Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Non-Christmas Christmas Epics of Cinema Past...

Christmas cinema is a tradition in our household, each year's repetitive cinematic celebration consisting of the usual genre classics (and you probably know exactly which films these are). Once every few years, however, I become compelled to delve into the decidedly non-classic Christmas cinema (who decided this I can't rightly recall, but nevertheless I feel safe in saying the film I'm about to talk about rarely make people's traditional must-watch list), some are set specifically over Christmas while some of these films merely allude to the fact that they take place around the yuletide time of year. One of my absolute favourite of the former camp is one of the top masters of cinema's last film, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Clearly set in the days right before Christmas, the movie opens up with married couple (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who were married in real life during the filming of this movie) getting ready to go to a lavish Christmas party. As insecurities insidiously winds their way through the couple's sexual consciousness, Tom Cruise seemingly falls into a gritty, and at times very intense, sexual odyssey, without every actually engaging in any sexual acts for the entire film – after initially sleeping with his own wife (Kidman) after the first scene of the movie; the night of the Christmas party. As Cruise's odyssey ramps up in intensity, things go from intriguing to anxious to vaguely violent and very possibly dangerous, as a secret sex society that cruise accidentally stumbled upon appears that they may do anything to keep their raging orgies firmly in the realm of the clandestine. Kubrick's catalyst for making this film, conceived with a friend years before it was actually made, was to create a “mainstream porno”, as he stated in his own words at one point, decades ago. In doing this, however, Kubrick intentionally utilized the cinematic construct of a classic thriller – with all the requisite scene of a noir-style thriller falling in exactly all of the right places, which gives Eyes Wide Shut that edge of imminent danger, when really nothing of the sort is actually happening on-screen during Cruise's odyssey. So it then comes back around that the anxiety of the entire film must hearken back to the sexual anxiety of our leading couple, and their marriage.

What's really interesting is that Eyes Wide Shut plays out like an entirely different genre film than the genre it's supposed to be representing – in other words, it's an erotic movie (or a “mainstream porno”), and an epic one at that, masquerading as a thriller. (Incidentally, film critic Roger Ebert wrote an amazing piece on this in 1999 when the film was first released). The next two non-Christmas Christmas films have exactly this stylish masquerade in place, covering their own inherent genres under the guise of other genres. Following Eyes Wide Shut is another genre epic, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. This film alludes to Christmas only when one of the characters, one of the eight trapped in an out-of-the-way haberdashery, quietly plays an out-of-tune Silent Night on the haberdashery's long-forgotten piano. Tarantino's movie, which is really just a blown-up version of the film that put him on the map 25 years ago (Reservoir Dogs), is turned into a romp disguised as John Carpenter's The Thing complete with the same star of that film – Kurt Russell – and music from the great Ennio Morricone; and it even features a few blatant touches of the Italian giallo genre (which Morricone was extremely active in for decades). The Hateful Eight successfully utilizes Tarantino's obsessions with Italian genre films (giallo, spaghetti western), to muddy the fact that his epic is ultimately a remake of one of his own films, and through this patchwork of genre celebration he manages to create a very engaging and impressive film in and of itself, if you can make it through the three-hour running time. As Eyes Wide Shut is also nearly three hours long, I wouldn't recommend programming these films back-to-back for your crazy Christmas double-feature, unless you feel like sitting yourself in for a long winter's night.

And if you find yourself up for more following these epics, then there's one more in store. Jess Franco's Eugenie De Sade. Firstly, this is an important film in the Jess Franco cannon, as it stars his once-muse, Soledad Miranda, along with other beauties from his early-seventies repertoire. Taking place in Berlin in the middle of winter, Eugenie De Sade at no time states that it takes place during the Christmas season, but the lush photography creates a dreamy and alluring winter wonderland for the story to take place in. And much like Stanley Kubrick's mainstream-porno-opus (yes, I'm just about to make this comparison between filmmakers), Jess Franco hides his softcore and alluring thriller behind the masque of the more perverse Marquis De Sade, lending the Marquis' name to his offering. And while this might be one of his less-famous films, there should be no contention that Eugenie De Sade is not as interesting, or as amazing, as Jess Franco's more famous offerings – quite the contrary, in fact. Soledad Miranda provides her uncanny beauty in her dependent (and defiant) stoic-muse persona to the best affect in this films, the absolute best out of her six with Franco (in my opinion, despite the beauty of Vampiros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy)... This in itself could be considered a fantastical Christmas gift to Soledad Miranda fans. Eugenie De Sade is in actuality more of an Italian-style surrealist-thriller, and with everything Franco thrown into the sink here, including go-go-dancers, fashion photography, jazz, stand-up comedians, and of course all sorts of sex, one would be fair in dubbing this Jess Franco's masterpiece. Franco's sex & death in Berlin quite possibly could have been more the film Stanley Kubrick had in mind for Eyes Wide Shut. Nevertheless, both films end up presenting themselves to cinematic audiences – along with The Hateful Eight, as well – as films other than they actually are. Mind-blowingly, this all works to the advantage of all three of these utterly fascinating snowbound and Christmas-set films. So following this, all I can say is go down the Christmas rabbit hole and discover (or re-discover) these films and engage yourself in a very merry, off-kilter, bizarre, cinematic Christmas!!


Saturday, December 09, 2017

50 Pages a Night – Vol. 1

Welcome to the new Horror Lit series, where over the next year I'll be exploring the lost pages of the horror-lit paperback originals of the eighties and nineties! The idea for this series was inspired by my own interest in going back to some of the horror novels I missed reading in the heyday of the horror paperback book-publishing era – an era in which I discovered Dell's “Abyss” line of horror lit and authors like Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, Rex Miller, Richard Laymon, John Skipp & Craig Spector, David J. Schow, Graham Masterton, Dennis Etichson, Joe R. Lansdale, Chet Williamson, Zebra Horror, Leisure Horror, and TOR Horror – the last of which has actually posted a short blog on their website where editors and writers revisit and review some of the old TOR Horror paperback titles of the eighties – and which in itself was mostly responsible for re-igniting my passion for these novels upon accidentally discovering TOR Publishing's blog (while searching for who-knows-what-now on the internet). Even more recently, horror author Grady Hendrix had his book “Paperbacks from Hell” published by Quirk Books, which only served to fuel the fire of my rediscoveries of these dark, forgotten, and creative treasures. 

First embarking on my own personal dust-collecting minor collection of TOR novels, I went for the ones that had remained unread, at the back of my bookshelves, for the past 19 years... I decided I'd go in alphabetical order. First up: Scott Baker's “Webs”. This was a fantastic one for me to start with as Baker's narrative is deeply hallucinogenic without alienating the plot nor the reader – about a professor who takes a new job and is put up in an out-of-the-way house on a huge property. From their, his hypnotic madness begins to increase along with the spiders, the stress, his sexual situations and the emotional breakdown of his relationships (including his insane wife whom he has locked up in an asylum and communicates with via compulsive letter-writing), and the possible murder of one of his colleague who was last seen on his own property. A fair breeze to get through, I went right ahead and jumped into Ramsay Campbell's “The Doll Who Ate His Mother”, which was one of two Campbell books (along with “The Face that Must Die”) at a used bookshop during a cross-country summer roadtrip over a decade ago. Like “Webs”, Campbell's “The Doll Who Ate His Mother” has a horror-hallucinogenic quality to it, although Campbell expertly keeps his plot entirely rooted in worldly reality. Everything that occurs during an amateur investigation by the lead character following the severing and theft of her brother's arm (during a car accident in the middle of the night) all seems plausible within the horror-world Ramsey Campbell has easily constructed for us, with the virtuoso stroke of his proverbial pen, it's only when I mentally stepped back from “The Doll Who Ate His Mother” did I realize that his prose has completely lulled me into the action of his seductively haunting fiction. 

Following these first two reads, I found myself back in the used bookstores, where I was now on the rabid lookout for more TOR Horror treasures from yesteryear. And certainly, I found them. Committing myself as of this month (October, 2017) to reading 50 pages of these horror-lit paperbacks per night, I have managed to devour W.K. Jeter's “Dark Seeker”, which was yet another paranoid hallucinatory horror story, this time about of group on Manson-cult-like murderers who were all psychically connected by an experimental drug conceived by the American government, before moving directly onto F.W. Armstrong's wild, sexy, and humourous vampire novel “The Devouring”, which is by far the most fast-paced and fun of the group of old TOR Horror novels I've recently gotten myself into. I was so into this one, despite the dwindling hours of the night, that I read 50 pages of this on top of the final 30 pages from Jeter's “Dark Seeker”. I'm very excited to get back into the exploits and shenanigans of the teenage vampire and the psychic investigator as Armstrong's story is so far going like a twisting rollercoaster. So, to be continued...

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Running Amuck!

88 Films, a wild distributor out of the UK, has continued to do an unprecedented job of curating, restoring, and releasing cult Italian genre films onto blu-ray, from obscure and cult gialli to zombie and jungle-cannibal gut-munchers to lost Lamberto Bava action flicks. At the time of this writing, 88 Films has restored and released over 30 Italian titles that genre fans have been hungry for on HD (or sometimes, on any post-VHS format). Of course, being a huge giallo fan, it's easy to guess which of their Italian blu-ray releases I've been the most attracted to; there are films to die by from giallo mavericks Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, and the aforementioned Lamberto Bava. Throughout my 22 years of giallo obsession (I'd call myself a giallo aficionado, I'd like to call myself that; alas, obsessive is far more an appropriate description. You'd only have to see my culture-strewn living room to understand that this is true). Through these years, there was one particular giallo, that while available for a limited time prior to 88 Films' blu-ray release, still had eluded me – Silvio Amadio's Amuck! 

Amuck! starred Barbara Bouchet and Rosabla Neri, two of Italian Cinema's most gorgeous and prolific genre starlets. (So why, then, had Amuck! eluded me for so long?) Right from the moment a lower-budget distribution company had seen fit to release a limited number of DVD copies in the early 2000s, Amuck! was found itself surrounded by disappointingly average reviews. Even within 88 Films' own blu-ray insert booklet, author Calum Waddell casually describes the film as a “'lowbrow', quickly-turned-out cheapie”. However, after having finally experienced the film last night – and within the first few seconds being grateful that had waited this long, the prize being that my first experience with this film was an amazing HD widescreen transfer – I did not think that Amuck! looked like a “cheapie”, nor did I think that the film was too average to not be included in the top of Italy's giallo cannon. That being said, those more attuned to the bloody grand guignols of Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci could be disappointed here, as the violence is massively understated, yet the conspiracy and eroticism (tropes to any Italian giallo) remain in ultra-high gear, nearly crossing the lines into exploitation cinema – dropping short of that thanks to the beautiful cinematography, the performances of all of the actors, and the stunningly fantastic score, which seemed to come out of nowhere, because I'd never heard anyone talking about the music of Amuck! before. Silvio Amadio's film also utilizes a series of subtly crescendoing flashbacks, something that giallo maestro Dario Argento would start turning into a trope within the stylistic storytelling of his own films several years later. Amuck! concerns the character of Greta, played by Barbara Bouchet, who is staying at a friend's house in Venice while searching for a missing friend (the subject of Amuck!'s flashbacks), and soon finds herself the target of murder and a conspiracy that seems to be going on between her friends and hosts (including Rosabla Neri). Meanwhile, many sexual and erotic shenanigans are taking place, both in reality while Greta is drugged by her hosts, and within Greta's own dreams. Through these scenes, Amuck! is constructed as almost the archetypal giallo; which is another thing I'd never heard any review talking about.

I first heard of Silvio Amadio's film when it was released on that first limited DVD in the early 2000s for two reasons: 1) Barbara Bouchet, as she had also starred in one of my all-time favorite gialli, Don't Torture a Duckling, directed by Lucio Fulci; and – 2) had been carrying that limited DVD for quite some time. (or Xploited Cinema) had by that time already been doing business in online DVD importing and shipping for a couple of years – in fact, my first-ever online purchase was through Xploited Cinema, for a Jess Franco DVD titled Exorcism. Following this, I only ordered DVDs from Xplited Cinema a couple of times, but the online-DVD-ordering company had started to become a mecca for genre DVD fans online. Xploited Cinema would order genre movies from around the world and ship them out to Canada and the United States. Many of these DVD would be region-locked for other international territories, prompting fans of these films to seek out the best in region-free DVD players, so that they could finally watch the never-before-available films of Umberto Lenzi, Walerian Borowczyk, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Lucio Fulci.

At some point in 2007-2008, Xploited Cinema announced that they would no longer be bringing in new titles. Their online store would remain open, until the last of their stock had sold out. I wasn't sure why this was happening at the time, but clearly in hindsight, the announcement from Xploited Cinema had spelled out the warning that DVD sales were on the decline, despite the support from genre fans. Sometime niche cannot support a business, despite the idea that the opposite can be true. But when the niche market can gradually turn to corporate business like Amazon to fulfill their niche needs, then that can only spell trouble for small retail companies like Xploited Cinema.

At this point in time, I had still not moved ahead with purchasing the limited DVD copy of Amuck!, and despite the fact that the title (signed, even!) was still available on Xploited Cinema's website. I waited so long that Xploited Cinema finally ceased to exist. I still have the DVD copy of Jess Franco's Exorcism on my shelf, my first-ever online purchase. I'm not entirely happy to say that I've been an eager and avid participant in Amazon's online retail establishment for years now – wherein I happened to purchase 88 Films' new blu-ray release of Amuck!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

RIP, Umberto Lenzi.

Holy Christ, this has been a sad year for genre cinema fans, as another quiet icon of genre cinema passed away earlier this week. Italian director Uumberto Lenzi may not have been a household name, but many fans knew the name of this hugely prolific commercial Italian genre director – more specifically, Umberto Lenzi actually specialized and made his entire career out of Italian sub-genres, from Poliziotteschi the Italian cannibal “gut-munchers”, the latter with which Lenzi has actually been credited with inventing upon the release of his cannibal classic Man from Deep River. Indeed, he explored this sub-genre further with his equally important Eaten Alive (my personal favorite of his cannibal films), and his most popular, Cannibal Ferox.

In 2002, several years before the advent of the smart phone and any traffic law preventing the use of cell phones while driving, my friend Josh (now from GBW Podcast) and I got into an argument while driving down a freeway as to whether or not Umberto Lenzi had directed the zombie-virus movie Nightmare City. I insisted that he had, Josh maintained an argument to the contrary. Neither of us letting go of our arguments, he finally phone one of those friends who knows everything about everything to do with genre cinema, one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his flip-phone up to his ear. “Yo, who directed Nightmare City...? No... No...! No!!” he exclaimed before slapping the phone shut. “What?” I asked. “You were right,” he said. “That's why you're pissed off?” I asked him. “No, I'm mad because Lenzi's so much better than that!”

Okay, so that was the second thing I'd disagreed with during that drive. Incidentally, we were coming back from a DVD warehouse where we'd loaded up on genre DVDs, as was our passion. But Nightmare City was an Italian genre movie I was actually extremely fond of. Despite Umberto Lenzi's hugely significant contributions to the Poliziotteschi and cannibal-horror sub-genres of Italian cinema, my favourite films of Leni's career actually fell within the giallo and the popular 80s zombie genres. Along with the exciting and original Nightmare City, I was also a huge fan of his brilliant gialli Seven Blood-Stained Orchids and Spasmo, and the revenge-giallo/thriller Hitcher in the Dark (which was actually an American production starring a pre-Melrose Place Josie Bissett). Lenzi's importance as a groundbreaking genre filmmaker did not stop with merely having invented an entirely new horror sub-genre for Italian cinema, his work had also been copied by his more famous colleagues (Brian DePalma and David Fincher using key sequences from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids), and in the 70s his movies had even been re-worked by American filmmakers for the North American releases (it has been rumored and at one point confirmed by Lenzi himself, although he truly hadn't wanted to believe it, that George Romero had shot added footage for Lanzi's Spasmo for the American theatrical/drive-in releases).

Finally, though, as contemporary maverick filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez sought to create new works based on or influenced by pioneers of popular Italian genre cinema, Umberto Lenzi got some mainstream North American recognition via Robert Rodriguez' Nightmare City-inspired segment for the pair's genre throwback film Grindhouse. Rodriguez and Tarantino both celebrated Lenzi's film as the key idea behind Planet Terror. Since then (2007), a portion of Lenzi's insanely massive genre output had been restored and re-released in the Blu-ray catalogues of British distribution companies Arrow and Shameless and the Italian/American distributor Raro, following in the DVD footsteps of the old Anchor Bay and Shriek Show releases of the early '00s.

Lenzi was one of the quieter, and most under-appreciated talents of genre cinema; but quiet or not, he was no less a giant in the arena of genre cinema, and the body of work he has left behind will no doubt be appreciated for years to come. RIP, Umberto Lenzi. 



Thursday, October 05, 2017

RIP American Character Icon Harry Dean Stanton.

Last month we lost another cinematic icon when character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91. Of course Stanton was one of America's greatest character actors, but to a genre film fan like myself, he was also a key figure in the genre-film world, appearing in the films of Alex Cox and Ridley Scott, while also maintaining brief collaborations with John Carpenter and David Lynch, who put Stanton's talents to amazing use in memorable and near-iconic roles of starkly satirized Americans. Often, Stanton could bring any given film epic waves of emotion and intelligence by his subtle and equally expressive manner from underneath an all-American baseball cap. Wim Wenders exemplified Stanton's talents in his film Paris, Texas, which incidentally had been written by L.M. Kit Carson, who had also scripted The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 for Tobe Hooper and which starred another Vietnam-era American acting icon, Dennis Hopper. Hopper and Stanton were somewhat cut from the same American, (or Americana) cloth, with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Warren Oates, the last of which Stanton had appeared alongside in Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. Like Hellman's own films, Harry Dean Stanton was as American as the Road Movie itself, born of and bred by American cinema. Stanton himself could effortlessly inject a deeper Americana into any of the genre films he played in, often simply just by showing up. And often this imbued culture of Stanton's Americana came from a comfortably paradoxical angle; such as the baseball-hat wearing spaceship mechanic in Ridley Scott's Alien, a film that itself was conversely on the fringe of the science fiction genre back in the late seventies as it was on the fringe of American culture itself. The charm of Scott's vision of Alien that has never been (and could never be) replicated is the down-home American feel of the working-class characters aboard the ship, characters that are clearly a product of the ideals of the working-class US citizens of the seventies, farm enough removed from the Vietnam War to achieve a little skeptical hope, and not yet embroiled in the Regan administration of the eighties. Much of this working-class idealism is what Harry Dean Stanton seemed to embody in his work as an actor, and as America progressed towards narcissism, riches, and fame-mongering, so Harry Dean Stanton began to appear, through his characters, as slightly more sardonic, a little more weary, a little more cautious about his previously-embodied Americana. Strangely, these characteristics culminated very well for Stanton in his cameo for Korean director Kim Jee-woon in his first American film, the Schwarzenegger-comeback action-comedy The Last Stand, where Stanton plays a farmer taking his last stand against an evil Peter Stormare who wants to bulldoze his land in order to facilitate a ridiculously over-the-top (yet hugely entertaining) jailbreak for his billionaire boss. Of course, Stanton has portrayed this typified character elsewhere in more critically-celebrated films, like his last movie Lucky (released to film festivals just this year), but being a genre fan, movies like those of Kim Jee-wong, John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and David Lynch is where my cinematic compass happens to be magnetically attracted. My own memories of Stanton's performances are encapsulated in John Carpenter's Escape from New York and Christine, David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Ridley Scott's Alien, Alex Cox's Repo Man, Wayne Wang's Slamdance, and, perhaps a little oddly, John Binder's 1985 American sci-fi comedy UFOria, which I saw on Superchannel that year as a 10-year-old-kid, and from one of Stanton's lines “Well, everybody's gotta believe in something... And right now, I believe I'll have another beer,” was honestly the first time I'd ever heard that joke and I practically busted a gut when I heard that.

As a actor, Harry Dean Stanton, without exception, brought a greater depth in general to the films and stories that surrounded him (or his characters), even if he (or his characters) were not the exact center of those stories. He could always fit into any film he was hired to contribute to with stunning ease; his presence would undoubtedly make a viewer think “of course Harry Dean Stanton was PERFECT for that role!” – but that in itself was all Harry Dean Stanton; that was the true embodiment of his talents, it was his talent to be able to embody any part of any type of story, and to seat himself into his roles perfectly, so that ultimately all of his roles were the perfect roles for him. In the end, Harry Dean Stanton was the last of the truly genuine performers.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

Quick Blog Post for Grady Hendrix

Just a quick blog to shoutout not just the incredibly-designed novel of the fairly new genre-writer Grady Hendrix and his publisher Quirk Books - not only are these books simply INSANE in both their cover and very clever interior designs, but Hendrix's writing is fast, fun, and totally satisfying. Actually, "Paperbacks from Hell" is an honestly brilliantly-presented celebration of the horror novels of the 80s and 90s. All HIGHLY recommended!!

Monday, August 28, 2017

RIP, Tobe Hooper!

So, this is actually a reprint of the celebratory and somewhat angry rant upon the death of one of my personal all-time favourite horror film director, Tobe Hooper. As first published on Facebook last night (uncensored, warts and all...)

#RIPTobeHooper, the second of the horror film giants to have passed this summer and the third over the past two years... To me, his work was so underrated (post-1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre), from his satirical Chainsaw sequel to his Lovecraftian Invaders From Mars to his batshit-crazy vampire sci-fi epic Lifeforce. Someone once asked if you were to create a "Mount Rushmore" of horror directors, who would you pick? Tobe Hooper, for me, would have definitely been in there, sharing space with George Romero and Wes Craven. To me, Tobe Hooper always had a discernible cinematic style, a style that was just as in evidence in Poltergeist as Spielberg's second-unit work was, and I thought it was pretty shitty that some old Hollywood crew members were "coming forward" to purportedly declare that Hooper had not directed his film at all, which I choose to call bullshit on, and not just because there's a face-ripping scene mid film. Hooper's style and mis-en-scene are evident even in the family banter scenes and neighbourhood squabbles. The opening
to Hooper's Eaten Alive inspired one of the most memorable lines in Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, and his Texas Chainsaw themes became go-to horror movie tropes for the next three decades. Hooper's horror cinema influence has been as widespread as it has been quiet over the past four decades, at times lost in his lesser films, while at other times these seemingly "lesser" films, like Night Terrors and the Toolbox Murders remake, were actually quite a bit better than some fans and critics would have us believe. Hooper's films always slanted towards the unusual, weird, and often the daring, and at times they were downright freaky; and if anyone thinks he lost his touch after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre then I would point them towards Poltergeist, Body Bags, That Damned Thing, Eaten Alive, and Salem's 'Lot.

Writer's Note: I would also like to mention Tobe Hooper's excellent 80s-90s made-for-cable-television films, I'm Dangerous Tonight and the incredible The Apartment Complex.