there's really very little to do afterward except shrug and sigh. You almost made it, TOWER OF EVIL. Almost.