Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Saturday, December 30, 2017

50 Pages a Night – Vol. 2

Caption from the last post on the ongoing series of retro genre books... “'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...”

Okay, so going from there, yes, I can say that “The Devouring” did not disappoint! Actually, it was one of the best TOR Horror paperbacks I'd ever read, author F.W. Armstrong kept things fast, lean, and mean, with a fun and humorous sexual edge to everything. The book starts out as a vampire novel when a thirteen-year-old Halloween trick-or-treater winds up killing a older couple after the woman opens her door to the young girl. She sucks their blood, she turns them on, she brutally slays them and escapes, and in a clever little turn of the story, she is actually treated as the victim in the events. Until a savvy female police detective suspects otherwise – of course, her male colleagues think she's mistaken, and possibly emotionally involved for reasons unknown. But the vampire curse continues through all of the victims, turning them not into vampires exactly, but into emotionally-driven violent shape-shifters who are able to channel their violent emotions into a mutated and monstrous (and at times sexual) into a new physical version of themselves, wherein they act out everything they've mentally repressed over their lives. All of this craziness prompted me to delve into more research on this book and its author, where I discovered two amazing things: First, that “The Devouring” was actually the second in a three-book series (the author never really let onto this within the narrative of “The Devouring”, obviously preferring the reader to enjoy each book as a stand-alone story); and Secondly, that author F.W. Armstrong was actually a pseudonym for real-life author T.M. Wright, who had been published by TOR Horror several times, over the length of his career that also included the cult horror novels “Strange Seed” and “A Manhattan Ghost Story”.

Sadly, T.M. Wright, massively prolific author of pulp horror who had one point had his books optioned for Hollywood films (these never came to cinematic fruition), passed away on Halloween in 2015. While he never managed to break out into the horror-cinema world, his legacy in the horror-lit world remains immense with the list of influential titles that came out of him during his life. 

On the two-year anniversary of T.M. Wright's death, I was lying in a bed in the haunted Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, reading the horror novel of yet another under-appreciated author, R. Patrick Gates. In the early nineties, Dell Publishing had fist launched their new line of horror books under the genre label Dell Abyss. R. Patrick Gates was one of their ongoing contributors, and his input was also in the form of a series (but stand-alone) serial killer novels. One of the stories in the middle of this series is his novel “Deathwalker”, which opens up with an alcoholic ex-detective. The novel is broken up into three parts (Stephen King-style) as: “Relapse”, “Rehab”, and “Recovery”. Throughout our detective's physical, emotional, and mental journey, we (and he) must content with a new, extremely brutal (and I do not use the term “extremely” with any casualness here) and tenacious serial killer who appears at first to be picking up where the last serial killer left off (the killer whom the detective had shot through the head and sparked the journey of alcoholism in this novel), but then progressively seems to be bent on a discourse of wild-eyed revenge. As brutal and intense as the serial killings are in this novel, the intensity of this almost only serves to ramp up the intensity of the “character” story, where our detective is battling his inner demons – as opposed to the out ones served up is bloody spades in the story – and we follow him through the paths of self-destruction, to self-realization, to help. With all of the gory carnage in this novel, it's the power of addiction that serves as the real, true horror in here; and which, as a whole novel, serves to contextualize the very idea and horror-lit philosophy behind Dell's Abyss line of horror publications.

More to come soon...!

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Very Scorsese Christmas.

Much like the films of the previous Christmas blog post, Martin Scorsese has created a handful of films that seem to be connected with Christmas, or at least winter, as the scope of his sometimes violent street dramas take place over extended periods of time – weeks, months, years.

At first, it was GoodFellas that brought the feeling of Christmas to the cockles of my heart; scattered through the bullet-riddled bloodshed of this gangster story were some fantastic Christmastime set-pieces and set decorations, and an air of celebration permeated nearly all of the film -- gangsters in restaurants, gangsters drinking and laughing and playing cards, gangsters drinking in giallo-lit bars and bashing someone's head into the foot railing... You know, Christmas... And within all this, we have possibly the greatest gangster/mob story ever put to film (it IS the greatest in my opinion). And there are constant reminders of the Christmas season in Scorsese's film, you know, like the frozen-corpse-in-a-meat-truck. Of course all of this frost and snow also serves to divert my attention to the winter and snow-strewn road movie that is The Color of Money, Scorsese's existential follow-up to The Hustler, the original film in which Paul Newman played a loser but passionate poolshark, which unbeknownst to anyone at that time, would lead to Newman playing his own engaging narcissistic old-man-version of the same character nearly thirty years later, in 1986.

Taking place almost entirely in the aforementioned snow and the snowy seasons of the midwest, Newman engages Tom Cruise (as the new incarnation of himself from the old film, The Hustler), and Cruise's on-screen girlfriend, his street-smart but naive manager Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, in a roadtrip scenario that sees them playing 9-ball and hustling across the poolhalls and pool tournaments of 1908s America -- and Americana.

Looping back around to the catalyst of the streetwise cinema of Martin Scorsese, we have the winter-set (but never Christmas-mentioned) underground-epic that is Mean Streets, a film where Harvey Keitel clearly shines out yet Robert DeNiro gets top billing. Shot a couple of years before Taxi Driver, Mean Streets is a reflective exploration-come-love-letter to the gang-ridden streets of 1970s New York City (and its introspective Little Italy) where Scorsese himself grew up; and which ultimately spawned the inspiration to the epic gangster classics GoodFellas and Casino; and yet, because of the mainstream point of view and the critically accepted catalyst of Scorsese's career being the intense (and rightfully) more memorable Taxi Driver, cinephiles have somehow forgotten that is was his previous film Mean Streets that really put Scorsese on the map.

So, to quickly recap Scorsese's winter trilogy (a trilogy that exists in my mind): Mean Streets followed by The Color of Money followed by GoodFellas.

...Can't go wrong with that, right? Merry friggin' Christmas!


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!