Friday, August 26, 2016

THE GIALLO PROJECT - THE MONSTER OF VENICE


There's a killer loose in Venice. In the dead of night, the killer dresses in a diving suit, plucking nubile young lasses off the streets, drowning them in the canals. This unknown killer takes the corpses back to his hideout, a ruined monastery deep beneath the water. Using a special embalming fluid, he preserves their bodies, keeping them in glass cases. Andrea, a reporter for a local paper, knows there is a serial murderer among the populace, but the police won't have any of it, believing Andrea's theory is a ploy to sell papers. As more and more young women go missing, Andrea decides to track down the killer himself.

On paper, this is one hell of a setup. In execution, however, it's more than a little botched. When Dino Tavella's giallo THE MONSTER OF VENICE (easily found on DVD under its American title, THE EMBALMER) decides to focus on this strand of the narrative, the film works exceptionally well, if a little corny. But Tavella's film seems to forget its underlying murder mystery with staggering ease, giving nearly two-thirds of the running time over to your typical travelogue extravagances and weak romance. About a third of the way into the film, Maureen arrives, a teacher from Rome chaperoning a gaggle of pretty girls on a trip to Venice. Andrea and Maureen fall madly in love and thus begins the dramatic shift from modern Gothic horror to treacly melodrama.

The film picks back up during its final twenty minutes, but by then the effectiveness of the murder mystery angle has been largely neutered, if only because the film has worn out its welcome. That's a damn shame too, as the final act is where the film shines brightest, a descent into and then a chase through dimly lit, rotting, crumbling catacombs, complete with a room full of robed, skeletal monks. The killer's outfit, a crusty robe and cheap skeleton Halloween mask, actually becomes one of the most haunting images the film offers up and Tavella goes to great lengths to pile on the dread. There's a wonderful scene of the killer sitting among the dead monks, anxiously waiting for Maureen to wander by so he can grab at her. It's nicely effective stuff, but again, the effect is all for naught as Tavella can come up with nothing better to do during the climax than to have Andrea and the killer engage in a poorly shot, poorly choreographed fist fight that shatters credibility before plummeting down into unintentional comedy.

The real saving grace of THE MONSTER OF VENICE is its setting. There's something beautifully terrifying about Venice. It is equal parts tragic, haunting, lovely and unsettling. A drowned city, teetering on collapse, but so beautiful, so wonderfully mysterious. Tavella understands both the beauty and the terror of the city, and the moments when all we're doing is touring the city by gondola or walking through the streets are packed with hypnotic glory. Like in Nicolas Roeg's excellent DON'T LOOK NOW, Venice is a genuine character here. I just wish the film was as in love with its story as it is with its setting. 

THE MONSTER OF VENICE
(Il mostro di Venezia, The Embalmer)

Director: Dino Tavella
Writer: Paolo Lombardo, Gian Battista Mussetto, Dino Tavella, Antonio Walter
Starring: Maureen Brown, Luigi Martocci, Alcide Gazzotto, Alba Brotto
Italy; Gondola Film
1965, 77 minutes

Narrative Variety: Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 male
Murderer(s) Role: Friend
Murderer(s) Motive: Unexplained, presumably madness
Victims: 1 female (off-screen), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (off-screen), 1 male (stabbed), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (strangled)
Murderer(s) Death: Shot to death

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE RING


Where were you when Asian horror became the new big thing in genre film? 

I was working in a music store that just so happened to give its employees a nice 33% discount on DVDs. And thank Christ for that, too, as I anxiously gobbled up every single Asian horror film that came into the store. I remember reading about this new wave of video nasties not in the pages of Fangoria but in the pages of Premiere magazine, the slightly pretentious alternative to something like Entertainment Weekly. Alongside the wave of transgressive North American indie shockers like HAPPINESS and SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS was talk of films like SUICIDE CLUB, BATTLE ROYALE and especially AUDITION, a reportedly grotesque film guaranteed to have me retching into my popcorn.

As wave after wave of Asian extremities came flooding into my DVD player, I began to grow a bit dissatisfied with the quality of many of the titles on offer. Where was BATTLE ROYALE in all of this? Where were these ANGEL GUTS movies that I heard so much about? You won't give me those, but you'll give me EVIL DEAD TRAP? Well, thanks for nothing. So I did what any insatiable genre fan would do.

I bought a shitload of poorly translated bootleg DVDs off of eBay. Suck on that, Tartan Films.

One movie I was desperate to track down was Hideo Nakata's RINGU, one of the films often mentioned as a catalyst for this new crop of Eastern atrocities. But supposedly this film was different from the usual splattery Asian genre films I was eating up at a frantic pace. This was apparently more calm, more sedate, more focused on the frights. I finally received my 60-fucking-dollar bootleg copy and sat down to watch it. What did I think? 

It was spooky as shit. By that point, I had seen more than my fair share of long-haired girls walking around dimply lit environments, but RINGU lacked any attempt at base manipulation. It's an exceedingly quiet film with nary a jump scare inserted into its 96 minute run time. A poor translation left me scratching my head more than a few times, but once I bounced online and downloaded a proper translation (which I had to read while watching the film), I appreciated it more and more. I began tracking down the sequels, the other unofficial adaptations made around the time like THE RING VIRUS and RINGU KANZENBAN, and when the novels started receiving English translations, I bought them too. 

I was, in other words, a fan.

So when it was announced that a Dreamworks remake of Nakata's original film was under way, I was actually rather excited. Because depending on what path you take with the franchise (read the books and ignore the movies, watch RINGU and RASEN only, watch the other adaptations only, etc.), your RINGU experience will differ dramatically. The books are a far cry from what the films were and vice versa. So I wasn't upset that someone in Hollywood was going to “butcher a film I love”. I was excited that I would have one more unique spectrum to view this wonderful story through.

At this point, a synopsis of THE RING or RINGU is unnecessary. We've all seen it in one form or another. It works so well because of its central idea, that of a truly viral video that spreads a kind of fatal supernatural curse to anyone who views it. In the books, this curse isn't merely supernatural. Rather, it's a strange mix of virology and mysticism, the result of a psychic child, skilled in nensha, carrying the taint of smallpox. This is Cronenbergian to its core, a viral mutation spread through a visual medium. There are no ghosts manifesting out of televisions in the novels. There is only viral infection spreading largely unchecked, ever mutating. The novels grow weirder and weirder too, eventually culminating in a science fiction orgy of alternate universes populated with clones of Sadako, the evil force at the center of these stories.

I knew none of that would ever carry over into the remake. I knew full well that this would be a remake of Nakata's film and nothing more. But I was surprised how much the film borrowed from RINGU 2, the “official” sequel put into development after the spectacular failure of the first sequel RASEN, and how much it referenced DARK WATER, Nakata's masterpiece about a single mother and her young child tormented by the lonely spirit of a young girl accidentally drowned in the water tower of a rundown apartment building. I was half expecting elements of RINGU 0, the final installment of the original trilogy of films, to creep into the remake but none ever did. When the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater, I was torn. Part of me loved that the remake kept so true to Nakata's film, but the rest of me felt like something was definitely lost in translation.

I still feel that way today. Watching the film again, I was struck by how… I don't want to use the phrase “dumbed down”… I don't even know what phrase to use exactly. How about I just explain it instead?

There's a mystery to be solved in RINGU and that mystery is tied to a countdown timer. Once Asakawa watches the cursed video tape, she has exactly seven days to save her life. Saving her life relies on her being able to solve the mystery behind the images on the tape. So the film has to move swiftly. It has to gain and maintain a kind of momentum so we can experience the same fear of impending death that Asakawa is experiencing. RINGU, for all its complications, moves along at a great pace. As Asakawa's days count down, the amount of narrative ground covered speeds up. The pacing of the film works in conjunction with its underlying narrative thrust, that ever-present deadline of seven days.

But the remake doesn't have that same sense of urgency. It takes its time and really goes to great lengths to explain absolutely everything. And that's why I was tempted to use the phrase “dumbed down”. Because some mysteries are not solved in RINGU and the ones that are, are solved with expediency. We don't need a complicated explanation when a simple but engaging explanation will do. A lot of it comes down to the actual cursed tape images. In Nakata's original, the cursed footage breezes by in about 50 seconds and contains nine edits. In the remake, the tape lasts about 80 seconds and contains 34 edits. And each one of those images (well, 95% of them anyway) is explained as a part of some larger mystery.

What that means is that the remake is a film comprised largely of exposition. Now, you could argue that nearly all mysteries in film are explained through exposition, but the effect of having this endless stream of “this explains the horses and the ladder and the nails and the...” is that something needs to be sacrificed in order to make time in the narrative, and what ends up being sacrificed is the human drama at the core of the story, the struggle of a mother to save her life and the life of her child.

It's almost an unwritten rule with horror movie remakes. "All things need explanation". Did we really need to know that Michael Myers had a shit childhood? Did we really need an explanation as to how Jason gets around so quickly in FRIDAY THE 13TH? No, we didn't. Mikey's broken home and Jason's excavation skills add nothing to the stories. They're just fluff so the filmmakers can say “see! We're adding something new!” when in reality what they're adding is just filler. And that is what most of THE RING is. Filler.

Also gone is the underlying supernatural tone of the original. In Nakata's film, we have Ryuji, Asakawa's psychic ex-husband. The tone of Nakata's film is one seeped in paranormal horror. That character is replaced in the remake by Noah, Rachel's ex-boyfriend who is a photographer / videographer. As a result, we lose scenes of people discussing malevolent psychic powers and gain discussions on tape tracking and time codes. It's a not-so-subtle, probably cultural, shift in tone that would only be noticeable (obviously) to people who have seen the original film. We also have changes to the character of Sadako, here called Samara. In Nakata's film, Sadako is a tragic character, just a little girl unable to control her powers, doomed to a fate worse than death and lashing out in righteous anger at the circumstances of her fate. In Gore Verbinski's remake, Samara is just another Evil Child. Again, unless you've seen both films, this comparison means nothing, but it simply worked better in the original.

But what works in the remake? It isn't all bad, right? Absolutely not. For starters, the film is actually quite frightening at times. I love the fact that the whole damn movie is blue. Rachel's eyes are blue, Katie's school picture at her funeral has a blue background, the walls of every building are painted shades of blue, just fucking everything is blue. Why do I like that? I just like the color blue, I guess, but when you contrast it with the rain and the countryside vistas and the sharp explosions of red… It really creates a singular kind of atmosphere, one you usually don't see in most horror remakes. The typical color scheme of a horror remake is baby shit brown and pea soup green. Because that's what constitutes “edgy” in Hollywood. In contrast, THE RING looks classy, mostly because it actually is.

It's also terrifically directed and wonderfully scored. I love the “Samara emerging from the TV” moment and the way her image is distorted both physically and visually, her size reflecting the enhanced image of the television projection, her body jerking with every break in the tape she just crawled out of. I loved the horrifying visages of the corpses, the way Verbinski carefully frames his characters in isolation, the perfectly timed editing that knows precisely how long to hold an image for maximum effect. THE RING is a remarkably well made film, narrative gripes aside. It just needed to dial its script back a bit, to trust its audience a bit more. It misunderstood just why RINGU worked as well as it did. It wasn't because it was crammed full of ideas. It was because it was simple and focused.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

BASKET CASE


At this point, I think we have enough “Twin Terror” films for “Twin Terror” films to be considered a proper sub-genre, instead of something I just made up to give this sentence some awesome alliterative action. They all play more or less the same game. Twins are locked in a cycle of codependency, utterly reliant on one another, until one of the two meets someone special and the relationship turns sour, usually poisonous, oftentimes murderous. These films all contain some variation on that idea, whether it's Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS or De Palma's SISTERS, but as is usual in the case of like-minded films, the devil lies in the details. SISTERS is a far more wonky bit of work than DEAD RINGERS, a film very much about psychosexual dominance and fear of femininity, running the gamut from voyeuristic fantasy to politically tinged satire to out-and-out freak show with its late game inclusions of split personalities and hypnosis quackery. One story, two different looks.

But that's because David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma are two very different sides of the same coin. Both have filmographies full of darkly sexual thrillers with their fair share of bodily atrocities, but Cronenberg is the abyss you gaze into while De Palma is the abyss that gazes back. Frank Henenlotter is neither of those things. He's the goof, the prankster, the slightly creepy uncle that knows all the best dirty jokes and has a collection of questionable, pervy magazines stashed somewhere around the house. Henenlotter's films are exercises in pure, visually audacious grossness, best exemplified by BRAIN DAMAGE, a film in which a talking phallic parasite named Aylmer pulls a woman's brain out through her mouth.

The twins on display here are Duane and his brother Belial. After witnessing some middle aged man being mauled by something unseen, we find Duane walking down the mean streets of 1980s New York. He's carrying a large wicker basket and sporting a fine 80s mop of hair. Duane gets himself a room at a cheap hotel, briefly meets his prostitute neighbor and then heads inside for some sleep. As the film progresses, we learn that the wicker basket contains Belial, Duane's once-conjoined twin, who is basically just a lumpy head with arms. They're tracking down the doctors that separated them at the age of twelve, Duane keeping watch as Belial tears them apart with his freaky oversized hands. Because that isn't bizarre enough, Duane and Belial have a psychic connection. Duane can telepathically hear Belial talk and when something happens to one of them, the other can sense it clearly.

Things proceed according to plan until Duane meets Sharon, a front desk clerk for one of the doctors he has marked for death. The two hit it off, even sharing a kiss on their first date. Naturally, Belial flips his shit, trashing the hotel room before taking out the rest of his frustration on the busy body down the hall. Whether it's out of jealousy or just out of frustration at this little hiccup in their plans for revenge, Belial soon targets Sharon for destruction, leading to the inevitable tragic climax of the film.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. This film is weird. It's also remarkably cheap, shot on 16mm with a limited amount of actual production quality, like complex lighting schemes or fluid camera work. The script moves between gags that don't work (two of the doctors are named Dr. Kutter and Dr. Needleman. Hardy har har) and sequences that, strangely enough, work remarkably well (as idiotic as the idea is, the separation scene and the flashbacks that follow are actually quite emotionally resonant), leading to an ever-shifting tone that keeps the film perpetually off balance. The effects work isn't great either, with basement quality stop motion and obvious puppetry. The list of problems is long.

BUT

I'll be goddamned if this film doesn't work. The closest film I can compare this to is Paul Bartel's PRIVATE PARTS. These films have absolutely nothing to do with one another either thematically or narratively, but they're both made up of bizarre occurrences, filled with performances that are uniquely nuanced and crafted with such a strange, almost intangible, weirdness that everything just comes together perfectly to create a kind of peculiar verisimilitude. The film feels genuine (mostly because it was created by a man with an obvious love for his material) even though it's patently absurd. Even the ridiculous Belial, a puppet that looks like it was created by melting Halloween props together with a blowtorch, feels like an actual entity here. There isn't much going on behind the scenes in terms of meaningful subtext, but the onscreen action has a definite, unavoidable gravity to it. As I watched the film again after nearly a decade, I found myself invested in it. That's not something I thought would happen.

Pinpointing exactly what it is about BASKET CASE that elevates it above your typical monster movie is difficult, mostly because it isn't any one thing. For as cheap as the film is, there's some brilliant low budget filmmaking going on here and the writing, while predictable, has an almost avant-garde feel to it, vacillating between dead pan comedy and moments of on-the-nose immediacy. There's something to be said about camp played straight and how that can heighten the aura of nonsense while also normalizing all the batshit craziness of it all. Some of the best horror films do this. They balance nonsense with straight faced seriousness so well that we completely buy the idea of a crispy-faced serial killer massacring teenagers in their sleep. We buy into the idea that a masked maniac can take two clips and several axes to the torso but still get right back up. The vast majority of horror films are, at the end of the day, dumb as fucking dirt, and when you play that material completely straight without any recognition of the bullshit of it all, you tend to end up with films that are about as fun as castration and as scary as puppy dogs.

But when films knowingly and willingly acknowledge their logical lapses and idiotic mechanics, deliberately working them into a kind of alternate extant reality, you can come away with a film that engages an audience rather than separates it from an audience. BASKET CASE is pulled off with such verve and such self-awareness that it transcends its meager, dumb origins and becomes something genuinely affective and effective. And again, that's not something I thought would happen. I don't even know if I explained it well. Truth be told, I'm probably just as confused as you are by it all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

SPINE


Back in 1983, Sony released the Betamovie BMC-100P, the first consumer class camcorder. It was bulky, heavy, used Betamax cassettes instead of the more popular VHS tapes and cost a damn pretty penny. True consumer friendly camcorders had to wait a few years to become commonplace, but once they did, they proliferated rather quickly. Once people got over the kick of being able to embarrass their families on vacation or film themselves masturbating into the kitchen sink, people starting trying to film whole movies using these low quality contraptions.

And thus, shot-on-video movies were born. Hoorayyyyyyyyyyyyyy

Back in the mid-90s, my high school pals and I made quite a few short films, usually mock commercials, but we did try our hand at making a feature length film. It was a corny, in-joke filled romp called LITTLE PLASTIC DEMONS. I was the writer, director and special effects guy. No lie, it was fun. We were making a movie! Many laughs were had.

Then it came time to edit the goddamn thing. Now, this is how you had to do it back in the day. You hooked one VCR into another VCR. The first machine was your playback and the other was your recorder. If you somehow managed to sync up the play delay of the first machine with the record delay of the second, you could, in theory, put a movie together. You could even dub the film or add sound effects using the camcorder microphone. Easy peasy, right?

Nope. It was a fucking pain in the balls, but it was what you had to do unless you could afford something more professional. We tried just filming in continuity, pausing the camcorder when we needed to change angles, but there was always a weird two second rewind that happened between hitting the pause button once and hitting it again. Of course, we didn't know this until we went back to watch the footage and realized that lines were getting cut off, actions were being truncated, etc. But who cares? We were making a movie! And it wasn't like shot-on-video stuff was even getting distributed, right? 

Every video rental store in the 1990s was full of shot-on-video movies. It's a testament to just how hungry for content video renters were at the time. We would walk into a store and plunk down our hard earned cash just to watch someone's home movie. Quality didn't matter. We just wanted entertainment. We didn't care how it was made or where it came from. We wanted more, more, more, more, more. So to keep up with demand, distributors started grabbing whatever they could and vomiting it out into every A-Z Video they could find. And I watched 'em all, from SPLATTER FARM to 555. I didn't care, damn it. I just wanted stuff to watch.

This was back when I wanted to be a film director so watching these shot-on-video abominations was strangely inspiring. I mean, they could do I so why couldn't I? But watching any of these movies today is like pulling teeth. It never occurred to me back then that just because someone COULD make a movie, it doesn't mean that they SHOULD make a movie. Most of these films are terrible, but it isn't really because they're shot-on-video. John McNaughton could have shot HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER on video and it would have turned out more or less the same (in fact, the most chilling moments in that film ARE shot-on-video). No, the reason most of these movies are terrible is because they try to be more than they possibly could ever be.

Case in point: SPINE, a 1986 slasher film written and directed by an ex-pornographer. It is routine and uninspired, just a sordid little tale about a nutjob with a hang-up going around slicing up nurses and plucking out their spines. That's not exactly the most exciting premise, but it gets the job done. All writer/director John Howard (and his co-director/co-writer Justin Simmons) had to do was keep it uncomplicated. Just deliver on the premise. There's no need to complicate things. With shot-on-video, your grasp should never exceed your reach.

Now, here's a word of advice from me to you, OK? Pay attention. If a shot-on-video film has a cop as a lead character, TURN IT OFF. Just do it. Turn that shit off and throw it away. Nothing good will ever come from it. SPINE, mostly because the film turned out to be far too short, has an entire throwaway plot line dealing with a few police detectives tracking down our mumbling, poorly written killer. I have absolutely no idea why the people making these kinds of films don't just rent police costumes from their local costume shop, but they never do. They slap toy badges on a couple of idiots dressed in street clothes, pin a map of the city onto a cork board in the middle of a room and think that we will all be convinced that these people are boys in blue. Any shot-on-video police character will speak in exposition, smoke multiple cigarettes in a single scene and grit their teeth anytime they're in close up. The shot-on-video cop is the single worst character in film history.

But thankfully, these characters only show up sporadically here. They mostly pop in from time to time to say “all the victims are nurses” or “I'm gonna get this guy” before pissing off for 15 minutes. The rest of the film is spent with our lead female characters, Carrie and Leah, as they're terrorized in their home by Lawrence, the one-eyed nurse hating psychopath. Problem is, the horror elements here are as weak as the police procedural elements. It's sloppy and disorganized, overwritten yet somehow also underwritten. Lawrence mumbles like a poor man's Frank Zito and his explosions of violence are laughable at best. Carrie and Leah are both nicely sympathetic and likeable, but they're never really developed as characters. They're just women in peril and that's not enough to earn our apprehension.

SPINE quickly deteriorates into blathering inanity before exploding once again in pseudo-off screen violence, and while I appreciated its willingness to ruthlessly kill off the central character, the film blows the whole damn thing by revealing that its final 20-25 minutes were all just a dream. Worse, this revelation doesn't end the film. It just adds a quasi-supernatural element to the proceedings. It feels profoundly out of place and frankly idiotic. Don't get me wrong, the entire damn film is idiotic, just a poorly written mess, but had this revelation started the film rather than ended the film, the circular nature of the climax would have had some kind of purpose behind it. It would have completely changed the nature of the film itself, but it would have been much, much better. In fact, it's the kind of thing this film needed to have working in its favor. As it stands, it's just a frustrating development that goes nowhere.

Had that change taken place and had the police procedural angle been removed (Howard and Simmons should have just expanded the time we spend with our true leads rather than complicating it with the worst cop stereotypes in existence), SPINE could have easily been a decent shot-on-video slasher flick. Slasher flicks can operate well enough within the confines of shot-on-video productions, but SPINE didn't want to be just another decent enough slasher film. It tried to be too damn much with too damn little and as a result, the film suffered. I have seen worse shot-on-video films in my life, but make no mistake, this does come close at times to scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel. 

Not a good film at all.

Friday, August 5, 2016

THE GIALLO PROJECT - LIBIDO


When he was a child, Christian witnessed his sex maniac father murder a lusty, young blonde. 20 years later, Christian returns to his father's home with an eye on selling the property once the deed is transferred to him in a few months time. Along for the visit is his finance, Helene, the estate caretaker (and close family friend) Paul and Paul's ditzy, younger blonde wife, Brigitte. There is obvious acrimony between Christian and Paul, the former eager to fire his longtime associate and the latter desperate to keep the estate in the family name. As the days go by, Christian gains the attention of Brigitte, Paul and Helene begin spending more time together, but far more worryingly, Christian begins seeing and hearing things around the estate. Is he going mad or is something far more sinister afoot?

LIBIDO marks the arrival of Ernesto Gastaldi, one of Italy's foremost genre film screenwriters, in the land of the giallo. The simple story of LIBIDO is by far the most typical form of the Poisoned Past narrative found in the entirety of the filone and Gastaldi would go on to refine the narrative of LIBIDO through multiple films including THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH, A… COME ASSASSINO and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH, a landmark title in the giallo. It's a simple premise that works, a character haunted by something in the past is tormented by someone in the present, someone close, someone who knows all too well the extent of their trauma. These usually skew towards the psychosexual, but LIBIDO plays it more straight, bearing little of the complexity that would go on to mark Gastaldi's later work.

The film begins with a quote by Freud explaining his idea of the libido (the psychic energy that exists in our subconscious) and from that we surmise that this will be more of a psychological thriller than a potboiler. Indeed, Gastaldi seems to be playing that game. It's easy to read the characters as metaphors for Freudian sexual/power dominance ideas with the id, ego and superego being represented by Brigitte, Helene and Paul respectively. But whatever psychological depth Gastaldi and his co-writer Mara Maryl (who plays Brigitte in the film) were trying to add to the film gets brushed aside for a more routine and simplistic mystery in the later half. That isn't to say that the second half of the film is therefore uninteresting or subpar. Far from it. Once LIBIDO takes its sharp right turn into mystery thriller territory, it becomes a bleak, delicious bit of filmmaking.

The final third of the film piles on the twists, turns and reversals as characters get caught in lies, divulge secrets and display signs of malicious intent. Christian owns up to having violent impulses just before Helene starts sporting scratches and bruises on her body. Is Christian harming her while in some kind of fugue state? Brigitte lets slip that while Christian may think Helene and Paul didn't meet until after their engagement, the truth is that Paul deliberately set up the meeting between Helene and Christian, hoping it would lead to their engagement. Christian follows Paul and Helene when they head off to do some shopping. He later spies them in an embrace outside of a hotel. Are they trying to drive him crazy to get their hands on his inheritance?

The final solution to this puzzle is a triple twist ending that would feel positively hackneyed had it not been set up with so much care. While undeniably twisted, the final moments of LIBIDO pack a genuine punch, wonderfully, blackly ironic in their machinations but almost heartbreaking at the same time. While the impact will likely be diminished if you're at all familiar with Gastaldi's later work (especially YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY), the send-off to LIBIDO definitely sold me on the films greatness. And I don't use that term lightly. With its abundance of memorable performances, stylish direction and suitably slippery narrative, this is a film that deserves a critical reappraisal. It is an easy film to recommend, especially if you're interested in the foundational roots of the giallo. 

LIBIDO

Director: Ernesto Gastaldi, Vittorio Salerno
Writer: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mara Maryl
Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Dominique Boschero, Luciano Pigozzi, Mara Maryl
Italy; Nucleo Dariano Film
1965, 87 minutes

Narrative Variety: Poisoned Past
Murderer(s): 1 male (in flashback), 1 female (present day)
Murderer(s) Role: Father (in flashback), Friend (present day)
Murderer(s) Motive: Money
Victims: 1 woman (killed off screen in flashback), 1 man (pushed from a cliff), 1 woman (shot)
Murderer(s) Death: N/A


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

THE PROWLER


THE PROWLER takes place in the fictional town of Avalon Bay, a cozy little slice of normal on the coast where nothing much happens, so little in fact that the Avalon Bay police force consists of a single sheriff and his deputy.

It's like any other town really, except that back in 1945 two unsolved murders took place. As a result, there has been a 35-year moratorium on college graduation parties. Does that sound like a bit of an overreaction to you? Well, the whole damn movie is built on an overreaction. See, the two people murdered that night were Rosemary and her boyfriend Roy. Their killer was Rosemary's ex-boyfriend, a soldier recently returned from fighting in World War II. Rosemary sent the poor guy a Dear John letter, informing him that she simply couldn't wait for him to return home. I mean, what else was there for this poor guy to do? Move on with his life? Nah, better impale them both with the pointy end of a pitchfork. It's only rational. A fella needs closure in his life.

It wasn't uncommon for horror films to use Vietnam vets for their antagonists. They were usually portrayed as mentally unstable, disillusioned lost souls so used to violence on the battlefield that they had a hard time shaking their murderous urges after returning home. I was more than a little curious as to how THE PROWLER would use a World War II veteran in its narrative, only to find out that it didn't plan on using that angle at all. It was just a bit of fluff, a reason to use a period setting during the opening pre-credits sequence. Instead, we just have yet another slasher film where a party acts as a trigger for someone carefully hiding a past trauma, resulting in a handful of deaths. Yay.

In all honesty, those deaths are the only reason to even watch this horrible film. Tom Savini's excellent splatter effects make up for 99% of everything good about THE PROWLER. They're suitably nasty, still convincing and actually quite mesmerizing to behold. But everything else about THE PROWLER is an unmitigated disaster. Once the opening credits stop rolling and we're into the film proper, we meet our two leads, Mark the flirty deputy and Pam the boring blonde. Mark is being left in charge while the sheriff (played by Farley Granger) goes fishing for the weekend. The sheriff mentions that there was a murder committed one town over and there's a possibility that the killer might pay their town a visit but nahh don't worry about that. Evening comes and the dance kicks off.

While everyone is having a good time, Pam's roommate and her boyfriend are both killed by the titular Prowler, a dude dressed up in WWII gear. After having punch spilled all over her dress, Pam goes home to change, not noticing the two dead bodies in her bathroom. She's chased a bit by the killer, but is rescued by Deputy Mark. And thus begins the arduous murder mystery angle of the film. They head to the home of Major Chatham, a respected town elder, and start looking around inside, unaware that the killer is inside the house.

Now, this sequence is the perfect example of why THE PROWLER is such an abysmal waste of time. This sequence lasts a full eight minutes. It begins with Mark and Pam entering the home. We're given a few quick glimpses of the killer hiding in an upstairs room. As Mark wanders around, Pam discovers some pictures of Rosemary. Not once does anyone run into the killer. Not once are we shown the killer stalking either character. Not once does anything actually happen during these eight minutes. The entire sequence is only there so we can learn a single throwaway bit of lore, that Rosemary was the daughter of the Major. I can only speculate, but I think that this sequence was meant to set up the Major as a suspect. But that makes no sense at all. We've seen the Major already. We know that he's pushing 80 and is in a damn wheelchair. So what the hell was the point of those eight minutes?

The entire film is padded out with junk like that and when it isn't padded out with filler, it's just crammed full of shit that makes no sense. At some point, the killer digs up Rosemary's grave, removing the body and replacing it with the body of one of Pam's friends. Why? Who knows? The film never explains it. Worse, Pam later discovers Rosemary's body (well, skeleton actually) stuffed inside a chimney. Again, why? Why did the director feel the need to lavish attention on two teens making out in the basement, the camera going full-on Killer Cam readying us for some more gory action, only to cut away from those teens, never to return? Why does Otto, the simple minded red herring of the film, just show up at the end, shotgun in hand, to save Pam? How did he know she was in there? Was he just running through the streets with a shotgun, randomly checking every other house until he found her? Why the hell is the killer using a pitchfork of all things? Do people living on the New Jersey coast line regularly have pitchforks in their homes?

I could excuse most of the idiotic shit this movie throws at the screen if it were at least engaging or entertaining but it simply is neither. It is a mind-numbingly boring affair, padded to the extreme with suspense sequences that fail to impress, characters without personality and a central mystery that goes completely unexplored. The oh-so-ironic finale just happens because the film needed to end, not because of any kind of narrative crescendo. THE PROWLER is bottom of the barrel, brain dead slasher inanity, a movie without pulse or purpose, garbage garbage garbage.

But it does raise an interesting question. THE PROWLER was released in 1981, the same year as MY BLOODY VALENTINE and FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2, two much better films. If you look at the release dates, MY BLOODY VALENTINE was released in February, FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2 was released in May and THE PROWLER was released in November. I have to wonder this: did director Joseph Zito and his writers see those two films and actively rip them off or are all the similarities just coincidences? The plot set-up for THE PROWLER is nearly identical to MY BLOODY VALENTINE, with parties triggering killing sprees and there is a scene in Zito's film that directly mirrors a scene in FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2. In both films, a woman hides underneath a bed from a masked, pitchfork-wielding killer. And in both films, a rat comes scurrying up to the hiding woman's face, causing her to freak out a bit. 

Was that scene intended as homage or was it just a rip-off? It doesn't actually matter as its inclusion completely backfired. I wasn't panicked while watching it. I wasn't on the edge of my seat. I was simply reminded that I could be watching a movie that works, instead of a movie too lazy to even try.

Friday, July 22, 2016

THE GIALLO PROJECT - LADY OF THE LAKE


When the opening titles of a film include the names Franco Rossellini, Luigi Bazzoni and Guilio Questi, it's safe to assume that all bets are off. LADY OF THE LAKE is an almost perfect blend of three idiosyncratic sensibilities. It's a film that uses the murder mystery as an abstraction, only there to provide a semi-sturdy foundation for a house built of half-remembered narrative occurrences, subtle misdirections and dreamlike flourishes of visual imagination. There's a hefty dollop of Antonioni sloshing around in its DNA, with whiffs of the French New Wave dancing through its aiery atmosphere. It feels, in many ways, post modern yet its visuals lie somewhere in-between the chiaroscuro streets of the Film Noir and the dark hallways of the finest British Gothic horror.

It's a film that is best watched. Reading about it will only give you half the story and little of the experience. The film tells the tale of Mr. Bernard (we're never given his first name), a writer suffering from a bout of existential melancholy, who travels to a lake side hotel during the winter to work on a book. He hopes to meet up with Tilde, a pretty blonde maid he met his last time there. The lake that sits near the hotel fascinates him. We're told that beneath the waters lies the ruins of a city, though we're never given any sort of evidence to back up that claim.

Upon arriving, Bernard is greeted by Enrico, the affable hotel owner, and his daughter, Irma. Enrico's son, Mario, arrives later with his distant, clearly disturbed younger wife Adriana. But still, there's no sign of Tilde. Visiting a photographer acquaintance of his in town, Bernard learns the tragic news. Tilde is dead. She was found to have ingested poison, the death ruled a suicide by local police. But the photographer claims to know the truth. Tilde did in fact have poison in her system, but the real cause of her death came from a slit throat. He shows Bernard a photograph he took of Tilde shortly before the murder. She is obviously pregnant.

But with whose child?

As the days go on, Bernard begins investigating Tilde's death. He begins to feel ill, sporting a high fever. Or is he being poisoned, too? Was his dream of Irma confessing her guilt over Tilde's death a fevered hallucination, or did it really happen? A memory keeps haunting Bernard, a memory of Tilde making love to an unseen man during the night. Was he the one who murdered her? Is it true that Enrico might have paid off the police to keep Tilde's murder from going public? With little more than rumors, conjecture and a handful of hazy memories, Bernard seeks to stitch together the truth, even though it might lead to his own destruction.

What makes LADY OF THE LAKE such a fascinating piece of film is its main narrative convention, that of the unreliable narrator. Bernard is as much of a mystery to us as the murder of Tilde. Though he knows Enrico and his family from his years of spending summers at the hotel, they're little more than passing acquaintances. Like Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW, our entire vantage point is through the eyes of the protagonist. When you couple that with Bernard's constant fevered mind, you're left with a skewed perspective and little solid ground to stand on. Unlike your usual Amateur Detective tale, Tilde's murder happened in the past and with the town all but empty, there's no one for Bernard to question but the people he suspects. With nothing more than rumors from a man he barely knows to go on, Bernard begins to read guilt where guilt might not lie.

Simple things like a nervous laugh or a passing glance are read as indications of something sinister. With only a single memory as a clue, Bernard begins to seek patterns out of nothingness. He descends into conspiracy thinking. When he spies Adriana, Mario's mentally indisposed wife, walking near the lake at night, it becomes something more than a night time stroll. And when she attempts to pass him a note one afternoon by dropping a piece of paper out of a window, Bernard assumes she has urgent news to tell him about Tilde. After she is found drowned in the lake, what other conclusion can Bernard draw than she was murdered? As the film descends further down its complicated path, Bernard begins to come to the realization that the truth he is seeking might not be as simplistic as he hoped it would be.

It might just be that the woman whose death he is seeking to avenge, a woman he never really knew but grew to cherish through unrequited love, might not have been much of an angel after all.

And therein lies the central conceit of the film. The nature of truth. The uncertainty of memory. The desire to solve what might be unsolvable, if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of some kind of closure. LADY OF THE LAKE doesn't end with closure of any substantial type, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. It isn't a film concerned with tying a nice bow of poetic justice on top of a package filled with easy answers. In the end, closure is as elusive as the truth and the journey to enlightened discovery can sometimes carry a burden far greater than the weight of simply not knowing.

LADY OF THE LAKE
(La donna del lago)

Director: Luigi Bazzoni, Franco Rossellini
Writer: Luigi Bazzoni, Giulio Questi, Franco Rossellini, Renzo Rossellini
Starring: Peter Baldwin, Salvo Randone, Valentina Cortese, Virni Lisi, Philippe Leroy
Italy; B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l., Istituto Luce
1965, 95 minutes

Narrative Variety:Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 male, 1 female
Murderer(s) Role: Son of lead suspect, Daughter of lead suspect
Murderer(s) Motive: Killed initial victim in response to blackmail. Later victim was killed to keep victim from talking. The final two murders in the film are carried out to prevent a family's reputation from being ruined.
Victims: 1 female (throat slit – off screen), 1 female (drowned – off screen), 1 male (killed off screen), 1 male (killed off screen)
Murderer(s) Death: Male killer, killed off screen. Female killer, presumably drowned, thought to be suicide – off screen.