Thursday, June 08, 2017
Vol. 2 – Vampires.
Vampires, as a sub-genre of the horror cinema genre, is not an uncommon playground for genre film directors to flash their talents in at the beginning of their careers – George Romero gave us Martin at this beginning of his, Tony Scott bestowed the bloody arthouse supernatural opus The Hunger at the beginning of his, and even Tobe Hooper went all Stephen King on us with Salem's Lot – also an early novel for genre king King. Post-seventies and -eighties, Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino got into the toothy action as well, with their collaborative gore-a-thon From Dusk till Dawn. However, my recent musings on this is not about those early vampire films from these celebrated genre directors; instead, I'd been thinking about the later films of celebrated genre directors – filmmakers who decided, later on in their careers, to dabble in cinematic vampire lore, and how these films differed (apart from been more poorly received than their colleagues' early vampire movies). It's really no mystery as to why early-career vampire films were better received than later ones; in the horror genre early films in general have a wider and more boisterous cult following and cult reception than later films in genre directors' careers. But what's interesting about these receptions when it comes to vampire films is just how thematically different the vampire film can be depending on the directors' career trajectory and artistic disposition at that point in their careers. Martin and The Hunger were genius arthouse experiments, and completely different from each other aesthetically. Salem's Lot was a for-hire gig by Warner Brother produced fo broadcast television. From Dusk till Dawn was just a wild ride by two filmmakers at the hugely energetic start of their careers (and which was also a loose rip-of of Richard Wenk's freshman film, Vamp). Later on, though, the vampire film gets more creative, and a little more high-concept, and not always to the appreciation of the audience. Because, really, we're going to out-concept strippers and vampires?
A Vampire in Brooklyn came about in Wes Craven's career between his excitedly-anticipated masterpiece New Nightmare (a Freddy Kruger meta-re-boot) and his insanely successful launching of the Scream franchise. In fact, Wes Craven is the only genre film director I can think of who was so conceptually talented that he was able to start two successful long-running horror franchises, both of which even spawned their own television series. His vampiric collaboration with comedian Eddie Murphy was not exactly a commercial success, and unfortunately marked a personal low-point in Craven's career when Angela Bassett's friend and personal stunt double was killed when filming a stunt-fall on set. However, when looking at the film itself, few people realize that it was Craven's and Murphy's vision that really reignited the idea on not only the horror-comedy, but in having the lead character playing the oblivious straight-man to his far more comedic sidekick, taking the cue from Young Frankenstein. Since Craven's vampire film, this shtick has come back into style with a vengeance. Also moving in on the comedy-vampire territory was John Landis with his movie Innocent Blood, about a vampire who takes it upon herself to wipe out a mob family. When she fucks that up, the mob systematically goes about turning themselves into a gang of vampires. This high-concept guilty pleasure suffered for no other reason than the fact that horror fans would only be comparing it to Landis' masterpiece, An American Werewolf in London. No matter what Landis threw at us in Innocent Blood, he was not going to exceed the giddy excesses of his early horror-monster film. If anyone other than Landis had directed this movie, it would never have had the baggage of comparison attached to it – but on the flipside, really only Landis could have delivered this vampire movie. Stupid catch-22s. Tobe Hooper, who had helmed Stephen King's Salem's Lot, returned to the vampire sub-genre by going sub-sub-genre with his concept and bringing us an adaptation of Colin Wilson's “Space Vampires” under the moniker Lifeforce. Here, a group of astronauts discover, and bring back to earth, the corpse of a female space vampire, only to have her resurrected where her “Lifeforce” begins jumping from one victim's body to the next, until the entire story winds up caught in an apocalyptic-disaster scenario. Without a doubt, this is Hooper's wildest film, which was produced after his catastrophic collaboration with Steven Spielberg and before he signed his groundbreaking horror film work off to Michael Bay and the Hollywood-franchise circle of hell.
Some popular horror genre directors managed to go without touching on the vampire sub-genre at all, such as Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi, and for a long time it seemed Dario Argento would be avoiding the entire vampiric affair as well (although this was not ultimately to be), when in 1998 John Carpenter himself helmed his own vampire opus. Loosely based on the novel by the late John Steakley, John Carpenter's movie was the fist to associate the obvious themes of the vampire and the western movies, and it was also one of the only films to bring the intense idea to the audience that the vampire monsters are actually really hard to kill. This latter fact of the film is really what drives the interest in it, with the heroes constantly stressed and struggling to kill the supernatural beings in a dusty, down-to-earth way. The film unfortunately does come undone despite its stellar cinematic themes, due to the winding-down of Carpenter's career at the time, and the budgetary decision to utilize only the first three chapters of Steakley's clever novel and to extend those limited concepts into a feature-length story. It's a shame, as Steakley's novel (titled Vampire$) shows us the vampire-hunting team as what is really a glorified pest-control unit in the midst of a global infestation, and ultimately as a band of misfits who were clever enough to cash in on the world's situation. All of this was lost in Carpenter's filmed version, including the team's heroic arc, but Carpenter nevertheless left us with one of the meanest, grittiest, vampire scenarios ever put to film, in only a way that Carpenter could have done. In the end, this was probably the last great John Carpenter film.
Saturday, June 03, 2017
Vol. 1 – George Romero.
At one point, several years ago, when The Dark Half was becoming an older film and Bruiser was still a developing thought in the mind of the director of Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero was my all-time favourite film director. His scripts, to me, were brilliant in their social and societal observations, and his knack for lively and down-to-earth characters resonated through nearly all of his films. Of course, the spectacular gore was a draw, and after all, this was one of the so very few horror movie directors that had actually managed to change the entire landscape of genre cinema not once, but twice in the first third of his phenomenal career that wove through maverick independent filmmaking and high-budget studio productions. In a strange way, those landmark films of Romero's – Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead served to set his own bar so high, it would become, sadly, impossible to leap over for a third time in his filmmaking career. That is not to say in any way that his other films are not worthwhile – in fact, exactly the contrary. Knightriders (1981) was actually the film that cemented him as my favourite director for many years (I'll nod to Martin here, as well), but what astounded me was that Romero's later films could not achieve the cult status as those films of the first two-thirds of his career. Post-Day of the Dead, with his moderately-budgeted studio films Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, Romero seemed to be letting his trademark visceral panache drain from his horror filmmaking ideals, which was physically changing the way he was making his genre films. Romero himself had even said, “Monkey Shines and The Dark Half were basically just exercises in style for me”, meaning he was fucking around with a studio's budget to experiment with horror storytelling. Fair enough. But when he seemed ready to implement thesegoing direct-to-video) and the tastes of the horror audiences had changed, and not in Romero's direction. Which is such a shame – upon reflection, it is actually two of his “Later Films” that boast some of his best, most energetic scriptwriting – I'm talking about the tragically ill-fated Bruiser and Land of the Dead.
The overall premise of Bruiser is a cause for celebration in and of itself – put-down corporate dreg (Jason Flemyng) wakes up one morning without a face. His features have been seemingly permanently obscured by a plain white Venetian mask mould, which triggers off a series of revenge fantasies that Flemyng can finally act upon now that he doesn't have to look himself in the mirror any longer. He is the anonymous put-upon corporate dreg, now, visually and physically emulating how most of us wind up feeling after years through the corporate grinder. The script is insanely witty, but as per usual with Romero, also completely lacking any subtlety or subtext – everything is thrown right in our faces. A Romero fan like myself loved it, with nearly every actor chewing the scenery. But what is really different here, as with Land of the Dead, is that Romero is no longer relying at all on his indie-filmmaking maverick instincts, instead, he's relying heavily on his production staff, from the cinematographer to his editor to his art directors to his special effects team, something which he has become increasingly disconnected with since 1985's Day of the Dead. Bruiser is the new Romero, the Canadian Romero, the Grunwald-Productions Romero. But if Bruiser was an underappreciated piece of script-writing, Land of the Dead, Romero's next and final big studio movie, was actually something of an unheralded masterpiece. Now, before I get too far into the celebrating of Land of the Dead, I should note that after years of discussing Romero's films with many friends and colleagues, I have found that I am absolutely in the minority on my opinion here. If not the solitary holder of said opinion. Still, it's an opinion, and I do have it – Land of the Dead is one of the best horror scripts ever written. It's particularly amazing to me that it holds so many fresh zombie-movie ideas within after the author has already brought three cinematic zombie blockbusters to the big screen and had even re-written one of them for a 1990 remake. You'd think anyone would have been tapped out – instead, Romero brought out the big guns (literally, in the case of “Dead Reckoning”, one of the films' showpieces of anti-zombie weaponry and lead metaphor regarding the importance of war technology to the rich and the right-wing white people) and delivered one of the funniest, insightful, thoughtful, poignant, entertaining, and engaging of all of his films. The dialogue cracks and the action moves fast. Once again, apart form the scriptwriting, Romero is distanced from the technical aspects of his own film, leaving it up to the studio professionals to help him create a great zombie movie on-screen. But this distancing from the other creative aspect of making his film (the last time Romero cut one of his own movies was Creepshow and the last time he'd been involved in any sort of art direction or lighting was Dawn of the Dead. Land of the Dead was filmed nearly entirely in a green-screen studio, leaving computer graphics artists to render the settings, backdrops, and a lot of the special effects). Still, Land of the Dead stands up almost because it was also a studio production, adding on-screen value to Romero's dark vision and providing strong actors to handle and deliver his clever & ham-fisted dialogue. Land of the Dead also marked the closing of a gargantuan horror series that had been helmed by one of the genre's best and most groundbreaking directors, infusing zombie-dreams and ideas that Romero had been holding onto for a decade and a half; whereupon he was finally able to purge these final images from his mind onto the big screen for one last glorious time.
Saturday, May 27, 2017
Over the past couple of years, there have been few films I actually felt compelled, like as in compelled in Italics, to purchased directly after seeing (or in these cases, experiencing) them. Going slightly further back (if only to illustrate my point), over the past five years, I'd rarely experienced something cinematic that inspired further consumerism on my part, the most recent one previous to this list that's about to be in front of you was Only God Forgives, which I feel I was lucky enough to catch in its limited theatrical release back in 2013 -- but that's another story. Following this, my consumerist involvement in new cinema has been... well, shall we say, limited. However, over the last two years, there's been a slight resurgence in my energy towards supporting modern cinema, thanks to some very inspiring films and filmmakers. All five films on this forthcoming (I promise, I'm getting to it) list had quite varied platforms of experience-delivery into my system between 2015-2017 -- the first one being Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy, to which I had been invited to a cinema press screening pre-limited-release in Vancouver. Following this, my wife and I had rented Neon Demon, the follow-up to Only God Forgives, from a local (and one of the only remaining) video stores. Said video store was also responsible for me finding Roman Polanski's latest and weirdly quiet release, Venus In Fur, which is a phenomenal follow-up to his previous filmed-play Carnage, the latter which featured only four actors. In Venus In Fur, there are but two actors throughout the entire affair, but two is all that was needed to tell the surprisingly erotic and energetic story of an about-to-be-cast-play-within-a-film. Nearly a year to the day after seeing Venus In Fur, in 2017, it was Netflix Time and a casual click of a remote control button engaged me with Ex Machina, the hugely impressive and multi-layered directing debut of frequent Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland. For the last on this list, we're back to the video store and an initially trepidative rental of Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, which turned out to be one of the most in-depth, quiet, and surprising revenge-thrillers I'd ever watched.
A thank you to all of the filmmakers who provided these hours of amazed entertainment for this rabidly curious viewer. And now, to share...
(The Duke of Burgundy)
(Venus in Fur)
(The Neon Demon)
Thursday, May 25, 2017
I've been writing for the amazing Canadian print magazine Absolute Underground for a little more than two years now, which is somewhat unbelievable to me in terms of keeping track of time through written horror-movie articles. New to this Blogspot, I've decided to release the original, unedited articles as a sidebar project. Everything here is horror-centric, and I'm including all of the selected stills that originally went alongside the articles, many of which never appeared in the print layout. Please enjoy! And if you dig the article, you can help support he magazine by downloading their issues here: http://absoluteunderground.tv/au-magazine/volume-13
Original Text for issue # 67 (2015):
I can't believe December is upon us already and the decade of the 2010s are half over! Looking back over 2015, regarding horror cinema (mostly, in my case, still of the direct-to-video format – I'm an avid Blu-ray & DVD consumer), probably the most valuable thing I'll take away from this year is a fully readjusted and reinvigorated passion for indie films in the horror genre.
Decades gone are the platinum years of Hollywood horror cinema and those mavericks that helped usher it in – Sam Raimi, Sean Cunningham, Wes Craven, George Romero, Roger Corman, Dan O'Bannon, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter – have gone on to other things, including semi-retirement, and in the worst cases, have passed away and left us in a world without them. And for a while, as horror cinema crept past the dateline of the new millennium, I had high hopes for a “new wave” of horror and splatter filmmakers that appeared to be making a splash in Hollywood – Rob Zombie, Neal Marshall, Darren Lynn Bousman, James Wan, Leigh Wannell. But after giving us a promising start, I was soon disappointed to find no real new horror movement happening in Hollywood. As their careers progressed, Bousman ended up suing the makers of Repo Men for ripping off his pet musical/horror project Repo: The Genetic Opera, before embarking on yet another horror remake (this time a Troma movie from the seventies), James “Saw” Wan went on to direct the passable Dead Silence and the gory revenge thriller Death Sentence in the midst of a continuing series of Saw sequels, and Neal Marshall managed to spout out Doomsday, a frustrated Escape from New York rip-off in the wake of that film's official remake being snatched away from him after the British director had already spent a good year in development and pre-production with it; meanwhile, Rob Zombie's career was getting lost in more John Carpenter remakes (Halloween & Halloween II), and on the other side of horror cinema, the only significant movement going on was the fanatic and frenetic overdose of inexplicable found-footage fright flicks. Well, inexplicable is not exactly the right word, it is easy to see what happened – the rabid rash of found footage films popping up in cinemas were cheap to make, easy to market, and they made a shitload of cash back for the studios. So was this to be the new horror movement that defined a new decade? Some shaky-cams and people breathing heavily into the camera? I for one had hoped not, and yet, there seemed to be no real alternative, as the cinemas of the mid 2000s and early 2010s were crowded with seemingly endless imitations, remakes, and sequels. For a while, I had some great hope for director Pascal Laugier and his film Martyrs, and his intensely intriguing follow-up The Tall Man. But that was now over a decade ago, and without even knowing what Laugier has been up to lately, there's current talk of a Martyrs remake, something no horror fan, to my knowledge, even asked for.
But as we (and horror cinema) were heading into the new decade of the 2010s, finally I saw something (or was shown something, by a friend of mine) that began to change my pessimistic view of new horror cinema: the Belgian neo-giallo Amer. This was a new independent/international genre film that got me really excited, and I dare say inspired, to delve back into what independent horror cinema was going to offer. Was there finally a true new wave of horror cinema to come to us? Alas, no. But, following the dazzling and hallucinogenic nightmare that Amer was, we were then given British director Peter Strickland's own take on the Italian giallo & horror genre, the meta and cleverly understated Berberian Sounds Studio, no less a hallucinogenic fever than its predecessor Amer. Following these films, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, both sets of filmmakers gave us new films, showcasing their already soaring talents – the mystery-horror giallo The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears and the stunning S&M lesbian nightmare The Duke of Burgundy.
It was after seeing a press screening of The Duke of Burgundy at the beginning of this year (it was early February) that I was finally fully inspired to explore the depths of some new, independent and international horror cinema (even though The Duke of Burgundy isn't really a horror film, it has its own nightmarish genre moments that allude to genre films of the seventies). I promptly began by ordering director Patricio Valladares' Hidden in the Woods from Amazon.ca, a DVD that had been released by a new and seemingly progressive genre label, Artsploitation Films. This Chilean cannibal inbred horror gore-a-thon blew me out of my seat, and after the movie finished I found myself literally hooked on trying to track down one great independent horrorshow after another. At times I was exuberantly successful, as with another of Artsploitations Films' newer Blu-ray releases, Horsehead, a stream-of-consciousness edgy nightmare horror film directed by Romain Basset, which happens to co-star Catriona MacColl (from Fulci's The Beyond); this Blu-ray was also distributed in Canada by Black Fawn Distribution, a relatively new up-and-coming Canadian genre distribution label, in a very limited numbered edition of 500 copies. But on the flipside, of course, some finds were not quite as mindblowing, although no less interesting, like Luciano Onetti's experimental neo-giallo Sonno Profondo (released on DVD by BRINKvision); and the micro-budgeted slasher film celebration, Die Die Delta Pi, which at least gleefully ticked all the boxes for its exploitation horror outing and boasted a catchy title, to boot. Last month, I also finally relented to the ongoing harassment by several friends and acquaintances to watch the 2013 horror hit You're Next, and while I did enjoy it, my reasons for doing so – mostly its stylistic relations to the works of the late, great literary horror master Richard Laymon – would have likely been lost on said friends and acquaintances. (By this time I gave up the last of my resistance to “new” horror movies and finally watched 2014's indie hit It Follows after a year of peer pressure and harassment from pretty much everyone I knew). However, my personal enjoyment of Adam Wingard's You're Next then led me to check out a new film by producer Larry Fesseneden and director Ted Geoghegan (who also wrote Timo Rose's 2007 backwoods bloodbath slasher indie cult flick Barricade); a surprisingly intense ghost/horror flick titled We Are Still Here. With this reinvigorated passion for indie horror films in my heart and on my mind, I soon took a chance on a very bizarre independent Italian horror film called Morituris, directed by Rafaele Picchio, which is a supernatural take on the Wes Craven cult classic Last House on the Left. Morituris is about a group of college-aged kids who find themselves running through the woods trying to get away from torturous, sadistic sexual predators. The sexual violence in this film is shockingly raw and brutal as hell, and really, you can't get a grip on any character you can warm up to in any way whatsoever – and it's pretty clear that the filmmaker is pushing the audience to feel this way intentionally. The blood and rape and violence taking place then awakens some ancient warrior beasts who suddenly pose a far more direct threat of doom to the violent group of attackers and their already suffering victims alike. I can't say that Morituris is a likable movie at all, but you'd have to watch it right through to the last line of the closing credits to get the full impact of Picchio's undeniably well-made horror film. And it is a horror film, have no doubt. Released just a few months ago on Blu-ray by Synapse Films, this is another great distribution company that although more famous for bringing b-movies and oddities out on special edition DVDs, have never been afraid to pickup and distribute some rabidly oddball (and explicitly over-the-top) independent horror gems. They even released Adam “You're Next” Wingard's early exploitation/gore film Home Sick in 2007.
I had a chance to chat with Jerry Chandler, co-owner of Synapse Films, about their Morituris Blu-ray release and about independent horror films in general – of which, Jerry tells me, Worm and Asylum have been two of his favourites recently. “What do I think of Morituris? I think it's a very cool movie. I'm not crazy about the misogyny. Usually, when I see things like that, it makes it more palatable to see the victim get revenge by the end of the film. I didn't quite get that satisfaction, but I found the concept and film to be quite cool nonetheless.” He also gave us the scoop on an upcoming release Synapse Films happens to be extremely excited about, and it sounds like a true labour of love: “We have just completed the coolest movie we have ever done and that is saying something! Check out our amazing Bluray edition of Thundercrack. We have just completed a 5 year process of licensing and restoring the film.”
The independent Thundercrack has gained a cult following in Europe and the UK over the last three decades, and for this film to finally see the light of day in North America is definitely amazing. Huge thanks to Jerry Chandler and Synapse Films!
So now, championing the new indie horror that I've had the good fortune to finally discover throughout 2015, the last thing I've put my money towards in the closing weeks of this year – now directly at the midpoint through the 2010s decade – was a donation to the completion of an upcoming erotic horror-in-the-woods/Lovecraftian indie flick called Harvest Lake, due for release from Forbidden Films sometime next year, which stars Ellie Church (Troma) and Vancouver's own Tristan Risk. I am keen on keeping my sights in the direction that these wild, kinetic films might be headed throughout 2016 and going on through the second half of this interesting decade...