Thursday, November 17, 2016

FRESH KILL


FRESH KILL begins with a series of pans, like a cheap-o travel commercial. A shot of a busy Chicago street pans over to the beautiful Buckingham Fountain. A shot of buses pans over to the Chicago Tribune offices. Hard working people on their way to work. Pan over to... pizzerias? A shot of the bustling night life pans over to a Walgreens? Was Walgreens something people strongly associated with Chicago in the late 1980s? Did they just run out of landmarks?

We meet Allen, a struggling actor so full of himself that all he ever does is talk about how successful his upcoming trip to Los Angeles is going to be. Sayonara, you fucking plebs! I'm gonna be famous! But before you can say “humble pie”, poor stupid Allen's dreams are shattered. Due to a mix-up, the part Allen thought he was going to land upon arriving in LA was for a midget (their words, not mine). So Allen gets a job working at a busy LA butcher's shop, something to help him pay the bills while he waits for his big break.

One night, a young blonde comes barging into the shop after hours. She's running from two goons. Allen, the nice idiot he is, lets her stay and the two hit it off. She has a relative working in the film industry and would be happy to pass along his head shot and resume. Once the coast is clear, the blonde, Leona, takes off only to show up again a few hours later, this time with friends. And by "friends" I mean the two goons she was running from earlier. They have guns and bad attitudes, desperate to find the two million bucks that Leona stole from someone named Manny, a drug dealer Leona used to have a relationship with. Even though Allen is rightfully scared out of his mind, he manages to kill one of the goons with a big sharp knife. The other one… well, Leona brains him with a meat cleaver.

And so begins the single most forced and unbelievable romance ever captured on celluloid. They head off to Leona's mother's house to watch what looks like a snuff film before having awkward sex. From that point on, the two dodge gun toting goons over and over again until Manny kills Allen's parents and kidnaps Leona. Finally at his breaking point, Allen wrangles together a few friends and they lay siege to Manny's hideout.

And that's FRESH KILL, folks, and while I know it sounds like it might be fun, it isn't.

The single biggest problem with FRESH KILL is that I couldn't hear a goddamn word anyone said throughout most of the film. This is a low budget, shot on video quality affair. What that means is that anytime characters leave a small, confined space, you might as well stop paying attention altogether. No effort was made to ADR anything. After discovering Leona's mother has been killed, our heroes decide to seek solace and refuge in a local pizzeria(?). What follows is a three and a half minute conversation between Allen and Leona. What they're talking about is anyone's guess. We see them talking. We see their lips move. We know they must be talking about something really fucking important as Leona's mother just had a knife shoved through her throat, but for some reason writer/director Joseph Merhi decided not to bother doing any ADR. So enjoy three solid minutes of nothing but environmental noise. Dishes clanging, small talk from off screen, someone calling out an order…

This happens constantly and it isn't a problem you can fix just by turning up the volume. So much dialogue wasted, so many words lost in the cacophony of the busy LA streets. You would think a writer/director would give a shit about his audience being able to follow along with the story but nope, absolutely not the case here. But strangely enough, when our love birds decide to take an inexplicable helicopter ride and have a nice romantic lunch beside a giant mound of dirt somewhere in the valley, Merhi decides to dub in what sounds like one of those “sounds of nature” meditation tapes over the scene. Unfortunately, the “sounds of nature” tape he grabbed was for the goddamn Amazon rainforest. So the one time the director decided to care about the audio of his film, he fucked it up spectacularly.

Were it not for the inaudible dialogue, the film might have been fun to watch. It's an absurd piece of work. Within the first 15 minutes, we see a hooker stab a child to death for playing keep away with her purse. Every other character we see is either a pimp or a hooker. There's a whole early film subplot about some cranky old woman getting repeatedly screwed over by everyone she comes across. I'm fairly certain Merhi and Co. used an actual police arrest as a backdrop at one point. One of the side characters looks like Richard Branson and constantly name drops movies like DEATH WISH and goddamn ZORBA THE GREEK. In one of the most baffling scenes, Allen tears open a few bags of cocaine, throwing the powder through the air in slow motion while a cheerful, melodic Casio tune plays in the background. The violence is splattery and explicit. And then there's Robert Z'Dar as Manny. His performance is just weird. It's like Z'Dar couldn't decide if he wanted to do a Tony Montana impersonation or a riff on Robert De Niro's Al Capone so he just did both at the same time.

At least I think he did. I don't know. I couldn't fucking hear him half the time.

Monday, October 31, 2016

MARTIN


As a child, I would often spend weekends in Girardville, PA. That's where my dad is from. It's a relatively small town, home to less than 2,000 people. Even at a young age, I was struck by how depressing the place was. The coal mines that once sustained the town financially had since long dried up. I don't ever remember seeing a single child in all my time spent there. It was like everything that still had any vitality to it had long since moved away or was swallowed whole by the crippling stasis of a town that never recovered from its economic collapse. 

There were churches, of course, and plenty of bars populated by old men that all looked like they had been stubbornly refusing the grave for decades. People spoke about pre-Vietnam times like they were yesterday. No one seemed concerned or even interested in tomorrows or todays. Just the old times, the better times. Every conversation was about people in the past or long evenings spent in the 50s or 60s, and nary an hour went by without someone telling me that I reminded them of so-and-so when they were little. Visiting that old town was like wandering into some great wake full of people endlessly mourning the death of the "good old days".

That is the kind of setting that George Romero's MARTIN takes place in. The town is Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh. The town is old and dying. It's the kind of place where two cousins, one female and one male, living beneath the same roof is considered inappropriate. Masses are still partially delivered in Latin and the old priest still performs exorcisms, much to the chagrin of the new priest in town, a younger man who smokes and chuckles about seeing THE EXORCIST at the theater. The depressed state of the economy is driving the younger citizens out to the city. Every housewife we meet is either being cheated on or is cheating on her husband. Everything is decaying. People talk about the older days and the older ways, as if they were more pure and noble. It's like no one ever thought about whether or not they should move on and leave the past in the past.

Into this environment comes Martin, a young man in his early 20s. He has freshly arrived from some undisclosed place to stay with his elderly cousin, a man named Cuda. Martin is reclusive, almost cripplingly shy, but soft spoken and gentle. He's also a vampire. Or so he believe himself to be. The sun only bothers his eyes a little and religious icons hold no power over him. “I'm 84 years old”, he tells his cousin Christina, a 20-something woman looking to get the hell out of Braddock before it poisons her too.

Cuda also believes that Martin is a vampire. In fact, Martin has been sent to live with him for a reason. Cuda is to cleanse Martin's soul before eradicating him. To protect himself and Christina, Cuda hangs garlic on the doors, carries a crucifix and even rigs a bell system on the door so he knows when Martin comes and goes. For Cuda, the Nosferatu is a real thing, a demonic curse put upon his family. The evidence of that curse is kept in a family photo book and through the hushed legends the family pass down from generation to generation. “There is no magic”, Martin tells him, but for Cuda, the magic is all too real. Martin is a vampire and is to be destroyed if he so much as harms a hair on any person living in the city.

MARTIN is a complex bit of work, far more nuanced that your typical run of the mill vampire film. The world of the characters is an explicitly Catholic world (Romero himself grew up in a Catholic family) and perhaps this is just my atheism coloring my perspective, but the underlying point of the film seems to be that there is an inherent danger in adopting a Bronze Age system of beliefs.

Cuda belongs to the backwards intellectual class of people that once thought the way to solve tremors was by drilling a hole through the skull to allow the demons shaking the body to escape. He gives holy importance to plastic crosses and cloves of garlic. When Martin decides to give Cuda a little fright by dressing up like your typical movie vampire, complete with a cape and plastic fangs, Cuda doesn't respond with a frown and a groan of displeasure. He responds by collapsing in fear, dangling his rosary in front of him. His “old country” beliefs, rife with supernaturalism, have robbed him of the ability to know fantasy from reality. Martin may not be a monster in the literal sense of the word, but Cuda, his head pumped full of religious delusion, definitely makes him out to be.

Martin is both a victim and a victimizer. The film alludes to his upbringing being one of near constant brainwashing. He's been told that he's a vampire presumably since birth. Throughout the film, Martin suffers from delusions (presented to us in glorious black and white vignettes), exhibits signs of extreme gaslighting and routinely displays ambivalence towards anyone expressing doubts about his condition. “It isn't magic. It's a sickness”, he tells Cuda and right he is. In the underlying allegory of the film, Martin's vampirism, that is his inherent sinfulness, is a sickness, one that Catholicism claims we are all suffering from. We are all the inheritors of original sin, disgusting creatures in need of salvation, damned since birth.

The Catholic preoccupation with all things carnal is depicted here as scenes of vampirism (vampirism has always had a sexual component, after all). Martin, kept by his family in a state of repressed, almost infantile sexuality, can't even bring himself to refer to the act as “sex”, instead referring to it in a juvenile way as “sexy time”. His acts of vampirism are brought on by sexual longing, preferring to only attack attractive women. He drugs them and rapes them, ending the encounter by slitting their wrists with a razor blade, drinking their blood. He poses the bodies, giving the impression that the victims committed suicide (another Catholic preoccupation). 

Because of his upbringing, Martin only recognizes sex as something sinful, something that ends in catastrophe. When he finally meets Mrs. Santini, a bored, lonely housewife and has sex with her, razor blade free, it pacifies him. The sequences between the two are the only time we see Martin engage in what can be considered normal, healthy behavior. But because this is a horror film and the allegory cannot end in anything but total destruction, the happiness (or at least relative passivity) doesn't last long. Martin cannot completely overcome his delusions and Cuda, ever sure that Martin is little more than a mythical monster, misconstrues a simple tragedy as something unholy.

In the end, everyone suffers, all because of religious delusions. The film is a parade of wasted and ruined lives, and if that sounds like a downer to you, well, it is. MARTIN is not DAWN OF THE DEAD. It isn't a Saturday morning cartoon. This is a tragedy wrapped in a horror film. But it's also a breathtaking bit of work, a supremely fascinating deconstruction of the vampire film, written and directed by a true independent filmmaker at the height of his creative potential. It's my favorite of all Romero's films and at the risk of sounding like I'm heaping false praise, this is one of those films that offers me up something new each time I watch it. It's assured enough in its own message that it never feels the need to hold my hand throughout. It's subversive enough to be both hilarious and uncomfortable, often at the same time. It's existential as well as being delightfully morbid, capable of tickling both the brain and the gag reflex.

It's also a film that can be watched and enjoyed from multiple angles, which makes it a perfect film to argue about on the internet. And who doesn't love to argue about movies on the internet?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

PHANTASM


The PHANTASM franchise is the horror movie equivalent of Lost. What began as an engaging, mysterious puzzle box quickly tumbled down the rabbit hole of absurdity. The mysteries and riddles on offer were solved with even larger mysteries, all of which required increasingly ridiculous solutions. With each new go around, a little more luster was lost. After a handful of years, whatever it was that attracted us to the property was gone, replaced by time wasting, manipulative promises of more answers, more developments, more more more. Sure enough, the sneaking suspicion that no one really thought all of this out in advance began to set in. Not that it mattered though. We started the journey all those years ago. We kept going because of routine, because we hoped the promises would eventually be fulfilled.

Neither Lost or the PHANTASM franchise amounted to much in the end. PHANTASM: RAVAGER was the final breath of a franchise that had died creatively many years prior. It felt tired with itself, with its lore, with its audience. The only positive I can say about it was that it one upped PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION in sheer misery. Not much of an accomplishment, but hey, slim pickings. Watching the finale of the franchise (one can hope it is anyway), I was reminded why I have for years viewed the original PHANTASM in a vacuum, treating it as if it were the first and last of its kind.

PHANTASM, the horror feature debut of writer/director Don Coscarelli, is one of the best Nightmare Movies out there. It's a plastic reality thriller all about two brothers and the Tall Man, a fiendish ghoul in charge of the local mortuary. At the funeral of their brother (a brother whose death by multiple stab wounds was ruled a suicide for some reason), Mike, the younger brother, watches the Tall Man single-handedly lift the coffin into the back of his hearse, transporting the body back to the mortuary. For some unexplained reason, the mortuary houses an inter-dimensional portal that leads back to whatever fresh hell the Tall Man came from.

As he investigates further, Mike comes under attack from little people in robes, the result of the Tall Man distorting the bodies of the dead, and flying orbs capable of attaching to (and drilling through) the skulls of trespassers. After mutilating the Tall Man's hand, Mike shows Jody, his older brother, a still-twitching disembodied finger. That's enough to convince Jody that Mike's tall tales are a reality. Together with their friend, the local ice cream man Reggie, they confront the Tall Man.

Anyone who has seen PHANTASM would not be surprised to learn that Coscarelli and Co. filmed without a completed script. Many (if not most) of the scenes in the film are arranged almost haphazardly without any regard to formal structure or pacing. Twice Mike returns from a close encounter in the mortuary, twice he is then immediately left on his own, and twice does the Tall Man return to finish the job in the very next scene. All of this random (or I should say non-standard) pacing results in Nightmare Logic taking over. 

By the time the film reaches its penultimate climax, the idea that Mike cannot simply escape from the Tall Man reaches absurd heights. Not only can Mike not outrun him, the Tall Man can appear in front of him in the guise of an attractive woman (a staple trick of the villain throughout the film, true, but how exactly is he both chasing Mike and standing in front of him?). The solid ground beneath Mike's feet turns to mud and hands come reaching out, grabbing at his ankles. The entire concept of a logic-based reality crumbles as the movie goes on. We're no longer watching two brothers deal with strange things. We're watching two brothers deal with surviving in a world that seems to be going mad.

The final solution to the puzzle of what is real and what is fantasy is completed ignored in the films final moments. We receive an answer, then a rebuttal to that answer. Like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, you could arrive at the conclusion that the entire film, from the first frame to the last, was just a dream. In the same way that Craven's film puts your nerves at rest by telling you “ah, see this is all just a metaphor for repression and the cathartic release that comes when facing your fears and troubles” only to then violently yank Ronee Blakley through a front door window, PHANTASM only provides a fleeting glimpse of closure. Yes, you could choose to ignore the final shot of the film and tell yourself that this is all a great big story about a child dealing with the death of a loved one, but that would require ignoring the lessons the film has been teaching you for the past 89 minutes. 

Ever have that feeling when waking up from a nightmare, the doubt of whether or not its really over, if you're really awake or if you're only buying time, only momentarily safe from the shadowy beast that's been chasing you through your subconscious? That's PHANTASM in a nut shell. The later attempts to provide some kind of logical structure for all this nonsense to adhere to seems counter intuitive. Does it matter that we watch a man's entire blood supply get vomited out the back end of a death sphere yet don't see a drop of blood anywhere in the hallway after? Does it matter that characters seem to take preparations for oncoming attacks yet still end up in the most vulnerable situations? Do we need to know what exactly the Tall Man is or why his disembodied digits can turn into pissed off, giant flies? Do we really need explanation or concrete reasoning in a film that is, from start to finish, one long nightmare sequence? No, we don't. Because as a singular film, PHANTASM is beyond mere explanation. It's just a bad dream. Just a glorious, wonderful bad dream.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY


MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY is one of those overlooked gems of 1970s British horror that deserves rediscovery. In my oh-so-humble opinion, it's the single greatest film Freddie Francis ever made, a genuinely beguiling bit of work that is every bit as idiosyncratic as its title would suggest. It's weird, that much is for sure, and its stubborn refusal to ever come clean with the audience, suggesting more than it ever explicitly states, shapes the film into a wholly effective tale mad tale.

It's all about a family of four living in a secluded Victorian estate. There's Mumsy, the matriarch of the family, and Nanny, the keeper of the house. Neither character is ever named. They simply refer to each other by their titles, simple labels that describe their position of power within the home. Then there's Sonny, the rambunctious male child, and Girly, the coquettish female child. Only neither is actually a child. They're late teens at best, yet they spend their days playing children's games, singing nursery rhymes and getting into trouble. They sleep in beds made for children, are required by Mumsy to take their medicine before dinner and are doted on incessantly, provided they keep Mumsy's rules for how to behave in the house.

Sonny and Girly bring a drunk home with them one day. They name him New Friend. We learn that this man is but one in a long line of New Friends the “children” have brought home with them. When the new New Friend cannot seem to follow the rules, the family force him to play a game, one that just so happens to end with Girly bringing an ax down upon his tender neck.

A few days later, another New Friend is chosen. Like all the other characters in the film, he is never named, only referred to by his room number (“Friend in Two”). New Friend is a bit perplexed at first by the behavior of the family, but soon settles into the routine. What other choice does he have? New Friend thinks that he was the one who killed his lady friend the night they met the "children". But it was really Sonny that caused the unfortunate woman's death. Trapped in blackmail hell by the family, New Friend does his best to stay calm. He obeys the rules, only once trying to escape. Anymore than that and the family would most certainly send him “to meet the angels”.

But as the days go on, the man finds himself seduced by Mumsy, something that triggers the jealousy of both Girly, New Friend's object of lust, and Nanny, the most neglected member of the family. When Sonny catches wind of the quickly escalating sexual relationship between his sister and their captive, he sets upon Mumsy, trying to get her to see that Friend in Two needs to meet his maker. But New Friend has his own ideas and soon sets each member of the family against the other.

You would expect that a film primarily revolving around a sexual power struggle would be a) a bit sleazy or b) a bit heavy on the drama. MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY isn't either of those things. Sure, watching Girly, played by the stunning Vanessa Howard, flounce around the house in short skirts and frilly panties is delightfully sexy, but all the shock of her seduction by Friend in Two is gone once you remember that her character is probably nearing 20 years of age. The shift from “sex as pleasure” to “sex as a tool for manipulation” removes much of the eroticism from the film. Girly's deflowering isn't a deviant sexual act here nor is it especially fun to watch. For Friend in Two, it's a drawing of first blood, literally and figuratively, the first step towards the planned destruction of this so-called family.

So if the film isn't a sleaze fest or overly melodramatic, what does it have to offer? Well, it's utterly bat shit for starters. Between the “children” playfully placing the corpse of New Friend's lady friend in his bed to the family time spent watching Sonny's snuff movies, there's a definite air of the horrific here. There's also a slight whiff of sexism, as there is in many of these kinds of films. Without a father figure, this family has gone straight to hell. One has to wonder if Norman would have ever cracked if Mr. Bates had just hung around a bit longer. SPIDER BABY cast Lon Chaney Jr. in the role of surrogate father, doing his best to keep his mentally ill adopted family from killing half the populace. This underlying subtext doesn't loom over the film, but it's definitely there. There's also a flirtation or two with simplistic male wish fulfillment. Who wouldn't want to play favorite in a household consisting of a gorgeous young woman in a school girl's outfit, a domineering Mrs. Robinson type and a housekeeper dying for male attention? But this wish fulfillment goes right out the window at about the halfway point of the film. By then, the film has turned male endowment from a blessing into a kind of curse.

What I'm trying to get at (and failing miserably) is that MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY isn't a simplistic film. There's many layers to it and the ever shifting tone of the film gives it a schizophrenic atmosphere. The finale hints at the madness of the household finally infecting our hero with the promise of more violence to come. It isn't as effective a bit of Twisted Family horror as say THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or FRIGHTMARE, but as a subtly comedic bit of British nastiness, it works wonderfully. In all honesty, trying to write a review just after watching the film is a struggle. Right now, my thought are as scattershot as this film. It's almost as if it's driven me a bit mad too.

Friday, October 28, 2016

SATAN'S BLADE


SATAN'S BLADE is the second horror movie I've seen this week that uses a bank robbery as a segue into a larger story. In the case of THE CHILLING, it was a weirdo zombie story. Here, it's a slasher. We start with two armed robbers stealing 50k and shooting two bank tellers. The bank robbers head back to their hideout, a winter lodge somewhere in Ski Country, USA. Turns out, our robbers are not men, but two lovely ladies, therefore we get a bit of requisite nudity before Bank Robber 1 shoots Bank Robber 2 dead. And just when you think things couldn't get more convoluted, along comes some mysterious third party to literally back stab backstabbing Bank Robber 1.

The very next day, two loads of vacationers come to town. Despite the fact that a double murder happened in the lodge just 24 hours prior, the vacationers decide to stay and get in some skiing. The first group consists of five of the most unconvincing college age chicks you've ever seen. The second group consists of two married couples. They hear of an urban legend, the tale of a murderer who lives in the nearby lake, a killer controlled by Satan. Any reasonable person would be majorly freaked out by the unsolved double murder that just happened at the very lodge they're sleeping in, but these folks seem more spooked by AquaDahmer than anything else.

Well, guess what? They should be freaked out, because about halfway through this interminable bore of a film, a gloved maniac starts slicing and dicing everyone he (or she) comes across. Is it the maniac in the lake come to ruin everyone's weekend? Or is it someone after the 50k our late Bank Robbers stashed in the heating vent of one of the cabins?

Do you folks at home know?

Spoiler, it's a bit of both.

SATAN'S BLADE is a tale of two halves. The first half of the film is simply dreadful. The acting is ungodly, the writing is unbearably bad and the direction is about as lively as Bank Robber 2's corpse. This is one of those films where characters talk about doing things we never actually see them do. I know these people had fun skiing, but I never actually saw them ski. They talk about things that happen outside of the periphery of the film, like what they were doing days before the film started. They seem like people with lives and interests and aspirations, but on screen they're just… there. We never get to know any of them well enough to even know which of these idiots is the lead character. There is a bit of a romantic complication going on with one of the girls taking an interest in one of the husbands, but that's as far as the film goes in providing us with any meaningful character action or drama.

But then the second half of the film kicks off. The slasher action of the film is satisfying in a purely visceral way. SATAN'S BLOOD doesn't try to make its violence cinematic. It tries to make it painful. Characters don't drop dead after being stabbed once or twice. They writhe around in agony. Despite the shoddiness of the effects work, the way the violence is handled makes the film strangely disturbing, even a bit nauseating at times. It's all brutal stabbings, too, with only one scene of “cinematic” violence, the killer chucking the knife 30 feet through the air, embedding the blade into the back of a fleeing woman. SATAN'S BLADE trades cinematic violence for the more realistic kind.

This brand of realistic violence was practically gone by the time this film was released in 1984. Hell, that same year saw Jason lift a dude in the air using a harpoon gun he unceremoniously rammed through his groin and crushing a man's skull against a bathroom wall. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET vomited Johnny Depp's blood supply though a hole in a bed. Those scenes are brutal, sure, but they're too cinematic to be really effective. SATAN'S BLADE does exactly one thing right. It shows that you don't need gimmicky violence to get audiences to say “ouch” or “ick” or “I'm writing my Congressman”.

But unfortunately, folks, that is quite literally the only thing SATAN'S BLADE does right. It's final reveal is laughable, a bit of supernatural hokum that sends the film off on the wrong note. It does go a step further than most slasher films though. Not a single protagonist is left alive by the time the credits roll. They're all dead, as dead as the careers of everyone involved with the making of this film.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

THE SILENT SCREAM


Not be confused with the anti-abortion propaganda film, Denny Harris' THE SILENT SCREAM is a 1979 slasher film all about a college student desperate to find a place to stay because she couldn't manage to get her housing application in on time. For shame. The student, Scotty, finds a room at a secluded estate house owned by Mrs. Engels, a distant older woman who spends most of her time locked in her bedroom. Her son, Mason, is a bit of a weirdo, but he also keeps the boarding house up and running with little troubles. Along for the ride are Peter, a preppy douche with a wealthy dad, Doris, the sassy female friend, and Jack, the dreamboat love interest.

Oh and there's someone else at the house, someone we spot digging around in the walls. Someone with a hard-on for large kitchen knives.

THE SILENT SCREAM doesn't do much different from other slasher films of the time. We have a large, spooky house, a few exposed nipples and more than a few stabbings, all accompanied by shrieking violins, a la PSYCHO. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that all is not well with the Engels family. There's some hushed talk of a sister named Victoria that supposedly lives somewhere on the east coast and that the patriarch of the family died a long time ago, two things that should raise suspicion levels for fans of the sub genre. When Peter ends up stabbed to death at the beach, two cops (who might as well be named Captain Exposition and Detective Padding) start an investigation with all signs pointing to someone in the Engels family being the murderer. The final solution to the mystery of who is slicing and dicing our surprisingly likeable cast involves implied incest, lobotomy, spilled blood and a loaded gun. Does that sound like fun? 

Well, it is. THE SILENT SCREAM certainly isn't the most hyperbolic or hyper violent slasher movie around, but it's very well crafted and executed. My only real complaint is that the cop angle is only there for exposition. Our leads are not actively engaged in finding Peter's killer, nor are they even aware that a killer is in their midst. So from time to time, we have to have chunks of exposition delivered to us by Cameron Mitchell. It's not ideal. I would have preferred more active characters than those on display here, but everyone is likeable enough that I didn't mind just hanging around these clueless dipshits as they're bumped off one by one.

And not only does Cameron Mitchell make an appearance, but the film gives us both Yvonne De Carlo and Barbara Steele in supporting roles. In fact, the whole damn movie is stolen by Steele, despite her character never uttering a word. She's all eyes in this one, just penetrating glares and stares. Steele has always been a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic screen presence and the film is much better with her than it would have ever been without her.

Because, and let's be honest here, there isn't much in the way of scares in this film. The violence on display wouldn't raise 1/8th of an eyebrow in 1980, let alone 2016. But THE SILENT SCREAM trades the more explicit sex and violence of your routine slasher film for three things that work very well in its favor. One, competency. This is a very well put together film, unlike a lot of cheapo slashers that are loaded with suspension of disbelief shattering fuck ups. The second, the characters are likeable enough to invoke sympathy. I genuinely liked Scotty and Jack as a couple. Their relationship wasn't used a quick gimmick to show some bare breasts on screen. And the third, intrigue. While the finale is awash in tenuous movie psychology, the underlying mystery and suspense aspects of the film kept me invested. THE SILENT SCREAM might not have the most compelling story, but at least it has one, more than can be said for most slasher movies.

So if you're looking for sex and violence, go watch literally any other slasher movie. But if you want a decent tale to go with your breasts and brain matter, you could do a hell of a lot worse than THE SILENT SCREAM. Because it's actually good. I'm as shocked as you are.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

QUEENS OF EVIL


SPOILER WARNING!!!

The Establishment is the Devil, man. 

No shit, in QUEENS OF EVIL, the Establishment is literally the Devil. That is what this film is, an anti-establishment, pro-free love allegory dressed up as a Jean Rollin film. It's all about David, a good looking. motorcycling hippie (so of course he's played by Ray Lovelock) who happens upon a broken down, luxury car on the road one night. He stops to help the driver change his tire. The driver, who is never named, casually berates David about his lifestyle, pointing out the foolishness of his personal beliefs. And though he thanks David profusely for his help, the driver still sticks a nail in the front tire of David's motorcycle. Bummer.

David tries to catch up with the car, but the driver loses control, plowing into a ditch. David stops to check on him, only to find him dead. Seemingly not bothered at all, David then stops at a lovely cottage in the woods and sets up a sleeping bag in a shed out back. In the morning, he wakes to discover three sisters, Liv, Bibiana and Samantha, eyeballing him. As these sisters are played by Ida Galli, Silvia Monti and Haydee Politoff, David decides to hang around for a bit. They feed him cake for breakfast, flirt with him and generally treat him like he's the only man for miles. Though the outside of the house looks quaint, the inside looks like a haute couture nightmare, with a picture of each sister, blown up to gigantic proportions, hanging on the wall, gaudy bric-a-brac everywhere and lighting clearly designed for fashion rather than visibility.

Over the next few days, the sisters take turns seducing David, forcing food upon him and generally acting a bit strange. David begins cracking a bit. At one point, he leaves the house but quickly returns, only to find the kitchen barren (though it was stocked with food a minute ago) and all the sisters missing. He finds them in the woods, conducting some kind of ritual at a bonfire. He thinks it's all in his head. Just some freak twist of his own imagination. Or is there something more going on here? He is invited to a party at the spooky castle behind the cottage by the sisters. Inside, he meets a priest and some socialites. A little while later, he meets his fate.

Now this is why I have that spoiler warning above, because this is a movie whose power was clearly intended to be derived from its ending. Long story short, David decides that he wants to stay with the sisters. They ask him if he will give up his ideals for them, his freedom even. He replies “yes” so they messily slaughter him. In the morning, they bury him outside of the castle with all of the socialites in attendance. And that's when HE arrives, the Devil himself. Surprise, surprise, the Devil is indeed the man David thought to be dead in that ditch at the beginning of the film. The Devil berates the attendants, all figures of the Establishment, telling them that he's losing power over the people, all because of folks like David spreading too much damn free love, fight the power sentiment around the world. “They don't even think sex is a sin anymore”, one of the attendants remarks. The Devil angrily sends them off to win more people to the Dark Side. In the final shot, pretty flowers begin popping up all over David's grave.

I'm all for a good allegory, but there's a lot that doesn't make sense here. If David is the poster child for the anti-establishment, free love hippie, then wouldn't David throwing out his principles be a victory for the Devil? If so, why exactly was David killed? Wouldn't the allegory of the film be better served if David was like “gee whiz, I'd love to stay here with you three exotic beauties, but I'll never stop fighting the man, man”? If that happened, David's death would have felt like it actually meant something. The allegory would have had some kind of power to it. But as it stands, it just falls flat because it's ill defined and muddled by the desire to simply cap it all off with a shocking death scene. It's like fumbling the ball at the half yard line.

And why exactly is the rest of the film so heavily laden with obvious fairy tale references? From one of the sisters giving David an apple from the only apple tree around, to David's remarks that the sister's home looks like something out of Snow White, to the sisters feeding David gluttonous amounts of food, to the spooky castle… That all feels strangely out of place here, like the film was originally going to be a play on folk tales, but was then shifted into some strange theological-political allegory. Whenever the film isn't winking at us with allusions to fairy tales or common horror tropes, it's stuck in a kind of oddly subdued erotic mindset.

The sisters are all beautiful and, in typical Italian genre fashion, are often seen in barely there negligees or skin tight clothing. We get one sex scene per sister and director Tonino Cervi spends ample time on shots of moist lips, smoky eyes and smooth curves. All great to gander at, mind you, but I shouldn't be asking myself what genre of film I'm watching every twenty minutes. Is this a drama? A horror movie? A piece of softcore erotica? It's all and none at the same time.

When you add a schizophrenic soundtrack (which bounces from lounge to child's melody to jazz to chamber music) to the schizophrenic tone of the film, you end up with something completely off-putting yet strangely beguiling. I don't dislike this film (even though I find the underlying allegory to be weak and largely ineffective), yet I don't particularly care for it either. It's a strange one, more of a collection of moments than a cohesive whole. For good chunks of time, I was wholly under its spell. But when the film wasn't working or was too busy dragging its feet over the same metaphors to make any progress, it was like pulling teeth.